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

By Sue Morgan

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

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

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

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

…a night of madcap fun…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

ASR Theater ~~ “Ham for the Holidays” Sizzles at Main Stage West

By Sue Morgan

In small-town depression-era Georgia, due to a wholly unexpected blizzard, Orson Welles is unable to fulfill a much-heralded Christmas holiday performance at local radio station WHAM.

The package containing the script Welles was supposed to perform is inadvertently confused with another, containing fruitcake. Station owner Cab Hoxton (Dodds Delzell) was counting on Welles’ special holiday performance to save his flailing station and insists that the show must go on. Such is the premise of Ham for the Holidays, a seasonal farce by Shad Willingham at Main Stage West in Sebastopol.

Ham for the Holidays is lighthearted, funny holiday theatre.

Local radio personality Dexter Armstrong (Garet Waterhouse) volunteers a script he has written and intended to pass to Welles, hoping that Welles would recognize his genius and help take his career to the next level. Under duress, Cab agrees to use the script, dubiously titled “Attack of the Space Robots from Outer Space,” but insists it be modified to fit the wintry Christmas season.

Needing all hands on deck to stage the play and perform the roles of the 20 characters in the script, Hoxton enlists Violet Bicks (Maureen O’Neil), a method-acting stage veteran; Timmy Wilkens (Zane Walters), young assistant to an absent sound effects technician and all-around station gofer; Uncle Dick (John Craven), Hoxton’s narcoleptic brother and former Shakespearean thespian; and Honey Hoxton (Dale Leonheart), Hoxton’s negligibly talented and supremely clumsy daughter. Mayhem ensues.

Wilkens accidentally breaks the handle off the boiler, causing the station to get hotter and hotter, leading everyone to gradually disrobe as the evening progresses. Uncle Dick falls asleep when he’s supposed to be on air; Violet insists on changing costumes for every character, even when she is playing multiple characters speaking to one another; Honey doesn’t seem to grasp the concept of “On Air,” but is thrilled to assist Wilkens with sound effects, at one point inserting a monkey sound into a barnyard scene; and everyone does their best to insert words into the script that make it seem as if the action is happening in a cool winter environment, even though it is set on a blazing hot summer day.

The set design with engineering booth, drop mic, desk, wall covered in sound effect props, door to hallway, door to office, etc., is well-done, but the limitations of the small stage take a toll. As multiple characters are performing separate – and often intentionally disparate – actions simultaneously, the desired sense of chaos is achieved, but the overall effect was chaotic and disjointed, making it difficult to home in on any particular scene.

While the individual players do well, eliciting many laughs, both because of the dialogue and their own talent at comedic acting – the Ham jingles alone were worth the price of admission – overall, the ensemble sometimes felt clumsy and out of sync. This may be resolved with further performances.

Despite the shortcomings, Ham for the Holidays is lighthearted, funny holiday theatre.

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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

 

 

ProductionHam for the Holidays
Written byShad Willingham
Directed byEmily Cornelius
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Dec 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
Performance3/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Sonoma Arts Live Showcases America’s Country Star

By Sue Morgan and Cari Lynn Pace

Director Michael Ross’ self-proclaimed “love letter to the theater community,” Always…Patsy Cline is based on the true story of Patsy Cline’s relationship with Louise Seger, a fan who became Patsy’s friend and with whom Patsy maintained a close correspondence until Cline’s untimely passing, at age 30, in a plane crash. The show runs at Sonoma Arts Live through December 18.

ASR contributors Sue Morgan and Cari Lynn Pace comment below:

CLP: SAL captures the spirit and voice of Patsy Cline by casting Danielle DeBow as the young American star of country music. DeBow has the stunning looks and the honeyed earthy voice that vaulted Cline to the top of the charts in the late 50s and early 60s. DeBow even captures the famous sad catch in Cline’s voice, so wonderfully evocaive in her hits “Crazy,” “I Fall to Pieces,” and “Walkin’ After Midnight.”

Danielle DeBow as Patsy Cline.

SM: Reprising their roles in SAL’s second production of the play, both Danielle DeBow (Patsy) and Karen Pinomaki (Louise) create the magic necessary to bring the audience back to mid-century America when Cline’s astonishingly numerous hits were pervasive on radio and TV, not merely for country music fans but for many others across the nation. You’ll find most of those hits faithful to the originals and beautifully performed by DeBow in this production.

… It’s an enjoyable – and laughable – tribute…

CLP: Who knows how far Cline might have gone had she not tragically died in that airplane crash before she was even 30 years old?

SM: DeBow is not only a world-class singer but also drop-dead gorgeous. Michael Ross has an impeccable eye for costuming and uses her beauty to great advantage. DeBow first appears as Patsy onstage at the Grand Ole Opry, wearing an accurate recreation of Cline’s iconic red-fringed cowgirl dress. Ross then adorns DeBow in an array of period-perfect and stunning confections which enhance and contribute to the overall appeal of the production.

