PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Cabaret” a Stunner at 6th Street Playhouse

By Barry Willis

Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse is the latest theater company to tackle Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, a musical now in its 56th year. Having missed one weekend due to a Covid outbreak, the 6th Street production runs through October 16th.

A sugar-coated cautionary tale, the 1972 film version firmly established the show in pop culture. Many people know its songs without understanding that the show itself is far more than a lightweight romp through the decadent underworld of Weimar Republic Berlin. The story’s late 1930s time frame isn’t specific, but encompasses the rise of the Germany’s Nazi party and its increasingly virulent anti-Semitism. It’s often forgotten that the Nazi party was democratically elected. By 1933 it was the most powerful political organization in Germany.

Directed by Jared Sakren, this Cabaret is a compelling musical drama with moments of great hilarity as the wraith-like Emcee (the superb Michael Strelo-Smith) welcomes us into the Kit Kat Club, a dingy dive that’s a mainstay of Berlin’s entertainment underground.

The cast of 6th Street’s “Cabaret” at work. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

The primary plot revolves around an itinerant American novelist, Cliff Bradshaw (Damion Matthews)) befriended by German businessman Ernst Ludwig (Izaak Heath) on a train ride into Berlin. Ludwig knows the city intimately, and introduces Bradshaw to the club and to Fraulein Schneider (Ginger Beavers), proprietor of a rooming house where he takes up residence.

At the club he meets a self-centered British songbird named Sally Bowles (Erin Rose Solorio). The two of them are soon deeply but contentiously involved. Solorio plays Bowles as she is usually depicted—a ditzy performer whose only concern is occupying the spotlight, who cares nothing for politics or for the great upheaval ahead, provoking Bradshaw’s enormous frustration.

A secondary love story involves Fraulein Schneider and fruit seller Herr Schultz (Dwayne Stincelli), both of them in late middle age and deeply in love. The relationship between Bradshaw and Bowles is increasingly rocky and ultimately doomed, but it’s the fate of Schneider and Schultz that fascinates an audience.

One of only three characters in the play who comprehend the inevitability and threat of the approaching storm—the other two are Bradshaw and Ludwig—Schneider backs out of a late-in-life wedding, hoping to survive by keeping her head down and avoiding the ire of Nazis. Beavers is heart-breaking as Schneider, with a soaring voice capable of rattling the walls.

Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Amid the merriment, the Nazi movement rises from potential menace to full tsunami, symbolized by a moment when the charming Herr Ludwig comes out of the political closet sporting a Nazi armband. Heath is very good as the villainous but totally likeable true believer.

Fraulein Schneider vows that maintaining a low profile will insure her survival; while Bradshaw tries desperately to get Bowles to leave Berlin with him—before it’s too late. Too addicted to minor league stardom to consider going elsewhere, she stays behind when he escapes to Paris. Herr Schultz is similarly clueless, believing that as a native-born German Jew he will be considered a German first.

…a compelling musical drama with moments of great hilarity…

What hooks many first-time visitors to Cabaret isn’t necessarily the morality play but the show-within-a-show at the Kit Kat Klub. Stelo-Smith is spectacular throughout, as are the dancers and the live music from a strong eight-piece band led by Nate Riebli. Tara Roberts is solid as Fraulein Kost, a resident of Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house, who makes her living entertaining sailors by the hour. She’s also one of the standout Kit Kat dancers. Devin Parker Sullivan, also a Kit Kat dancer, concocted some difficult but stunning choreography for the troupe of nine Kit Kat girls and boys.

A half-century after its debut, not much about this show will seem shocking other than its enduring message. The parallels with Trump’s MAGA movement, the January 6 insurrection—and our distraction by ephemeral entertainment—are, sadly, all too clear.

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ASR NorCal 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

 

ProductionCabaret
Written byMusic by John Kander and Fred Ebb

Book by Joe Masteroff
Directed byJared Sakren

Music Direction by Nate Riebli
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough October16th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$35 – $48
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Machines Revolt in “Atlas, the Lonely Gibbon” at Spreckels

By Barry Willis

A technological house of horrors is both a comedic trap and an existential crisis for a young married couple in Deborah Yarchun’s “Atlas, the Lonely Gibbon” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center through August 28.

Directed by Sheri Lee Miller, Yarchun’s world premiere script leverages an uncooperative “smart home” and digital-era social isolation as the basis for an acerbic comedy.

Taylor Diffenderfer (l) and Keith Baker (r). Photo by Jeff Thomas

Taylor Diffenderfer shines as Irene, a journalist reduced to doing copy-edit work on stories generated by computer, and one so spooked by and hooked on technology that she frequently dons a virtual reality (VR) headset to escape.

…an amusing and well-done cautionary tale….

All the devices in her fully-integrated home refuse to follow orders that she barks at “Atona,” the unseen interface and controller in her sci-fi residence. The refrigerator coughs and sputters and dances madly. The lights flicker and fade at random. Even the house plants seem to have minds of their own. Both unbidden and in response, the home’s devices talk to her, often with incisive comments. Kevin Biordi and Julianne Bradbury animate and voice the machines.

Irene doesn’t get much help from husband David (Keith Baker), also a journalist who despite the prevalence of every imaginable connectivity at home, has to keep dashing out “to the office.” The revolt of the machines at home launches his system-wide upgrade, a cure that proves worse than the disease. Irene’s also got some sort of fixation on a large mate-seeking gibbon named “Atlas,” enacted by Baker. Bradbury does a nice bit late in the show as the probable mate.

Diffenderfer and Baker at work. Photo by Jeff Thomas

It’s all very funny until, as John Craven described “The House of Yes” at Main Stage West, it’s not funny anymore. The story morphs into a showdown between husband and wife, with quite unfavorable implications for the future of their relationship.

It’s a circumstance that should prove immediately recognizable for anyone overwhelmed by the intrusion of technology into every aspect of daily life. “Atlas, the Lonely Gibbon” is an amusing and well-done cautionary tale about where all of this may lead.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionAtlas, the Lonely Gibbon
Written byDeborah Yarchun
Directed bySheri Lee Miller
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough August 28th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3429
Tickets$12 - $26
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ 6th Street Showcases Playfulness with “Pride and Prejudice”

By Cari Lynn Pace

Step inside the 99-seat Monroe Stage black box theatre you’ve entered the drawing room of a 19th century English country manor. There’s a lovely scene behind the columns, reminiscent of a Maxfield Parrish painting. The floor has been transformed into a colorful faux-carpet, and there are touches of lace and lush drapery in the corners of the theatre.

The stage is set for “Pride and Prejudice,” an inventive adaptation by Kate Hamill of Jane Austen’s classic 1813 novel—an avant-garde production with contemporary costume touches mixed with period dresses and proper gentlemen’s coattails.

6th Street Playhouse chose to bring this nationally-recognized version to the Santa Rosa stage under the direction of Laura Downing-Lee. Opening night was sold out.

…the actors’ virtuosity and skill at their craft are apparent throughout this production.

The plot is driven by Mrs. Bennet, the rapacious mother of five daughters who must be married off to bring the family future prosperity. Enacted by stage veteran Kristine Ann Lowry, Mrs. Bennet brings laughter with her overbearing entreaties and dramatic entries and exits. The eldest daughter, Elizabeth, has sworn off love and marriage, secure in her denial of the existence of a perfect man. Neither her mother nor her sisters Jane (Lauren DePass) and Lydia (Sierra Dawn Downey) can persuade her otherwise.

Miranda Jane Williams infuses the pivotal role of Elizabeth with a precise accent, clearly enunciated for all to hear in this small ¾ round theatre. Some of her castmates could use better projection and accents, as their backs are frequently turned.


Pride and Prejudice’s Matthew Cadigan and Miranda Jane Williams.

Those familiar with “Pride and Prejudice” know that when Mr. Darcy, portrayed by Matthew Cadigan as a wealthy aristocrat with proud class distinction, is introduced to Elizabeth, their conversation provokes an instant dislike between them. That is not the end of the story, but rather the spark which eventually ignites the beloved “happy ending.”

The cast has a blast with some over-the-top characterizations. Shifting roles, costumes, and genders in amusing combinations, the actors’ virtuosity and skill at their craft are apparent throughout this production.

Lowry and Downey at work.

Skyler King draws the first laughs as the oversized and beleaguered sister Mary, only to reappear in the next scene as amiable and handsome suitor Mr. Bingley. Lauren DePass plays quiet Jane and loopy Miss De Bourgh. Sierra Dawn Downey convincingly channels a bubbly and impetuous 14-year-old, then transforms into an imperious dowager in a later scene. Tim Hayes, the elder in the cast, swiftly changes from Mr. Bennet to re-emerge as a spinster cousin. It’s all very well done and great fun to watch.

The scene-stealer role in this “Pride and Prejudice” undoubtedly belongs to Elijah Pinkham, an actor with such skill at his craft that he is alternately the unctuous and hilarious reverend Mr. Collins, the sharp Lieutenant Wickham, and the haughty and disdainful Miss Bingley. He immerses himself into each role so deeply that he is unrecognizable.

The actors do this character switching repeatedly and seamlessly from all corners of the theatre, all the while moving stage furniture for the next scene. Bravo to all!

DePass (top/L), Sierra Dawn Downey, & King.

The book “Pride and Prejudice” has spawned many films, television programs, and stage adaptations, even including one with Zombies.

This 6th Street Playhouse production is fun, while retaining Austen’s moral of the story: prejudice defended merely by pride will lose out. It’s a lesson for today’s bellicose bias and attitudes. Shakespeare was correct: “All the world’s a stage.”

Note:  When you go, Artistic Director Jared Sakren is protective of everyone at 6th Street. All patrons must show proof of vaccination at the door and wear masks inside. While theatres have been caught short by Covid illness of cast members, Sakren discloses that every actor in “Pride and Prejudice” has an understudy ready to assist.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionPride and Prejudice
Written byKate Hamill, based on Jane Austen’s novel
Directed byLaura Downing-Lee
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThursdays, Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 PM through August 28th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$34 – $39; at (707) 523-4185
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “The Drowsy Chaperone” Delights at Sonoma Arts Live

By Nicole Singley

What do a tipsy wedding chaperone, a blundering Italian lothario, a pair of mobsters disguised as pastry chefs, and a musical theater-obsessed divorcé in an armchair have in common? They’re the unlikely ingredients for a night full of toe-tapping music, fun, and laughter in Sonoma Arts Live’s production of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” on the Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall through July 31st.

With a delightful script that both celebrates and pokes fun at roaring 20s era musicals and vaudevillian hijinks, the show opens on North Bay stage veteran Tim Setzer – billed only as “Man in Chair” – regaling the audience with his love of classic musicals and ironically, his hatred of theater that breaks the fourth wall.

Tim Setzer as “Man in Chair” (Photo by Eric Chazankin)

But lucky for us, Setzer’s character continues to shatter that fourth wall to smithereens, with his frequently hilarious, oftentimes snarky, and occasionally sweetly reflective commentary. From the comfort of his armchair, he puts on a record and invites us to listen along to his all-time favorite musical as it comes to life before us on the stage.

With a quirky cast of characters, a bevy of silly song and dance numbers, and a classic will-they/won’t-they-tie-the-knot set-up, “The Drowsy Chaperone” – a fictitious musical from the late 1920s – is fantastic light-hearted fun, punctuated by catchy tunes and comical mishaps aplenty.

Daniela Innocenti-Beem in the title role (Photo by Eric Chazankin)

The production features some excellent ensemble work and a host of talented performers, though Daniela Innocenti-Beem steals the show with her powerhouse vocals. She’s an absolute hoot in the title role, too, stumbling in and out of scenes in a semi-drunken stupor.

. . . the perfect happy escape for anyone seeking a bit of refuge and good-natured fun.”

Andrew J. Smith is equally uproarious as Adolpho, the cape-clad caricature of an Italian ladies’ man, on a mission to break up the wedding. Maeve Smith takes an endearing turn as bride-to-be Janet Van De Graff, boasting a beautiful voice and a (deliberately) terrible French accent. Setzer is the show’s anchor, and phenomenally good in the role of “Man in Chair,” chaperoning us through the action on stage.

The cast of “The Drowsy Chaperone” at work!

Supporting cast members are marvelously entertaining, too. Jonathen Blue shines as George, the tap-dancing best man, joined by Stephen Kanaski, who makes a charming groom-to-be and earns laughs with his blindfolded roller-skating. Emily Owens Evans perfects the ditzy aspiring starlet trope as Kitty, and Sean O’Brien deserves kudos for enduring a series of preposterous spit takes in the role of “Underling.”

Liz Andrews has done an admirable job with style and period-appropriate choreography for this show. Rebecca Ann Valentino’s costumes deserve a nod, too, thanks to an array of fabulous, flapper-inspired frocks and a host of other elaborate get-ups that add immensely to the fun.

Stephen Kanaski and Maeve Smith as the bride and groom to-be (Photo by Eric Chazankin)

Brindle Brundage and Ryan Severt have designed and built a simple but charming set, with a clever layout enabling it to serve as both Setzer’s apartment and the stage for a full-ensemble musical. From ringing phones to record players, sound effects by Tom Luekens are perfectly timed. The accompaniment of a live band under Sherrill Peterson’s direction makes the music loud and lively, though at times it drowns out the singers on stage, due in part to the hall’s challenging acoustics. But any bumps in the road are easily forgiven amid the merriment.

As the “Man in Chair” reminds us, music and theater have the power to transport us away from our daily stress and struggles when we’re feeling blue. “The Drowsy Chaperone” is a celebration of this power, and the perfect happy escape for anyone seeking a bit of refuge and good-natured fun.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThe Drowsy Chaperone
Written byBook by Bob Martin and Don McKellar; Music and Lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThrough July 31st
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Latin Flair Brings the Heat as Transcendence Theatre Returns with “Let’s Dance”

By Cari Lynn Pace

Summers at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen have been parched and dusty ever since Transcendence Theatre Company abandoned their outdoor stage for two years due to the pandemic.

TTC’s award-winning assemblage of talented singers and dancers from Broadway and LA shows have finally burst back onto the stage for their summer season opener “Let’s Dance.” They’ve returned with smiles, boundless energy, and rhythm from top to toe.

When the orchestra sounds the opening note, and the bright lights go up onstage, prepare to be blown away!

Transcendence has presented productions under the stars at Jack London State Park for ten summer seasons. Their successful “Best Night Ever!” formula has traditionally been a potpourri of popular song-and-dance numbers from hit musicals. “Let’s Dance” is their first summer offering for 2022, to be followed by two later productions: “Hooray for Hollywood” in late July and early August, and “The Gala” in September.

“Let’s Dance” displays the influence of guest director and choreographer Luis Salgado, whose Puerto Rican roots give the entire production a Latin flair. Salgado enthuses “I wanted to showcase the cultural heritage of dance to include salsa, Peruvian tap, and drum solos. We blended these with contemporary moves. It was a challenge rehearsing new movement styles outdoors in the heat of the sun, waiting for it to cool off a little. But we did it! I love this community and its spirit, its soul!”

L to R: Catherine Wreford, Anna Aliau I. Guerra, CorBen Williams, Sophie Lee Morris, Kyle Kemph Photo Credit: Rob Martel

Salgado brings out the best from TTC’s troupe of skilled dancers. Their exhaustive efforts—strenuous, athletic, and precise—give a rousing start to the opening number in “Primer Acto” (Act I.) Twenty singers and dancers, including many new faces among beloved Transcendence regulars, keep the energy charged up.

Segundo Acto (Act II) starts with a Peruvian drum solo improvisation by guest artist Luis Antonio Vilchez Vargas in baggy white pants and a big smile. The audience claps as instructed, to amusing pantomime. The feel-good atmosphere rises as does the moon above the stone ruins of the park.

“Let’s Dance” is mostly dance, yet plenty of singing numbers also shine. Spanish speakers may enjoy “Dos Oruguitas” while all can follow the many musical medleys packed with Broadway hits. The production is splendidly accompanied by the 10-piece Transcendence Band conducted by Matt Smart.

Jack London State Historic Park starts admitting picnickers to TTC performances as early as 5 p.m. Patrons bring hampers, food trucks ply their wares, premium wine and beer vendors offer tastes and sell glasses and bottles—to be enjoyed outside the amphitheater, as no alcohol may be brought in.

CorBen Williams & Brianna-Marie Bell Photo Credit: Ray Mabry

Live music encourages the fun and friendly banter in the dry open field, amusingly mislabeled the “great lawn.” Outdoor seating, all assigned, begins in the stone ruins as the sun drops low beyond the mountains. New this season are chairs with padded seats and backs, a welcome addition to the winery ruins.

Just before the show starts at 7:30, take time to breathe deeply of the clear air in the summer night. As the nearby vineyards glow in the setting sun, get out a jacket and lap blanket, and enjoy the quiet beauty of this Valley of the Moon. When the orchestra sounds the opening note, and the bright lights go up onstage, prepare to be blown away!

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionLet's Dance
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed & Choreographed byLuis Salgado
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThru July 3rd, 2022
Production AddressJack London State Historic Park, 2400 London Ranch Rd. Glen Ellen, CA 95442
Websitewww.transcendencetheatre.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414. Toll free,
Tickets$25 -$49-$165 VIP
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ 6th Street’s “9 to 5” a Feel-Good Feast

By Barry Willis

An inept small-scale rebellion leads to major improvements in a corporate office in “9 to 5, the Musical” at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse through June 26.

Based on the proto-feminist comedy film from 1980 starring Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dabney Coleman, “9 to 5, the Musical” expands on the original with more music and lyrics by irrepressible singer/songwriter Parton, who introduces and closes the stage show via video clips. Between these bookends lie two hours of hilarity and silliness, tremendous song and dance, and plenty of barbed commentary about gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and managerial incompetence—problems as rampant today as they were forty-two years ago.

“9 to 5, the Musical’ is a feel-good reminder of what’s possible…

Fans of the film—and those who’ve never seen it—will find much to enjoy about this high-energy musical comedy. In fact, with its larger repertoire of musical numbers and its huge cast of talented performers, they may find that they enjoy this Carl Jordan-helmed production more.

Mark Bradbury as Franklin Hart

Mark Bradbury appears as Franklin Hart, a slimeball boss whose idea of humor is “How does a woman lose 95% of her intelligence? She gets divorced.” Hart’s a character easy to hate, but one so goofy that he actually evokes some sympathy. He’s clueless, and clueless about being so. He clearly doesn’t know that his 1950s attitudes and behaviors are no longer acceptable. He also doesn’t understand the threat lurking in his female underlings—ditzy Doralee Rhodes (Anne Warren Clark), workplace-hardened Violet Newstead (Daniela Innocenti-Beem), and new recruit Judy Bernly (Julianne Bradbury), whose office skills are so limited that she doesn’t know how to feed paper into a typewriter. Hart’s only trusted ally at work is his assistant Roz (Jenny Boynton), who almost foils the plot against him.

The cast at work at 6th Street

It’s a great comedic setup—one that plays out beautifully across the big stage in the G.K. Hardt Theatre. With impeccable comic timing and strong vocal abilities, Innocenti-Beem and Clark are perfectly cast and riveting to watch. Julianne Bradbury does a solid job as the less-assertive Judy, as does Noah Sternhill as junior accountant Joe, the rebels’ co-conspirator. Strong cameos include Cindy Brillhart-True as Franklin’s wife Missy Hart, and theater veteran Norman Hall as chief investor Russel Tinsworthy. It’s a well-chosen cast.

Suprise!

But “9 to 5” isn’t simply a great performance. Parton’s music is consistently upbeat and enlivening, as is choreographer Devin Parker Sullivan’s work, which alludes to an earlier era with a nod to the present. Monochrome slowly evolving to multicolor, the set by Eric Broadwater and costumes by Tracy Hinman also propel the story.

