Saturday, January 21, 2017

"The Speakeasy"

The Speakeasy
Bennett Fisher & Nick A. Olivero

Megan Wicks
A secret location, back alley meetings, required passwords, strict rules delivered with stern warning, boutonnieres denoting messages, and an entrance through a Chinese laundry into curtained passages in a basement-world below – All and more are the beginning parts of an evening of uproarious fun and mystery at The Speakeasy.  The setting is August 2, 1923, in a club hidden away from the G-men but not at all a secret to the packed, sold-out crowd of revelers – women who have arrived in flapper dresses decorated in feathers and flowers, beads and rhinestones and men who have donned suspenders and spats, gartered sleeves, and lots of black attire.  The three-plus-hour evening begins either in a large nightclub, a crowded casino, or a bar with piano playing and drinks flowing among the many tables’ inhabitants.  In fact, drinking the offered exotic drinks is close to a requirement and will play a big part in the continued enjoyment and build-up of the evening to come as merrymakers begin to roam at will among the several rooms and many hallways, nooks, and crannies in this Roaring Twenties, underground world of “illicit” jollity. 

Anthony Cistaro & Jessica Waldman
With over forty actors and a script purportedly of 1500 pages (written by Bennett Fisher & Nick A. Olivero), The Speakeasy is an incredible accomplishment for the production’s not one, but four directors (Michael French, Leah Gardner, Erin Gilley, and Nick A. Olivero).  Throughout the night, not only are there ongoing stage shows of comedians, singers, and dancers, there are multiple, ongoing “happenings” and interactions occurring at any given moment, in any given setting.  With most of the paying guests dressed in their own costumes, it is often a surprise that the period-attired person standing or sitting nearby suddenly is interrupting the show with drunken slurs, angrily throwing cards at the Blackjack dealer, or accusing a waitress of infidelity. 

Zachery Euberg & Theresa Miller
Partygoers have the choice of staying mostly in one place to see what develops in that venue, roaming aimlessly around and running into ‘action’ along the way, or following faithfully a particular character room to room (one probably named right out of The Untouchables with a nomenclature like Vinnie, Sal, Mickey or Velma, Viola, Virginia).  The result, as touted by the company itself, is that each partyer is bound to experience a very different evening from all others.  To experience all the different storylines, characters, and dramas/comedies, a number of visits, we are told, are necessary -- which may be one reason The Speakeasy seems to have so many advance, sold-out evenings.

While there is not an overall, evident plot for the evening, the events of the 1920s era in San Francisco and in the United States are threaded throughout. Historical events touched upon include the Anti-Saloon League’s role in the City’s referendum on whether to endorse or not the country’s constitutional amendment on Prohibition (a vote that the City did pass), the arrival of Irish immigrants to S.F., the growth of local labor unions, the growing fear of Commies in the City, and the sudden death of President Harding at the Palace Hotel ... to name a few. 

Adam Simpson & Violet Gluck
But if one chooses to follow a particular, quirky soul, an entire set of personal, highly idiosyncratic subplots threads through the night.  One might follow, for example, Archie (Adam Simpson), a father who drags illegally his young daughter Sarah (third-grader Edye Dunn, who alternates with Violet Gluck) into the bar and who has a drink-induced set of hard-luck stories that are revealed bit by bit and an anger that is seething until the liquor causes it to explode -- emotionally and physically.  And his is just one of a couple dozen or more singular stories that take three hours fully to play out; but stories that most roving audience members will only catch glimpses here and there.

Attending The Speakeasy may even pull an innocent, ticket-buying bystander into a developing story, silly situation, or sudden conflict.  While playing Blackjack, I was handed a note by the dealer reading, “When I leave, follow me ... Bring your friend along ... No one else.”  At the designated moment, we followed Dealer Tom through hallways, down dimly lit steps, and out into an alley.  There we were told that “Tony” said we could be trusted and were given “$50” worth of chips to play when Tom gave the signal by scratching his head.  We were promised, “You do this right, we split the winnings; and this is just the first of many dealings we can have together.”  Not to spoil the outcome but needless to say, not all went as planned.  We ended up in a backroom where the big boss sat waiting with a baseball bat and a lot of threats.  Evidently, these types of individual events in closed-off quarters go on throughout the evening to “the chosen” among us.

Clay David, David Magidson & Anthony Cistaro
Just as most of us in attendance are boozing it up during the evening, many of the actors’ characters are likewise as part of their storyline having a few too many.  As the third hour of the evening hits, the noise level everywhere increases (not from us, since we as ticketholders are explicitly warned to “speak easy” and only in whispers to order more drinks).  Slurred group singing erupts; confrontations increase; fights break out; faces are slapped; and bums are dragged away by bouncers while sung ballads get sadder from the stage; the guy at the bar starts crying; or the woman on the couch finally accepts her sad fate in life.  And just when we begin to wonder how will all this ever end, a somewhat predictable but very clever and well-executed surprise occurs, at which time we all file out and head home.

The scores -- if not hundreds -- of planned, scripted interactions filling the evening are supported by a creative team where few flaws are ever evident.  Somehow, lights dim, focus, shift, and go full-lit at just the right moments to focus on specific and general actions and events in multiple locations at the same time – all thanks to the outstanding design of Allen Willner, Gabe Maxson, and Brad Peterson.  The same occurs for sound effects and piped-in music as designed by Bay Area master, Matt Stines. 

Abra Berman’s costumes are eye-popping and a show unto themselves as scantily clad flappers dance in beads and spangles; gangster types roam around in their black suits and studded collar pins; and bar patrons arrive with their life stories highly evident by just the manner of period clothes they wear.  Choreographers Elizabeth Etler and Kimberly Lester, Fight Coordinator Mark Gabriel Kenney, and Movement Director Deborah Eliezer all deserve individual kudos for the highly planned, well-executed floor shows on the stages, fisticuffs in the bars and hallways, sudden trips/slips onto the floor, and the ability to get the right characters to the right spots time and again throughout the three hours.  Finally, Musical Director Benjamin Prince has planned the era’s live music that permeates through a five-piece band in the nightclub and a piano player and various singers in the bar area.

