Monday, June 18, 2018

"Good. Better. Best. Bested."


Good. Better. Best. Bested
Jonathan Spector

The Cast of Good. Better. Best. Bested.
It’s a typical day in Vegas.  Tourists dressed in red, white, and blue roam about drinking and being totally obnoxious – even belligerent – to the gold painted, “frozen statue” of a man.  A Roman gladiator and a foot soldier kibbutz in a quick work break while Spiderman roams the streets posing for pictures-for-pay.  A bachelorette party is assembling, ready to booze and dance the entire weekend while an uptight, nervous man in his business suit opens his hotel door to welcome a woman of the night dressed in a shiny, tight dress barely covering the parts of her body that are supposed to be hidden. 

And far away, on the other side of the world, the unimaginable happens.  Vegas pauses for a moment (neon lights still blinking and fountains flowing), and then everyone searches where to go have another drink.

Thus is the set-up and quick summary for Jonathan Spector’s comedy -- Good. Better. Best. Bested. -- now in world premiere as a joint production between Custom Made Theatre Company and Just Theater.  Loren English directs the ninety-minute, quick-paced series of interwoven vignettes in which each set of characters at one point or another interacts at random with all the others.  Action is non-stop, with time to catch one’s breath only in a few spots where we almost, but not quite, get to know the characters introduced.

And while the mostly bizarre and quirky folks are sometimes mildly funny – when they are not just plain pitiful or downright despicable – there are only a few scattered moments where much general, out-right laughter occurs or is deserved.

Mick Mize
The cast of seven each plays two-to-three often wildly different parts, requiring some quick changes in and out of the myriad of costumes Brooke Jennings has designed for them.  Mick Mize opens the show as Jordon, a charismatic, quick-handed magician in a paisley-decorated red jacket who uses his telepathic powers to wow (and woo) a bride-to-be named Sue (Lauren Andrei Garcia).  Jordon later transforms into a drunk red-neck “Bro” who also make moves on the same Sue, but not before Mick Mize takes a turn also as “Grunt,” a young, Brit soldier who out of the blue goes into a monologue from Edwin Campion Vaughn’s 1917 Diary of a Young Officer.  (The connection of that interlude to the rest of the play somehow went way over my head.)  Meanwhile, Sue takes her turns as a half-sloshed, photo-snapping tourist and as a uniformed private with one night left before being shipped to the Pacific. 

The rest of the cast are equally proficient in quick changes of personality and costume, with not a hitch in the opening night parade of the Strip’s peculiar set of oddballs.  Along with playing a wild party girl on the street, Millie Brooks is Sue’s friend, Marla, a squeaky voiced member of Sue’s bachelorette party who hates dogs and has a funny sequence of walking a dog we never see but very much witness his presence. 

Gabrek Montoya & Jessica Lea Risco
Gabriel Montoya (when he is not playing costumed street characters) is a shy, sad, and sex-starved widower named Alan who has ditched sitting shiva for his deceased wife and instead is putting up the three smackers to spend the evening with tight-dressed, high-heeled, all-business Simone (Jessica Lea Risco).  Their late-night encounter is slow to start as Alan eagerly reads Simone’s online reviews from her past “clients” and is further delayed by news of the horrific event eight thousand miles away. 

David Sinaiko & Tim Garcia
Weaving in and out of the short glimpses of these various lives is an out-of-work, divorced father, Walter, who has lost livelihood gambling and his late-teen son, Sheldon, who is a wound-tight ball of knee-shaking nerves making shady deals on the side as he searches for his “purpose.”  The strained interactions between Walter (David Sinaiko) and Sheldon (Tim Garcia) are some of the best moments of the evening, with Walter trying his best to be the absent father who now cares and Sheldon doing all he can to avoid doing or saying any more than is perfunctorily necessary.

Throughout the passing encounters on streets and in hotel lobbies, projections of both well-known Vegas scenes and everyday crowds of gamblers and tourist flash by, thanks to the excellent work of Theodore J.H. Hulsker.  The sounds of the bustling Vegas environment flood in waves via the design of Jaren Feeley while the spotlights of a stage and the dampened hues of a bar are part of Sophia Craven’s excellent lighting design.

Production-wise, actor-wise, and directorially, Good. Better. Best. Bested. is impressive enough, given the small setting in Custom Made’s intimate theatre.  But where Jonathan Spector’s new comedy does not work so well is as a comedy.  For all its outrageous array of characters and situations – not to mention the big world event that Vegas and its transitory inhabitants puzzle how to react – there are few big laughs and not too many chuckles.  Much of the time, I found myself just watching with little reaction to the blur of oddball activity passing by, never exactly bored but certainly never fully engaged.  Compared to Jonathan Spector’s Eureka Day – recently also in world premiere at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre -- Good. Better. Best. Bested. does not yet seem in the same category of script or subject-matter excellence.

Rating: 3 E

Good. Better. Best. Bested. continues through July 7, 2018 in joint production by Custom Made Theatre Company and Just Theater at Custom Made Theatre Company, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at www.custommade.org or at http://justtheater.org.