But the unspoken star of the show is Chris Schloempf, whose big bright projections fill the back of the stage. At intermission, theater director Marty Pistone, who worked with Schloempf on last year’s marvelous “Galatea,” commented “Chris’s work simply gets better and better. The guy is astounding.”

That’s the kind of upbeat feeling this show engenders, driving home its point with pervasive humor instead of angry admonitions. Franklin Hart gets his comeuppance—and with it, a promotion—while our conspirators create a workplace friendly to all, the kind of environment where most of us would be glad to spend our days. “9 to 5, the Musical’ is a feel-good reminder of what’s possible, even if by accident.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Production9-to-5 The Musical
Written byPatricia Resnick / Music and lyrics by Dolly Parton
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough June 26, 2022
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$32 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Undead Cat Provokes Hilarity in MSW’s “Wink”

By Sue Morgan

Despite having read a synopsis of Jen Silverman’s “Wink” before attending the opening night performance at Main Stage West in Sebastopol, I was utterly unprepared for the existential poignancy and laugh-out-loud dark absurdist farce that awaited me.

The titular character, a cat named Wink, has gone missing. Wink’s human, Sophie (masterfully played by Ilana Niernberger, among the North Bay’s most versatile actors) is distraught but can’t prompt any concern from husband Gregor (John Browning). He’s long resented the affection Sophie expressed toward the animal, while maintaining a physical and emotional distance between herself and Gregor.

…a truly enjoyable evening’s diversion…

The simple set by David Lear—predominately a loveseat and wingback chair—alternates as a therapist’s office and the protagonists’ living room. Early in the story, Sofie destroys the room in a moment of grief, rage and roiling impotence. The mess remains throughout ensuing scenes, allowing the audience to perceive an appropriate façade and inviting us into the magical realism pervading this astonishingly original, brilliantly executed story.

Sam Coughlin may well have been a cat in a previous life, proved by his seamless embodiment of Wink. During his first appearance, the undead feline, driven by hunger, has risen from the grave. Coughlin, in flesh-toned briefs, moves about the set with grace, unbridled confidence and nearly-naked sexuality. He leaps effortlessly from floor to sofa back to window, sometimes draping himself languorously over furniture or an open lap, or rubbing seductively against a piece of furniture or the nearest human body part.

Michael Fontaine (L) as therapist Dr. Franz. Ilana Niernberger (R).

John Browning is utterly convincing as repressed, gaslighting husband and probable cat killer Gregor. While posturing as dismissive and unconcerned, Browning’s Gregor briefly allows us to glimpse an underlying thoughtfulness and vulnerability that allow us a few moments of compassion for his otherwise reprehensible character. The best villains always have redeeming qualities. The ensemble is rounded out by an adroit Michael Fontaine as therapist Dr. Franz, who sees both Sophie and Gregor professionally, but individually, reminding them that depression and dissatisfaction are synonymous with the human condition and that the proper course of action is to accept and steadfastly maintain both conditions.

Playwright Jen Silverman’s use of sophisticated language adds to the humor as Sophie attempts to explain the wrecked living room to Gregor. She invents a terrorist named Roland who, she says, came into their home, tore it up and pushed her menacingly (and, judging by her reenactment of the imaginary scene, quite seductively) against a wall. When Gregor asks how Sophie knows the assailant’s name and occupation, she explains that he told her “In a letter” which he communicated via “semaphore” from the roof of a nearby home.

John Browning (L) as Gregor.

Absurdities pile one on the other as the play progresses. Bent on revenge against Gregor, Wink moves in with Dr. Franz. The two begin sharing nightcaps and flirtations. While at first frightened and somewhat repelled by Wink, Dr. Franz is soon smitten with the cat and begins to let go of his dictum that life is nothing but responsibility and drudgery.

In a playfully sexual scene, Wink encourages Franz to loosen up by showing him how to walk and stand like a cat, placing his paws on Franz’ hips, reminding him that he has hips and shoulders. In one of the most poignant scenes, Wink announces that he’s leaving because he refuses to allow himself to be “skinned twice.” Franz implores Wink to tell him, before he leaves, if he has any feelings at all for him. Wink responds by rubbing himself lovingly against Franz, clearly moved by the gesture.

Ilana Niernberger at work in “Wink” at MSW.

As Dr. Franz begins to open up, Gregor is being swept down a maelstrom of rage and self-directed violence while, simultaneously, Sophie sheds her own persona, trading khakis and sneakers for black leather and combat boots, as she transforms herself into Roland in his over-the-top destructiveness and freedom from the constraints of civilized society. All three characters have taken unpredictable vectors thanks to Wink, who’s still out there somewhere, perhaps wreaking vengeance on another cat-hating egotist.

We might assume that one cat couldn’t have the power to upend the lives of three people, but that misgiving is put to rest in this 75-minute one-act directed by James Pelican. “Wink” sails along without a hitch toward a marvelously ambiguous conclusion—a truly enjoyable evening’s diversion.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionWink
Written byJen Silverman
Directed byJames Pelican
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThru June 25th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20– $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!-----

 

 

 

 

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Bright Star” Shines at Napa’s Lucky Penny

By Barry Willis

On rare occasions, a local production exceeds a national touring show by a wide margin. Such is the case with “Bright Star” at Napa’s Lucky Penny Community Arts Center through June 12.

The national touring production of the Tony-nominated musical, by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, debuted some years ago in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater—a well-performed but underwhelming theatrical event. By contrast, Lucky Penny’s is a sustained joyful celebration undertaken on a small stage by the most enthusiastic and talented ensemble we have seen in the North Bay in a long time.

It’s a case of everything being so right—casting, performance, set, costumes, music—that it’s hard to imagine how any of it could be improved….

Based on real events, “Bright Star” is a redemption story set in North Carolina in the 1920s and 1940s, and tells the tale of literary editor Alice Murphy (Taylor Bartolucci) and aspiring writer Billy Cane (Tommy Lassiter), a young soldier who’s just come home from World War II. Lucky Penny Artistic Director Bartolucci is astounding in encompassing both the young Alice and her more mature counterpart; Lassiter is equally compelling as the sweet-natured Billy, a fledgling writer who refuses to be told “no.”

Among many standouts in the cast are Sean O’Brien as Billy’s backwoods father, Daddy Cane; Kirstin Pieschke as Billy’s potential girlfriend Margo; Ian Elliot as Jimmy Ray Dobbs; and Lucky Penny Managing Director Barry Martin as the despicable, manipulative Mayor of Zebulon, NC, Josiah Dobbs—the sort of character that audiences love to hate. Jenny Veilleux is excellent as Lucy Grant, as is Dennis O’Brien as Stanford, Mayor Dobbs’ attorney and advisor.

All of the eighteen-member cast are great performers and superb singers, backed by a five-piece band led by Craig Burdette (including Peter Domenici on banjo). Burdette’s crew propels the Lucky Penny ensemble through almost two-dozen rousing heartfelt tunes, performed with some of the most athletic and authentic choreography imaginable, created by Jacqui Muratori and Alex Gomez.

Directed by Martin, the show moves along quickly through two beautifully-paced acts thanks to minimal set changes. There are enough set pieces to establish each scene, but nothing more. Martin said post-show that in rehearsals, he and Bartolucci kept deleting set pieces until they reached the bare minimum.

The gambit works perfectly, as does every other risk that Lucky Penny took in putting on this gorgeous production. It’s a case of everything being so right—casting, performance, set, costumes, music—that it’s hard to imagine how any of it could be improved.

This “Bright Star” is truly stellar—and a welcome rejuvenation in an era of soul-crushing news. We need all the uplift we can get. Lucky Penny delivers.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionBright Star
Written bySteve Martin and Edie Brckell
Directed byBarry Martin
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThru June 12th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$37-$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

 

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ A North Bay Spectacle: “Matilda – The Musical”

By Barry Willis

A precocious girl struggles valiantly against ignorant parents and a cruel headmistress in “Matilda – The Musical” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, through May 22.

One of the most popular children’s stories since the 1988 publication of Roald Dahl’s novel, the stage adaptation “Matilda – The Musical” (written by Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin) launched to great acclaim in 2010 and enjoyed long runs in London, New York, and throughout the world, garnering many prestigious awards.

In the past five years, the play has been available to regional theater companies eager to produce their own. North Bay theatergoers are lucky in several respects. Against who-knows-how-many competitors, Spreckels landed the rights to put on the show in the most spacious and well-funded physical theater in Sonoma County, also home to a huge talent pool. The show is an absolute spectacular, expertly helmed by Spreckels Artistic Director Sheri Lee Miller.

The cast at work: Rudopho, Wormwoods, & Matilda.

As per Dahl’s original, Matilda is a hyper-bright five-year-old who loves books, reading, science, math, and every variety of imaginative intellectual pursuit. She’s also blessed with telekinesis—she can move objects with her mind—an ability that proves useful late in the story. Her parents Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Garet Waterhouse and Shannon Rider, respectfully) are self-righteous dolts with no appreciation for the life of the mind.

Altogether, “Matilda – The Musical” is a fantastic show for adults and kids….

Her parents refuse to acknowledge Matilda’s uniqueness. In fact, they dismiss her special talents as if they somehow bring shame on the family. Mr. Wormwood, a disreputable used-car salesman, is especially proud of his disdain for reading and brags that everything he knows he learned from watching television. Mrs. Wormwood is much more interested in dance lessons with Rudolpho (Damion Matthews) than she is in her husband or daughter. Waterhouse and Rider throw themselves into these repugnantly juicy roles with a delicious degree of abandonment.

Matilda also contends with her school’s mean-as-hell headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Tim Setzer), whose pervasive dislike of children is often expressed by sending them to “the Chokey”—a small-scale torture chamber—for minor infractions. The versatile Setzer perfectly fits a character described by its creator as “a former world champion hammer thrower” who’s not above throwing misbehaving children across the schoolyard. (Onstage villains who get booed during curtain calls know they’ve done their jobs well.)

But Matilda has adult champions too—local librarian Mrs. Phelps (Gina Alvarado) and teacher Miss Honey (Madison Scarbrough), who makes Matilda’s welfare her personal quest. Alvarado and Scarbrough are both deservedly frequent performers on North Bay stages. Both sing beautifully in group scenes; Scarbrough shines in her solos. Jamin Jollo and Bridget Codoni are tremendous in a running subplot of one of Matilda’s own stories—scenes from “The Escapologist and the Acrobat.”

Matilda and Trunchbull at work.

The cast is huge—almost thirty performers, most of them youngsters—and to list them all would turn a review into something resembling a phone book. Suffice it to say that all are good and some are excellent.

Also excellent are the towering set pieces—huge oversize bookcases as seen from a small child’s perspective. The use of giant letter blocks as props is brilliant—props put to especially effective use in “Revolting Children,” one of the final musical pieces as the closing act winds down. Michella Moerbeek’s choreography is dynamic and delightful, but not too complex for young dancers. Lead by Lucas Sherman, a ten-piece band “in the pit” provides gorgeous accompaniment, but on opening night sometimes dulled singers’ vocal details. We have been told that sound imbalances are being addressed for future performances.

Altogether, “Matilda – The Musical” is a fantastic show for adults and kids, of whom there were a couple hundred in attendance on opening night. Finding a five-year-old who can act, sing, and dance at Broadway level is just about impossible, so the lead has always been multi-cast with adolescents to reduce the strain on them and give them time to study. Spreckels has two young talents alternating as Matilda—Gigi Bruce Low and Anja Kao Nielsen. Low appeared in the May 6 opener and put in a marvelous performance. Theater insiders report that Nielsen is Low’s equal. For ticket buyers, any production should be a worthy one.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionMatilda - The Musical
Written byDennis Kelly – Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin
Directed bySheri Lee Miller
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough May 22, 2022
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3429
Tickets$12 - $36
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 ~~ SAL’s “Grossingers” a Nostalgic Romp

 By Barry Willis

The Catskills mountain region in upstate New York made substantial contributions to American culture throughout most of the 20th century. Many legendary comedians and musicians worked “Borsht Belt” resorts such as the one brought to life by Sonoma Arts Live with its new production of the Stephen Cole musical “Saturday Night at Grossinger’s.” Cole is the show’s librettist/lyricist; the music is by Claibe Richardson with additional lyrics by Ronny Graham.

Dani Innocenti-Beem (r) wowing her scene partner!

Dani Innocenti-Beem solidly anchors the show as the entrepreneurial singer/comedienne Jennie Grossinger, who almost single-handedly converted what had been a rundown farmhouse into one of the most recognized and desirable vacation destinations in the eastern U.S. In a short silver-gray wig, she commands the stage whether singing, dancing, or riffing on the circumstances around her.

Larry Williams, the show’s co-director with Jaime Love, is also formidable as Sheldon Seltzer, the resort’s announcer/master of ceremonies/fallback comedian. He’s heavy on Henny Youngman-style wisecracks such as “Take my wife. She runs after the garbage truck shouting ‘Am I late for the trash?’ The driver shouts back, ‘No, jump in.’”

…a delightful morsel of musical theater….

Innocenti-Beem and Williams are both gifted and confident comedic performers. Their appearance together on the same stage guarantees a good time for the audience—whether the comedy is intentional or not, as happened on opening night with a balky curtain. The pair covered so well that most folks in the nearly sold-out house believed the curtain glitch was built into the script. It wasn’t, but perhaps Stephen Cole should consider making it so. The perfectly-timed incident certainly seemed like something that might have happened infrequently at Grossinger’s, and it provoked plenty of laughter.

The substantially-constructed first act is a decade-by-decade revisiting of the history of Grossinger’s, from its 1904 origins through the 1960s. Musical director Sherrill Peterson and her band provide excellent backing for the all-singing/all-dancing Grossinger clan: Dan Schwager as patriarch “Papa,” David Shirk as Jennie’s mate Harry, and HarriettePearl Fugit and Tommy Lassiter as Grossinger offspring Elaine and Paul, respectively.

HarriettePearl Fugit (r) at Sonoma Arts Live.

With its compelling and perfectly paced scene-by-scene through-line, the show’s opening act induces strong anticipation in the audience, who come back from intermission expecting a big payoff. The second act doesn’t fulfill this expectation. It feels under-developed, as if some story elements were left dangling or cut without consideration for how this might affect the entire production.

The result is that the show seems to end abruptly, frustratingly so for the audience, as our very entertaining history tour of Grossinger’s doesn’t reach into the 21st century. Act One has a strong dramatic arc sorely missing in the second one. Maybe that will be corrected in the sequel: “Saturday Night at Grossinger’s, Part Two,” but even incomplete, SAL’s show is a delightful morsel of musical theater.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionSaturday Night at Grossinger’s
Written byStephen Cole
Directed byJaime Love and Larry Williams
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesMay 8, 2022
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center 276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25-$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Big Hug: Lucky Penny’s “The Marvelous Wonderettes”

By Barry Willis

Through March 13, Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions has a feel-good treat in store for everyone repulsed by war ravaging Ukraine. “The Marvelous Wonderettes” is Roger Bean’s hit jukebox musical featuring 38 pop songs of the 1950s and ‘60s, performed by the cutest—and goofiest—foursome that ever hopped on stage.

The scene is the 1958 Springfield High School prom, where we meet Betty Jean, Cindy Lou, Missy, and Suzy (Andrea Dennison-Laufer, Vida Mae Fernandez, Jenny Veilleux, and Kirstin Pieschke, respectively)—a vocal quartet in the poofiest skirts imaginable, on a kitschy set by Brian Watson, who also did the recent “Amy and the Orphans” at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater. Each of the four performers is a standout in her own way. Together they are delightful!

The The Marvelous Wonderettes at work. Photo courtesy Lucky Penny Productions.

Act One covers many of the best-known songs of the mid-to-late 1950s. Backed by a three-piece band, the girls have a bit of a rough start with The Chordettes’ deathless 1954 pop classic “Mr. Sandman.” Their timing and choreography are off just enough to provoke laughs but not cringes, and they gradually refine their act, dutifully plowing through many other anthems of teenage angst.

“The Marvelous Wonderettes” is a couple of hours of good clean lightweight fun and a welcome escape…

Comical petty jealousies infect both their performance and their between-songs interactions but never to the point where we’re afraid the group might break up. The Wonderettes are catty but loyal: all-for-one and one-for-all despite plenty of sniping. Writer Roger Bean uses the show’s playlist as a framework on which to hang the story of the Wonderettes’ drama with each other—both onstage and off.

The Wonderettes go mod. Photo courtesy Lucky Penny Productions.

Act Two finds the group reunited ten years later, this time in 60’s Mod attire (costumes by Barbara McFadden) and with an updated song list (music direction by Ellen Patterson). Several months pregnant, Suzy is wobbly but manages to be a real trooper even if she has to perform barefoot.

We learn a whole lot about what’s been going on with the girls during their decade after high school, none of it alarming and most of it amusing, such as flirting with “Ritchie,” the technician in the lighting booth. Stage manager Jeff Bristow is the good-natured recipient of such attentions. The girls’ relationships with the men in their lives can be a bit confusing, but don’t let the confusion interfere with your enjoyment of the show. It’s huge fun whether or not you can quote chapter and verse about the back story later.

 

Directed and choreographed by Scottie Woodard, “The Marvelous Wonderettes” is a couple of hours of good clean lightweight fun and a welcome escape from the larger world’s insanity.

As Jeff Bristow put it, the show is “a big hug”—exactly what we need now!

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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 Marvelous Wonderettes
Written byRoger Bean
Directed byScottie Woodard
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThru March 13th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$25-$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “The Legend of Georgia McBride” Sizzles at 6th Street Playhouse

By Cari Lynn Pace

Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse transforms their 99-seat Monroe Stage into Cleo’s Bar, a down-and-out dive in Panama City, Florida—a Gulf Coast town at the eastern end of the state’s panhandle, an area southerners refer to with disparaging affection as “the redneck Riviera.”

“The Legend of Georgia McBride” is a comedic and heartfelt unfolding of how female impersonators are made, not born. Directed by Carl Jordan, it’s a totally charming, well-acted and danced production. It blends the story of friendship and support with more than a few bawdy and ribald scenes. Leave the kids at home.

Photo courtesy 6th St. Playhouse.

Cleo’s Bar manager Eddie (Peter Downey) introduces an earnest but untalented Casey (Alexander Howard) to an underwhelming cluster of patrons. Casey is a down-on-his-luck wannabe Elvis impersonator who makes less money in tips than his gas bill to drive to work each night.

After the show, Casey arrives home to find his hardworking wife Jo (Jamella Cross) distraught as their rent check has bounced again. These two have a strong bond, now sorely tested by their desperate finances. When Casey shows Jo a sequined Elvis suit he purchased to enhance his act, Jo erupts in dismay and reveals she is pregnant. Casey promises he will do better for their future together. It’s a great setup.

“The Legend of Georgia McBride” is a comedic and heartfelt unfolding of how female impersonators are made, not born.”

The next night at Cleo’s Bar, two female impersonators arrive and size up their backstage digs. Miss Tracy Mills (an astounding performance by Joseph Abrego) is optimistic and determined to make their new gig work. She reminds her inebriated co-star Anorexia Nervosa (a hilarious turn by Tyler Bertolone) that this is their last chance; they’ve run out of options.

Casey knows nothing of this change of plans and prepares to drive to work as usual. In a remarkable double role, Bertolone appears as Casey and Jo’s butch neighbor and landlord. Friendly but determined, he lumbers over to collect the back rent or evict them. It seems Casey and Jo aren’t the only ones who’ve run out of options.

Casey arrives at work and is dismissed as entertainment by the manager. Elvis has left the building, and a new duo of divas is waiting to show off their assets. When Nervosa passes out drunk for the first show, Tracy plops an Edith Piaf wig on to a very reluctant Casey and shoves him onstage to lip sync. A star is born, sort of.

Photo courtesy 6th St. Playhouse.