The major criticisms are overall minor and correctable over time.  There are a number of times – especially in the bar – when a character’s lines and/or song could not be heard, even though through lighting it was clear all our attentions were to be placed on that person.  For the number of people that are roaming around and for the length of time of the entire evening, my companion and I felt another venue or two were needed to help in terms of increasing variety and of relieving the number of people sometimes crammed into one room/location.  We were both struck by “how white” the entire cast of forty-plus is.  That felt noticeable and uncomfortable in a City where there is so much diversity among actors and where color-blind casting is so much the norm (even realizing the speakeasies of the time period would have likely been all Caucasian in performers, staff, and revelers). 

Finally, while the evening is overall fun and fairly fast moving, by the third hour there was noticeable evidence that a number of people were ready to leave (including me and my guest).   Since by entrance agreement no exit is allowed until the prescribed end, maybe a bit of script editing might be in order to shorten slightly the overall evening.

The Speakeasy is one of several ‘only in San Francisco’ events that we residents are so lucky to be able to attend and to offer to take our out-of-town guests.  The production is rich in the City’s history – both fact and fictional – and is a theatrical gem to be treasured.

Rating: 4 E

The Speakeasy continues in an open-ended run in a secret venue somewhere near Chinatown and North Beach in San Francisco.  Appointments can be scheduled online for 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays at 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

"Finding Neverland"

Finding Neverland
James Graham (Book); Gary Barlow & Eliot Kennedy (Music & Lyrics)

The Cast of "Finding Neverland"
Before J.M. Barrie begins putting pen to paper for his most famous of plays, into his 1903 London life enter four boys who pretend Kensington Park is their own special island – boys who crow like a rooster, play pirates and Indians, and imagine what mermaids and fairies might look like.  But one of the boys, Peter, “who doesn’t play any more,” sits on a bench acting more “like a grown man” than a young lad – that is, until the boy-like man in the park, James Barrie, begins to coax him into imagining someplace far away, beyond the stars, called Neverland. 

The special relationship the two begin developing serves as the backdrop of James Graham’s book for the musical Finding Neverland; and before our eyes, the pieces begin to fall into place for Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up (revolutionary at the time because it calls for adults to play children’s parts).  With music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, the touring version of the 2015 Broadway show Finding Neverland -- now at SHN Orpheum -- is a kaleidoscope of color and childhood memories, a panorama of magical and twinkling moments, and a storybook page where a rambunctious, highly talented cast is able to tell, sing, and dance a story that is fun, heartfelt, and fully engaging for kids and adults alike.

J.M. (James) Barrie is a successful playwright whose plot lines have become more and more retreads of each other as he explains in “My Imagination.”  “The well has run dry of all my ideas; the silence is so loud, have to cover my ears,” he opines in song.  With an alluring voice that cuts cleanly through a theatre’s back-stage atmosphere of props, ropes, and huge shadows, Kevin Kern sings his lament and desire to “escape from everything that is real.” 

Christine Dwyer & Kevin Kern
When he happens on a mother, her four boys, and their overgrown dog in Kensington Park, he and they begin to “Believe”, seeing how a park bench can be a “big circus tent” or “a rocket that’s heading to Mars.”  To his tenor voice that can build in volume with intensity pure and proud is added the mellifluous soprano of Christine Dwyer as the widow, Sylvia Davies.  While maybe not love at first sight, the sparks generated in their initial song prove to be prescient of a relationship to come – a bond that her boys desperately want to see because this James is himself just one big, over-grown boy and playmate.

When she sings “All that Matters,” Ms. Dwyer allows her crystal-clear notes to float with simple ease into the scene’s floating clouds.  Her resolve for a future that moves beyond the sadness of losing her husband is beautifully captured in her voice.  Eventually, she and James (J.M.) will realize “What You Mean to Me” in a captivating duet where their two voices intertwine in sweet harmony that is striking in its simplicity.

Mitchell Wray, Jordan Cole, Finn Faulconer & Ben Krieger
And while the developing love relationship between James and Sylvia is an important thread to this story, it is the Peter/James pairing that is the heart and soul and the real inspiration for J.M.’s daring play about kids and their imaginations.  Ben Krieger plays the young Peter, and he does so with maturity in acting and singing well beyond his young age.  He and his brothers (Finn Faulconer, Mitchell Wray, and Jordon Cole) are pure boys in their rowdy play and silliness; but when they sing (as in “We Own the Night” and “We’re All Made of Stars”), their voices are totally minus any of the screeching, too-zealous tones too often seen on stages populated by eager kids.  And when Peter and J.M. sing “When You’re Feet Don’t Touch the Ground,” they deliver what may be the night’s best number as their voices effortlessly jump up and down the scales, elegantly mixing their tenor and boy soprano while they imagine a place above the clouds where it is safe and no hurt can be felt.

Kevin Kern & Tom Hewitt
But for James Barrie to venture into a gripping adventure as a storyline for his play, he must come to recognize the darker side of his otherwise upbeat, playful personality.  Into a dream James has one troubled night when his would-be play is just not coming together emerges a pirate king named Hook along with his snarly pirates.  Telling J.M., “You need me ... Your play needs me ... Children like to scared ... They just don’t know it yet,” Tom Hewitt is a gruff, bass-voiced Hook who convinces J.M., “You can find the courage to write your own story.”  So compelling is the pirate’s gravelly, strong voice, that Mr. Kern’s James takes on a new, lower-range, more resolved voice as together they sing “Hook.”  All around them, a pirate’s ship emerges with flapping sails, pirates swinging on rope’s rigging, and cannons booming. 