Photo Credits:  Jay Yamada



Sunday, June 17, 2018

"A Walk on the Moon"


A Walk on the Moon
Pamela Gray (Book); Paul Scott Goodman (Music & Lyrics with Additional Lyrics by Pamela Gray)

The Cast of A Walk on the Moon
Summer, 1969:  Daily, numbers of casualties from Vietnam scroll across living room television screens while streets fill with angry, mostly young anti-war protestors.  Their peace-loving folk and war-hating rock fills the airspaces along with wafts from their calming, smoked grass.  African Americans continue to search for their post-King leader and their equal rights; women raise their voices louder and more collectively for equality; and a few drag queens at a bar called Stonewall ignite the gay rights movement.  But on July 21, the entire nation and the world hold their collective breathes as Neil Armstrong takes that first step on the moon -- the nation forgetting for a few minutes all the strife, differences, and inequality dividing much of the generations, races, sexes, and the entire country itself. 

In such a summer, a Jewish family of four and a grandmother do what New York and New Jersey Jewish families had been doing for several decades – escape the heat of the City and head to tiny cabins in the Catskills for fun with friends in the so-called Borscht Belt.  Pamela Gray captures their own exploratory, scary, and transformative first steps into new territories of life in her A Walk on the Moon -- a visually, musically, and emotionally exuberant slice-of-summer-life now in world premiere at American Conservatory Theatre.  With music and lyrics by Paul Scott Goodman and additional lyrics by herself, Pamela Gray takes her 1999 movie by the same name; ejects the movie’s twenty-five-plus musical numbers by the likes of Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, and The Grateful Dead; and creates a new musical that spans the girl-and-boy bands of the late ‘50s/early ‘60s; crosses into strains of blues and country; and overall introduces a bevy of new, often hummable songs that are a mixture of fun, romance, reflection, and uplifting inspiration.

The opening number of any musical is a telling sign of just what kind of night it is going to be.  “First Saturday Night of the Summer” sets the bar high, introducing with rousing music the members of the Kantrowitz family as they and their friends arrive at their summer retreat.  Also, the scene immediately sets up a rift that many parents of teens will recognize. 

Alison is apoplectic because her mom did not bring her record player and because she is stuck yet another summer in a boring family tradition while everything important and exciting is happening somewhere else.  In between screaming “I want my fucking record player,” she cries out in song, “The summer of ’69 is there; the summer of ’59 is here ... I want to be a part of it; get me away from here.”  At the moment, we see that Brigid O’Brien as Alison is a powerhouse worth taking full note; and as she later proves, she has a deeply resonating voice that time and again sings forth with a maturity and presence well beyond the actor’s young years.

Katie Brayben
Alison’s mother and present nemesis, Pearl, is also looking longingly beyond these woods surrounding their little cabin, gazing up into the sky and singing “Out of This World” to the big moon and to the man who is about to take a walk on its surface.  “All around the world tonight, people are taking a chance for the first time ... Mr. A, walk the moon for us.”  The vocals of Katie Brayben’s Pearl – a voice full of awe and of a quiet anticipation – only get stronger as the story progresses, opening up and letting her chords ring euphorically in full country rock style in a late Act One reprise of the same song. 

By that point, both daughter and mother have each taken steps into unexpected new love -- their forays beautifully directed by Sheryl Kaller often as mirrored and paralleled secret escapes from each other and from the rest of the family.  During a rousingly staged game of Mah Jongg, Pearl eagerly joins her friends Rhoda (Monique Hafen), Eleanor (Ariela Morgenstern), and Bunny (Molly Hager) along with mother-in-law Lillian (Kerry O’Malley) in a do-wop, nah-nah-nah declaration of independence from their husbands (all back in New York for the work week) via a closely harmonized “World Without Men” – a number reminiscent of the girl groups of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. 

Katie Brayben & Zak Resnick
However, when the gals all go shopping at the hippie-like trailer of the “blouse man,” Pearl decides to hang back and try on a skin-tight, tie-dyed top that the B-Man himself gladly helps her fit into.  The pony-tailed, mild-mannered, and younger Walker (Zak Resnick) employs his freshly jubilant, easy flowing voice in “Something New” to woo Pearl, singing, “It’s never too late to try something new; it’s never too late to see another side of you.”  Moving increasingly closer to her as he reaches into the heavens in gorgeous falsetto, Walker tempts with “Look at the moon, and see a new you ... Something new, something true, something you.”

Nick Saks & Brigid O'Brien
In another part of camp, Alison has also happened upon a surprise in the form of a male.  Dimpled, curly-headed Ross (Nick Sacks) who, with guitar in hand, is chewing away in “Hey Mister President” at the current prez, singing a double entendre, “May I call you, Dick.”  But upon seeing Alison watching him, his melodies quickly morph to more love and peace sounds, followed by his own luring vocals.  With a slight smirk and ever-closer moves toward the initially skeptical but definitely interested Alison, the teen sings with a twinkle, “There’s always something to look up at, there’s always something to see; and if you get bored, just look at me.”

The electricity between both couples sends sparks that cannot in due time be resisted, with many implications for both – especially for Pearl.  Her husband Marty is about to show back up from his job as TV repairman for his weekend at the family camp, with his leading other arriving hubbies in their own male version of a 50/60s group in “Dancing with You,” a number worthy of Jersey Boys with sweet harmonies to die for, topped off by Marty’s (Jonah Platt) crooning tenor. 