CLP: The thin plot is based on the true story of Louise, Cline’s enthusiastic fan, and the friendship that developed between them. It‘s an amusing and heartfelt retelling, narrated by Pinomaki and based on letters the two women shared over several years. Pinomaki is an outrageous force of energy on stage, delightfully down-to-earth as she cavorts around the entire theater. She’s the perfect fearless foil against the cool smooth presence of DeBow.

SM: Pinomaki’s high-octane performance is both energizing and engaging, frequently eliciting appreciative laughter. Use of a thrust stage (the audience on three sides) works well to create a sense of intimacy as we observe Louise puttering in her kitchen, calling her local radio DJ to request her favorite Cline songs, or narrating and enacting the story of how she came to befriend her musical idol.

DeBow’s magnificent voice and stage presence, as well as the warmth and easy authenticity in her interactions with superfan Louise make her a wholly believable Patsy.

CLP: The six-piece band onstage is pure country, complete with pedal steel guitar and fiddle. At some moments the piano overwhelmed the vocals. Those unfamiliar with the songs may not grasp some of the poignant stories told in the lyrics. This reviewer, who has excellent hearing and sat in the second row, just went with the flow of the music.

Many of DeBow’s vocals are backed up by the harmony quartet of Sean O’Brien, Jonathen Blue, Steve Cairns, and Alexi Ryan, as the Jordanaires. They lend an authenticity to Cline’s original songs that is country-fine fun.

SM: The Jordanaires do a fine job as backup singers for Patsy, including a somber lament after her passing. The band was tight and on point and drummer Elizabeth Robertson collaborated well with Louise during a staged bit on tempo.

SM: Despite the tragedy of Cline’s early demise, Always… Patsy Cline does not devolve into melodrama, but maintains its focus on the friendship of two women of vastly different circumstances, brought together serendipitously and steadfastly connected through mutual affection and appreciation.

Danielle DeBow (Patsy) and Karen Pinomaki (Louise) create the magic at Sonoma Arts Live.

CLP: It’s no mere jukebox musical. It’s an enjoyable – and laughable – tribute from an energetic housewife to a budding superstar. Two down-home gals who once bonded and became friends … always.

SM: This production will make believers of those unfamiliar with Ms. Cline’s music and will renew the enthusiasm of long-term fans through its outstanding combination of theatricality, virtuoso musical performances, gorgeous costuming and heart-warming true-life subject matter. An exhilarating, riveting, joyful piece of musical theatre!

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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

 

 

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

 

ProductionAlways, Patsy Cline
Written byTed Swindley
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThursdays thru Sundays until Dec. 18, 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
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

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

By Sue Morgan

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

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

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

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

…The women of JLP have the most powerful roles…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ All the Right Notes: MMTC’s Raunchy “Rocky Horror Picture Show”

By Sue Morgan

The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been an audience favorite since it first premiered in London 49 years ago. The production made its US debut in Los Angeles in 1974.

Rocky pays sexually lurid and comical homage to science fiction and horror B movies of the 1930s-60s. After a film version was released in 1975, some independent and art-house theatres began a tradition of showing the film on a weekly basis, usually at midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. Audience members came dressed as their favorite characters and stood in front of the screen, performing in tandem with the film’s characters, while other members of the audience threw rice and toilet paper and sprayed one another with squirt guns (among other antics) inspired by the action onscreen. Both the film and theatrical versions are often resurrected – pun intended – around Halloween.

…a high energy romp…

The plot follows virginal and naïve newly engaged couple Brad and Janet who, after a flat tire on a stereotypically dark and stormy night, seek assistance at the nearest location, a creepy and foreboding mansion. Arriving drenched and more than a little afraid, they’re greeted at the door by butler-cum-ghoul Riff Raff who lures them into the dwelling with the promise of using the phone.

Mayhem ensues as the master of the house Dr. Frank-N-Furter, mad scientist and self-proclaimed “transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania,” replete in corset, fishnet stockings and outlandishly high heels, appears and invites Brad and Janet to his lab where, he sings, “I’ve been making a man with blond hair and a tan, and he’s good for relieving my tension.” The Frankensteinian man in question is the titular Rocky Horror.

The Marin Musical Theatre Company’s production – performed at Novato Theatre Company – is a high energy romp with exuberantly exaggerated simulated sex acts not at all appropriate for children, but very entertaining for mature audiences, especially those who appreciate camp with a capital C.

Photos by Jere Torkelsen

The show begins with a costume contest (winners get a brief cameo in the production) after which cast members give the audience a dance lesson to induct those new to Rocky into the fine art of performing the “Time Warp,” a raucous number involving expansive gesticulations and pelvic thrusts. The audience is also apprised of the tradition of spectators to heckle the actors during the production by shouting out prescribed and extemporaneous responses prompted by names of characters and other trigger words spoken by members of the cast. These proceedings successfully elevated the energy level in the house, ensuring the audience was excited for what was to come.