Just as J.M. listens to the winds of change to add a villain to his kid’s story of a wonderland far away, people surrounding him transform as they get caught up in the enchantment that his play begins to spark.  Tom Hewitt (Hook in J.M.’s dream) also plays J.M.’s American, theatrical producer, Charles Frohman.  He slowly lets his gruff, no-nonsense shell melt away to become the instigator for his whole troupe of stuffy, somewhat snotty actors to “Play.” In doing so, he leads them in a show-stopping pub scene where the adults totally let loose and reenact in song, dance, and clown-like antics their favorite, childhood games and nursery rhymes. 

Karen Murphy is Sylvia’s society mother, Mrs. Du Maurier, with an initial dislike nearing disgust for James and his immaturity of character -- as well as for boys who act too much like boys.  She too undergoes her own transformation, modulating her stern, piercing singing voice in “Circus of Your Mind” where she ridicules J.M.’s childish visions into a rich, warm, acceptance of “Neverland” as she eventually joins J.M., the boys, Charles, and the actors in declaring, “And with your hand in my hand, I am closer now to finding Neverland.” 

Time and again, Diane Paulus as Director takes the playful, inventive choreography of Mia Michaels and creates big ensemble numbers that zing with energy, fun, and pizzazz.  From the opening “Welcome to Neverland” to the closing “Finale,” the cast members bounce, jump, swing, swerve, twist, and high kick in both fully coordinated and highly individualized manners to create numbers that explode with kid-like spontaneity.  Particularly hilarious is a formal dinner party where the boys, J.M., and servants all become juveniles with tricks and treats that leave the audience in tears with laughter.

Much of the evening’s eye-popping attraction is due to an outstanding creative team that pulls no punches in imagining scenes that sparkle and amaze.  Scott Pask’s sets are full of the bright color and look of a child’s favorite picture book and recall for us scenes of a London long ago as well as the familiar (to most of us) sets of the musical we all adore, Peter Pan.  Kenneth Posner’s lighting design is a highlight in itself, especially in the shadowed effects created in “What You Mean to Me” where giant, darkened images of J.M. and Sylvia tell their own story.  Rolling clouds, shooting stars, city scenes, and travel through time are just some of the magic that Jon Driscoll’s glorious projections paint on the scenic canvas before us.  And from dancing bears to Nana the Dog, pirates to mermaids, city street folk to the upper echelons of London society, Suttirat Anne Larlarb dresses this cast in scores of costumes that are a show unto themselves.

How better can it be to see imagined the story behind the story of one of our all-time favorite characters, Peter Pan, and to witness it with music and dance; scenes and settings; and a cast of quirky, adorable, and lovable characters that together create an evening where nary a person leaves the auditorium without the biggest of smiles?  Thank you, SHN, for bringing Finding Neverland to a City that knows all about dreaming the unimaginable.

Rating: 5 E

Finding Neverland continues through February 12, 2017 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photo Credits: Carol Rosegg

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

"Crimes of the Heart"

Crimes of the Heart
Beth Henley
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

Therese Plaehn, Lizzie O'Hara & Sarah Moser
The sometimes sad, often wacky, and usually hilarious goings on in the Magrath household of 1974 Mississippi remind us that forgiveness of family foibles is the road to keeping solid the bonds that in the end, hold families together.  TheatreWorks Silicon Valley has dusted off a some might consider a bit dated for 2017, that of Beth Henley's "Crimes of the Heart,"  and has proven that this Pulitzer winner indeed has some solid legs still to stand on.  

For my full review, please link to Talkin' Broadway

Rating: 4 E

Crimes of the Heart continues through February 5, 2017, at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View.  Tickets are available online at 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

Friday, January 13, 2017


Amy Herzog

Justin Gillman & Alisha Ehrlich
Sometimes -- even often times -- there appears to be such an alignment of the stars that everything in a live, theatrical production comes together to create a magical evening not soon to be forgotten: script, direction, actors, creative team.  Other times -- fortunately not too often -- one or more of those key elements is so out of synch with the others that upon leaving the theatre, one can only scratch one’s head and wonder, “Why?” 

Even with one of the hottest, new playwrights (Amy Herzog: 4000 Miles, Great God Plan), a locally esteemed and proven director (M. Graham Smith), and a veteran cast with impressive performance credits in their resumé, the universe is all out of whack and the stars non-aligned for the usually hit-producing Custom Made Theatre Company and its current offering of Ms. Herzog’s Belleville.  The pace of conversation and action between the main characters is painfully slow with such over-use of pregnant pauses that one almost wants to say out loud, “Just say/do something.”  At other times, the back-and-forth chatter of the script is so uninteresting that it is easy to lose focus as an audience member and either doze a bit or start thinking of tomorrow’s to-do list.  There are certainly moments of surprise (not all very pleasant when blood and vomit and toenail extraction are involved), lies between spouses to be discovered, and twists in plot that cause some suspense and tension; but there is also a lot of down time and mundane dialogue to be endured in the ninety minutes of the play that make the total time spent in the theatre seem twice that long.

Abby and Justin are an American, newly wed couple who find themselves in an ethnically diverse section of Paris where he, as a recent medical school graduate (although he for some reason skipped graduation), is working on important pediatric, AIDS research.  She, on the other hand, appears from the beginning to be out of sorts and quite unhappy with her lot as a yoga instructor and doctor’s wife, even though it was supposedly her suggestion to come to Paris. 

Justin Gillman & Nick Sweeney
Quickly to appear are increasing signs that all is not right among the newly weds and their Parisian set-up.  Abby catches Zack at home (when he should be at work) with his pants down in front of a computer screen.  Zack admits to their Senegalese landlord, Alioune, (while the two share a toke) that Abby has gotten off her anti-depressant/anti-anxiety regimen even though “that shit was worth its weight in gold.”  Alioune reminds his friend Zack (between hits of pot) that Zack and Abby are four months past due on their rent and must pay in two days or move out.  Abby offers the Muslim-practicing Alioune angel-shaped, Christmas cookies while frantically apologizing with a bizarre smile frozen on her face.  Zack, M.D., frantically searches for more weed every time he is left alone and almost gets himself arrested in one desperate, mid-night ploy to secure another high. 