The drag show money lures Casey to do it again, so Tracy coaches and grooms him for more female impersonator roles. She creates a “Georgia McBride” stage name as Casey starts to enjoy himself. Cleo’s Bar becomes the hottest and hippest joint in town.

When Anorexia sobers up enough to re-join the cast, the team’s sexy shiny costume changes and clever choreography propel the bar’s fame over the top. The first row of seats in this ¾ round theatre gets the action up close, and these outrageous gals really work the crowd.

Tracy’s generous guidance and stage smarts bring months of success to Cleo’s. But there’s a problem: Casey is uncomfortable in his new onstage “skin” and has not told his pregnant wife he has dropped performing as Elvis in favor of “Georgia McBride.” When she finds out, their reckoning is both painful and eventually productive. Love and community support conquer all.

Photo courtesy 6th St. Playhouse.

“Georgia McBride” delivers nonstop entertainment, filling this stage to the brim with pizzazz. Act II has the choreography talents of Devin Parker Sullivan and Jacob Gutierrez-Montoya. Add dazzlingly quick costume changes designed by Amaris Blagborne to the wig and make-up skills of Rosanne Johnson, and the audience goes wild.

Director Carl Jordan noted that “Georgia McBride” was ready to roll when the Omicron surge hit, and he had to replace three cast members who were no longer available. Fortunately, Jordan has the stunning talents of Joseph Abrego, a top drag queen across LA. Jordan also recruited Peter Downey to step into the role of the bar manager with a mere ten days’ rehearsal. You’d never know it, as Downey seamlessly fits into this talented crew as part of “The Legend of Georgia McBride.”

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThe Legend of Georgia McBride
Written byMatthew Lopez
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 20th, 2022
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$22 – $38
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Pure Joy: Cinnabar’s “Amy and the Orphans”

By Barry Willis

On rare occasions, an obscure play with an unknown star rocks the theater world.

At Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater through February 20, Lindsey Ferrentino’s “Amy and the Orphans” is exactly that kind of production. In it, a couple of adult siblings named Maggie and Jacob (Mary DeLorenzo and Michael Fontaine, respectively) return to New York for their father’s funeral. They also have a half-baked plan to get their sister Amy (Julie Yeager) to move out of the state-supported home where she has lived for many years and to come reside with one of them.

It’s not clear why Maggie and Jacob wish to do this—they’ve had little contact with Amy for a long time, and no experience caring for her. Perhaps a lingering sense of guilt propels them, and while bickering with each other, they press their case with both Amy and Kathy (Jannely Calmell), her caretaker. The results are heartrending and comical.

“Amy and the Orphans” is one of the freshest things to land at local theaters in years…

A Down’s Syndrome person, Amy has a strong attachment to where she lives, a residence full of her friends. She’s a movie fanatic, watching them constantly on her iPad, and has a job working in a movie theater—a perfect occupation, in that she has memorized every classic line from every iconic film reaching back decades.

Left to right_ Mary DeLorenzo as Maggie, Julie Yeager as Amy. Photography by Victoria Von Thal

It’s a very fulfilling life for her. She doesn’t want to disrupt any of it, but her sister and brother insist that they know what’s best. Blessed with an innocent passion for fairness, Amy argues with impeccable logic about why she should remain where she is, and when rationality fails to convince them, she resorts to small-scale guerrilla tactics, coming close to risking her life in her fight for autonomy.

With a great sense of comic timing and tremendous confidence, Julie Yeager astounds in the lead role. Her wise replies come off with an improvisational immediacy that one might expect from a theatrical veteran of many years. So do her many movie-quoting bits, all done with perfect timing and the original characters’ diction. She’s a wonder to behold, provoking a spontaneous standing ovation from a nearly full house on opening weekend.

DeLorenzo and Fontaine are very good as middle-aged siblings whose differences have never been resolved. Calmell, a young veteran of many North Bay productions, is excellent as Kathy. Gina Alvarado and Justin P. Lopez are enjoyable diversions in a couple of flashback scenes of Sarah and Bobby, the parents of Maggie, Jacob, and Amy.

L-to-R_ Michael Fontaine as Jacob, Mary DeLorenzo as Maggie, Julie Yeager as Amy, Janelly Calmell as Kathy. Photo by V. Von Thal

Director Nathan Cummings has gotten a world-class performance from his cast of six, but most especially from Yeager, an absolute joy. Cinnabar’s whimsical set (by Brian Watson) and goofy props only add to the fun and satisfaction.

“Amy and the Orphans” is one of the freshest things to land at local theaters in years. Continually engaging, uplifting, and at moments downright hilarious, it’s a show that will instill hope and bring you to your feet in celebration.

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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

 

ProductionAmy and the Orphans
Written byLindsey Ferrentino
Directed byNathan Cummings
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Feb. 20th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Hair” an Exuberant Experience. Classic Rock Musical Shines with Energy

By Cari Lynn Pace

6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa took a brilliant risk in staging the rock musical “Hair.” From the moment one enters the theatre, one is surrounded by the exuberance of the hippie “Tribe” of actors cavorting onstage to drums. It’s clear this joyful “be-in” will be a performance like no other.

When “Hair” opened on Broadway 50 years ago, it broke every rule in the theatrical book. How did it become such a timeless musical? And how does it still capture audiences?

It has no real story line, plenty of four-letter words, a batch of rock ‘n’ roll songs strung together, and an in-your-face confrontation of the issues of race, the Vietnam War draft, sex, drugs, pollution, and clothing. It’s a brash bold and ballsy exploration of issues, many which still confront us today.

Photo courtesy 6th St Playhouse.

Whatever the magic formula, Director Aja Gianola-Norris brings this production of “Hair” over the top with a talented cast in fine frenzy, feathers, and fringe. Rachel Wynne’s choreography is vigorous and uninhibited, the onstage band under Lucas Sherman’s direction is spot on (although a bit loud for some of the solos), and the actors abound with strong voices.

Photo courtesy 6th St Playhouse.

Their physical performances are so impressive it would be no surprise if they lost weight after each performance.

“Hair” is a festival of fun, not to be missed…

Act I begins with a celebration of the extraordinary 1962 alignment of seven heavenly bodies (planets and the moon) in the constellation Aquarius. Time-tested favorites open with “Age of Aquarius” belted out by Serena Elize Flores. It’s followed by a dozen more, including “Hair,” “Hare Krishna,” and “Easy to Be Hard,” a solo soulfully sung by Gillian Eichenberger. The Tribe’s conflicts about the Vietnam War come to a head as some burn their draft cards. Others burn bras. Claude (an extremely acrobatic Jamin Jollo) and Berger (hilarious Ezra Hernandez) must decide their future paths in “Where Do I Go?”

Act II consists mainly of the Tribes LSD trip. It’s a free-flowing dream sequence, a circus with bizarre bits and beads. Famous characters come and go. The Tribe freely partners up, uncouples, and mixes again against the backdrop of “Good Morning Starshine.”

When the finale “Let the Sunshine In” is sung, audience hands wave in a reflection of peace, love, and difficult choices. “Hair” is a festival of fun, not to be missed.

 

*** Covid restrictions at the 6th Street Playhouse require proof of vaccination and masks to be worn throughout the production. Some material may not be suitable for people under 16 years of age. Please see website for further advisories about this performance.

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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.

 

ProductionHair
Written byGerome Ragni and James Rado
Directed byAja Gianola-Norris
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 6th, 2022
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$22 – $38
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

An ASR Pick! Transcendence’s Broadway Holiday Spectacular Offers an Evening of Magic at Belos Cavalos — by Nicole Singley

L to R: Edward Juvier, David R. Gordon, Maria Bilbao, Arielle Crosby, and Lori Haley Fox (Photo by Rob Martel)

It’s that time of the year again, and Transcendence Theatre Company has cooked up something special sure to put you in the spirit. Their Broadway Holiday Spectacular is back, and this season, it’s better than ever. Featuring a talented troupe of artists from all over the country – including many familiar faces, and some exciting new additions to the Transcendence family, too – it’s a high-energy night full of festive, foot-tapping fun for folks of all ages. Be sure to catch it while you can, before the show’s two-week run ends on December 12th.

Returning audiences will recognize all the traditional elements of a night spent with Transcendence – fresh and funny renditions of favorite tunes and classic carols, a live band and dazzling choreography, and of course, a pre-show party complete with food and wine from local vendors. But this year, the fun has moved under the big tent at Belos Cavalos, a charming equestrian estate tucked away in the hills of Kenwood, where guests will enjoy the chance to mingle with horses and goats during intermission, and gather around tables in lieu of standard theater seating.

On the program are a number of fan-favorites from previous years, including a clever play on Madonna’s “Vogue” paying homage to Rudolph of reindeer fame, and a silly song about making fruitcake set to the tune of Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” performed capably by Transcendence newcomer Edward Juvier. There are some fun surprises, too, including two four-legged guest-stars, and a creative take on “12 Days of Christmas” inviting audience members to help with the countdown.

If you’ve never experienced a Transcendence show, make this the first of many.”

Top row: Bebe Browning, Marissa Barragán, Edward Juvier, Kyle Kemph; Bottom row: Luther Brooks IV, Preston Truman Boyd, Drew Elhamalawy (Photo by Rob Martel)

Lori Haley Fox is quirky and endearing as Mrs. Claus, who serves as our narrator throughout the evening, and Preston Truman Boyd is our flannel-clad Santa, loosely framing the musical acts within an uplifting story about family, friendship, and love. Behind them onstage, the live band really rocks, and bassist Lynn Keller even joins performer David Morgan for a cute number about Chanukah, together lamenting the limited greeting card options available at the local drugstore.

There are, of course, some slower heartfelt pieces in the mix, including a haunting rendition of “O Holy Night” performed by Kyle Kemph, whose voice is so clear and bright it gave me chills, and Arielle Crosby, whose talent alone is worth the price of admission. The pair team up again for an equally moving performance of beloved Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston duet “When You Believe.” Maria Bilbao nearly steals the show with a spine-tingling version of “Please Come Home for Christmas.” She makes it sound effortless, and the high notes brought actual tears to my eyes.

Top row: Bebe Browning, Drew Elhamalawy; Bottom row: Maria Bilbao, David R. Gordon, Kristin Piro; Front: Arielle Crosby (Photo by Rob Martel)

The entire cast is immensely talented, so much so that it almost feels unfair to single anyone out. But I’d be remiss not to also mention Transcendence newcomer Luther Brooks IV, who charms with his sparkling smile and evident dance skills. Be sure to keep an eye on him during some of the big ensemble numbers. Choreographers Matthew Steffens and Marissa Barragán have worked some magic on stage, making the show as fun to watch as it is to hear and sing along to. (Did I mention there are tiny goats in diapers?)

If you’ve never experienced a Transcendence show, make this the first of many. And if you’re a repeat visitor, you’ll be happy you didn’t miss out on this one. Plan to get there early and meet the horses, take selfies with goats, and wine and dine with friends before the show. Bring layers, too – the heated tent felt a bit chilly as the night cooled down. Even so, you’re sure to leave feeling full of warmth and holiday cheer.

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.

 

ProductionBroadway Holiday Spectacular 2021
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed & Choreographed byMatthew Steffens
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThrough December 12th, 2021
Production AddressBelos Cavalos
687 Campagna Lane
Kenwood, CA 95452
Websitebestnightever.org
or
ttcsonoma.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$49-$149
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Choreography4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

ASR PICKS! Sonoma Arts Live Delivers a Twin-Serving Holiday Treat — by Barry Willis

 

This time of year, theater companies can be counted on to offer up plenty of predictable Christmas classics.

Sonoma Arts Live has taken a contrarian tact with two similarly-themed shows directed by Michael Ross: “Plaid Tidings” and “Winter Wonderettes.” Performed on alternating dates, they’re both delightful tributes to the ubiquitous four-member vocal troupes of the 1950s and ‘60s.

The first, developed by Stuart Ross from the original “Forever Plaid” by James Raitt, features a male quartet that suffered an abrupt departure in an auto accident but who have been reincarnated for the holidays.

Photo by James Carr

Named for their trademark plaid jackets, the four crooners may enjoy an extension of their reincarnation if they perform well enough—quite a motivation, one that propels them through two high-energy hours of comedic antics, impressive dancing, and tremendous vocalizing. Trevor Hoffman, Andrew Smith, Scottie Woodard, and Brian Watson appear respectively as Jinx, Frankie, Sparky, and Smudge.

…Best bet: See both productions back-to-back.

The second show features a girl group in matching swirly skirts performing at the 1968 Harper’s Hardware holiday bash in Springfield, Ohio. Created by Roger Bean, “Winter Wonderettes” is a more tightly focused production compared to the somewhat improvisational feel of “Forever Plaid.”

Photo by James Carr

Julianne Bradbury, Sarah Lundstrom, Maeve Smith, and Jenny Veilleux are all convincing and very funny in the roles of Cindy Lou, Betty Jean, Suzy, and Missy, respectively, all of them with lovely voices and great comic timing. Both casts are very well balanced—as actors, dancers, and singers—backed by a solid band under the direction of Sherrill Peterson.

Scottie Woodard served as choreographer for both shows—“Plaid Tidings” being the more reckless of the two, in keeping with the male tradition of risk-taking for its own sake. “Wonderettes,” by contrast, offers a more demure presentation but one that’s more satisfying musically.

Both shows make the most of a simple set on the Rotary Stage at Andrews Hall. While “Wonderettes” is more structurally complete and better rehearsed, “Plaid Tidings” has an untamed quality that makes it equally compelling.

Best bet: See both productions back-to-back. An ideal performance would feature both groups onstage together. That’s not likely to happen, but we can dream, can’t we?

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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

 

Production“Plaid Tidings” and “Winter Wonderettes”
Written byStuart Ross/James Raitt and Roger Bean
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production Datesthru December 19th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$28 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

An ASR Pick! “The Wickhams” Delights with Warmth and Wit at Spreckels — by Nicole Singley

Leonhart and Lichirie working at Spreckles.

Those in search of some heartwarming fare this holiday season will find it at Spreckels, where “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” is scheduled to grace the intimate Condiotti Studio Theatre stage through December 12th. Second in a three-part series, “The Wickhams” is a sequel to Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice, though theatergoers need not have seen part one – nor have read the original novel – to understand and enjoy the show. Acclaimed duo Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon have penned a delightful and clever continuation to one of the literary world’s most famous love stories, brimming with enough wisdom, wit, and charm to have been written by Austen herself.

…I can’t think of a better way to start the holiday season.

As those who attended may fondly recall, Spreckels staged a memorably top-notch production of part one in the series, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” in November of 2019. “Miss Bennet” takes place on the ground floor of the Darcys’ estate, where the newlyweds are hosting the entire Bennet clan for Christmas festivities. In part two, however, we venture downstairs to see what’s happening in the servants’ quarters while the family gathering unfolds above. Amid the hustle and bustle of holiday preparations, the late-night arrival of an uninvited guest threatens to throw the household into chaos. Cue the comedic mishaps, delicious drama, and sweet romance in this uplifting tale of family and love, forgiveness and redemption.

Sheila Lichirie delivers a stellar performance as head housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, who is equal parts sharp-tongued censure and quick-witted wisdom, with just enough warmth peeking through the cracks in her all-business exterior. Sam Coughlin is equally exceptional as notorious scoundrel George Wickham, whose drunken stumbling and slick overtures to the new maid would be enough to make one’s skin crawl if he weren’t so hilarious and strangely charming. Coughlin has mastered the appropriate body language and facial expressions to really sell his character.

Cohan and Coughlin at work in “The Wickhams”

Though Lichirie and Coughlin are the standouts, their companions are excellent, too. Kimberley Cohan makes a wonderfully lively and sympathetic Lydia Wickham, whose naivety is more endearing than annoying. Dale Leonhart’s Cassie, the ambitious new housemaid, is deliciously sassy, spirited, whip-smart, and self-assured. Silas Vaughn is eager and earnest as love-struck footman Brian, and delivers an enjoyably energetic performance. Allie Nordby – who was phenomenal as eldest Bennet sister, Jane, in the 2019 production – brings an irresistible sweetness and sincerity to her character that makes her impossible not to love, though lacking in some of the headstrong passion and playfulness I secretly crave in an Elizabeth Darcy. Perhaps what’s missing is convincing chemistry with her beau.

Coughlin, Nordby, and Guo work at scene of “The Wickhams” at Spreckle’s Performing Arts Center.

Byron Guo’s Fitzwilliam Darcy is appropriately stately and reserved, but perhaps just a touch too stiff, with his arms often glued to his sides. He does some effective things with his intonation and facial expressions, but his scenes with Nordby feel somewhat forced, and I kept hoping to see him loosen up a bit. Mr. Darcy isn’t supposed to be overly effusive or unrestrained, of course, but part of his charm is the way he softens in Elizabeth’s presence. Guo is more convincing as a charitable host and consummate gentleman than a newlywed man in love, though a few more performances may help him ease into the role. Despite these minor criticisms, it’s clear this is a very talented ensemble, and the show is entirely diverting.

Director Emily Cornelius has paced the production beautifully. Laughs land where they should, there are no lulls in the action, and the sweeter, softer moments don’t feel rushed. The impact is greatly enhanced by Elizabeth Bazzano’s handsome set, tempting us to gather around the kitchen table to help with holiday preparations, or cozy up by the glowing fire. The build quality and attention to detail are impressive, with doors that open to a realistic looking room and hallway, and an abundance of props that make the space feel like a real home. Costume designer Donnie Frank deserves recognition, too, for aptly chosen attire and some seriously stunning pieces. (Where can I find Lydia’s fabulous evening dress and nightgown?)

Whether you’re an Austen fan or just a fan of good theater, be sure to catch “The Wickhams.” With a hearty dose of warmth and wit that’s sure to leave you in a brighter mood, I can’t think of a better way to start the holiday season.

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Nicole Singley

Sr. Contributing Writer/Editor, AisleSeatReview.com

Member, American Theatre Critics Association

Member, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

Member, Marquee Theater Journalists Association

ProductionThe Wickhams
Written byLauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
Directed byEmily Cornelius
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough December 12th, 2021
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3429
Tickets$12 - $26
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

An ASR PICK! Theater Review: Gorgeous, Pitch-perfect “Dancing Lessons” at Cinnabar — by Barry Willis

An autistic scientist and an injured dancer find solace and hope in Cinnabar Theater’s “Dancing Lessons,” through October 31.

Jessica Headington stars as Senga, a dancer who has suffered a devastating and potentially career-ending knee injury. Trevor Hoffmann is Ever, her pesky upstairs neighbor who badgers her to give him dancing lessons so that he can fulfill his function as emcee of an upcoming awards gala. Their initial meetings couldn’t be more contentious or less promising – she’s in an enormous amount of pain and anxiety, and he has little emotional empathy and limited social skill.

Cast of “Dancing Lessons” at work.

Mutual impairment, distrust, and animosity at the start: a fantastically potent setup that scriptwriter Mark St. Germain spins into one of the loveliest romantic comedies ever conceived. A career writer for television and film, St. Germain has an unerring eye and ear for what works in telling a story. His script is absolutely pitch-perfect: every word uttered by the actors and every action they make propel this tale of an unlikely but totally plausible relationship. His characters’ conversations are sometimes terse but never artificially truncated, and sound perfectly natural as Senga and Ever grow more familiar with each other. “Dancing Lessons” is a theatrical rarity in that it contains neither fluff nor filler.

…“Dancing Lessons” is the kind of show that makes a critic’s life rewarding…

The ebb-and-flow of this production is a master class in onstage storytelling, with rhythm and musicality like a minor-key symphony. Director John Browning has coaxed a stunning performance from his cast of two superbly talented actors, aided by Wayne Hovey’s elegant set that serves as Senga’s apartment, Ever’s office and classroom, and an auditorium where Ever speaks to the National Autism Coalition. Hovey also served as lighting designer; his work adds much to the show’s evolving mood.