The cast was cohesive and mostly convincing in their respective roles. Stephen Kanaski did an outstanding job as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, combining seething sexual panache with the ability to strut like a runway model in ridiculously high heels. Added bonus: he can sing like there’s no tomorrow.

Sleiman El-Ahmadieh nailed his character, Brad, whose awakening from naivety to carnal rapture – and also his transformation from nerdy wimp to insatiable stud – were a pleasure to watch, and among the highlights of the show. Jenny Boynton’s voice and mannerisms were just right for Janet. Standouts characters include the Narrator (sultry Shayla Lawlor), Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s servant Columbia (Harriet Pearl Fugitt), and Magenta (Anna Vorperian), incestuous sibling of Riff Raff (Nelson Brown ). They all did fine work anchoring each scene with their sexy antics and wonderful vocal abilities.

Brown was appropriately creepy as Frank-N-Furter’s handyman/henchman, especially when fondling his sibling, Magenta. Ken Adams showed his wonderful versatility as wheelchair-bound Dr. Scott and biker/rocker/undead lover of Columbia, Eddie. Had I not anticipated having Rocky portrayed as a muscle-bound blond god in gold lame briefs, I would have loved Anne Clark’s female version, with her vacuous physicality and almost innocent sexuality. Ensemble members added a wonderful energy and vitality to the overall production. The addition of their voices helped each song reach an almost fever pitch of intensity.

“Rocky Horror” cast at work! Photos by Jere Torkelsen

Jenny Boynton’s spot-on choice of actors and direction made the production sizzle, as did Katie Wickes’ choreography. The spare setting worked within the parameters of the production. Daniel Savio’s musical direction was on point and all members of the band performed well. Krista Lee’s costuming was wonderfully true to the original show and film. Sound mixing by Simon Eves and lighting design by Michael Kessell lent a wonderful sinister ambience to the production.

Audience members are encouraged to dress in costume, to contribute to heckling the cast, and are given a list of suggested items to bring to the show in order to fully immerse themselves in the Rocky Horror Show experience. If you love over-the-top, sexually explicit, profanity-laced, hard-rocking theatre this show is for you!

Masks and proof of vaccination are required. Remember, no children allowed!

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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

 

 

ProductionThe Rocky Horror Show!
Written byRichard O’Brien
Directed byJenny Boynton
Producing CompanyMarin Musical Theater Company
Production DatesThru Oct. 31st
Production AddressNovato Theatre Co.
5420 Nave Dr. Novato, CA 94949
Websitewww.marinmusicals.org
Telephone---
Tickets$35 – $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ A Spin on “The Moors” at MSW

By Sue Morgan

If the Bronte sisters and Alfred Hitchcock had a love child, they would produce The Moors, currently playing through October 23rd at Main Stage West in Sebastopol.

An absurdist gothic romance/surrealistic existential dreamscape/satiric black comedy by playwright Jen Silverman, the story is set in an eerie mansion on the desolate and windswept English moors, ̀a la the Brontes and involves gaslighting, madness and mayhem ̀a la Hitchcock.

…Intentionally lugubrious in tone, the plot is best left undescribed…

Silverman manages to elicit amusement, horror, compassion, revulsion, revelation, tension and relief from her audience and does so using characters as disparate as a scullery maid/parlor maid (Marjory/Mallory), a dominating house Mistress (Agatha), and her flibbertigibbet younger sister (Huldey), a hapless governess (Emilie), a bullied and lonely mastiff, and a wounded Moorhen. Branwell, the purportedly physically and sexually violent brother of Agatha and Huldey, is locked in the attic and never seen, nor heard. “Branwell” is the middle name of the Bronte sisters’ real-life brother.

Taylor Diffenderfer and Madison Scarborough in “The Moors” — Photo/Main Stage West

Intentionally lugubrious in tone, the plot is best left undescribed, as watching it unfold is a wonder to behold. Silverman is a master of imagination and one of the things I love most about her plays is being unable to anticipate what lies ahead.

The entire ensemble is excellent in their respective roles, and I can’t say any one performance outshone the others. Director James Pelican did an outstanding job of accentuating the outlandish with subtlety, which somehow increased the merriment while deepening the sense of foreboding.

The Moors is not for everyone, but those who enjoy a dark satirical farce (as I do) will have plenty to talk about with their friends after the show.

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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

 

 

ProductionThe Moors
Written byJen Silverman
Directed byJames Pelican
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Oct. 23, 2022
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
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES

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

By Sue Morgan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee: F-U-N!

By Sue Morgan and Barry Willis

The 50th anniversary season of Petaluma’s beloved Cinnabar Theater is off to a rowdy, rollicking start with “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” Winner of the 2005 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical, “Spelling Bee” delivers an evening of light-hearted musical comedy.