And then there is this large kitchen knife that keeps on showing up in the oddest moments, accompanied by wide-eyed looks of dread by all those present.

Certainly, there are many elements introduced to lure one to lean forward in the seat to wonder where these clues are leading.  Hints of a Hitchcock-like, psychological thriller hang in the air.  But every time the suspense builds to a potentially exciting breaking point, the ensuing script’s dialogue and play’s direction usually burst the bubble, leaving the audience to suffer through subsequent minutes of not much happening.  

Many of the play’s best lines and moments are awarded to Abby, well-played by nervous, jumpy, hand-wringing (but always smiling) Alisha Ehrlich.  “I am so tired of the fucking pressure to be happy,” Abby admits as happiness (or not) as a person and as a married couple is a topic that comes up time and again for both her and Zack.  “I can still have all the trappings of a person I hate and still be a person I like, right?” she asks at one point.  It is at moments like both of these that it appears the play is finally going to dig deep and challenge us to think about our own definitions (and maybe those imposed on us by others) and pursuits of happiness and well-being.  But too often these rich lines just fall flat when the dialog peters out or turns into more humdrum banter between the spouses.  But through it all, Ms. Ehrlich continues to offer quirky nuance of manner and intriguing facial expressions that speak volumes beyond the words she is given – all enough to warrant note of her performance.

As Zack, Justin Gillman is a doctor who clearly has ever more secrets and sources of his own depression than we imagine in the beginning.  There is something uneasy in his cool, matter-of-fact manner that gives way to something rather frightening in his panicked searches for weed.  What is unclear in Mr. Gillman’s interpretation (and the script/direction he is given) are his motives for the lies he in fact lives and his real intentions about the increasingly parental, control-oriented relationship he has with Abby. 

Nick Sweeney, Nkechi Emeruwak & Justin Gillman
Rounding out the cast and serving as the more mature, adult counterparts to their American tenants are Nick Sweeny as Alioune and Nkechi Emeruwak as Amina, a married couple with two kids.  The two are strikingly different in almost every respect from the more hyper, always changing-in-mood couple renting their flat.  Tall; dignified; and overall calm and sedate in voice, expression, and movement, the two actually have little time on the stage (especially Amina) until the very end of the play.  Speaking to each other in French, their sole presence for the play’s climax is frustrating since (for most of us who know only a word or two of that language), we have no idea what they are actually saying in order to bring the play to a close. 

Carlos Aceves has created a credible set that denotes a newly wed apartment where money is scarce in a foreign land.  Angled walls, more doors than one might expect, and scenes that occur behind those doors enhance the feeling something is askew in the story unfolding before us.  Ryan Lee Short reminds us of the urban, immigrant-heavy neighborhood through his sound design and effects.  Maxx Kurzunski’s lighting and shadows add to the sense of unease and tension.

At one point, Abby blurts out to Zack, “How impossible it is to love you when you lack any actual core.”  Unfortunately, that is too close to my reaction to Amy Herzog’s Belleville, especially in the way directed in this Custom Made Theatre production.  I am sure there is more ‘there’ than I happened to see and feel the night I attended; but the play’s core message, the core reason ‘why’ is not compelling enough for me to come any where near loving this play as I have loved her other ones or other, recent Custom Made productions.

Rating: 2 E

Belleville continues through January 28, 2017 at Custom Made Theatre Company, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).

Photo Credits: Jay Yamada

Saturday, January 7, 2017


Thomas Meehan (Book); Charles Strouse (Music); Martin Charnin (Lyrics)

Sandy & Tori Bates
As the trumpet and trombone trade notes and intertwine in an opening duet of just a few seconds, the universally familiar words must be running through virtually all audience members’ heads: “The sun will come out ... tomorrow.”  It would seem that if there is someone sitting in the packed San Jose Center for Performing Arts audience who does not know the song and the storyline of the musical to follow, that person must be in the lower, single digits of age (of which there were certainly many there, some seemingly as young as three or four). 

Part of the reason so many of us return time and time again to see the 1977 Tony-winning Best Musical Annie is to experience one more time the excitement of all those fresh faces who for the first time are meeting Annie, her troupe of orphan friends, Daddy Warbucks, Miss Hannigan, and of course, Sandy (always the cutest, most amazingly behaved critter ever to grace a major stage).  We also return again and again to these seemingly annual tours to hear the songs known by heart whose clever lyrics by Martin Charnin are now emblazoned in our hearts along with the familiar tunes by Charles Strouse that we can all hum– songs that support Thomas Meehan’s feel-good story that comes with a 100% guarantee that even the hardest among us will shed at least a couple of tears at some point during the next couple of hours.  

So well known is the story that to recapitulate it in a review seems a waste of space and certainly not necessary for most readers.  Who does not know that this is the tale of an eleven-year-old, red-and-kinky-haired girl (who has been played through the years by hundreds of belting lassies including the likes of Sarah Jessica Parker, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Molly Ringwald) who was abandoned in 1922 at birth and left to reside in a Depression-era dump of an orphanage?  Who cannot recall the whisky-slugging, mean-as-can-be Miss Hannigan who runs the orphanage like a boot camp (and whom we love to hate because she is so deliciously funny and has been played in the past by comics like Carol Burnett, Dorothy Loudon, and Jane Lynch)?  And the cartoon script of old that only a few of the oldest of us can still remember reading every morning in the newspaper (and how many can recall even reading a newspaper?) comes further to life when see the bald billionaire Oliver Warbucks jumps from the newsprint to the stage as he decides to invite an orphan to his mansion on New York’s Fifth Avenue for a two-week Christmas vacation.  The love affair that develops between Annie and her Daddy Warbucks we know will lead to an eventual adoption; but we also know there is first evil to overcome, a Depression to aid, and intervention by FDR himself before these two unlikely pals (along with an adorable mutt named Sandy) will become family.