As everyone gathers to watch the night's big event in the sky on an unseen tiny, black and white TV screen, mother and daughter with Walker and Ross close by along with husband/father Marty and mother-in-law Lillian all sing with eyes full of wonder and fascination (and for some, total infatuation), “We’ll all be walking on the moon, nothing will ever be the same.” 

As the summer’s weeks come and go, nothing is the same in many ways for anyone.  Culminating in August with something happening called “Woodstock” across the camp’s lake, fireworks are about to explode that make the earlier Fourth of July’s look like mere kids’ sparklers. 

The magical story of new summer discoveries of a mother and a daughter along with the resulting rollercoaster ride where a total wreck appears likely at any moment develops in an idyllic setting.  Towering trees with massive trunks and draping foliage surround rustic cabins with their front porches and well-stocked interiors – cabins that appear, spin, and disappear as part of Donyale Werle’s own magic-making as scenic designer.  Behind and above the trees and camp, night skies of a million stars (or so it appears) welcome the show’s real star, the moon, while dawns, daytimes, and sunsets inflame the sky with colors that often reflect the current emotions of the stage.  When Tal Yarden’s award-worthy projections are not creating miracles in the sky, they are showing scenes of the 1969 summer, from the bloody fields of Vietnam to the body-loving fields of Woodstock. 

Both the scenic and the projection designs are enhanced and electrified by a superb lighting design by Robert Wierzel and by the sounds of nature, of camp announcements, and of a nearby, massive rock festival by sound designer, Leon Rothenberg.  Finally, the ‘60s looks of camping Jersey-ites who are still longing for the ‘50s along with the new ‘60s trends of bell bottoms, tied-dyes, fringes, and no bras are given a full and colorful display by costume designer, Linda Cho.

As a story, Pamela Gray’s A Walk on the Moon is captivating, engaging, and – by the end -- actually uplifting.  The look back at a particular summer that still captures our imagination for its confluence of so many monumental events is fun and fascinating while that unsettling but invigorating search for the next big step in one’s life is something to give each of us some food for fodder and reflection. 

As a musical, the score as played by Music Director Greg Kenna and his outstanding band and the songs of Paul Scott Goodman – as previously mentioned -- are a wonderful mixture of period-sounding pieces with no one song fitting neatly into any one category, giving the entire set of songs aspects of both old and new, yesterday and today.  And while big choreographed numbers are not a part this musical, the choreography of Josh Prince definitely captures the generational differences represented in the story as well as the dream-like wonderment of new loves discovered.

American Conservatory Theatre has a summertime hit in its Summer of ’69, world premiere of A Walk on the Moon.  If the instantaneous, standing “O” of the opening night’s audience is any indication, New York might well be a next stop for this delightful sojourn into a recent generation’s time of upending political, musical, and personal revolutions.

Rating:  5 E “MUST SEE”

A Walk on the Moon continues through July 1, 2018 at American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.act-sf.org/ or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Berne


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

"Finks"


FINKS
Joe Gilford

Jim Stanek, Donna Vivino, Leo Ash Evens & Gabriel Marin
For the first eleven years of his life, Joe Gilford grew up in a household where the 1950s blacklist against Hollywood writers, directors, and actors was very much part of his every day life, given his parents were both on it along with many of their closest friends.  Young Joe was even named for an actor, Joseph Edward Bromberg, whose career and life were ruined in 1951by the now infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities. 

With that kind of upbringing, no wonder the boy who grew up to be a playwright (Danny’s Brain, The Radio Days) chose to pen a script that combines real and fictionalized characters and actual Committee testimonies to create a story about how this decade-plus of continuous hearings affected in such horrible ways people whose only crime was generally being socially conscious and active for human rights causes.  After opening Off-Broadway in 2013 to critical acclaim, FINKS receives its West Coast premiere under the same direction as its New York debut, with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s own Giovanna Sardelli now artistically guiding for her home company a highly engaging, visually electric, and powerfully acted FINKS.

For my full review, please continue to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj128.html .

Rating: 5 E

FINKS runs through July 1, 2018 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View.  Tickets are available online at http://www.theatreworks.org/box-office/ or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday – Friday 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Saturday – Sunday, Noon – 6 p.m.

Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Saturday, June 9, 2018

"Six Characters in Search of a Play"


Six Characters in Search of a Play
Del Shores


Del Shores
“I’m a storytelling thief,” confesses the ever-smiling, hands-flying “minor gay celebrity” (his words) standing just a few feet from his already enraptured audience – about fifty of what must be hundreds of thousands of loyal fans of Brother Boy, Bitsy Mae, Latrelle, Sissy, LaVonda, and ‘Bubba’ Wardell.  Those are the southern, trash-talking, cigarette-and-bourbon-toting family members that so many of us have come to know and love through Sordid Lives, both the play and the TV series. With other award-winning scripts to his credit such as Southern Baptist Sissies and The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife, Del Shores is much more than his self-proclaimed “minor celebrity” when it comes to his hordes of gay (and straight) fans.  His snarly and snappy, Texas-drawling, gossip-loving characters with hearts often the size of the Lone Star State itself have become part of our own kissing cousins through the years.  And if there is anyone tonight in the New Conservatory Theatre Center audience who somehow has missed meeting the clan, that now-lucky soul will surely walk away with some newly acquired friends and family after an evening with Del and his southern folk.