“Dancing Lessons” -Trevor Hoffmann and Jessica Headington.

Not enough praise can be showered on Headington and Hoffmann, both of them fully invested in their characters and both of them totally comfortable with and trusting of each other. It’s an amazing balancing act in that the dynamic differences between Senga and Ever ultimately blend together so well in a heartwarming pas de deux—both literal and metaphorical.

“Dancing Lessons” is the kind of show that makes a critic’s life rewarding. With just a pinch of magical realism, it’s certainly the most satisfying romantic comedy this reviewer has ever seen—just absolutely right from beginning to end, and more than worthy of multiple viewings, a wish this writer intends to fulfill.

Headington & Hoffmann at work in “Dancing Lessons”

Kudos to Cinnabar for bringing this wonderful production to life in the wake of the marvelous “Cry It Out.” The Petaluma company has a perfect track record so far as theater companies emerge from

COVID-induced hibernation. Proof of vaccination is required of attendees, as is the wearing of masks during performances. For those still unwilling to venture out, “Dancing Lessons” will be available online October 29-31.

 

 

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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

 

Production"Dancing Lessons"
Written byMark St. Germain
Directed byJohn Browning
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough October 31st
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

 

ASR Theater Review: “Topdog/Underdog” Uneven but Compelling at Main Stage West — by Barry Willis

Sibling rivalry and resentment take a horrific turn in Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog” at Main Stage West in Sebastopol, through October 30.

Directed by North Bay theater veteran (and cookie magnate) Bronwen Shears, Keene Hudson and D’Artagnan Riviera star as brothers Lincoln and Booth, respectively, residing in a shabby room with a communal bathroom down the hall. A reformed street hustler, Lincoln has taken a job in a local arcade, acting the part of his namesake president in a game in which players take potshots at him. Booth is doing his best to master the art of Three Card Monte so that he might improve his personal cash flow by preying on gullible “marks”—a pursuit Lincoln has already renounced, to the point where he’s reluctant to coach Booth on the finer points of the game.

…The potential to take this production from good to great is certainly there…

The two brothers vacillate between reminiscing about their mostly dysfunctional childhoods and arguing with each other. The more animated and aggressive of the two, Lincoln is frequently unkind to Booth, who has long chafed in his older brother’s shadow. There’s also palpable love between the two, but much disagreement about their shared past as well as the future. Their interactions—all taking place in one room—are an emotional rollercoaster skillfully crafted by playwright, director and the two actors.

Keene Hudson at work in Topdog/Underdog.

Hudson and Riviera play off each other well—Hudson’s character the more dynamic of the two. Riviera plays Booth as brooding and introspective, without a hint of the malevolence that ultimately brings down the curtain. He has a solid grasp of his character and his character’s motivation, but stumbled with some lines late on opening weekend, a shortcoming certain to be corrected as the production moves into its second, third, and fourth weeks.

The potential to take this production from good to great is certainly there. Parks’ theme, of course, is one of the oldest, going back to ancient mythologies—the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel, for example. Other inspirations may include the viciously backstabbing sisters in Shakespeare’s “King Lear” or the contentious brothers Austin and Lee in Sam Shepard’s “True West.” There are certainly striking parallels between that play and this one. It’s not a jolly ride, but it’s one that will open your eyes and perhaps prompt discussion. “Topdog/Underdog” is a compelling examination of a permanently recurring and tragic human condition.

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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

 

ProductionTopdog/Underdog
Written bySuzan-Lori Parks
Directed byBronwen Shears
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Oct 30th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20 – $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

 

An ASR Theater Review — Raven Players’ “Fully Committed” Overlong But Still Funny — by Barry Willis

A day in the life of a harried scheduling manager makes for some uproarious comedy in “Fully Committed,” at the Raven Performing Arts Theater in downtown Healdsburg, through October 17.

The telephone equivalent of a slamming-door farce, the production requires its lone onstage talent to dash from one telephone to the next—three internal lines at opposite ends of the wide stage, and two or three on his desk. Plus his personal cell phone. It’s a lot to keep track of, especially when they ring in rapid succession or in unison.

…a delightful show…

Troy Thomas Evans plays the roles of everyone working in a trendy New York restaurant—chef, maitre d’, front-of-house staff, and an absent co-worker, plus his own father, and dozens of pesky would-be patrons who refuse to take “I’m sorry—we’re fully committed” as an answer when they try to make reservations. Evans is energetic and convincing as Sam, a hopeful young actor trying to land a gig at Lincoln Center, and to arrange time off to spend the Christmas holiday with his family.

Troy Thomas Evans at work as Sam – photo by Ray Mabry

He conveys all of this effectively; some of his characters (Bunny VanDerveer, Bryce from Gwyneth Paltrow’s office, the dreaded Ned Finley) are outrageous while others are merely amusing. His performance is hampered by the need to scramble from one side of the stage to the other, because director Tika Moon insisted on using the entirety of the wide stage as the restaurant’s basement office, a space that in the real world would be almost unbearably cramped, the way other productions’ set designs usually have it.

Net result: this “Fully Committed” runs more than two hours —no intermission— vs. a typical production’s 90 minutes. It’s still a delightful show earning Evans a big thumbs-up as a comedic performer. Plus it’s great that live theater has returned to downtown Healdsburg, which was bustling on opening night. The October 16 production will also be livestreamed.

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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

 

ProductionFully Committed
Production DatesThrough October 17th, 2021
Production AddressRaven Theater Healdsburg

115 North Street Healdsburg, CA 95448
Websitehttp://www.RavenPlayers.org
Telephone707-433-6335
Tickets$10-$25
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

An ASR Pick! The Laughs are On in “Noises Off” at Spreckels by Nicole Singley

If you’re in need of a good, hearty laugh (and who isn’t, these days?) Spreckels Theatre Company has you covered. Don’t miss their top-notch production of “Noises Off,” running now through October 24th on the big stage in Rohnert Park.

In Michael Frayn’s classic, door-slamming farce within a farce, a traveling theater company descends into utter chaos while attempting to stage a play called “Nothing On.” It’s a pants-dropping, riotous affair replete with perfectly timed entrances and exits, tangled phone cords, plates of sardines that vanish and reappear without explanation, and a seemingly endless series of mishaps and misunderstandings that fuel the frenzy. It becomes quickly apparent, however, that the chaos onstage can’t hold a candle to what’s unfolding among the actors behind the scenes.

This is the kind of show that requires impeccable comedic timing and painstaking coordination, and Spreckels doesn’t disappoint. Veteran director Sheri Lee Miller helms this tightly paced and carefully choreographed production with evident precision; her talented ensemble proves up to the challenge. Those familiar with “Noises Off” will be pleased to find this old favorite has been handled with care. Only the location has been changed, and though it’s a change that feels unnecessary, it in no way detracts from the overall effect.

“Noises Off” at work. Kevin Bordi, Eileen Morris, & Zane Walters.

MacKenzie Cahill is a hoot as ditzy Brooke, lovably oblivious and always losing her contacts, and Zane Walters shines as leading man Garry LeJeune, swinging axes and stumbling down stairs in his jealous rage. John Craven is delightful as Selsdon, the hard-of-hearing actor who’s a little too fond of the bottle and keeps missing his cues. And who couldn’t love Eileen Morris as Dotty Otley, even if she’ll never remember where she left those damned sardines? Kevin Bordi, Matthew Cadigan, Taylor Diffenderfer, Maureen O’Neill, and Brandon Wilson round out the bunch, and there isn’t a weak link among them.

…Those familiar with “Noises Off” will be pleased to find this old favorite has been handled with care…

The stagecraft is excellent, too, thanks to resident designer Eddy Hansen’s elaborate, two-story set piece that rotates to reveal the goings-on backstage. Scenic artist and prop master Elizabeth Bazzano has her hands full with this one. From interchangeable bags and boxes, bottles of booze and bouquets of flowers, and countless sardines, to questionably repurposed sheets and a very prickly cactus, Bazzano has covered all the bases.

“Noises Off” — full cast, set by Eddy Hansen

With three acts and two intermissions – the first of which was slated at 15 minutes but felt much shorter, and the second of which was billed at 5 but stretched on for closer to 15, it’s a long night out at the theater. But the third act is even funnier than the second, and you won’t be looking at your watch. Even the program will give you a chuckle – be sure to flip it over, where you’ll find a second program for “Nothing On,” complete with hilarious cast bios.

“Noises Off” is the perfect remedy for anyone in need of some lighthearted fun or a happy distraction, and this production is an absolute delight. Be sure to catch it while you can.

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Nicole Singley

Sr. Contributing Writer/Editor, AisleSeatReview.com

Member, American Theatre Critics Association

Member, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle

Member, Marquee Theater Journalists Association

ProductionNoises Off
Written byMichael Frayn
Directed bySheri Lee Miller
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough October 24th, 2021
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$12-$26
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!

 

 

An ASR Theater Review: “Galatea” – Brilliant, Heartwarming Sci-Fi at Spreckels – by Barry Willis

A mysterious survivor of a deep-space disaster is brought out of stasis more than nine decades later in the prolific David Templeton’s “Galatea,” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park through September 19.

Aboard a space station orbiting the earth, two researchers—Dr. Mailer and Dr. Hughes (Sindu Singh and Chris Schloemp, respectively)—delve into the origins of “71” (Abbey Lee) an apparently authentic member of the maintenance crew of the starship Galatea, which suffered an unexplained total destruction. Prior to the discovery of humanoid 71, and fellow crew member 29 (David L. Yen), shards of the wreckage were all that had been found, none of them substantial enough to support a working hypothesis of what might have happened.

Abbey Lee in Spreckels Theatre Company’s “Galatea.”

71’s uniform, stilted robotic speech, and lack of familiarity with basic human social interactions all support her contention that she had been a crew member aboard the Galatea. Psychotherapist Dr. Mailer hopes to reintegrate 71 into society, by coaching her through fundamentals such as greetings, conversations, gestures, and reactions to humor.

…Into the mix steps her colleague Dr. Hughes, a geeky, gregarious researcher with a bottomless collection of corny jokes…

An “EPS” (Energy Processing Synthetic) series humanoid, 71 undertakes the tutorials with a beguiling mix of robotic reluctance and enthusiasm. Versatile, uninhibited, and perfectly in control, Abbey Lee is amazing as the subject slowly transforming under Dr. Mailer’s gentle persistent guidance. Many of 71’s early attempts to mimic human behavior are both laugh-out-loud funny and almost tearfully poignant. The gambit of a humanoid attempting to become more human is clearly derived from the emotionless android character Data of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” in turn derived from the character of Pinocchio, the wooden marionette who wants to become a real boy, from the 19th-century Italian children’s story.

Sindu Singh, Abbey Lee & David L Yen at work.

Singh is outstanding as the psychotherapist Dr. Mailer—patient, methodical, and loving but pushy when necessary, with a few personal quirks (“Okey dokey, pokey”) that make her utterly charming. Into the mix steps her colleague Dr. Hughes, a geeky, gregarious researcher with a bottomless collection of corny jokes. As always, Chris Schloemp is relaxed, confident, and completely convincing as his character probes for more information about the Galatea. He consults with Dr. Mailer about 71’s progress, in the process sometimes interfering as much as he’s helping.

The denouement launches in the second act with the appearance of 29 (David L.Yen), another recently discovered Galatea veteran and revived EPS unit. Still visibly damaged and uncommunicative, 29 perks up, within his limits, at questioning about 71 and ultimately reveals all—or as much as he can remember and convey—about what went wrong with the ship and how he and 71 survived. Normally a dynamic actor, Yen here displays a previously unseen aspect of his astounding ability, portraying 29 as deeply as possible while retaining the character’s essential uni-dimensionality.

It would be hard to imagine a better cast for this lovely, heartwarming production, one that Templeton described after the opening performance as “turning the usual sci-fi trope on its head”—i.e, no marauding monsters (“Alien,” “Jurassic Park”), nefarious corporate overlords (“Blade Runner”) or armies of rebellious androids (“I, Robot”).

David L Yen and Abbey Lee in Galatea

Beautifully helmed by director Marty Pistone (assisted by Andy Templeton), the show itself emerged September 3 from 18 months of COVID-induced stasis, with Eddy Hansen and Elizabeth Bazzano’s elegant set still intact—you’ve never seen a lovelier Palladian window—since the postponement of “Galatea” in early 2020, a time that now seems long ago. Chris Schloemp’s gorgeous, sometimes ephemeral projections add just the right touch for what is to date the best production to appear in the North Bay as the theater world slowly emerges from the pandemic.

“Galatea” is a rarity—a brilliant script brilliantly executed. Potential ticket buyers couldn’t ask for more.

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

 

Production"Galatea"
Written byDavid Templeton
Directed byMarty Pistone, assisted by Andy Templeton
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough September 19. 2021
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$12-$26
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!

An ASR Theater Review — A Zoom with a View: Patty from HR Gives Corporate Training a Thumping – by Barry Willis

‘Patty from HR: Mo Patty Mo Problems,’ the sequel to writer/performer Michael Phillis’s “Patty from HR Would Like a Word” is coming to Oasis Jan. 30-Feb 1.

Corporate training sessions and their inevitable Power Point presentations are among the most dreaded rituals of modern life. Drag performer Michael Phillis must have endured dozens of them to come up with Patty from HR: A Zoom with a View, at Sebastopol’s Main Stage West through September 11.

Written, directed, and performed by Phillis, A Zoom with a View skewers the idiocy of technological culture—including, thank you very much, the irksome speech patterns of millennials. In a quick-moving one-act, Phillis’s self-deprecating Human Resources manager Patty covers everything from the early days of Netscape and dial-up modems to the present day of full-time social media as she stumbles through an inept introduction to Zoom video meetings, the bane and the salvation of many home-bound office workers during the Covid crisis.

It’s a lot to cover in only 70 frenetic minutes but Phillis does it with a delightful, goofy grace…

Her tattered Dress Barn business suit and frazzled 80s hairstyle serving as visual testament to decades spent toiling in the corporate trenches, Patty dances around the idea of Zoom, and Power Point too, and the longer she goes on, the clearer it becomes how little she actually knows about either. Imagine Dana Carvey’s “church lady” jacked up on caffeine, adrenaline, and perhaps just a tidbit of stage fright. Patty’s a corporate train wreck and you simply can’t look away.

When she stumbles (often) she gets plenty of coaching from an unseen tech assistant, whose annoyed comments act as punctuation for Patty’s non-stop blather, directed scattershot at herself, her audience, and her corporate overlords. It’s a lot to cover in only 70 frenetic minutes but Phillis does it with a delightful, goofy grace that earned plenty of laughs and sustained applause on opening night.

 

Main Stage West co-artistic director Keith Baker enjoys a cameo as “Kevin,” an underling who supplies her with props. Patty is never quite sure about names, a running gag throughout the show, and of course, a detriment for any human resource professional. That’s one of many repeated themes tightly woven into the fabric of this expertly conceived and executed production, its three-week run an injustice to its comedic brilliance.

A Zoom with a View runs Thursday-Friday-Saturday at 8 pm through September 11, with a 5 pm matinee Sunday September 5.

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

 

ProductionPatty from HR: A Zoom with a View
Written byMichael Phillis
Directed byMichael Phillis
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Sept 11th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20 – $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

An ASR Theater Review: “Road Trip!” Jump Starts ‘Broadway Under the Stars’ with Transcendence Theatre Co. — by Cari Lynn Pace

“Road Trip” working — photo by Ray Mabry

Want to take a cross-country road trip, without the car or the outrageous price of gas? Freedom to travel may still be restricted, but Transcendence Theatre Company’s (TTC) new show offers a fast-moving ride. As the sun sets over the vineyards and the band strikes up “This is My Country” a cast of ten extraordinarily talented singers, dancers, and several musicians fills the stage to spotlight cities and locations from California to New York, and lots in between.

“Road Trip!” performers are escapees from Broadway, off-Broadway, international stages, and national tours who accepted the invitation to share their talents with TTC in Sonoma. Their amazing voices and stage antics in over two dozen production numbers cleverly brought out the fun in our country’s diversity.

“Road Trip” making magic. — photo by Ray Mabry

Award-winning TTC is celebrating their tenth year of presenting “Broadway Under the Stars.” After a shut-out year due to Covid, this show explodes with energy. TTC limited the audience to 60% of capacity, but applause was 100%, echoing over the stone ruins of the Jack London State Historic Park.

“Travel may still be restricted, but Transcendence Theatre Company’s opening show delivers a fast-moving ride.”

The incoming crowd was welcomed by cast members, including TTC newcomer Billy Cohen. When asked what he would perform in the show, he admitted “I’m singing ‘Gaston’ (from “Beauty and the Beast”) even though I’m not quite his body type.” What Cohen modestly didn’t mention was his “Rocky Mountain High” guitar solo performed way atop the stone walls.

“Wow, it’s so great to see they’re back” gushed one patron, and the performers matched that enthusiasm. TTC newcomer Belinda Allyn, from New Jersey, said “We’re nervous and yet thrilled to be back on stage.”

TTC’s familiar cast member Meggie Cansler Ness added “I told my parents not to expect to see much of me when our rehearsals began. It’s so much work but it feels terrific to get going again.”

Veteran TTC star Colin Campbell McAdoo was also back, adding his hilarious stage presence and musical talent while driving onstage in a chair, complete with a California license plate.

“Performers are stars who escaped Broadway, off-Broadway, international stages, and national tours to accept TTC’s invitation to Sonoma.”

Circulating everywhere were TTC Executive Director Brad Surosky and Artistic Director Amy Miller. These founding members of the non-profit were beaming – behind their face masks – to see the joy and smiles of the audience on this beautiful evening. Kudos go to Musical Director Susan Draus as “Road Trip” was her concept, so brilliantly appropriate for our difficult times.

“Road Trip” singing — photo by Ray Mabry

“Road Trip!” is an evening of picnic and food truck festivities, beginning at 5 p.m. Folks bring food and snag a hay bale or table in the lawn area for pre-show entertainment. There’s plenty of wine and beer available for purchase, including premium varietals from sponsors Benziger and Viansa Wineries. At sunset, the audience is seated in the ancient winery grounds for the 7:30 show. Dress in layers as nights in Sonoma can get cool.

Tickets are $49 to $129 VIP. VIP tickets include two glasses of premium wine, a special socializing area, and priority seats. Performances are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings until August 29th at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. For more details, drive your fingers straight to www.TTCSonoma.org.

“Road Trip” in action — photo by Ray Mabry

You won’t go wrong! Come feel the breeze in your face while this superb outdoor showcase of song and dance takes you from coast to coast.

Extra Special Tip: If you’re heading up early to “Road Trip!” you may enjoy a pit stop at Eric Ross Winery for a dose of Americana, classy wines, and striking photographs. It’s on the left at 14300 Arnold Drive.

Production"Road Trip"
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed & Choreographed byJessica Lee Coffman
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThrough August 29th, 2021
Production AddressJack London State Historic Park, 2400 London Ranch Rd. Glen Ellen, CA 95442
Websitebestnightever.org
or
ttcsonoma.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$49-$129
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
ScriptN/A
StagecraftN/A
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

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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.

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: The Inimitable Jaime Love of Sonoma Arts Live

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.

***

Jaime Love

Jaime Love is Executive Artistic Director of Sonoma Arts Live (SAL), based in the town of Sonoma. SAL performs primarily on the Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall at the Sonoma Community Center. Love has been involved in theater and radio for over 35 years as an actor, producer, singer, director, writer and voice-over artist in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco. She is a founding member of the Sonoma Theater Alliance and Sonoma Arts Live, and for six years was Co-Artistic Director and Producer of the Nicholson Ranch Players’ musical revues and Christmas shows at Nicholson Winery.

A graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, Love left the big city and worked in summer theatre in Montana (“Damn Yankees”), did post-production film work in L.A., and then fell in love with voice-over work and headed east again to attend Connecticut School of Broadcasting. She then went on to Boston, where she worked as the Arts & Entertainment Director and Promotions Director at WMJX and WMEX, focused on producing voice-overs for “Today’s Executive Women” and “That’s Entertainment.” Radio brought Jaime and her husband Rick back to the west, this time to San Francisco and ultimately to Sonoma, where he owns Creative Audience Research. Jaime and Rick have lived in Sonoma for twenty years.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

JL: The minute I saw my first movie, “Mary Poppins.” I’ll never forget the theater, or Julie Andrews’ face filling up the screen. It was like a magic wand tapped me on my head and said “You’ve found your people.” I was the classic put-on-a-show-in-the-backyard kind of kid.

Regarding theater here in Sonoma, I had spent two years in San Francisco from 1993-95 and had loved the thriving scene there. I did a play with Jean Shelton at the Marsh, did an original play at this tiny awesome theater in North Beach called Bannam Place Theater. When we moved to Sonoma for Rick’s job there was just nada happening. Then I wandered into the Sonoma Community Center and discovered a wonderful woman who was starting Theater at the Center. From 1995-2001 we had a thriving community theater. In 2001 under a new administration they decided to use the theater as a rental, and that’s where it stood until 2010 when Todd Evans and I approached the Community Center about renting to us.

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

JL: My first real role was freshman year in high school: “This Property Is Condemned.” First time I was paid was at Park Royale Night Club in New York. I sang a half hour set and was given a tiny stipend and a cut of the door, so of course I asked all my fellow American Academy of Dramatic Arts pals to come! I remember my “hits” were “Because the Night,” and “Your Nobody Called Today,” a popular country-western thing. First show I directed was a music revue I co-wrote called “Wine, Women and Song – Love Unleashed” at Nicholson Ranch winery. I went on to write and produce shows there for about five years.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

JL: 2015. Before then we were a theater cooperative, Sonoma Theater Alliance, for five years.

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

JL: I’m really thrilled and encouraged by the response from the community and the critics. Once we honed in on our demographic and what they wanted, things really came together, and I feel we have found our sweet spot. We have a mature well-educated audience and I try to envision them, what they’ve been through in their lives, and choose plays that speak to them nostalgically or emotionally. I am in their age group and I rely a lot on thinking about my generation’s collective experience and how a play may or may not fit in.

I’m not ashamed to say that our company feels no shame in producing feel-good theater. There is a place for everything, and I love edgy theater and new works but that’s just not us—not to say we do “fluff”—maybe “tried and true” is a better way of looking at it. Sonoma is so small that I truly do know most of our 250 season ticket subscribers and we talk constantly about what brings them through our doors. We do a few new works as staged readings each year, and I’ve been proud and pleased with the response from our patrons.

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

JL: I’ve got at least three different scenarios ready to go. It’s been so sad to have to move shows like chess pieces, strategizing and trying to stay one step ahead without having a crystal ball. We were set with a full season ready to announce April 11 with a now cancelled reception. And as so many of us in the North Bay share the same talent pool it will create even more stress. You can’t just move a show three months ahead and not run into conflicts. My hope is to take the three remaining shows in our season and add them to the new one.

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

JL: My guess is it will come back slowly. I’ve been rethinking the big cast/big shows for the short term. If audiences are not allowed to gather in large groups—necessary for us to be financially stable—I’ll need to produce shows that will at least cover expenses for actors, crews and rent. And we are going to have to deal with the very real fear of “gathering” and what that will mean for our actors and our audience. If I think about it too much I go down the rabbit hole.

I’m not ashamed to say that our company feels no shame in producing feel-good theater.

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

JL: “My Fair Lady,” “Always, Patsy Cline,” and “Becky’s New Car.”

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

JL: Definitely props and set decoration. I’ve been a thrift shop and antique hunter since I was about eight years old! A week does not go by when I do not pop into all the great thrift stores in Sonoma. I’m an “Antiques Road Show” junkie! When I was little I would go “antiquing” with my mom and her best friend. I learned so much from them.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

JL: Well, Dani Innocenti-Beem of course! She has that star power. You can feel the energy when she walks on stage. She truly helped put Sonoma Arts Live on the map. Also Chris Ginesi. I’ve known him since he was about twelve—we did “Our Town” together. He’s truly exciting to watch on the stage. It’s been wonderful to watch him develop his craft over the years.

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

JL: I was playing Rita Boyle in “Prelude to a Kiss” in upstate New York. Cell phones had only just come out—this was before it was added to curtain speeches to turn them off—I’m in the middle of this intimate scene, and not wearing much, and this guy’s phone goes off. He answers as if he’s at home in this very normal voice: “I can’t talk now. I’m watching a play.” Then a few seconds of silence. “Yeah, it’s OK…” meaning “Yeah, the play’s OK.” It was very hard to stay in character after that!

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

JL: I am so blessed and lucky and honored to say for the first time in my life, theater is my paying full time job. We have an amazing Board and a fundraising team

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

JL: Writing, being with my kids, exercising, enjoying new restaurants and hiking with my amazing husband. After 31 years together, I still really like him—and I am writing this after three weeks of seeing basically only him!)

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

JL: For about ten years I wrote wrote wrote, and had a few things published.

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

JL: “Whine Country”—I was a wine country tour guide for six years, creating private trips: lots of bridesmaids, rich rich people, anniversaries. The company I worked for had a division of drivers who picked up people at different hotels for group tours … I have always wanted to do a series based on the TV show “Taxi,” where each episode starts with all of us at the station, picking up our vehicles, and then each individual episode would follow a different charter driver and guests. There are so many stories I could tell!

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

JL: “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from “Oklahoma,” “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves, and “When You See a Chance,” by Steve Winwood.

My first musical was Oklahoma in ninth grade and I had a huge crush on the guy who played Curly and I can still get butterflies in my stomach picturing him walking out on our stage singing the first few notes.

“Walking on Sunshine”—I lived in Helena, Montana for a few years after NYC, and I had this fun little moped that I would ride to the Grand Street Theater, listening to my Sony Walkman and playing that song full blast riding up and down hills!!

“When You See a Chance”—I first heard it by going through my roomie’s records and throwing it on the turntable. When that song came on it just leapt out at me, I never forgot that moment when lyrics grabbed me like that. It was my grab-a-hairbrush-as-a-microphone-and-stand-on-the-bed song!

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?

JL: Absolutely not.

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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! An Extended Run for “Daddy Long Legs” — by Cari Lynn Pace

Director Michael Ross persuaded Sonoma Arts Live to shoehorn this charming musical in between their regular season productions. Lucky for them that he did. This show at the Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center, scheduled to run until March 8, 2020, has just been extended to March 15, with a few Thursday night performances added as well. There must be a reason!

“Daddy Long Legs” is the story of Jerusha Abbott (enacted by the lovely songbird Madison Genovese), a young orphan woman given an extraordinary gift of college tuition by an anonymous benefactor, Jervis Pendleton. She glimpses the tall donor (a solid role by Mischa Stephens) from a distance as he departs, casting a long shadow she tags to give the show’s name.

Photos courtesy of Sonoma Arts Live

Her only duty to this silent sponsor is to write a monthly letter chronicling her progress. It’s a one-way communication, lending Jerusha to provide both the required information and a healthy dose of imagination and curiosity in her letters.

Count on the plot lines of … Cinderella love stories for (a) satisfying ending…

As the years pass, “Daddy Long Legs” becomes more enthralled with Jerusha’s engaging letters. He concocts a plan to drop into her life to see for himself the shy young lady who spins such enthralling stories. Although he keeps his true identify hidden from Jerusha, Daddy Long Legs is inadvertently captured in her web of words.

Photos courtesy of Sonoma Arts Live

The plot is engaging and the voices seamlessly matched between Genovese and Stephens. The split-level stage designed by Koitney Carson cleverly does double duty as the benefactor’s study and the hand-me-down feel of the orphanage and college dorm.

When a potential suitor emerges in Jerusha’s life, Mr. Pendleton finds himself struggling whether to reveal his identity and his attraction to her. Count on the plot lines of countless Cinderella love stories for an expected and satisfying ending to “Daddy Long Legs.”

The three-piece band of piano, cello, and guitar is located in front of the stage, on the seating level with the audience. The music’s volume made it very difficult to hear the lyrics or fully enjoy the beautifully matched voices of Genovese and Stephens.

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

 

ProductionDaddy Long Legs
Written byMusic and Lyrics by Paul Gordon

Book by John Caird
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThursdays thru Sundays until March 15th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone(866) 710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An Aisle Seat Review Pick! “Urinetown, the Musical” a Cautionary Diversion at Spreckels — by Barry Willis

Paying to pee is a way of life for the poor and downtrodden in the fictional neighborhood of Urinetown. Managed with mendacity by water-and-waste management firm Urine Good Company, “amenities” dot the urban landscape, with admission fees so high that residents scramble all day to get enough money to relieve themselves—a high-pressure situation that foments rebellion if not resolution.

At Spreckels Performing Arts Center through March 1, “Urinetown, the Musical” celebrates many of the conceits of traditional musical theater while skewering others. The familiar plot elements—oppressive overlords, rebellious poor, star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the conflict, a desperate kidnapping—have all been exploited by playwrights for centuries.

What makes this darkly-themed show unusual is its coupling of these reliable plot elements with upbeat Broadway song-and-dance productions, and its self-conscious stance as a piece of “metatheater” that announces itself and its intentions directly to the audience through UGC’s chief enforcer Officer Lockstock (David L. Yen), whose main connection to the Urinetown residents is through the likable character of Little Sally (Denise Elia-Yen).

“Urinetown, the Musical” is tremendous production…

Theater fans of long experience will note similarities in theme, plot, characters and music with many other productions. “Urinetown” is in solid traditional territory there.

Tim Setzer shines as UGC’s evil chief executive Caldwell B. Cladwell, the “toilet tycoon,” as described by ASR critic Nicole Singley. His toady-laden office includes Senator Fipp (Michael Arbitter), a legislator doing his patriotic best to win congressional approval for a system-wide increase in toilet admission fees. Recently graduated from the world’s most expensive university, Cladwell’s beautiful daughter Hope (Julianne Thompson Bretan) is about to join her father’s management team but is taken hostage by restroom-deprived rebels. In the process, she develops sympathy for their cause—mirroring the real-world fate of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst in a 1974 kidnapping staged by would-be revolutionaries—and falls in love with their charismatic leader Bobby Strong (Joshua Bailey).

“Urinetown” cast shows class dance moves

The stark set by Eddy Hansen and Eliabeth Bazzano is the perfect venue for this musical misadventure, enhanced by projections from Chris Schloemp.

Lucas Sherman’s small orchestra is dazzling. Performances range from good to superb, with especially good efforts by Bailey and Bretan, Yen, Setzer, and Karen Pinomaki as Josephine Strong, Bobby’s devoted mother. ScharyPearl Fugitt is a standout as Urinetown rebel Soupy Sue, and as Cladwell’s secretary. Her dancing is especially enjoyable. A large and exemplary cast fills out the remaining roles.

“Urinetown” has an impressive cast!

“Urinetown, the Musical” is tremendous production—not perfect, but huge fun with a depressing message at its core: sugar-coated theatrical medicine. Yes, resources are shrinking and the population is growing. It’s not a pleasant prospect, but we can all delight in the irony as we head for the abyss.

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.

 

ProductionUrinetown, the Musical
Written byMark Holman and Greg Kotis
Directed byJay Manley
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough March 1st
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$12-$36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

 

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! Cinnabar’s “Ripcord” is an Uproarious Good Time — by Barry Willis

Two widows battle for control of a room in a residential retirement center in “Ripcord” at Cinnabar Theater through February 16.

Laura Jorgensen and Kate Brickley star as combative roommates Abby and Marilyn, respectively, in David Lindsay-Abaire’s elegantly conceived comedy. Author of “Good People,” “Rabbit Hole,” and many other excellent plays, Lindsay-Abaire is at the top of his game in this “Odd Couple”-inspired story of a cranky loner (Abby) and her attempt to drive out her ceaselessly upbeat roomie.

With momentum like a speeding truck, the script’s inherently compelling pacing is made more so under the brilliant direction of James Pelican, who gets his talented six-member cast to hit every beat at precisely the right moment. It’s one hilarious ride, with moments of melancholy as texture and spice.

…what may prove to be one of the most uproarious comedies this season!

Jorgensen and Brickley are perfectly cast, supported by Kyle Stoner as Scotty, the long-suffering orderly who brings them their meals and medications and tries his best to keep the two from each other’s throats. Sarah McKeregan and Chad Yarish are superb—and superbly funny—as Marilyn’s daughter Colleen and son-in-law Derek, among other roles, while the versatile John Browning appears as each woman’s adult son, a bit of casting that may induce confusion in some viewers. Even so, the cast of “Ripcord” is among the most evenly-balanced to appear onstage so far this year.

Laura Jorgensen and Kate Brickley – Photo courtesy of Eric Chazankin.

Scenic designer Joseph Elwick’s quick-change sets help propel the story, which includes a sky-diving adventure—hence, the title—that’s part of Abby and Marilyn’s continually-escalating series of challenges to each other. Will they go down fighting or learn to live not-so-happily ever after? Closing weekend will reveal all to those quick enough and lucky enough to score tickets for what may prove to be one of the most uproarious comedies this season.

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

 

ProductionRipcord
Written byDavid Lindsay-Abaire
Directed byJames Pelican
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Feb. 16th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$20 – $32
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 Review Theater PICK! “Sound of Music” Climbs Every Mountain (almost) at SSU by Barry Willis

One of the most beloved musicals of all time is enjoying a sumptuous revival at Sonoma State University’s capacious Evert B. Person Theatre through December 8.

With its own theater facilities still under renovation, the Santa Rosa Junior College Theater Arts department has teamed up with its counterpart at Sonoma State University to put on a hugely ambitious and mostly successful production of “The Sound of Music,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic about the Austrian von Trapp family and their escape from Nazi oppression shortly after the Germans annexed their country. It’s also, of course, the story of Maria Rainer (Arianna LaMark), the perpetually upbeat would-be nun who becomes governess to the seven von Trapp children, and ultimately, the wife of their widowed father, Captain von Trapp (Michael Coury Murdock).

… …a wonderfully engaging performance… …

The show is rampant with tunes that won instant popularity and continue to be favorites today: “The Sound of Music,” “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “How Can Love Survive?,” and “Climb Every Mountain,” all of them performed brilliantly by a huge cast on a huge stage, backed by a superb ten-piece orchestra led by music director Janis Dunsun Wilson. Everything about this show is enormous, from the steeply-raked large-capacity Person Theatre to the fantastically oversized stage set and towering backdrop on which is projected an image of the Matterhorn as it looks at various times of day and night—set and projection design by Peter Crompton.

Director Laura Downing-Lee has coaxed a wonderfully engaging performance from her cast of nearly three dozen performers, all of whom deliver without a bobble. Vocal performances are tremendous—LaMark and Murdock excel here—and the acting is almost as good, with the best performances given by Heather Buck as Elsa Schrader and Crystal McDougall as Mother Abbess. LaMark wins hearts with “The Sound of Music,” “My Favorite Things,” and several other songs, while Murdock prompts tears with his treatment of “Edelweiss” in the penultimate scene. Madigan Love is excellent as Liesl, the oldest of the von Trapp brood, although her handling of the guitar makes it appear as if she’s just discovered the instrument.

There are a couple of unfortunate glitches that detract from the pervasive magic, especially the fact that the backdrop isn’t stretched tight enough to avoid billowing. When it does, the Matterhorn appears to be breathing. A bit of a letdown comes at the end, when the von Trapps decide to strike out on foot through the mountains to Switzerland. Downing-Lee wisely has them tackle the steep stairs out of the theater—in the dark, as must have happened in real life—but a bit of subdued lighting on them as they climb would heighten the drama. The same is true when they reach the top and look back at their home. Instead of simply standing there in the dark then leaving through an “Exit” door, they might linger for a moment behind a bit of set indicating that they’ve reached Switzerland and freedom.

But those are small suggestions intended only to take this already tremendous production one notch higher. Even without them, it’s guaranteed to please. “The Sound of Music” is among the greatest feel-good shows of all time; SRJC’s affordable tickets make this version an absolute bargain.

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.

 

ProductionThe Sound of Music
Written byBook by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse

Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed byLaura Downing-Lee
Producing CompanySanta Rosa Junior College Theatre Arts Deptment in conjunction with Sonoma State University
Production DatesThrough December 8th
Production AddressEvert B. Person Theater at Sonoma State University

1801 E. Cotati Ave.

Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitetheatrearts.santarosa.edu
Telephone707-527-4307
Tickets$15-$25
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

An ASR Theatre Review: “The Seafarer” a Rough Voyage at Main Stage West by Barry Willis

The stereotypical Irish affinity for alcohol, self-delusion, and self-defeat gets fully exercised in Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer,” at Main Stage West through December 21.

It’s Christmas eve, 2007, in a shabby residence (set design by director David Lear) in a small coastal town north of Dublin. Four buddies have gathered for a night of blarney, heavy drinking, and card games, with a fifth guest named Mr. Lockhart (Keith Baker) who may or may not be the devil incarnate. The four friends—Nicky, Richard, Ivan, and Sharky (Anthony Abate, John Craven, Kevin Bordi, and Edward McCloud, respectively)—spend the entire first act getting hammered and regaling each other with long-winded and elaborate tales about very little. It’s a long setup.

…a stunning ensemble effort by five extremely talented actors.

In the second act, they get down to business with a poker game in which they bluff not only about the cards they hold but about their generally miserable existences—bluffing exacerbated by their sharing a treasured bottle of high-octane liquor, as the financial and psychological stakes rise.

The stakes reach a fever pitch during a lull in the game—with the other three out of the room, Mr. Lockhart torments Sharky with a hideously frightening description of eternal damnation. Then they reunite around the table for a few final rounds of cards, in which their true characters are revealed to be as empty as their pockets. None of them are likable—Nicky, for example, admits that he has only thirty-five euros to last until January, and that he ought to be at home with his wife and kids, but he can’t resist gambling more than he has on one last desperate hand. Ivan likewise wrestles with how he’s going to explain his absence from home. Richard, Sharky’s brother and literally a blind drunk, takes great delight in tormenting his friends, as he has throughout the evening.

Altogether, it’s an unpleasant story about unlikeable losers, not one that would normally earn a recommendation, but it’s a stunning ensemble effort by five extremely talented actors. All are 100% committed to their characters and 100% committed to telling McPherson’s tale as well as it can be told. In that sense, “The Seafarer” is an exemplary production—a master class for aspiring actors, but not the sort of production that ordinary theatergoers will gush about to friends. If you’re seeking something to brighten your day or a tune to whistle on the way home, this isn’t it.

Is it possible to beat the devil at his own game? Is it possible to beat the devil that resides in every man’s heart? McPherson, a reformed alcoholic himself, implies that it is, perhaps even accidentally. Brave theatergoers with a tolerance for the dark side of humanity may wish to find out for themselves.

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.

 

ProductionSeafarer
Written byConor McPherson
Directed byDavid Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Dec. 21st
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$0 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

 

An Aisle Seat Review Theater Review: Big Sprawling “Oliver!” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

Sold to the Undertaker – photo by Eric Chazankin

London in Charles Dickens’s time must have been close to hell on earth, choked with pollution, poverty, homelessness, and crime. “Oliver Twist,” the author’s second novel, depicts all this quite vividly. So does “Oliver!” the 1960 musical adaptation by Lionel Bart, at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse through December 15.

The show’s requirement of many children in the cast prompts theater companies to present it in the hope of generating substantial ticket sales—all those kids have parents, relatives, and friends who must attend. But despite its huge popularity, it’s not a feel-good extravaganza like “Annie.” It’s a grim portrait of a poor orphan boy (Cecilia Brenner and Gus Jordan, in alternating performances) doing his best to survive in unbelievably adverse circumstance.