Tori Bates & the Orphans of "Annie"
For all those who cringe a bit at the sound of the high-pitched, almost shouting screeches of young girls’ singing voices (think finger nails on a chalk board), the first couple numbers of Annie may tempt them to head quickly for the Exit sign.  But then there is something to be said for the fun and energy of eight urchins in rags blasting out the extremely popular “It’s the Hard Knock Life.” 

Even when Annie herself (in this tour, played by young Tori Bates of Sarasota, Florida) provides us with the first “Tomorrow” of the night, there is still a bit over-singing that can be excused just because she is so sincere in her highly dramatic presentation.  We begin to warm up to her high-pitched vocals as she is joined by a full ensemble of Depression-poor, ‘Hooverville’ street folks in a well-sung, well-choreographed (thanks to Dance Captain David Vogel) “We’d Like to Thank You” (i.e. Herbert Hoover, “you dirty rat, you bureaucrat, you made us what we are today”).  As the story progresses, our Annie totally settles down; and her young voice tempers to find more beauty and less bellow in numbers like “Maybe” (which she is called upon to sing several times).  And Tori Bates certainly shows maturity beyond her years in her acting as she ably carries the iconic role of Annie through all the twists and turns of the story to come.

But for anyone who did stumble into Annie somehow not realizing that there are going to be a bevy of little girls doing all they can to win hearts and cause lumps in throats, patience provides its rewards.  Once the adult characters begin to appear on the stage, the quality of vocals in this particular production soars time and again -- along with the ability to amuse and amaze with Broadway-quality acting, dancing, and comedic talents.  Top of the list is Erin Fish as the whistle-blowing, drill-sergeant Miss Hannigin who seems always to have a pint in her pocket and a penchant to be livid over her lot in life as the orphanage matron.  With a voice nothing short of fabulous in its clarity of tone and its ability to switch into cartoonish, clownish sounds as needed, she lets us know just how much she hates “little shoes, little socks, and each little bloomer” in “Little Girls.” 

Mallory King, Michael Santora & Erin Fish
Later Miss Hannigan is joined by her co-conspirators to wrestle Annie and a $50K reward away from Oliver Warbucks in one of the night’s most delightful and funny numbers.  Michael Santora and Mallory King are her brother Rooster and his floosy girlfriend Lily; and together they are ready to “move them ever-lovin’ feet” to “Easy Street” as they concoct how to fool Warbucks et al that Rooster and Lily are Annie’s long-lost parents (now pig/chicken farmers in Canada).  Mr. Santora’s crooning tenor and Ms. King’s strong soprano join Ms. Fish’s proven pipes as they sing in harmony while shuffling their feet, shimmying their shoulders, and swinging wildly their hips in a dance that brings down the house – both the first time for “Easy Street” and again in reprise.

Equally impressive are a bevy of other characters, large and small in the story.  As Oliver (soon-to-be-“Daddy”) Warbucks, Gilgamesh Taggett immediately is a larger-than-life character doing full justice to his cartoon-strip heritage as he leads Annie and a stage full of his mansion’s staff in a night-time tour of the Big Apple in “N.Y.C.”  His ability to trumpet sustained notes of grandeur matches the City’s wonders.   Later, he offers a softer, heartfelt stream of exacting syllables in “Something Was Missing” as he realizes how much he needs Annie to complete his fortune-rich, power-wielding life.  When he and Annie duet in “I Don’t Need Anything But You,” the two blend the best of a rich baritone and a young soprano into a number that easily is a winner.

The treasures of this cast are scattered everywhere.  Casey Prins as Warbucks’ able and (clearly) adoring assistant, Grace Farrell, has her own moments to score big with a voice that is crystal clear and able to rise in volume with not an ounce of distortion.  Jeffrey B. Duncan has the looks and the demeanor for a credible F.D.R.; but even more important, this President can sing!  When he is joined by Annie, Warbucks, and members of his cabinet for a reprise of “Tomorrow,” the Commander-in-Chief discovers that the optimism of this bold youngster is just what his team needs to inspire a “new deal” for the country. 

Timothy Allen as Harold Ickes is jolted to his feet by his President to sing “The sun will come out.”  He is soon joined (at first in reluctant whispers and then in increasing conviction and full-voiced harmony) by Roxy York as Frances Perkins, Connor Simpson as Cordell Hull, and Todd Berkich as Henry Morganthau – all real persona of our nation’s history.  The result is a rousing reprise of the musical’s most famous song (“Tomorrow”) that almost has the audience standing and joining in.

Director Marin Charnin does not miss a chance to add fun and surprises to the show as even minor characters get a moment to draw special applause.  A good example is a number of moves by Drake (Adam Du Plessis), one of the household servants whose seemingly spontaneous sparks of actions bring out a personality we would otherwise easily overlook.

For a traveling show that makes short stops (just three days in San Jose), the scenic designs of Beowulf Boritt are indeed impressive, from grimy scenes of the Lower East Side to the open spaces of Central Park to the magnificence of the Warbucks Mansion.  Greatly aiding the overall effect is an excellent lighting design by Ken Billington as well as the period-perfect costumes of both the poor and the rich by Suzy Benzinger.  Keith Levenson leads from his position on keyboards an outstanding orchestra of seven who do great justice to the beloved score Charles Strouse.

Some may wonder why indeed we need yet another tour of this much-toured musical now forty years old -- one also oft-produced on stages big and small all across the country.  Perhaps the capacity audience on this opening night is looking in early 2017 for the same advice that Annie gives herself and F.D.R. as we now face an uncertain future, given the recent election: “Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there’ll be sun!”