For tonight, Del Shores stands before us to share Six Characters in Search of a Play, “six people I have met that inspired me but I have not found a place for them yet in my plays, film, of TV.”  From the likes of Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, some are members of his actual family; and others are due to happenstance meetings (more likely in a bar) that then became dear, long-term friends.  Throughout, Del (short for Delferd – a name his mother misspelled on the birth certificate) intermingles his own personal confessions and anecdotes with the words and personalities of the six, each of whom he becomes in person with much flair, flash, and fury.  The stories are of course hilarious, but some are also so personal to our teller that tears come to his and our eyes.  We soon discover that however weird and quirky these six are -- just like Brother Boy, Sissy, and LaVonda -- at the core these are real people not unlike someone we may hold dear in our own memory bank – especially if you are a boy from Tennessee like I!

We first meet Sarah from Harriman, Texas, “an elderly actress determined to drink and smoke herself to death before Trump got elected.”  Sarah is a “yellow dog Democrat” (meaning “she would vote for a yellow dog before any Republican”) who calls Del one day crying in between puffs on her menthol cigarette and on her inhaler to tell him she has been asked to audition for a part of the “ugliest woman alive.”  Del delights in telling about his ongoing relationship with Sarah and letting us meet her in person, with her suddenly appearing before us in her shriveled body and tightly pursed lips, sipping through a straw her ice-cold Gallo white wine while talking with a Southern accent that has to be heard to be believed.

Cigarettes and the resulting breathing maladies are a common fixture among the women we meet.  Martha is a “monkey-hating lesbian with COPD” (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) who walks up to the bar in Nashville with her oxygen tank and then excuses herself to go out and smoke a cig.  Why he knows that she hates monkeys is a part of a story involving a gay couple with their long-tailed baby named Cocky, who is supposedly a rabid (no pun intended) fan of Sordid Lives.

As the journey across the South continues, we meet Yvonne (pronounced “Y”-vonne), a vegetarian-hating waitress from Del’s hometown of Winters, Texas, where “time and hair style have stood still for decades.”  He meets Y-Vonne while going to spread the ashes of his adored Aunt Sissy, who died “of pneumonia with a nicotine patch on the back of her ear” and whose last words were “Oh shit” because he showed up at her death bed without his dog, Bitsy Mae, whom she evidently adored almost as much as him.

And then there is Jimmy (the lone man among these six), a “homophobic Mississippi redneck with latent tendencies.”  Jimmy is “one of those Southern boys that barely open their mouths” when talking.  “Seems like they are afraid a cock might fly in,” smirks our storyteller before he jumps into the fantasy tale he has created in his mind about possible back-story of the real Jimmy he once met in a parking lot.

Del takes at one point a time-out to share his family tree with names like Aunt Betsy Ruth and Uncle Humpty (who had no legs) – a tree that has off-shoots galore due to divorces, second marriages, and time spent in prison.  That leads us to meeting Aunt Bobby Sue, “a loud mouth, racist Republican with a big heart,” who always appeared in her “whore-red lipstick” with hair “somewhere between Bobbie Gentry and Priscilla Presley.”  While his mama describes Aunt Bobby Sue as “a loud mouth what-not nothing but cheap, common trash,” we learn from Del just why he loves this woman so much and keeps her memory close to his heart.

And speaking of his mama, Del introduces us to Lorraine, “a once-brilliant drama teacher who has lost her mind and is now obsessed with porn.”  While not the last of the six stories in the sequence, it is the one that stands out – both for the humorous tale of how his mama believes toward the end of her life that she is starring in a pornographic movie entitled “The Orderlies and the Elderlies” and for his heart-warming, tear-producing memories of a mother who quickly accepts her little boy’s being out and gay. 

Del Shores
As wonderful as it is to get to know all these six and many other characters that Del parades before us, the real joy of the evening is getting to know Del himself.  The intimate setting of NCTC’s third stage is a perfect one that almost feels like we are in a living room, sitting around with a friend who is telling us his life story.  When he invites us at the end to join him at the bar for a drink, there is no doubt that he is sincere and that he now sees us as much as friends as we now do him.

Rating: 4 E

Six Characters in Search of a Play ends its too-short run June 10, 2018 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.nctcsf.org or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.
(Six Characters in Search of a Play will be on stage one night only, July 22, at the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa, Sonoma.  Tickets are available at http://www.sonomaartslive.org/.

Photos by Jason Grindle


Friday, June 8, 2018

"A Lesson from Aloes"


A Lesson from Aloes
Athol Fugard


Wendy vanden Heuvel & Victor Talmadge
The early 1960s in South Africa was a time of increasing police raids, township riots and brutal police reactions as well as unfair trials and undeserved executions.  At the same time, the world began to awaken enough to the horrors of apartheid to declare more and more boycotts and to debate at the United Nations how to deal with a society where the native, majority blacks were treated as non-human beings by the white minority leaders. 