This includes falling in with a group of scuzzy adolescent hoodlums led by an old hustler named Fagin (David Yen), who fences their stolen goods in exchange for providing them a bit of safety and mentorship, aided by his youthful apprentice The Artful Dodger (Mario Herrera). These small-time criminals are in turn under the thumb of a really serious criminal named Bill Sykes (the imposing Zachary Hasbany), a malevolent force who doesn’t hesitate to kill people who displease him or get in his way.

…the performers are exuberantly entertaining across the whole range of acting, singing, and dancing…

Survival is the primary plot, but there are some compelling secondary plots too, including love affairs among the adults—especially between the doomed, pathetically mistreated Nancy (Brittany Law) and the dastardly Sikes. There’s also a meandering subplot about the hunt for Oliver’s family of origin that’s resolved near the end, as is Fagin’s reconsideration of his disreputable career.

Cecilia Brenner as Oliver-Mario Herrera as Dodger-photo by Eric Chazankin

6th Street’s show has a huge cast—it’s in many ways an all-star gathering of North Bay theatrical talent, who make substantial contributions to its success under director Patrick Nims. The set by Sam Transleau is equally huge, occupying the entirety of the big stage in the G.K. Hardt theater, save the space backstage where Ginger Beavers leads an excellent seven-piece band.

There’s some inexplicable gender-bending in the adult casting, but most of the performers are exuberantly entertaining across the whole range of acting, singing, and dancing (choreography by Joseph Favalora).

Oliver’s personal triumph is uplifting, and Fagin’s repentance satisfying, but the real appeal of the show—and perhaps, the reason for its enduring popularity—is the number of great songs in it. Many of them broke out as pop and jazz standards—especially Nancy’s heartbreaking showcase number, “As Long As He Needs Me.” The music alone recommends this show, while the rest of it works with admirable effort in every direction to sustain that level.

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

 

ProductionOliver!
Written byLionel Bart
Directed byPatrick Nims
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough December 15th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$22 – $38
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

 

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK!: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” — Cari Lynn Pace Reviews a Musical That Gets Away with Murder!

Michael Ross directs this hilarious and campy musical at Spreckels Performing Arts Center’s Codding Theatre. The plot is immediately intriguing: impoverished Monty (well-cast in Andrew Smith) discovers he has an aristocratic birthright, making him ninth in line to inherit both title and fortune.

How did that happen? Turns out Monty’s noble-born mum had been rudely disinherited, and kept mum about it. His lady-friend Sibella (Madison Genovese) ignores poor Monty as she prefers a more financially secure suitor. Can Monty move up the inheritance list quickly enough to win her hand? Can he bump eight dismissive and nasty relatives off the queue?

“A Gentleman’s Guide” is morbidly delightful fun that’ll just kill you with laughter…

And what relatives they are! Tim Setzer, a talented veteran actor, clearly has a ball playing every one of the noble-born inheritors…including a female. It’s worth the price of admission just to watch him change personalities and voices as he doffs another costume.

 

“A Gentleman’s Guide” won four Tonys when it hit Broadway in 2014, including Best Musical. Gilbert and Sullivan might have been proud of the operetta-style music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak (with additional book and lyrics by Robert L. Freeman.) Several songs have a patter-singing character to cleverly move the plot along.

Act II has a particularly engaging number “I’ve Decided to Marry You.” While Monty hides his lover Sabella behind one door, his marriage-manic cousin Phoebe (lovely soprano Maeve Smith) embraces him behind the other. The trio has the comic chops and strong vocals which brought a cheer from the audience.

In further homage to G&S, “A Gentleman’s Guide” has several surprises and an amusing twist at the end. The musical is appropriate for all ages, despite the rather macabre story line. No blood, thank you, except for the blue kind.

The set is a stage on the stage, opulently designed by Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen. Codding Theatre takes it a step further, maximizing their rear-projection screen to depict scene changes. Ice skaters cruise back and forth. Bees swarm. Tourists take tours of the mansion. Underneath it all is the 12-piece orchestra conducted by Jim Coleman.

“A Gentleman’s Guide” is morbidly delightful fun that’ll just kill you with laughter.

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

 

ProductionUrinetown, the Musical
Written byMark Holman and Greg Kotis
Directed byJay Manley
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough March 1st
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$12-$36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Merman’s Apprentice” Delights at Sonoma Arts Live – by Barry Willis

Sutherland and Innocenti-Beem light up the stage in “Merman’s Apprentice” (Photo Credit: Miller Oberlin)

A young girl with stars in her eyes goes on the trip of a lifetime, and takes the audience with her, in “Merman’s Apprentice,” at Sonoma Arts Live through October 13.

It’s New York, 1970. Broadway legend Ethel Merman (Daniela Innocenti-Beem) is enjoying the zenith of her long career when into her life comes Muriel Plakenstein (Emma Sutherland), a 12-year-old runaway whose big dream is to be a Broadway star like Merman, her idol. Muriel happens to know everything about Ethel Merman, including every song she ever sang and obscure details of shows that ran decades earlier. An obsessive who will find fulfillment only in absorbing everything-Mermanesque, Muriel gets her wish, and in doing so fills a huge gap in Merman’s life. 

The cast of Merman’s Apprentice (Photo Credit: Miller Oberlin)

The adult woman and the runaway form an almost-instant bond, reinforced early in the first act by the joyfully infectious song “Chums,” one that sets the emotional tone for the entire production. Innocenti-Beem is amazing as mentor/fairy godmother to a goofy talented girl with single-minded devotion toward becoming the next Ethel, as is 17-year-old Sutherland in conveying the innocence, enthusiasm, and vulnerability of adolescence. Playing younger is difficult for all performers, and Sutherland does it perfectly. As the story progresses, Muriel meets legendary musical theater impresario David Merrick (Patrick Barr), enjoys performances at the St. James Theatre, and dinners-and-drinkfests at Sardi’s. She also becomes Merman’s permanent house guest. Stars in her eyes, indeed.

Part fable, part fairy tale, and all heart, . . . a show that will delight theater fans of all varieties and ages.”

Playwright and lyricist Stephen Cole was a close friend of the real Ethel Merman in her later years and captures her signature snappy repartee perfectly. Innocenti-Beem, a huge-voiced stalwart of North Bay musical theater, has often been compared to Merman, including her penchant for improvisational off-color humor. When Cole met Innocenti-Beem for the weeks-long refinement process that rendered this show, he declared her “more Ethel than Ethel was,” echoing what local critics have been saying for years. She soars in “Listen to the Trumpet Call” late in the first act. One of Innocenti-Beem’s “Apprentice” costumes is the spectacular red dress she wore in a recent production of “Hello, Dolly,” a Merman signature role. 

Cole’s musical collaborator David Evans has cooked up a couple dozen tunes that evoke the glory days of big brash Broadway musicals. “Apprentice” is set in 1970 but it references an earlier, more innocent age—there’s no hint of the Vietnam War or the growing protest movement, nor of the era’s incendiary black radicalism. It’s as if 1955 were forever trapped in amber, but the music is tremendous, delivered by an ace seven-piece band under the direction of Sherrill Peterson. The songs all clearly reference blockbuster show tunes from the 1930s into the ‘60s. The finale seems to quote “Comedy Tonight,” the lead song from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” 

Holsworth and O’Brien as Mom and Pop (Photo Credit: Miller Oberlin)

Directors Larry Williams and Jaime Weisen Love have done something magical in bringing a production of this scale to the Rotary Stage. The large ensemble does an admirable job with Lissa Ferreira’s choreography on an impressive set by Gary Gonser, now recovering from a recent medical emergency. (Get healthy, Gary!) Sean O’Brien and Julia Holsworth are outstanding among the ensemble in their roles of Pop and Mom, respectively. Holsworth’s flat-footed shuffle is especially funny. The only real quibble with this world premiere is that the first act may be a bit overlong and the second act too short. It’s as if the second act needs one more song to balance the production. Cole and Evans can certainly supply this before the show goes to Broadway, as seems inevitable.

“Merman’s Apprentice” is a huge unabashed exercise in nostalgia. Part fable, part fairy tale, and all heart, it’s a show that will delight theater fans of all varieties and ages. The show and its stars are destined for much broader horizons, so catch it while you can.

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.

 

 

ProductionMerman's Apprentice
Written byBook and Lyrics by Stephen Cole; Music by David Evans
Directed byJaime Weiser Love and Larry Williams
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThrough October 13th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone(866) 710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An AISLE SEAT REVIEW! “Gypsy” a mixed bag at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

In “Gypsy,” the ultimate stage mother from hell comes roaring to life four times per week through October 20 at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse.

Broadway veteran Kathy Fitzgerald stars as Mama Rose, a thrice-divorced mother with two daughters, struggling to make a go of it on the waning Vaudeville circuit. With a gaggle of boy dancers, they manage to survive with an incredibly hokey act—so hokey, in fact, that it’s hard to believe that people actually paid good money to see it.

Carmen Mitchell works as Gypsy Rose Lee.

Rose is both the embodiment of never-say-die positive thinking and parental oppression, browbeating daughters June (Melody Payne) and Louise (Carmen Mitchell, excellent) into submission and forcing them to perform beyond their capacity — a syndrome that ultimately leads to June running off to find her own life with her new husband. Theater agent Herbie (Roger Michelson) tries desperately to become Mama Rose’s final husband, to no avail.

Near the end of the Vaudeville period, an inevitability denied to the last by her mother, Louise transforms from caterpillar to butterfly—and ultimately, into pop culture superstar Gypsy Rose Lee—after a life-changing experience with strippers in a Kansas City burlesque house. Her emergence into stardom is the bright light at the end of the story’s dark tunnel, one camouflaged by some of the most upbeat music ever composed.

There are … substantial talents in this show…

A collaboration by theater legends Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, this more-or-less true story of perseverance and survival could make the most curmudgeonly cynic leave the theater whistling a happy tune. The show is jam-packed with gems from the American songbook, among them “Small World,” “Some People,” “Mr. Goldstone,” “Together, Wherever We Go,” “Let Me Entertain You,” and of course the deathless “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

On leave from a production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Fitzgerald is a big draw—opening weekend was nearly sold-out. She’s an impassioned actor and a good singer with an odd habit of getting into a Sumo wrestler’s half-squat stance to launch big efforts. There are other substantial talents in this show as well, in particular the trio who appear as strippers—Elaine Jennings, Lillian Myers, and Tracy Hinman, all of whom tackle multiple roles. Zach Frangos is confident and appealing as Tulsa, and his dancing is superb. The early scenes feature a gaggle of cute kids, always a reliable strategy for selling tickets.

Gypsy cast at work in finale at 6th Street.

Opening weekend, the band under Paul Smith’s direction hit a dismaying number of sour notes, something that can only be interpreted as intentional in keeping with the low-rent venues where Mama Rose & Company are performing. A tall fellow, Smith tends to stand as he leads the band, and his bobbing head is a real distraction from the upper seats. Joseph Favolora’s choreography is compelling, and Pamela Johnson’s costumes are stunning. There doesn’t appear to have been much left in the production budget for sets, and Jason Jamerson did his best with what he had, resulting in the bare basics. This was the same issue that undermined 6th Street’s production of “La Cage aux Folles.”

This “Gypsy” is certainly enjoyable—how can anyone not love the music?—but, neither over-the-top nor over-the-moon, it’s far from a sumptuous production of this classic.

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.

 

 

ProductionGypsy
Written byArthur Laurents, Jule Styne, and Stephen Sondheim
Directed byJared Sakren
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough Oct 20th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$35 – $46
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! Big Silly Fun in Cinnabar’s “Little Shop of Horrors” – by Barry Willis

Photo by Vero Kherian.

Roger Corman’s 1960 low-budget comedy/horror flick “The Little Shop of Horrors” is a classic of the genre. In the ‘60s and ‘70s it was a staple of late-night TV, inspiring an adaptation as a stage musical by Howard Ashman, with music by Alan Menken.

It’s been in continual production somewhere since it debuted in 1982, for good reasons. The story is cheesy, the characters are as broadly drawn as possible, and the music is absolutely infectious—think “Rocky Horror Show” meets “Grease.” Cinnabar’s current production of “Little Shop” is a tremendously high-energy treatment of this All-American classic, directed by Nathan Cummings and choreographed by Bridget Codoni, running through September 22.

The little shop is Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists, a failing retail business in a decrepit part of the city. Proprietor Mr. Mushnik (played with palpable fatigue and despair by Michael Van Why) prays for a miracle to keep his doors open. His hoped-for miracle appears when needed most— in the form of a carnivorous plant developed by Mushnik’s nerdy assistant Seymour Krelborn (Equity actor Michael McGurk).

Since its intro in 1982, American audiences can’t get enough schlocky story telling entertainment…

The presence of the plant in the shop generates astounding public interest for reasons that no one questions. Seymour names the plant “Audrey II” in honor of his co-worker Audrey (Sidney Raey-Gonzales), a sweetly reticent girl in an abusive relationship with a sadistic dentist, Dr. Orin Scrivello (Keith Baker, superb in multiple roles).

 

Seymour discovers by accident that the plant thrives on human flesh and blood — and that it speaks, demanding to be fed. Each feeding causes huge spurts in the plant’s aggressiveness and size—it goes from a “strange and interesting” thing in a small pot in the shop’s window to an enormous all-consuming monster that can devour a human in one gulp.

Mushnik’s business enjoys phenomenal growth in direct proportion to the plant’s, from selling a handful of posies each day to supplying all the flowers for the Rose Bowl Parade. Seymour undergoes a similar transition, from perpetually unnoticed back-room nobody to pop star, winning Audrey in the process. Her botanical namesake has solved multiple problems, but as in all monster lore — indeed, as in much of human life — the law of unintended consequences kicks in. Audrey II (voiced by Michelle Pagano, puppetry by Zane Walters — both excellent) becomes a massive problem. Solving it becomes Seymour’s new challenge.

Micheal McGurk as Seymour. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

The show’s patently ridiculous dramatic arc is further exaggerated by plenty of upbeat pop music, beautifully sung by Raey-Gonzales, McGurk, Baker, and the “doo-wop girls”: Ronette, Crystal and Chiffon (Selena Elize Flores, Aja Gianola-Norris, and Olivia Newbold, respectively). The trio’s harmonies are marvelous; the three are equally entertaining whether dolled up as an early ’60s girl group or in grunge mode as street urchins, and they nail the choreography. “Somewhere That’s Green,” a sweet invocation of idealized 1950s’ suburban living, is delivered with shimmering conviction by Raey-Gonzales. It’s the emotional high point of the first act.

The Doo-Wop Girls and Dr Scrivello. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Baker clearly relishes going over the top as the hyper-caffeinated, charming-but-evil Dr. Scrivello. The ultra-kinetic McGurk is absolutely in his element as Seymour. Raey-Gonzales is commanding as Audrey, with a Brooklyn accent that never falters, even when she’s singing.

Peter Q. Parish has conjured a facile set serving as florist shop and city street, needing only a few brief changes from scene to scene. Their brevity helps propel this quick-moving musical—less than two hours including a fifteen-minute intermission. Hilarious and enthralling from beginning to end, this “Little Shop of Horrors” is an entertainment bargain certain to sell out fast. It’s simply big silly fun, fabulously well done.

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.

 

 

ProductionLittle Shop of Horrors
Written byWritten by Howard Ashman, from the screenplay by Charles Griffith
Directed byDirected by Nathan Cummings.

Assisted by Cecelia Hamilton.
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Sept. 22nd
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$30 – $45
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! — “Those Dancin’ Feet” Kicks It Up a Notch — by Cari Lynn Pace

PHOTO: Those Dancin’ Feet_61 – L to R Alex Hartman and Colin Bradbury (dancers) and Kayley Anne Collins and Neil Starkenberg (vocals).
Photo by Ray Mabry / © R. Mabry Photography 2019

Transcendence Theatre Company (TTC) has presented productions “under the stars” at Sonoma’s Jack London State Historic Park for eight summer seasons. This award-winning troupe has grown from the dream of its three founders to encompass over 50 singers and dancers taking a break from their Broadway and LA shows.

Their successful “Broadway Under the Stars” formula has traditionally been a potpourri of popular song-and-dance numbers. This year TTC experiments by adding a casual plot line to “Those Dancin’ Feet” to link the dance numbers. It works, splendidly. The show runs through August 25.

The experience at “Broadway Under the Stars” is top notch…

It starts with three couples who move with agile beauty through stages of courtship and commitment. Their ‘alter egos’ sing of passion, longing, joy, sadness, and despair. The program cleverly sprinkles a mix of 29 songs —some from decades past, some today’s Grammy winners — and everything flows and moves in a seamless and splendid reflection of love and life.

The experience at “Broadway Under the Stars” is top notch, with the production enhanced by the Transcendence Band conducted by Matt Smart.

PHOTO: Those Dancin’ Feet_262 – L to R Dee Tomasetta, Croix Dilenno and Cara Salemo.
Photo by Ray Mabry / © R. Mabry Photography 2019

There are so many intricate dance numbers that Director/Choreographer Roy Lightner is joined by choreographers Sara Brians and Chip Abbott. They showcase 20 athletic and fluid dancers, and the result is over the top.

TTC evenings, traditionally touted as the “Best night ever!” start as early as 5 p.m. at Jack London State Historic Park. Patrons bring picnics to enjoy at the umbrella-equipped tables, food trucks ply their wares, premium wine and beer vendors offer tastes, and live music encourages the fun and friendly camaraderie in the open field —  known amusingly as “The Great Lawn.”

Outdoor seating (assigned) begins in the stone ruins as the sun drops low beyond the mountains. Just before the show starts at 7:30, put away your sun hat, grab a jacket and lap blanket, and revel in the quiet beauty of the Valley of the Moon. When the lights come up on the dancers onstage, prepare to be blown away!

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

 

ProductionThose Dancin' Feet
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed byRoy Lightner
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThrough August 25th
Production AddressJack London State Historic Park, Glen Ellen (Sonoma)
Websitebestnightever.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$49-$154
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “The Nether” Enthralls at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

Imagine a virtual world in which you are free to live out your darkest fantasies without repercussion – a perfectly rendered, immersive escape from reality, wherein you can look, speak, and act as you please, your identity securely concealed.

But what makes something real? If a virtual experience has the power to make us think and feel, is it truly artificial? Are our choices ever free from consequence?

By turns philosophical and eerily prophetic, “The Nether” – making its Sonoma County premiere at Left Edge Theatre through March 24th –invites us into such a world, raising these and many other timely questions about morality and culpability in the digital era. But before “logging in,” users be warned: unsettling subject matter is in no short supply here.

Schloemp and Rosa (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

We open on a bleak interrogation room at an unspecified time in the future. Detective Morris (Leila Rosa) sits across from a man in old-fashioned clothing with a guarded demeanor. What was once the internet has evolved into the Nether – an immense network of online realms in which students attend virtual schools, employees telecommute to virtual offices, and people like Mr. Sims (Chris Schloemp) log in to indulge their innermost desires.

Sims – or “Papa,” as his avatar is known – is the proprietor of a realm dubbed the Hideaway, an elaborately designed Victorian home conjuring up a hypnotic nostalgia for simpler times past with its ornate furniture and poplar-lined vistas. Visitors can enjoy a stiff drink, dance along to old records on the gramophone, or molest and dismember prepubescent girls.

Morris is determined to shut the Hideaway down and hold Sims accountable for his gruesome crimes – crimes committed, that is, by and against avatars in the Nether. But has anyone really been hurt? Morris presses Hideaway participant Mr. Doyle (David L. Yen) for incriminating details, her own composure slowly crumbling in the process.