Rating: 4 E

Annie continues through January 8, 2017, as part of Broadway San Jose’s offerings at San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 South Almaden Boulevard, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at

Photo Credits:  Joan Marcus

Photo Credits:  Joan Marcus

Friday, January 6, 2017

"She Loves Me"

She Loves Me
Jerry Bock (Music); Sheldon Harnick (Lyrics); Joe Masteroff (Book)

The Cast of "She Loves Me"
All it takes is a simple storyline about two of the most unlikely people falling hopelessly in love for the tale to endure forever.  Take two store clerks (Amalia and Georg) who outwardly despise each other, quarreling constantly to the dismay of their co-workers in an upscale perfume shop.  Each is quite the romantic with a secret pen pal and already in love with that someone never met.  Both are out for a huge surprise when finally the cat is out of the bag that their biggest irritant in life is also their sought-after mate for life. 

Starting as Parfumerie, a 1937 play by Hungarian Miklos Lazlo, this quaint story has endured decades and endeared global audiences on stage and screen including the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner (starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan), the 1949 film musical The Good Old Summertime (Judy Garland and Van Johnson), and the 1998 hit film You’ve Got Mail (Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks).  The multi-Tony-nominated She Loves Me by Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics) (sandwiched between their famed Fiorella! and Fiddler on the Roof) and with book by Joe Masteroff starred Barbara Cook and Jim Massey in its 1963 premiere.  More recently, “Best Revival of a Musical” awards poured in from the Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk for New York’s Roundabout Theatre 2016 hit that featured another big twosome: Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi.  And while the musical is currently drawing big crowds in London’s West End, San Francisco Playhouse joins the long parade of revived productions with its own She Loves Me, directed with full tongue-in-cheek by Susi Damilano as every opportunity for an audience chuckle, laugh, or downright guffaw is dutifully manifested.

Katrina Lauren McGraw & Monique Hafen
As the summer season passes in 1934 Budapest, all is going well for the Maracek Parfumerie star clerk, Georg Nowack (clearly the favorite of the congenial owner, Mr. Maracek) until she arrives -- the rapidly talking, pleasant-looking, but oh-so pushy Amalia Balash.  She spontaneously steps in (still un-hired) to sell to a rather portly lady a leather cigarette box that also plays music, convincing her that the box is actually for candy and spritely singing that its enclosed tune is “like the voice of God” ... (warning) “No More Candy.”  Given that Georg has just bet Mr. Maracek that no one would buy the stupid boxes, Amalia becomes the new shop’s star and Georg’s instant rival.  Jason Rehklau (a last-minute stand-in for regular Jeffrey Brain Adams) and Monique Hafen send zingers aplenty each other’s way as Georg and Amalia.  His Georg increasingly scowls and pouts as her Amalia flutters about as if now owning the place. 

The rivalry intensifies as Christmas comes and peaks to a hilarious and frenzied height when at one point, he arrives at her apartment actually to be nice while she is in bed feeling sickly.  She misinterprets his being there to spy on her and to get her fired for playing hooky.  As she tries to dress and he tries to get her back into her sick bed, the two duel in a high-fun, expertly directed duet in “Where’s My Shoe” while clothes, scarves, shoes, and bodies fly about the room, over the bed, and on the floor with split-second accuracy.  Ms. Hafen’s incredible comedic talents particularly shine in her ever-changing facial expressions, her limber body, and her tearful blubbering while trying to eat ice cream.

Surrounding the two unlikely, yet would-be lovers is a whole cast of wonderful stock characters, each a treasure to get to know.  Joe Estlack is the cautious clerk Ladislav Sipos, whose defining guidelines for life of always being unseen, unnoticed unfold in a well-delivered, good-voiced “Perspective.”  “Always humble, not an ounce of self respect ... ‘Scuse me while I genuflect,” he opines.

Nicholas J. Garland & Joe Estlack
In knickers and on his bike, Arpad Laszlo is a teenage delivery boy bucking Mr. Maraczek with much natural charm for a promotion (“Try Me”).  Using his debonair air, enthusiastic facial expressions, and a voice that is one of the best in the cast, Nicholas J. Garland as Arpad (now Mr. Laszlo) successfully sells himself both to his boss and to an appreciative audience.

As the sexy clerk Ilona Ritter seeking someone for love and for lust, Nanci Zoppi is determined to find her own Mr. Right (“I Resolve”), even though in the past, “I must be cousin to a cat, I always end up with a rat.”  Ms. Zoppi time and again soars in her performance appearances, using a singing voice that rings with clarity; shows immense variety in tone, volume, mood, and pace; and knows when and how to belt without blasting.  She is particularly hilarious as she recounts in rapid-fire lyrics and with contagious energy about “A Trip to the Library,” where she has found her sought-after lover, “(who) I know he’ll only have eyes for me, my Optometrist, Paul.”

Nanci Zoppi & Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr.
But Ilona first has to ward off the advances and endure the nightly date no-shows of fellow clerk, Mr. Kodaly.  Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr. is the lanky (i.e., all legs and arms), suave, ever-smooth playboy store clerk who is always on the make and with an ego and narcissism fully to match his good looks.  Mr. Jackson particularly scores in his “Grand Knowing You,” as he sweetly sings melodious tones that belie his snotty messages to each and all as he leaves, ignominiously fired from their midst.  Heading up this quirky family is Michael Gene Sullivan as parfumerie owner and boss Mr. Maracek, who while dancing about on light feet, reminisces to Georg in a voice rich and reflective of “Days Gone By” when he was single – a condition the philandering Mr. Kadaly will ensure he relives.

Shoppers Go Wild
Director Susi Damilano guarantees every member of the cast of fourteen gets one-to-several moments to be a star.  Ayelet Firstenberg, Katrina Lauren McGraw, and Leah Shesky join the store’s male clerks in “Sounds While Selling,” where exquisitely timed, over-heard words and phases from clerk-customer pairings lead to side-tickling phrases like “I would like ... an eyebrow ... under ... my chin.”  Shoppers Zachariah Mohammed, Brian Herndon, and Amie Shapiro join these three and all clerks for a increasingly rousing, frenetic, and stage-filling “Twelve Days of Christmas” as carolers count down the shopping days left and customers first politely and later with fists and fury snap up those last-minute purchases.

