Monday, September 18, 2017

"Million Dollar Quartet"


Million Dollar Quartet
Colin Escott & Floyd Mutrux (Book)
Palo Alto Players

The Cast of Million Dollar Quartet
Million Dollar Quartet finds its way to the Palo Alto Players stage, featuring two dozen songs guaranteed to ensure audience toe taps, head bops, and hand claps along to familiar beats and rhythms.  The musical is a staged reenactment of an impromptu jam session like no other -- a true event in rock-and-roll history when Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis all stopped by Sun Studios on the same night: December 4, 1956. 

For my full review, please click to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj97.html.

Rating: 3.5 E

Million Dollar Quartet continues through October 1, 2017 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.  Tickets are available at www.paplayer.org or by calling 650-329-0891.

Photo Credit: Joyce Goldschmid

 

"Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations"


Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations
Dominique Morisseau (Book);
The Legendary Motown Catalogue (Music & Lyrics)

Epraim Sykes, Jeremy Pope, James Harkness, Jared Joseph & Derrick Baskin
In silver-grey suits with a slight sheen of sparkle, the five appear, fingers smartly snapping at their sides in perfectly synchronized movements.  For anyone whose eyes are closed, all it takes are just the first few smooth, silky notes of rich harmony to know that the voices singing “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day” can only be those of The Temptations, the Number One R&B group of all time.  And if these are not the real, 2017 version of The Temptations on the Berkeley Repertory Theatre stage, they are certainly five guys who capture the look, feel, and sound that have sustained this Motown quintet through its rotation of twenty-four members (to-date) for the past fifty-four years (and counting). 

For those of us in the audience for this Berkeley Rep world premiere of Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, we soon realize it is time to fasten our seat belts and get ready for the ride of our lives as the gloriously high notes of “My Girl” seep into our souls and bring smiles to every face.  What we are about to witness is a captivating, uplifting, and heart-breaking story that Dominique Morisseau has so cleverly crafted in the book of this new work, a story that will prove true the opening statement by the actor playing founder and still current member of The Temptations, Otis Williams: “We made history ... Thing about history, there is no progress without sacrifice.”  And of course, the story cannot be justly told without our hearing some twenty-five or so of the songs many of us already know by heart – perennial favorites like “Get Ready,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.”  Even with the required seat belts fastened, it is difficult not to stand, sway, and saunter into the aisles to dance away the next two and a half hours.

Derrick Baskin
With giant projections of Detroit in the early 1960s flowing across the entire stage before us (projections designed by Peter Nigrini), Otis Williams and his group “The Distants” stand on the street corner singing “In the Still of the Night.”  They are just one of dozens of groups popping up in clubs, back lots, and corners all over The Motor City – all waiting to be heard and discovered by a DJ or record producer. 

One such producer, Berry Gordy (Jahi Kearse) has formed in 1959 what will become the top hit-making machine in Detroit, Motown Records (Four Tops, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and many more).  After his Distants dissolve, Otis collects four others to form a new group, first calling them “The Elgins” but realizing no one who will be listening to them can afford a watch by that name and will thus not pay them any attention. 

In one of the many humorous scenes of the musical, his newly collected singers brainstorm possible names while standing in a line at the urinals, finally arriving at The Temptations, “because once you hear us sing, you’ll want to do anything.”  That new name, the song “My Girl, ” and particularly David Ruffin’s sweet and incredibly high lead voice shimmering with emotion convinces Berry Gordy that The Temptations are for real. That is especially true after that first number that they record shoots immediately to Number One.  And, David’s (and thus actor Ephraim Sykes’) ability to throw a mike in the air, turn, and catch it while doing the splits helps catch Berry’s attention, too.

As the group’s story unfolds through the ongoing narrative of Otis Williams (whose book The Temptations is the basis for this script), snippets of famous number after number interject into the scenes – all sung with that same legendary sound trademarking the real Temptations.  As Melvin Franklin, Jared Joseph brings a bass voice that dives into sound caverns so deep to astound; and his Melvin is full of humorous looks and side comments to create a personality charming and totally likeable.  Like Mr Sykes’ David Ruffin, Jeremy Pope’s Eddie Kendricks sings with a range that climbs to the heavens in tones so clear to melt anyone’s heart (“I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”).  David and Eddie will eventually be the first two to leave the group.  Eddie’s last recorded “Just My Imagination” is a jewel that Mr. Pope sings with such a suave voice and with so many mixed emotions emanating in both tones and facial expressions that all we can do in the audience is fight back tears.

That same excellence of vocals and expression is true for James Harkness as Paul Williams whose “For Once in My Life” breaks more audience hearts, given its beauty and message by an original Temptations member whose life is drowning in the liquor bottle.  As Paul himself admits, “It seems the bigger we get, the more we fall apart.” 