In the auditorium of Putnam Valley Middle School, we meet six adolescent contestants: returning champ Charlito “Chip” Tolentino (Alejandro Eustaquio); Leaf Coneybear (Zane Walters), who designs his own clothing and spells while in a trance-like state; Marcy Park (Gabi Chun), a high-achiever who speaks six languages and for whom failure is not an option; William Morris Barfée (Trevor Hoffmann), who spells using a unique “magic foot” technique in which he writes the letters out with his foot as he recites them; Logainne “Schwartzy” Schwartzandgrubenierre (Tina Traboulsi), who spells words out on her arm before reciting them; and Olive Ostrovsky (Krista Joy Serpa), whose absent mother is on a nine-month-long spiritual retreat in India. Olive anxiously awaits the arrival of her father as she has not yet paid the entrance fee.

…”Spelling Bee” is not to be missed. Get tickets now! We mean it!

Each child – excepting Leaf – has won an individual school’s bee. The pressure is on-they’re vying for the chance to go to the national competition in Washington, DC.

“Spelling Bee” cast at work. Photo courtesy Cinnabar Theater.

The Putnam County event is hosted by a former Spelling Bee champion, and now the county’s top realtor, Rona Lisa Peretti (Karen Miles) and a dour school vice principal, Douglas Panch (John Browning). Peretti is a perky, all-smiles dynamo, while Panch is a no-nonsense adminstrator. They ride herd on a group of very smart, gregarious, and nerdy kids—and a few audience members pulled onstage, we hope not against their will.

It’s a quick-moving hilarious show backed by a great band (music directed by Bill Keck) with many intriguing subplots, lots of goofy action, and some stunning choreography by Bridget Condoni. Sam Minnifield puts in charming performance as Mitch Mahoney, a local bad boy doing his community service by helping out with the Bee. Donnie Frank’s costumes go a long way toward establishing each of the characters, all delightfully portrayed by some hugely skilled and enormously uninhibited actors. They’re all tremendous, but Trevor Hoffman, Gabi Chun, and Krista Joy Serpa are standouts. Wow!

Photo courtesy Cinnabar Theater.

Director Zachary Hasbany has coaxed the absolute maximum from a brilliant cast. The show by Rachel Sheinkin and William Finn is a recurring favorite among community theater troupes, and for good reason. It’s clean, harmless, happy, and uplifting—an absolute joy from beginning to end. Did we mention incredibly clever? “Spelling Bee” is not to be missed. Get tickets now! We mean it!

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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

 

 

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

 

ProductionThe 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Written byRachel Sheinkin and William Finn
Directed byZachary Hasbany
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Sept 25th
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
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Transcendence Theatre’s “The Gala”—Truly a Night to Remember

By Sue Morgan

The setting sun illuminated dramatic, pink-tinged clouds as the audience took their seats beneath the open sky in Transcendence Theatre Company’s outdoor performance venue at Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen. The air was balmy and redwoods, silhouetted against the twilit firmament, perfectly framed the vineyard below. So began a magical evening as the performers took the stage for TTC’s final performance of the summer season: “The Gala.”

Hard to believe that director and choreographer Chip Abbot, associate director Billy Bustamonte, musical director Matt Smart and the rest of the creative team could surpass the excellence of Transcendence’s earlier productions “Let’s Dance” and “Hooray for Hollywood,” but “The Gala” is nothing short of a stunner! The talent and artistry on display were Broadway quality throughout .

…Choreography throughout the evening was tight, expressive and polished…

It would be too difficult to comment on the highlights of every outstanding performance during Sunday night’s show. Suffice it to say that nearly every number was a show-stopper! The opener, “on Broadway,” performed by the entire ensemble, was energetic, precise and joyful, promising wonderful things to come.

#317: (l to r) Kathleen Laituri, Ben Lanham, Colin Campbell McAdoo, & Ruby Lewis. Photo Credit: Ray Mabry Photography

“Beautiful City” from “Godspell” seemed written to showcase frequent Broadway performer Jesse Nager’s gorgeously smooth tenor. Resonating with gentle power and a palpable sense of yearning, Nager held the audience in thrall throughout the performance. Without the impediment of a ceiling, Nager’s vocals were remarkably crisp and soared unencumbered into the night sky. As the final notes slowly faded, twilight gave way to night, as if scripted. A truly transcendent experience!

Jesse delivered again, along with veteran Transcendence performers Colin Campbell McAdoo and Kyle Kemph, with an extraordinarily moving performance of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Other standout vocal performances (again, among dozens!) were Ruby Lewis in “It All Fades Away” and Colin Campbell McAdoo and Ruby Lewis in “Shallow.” Upbeat songs were frequently followed by ballads, which lent a nice balance to both sets in the show.

The Gala Company. Photo Credit: Rob Martel

Choreography throughout the evening was tight, expressive and polished, with the dancers making even the most intricate moves seem almost effortless! Again, there were too many memorable numbers to enumerate, but I must mention the exquisite interpretive dances performed by Kathleen Laituri and Ben Lanham as well as the wonderful moves (and vocals) performed by Cecil Washington Jr., Colin Campbell McAdoo, Jesse Nager, and Kyle Kemph in the wonderful Four Seasons medley.