The evening’s fun is fully supported by the rotating, colorful set of Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott with set changes occurring magically and quickly.  Especially wonderful is the way the 1930s Budapest street of shops rotates to show an impressive interior of the parfumerie, with the opposite side of the street now showing up in beautiful projection -- ever-changing-in-light according to the time of day (thanks to projections design by Theodore J.H. Hulsker and lighting design by Thomas J. Munn).  The number of lush and detailed period costumes that change to match the rapidly changing seasons and settings are a triumph for Abra Berman -- with shoppers showing up in period-perfect furs, hats, shoes, and dresses that are nothing short of eye-popping in both their splendor and in how fast they are changed. 

Choreography plays a big part in the fun and energy of this production, and Kimberly Richards has created coordinated steps and rhythms that work for individuals, twosomes, and a stage full of moving people in all directions.  Jerry Bock’s score is overall beautifully delivered by the four musicians under David Aaron Brown’s direction, but their placement in a small balcony above front of stage does mean at times the sound is out of balance at times, especially when the trumpet is called upon.

While her acting abilities are spot-on perfect for the role of Amalia, the demanding songs of Jerry Bock with notes that often float into high range unfortunately too often prove challenging for Ms. Hafen.  As long as she sings in soft, contemplative tones, her voice works ever so well.  However, as soon as she raises her volume and increases her intensity (which happens in the many songs she is called upon to sing), her voice too often goes from a pleasing soprano with nice lift and flow to a piercing voice with much too much edge that can actually make it difficult to concentrate and understand some of her lyrics as well as to blend in with others during her various duets.  Musical Director David Aaron Brown seems to have missed the chance to coach her to back off just enough to smooth out those rough edges back to her more beautiful sounds.

Finally, a special round of applause must go to Jason Rehklau as the under-study-called-into duty for the role of Georg Nowack.  He evidently only had a very short notice that he would step into that lead role for the evening I attended.  With script in hand that mostly appeared as an added prop instead of a necessary instrument, Mr. Rehklau nobly and convincingly carried forth.  His fine tenor voice flowed nicely, clearly in “Dear Friend”; rapidly and accurately shot out staccato lyrics in “Tonight at Eight,” and sold with pizzazz and delight “She Loves Me.”  While his quick insertion into the night’s cast did at times seem to disrupt some of the flow and pace (making a long play seem a bit too long at times), the effect of his presence as Georg was overall positive and fun to watch.  Bravo, Jason!

San Francisco Playhouse has once again delivered a holiday gift that the packed audiences are clearly enjoying.  There is no way that anyone will leave a visit to Maracek’s Parfumerie without a huge departing smile.

Rating: 3 E

She Loves Me continues in extension through January 14, 2017 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Thursday, January 5, 2017

"Avenue Q"

Avenue Q
Robert Lopez Y Jeff Marx (Music & Lyrics); Jeff Whitty (Book)
New Conservatory Theatre Center

The 2017 "Purple" Cast of Avenue Q
Ed Decker, Artistic Director of New Conservatory Theatre Center, begins his program introduction with “It’s the final, final, final ‘Furwell’ tour of Avenue Q, now in its fourth year of the company’s holiday productions.  However, one has to wonder looking around at the sold-out audience on the Wednesday night after New Years (usually a totally dead time for theatre) if come December 2017 there will not be great temptation to make Avenue Q NCTC’s version of Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol.  Clearly, NCTC’s returning patrons and newcomers are having a love affair with Avenue Q and the company’s year-in, year-out hilarious, high-energy, and heart-warming production. 

All it takes is a few minutes into the musical’s opening “Avenue Q Theme” to understand why the musical is such a perennial hit, here and across the entire globe -- even when seeing it for the second, third, or whatever time.  Jeff Whitty’s book (based on an original concept of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx) opens up in clever ways the universal experiences of young, urban adults just out of college who find that living on their own while juggling job hunts, rents, annoying apartment mates, and first loves is not as easy as it looked when they were kids at home with their parents (watching Sesame Street).  Coupled with catchy, easily remembered tunes that often resemble those of childhood TV but whose no-holes-barred, often X-rated lyrics are nothing like what Bert and Ernie would have ever sung (masterfully created also by Lopez and Marx), Avenue Q is a clever musical that in fact can be seen again and again in the same ways another generation repeated their attendance at Lerner and Lowe or Rogers and Hammerstein classics.  (And those catchy-tuned “ear worms” just keep replaying all night in one’s dreams with lyrics like “everyone’s a little bit racist,” “if your were gay ... but I’m not gay,” and “I’m not wearing underwear today.”)

The world of this garbage-bagged avenue somewhere in the depths of New York City (where recent grads arrive wondering “What Do You Do with a BA in English?”) is one full of diversity of every imaginable sort -- where being different is an accepted way of life.  Humans of all shapes and ethnicities, puppets of every color, and hairy monsters hang out as neighbors, date among themselves, and even inter-marry; and no one seems to care or really notice.  This is a world where being gay, straight, or even former TV child-star Gary Coleman in a woman’s body is A-OK.  (Do Millennials have any idea who Gary Coleman is?) 

On the other hand, these apartment-house dwellers are the first to admit to each other, “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist,” including all of them.  Avenue Q presents a slice-of-life look of what it is like to fall in love with someone who may not yet be ready to settle down with you, to lose a job and wind up on the streets, to live in the closet until the door is so open that coming out as gay is the only option, and/or to realize at one time or another, “It Sucks to Be Me.”  On this street of friends and neighbors, one will find hot sex between naked puppets, neighbors laughing at others’ (and their own) misfortunes, and almost everyone searching the Internet for porn – all a part of a normal, any day on Avenue Q.  But in this peek into everyday life, there is also genuine caring for one’s neighbors and friends, helping others find and obtain their true purposes in life, and deep understanding what community can really mean.  And on Avenue Q, this is all accomplished with equal doses of sass, silliness, and sincerity.