Wright and Spring (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

We cut between the interrogation room and scenes inside the Hideaway, where we meet Iris (the stellar Lana Spring) – Papa’s favorite little girl – and Mr. Woodnut (Jared N. Wright), an undercover agent sent to gather evidence for Morris’s investigation. Mr. Woodnut has honorable intentions, but soon discovers the lines between personal and professional – as well as virtual and actual – are hard to draw inside this realm. He is bewitched by the Hideaway and all it has to offer, becoming himself a reluctant participant in Papa’s twisted world.

…haunting, thought-provoking, and disturbingly relevant…”

It is evident Director Argo Thompson has chosen his cast with care. Schloemp brings grace and finesse to a difficult role, making Sims remarkably sympathetic given his deviant inclinations. Wright is compelling as the well-meaning detective, grappling with unexpected temptation and fearful self-reflection. Yen delivers a surprisingly heart-rending performance as the reticent and wounded Mr. Doyle. Spring’s Iris is ethereal and deeply felt, adding much to the story’s emotional impact. (It’s important to note that Spring is an adult, and that the worst of what happens is not depicted on-stage.)

Rosa is arguably the only weak link. She doesn’t seem at home in her role, and the opening scenes are a bit awkward because of this. Her behavior may be intentional, however, given what we learn later in the show.

Yen (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Thompson’s set anchors the interrogation room at its center, flanked on both sides by rooms within the Hideaway, keeping us tethered to reality as we experience the virtual world. His crew has chosen fitting furniture and props for the Hideaway, and the interrogation room feels adequately cold and futuristic. Schloemp’s projections are an effective enhancement, transforming the interrogation room’s table into an interactive portal to the Nether.

Joe Winkler has set the show to an appropriately ominous soundtrack, from floor-shaking electronic overtures to the crackle and pop of old-timey tunes on Papa’s Victrola. There’s a moment of eerie dissonance near the show’s end when the soundtracks from both worlds collide, as the real and virtual begin to meld.

Act one is weighed down by philosophical quandary and is slow to build momentum. When the pieces begin to fall together, however, the pace accelerates into a second act rich with chilling developments and surprising revelations, and an ending that begs as many questions as it answers.

Though not for the faint-hearted, “The Nether” is a haunting, thought-provoking, and disturbingly relevant ride well worth taking if you can stomach the subject matter. Playwright Jennifer Haley pulls us out of our comfort zone and thrusts us into this dark exploration of a not-so-far-off future that could very well become our own.

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

 

 

ProductionThe Nether
Written byJennifer Haley
Directed byArgo Thompson
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 24th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Rollicking “Million Dollar Quartet” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

In recent years the jukebox musical has become a staple of American theater, in which a collection of great songs gets tied together with a plausible narrative and dramatic arc. “Million Dollar Quartet” fits snugly into this tradition, at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street playhouse through March 24.

A fictionalized account of a real event—an evening in early December, 1956, when Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley converged and performed at Sun Studios in Memphis—the show is a rousing piece of Americana and a tour de force of iconic early rock ’n’ roll. An amalgam of African-American blues and gospel and white Southern folk music, rock emerged in the postwar period, giving voice to a new generation and shocking the cultural establishment both in the United States and Europe. Its pervasive effects continue to this day.

…a rousing piece of Americana and a tour de force of iconic early rock ’n’ roll… do not miss this show.”

Directed by Bay Area theater veteran Michael Ray Wisely, who has performed in and directed other productions of “Million Dollar Quartet,” the 6th Street show features two performers from the national touring production—Daniel Durston as Elvis and Steve Lasiter as Johnny Cash. Sonoma County actor/musician Jake Turner is superb as Carl Perkins, as is his guitar playing, and music director Nick Kenrick is astounding as the frenetic Jerry Lee Lewis.

(Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Samantha Arden does a lovely turn as Dyanne, Elvis’s girlfriend, while Benjamin Stowe anchors the whole affair as Sam Phillips, the producer/recording engineer widely acknowledged as the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” And let’s not forget drummer Nick Ambrosino and bassist Shovanny Delgado Carillo, who provide infectious drive to the music of the four ersatz superstars. Conor Woods’s adaptation of the original set design is substantial, compelling, and versatile.

The song list includes a couple dozen classics from the early 1950s, including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’,“ all of them stunningly rendered. This reviewer saw the national touring production, and 6th Street’s is just as good. If you’re a fan of that era, do not miss this show. Even if you’re only mildly fond of early rock, it’s still a really fun way to spend an evening.

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.

 

ProductionMillion Dollar Quartet
Written byColin Escott & Floyd Mutrux
Directed byMichael Ray Wisely; Music Directed by Nick Kenrick
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough March 24th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$40 – $48
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! A Solid “Streetcar Named Desire” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” is among the most popular recurring productions in regional theater, with a couple of bucket-list roles for ambitious actors: the loutish Stanley Kowalski and his wilting-flower sister-in-law Blanche DuBois. The current revival of this favorite play runs in the studio theater at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa through February 17.

Directed by Phoebe Moyer, Ariel Zuckerman and Juliet Noonan do justice to these difficult parts, aided by superb supporting performances from Melissa Claire as Blanche’s pregnant sister Stella, and Edward McCloud as Mitch, Stanley’s bowling-and-poker pal who falls under Blanche’s spell. With a consistently bland mid-south accent and palpable emotional tenderness, Claire is rock-solid as the long-suffering sister, moving from joy at being reunited with Blanche to despair at having to get her removed from the cramped flat she shares with Stanley. McCloud also has a complicated path to traverse as Stanley’s army buddy who asserts himself enough to pursue Blanche, only to have his hopes dashed by plausible tales about her scandalous behavior back in Laurel, Mississippi.

…compelling heat—just right for a cold February night.”

Zuckerman and Noonan (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Zuckerman apparently relishes his part as the savage Stanley, and in many scenes seems to be channeling Marlon Brando, whose portrayal of Stanley in the film version has forever affected those who followed. Zuckerman even looks like the young Brando, and some of his postures are eerily like the film actor’s. He’s also in great athletic shape, much more impressive than Brando in his youth.

Juliet Noonan has the unenviable task of carrying the bulk of the drama—like Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Blanche DuBois is among the most demanding roles in 20th century American theater, perhaps the female equivalent of Hamlet, and Noonan gets it about ninety percent right. Her physical gestures are evocative, and her timing excellent, but she falls in and out of her Mississippi plantation accent. With moments of true pathos, she beautifully conveys Blanche’s self-delusion and persistent manipulation of those around her.

Matt Farrell and Laura Downing-Lee are very good as Steve and Eunice, who live upstairs from Stella and Stanley and provide Stella with comfort when Stanley rages. A full-size spiral staircase leads to their unseen apartment, an amazing bit of set design in 6th Street’s compact studio theater. While not the best production this reviewer has seen, this “Streetcar” generates plenty of compelling heat—just right for a cold February night.

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.

 

ProductionA Streetcar Named Desire
Written byTennessee Williams
Directed byPhoebe Moyer
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough February 17th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
Studio Theatre
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$18 – $28
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Poignant, Poetic “Swallow” at Main Stage West – by Nicole Singley

At Sebastopol’s Main Stage West through January 27th, “Swallow” is a lyrical and haunting reflection on how we put our pieces back together and rebuild – our wounds, our relationships, our sense of purpose and of self – through the healing conduit of shared suffering and human connection.

Rebecca (Michelle Maxson) is alone and angry. Her husband has fallen in love with another woman. She takes the pain out on herself and fears her scars may never heal. Meanwhile, upstairs neighbor Anna (Dana Scott Seghesio) hasn’t left her apartment in months and is tearing it apart piece by piece, living on ice cubes and canned beans in total isolation. When the two begin to talk through Anna’s closed door, their fragile, faceless friendship evolves into an unusual but much-needed lifeline.

Sam (Skyler Cooper) is in the process of becoming the man he feels himself to be, enduring the humiliation of a job at which he is still called Samantha and struggling to gain confidence and acceptance in his new identity. Recognizing his own loneliness in Rebecca when he discovers her sitting by herself at a coffee shop, Sam takes a chance and starts a conversation.

Cast members Cooper, Maxson, and Seghesio at work.

Although she is initially wary, Rebecca begins to let her walls down as she reopens herself to the possibility of finding new love and understanding. But how will she react if Sam comes clean about his past? What unfolds is both dark and uplifting, at moments comical and others crushing.

The chemistry between Sam and Rebecca is real and their relationship utterly compelling. Cooper and Maxson are immensely talented and profoundly well-cast. It is hard to look away from them, even when their interactions pause and the spotlight shifts to Anna in her apartment. In those dark, unmoving moments, the expressions on their faces speak volumes.

…shattered mirrors, broken hearts, fractured bones, and splintered identities…

Scott Seghesio does an admirable job in a difficult role, making Anna about as interesting as she can be given the lack of development her backstory is offered by playwright Stef Smith. It is hard to care as much as we might like to about a cripplingly neurotic person we learn little about beyond her strange obsession with destruction and strained relationship with a brother who pays her rent. The result is that her scenes begin to feel like unwelcome interruptions to the story we’re more emotionally invested in. Anna’s overwrought metaphorical ramblings about an injured bird become at times torturous as we wait to see more of Rebecca and Sam.

With John Craven’s assistance, David Lear has crafted a lean, effective set which succeeds in creating the illusion of a coffee shop, an apartment building, and a city sidewalk without undergoing any major changes. Missy Weaver’s light design helps create a sense of separation between rooms and scenes. The sound effects of shattering glass and hammers pounding are well-timed and appropriately jarring thanks to Matthew E. Jones’s design.

Despite its imperfections, “Swallow” is inarguably moving, and Smith’s compassion for human suffering is evident. She reminds us that we are capable of creating beautiful things from our broken pieces and that no matter how personal or private our battles, we are never really alone in our pain. Main Stage West has handled her material with care, and the result is well worth watching.

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

 

ProductionSwallow
Written byStef Smith
Directed byMissy Weaver
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough January 27th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$15 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW! “Moon Over Buffalo” Shines at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

An erratic sword-swinging scene that opens “Moon Over Buffalo” only hints at the wildness to come in Ken Ludwig’s “Moon Over Buffalo,” at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa through February 3.

A master of the American door-slamming farce, Ludwig’s output includes theater-world classics such as “Crazy for You” and “Lend Me a Tenor.” Filling out the triumvirate is “Moon Over Buffalo,” about an acting family doing repertory performances of “Cyrano de Bergerac” and Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” in Buffalo, NY in 1953.

Patriarch George Hay (Dodds Delzell) is a theater careerist who’s very dismissive of the film industry, despite a phone call from legendary director Frank Capra, saying he’s considering George and his wife Charlotte (Madeleine Ashe) as replacements for Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson in a production of “Twilight of the Scarlet Pimpernel.” It’s possibly a dream come true for Charlotte, who longs for a life more glamorous than that of iterant actors.

‘Moon Over Buffalo’ has more romantic complexities than a Shakespearean comedy…

Helter-skelter antics by their associates, confusion about which play they are performing, and the lure of a career breakthrough, compounded by George’s appetite for prodigious amounts of alcohol make for some riotous comedy. George drinks until he can barely stand—in some instances, he can’t—and mixes and muddles his roles in the two very unlike shows while Charlotte and their daughter Rosalind (Chandler Parrott-Thomas) try to cover for him. Add to this a hearing-impaired grandmother (Shirley Nilsen Hall), a hyperactive TV weatherman (Erik Weiss), a lovesick attorney (Joe Winkler), a company manager desperately trying to keep the Hays on track (Robert Nelson), and a young actress impregnated by George (Victoria Saitz).

L-R: Dodds Delzell, Robert Nelson, Chandler Parrott-Thomas, Shirley Nilsen Hall, Madeleine Ashe in “Moon Over Buffalo”

All of this comes to a frothy head in the second act, on a substantial set by Jason Jamerson—it has to be with all the wrestling, drunken gymnastics, and door-slamming—under the guiding hand of director Carl Jordan.

Despite the sword-swinging, there’s a surfeit of exposition in the first act that makes the whole affair a bit slow to gain altitude, and some anachronisms in the dialog and props, but the second-act payoff is worth the wait. Delzell is perfectly cast as the out-of-control Hay—at one point he perfectly casts himself into the orchestra pit—and Parrott-Thomas is brilliant as the long-suffering daughter who does everything and more to save her family’s careers and the show they’re putting on.

“Moon Over Buffalo” has more romantic complexities than a Shakespearean comedy, and is riddled with theater-insider references (there are hints in the playbill). Astute audience members may recognize entire scenes that have been lifted into television sitcoms, movies, and other plays. The multiple second-chance ending is icing on a cake of simply great silly fun.

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

 

ProductionMoon Over Buffalo
Written byKen Ludwig
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough Feb 3rd
Production AddressSixth Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$20 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK? --------

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Templeton’s Sweet “Polar Bears” a Must-see Christmas Show – by Barry Willis

This time of year, we are inundated with multiple choices of winter holiday-theme productions. There are at least several presentations of “The Nutcracker” and “A Christmas Carol,” not to mention marathon broadcasts of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story”—all worthy, heartwarming ways to enrich the season.

Add to this list David Templeton’s “Polar Bears,” one man’s tale about how far he was willing to go to extend his children’s belief in Santa Claus in the wake of their mother’s death. Performed by veteran actor Chris Schloemp, this “true story about a very big lie” is a lovely mix of tragedy, comedy, and detached self-deprecating observation that will keep you enthralled throughout its approximately 90 minutes.

Prolific journalist, critic, and playwright Templeton is a North Bay treasure, with several productions to his credit in addition to his annual “Twisted Christmas,” a grab-bag of performances and stories that played recently to a nearly full house at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. Templeton’s style is similar to Jean Shepherd, the great chronicler of Americana whose 1966 book “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” included the basis of “A Christmas Story.”

…’Polar Bears’… will keep you enthralled…

Templeton directs Schloemp on a set of stored Christmas paraphernalia, much of it cleverly doing double- or triple-duty to illustrate the piece. Easing your children out of treasured fantasies can be an ordeal for any parent. As told by Templeton and Schloemp, it’s also a sweet expression of love.

“Polar Bears” completes its run at the Belrose Theatre in San Rafael December 15, and will be reprised in a one-night-only performance at Left Edge Theatre in Santa Rosa, Sunday December 23, at 7:00 p.m.

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

ProductionPolar Bears
Written byDavid Templeton
Directed byDavid Templeton
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theater Co.
Production DatesSunday, December 23, 2018 7:00 p.m.
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone707-546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

**** AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK **** Hellaciously Funny “Hand to God” at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

It could be argued that few things in life are more worth having than a hearty laugh. If you’re partial to this school of thought, then “Hand to God,” playing now at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre through November 11th, could easily be the most rewarding thing you do this weekend.

Jason (Dean Linnard) is a nice young Christian boy who obeys his mother and the Bible. But everything goes to Hell – perhaps literally – when his hand puppet, “Tyrone,” takes on a startling personality of his own. Tyrone is the polar opposite of his meek and socially awkward puppeteer: loud and obnoxious, wildly vulgar, and jaw-droppingly crude.

What Jason’s mother Margery (Melissa Claire) at first mistakes as a harmless, albeit bizarre, vaudevillian routine soon proves to be something more sinister. Could her son’s unsettling puppet be possessed by the devil?

Linnard and puppet at work in “Hand to God”

Linnard’s performance is nothing short of brilliant. His uncanny ability to switch so convincingly between two diametrically opposed characters at lightning speed – all while effectively maneuvering his right-hand companion – makes it a little too easy to forget Tyrone is really just a puppet.

Director Chris Ginesi has staged an expertly executed and grossly entertaining experience for theatergoers…”

The caliber of Linnard’s performance would easily make him the standout if he weren’t on stage with such a talented group of actors. There is not a weak link in the bunch; their chemistry is excellent and their timing impeccable. The sheer absurdity of the subject matter is made only more hilarious by the intensity and physicality with which they bring it all to life.

Kraines and Claire at work at Left Edge Theatre

Claire is hysterical as Margery, an unraveling widow struggling to distract herself by teaching puppetry to unenthusiastic children in the local church’s basement. Carl Kraines is superb as Pastor Greg, earning as much pity as laughter for his awkward advances toward Margery.

Neil Thollander is a perfect fit for secretly sensitive, bad-boy Timmy, and Chandler Parrott-Thomas adds a touch of much-needed normalcy as Jessica. She surprises us in the end, however, with a heroic act of puppetry guaranteed to make audience members blush.

Director Chris Ginesi has staged an expertly executed and grossly entertaining experience for theatergoers craving something unconventional. Rife with clever dialogue and R-rated humor, the script explores some darker themes without compromising the explosive laughs, turning even the most shocking moments into serious fun. From puppet sex to pedophilia, playwright Robert Askins dares go where others won’t, and the result is thought-provoking comic gold.

Argo Thompson’s ingenious set transitions with ease from classroom to playground and from bedroom to office. His stage is a living entity all its own, much like the puppet it falls prey to in a memorably elaborate set change featuring decapitated Barbie dolls and bloody handprints. The scene plays like a childhood game of “Spot the Differences in These Two Pictures.” Be sure to take in all the thoughtful touches. If the devil is really in the details, Thompson, too, may be possessed.

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

 

 

ProductionHand to God
Written byRobert Askins
Directed byChris Ginesi
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough November 11th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

**** AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK **** “The Addams Family – A New Musical” Dazzles at Spreckels Performing Arts Center – by Barry Willis

Charles Addams’s “altogether spooky” Addams Family has been deeply ingrained in American culture since the debut of the 1960s television sitcom—so deeply ingrained and so successful that it spawned an imitator TV series (“The Munsters”), at least two movies, and at least one musical. A tremendous version of this last venture runs through October 28 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park.

In the musical, the family—Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester, Grandma, Pugsley, and their butler Lurch—are all as we recall them, but daughter Wednesday (Emma LeFever) has become a cranky self-directed teenager. Worse, she has fallen for a straight, normal boy, much to the dismay and disapproval of her family. This classic setup-with-a-twist is rife with conflict, exploited to the max in every scene, song, and dance.

“Addams Family, a New Musical” is a dazzling bit of theater.

Director Carl Jordan gets wonderful performances from the large cast, especially from Peter T. Downey as irrepressible patriarch Gomez, and from Serena Elize Flores as his slinky seductive wife Mortica. The frenetic Erik Weiss is his over-the-top best as Uncle Fester, also serving as the show’s narrator.

Serena Flores and Peter Downey as Mortica and Gomez – Photo by Jeff Thomas

Mario Herrera is a total surprise as Pugsley, Wednesday’s withdrawn younger brother. Herrera stuns when he steps out of the shadows for his big solo song. Cooper Bennet gives a very natural and sympathetic interpretation of the character of Lucas Beineke, Wednesday’s boyfriend. Larry Williams and Morgan Harrington are equally good as his parents Mal and Alice, with a couple of breakout moments of musical comedy.

Emma LeFever at work as Wednesday – Photo by Jeff Thomas

Elizabeth Bazzano’s and Eddy Hansen’s gorgeously ornate set occupies the entirety of the big stage, matched in its aspirations by Pamela J. Johnson’s costumes and Michella Snider’s choreography. In the cast are also a dozen or so “ancestors” (as they are called in the program)—a chorus of extras who embody spirits and other unworldly creatures associated with the Addams. They’re all very effective and mostly delightful to watch.

Lucas Sherman’s superb eleven-piece orchestra drives the show, most of it conveyed by beautifully delivered song.

The core conflict — Will Gomez and Mortica accept Wednesday’s love for a boy from the wrong side of the graveyard? — carries the first act aloft. It’s like watching a magnificent hot-air balloon rise to a great height—imagine the penultimate scene in “The Wizard of Oz”—while the second act is like watching that same balloon settle slowly back to earth, a rise-and-fall written into the script. Even if the ultimate settling doesn’t make you leave the theater with a song in your heart, in total “Addams Family, a New Musical” is a dazzling 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.