It is into this atmosphere of fear and frustration that Athol Fugard places his A Lesson from Aloes, now in a stunningly crafted production by Weathervane Productions at Z Below.  Premiering in 1980 when apartheid was still the law but set in 1963 in the home of white Afrikaners, Piet and Gladys Benzuidenhout, A Lesson from Aloes focuses on a couple isolated in the island of their own abode for reasons to become clearer in the play’s progression but reasons originating from Piet’s history of anti-apartheid activism.  We meet Piet tending his outdoor garden of various aloe plants, a hobby he has taken up in only the past six months, but whose several dozen specimens seem now to be the main focus of his solitary life. 

As his wife watches with mixed amusement and boredom, Piet tries desperately to identify a newcomer to his mini-forest of thorned, puffy plants – stubborn, sturdy survivors in the harsh South African environment of sand, heat, and drought ... much like the plants’ caregiver himself.  As he mutters about his unnamed friend, Gladys asks with a dimpled smile but eyes a bit sad, “Are you talking to me or to your aloe ... I’m never sure these days.”  Coupled with another remark made with huge sigh by Gladys that time is “passing so slowly these days,” hints begin to mount that life is a struggle not only for these plants, but for the inhabitants of this abode – or at least for the observing, restless Gladys.  “God has not planted us in a tin pan” (like Piet has his aloes).  “I want to live this life, not just survive,” she says with both some despair and some grit of determination.

Wendy vanden Heuvel & Victor Talmadge
But there is also some excitement in the air on this particular day as the sun’s rays start their colorful journey to set (beautifully documented through the projections design of Frédéric O. Boulay).  After six months of no visitors, the couple is expecting Piet’s best friend, Steve Daniels, to come for dinner with his wife and four kids (one, the godson of Piet).  Preparations for an al fresco supper in the open patio floored by sand ignite some spark and playfulness between the couple as they even dance in between setting a festive table.  With gusto, the poem-quoting Piet searches for just the right Holmes, Dickens, or Blake quote for the evening’s toast to welcome their guests.

A contagious energy and enthusiasm for life permeates Victor Talmadge’s Piet as we get to know him in the opening minutes of the play.  He literally bounces around the outdoor, desert setting (one meticulously adorned by scenic designer Deb O), with Piet having a spry, almost boy-like nature that belies his evident years of sixty-plus. 

The contrast between his zeal and the more sedate, cautious Gladys becomes more and more stark, especially when she retreats to the adjoining bedroom where the right hand of Wendy vanden Heuvel tremors ever so slightly as she looks with some claustrophobic anxiety at the four walls around her.  Sitting at her desk to stare at a mirror with a look of some inside fear, she unlocks a drawer to take out a red leather diary and frantically to look for somewhere else to hide it.  We realize that existence in their home of Algoa Park, Port Elizabeth is for at Gladys not a safe, welcome haven – for reasons we will learn.

Tensions in the household mount as the shadows lengthen and scattered wall lights take over the duty of the parting sun’s rays (thanks to the outstanding lighting design of York Kennedy).  The Daniels family has not yet arrived as expected, with Gladys becoming ever more upset, edgy, and prone to strike with a surprising venom at a still calm, patiently waiting Piet. 

When Piet reveals that this is actually the last time they will see Steve and his family because his former activist partner (who has just been released from six months in jail after being betrayed by some informer), are immigrating to England, Gladys is full of longing envy, expressing her own desire to leave the country.  That wish is in clear opposition to the obvious roots that Piet has planted in the country’s troubled soil, a fact that seems tonight to grate ever more on Gladys as each minute passes.

More reasons emerge for Gladys’ nervous anxiety and her ever-more-pointed jabs at the mild-mannered, mostly non-responding Piet (with both Ms. vanden Heuvel and Mr. Talmadge continuing to provide memorable performances).  A point-blank question dealing with Steve’s arrest by a now emboldened Gladys to her quietly staring husband electrifies the scene just as darkness fully sets in. 

Adrian Roberts & Victor Talmadge
But when Steve (Adrian Roberts) finally arrives late in evening (sans family), the mood once again shifts to a joyful reunion and a reenactment by the two friends of a past poetry slam, complete with well-rehearsed actions that clearly they have done many times during nights together over bottles of wine.  That reprise from the evening’s earlier mounting atmosphere of agitation is only brief, as suspicions and accusations – once unspoken – now spill forth from unlikely places, pitting husband and wife as well as friend and friend against each other.  The repercussions of the unsuccessful battles that these two friends once fought for justice has scarred all three in different ways, and each is about to seek a final escape route from this land they love so much – even if that flight is simply into a meager, dry garden of aloes.

Adrian Roberts, Wendy vanden Heuvel & Victor Talmadge
Veteran director Timothy Near guides with astute grace, nuanced gift, and emotional glow this equally veteran and much-talented cast of three.  She allows the rich script and the astounding production elements of set, lighting, costume (Maggi Yule), and sound (Cliff Caruthers) to work hand-in-hand with the ever-arresting spoken and silent expressions of this cast, resulting in a production highly engaging, challenging, and moving.  Its two hours (plus intermission) pass without notice of time as we watch the implications that living in a country where freedom is denied has on both the oppressed minority and on the supposedly free majority – two of the latter who quite evidently suffer their own differing imprisonments of mind and soul. 