Lighting and sound were solid, with nary a hiccup to interrupt the flow. This production was outstanding in every respect and every member of the audience I spoke with said they were delighted and surprised by the enormity of talent on display throughout the evening. This was indeed “the best night ever!”

(l to r) Cecil Washington Jr., Colin Campbell McAdoo, Jesse Nager, & Kyle Kemph. Photo Credit: Ray Mabry Photography

In its 11th year, Transcendence Theatre continues to raise the bar as they bring ever greater talent and vitality to Sonoma County Wine Country. The non-profit company, founded by Artistic Director Amy Miller, and husband, Executive Director Brad Surosky, has been instrumental in supporting Jack London State Park by providing over $675,000 in much-needed donations to sustain the beloved historical landmark. The duo informed the audience of a matching grant that would provide $500k in additional funding if the company is able to raise commitments of $500k in donations by the end of October and have donations in-hand by the end of the year—a deeply worthy cause.

“The Gala” begins at 7:30 but come early to enjoy a picnic supper (food vendors are on site for those who prefer not to bring their own) and wine and beer provided by Transcendence sponsors while listening to acoustic music in the lawn area. Remember to bring a sweater or lap blanket, as the temperature can drop after the sun goes down.

Tickets range from $25 to $165 for VIP seating (which includes wine tickets, premium seating, and priority parking). Masks are recommended but not required.

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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

 

 

ProductionThe Gala
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed &
Choreographed by
Chip Abbot
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThru September 18th
Production AddressJack London State Historic Park, Glen Ellen

2400 London Ranch Road, Sonoma
Websitewww.transcendencetheatre.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$25-$165
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
ScriptN/A
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ “Fun Home” Hits the Mark at Left Edge Theatre’s New Location

by Mitchell Field / Sue Morgan

Intro by Mr. Field…

Reversing the Covid-related nationwide loss of theater venues, a brand new one has opened its doors in the North Bay: the “California” in Santa Rosa, CA.

Last week the 200-seat venue hosted a partisan opening-night crowd for Left Edge Theatre’s “Fun Home,” one of Broadway’s most controversial and ground-breaking productions, a musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s rich and complex 2006 tragicomic graphic memoir of the same name, with music by Jeanine Tesori, and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron.

A multiple Tony Awards winner, “Fun Home” was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s a deeply personal yet refreshingly honest show, about family, gender identity and seeing one’s parents through one’s grown-up eyes.

The non-linear story follows Alison through her early life, as she recounts her fraught relationship with her long-suffering mother and her late father, a closeted gay man, who may or may not have committed suicide shortly after Alison’s confession of her lesbianism to her family. Despite having some pre-adult cast members, this show is intended for mature audiences and includes adult language and discussion of sexuality and suicide. At the same time it’s funny, sad, poignant, charming, endearing and surprisingly fun!

“Fun Home” is enjoying a number of local productions since its performance rights were recently released. Left Edge Theater has assembled an excellent cast, including Elizabeth Henry, Bethany Cox and North Bay stage veteran Anthony Martinez. Lucas Sherman (keyboard) and Grant Bramham (percussion) provide the music and Maureen O’Neill ably directs a troubling, charming, touching and entertaining evening of theater. Hurrah for this new venue!

Review by Ms. Morgan…

What joy to attend the Grand Opening of Left Edge Theatre’s new California Theatre in downtown Santa Rosa for the opening night performance of “Fun Home.“ Based on an autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, “Fun Home” garnered five Tony Awards in 2015, including Best Musical and Best Original Score.

The September 3 sold-out performance at the California Theatre was packed with friends and family of performers and production company, and many fans of local theatre. Abuzz with excitement before the performance began, the audience generated appreciative, electric energy which remained throughout the night.

…there are…moments of poignant introspection, fun, and joyful revelation.

“Fun Home” is an exploration of Alison Bechdel’s memories of her family, her sense of alienation from her once-beloved father, and her awakening to her sexual identity as a lesbian, her first love, and the impossible cost of hiding her innermost self. “Fun Home” (short for “funeral home”) was the ironic nickname given by the Bechdel family to their family business, a mortuary run by Alison’s father Bruce, who was also a high school teacher, restorer of historic homes and a closeted gay.

The play begins as contemporary Alison, a graphic novelist, (capably played by Emily Jansen-Adan) stands at her sketch board trying to remember the details of her childhood as they unfold on the stage in front of her. Alison is also played as a young child and as a college student by Addison Sandoval and Rae Lipman, respectively.

While the subject matter is deeply fraught and sometimes tragic, there are also moments of poignant introspection, fun, and joyful revelation. The outstanding music elevates the production, contributing to a sense of intimacy as the audience listens in on the otherwise secret thoughts of the characters. The actors were clearly chosen for their singing, as well as acting chops, and all songs were deservedly met with enthusiastic applause.