The personal cost of fame and fortune and particularly of a concert schedule that is constant and coast-to-coast (as well as international) is a major part of the story of The Temptations, expressed so sadly and beautifully in “Since I Lost My Baby” as marriages fell apart, children were left home without a dad, and even the relationships among them came to grinding halts.  As Otis says, “We were all giving up normal life to be larger than life.” 

The resulting sadness of their lives is in such contrast to the incredibly beautiful singing and the astonishingly precise choreography – neither of which ever seems in this production to falter even for one note or one step.  When David (Effraim Sykes) sings “I Wish It Would Rain,” the pain in his voice and the tears showering from his lowered face in no way diminish the heavenliness of his singing.  Even Otis (Derrick Baskin) himself suffers loss as he leads the group members to their eventual Hall of Fame honors – a sadness and regret sung with his wife, Josephine (Rashidra Scott) in a heart-touching and revealing “If You Don’t Know Me by Now.”

Much talent -- early on and up to the present -- has enriched The Temptations as members have come and gone.  Jarvis B. Manning, Jr. plays an original Temptation member, Al Bryant, whose temper and temperament leads to an early departure, even with a magnificent lead voice so well sounded by Mr. Manning.  In later years, the “Tempts” include the likes of Dennis Edwards and Richard Street, played by Caliaf St. Aubyn and E. Clayton Cornelious -- both of whom bring voices magnificent to this rendering of the group’s history.  Like the others, they, too, eventually bring issues that Otis strives to manage without destroying the sound or the reputation of the group.

Taylor Symone Jackson, Candice Marie Woods & Nasia Thomas
The Temptations’ long history parallels so many major events of the U.S. (the Civil Rights movement, the death of Dr. King, the Vietnam War, etc.); and the pushes and pulls of these milestones on the group become some of the fodder for the intrigue and importance of this production’s story.  Their close association (and rivalry for R&B’s Number One slot) with Diana Ross and the Supremes is also not overlooked as Candice Marie Woods brings both the looks and the sound to rouse this audience’s appreciation with her “You Can’t Hurry Love” and  “Baby Love.” 

Des McAnuff directs this world premiere with sensitivity, imagination, and timing that could hardly be better.  The choreography of Sergio Trujillo simply cannot be adequately described in words as performed by both Temptations singers as well as by background ensemble members.  It must be seen to be believed how so many identical movements can be done in such rapid succession by the singers and dancers as hands, arms, feet, hips, heads, and entire bodies all bend, twist, extend, and turn in exact duplication. 

The scenic design of Robert Brill moves in and out as smoothly and flawlessly as the moves of the Temptations, becoming a choreography that is fascinating without ever being distracting.  (A turntable even allows us to see the group perform from all angles -- back, front, and sideways – on the same song, a brilliant touch by both director and set designer.)  Howell Binkley’s lighting design brings the staged concerts to realistic, real-time life; and Steve Canyon Kennedy’s sound design helps us believe that those stand-up and held mikes really are the ones making the music sung fill the theatre with a clarity always stunning, whether whispered or trumpeted.

Costumes are a show unto themselves when it comes to Motown and concerts – particularly if Diana Ross and the Supremes are a part of the act.  Paul Tazewell does not disappoint us with the costumes that he has designed -- shimmering, colorful, yet always-in-best-taste of sophistication. Charles G. LaPointe has ensured that all hair styles bring back many fond memories of the past fifty years’ tonsorial styles. 

Kenny Seymour leads the fourteen-member orchestra that is worthy of its own ticketed admission price.  Kudos goes to Director McAnuff for featuring the full orchestra as the show’s encore and to Berkeley Rep for including each musician’s biography in the program!

OK, let’s just say it.  Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations as premiered by Berkeley Repertory Theatre has the Great White Way written all over its probable future.  This is a musical history whose story and music should propel it into the same outer orbits that has kept The Jersey Boys so globally popular since its 2005 debut.