Athol Fugard does not let us forget that however bad it is for the Afrikaner sympathizer, friend, and activist, that person’s skin in the end is still white – something Steve, no matter how much his native South African means to him, cannot ever have as a possible refuge.  The power of skin color is a reality, even post-Apartheid, that makes this play still strikingly relevant – even and especially in our own current country.  Not only has Weathervane Productions brought us a play that instructs us of a time now past and the effects those days had on its inhabitants of a land far away, the choice to stage Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes bears its own harsh timeliness.  How can we not draw comparisons to the fact that every day those with darker skins are imprisoned both in our inner cities and at our borders at alarming rates in our own land of the so-called free?

Rating: 5 E

A Lesson from Aloes continues through June 29, 2018, staged by Weathervane Productions at Z Below, 470 Florida Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at http://www.zspace.org/.

Photos by David Allen




Thursday, June 7, 2018

"The Humans"


The Humans
Stephen Karam


Richard Thomas, Therese Plaehn, Pamela Reed, Daisy Eagan & Luis Vega
A play where sound, light, and set play starring roles along with a stellar cast and a hilarious and haunting script, Stephen Karam’s The Humans arrives in San Francisco as a most welcome and anticipated part of SHN’s current Broadway season.  Winner of the 2016 Tony Award for Best Play (and 2016 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama), The Humans is a slice-of-life of one family’s Thanksgiving dinner during which spoonful heaps of mounting disappointments, personal fears, and unshared news are served along with the welcome sides of sweet memories, silly traditions, and deep love of core family.  Others’ hot buttons are ready targets to push; emotions run roller-coaster routes; and something ominous lurks as lights flicker off one-by-one and loud thuds and bumps interrupt without warning.  And through it all, we learn that this family named Blake are just as human as the rest of us, with many of the same quirks, hopes, let-downs, and moments of sheer fright that any and all of us sometimes experience.

Erik and Deirdre Blake have arrived from their home in Scranton at the Manhattan apartment recently occupied by their daughter, Brigid and her boyfriend, Richard – a two-level, rather run-down affair in Chinatown within a few blocks of 9/11’s Ground Zero and smack-dab in the center of an area of recent, repeated flooding.  With the parents have come their other daughter, Aimee, a lawyer, and Erik’s aged mom in wheel chair (“Momo”), wrapped in a Philadelphia Eagles blanket and acting rather comatose due to her advanced Alzheimer’s disease.  As the guests arrive, final preparations are underway for Thanksgiving dinner to be held on card tables and with plastic ware, since the movers did not deliver on time. 

Probably not unlike many parents entering for the first time their kids’ first homes, Erik and Deirdre immediately let their opinions of the new abode be known with a slew of skeptical comments somewhat cushioned by well-intentioned hugs and smiles. 
- Deirdre: “I wish you had more of a view.”  (Brigid: “It’s an internal courtyard.”) 
- Erik, peering at paint-peeling walls with a look of mild shock:  “I think if you moved to Philadelphia, your quality of life would go up.”  - Deirdre:  “Your bathroom does not have a window.  Love you.  Just saying.”

As the family moves beyond those often awkward first few moments when a holiday reunion begins not quite as one hoped but almost always as one figured it would, conversations spring forth in twos, threes, and then altogether, only to repeat old and new groupings on the two levels of the apartment throughout the visit.  Some topics are continuations of years-long back-and-forths: “I know you don’t believe, but she’s appearing everywhere ... Just put it in a drawer somewhere” (Deirdre to Brigid upon presenting her a Virgin Mary).  Some are that sudden, freeze-moment announcement that just blurts out: “I am no longer on the partner track” (Aimee to her stunned family).  Some are yet another attempt to change a family member’s annoying habit: “You don’t have to text her every time a lesbian kills herself” (Brigid to her mom, with the ‘her’ being sister Aimee).  And some are just downright weird and a bit spooky, like Erik’s sharing a recurring dream of a woman with no facial features inviting him to follow her into a lighted tunnel. 

In between, there is heartfelt laughter, deep-felt resentment, touching moments of understanding, and knife-sharp insults all mixed into an evening building toward a climax of revelations that shake the family’s familiar foundation like an earthquake.  And, we get to laugh a lot ourselves – with them, at them, and even at ourselves for seeing reflections in this stage mirror of our own family.

Pamela Reed is Deirdre Blake, the mother to whom the playwright awards many of the funniest lines, especially in the first half of the ninety-minute play.  Deirdre is office manager in the same company where she has worked for forty years, earning a fraction of the young dudes now running it.  She is full of firmly held opinions that she does not hesitate to share (like her constant hints to Aimee and Richard about the merits of marriage).  Her advice and observations are delivered sometimes in a mother’s kindest, most soothing voice and sometimes pointed like an arrow aiming for a target well-known and oft-visited.  She struggles with failing knees but takes the steep, spiral, metal steps to the second floor’s bathroom like a soldier with no complaints.  The pained movements of her walking are probably only a fraction of the hurts she conceals inside as we come to learn of past and present travails.  The pride she holds for her family is in her eyes that look on them with grateful admiration even as she has just heard daughters making fun of her emails, making her in many ways an Every Mom to whom all of us can relate.