Two performances stand out among many. In “Ring of Keys,” Addison Sandoval, (one of three child actors) playing “small Alison,” brilliantly conveys the dawning of her understanding of herself as “different” than other girls when she first encounters a very butch delivery woman and, with wide-eyed wonder and a foreign sense of yearning, sings, “. . . with your swagger and your bearing and the just right clothes you’re wearing, your short hair and your dungarees and your lace up boots, and your keys, oh, your ring of keys . . . I know you . . . ” Whether speaking or singing, young Addison does an excellent job throughout “Fun Home,” with a self-possessed sense of confidence and ease that make her a pleasure to watch. Addison, surprisingly, is a self-taught vocalist and has never had professional instruction.

Bethany Cox (Joan) & Rae Lipman (Medium Alison). Photo by Eric Chazankin

The second standout was Rae Lipman’s rendition of “Changing My Major.” Waking beside her new lover the morning after their first sexual encounter, Lipman’s Alison emanates a sense of passion, wonder and gratitude at the miracle of the liaison. As she sings, “I’ve never lost control due to overwhelming lust, but I must say that I’m changing my major to Joan. I’m changing my major to sex with Joan, with a minor in kissing Joan . . . ” she brings the audience along with her as she circles the bed staring with a mix of ardor and tenderness at her sleeping beloved.

In his sixth performance with Left Edge Theatre, Bay Area theater veteran Anthony Marinez manages to portray Alison’s father Bruce with nuance despite the fact that the character is an egotistical, tyrannical husband and often overbearing father. Evoking enthusiasm, passion, righteousness, explosiveness, violence, sadness, and overwhelming desperation, Martinez is deeply compelling, and his exceptional voice lends itself beautifully to the production.

Elizabeth Henry plays Alison’s mother Helen with determined self-control. We can feel her inwardly seething, even when smiling politely as Bruce talks to members of the Historical Society about his restoration of the family’s museum-like home, which she is expected to maintain to gleaming perfection. Her rendition of “The Hours” brought me to tears.

Every member of the cast performed their roles admirably, both in terms of acting and vocals. In a few songs the performers sang different lines simultaneously in an attempt to express the chaos in the home despite the placid exterior. Unfortunately, the ensuing cacophony was too much for this viewer.

There were a few minor technical difficulties, not a surprise given that it was the first outing for Left Edge in their new performance space. There were problems with microphones, the live orchestra was at moments too loud, and the seating to the far left of the stage sometimes left us looking at the backs of the actors.

Minor issues aside, Left Edge Theatre’s production of “Fun Home,” with wonderful acting and superb vocals and music behind an exceptionally well-executed script is one not to miss!

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionFun Home
Written byBook & Lyrics by: Lisa Kron.

Based on Graphic Novel by: Alison Bechdel.
Directed
Musical Direction
Maureen O’Neill
Lucas Sherman
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theater Co.
Production DatesThrough Sept. 18th, 2022
Production AddressCalifornia Theatre
528 7th St.
Santa Rosa, CA
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 664-7529
Tickets$15-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Hershey Felder Delivers an Enchanted Evening in ‘Chopin in Paris’

By Sue Morgan

Hershey Felder swings wide the French door opening onto an opulent salon, replete with gilded framed mirrors, crystal chandelier and candelabras, luxuriously draped brocade curtains, elegant chaise longue and Victorian side tables. In the center of the room, mirrored surfaces gleaming in purple-gold “candle light,” stands a magnificent Steinway grand piano. Elegantly dressed in white starched shirt, narrow trousers, waistcoat, impeccably tailored frock-coat and cravat, he steps across the threshold. The spell is cast: Chopin has arrived.

The date is March 4th, 1848, mere days after the violent February Revolution in Paris and we, the audience, are among the privileged piano students (here for a lesson) from whose wealthy and illustrious families Chopin makes his living. Making a light-hearted joke about having just had “tea” in the rooms of a lady, Chopin – who had a reputation as a ladies’ man – proceeds to mesmerize his audience with detailed accounts which bring vividly alive the intimate details of his too-brief existence.

…Hershey Felder is simply a genius….

Over the following ninety minutes—no intermission—his students experience the full spectrum of human emotions. Using nothing but words and gorgeous renditions of many of his most famous pieces—gloriously executed on that spectacular Steinway—Chopin conjures those who inspired his genius and walks us through his musical passions and processes.

Several times breaking into his own narrative, Chopin invites his “students” to ask questions, responding to queries including, in part, the type and quality of sound of a piano typically played during that era, his greatest musical influence (Bach, from whom, he asserts, “we all just steal bits and pieces of his music”), and his feelings about his rival, Liszt.