So popular has Avenue Q become for NCTC, this fourth generation of the show features two casts:  one labeled “Purple” (playing Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sunday matinees) and one, “Orange” (playing Thursdays through Saturdays).  This review features the Purple cast. 

The first thing evident as the cast begins to appear one by one on the stage is their multi-colored, human and non-human appearances and their squeaky, gravely, bull-throated, and nasally voices that are almost -- but not quite exactly -- as we remember from our Sesame Street days.  What is also evident is what outstanding direction Dennis Lickteig is for the fourth year in a row providing this year’s Avenue Q,  Under his leadership, humans and puppets intermingle, intertwine, and intermix their features, bodies, voices, and energies in such amazingly orchestrated manners as to humor, surprise, awe, and delight the audience almost every minute of the entire two-act show.  He is greatly aided once again by the sometimes simple, often clever, and always amusing choreography of Rory Davis where puppet’s hands, actors/puppets heads, big-mouthed boxes, and even actual people sway, swing, and step to the toe-tapping music played on keyboards and directed so well by Music Director Matthew Lee Cannon (along with bassist Amanda Wu and percussionist Tim Vaughn).  The puppets themselves -- with actors often interchanging roles and hand manipulations --are directed in movement and creativity by veterans William Giammona and Chris Morrell.

Once again this year, Kuo-Hao Lo has created a street of two-storied, bricked brownstones drawn in childlike simplicity that immediately recalls the world of Cookie Monster and Big Bird, with windows that open to hiding rooms and basement grills that pull out to be beds.  Wes Crain has outfitted humans, puppets, and monsters with cartoon-bright stripes, patterns, and solids as appropriate (with voicing puppet handlers in all black).

Among this “Purple” cast is a range of abilities to sing their parts with full surety and total understanding, with some members having occasional trouble being always understood all the way to the back row of the Decker Theatre.  However, to a person, each cast member sells the part(s) assigned with gusto, grin, and gut if not always by un-miked vocals. 

Kyle Stoner & Brendon North
Best friends and roommates Nicky and Rod (voiced and manipulated by Brendon North and Kyle Stoner, respectively) have many of the quirks and qualities of Sesame Street’s Ernie and Bert; and each talks and sings in voices that ring truth to the originals (Nicky with a froggy and guttural “aw-shucks” voice and Rod with a back-of-the-throat, boyish sound).  Brendon North also lets his arms become those of Trekkie Monster (close cousin to a certain garbage-can-dwelling hairball of Sesame Street Land), often showing his blonde, totally handsome face singing next to Trekki’s, green, oversized head of fur.  His gutturals that are part of Nicky’s vocals become even rougher as they sound off with gritty gusto in “The Internet Is for Porn” and with full heart in “School for Monsters.” 

Kyle Stoner also takes on the second puppet role of Princeton, who in light and truly angelic tones searches with a sense of optimism for his “Purpose” while accompanied by six lid-flapping boxes.  He finds the search for his life’s prime calling suddenly getting side-tracked by a growing, lust-filled attraction to a certain, cute Kate Monster, superbly manipulated and sung by Audrey Baker, who proves time and again to be the evening’s star performer.  Her speaking and singing voice shows a wide range of possibilities that sometimes reminds one of a cartoon and other times, of a Broadway diva. 

Audrey Baker & Monica Lo
Ms. Baker particularly shines in “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” where she nicely underplays her contemplative approach to the opening “There’s a fine, fine line between a lover and a friend ... reality and pretend” and then slowly increases intensity and tension to “but there’s fine, fine line between love and a waste of your time.”  She impressively builds and backs off and builds again to sell the message, “And there’s a fine, fine line between what you wanted and what you got.”  When Ms. Baker returns at several points as the other, momentary love attraction of Princeton -- the slutty, big-bosomed nightclub singer Lucy – she tempts and taunts with surety and surliness “Special” as she lures Princeton into a one-night stand.

Playing actual humans are soon-to-be newly weds, Brian (Scott DiLorenzo) and Christmas Eve (Monica Ho).  Brian looks like an over-grown boy in his orange, baggy shorts, red tennies, and purple tee barely covering his pleasantly protruding tummy.  He is an aspiring stand-up comedian who often forgets the punch line to his created jokes but who does prod a depressed Princeton into a night on the town with a lively sung “There is Life Outside Your Apartment.”  Christmas Eve’s heavily accented Japanese character brings a lot of humor to her spoken and sung sequences but here and there unfortunately loses a few words as the accent goes a bit too far afield.  Vanessa Vaccianna has exactly the correct leg-protruded pose to remind everyone of her apartment-managing Gary Coleman from 1980s TV but could use a mike to help project better her otherwise fine and fun vocals in such numbers as “You Can Be As Loud As You Want To (When You’re Making Love” and “Shadenfreude.” 

Juliana Lustenader, Vanessa Vaccianna & Brendon North
Finally, particular kudos goes to Juliana Lustenader and Brendon North as they become two hilarious Bad Idea Bears (in contrast to their Care Bear relations).  They fly in with high, squeaky voices and temptations galore to convince Princeton, Kate, and others to do all the things they know they should not do.

There is no doubt as audience members quickly rise to their feet at the end of the finale “For Now” (i.e., “Everything in life is only for now”) that their votes are for a long, continued life on Avenue Q.  New Conservatory Theatre Center once again has produced a winner; and there is no sign in the rainy, cold days of January 2017 that there is anything but a hot, fun time being had by all in attendance.

Rating: 4 E

Avenue Q continues through January 22, 2017 in an extended run on the Decker Stage of The New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos by Lois Tema