Richard Thomas is a father who is bombastic and blustery with his judgments and digs in one minute and who then melts in the next into an understanding dad with his arms enveloping a tearful daughter.  When Erik gets worked up and begins to boom forth his vocal pronouncements, the entire neck and cheek surfaces of Richard Thomas glow red.  He is a dad who has brought a survival kit of batteries, wind-up radio, and lantern (sure that this apartment is in a danger zone).  He is a career materials and equipment guy at St. Paul’s Catholic School whose own ability to help his wife, mother, and himself survive is in more question than the rest know – at least yet know.  Richard Thomas – who many in the audience remember and love as John Boy from TV’s The Waltons – is increasingly spell-bounding as the evening’s minutes continue to tick by, providing a final scene that will remain etched in many a memory.

Daisy Reed & Therese Plaehn
Daisy Eagan and Therese Plaehn each bring humor and heart as well as vulnerability and stoic strength into their respective roles as the sisters, Brigid and Aimee.  Both characters have career uncertainties stacking up on all sides around them with no real way emerging how to succeed in the way they had once hoped.  Aimee has serious physical issues (something played out in her many trips to the bathroom, often with funny side comments) and suffers still from a break-up with a girlfriend who has already found her next partner.  Brigid has a fiery streak that can flare in an instant (especially ignited when around her mom) but also is the uniting force that molds this group into a feeling of family, making sure the songs and the traditions of the family continue here in her new home (like smashing a candy pig in a poke while recounting a personal blessing).  The external spunk and determination of Brigid and the internal fragility yet resilience of Aimee are the hallmarks of two outstanding performances by these fine actors.

Helping round out the remarkable ensemble is the amiable, good-natured Richard Saad, a product of a household of an economic higher level than the Blakes; and yet Luis Vega never lets his Richard act or say anything– at least on purpose – that is meant to place himself on a higher rung than they.  He is mostly a quiet observer of the goings-on of this, his first Blake Family holiday dinner.  When he does try to chime in several times to share his dream of falling into an ice cream cone made of grass and becoming a baby, he is met with as many ‘Huh?’s’ from the puzzled Blakes as from us in the amused audience.

The sleeping volcano of the gathering is Fiona Blake, the grandmother/mother who mostly sits in her wheelchair or lies on the couch --  sometimes mumbling, often slobbering, usually looking downward with no expression.  But when she does erupt, the performance of Lauren Klein hits home for anyone who has ever had a relative with a debilitating disease like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.  And when she speaks through an email four years old, one of the play’s most meaningful moments occurs that reminds many of us of the loving legacies of others in our own families who have past before us.

Joe Mantello masterfully directs this talented ensemble, often making great use of David Zinn’s two-level, multiple-room set in order to have parallel conversations mirror each other in ways to enhance the humor or the poignancy of each or to draw subtle attention to the contrasts of emotions between the two.  The set of David Zinn is so wonderfully realistic in its cut-away slice of the New York apartment that when there is a screaming ruckus about a rat in a corner, we can only think, “Of course ... What did you expect?”  The lighting of Justin Townsend is award-winning in design and effect, creating shadows on the second-floor ceiling that tell stories all by themselves and providing that stark and never quite sufficient lighting that a low-rent apartment always seems to have.  Big applause goes also to the sound design of Fitz Patton whose unexpected and periodic entrances of pounds, creaks, and strange noises all become a soundtrack of surprise and suspense with always a comic undertone. 

The many accolades that have been awarded to Stephen Karam’s The Humans – including recently being named by The New York Times as one of the best 25 plays in the past 25 years – gain full credibility after spending a Thanksgiving with the Blakes at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre.  Look for The Humans to make its way to regional stages at all levels in the years and generations to come. 

Rating: 5 E

The Humans continues through June 17, 2018 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com.

Photo Credit:  Julieta Cervantes


Wednesday, June 6, 2018

"Jersey Boys"


Jersey Boys
Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice (Book)
Bob Gaudio (Music); Bob Crewe (Lyrics)


The Cast of Jersey Boys
The 2005, multi-Tony-award-winning Jersey Boys just keeps packing in audiences everywhere it goes, with crowds jumping to their feet for standing ovations the second the last crooning has been crooned.  Many are like I, seeing Jersey Boys last night for the fourth time and still loving every minute of it – even after seeing the same touring company two years ago in San Francisco. 

Those in the starring roles have changed since that run, but the latest quartet brings the same harmonies of voices that blend in magical ways, as well as the incredible, personal vocal ranges and sterling singing qualities that all previous casts have consistently displayed.  These four also in no way disappoint in their precise, totally synchronized movements where hips and heads, arms and legs, single fingers and total torsos all mirror each other with split-second speed (still thanks to choreographer Sergio Turjillo).  The story of the ups and downs of this famous jukebox group called The Four Seasons (book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) continues to be compelling even on the second, third, or more hearings; and who does not want once again to hear the thirty-plus songs (Bob Gaudio, music, and Bob Crewe, lyrics) that sold over 175 million records before any of the original Seasons were thirty years old. 

All to say, the current touring Jersey Boys at Broadway San Jose is a hit in the continual making as this tour that began in 2016 seems to have the same longevity of life that the original Broadway show did for its fifteen-plus year history.

Chris Stevens, Corey Greenan, Jonny Wexler & Tommaso Antico
Jersey Boys is told in four sections, appropriately matching the four seasons of the year.  Each member of the quartet narrates one part of the time-sequenced story, putting his particular spin on a history that is full of false starts, sky-rocketing successes, personal tragedies, and personal loyalties thicker than blood as well as lies and betrayals that lead to break-ups -- personally and professionally.  The narrations are of course frequently punctuated by the sounds of songs as old friends once heard on 45s and still heard decades later on any streaming service to our phones or virtual home assistants. 