Chopin played only thirty public concerts but made a reputation for himself in Paris playing in private salons at the homes of the city’s elite. While describing his distaste for pandering to some of his wealthy patrons, Chopin encourages his students who might find themselves playing under similar circumstances to ignore their surroundings and, “Play as if you are playing for God.” When he himself begins to play, one can only imagine the good favor with which God looks upon him.

Felder’s Chopin seems to have been resurrected, rather than contrived. Felder embodies the master with such seemingly effortless confidence that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that he has had to memorize almost everything Chopin is known to have uttered or written. That dedication to authenticity is, in part, what makes this performance so riveting. I do not enjoy the banal and often mistakenly applied term, “tour de force,” but even that phrase seems too mild to express the brilliance and artistry of Felder’s performance.

Hershey Felder is simply a genius. He is a conceptualist, playwright, virtuoso pianist, actor, and set designer. Did I mention that he also sings like an angel? In addition to the numerous solo shows Felder has created and starred in, including George Gershwin Alone, Beethoven, Monsieur Chopin and many others, he created his own arts broadcasting company during the Covid crisis, which allows him to reach a larger audience for his theatrical films.

 

Director Joel Zwick (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) uses a light hand, allowing Felder’s deep understanding of his character full expression in both movement and mannerism. The scenic design by Felder is perfect in its authenticity, truly bringing to life the luxurious and rarefied setting of a salon for the highest echelons of Parisian society in the mid-1800s. The pink porcelain swan, on the Victorian side table, is an artful touch. Lighting design by Erik S. Barry enhances the elegance of the setting with its rich purple tones and rose/gold effect. Dimming the overhead stage lights brightens the candlelight whenever Chopin plays.

Video projections using flame effects and renderings of buildings or participants in the salon are good effects, but the overly large and bright image of a female disembodied head (George Sand? Chopin’s sister Emilia?) is a bit disconcerting.

Felder gives his audience the gift of being transported to 19th century Paris to sit at the feet of one of the world’s most renown musical geniuses – with none of the discomfort or inconveniences of that time – and plays music of such beauty it elicits tears. If you love theatre, classical music, sublime acting, or all of the preceding, do everything in your power to see Hershey Felder: Chopin in Paris. And bring your friends.

They’ll thank you for the experience.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionChopin in Paris
Written byHershey Felder
Directed byJoel Zwick
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThrough Sept. 11th
Production AddressMountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(877) 662- 8778
Tickets$35 – $95
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

ASR Theater ~~ Hillbarn Falters with “The Four Gifts”

By Sue Morgan

The playbill for “The Four Gifts” notes that Joe Bradley was coaxed into letting his well-regarded autobiography be adapted for the stage.

Pity. This story of faith, loss of faith, drug and alcohol addiction, hitting bottom, becoming a priest, overcoming life-threatening obstacles, and Bradley’s heart-felt life of service to others, is evidently much more effectively expressed in prose.

As scripted and performed at Hillbarn Theatre, “The Four Gifts” fails to create a genuinely human character that the audience can connect with. The poorly executed script is further hampered by stilted language—I didn’t notice a single contraction—overly short scenes, and confusing casting. When asked before the play what role he played (the program didn’t delineate cast members’ roles), Randy Allen stated that he played several roles, including Father Joe, noting, “We’re all Father Joe.”

…the play’s acting…was strangely devoid of emotion.

It quickly became apparent that his meaning was literal as well as figurative as each of the ten actors in turn transformed into Joe by donning a gold cross on a chain, passing it along to the next player when it was his or her turn. It’s an interesting concept to express the universality of every human’s struggle but, in practice, disconcerting and awkward.

The Cast listen to a sermon given by Johnny Villar (R). *Photo Appears Courtesy of Actor Equity Association. Photo by Mark and Tracy Photography.

In contrast to the intensity of the subject matter, the play’s acting itself was strangely devoid of emotion. Perhaps because the players switched scenes and characters so often and quickly, they never had time to settle into a role before rushing off to the next scene.

The three screens onto which background scenes were projected at times worked beautifully but were otherwise ill-fitted to the images on display, adding a sense of vertigo, such as when a seminary wall tilted precariously to one side.

Joseph Steely (L) give Johnny Villar (R) council. Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography.

The screens were also sometimes illuminated to very good effect, exposing shadow play, such as the goings-on in a hospital room, or a patient in a hospital chapel, fervently praying while attached to an IV pole.

Costuming was appropriate, the lighting fine, and sound design spot on, but given the show’s conceptual and performances shortcomings, you might want to give “The Four Gifts” a pass.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionThe Four Gifts
Written byFather Joe Bradley and Antonia Ehlers
Directed byCara Phipps
Producing CompanyHillbarn Theatre
Production DatesThrough Aug 21st
Production Address1285 E Hillsdale Blvd, Foster City, CA 94404
Websitewww.hillbarntheatre.org
Telephone(659) 349-6411
Tickets$30-$58
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall2/5
Performance2/5
Script2.5/5
Stagecraft2.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

PICK! ASR Theater ~~ Still Relevant: “Nan and the Lower Body” at TheatreWorks

By Sue Morgan

The two-hour drive from the Russian River to the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto proved to be more than worth the time to attend TheatreWorks’ world premier of Jessica Dickey’s remarkable “Nan and the Lower Body,” directed by Giovanna Sardelli.