 

ProductionThe Addams Family – A New Musical
Written byWritten by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice

Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThru Oct. 28th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center

5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone707-588-3400
Tickets$18-$36
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! — Delightful “Hello, Dolly” at Sonoma Arts Live – by Barry Willis

Michael Stewart’s and Jerry Herman’s classic American musical “Hello, Dolly” is enjoying a delightful revival at Sonoma Arts Live in the town of Sonoma, through October 21.

Starring Dani Innocenti-Beem as Dolly Gallagher Levi, the widowed yenta suprema of New York City and environs, the show is a feel-good piece of Americana. In some ways “Dolly” is the companion piece to Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man”—the two are set in the same era and share the sort of gentle humor that pokes fun at characters and circumstances without subjecting them to vicious ridicule.

Dani Innocenti-Beem at work as Dolly.

Dolly is the story’s fairy godmother character—she propels all the action with constant well-intended intervention in the affairs of others, but doesn’t have much of a character arc of her own. The lead role gives Innocenti-Beem many of the show’s best songs—including the heart-rending “Before the Parade Passes By”—and most of its funny lines, at least a few of them ad-libs on the part of the irrepressibly funny actress-singer.

Overall, this “Dolly” is beautifully done, with enormous energy from the cast and spectacular costumes…

The charming Tim Setzer shines in the role of Horace Vandergelder, a wealthy merchant in need of a wife. Dolly’s persuasive powers convince him that his quest will be fulfilled in New York, and when he goes into the city from Yonkers his two inept clerks Cornelius and Barnaby (Michael Scott Wells and Lorenzo Alviso, respectively) follow him. In the city, the penniless fools pretend to be rich in the hope of meeting girls.

Much comic confusion ensues but thanks to Dolly they get their wish—a hat shop owner named Irene Molloy (Danielle DeBow) and her assistant Minnie (ScharyPearl Fugitt). So does Vandergelder, who ultimately lands not the widowed heiress he had anticipated, but the matchmaker herself.

The cast of “Hello Dolly” at work.

With a huge nineteen-member cast, the show is both romantic comedy with multiple couplings and a comedic free-for-all with plenty of big production numbers that may not do much to propel the plot but offer plenty of entertainment value. Late in the show, real-life husband-and-wife Wells and DeBow perform a sweet duet made more meaningful by their obvious love for each other. It’s a moment that will prompt tears from even the most cynical viewers.

Overall, this “Dolly” is beautifully done, with enormous energy from the cast and spectacular costumes by Janis Snyder. Opening night was marred by technical glitches with the sound. We’ve been assured by multiple sources that these problems have been solved, and that the results are exemplary. Why this wasn’t done during technical rehearsals is a mystery, but it’s good to know that for the remainder of its run this show will be delivered at the high level it deserves.

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.

 

ProductionMy Fair Lady!
Written byBook by Alan Jay Lerner. Music and Lyrics by Lerner & Frederick Loewe.
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru July 28th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $40
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! Stunning, Perfect “Always, Patsy Cline” at Sonoma Arts Live – by Barry Willis

Patsy Cline’s meteoric career encompassed many firsts: first woman to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, first to tour as a lead act, first to headline in Las Vegas, first female country singer to perform at Carnegie Hall.

This all happened within the short span of six years: from her debut in 1957 until her 1963 death in an airplane crash at the age of 30. We can only speculate about what she might have achieved had she survived. Even so, her glorious honey-toned voice and prodigious output of classic country and popular songs earned her permanence in the pantheon of American music.

She has been widely imitated but never equaled, but Danielle DeBow gets as close as is perhaps humanly possible in “Always, Patsy Cline” at Sonoma Arts Live through July 29. A play-with-music about Cline’s enduring friendship with a fan named Louise Seger (the fantastic Karen Pinomaki), the story follows from their meeting at a honky-tonk club in Houston, through Cline’s career until her untimely death at the age of thirty.

“Always, Patsy Cline” is as near-perfect a production as can be imagined. It’s an absolute must-see.

Playwright Ted Swindley developed the piece from letters between the two. In that sense it is the truest of true stories and an abiding celebration of the power of deep friendship. It’s also hilariously funny. The intensely animated Pinomaki is absolutely convincing as both rabid fan and self-deprecating Texan.

Danielle DeBow at work as Patsy Cline.

She propels the narrative while DeBow melts the audience with Cline’s heart-wrenching songs, backed by the superb onstage Bodacious Bobcat Band and a four-man group appearing as The Jordanaires, legendary background singers who performed with Elvis Presley, among others. The ideally-cast and totally harmonious foursome include stage veterans Sean O”Brien, F. James Raasch, Michael Scott Wells, and Ted von Pohle.

Director Michael Ross (who also handled costume design and shared set design with Theo Bridant) has put together a show that is far beyond the very high level of performance that Bay Area theater fans have grown to expect. The pity is that it closes after an unjustifiably short run. With the wine country tourist season in full flower, this show could run all summer long to sold-out houses. It’s that good.

‘Always, Patsy Cline’ is as near-perfect a production as can be imagined. It’s an absolute must-see.

 

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

 

ProductionMy Fair Lady!
Written byBook by Alan Jay Lerner. Music and Lyrics by Lerner & Frederick Loewe.
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru July 28th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

ASR Theater Review! Enjoyable “Jeeves Intervenes” at Sonoma Arts Live – by Nicole Singley

“Jeeves Intervenes” at Sonoma Arts Live

Adapted from the stories of popular 20th-century humorist P.G. Wodehouse, “Jeeves Intervenes” brings lovable playboy Bertie Wooster and his ever-sensible manservant to the stage for new adventures in London’s 1920s haut monde. Paying homage to Wodehouse’s keen ability for satire, Margaret Raether’s script takes comedic aim at England’s strait-laced elite, weaving an entertaining web of elaborate scheming, pretense, and old-fashioned farce. The Sonoma Arts Live production, playing now through May 27th, is good for a few big laughs and an evening of light-hearted fare.

Bertie (Delaney Brummé) enjoys a life of leisurely bachelorhood, relying on his aunt’s financial support and loyal valet Jeeves (the excellent Randy St. Jean) to keep him out of constant trouble. When domineering Aunt Agatha (Jennie Brick) comes to town with plans to pressure Bertie into marriage, it’s up to quick-thinking Jeeves to rescue his charge from the unwanted union with up-and-coming socialite Gertie (Libby Oberlin).

Meanwhile, Bertie’s old school mate Eustace, aka “Bassy” (Nick Moore), is dreading the arrival of a disapproving uncle who intends to ship him off to a job in India. Having never worked a day in his life – and desperately hoping to change his overbearing benefactor’s mind – Bassy must convince Sir Rupert (Larry Williams) that he’s built a suitable life for himself in London. (Spoiler alert: he hasn’t.)

Can blundering Bassy escape a life of labor abroad without lifting a finger or losing his allowance? Is our steadfast bachelor doomed to go through life as the unpalatable “Bertie and Gertie?” Cue the shenanigans and enter Jeeves to save the day. Deception multiplies, new love blossoms, sparks fly, and old flames reignite as our clever hero works his magic behind the scenes.

St. Jean carries the show with his levelheaded demeanor, reserved sarcasm, and efficacious intonation. He is the picture of a proper gentleman’s gentleman, charming the audience with his dry wit and subtle, all-knowing expressions. Moore’s Bassy is marked by an appropriate air of highfalutin laziness and clumsy tomfoolery, which earns some laughs and helps to sell his character. Oberlin is a good fit for debutante Gertie, with a winning smile and youthful exuberance well suited to the task of whipping wayward young men into matrimonial shape.

“Jeeves Intervenes”

Brick and Williams are competent in their roles, though more believable as meddling relatives than former paramours. A lack of chemistry lessens the excitement we want to feel for their romance. Brummé’s otherwise able performance is regrettably overshadowed by a jarring vocal gimmick, which oversteps the boundary between funny and obnoxious and, at times, obscures the actor’s lines. Cracking into a shrill pitch with awkward regularity, his delivery feels more appropriate for a pubescent schoolboy than a suave womanizer in high society. It’s an unfortunate distraction from Raether’s witty dialogue, but the physicality of the comedy is often enough to overcome any confusion about what’s happening on-stage.

The production is enhanced by Carl Jordan’s colorful set and Moira McGovern’s period-appropriate musical selections. Eric Jackson’s costumes are mostly a hit, though Gertie’s outfits often (and perhaps deliberately) upstage the other characters’.

Despite its faults, the show evokes a pleasant nostalgia for eras past with its slapstick humor and whimsical characters. The mischief concludes with the satisfaction of a happy ending, all thanks, of course, to the intervention of our hero.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

“Jeeves Intervenes” by Margaret Raether, adapted from the works of P.G. Wodehouse

Sonoma Arts Live

Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall at the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E Napa St, Sonoma, CA 95476

Through May 27, 2018

Tickets: $22—$37

Info: 866-710-8942, www.sonomaartslive.org

Rating: Three out of Five Stars

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ASR Theater Review! Dangerously Funny “Women in Jeopardy!” at Left Edge Theatre by Nicole Singley

“Women in Jeopardy!” — Too Close for Comfort

At Left Edge Theatre through May 27th, Wendy MacLeod’s “Women In Jeopardy!” promises an evening of uproarious laughter and good, light-hearted fun. Despite the murder mystery at its center, this two-act, 90-minute show feels more like an episode of your favorite zany sitcom. But will everybody make it out alive?

Divorcees Mary, Jo, and Liz are the best and oldest of gal pals, their friendship a comfortable routine of fun runs and weekly wine parties. But when Liz (Angela Squire) shows up to their regular girls’ night with – surprise! – new boyfriend Jackson (Richard Pallaziol) at her side, Mary and Jo are instantly suspicious. Liz is love-struck and insists there’s nothing sinister about her beau, but something about Jackson is a little off. Perhaps it’s his deadpan (and borderline creepy) sense of humor. Maybe it’s his bizarre fixation with Silence of the Lambs. Or it might have something to do with the recent disappearance of a young female employee from his dental practice, or the torture chamber-esque basement he’s stocked full of antique dental instruments…. Who’s to say?

Convinced they’ve lost their dearest friend to a dangerous serial killer, Mary (Shannon Rider) and Jo (Sandra Ish) are determined to save Liz and her teenaged daughter, Amanda (Victoria Saitz), from impending doom. Enlisting the help of Amanda’s on-and-off-again ex-boyfriend Trenner (Zane Walters), the women set out to derail Jackson’s upcoming camping trip with Amanda. Add a cop who could be Jackson’s twin and some awkward flirtation into the mix, strap on your hiking boots, and let the hijinks begin.

“Women in Jeopardy!” – Trenner and Mary

The cast is high-energy and hilarious, with an apparent knack for comedic timing. The characters feel comfortable in their own skins. Obvious chemistry between Rider, Ish, and Squire makes their friendship all the more convincing. Pallaziol is hair-raisingly entertaining in the role of Jackson, switching gears with ease to play the part of awkward and endearing lookalike Sergeant Kirk. Saitz is the portrait of a moody teenager, at times lovable and at others cringe-worthy. Walters is a hoot as Trenner, evoking a familiar brand of clumsy teenaged-male machismo with his stumbling attempts to wax poetic and fantasies à la Mrs. Robinson. We get the sense that he’s a good guy underneath the goofy exterior and raging hormones.

The show is aided by a capable creative team. Argo Thompson’s set transforms ingeniously from kitchen to ski shop, police station, and forested canyon. Props by Vicki Martinez and costume design by Ish help make the characters and their environments feel realistic. Sound design by Thompson and director Carla Spindt earns extra laughs with well-timed entrances of recognizable songs with fitting lyrics.

MacLeod’s script comes to an arguably rushed conclusion, making for a somewhat sudden and unsatisfying end to an otherwise enjoyable romp. “Women in Jeopardy!” is well worth attending nonetheless, thanks to an able ensemble, a heap of clever quips, and enough witty wordplay to keep audiences smiling the whole way home.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

“Women in Jeopardy!” by Wendy MacLeod

Left Edge Theatre, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95403

Through May 27, 2018

Tickets: $25—$40

Info: 707-536-1620, www.leftedgetheatre.com

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

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ASR Theater Review! Classic Musical Comedy: “La Cage aux Folles” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

 

La Cage aux Folles at 6th Street

 

Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse has revived the ever-popular classic musical comedy “La Cage aux Folles,” at the G.K. Hardt Theatre through May 20.

A Harvey Fierstein/Jerry Herman collaboration, this engaging piece about a nontraditional French Riviera family confronting a hyper-traditional one was a long-running Broadway hit, and has made the rounds of regional theater companies ever since. The story of a gay male couple—one a drag performer, the other the owner of the drag club—and their straight son, it was made into two hit movies, and was the basis for the more recent “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” set in Florida’s Gulf Coast, known to Southerners as “the Redneck Riviera.”

In the original, the couple must pretend to be straight in order to please their son’s future father-in-law, an ultraconservative reformist politician. Potential disaster for this politician ensues if he is found cavorting with “degenerates;” comedy issues forth as it often does when characters must unwillingly pretend to be other than what they are.

The show feels in some ways as quaintly innocent as the French romantic comedy “Boeing Boeing.” It’s no longer as outrageous as it was when it debuted, but its core issues make it still current. 6th Street’s production features Michael Conte as drag star “Zaza” and Anthony Martinez as nightclub owner Georges—both of them excellent, with Conte the standout as the petulant gender-bent performer. Lorenzo Alviso does a nice turn as their son Jean-Michel, and choreographer Joseph Favalora is a scream as their houseboy/housemaid Jacob. Michael Fontaine is very good as the reformist politician Dindon, whose election campaign is based on sweeping the Riviera clean of people like Zaza and Georges. Mo McElroy is solid in a cameo as restaurant owner Jacqueline, whose scheming could be Dindon’s undoing.

The show is anchored by a great band “in the pit” helmed by music director Ginger Beavers, and a team of flamboyant showgirls—not all of them organic—called “Les Cagelles.” Most forbidding among them is “Hanna from Hamburg” a whip-cracking redhead with the muscularity of an Olympic wrestler. A show that usually benefits from a lush set design, “La Cage” moves along briskly with an unusual minimalist set by Sam Transleau. It’s a fun outing that should be on the must-see list for North Bay theater fans.

 

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.

 

“La Cage aux Folles”

Directed by Russell Kaltschmidt

6th Street Playhouse

G.K. Hardt Theatre

52 W. 6th Street Santa Rosa, CA 95401

Tickets: $22 – $38

Info: 707- 523-4185, www.6thstreetplayhouse.com

Rating:  Four out of Five Stars.

 

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ASR Theater Review! Refreshing “Water by the Spoonful” at Raven Performing Arts Theater – by Nicole Singley

Playing through May 13th at Healdsburg’s Raven Performing Arts Theater, Pulitzer Prize-winning “Water by the Spoonful” is a complex and heartfelt exploration of poor choices and personal trauma, the difficult road to recovery, and the unlikely lifelines that help keep us afloat.

Elliot (Bill Garcia) is an Iraq War veteran and aspiring actor, reduced to making Subway sandwiches while caring for the ailing aunt who raised him. Carrying the scars of a troubled childhood and his time in Iraq, he is haunted by agonizing guilt, devastating loss, and the grudge he harbors against his mother. We gather shocking pieces of his past throughout the show. Garcia is believable as Elliot, and his energy is complemented by the talented Serena Elize Flores as cousin Yazmin.

Elliot’s mother Odessa (played effectively by Athena Gundlach) is a recovering crack addict who runs an Internet chat room for others battling addiction. “Haikumom,” as she’s known online, devotes the majority of her time to helping chat-room regulars “Orangutan” (Hande Gokbas) and “Chutes&Ladders” (Nicholas James Augusta) in their daily struggles to stay clean. Though largely isolated from her family and the outside world, Odessa finds redeeming purpose and connection in her virtual haven. But when Elliot comes home to confront the skeletons in his family’s closet, her fragile peace is threatened.

The performers are capable and well cast, and a few scenes into opening night, began to really find their groove. Matt Farrell feels natural in the role of self-centered chat-room newcomer “Fountainhead,” slowly coming to terms with the truth of his addiction. Gokbas is endearing as “Orangutan,” her passion and determination to move forward a much-needed boon to “Chutes&Ladders” as he wrestles with the fear of shaking up his safe routine. The evolution of their relationship from virtual to actual is both moving and uplifting.

A minimalistic set puts our focus on the actors and leaves much to the imagination. Clever projections illuminate to indicate when chat room members are online. The venue adds a fitting element of openness and vulnerability, enhancing the show’s emotional impact without keeping the audience at too great a distance.

Quiara Alegría Hudes has written a story about broken people, and the humanity with which she’s brought each character to life is evident under Steven David Martin’s compassionate direction. While the ending she has given us is not exactly happy, it is hopeful.

“Water by the Spoonful” challenges us to find the courage to face our own demons and the strength to do better. Redemption and atonement, it suggests, are made possible by the powers of forgiveness and human connection.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

“Water by the Spoonful” by Quiara Alegría Hudes

Raven Performing Arts Theater, 15 North St, Healdsburg, CA 95448

Through May 13, 2018

Tickets: $10-$25

Info: (707) 433-6335, www.raventheater.org

Recommended for mature audiences

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

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ASR Theater Review! “Death of a Salesman” Revived at 6th Street Playhouse – by Nicole Singley

Arthur Miller’s celebrated “Death of a Salesman,” enjoying an extended run through April 28th at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse, tells the tale of washed-up traveling salesman Willy Loman (Charles Siebert) struggling to make sense of his financial and familial failures in mid-twentieth century New York.

Facing constant debt and a crumbling career, Willy’s life is held together only by the loyalty of long-suffering wife Linda (Sheila Lichirie) and generosity of best friend Charley (Al Kaplan). A lifetime of blind idealism and pride has cost him not only the realization of his ‘American Dream,’ but has poisoned his relationship with eldest son and former high school star athlete Biff (Edward McCloud), who, for reasons revealed in a series of painful flashbacks, could not live up to his father’s lofty expectations. Willy’s life unravels before our eyes as we watch him oscillate between outbursts of anger and frustration, succumb to confusion and helplessness, and grasp at the remaining shreds of misguided optimism that had once propelled him forward.

Most of the action occurs at the Loman family’s rundown home, now overshadowed by the towering apartment buildings of Brooklyn’s increasingly crowded skyline. Its drab furnishings and perpetually breaking-down appliances serve as a fitting backdrop for the deteriorating dreams of its inhabitants. This hits home during some of Willy’s eruptions. (“Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it’s broken! ….you pay mortgage for 10 years and more and by the time it’s actually yours, you’re old and so is the house.”) Artistic Director Craig A. Miller and Technical Director Conor Woods have designed a clever set which fluidly transforms into offices, hotel rooms, and restaurants throughout the show.

In the ever-evolving landscape of advancing technology and planned obsolescence, Willy Loman is the enduring portrait of a discarded worker. It is a profoundly relevant story still today, and the cast and crew at 6th Street Playhouse have more than done it justice. Siebert adds another accomplishment to his already impressive resume with a truly first-rate performance, paying homage to Miller’s protagonist in all of his complexities. His dynamic energy is well matched by a capable cast, with notable performances by Lichirie as the admirably patient and pitiable Linda, McCloud as golden-child-turned-black-sheep Biff, and Ariel Zuckerman as younger brother Happy, following in the overly-eager and naïve footsteps of his ailing father. Supporting roles are superbly acted, too, and the result is a cohesive and emotionally impactful experience audiences will not soon forget.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

“Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller

Through April 28, 2018

6th Street Playhouse Studio Theatre, 52 W 6th St, Santa Rosa, CA 95401

Tickets: $18 – $28

Info: 707-523-4185, www.6thstreetplayhouse.com

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

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