Corey Greenan begins the story with the “Spring” section as the cocky, heavy-Jersey-accented Tommy DeVito, self-proclaimed founder and leader of the group (and also occasional visitor to what he calls the “Broadway Correctional Facility” – or prison).  Taking us through his search for just the right foursome as the earlier versions of trios and quartets play small clubs and street corners, Tommy also tells us how the initial group goes from being known as The Topics to The Varitones to The Four Lovers -- the latter quartet moving disastrously into comedy, emptying clubs with campy songs like “I Go Ape.”  While Tommy DeVito was usually not a featured soloist of the group, Corey Greenan as Tommy does rouse the audience with full company backup in “Earth Angel.”

The All-American-looking, clean-cut Bob Gaudio (Tommaso Antico), who at 15 had already had a #1 hit, “Short Shorts,” picks up the story of “Summer” as he becomes the fourth piece of the pie.  A cute, pushy – some might say ballsy – Jersey kid named Joey (Sean Burns) introduces Bob to a hesitant Tommy; this kid grows up to be Joe Pesci.

Bob Gaudio’s joining and his talented song-writing leads to the first three big hits of a group still in search of the right name, with the numbers delivered by the four leads in a rousing, toe-tapping sequence of melodies and harmonies that the audience can hardly hold back singing along:  “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like a Man.”  The hits also coincide with the foursome finally finding the right name, inspired by a neon “Four Seasons” sign on a bowling ally.  Tommaso Antico as Bob shines with radiant spirit as he leads the entire ensemble in belting the ever-popular “December, 1963 (Oh What a Night).” 

Standing like a tall, lanky giant with a singing bass voice astoundingly rich and deep and a talking voice slow, measured, and usually soft-spoken, Chris Stevens is Tommy’s long-time friend from the neighborhood and singing partner from the beginning, Nick Massi.  While providing the solid, ever-beautiful, lower foundation for the quartet’s close harmonies, Mr. Hines is also exceptionally funny when he describes in non-characteristic frenzy “my ten year sentence” of rooming on the road with Tommy who changed his underwear every three days, peed in the sink, and invariably found a way to leave all towels wet for Nick.

And with “Winter” comes the side of the story we have been most wanting to hear, that of the real star of the Four Seasons who eventually becomes the name in front of it all, Frankie Valli.  Ben Bogan on the San Jose opening night stepped into the role normally played by Jonny Wexler.  Singing the iconic role that won John Lloyd Young a Best Actor in a Musical Tony, Ben Bogan carries on the tradition superbly as the diminutive, angel-voiced Frankie, taking his several-octave range into falsetto heavens with total ease and confidence.  He also solos in numbers that become further proof of the original Valli’s unique talents that have struck chords deep within listeners around the globe for generations (e.g., “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and “Fallen Angel”). 

The stand-by Ben Bogan is totally convincing in not only his singing but in his ability to convey the deep hurts that Valli causes and feels, the blind devotion to those who helped him (even when they harm him later on), and the extreme drive that he has to connect with his audiences with a message that can touch each one of them singularly and meaningfully.

Supporting this star-studded foursome is a cast of equally talented veterans of many on-and-Off-Broadway, touring, and regional credits.  Among them, Michelle Rombola is Frankie’s first wife -- the fiery in red hair and in disposition, Mary Delgado.  She joins Frankie and the Four Seasons for a heart-touching and closely harmonized “My Eyes Adored You.” 

Wade Dooley is the bubbly, boyish Bob Crewe who unabashedly shows his own special swish and swagger as the producer who brings the newly formed Four Seasons into their real fame.  Todd DuBail is totally believable as the serious but sentimental mob boss, Gyp De Carlo, who loans questionable-sourced money that both keeps the group alive and eventually leads to disillusion among the original members. 

Not as successful is the one brief appearance of “The Angels,” a female trio singing “My Boyfriend’s Back” whose voices are so close at times to screeching and screaming as to dampen their cameo appearance.

Jonny Wexler, Tommso Antico, Corey Greenan & Chris Stevens
Production-wise, there have not been any noticeable changes to the touring show of San Francisco two years ago.  The two-leveled, erector-like set of Klara Zieglerova is enhanced by scenic pieces that magically and quickly appear and recede as needed.  Lighting by Howell Binkley is a real star in this production (as it was in the original Broadway production where a Tony was awarded) along with projections designed by Michael Clark that highlight nightclub marquees where the group is performing as well as Lichtenstein-style cartoons to illustrate songs and scenes.  Jess Goldstein contributes costumes that reflect the rather conservative donning of the Four Seasons as well as the sparkling dresses of the women on stage of the era.  All is held together with precision and seamless flow by Director Des McAnuff.

Four times and counting for me, and if yet another tour makes it way to the Bay Area, look for me in the front row for Jersey Boys.  I really like to hear those boys sing as they tell a story that still fascinates!

Rating: 5 E

Jersey Boys continues through June 10, 2018 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts as part of Broadway San Jose, 255 South Almaden Boulevard, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at http://broadwaysanjose.com.

Photo by Joan Marcus