Via a poignantly serendipitous series of circumstance, the production, which on the surface deals with women’s reproductive health, but at heart deals with every woman’s worth and right to be recognized as a human being, was originally scheduled to premier in 2020 but, due to the worldwide pandemic, was rescheduled for release a mere three weeks after what Dicky terms “this travesty; the overturning of Roe v. Wade.”

…a timely catalyst for deep reflection about the journey of women…

Dickey performs somewhat of a magic trick, successfully using both pathos and humor to express the urgency and maddening frustration of a midcentury medical system that ignored the number one cause of death in women (cervical cancer) due in large part to the discomfort of doctors and scientists in separating female anatomy from female sexuality.

Nan (Elissa Beth Stebbins) examines a slide as Dr. Papanicolaou (Christopher Daftsios), inventor of the Pap smear, watches in the World Premiere of “Nan and the Lower Body,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley July 13 – August 7.

Arriving in the US in 1913, Greek immigrant Dr. George Papanicolaou (skillfully played by Christopher Daftsios) toiled tirelessly for decades to develop and promulgate the use of the Pap Smear, allowing detection of cancers via analysis of cells found in women’s vaginal secretions.

Here, conceived as a jocular over-sharer and passionate champion of women’s rights, he exhorts all he meets to “call me Dr. Pap,” and enjoys frequent use of the word “vagina” to create discomfort in and shorten interactions with those who have interrupted his work. By contrast, in a deeply powerful scene, Pap’s face and gestures transform from angry frustration to compassionate tenderness as he gently places a series of unusable slides into the bottom of a garbage can, as if to honor the sacredness of the contents.

Nan’s character is based on Dickey’s maternal grandmother who became a cytologist. According to family lore, in 1952 she worked with Dr. Papanicolaou as a researcher, examining slides to ascertain the presence or absence of abnormal cells. Elissa Beth Stebbins’ Nan is a stolid woman determined to “do good” in the world both through the vehicle of her career and as a mother. Hired by Dr. Papanicolaou because of her insightful cover letter, outstanding academic performance and because she was “the only woman to apply,” Nan is secretly battling the baffling early stages of what will later prove to be multiple sclerosis.

Mache (Lisa Ramirez) meets Dr. Papanicolaou’s new assistant Nan (Elissa Beth Stebbins) in the World Premiere of “Nan and the Lower Body,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley July 13 – August 7.

In her first mainstage performance with TheatreWorks, Lisa Ramirez is compelling as Mache, Dr. Pap’s spouse, partner, former colleague, and test subject. Responding to her husband’s assertion that he knew she would be up to the task of being a doctor’s wife after seeing her bear an injury silently and without complaint, Mache momentarily cracks wide open as she admits that she remained silent because if she’d allowed herself to speak, she “would have sobbed.”

Jeffrey Brian Adams does a fine job as Nan’s husband, the minister Ted. In a riveting feminist discussion in which Dr. Pap asserts that women are superior to men because of the complexity and capabilities inherent in their anatomy, Ted insists that it is, paradoxically, essential for women to be seen simply as human beings if they are ever to be afforded the same rights and privileges as men. Ted points out that if women are seen to be “different,” they will continue to be subjected to separate rules.

Nan (Elissa Beth Stebbins) embraces her husband Ted (Jeffrey Brian Adams) after he visits her at work in the World Premiere of “Nan and the Lower Body,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley July 13 – August 7.

The various settings of the play—a university lecture hall, research lab, living room, night-time exterior—are depicted in keeping with the period with no outstanding features other than the lab’s examining table with stirrups. This adherence to the expected affords a lack of distraction so we can focus on dialogue and interactions between characters. Stagecraft by Nina Ball is superb, with one set literally splitting open in the center – half gliding off stage right and the other half stage left, after which the next set glides forward in a seamless motion that set off a chorus of appreciative gasps from the audience.

The Lucie Stern Theatre is itself a treasure. Set within a lovely neighborhood, it’s warm and inviting, spacious and well laid-out, with not a bad seat in the house. The outer courtyard with benches offered a lovely setting for the after-show reception.

“Nan and the Lower Body” acts as a timely catalyst for deep reflection about the journey of women (and the men who try to truly see them). When viewed through the lens of contemporary events, it also reminds us that progress is not always linear and must never be taken for granted.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ProductionNan and the Lower Body
Written byJessica Dickey
Directed byGiovanna Sardelli
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThrough Aug 7th
Production AddressLucie Stern Theatre 1305 Middlefield Road Palo Alto CA 94301
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(877) 662- 8778
Tickets$35 – $95
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
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.

-30-

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
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