Rating: 5 E

Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations continues in world premiere through October 8, 2017 on the Roda stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/boxoffice/index.asp or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne


Thursday, September 14, 2017

"An American in Paris"

An American in Paris
George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin (Music and Lyrics); Craig Lucas (Book)

Taking a 1951 film starring the dancing likes of Gene Kelly and Leslie Carron – a film that is idolized by members of a certain generation and one hardly if at all known by those known as Millennials – and turning that film decades later into a stage musical is nothing short of risky and daring, if not downright foolhardy.  But the 2015 transition of An American in Paris from screen to stage was nothing short of a spectacular success, wooing and wowing first Paris and then New York and accumulating multiple awards along the way.  And how could it not with the songs of the brothers Gershwin (George and Ira) – perennial favorites like “I Got Rhythm,
“’S Wonderful,” and “The Man I Love” – peppering a storyline set in post-war Paris and rich in the intrigues of three pals all in love with the same beautiful girl?  Craig Lucas’s book pays proper homage to the film but ventures into enough new avenues to make the familiar-to-many story a novel journey for all.  But book, music, and lyrics are only part of the touring version’s magic and wonder now on stage at the SHN Orpheum.  This is a musical where dance – specifically ballet -- is the key narrator of the story; and the dance is gloriously performed not only by the talented cast but also by the floating and flying scenery, props, lighting, and projections.  The result is an eye-popping, heart-pounding, and
head-swimming success!

McGee Maddox & Sara Esty
Paris, 1945, very much plays a starring role in the musical.  The City of Lights that is in the aftermath of Nazi occupation is introduced to us by a no-dialogue opening sequence of dance and movement scenes depicting departing GI’s saying their good-byes to French girlfriends, starving Parisians standing in breadlines, and citizens taking their revenge on former Nazi sympathizers.  We are soon introduced to one street roamer among the many, Jerry, a GI who tears up his ticket home in order to stay and pursue both his art career and a beautiful but elusive girl with whom he has inadvertently locked eyes on the streets of Paris.  Also seeing that same girl and immediately falling for her is Adam, a piano-playing GI who hopes to leave his plunking-the-keys job in a café to write songs the world will sing.  In that café, both of these guys meet each other and connect with a third young man, a French-born Henri who is aristocratic by birth but aspiring to be a nightclub song-and-dance man (something his rich parents would abhor).  Henri is also trying to gain courage to propose to a gal whom his family has hid during the war.  Unbeknownst to any of the three new pals, Lise is the young, aspiring ballerina for whom all three are now pining and pursuing.

The triangular tale of romance becomes more complicated with the introduction of Milo Davenport (Emily Ferranti), a well-meaning but rather forceful wealthy American woman ready to put her money into reviving Parisian ballet.  By chance she hears Adam play the piano, sees some sketches of Jerry, and discerns the undiscovered talent of Lise; and as can only happen in a musical, she quickly picks Adam as composer, Jerry as designer, and Lise as star of her newly commissioned ballet.  With Henri on the side watching it all and stumbling into an engagement of marriage with Lise (“She accepted a proposal I didn’t have to make”), the stage is set for many ups and downs, ins and outs before final resolution – especially when we add that both Lise and Milo find themselves falling in love with Jerry.

Nick Spangler, Stephen Brower & McGee Maddox
“The Three Musketeers,” as the new comrades quickly call themselves, get their friendship off to a rousing start with a an electrifying “I Got Rhythm,” where Nick Spangler as Henri particularly shines with his brilliantly trumpeting tenor vocals, a voice that will reign forth time and again throughout the evening.  Café patrons, waiters and bartenders, and sidewalk passers-by soon join in a stage-filling number of feet kicking in rapid succession, bodies gyrating and pulsing in movements fast and furious, and couples dipping and lifting each other – only one of the evening’s many fantastically performed numbers designed by Tony-winning choreographer (and also the musical’s director), Christopher Wheeldon. 

Nick Spangler & Cast
Later, a gleeful and flamboyant Jerry (McGee Maddox) will sing and dance with flair “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck,” accompanied by a bevy of umbrella-toting Parisians, the females of which will suddenly turn into a colorful bouquet of spring flowers as dancing couples float across the stage.  With nervous feet that cannot remain still, Jerry will begin a series of jazzy steps and taps in “Fidgety Feet” that will soon erupt into a stage full of bodies performing all sorts of feats with their feet while sitting, lying, and otherwise using in fantastical ways the straight-back chairs set out for them to watch a rather silly ballet, “The Eclipse of Uranus.”  And not to be outdone, Nick Spangler as Henri will use his big-stage voice when he sings “I’ll Build a Stairway to Heaven,” all the time fantasizing when he might someday be in New York in top hat and cane among a stage full of head-feathered, scantily clothed women and tux-wearing men, all tapping and dancing in kick-lines galore. 

As wonderful as these big production numbers are (all enhanced immensely by the stunning costumes of Bob Crowley), the unique beauty and wonder of An American in Paris comes largely from the ballets designed by Mr. Wheeldon.  Tapping, kicking, swinging, and swirling give way to the graceful and mesmerizing as well as triumphant and soaring movements of ballet artists on the stage.  Those who were in the last number filling the stage with a rousing number that would do any Broadway stage proud return quickly to perform a ballet that could easily grace the stages of the great dance companies of New York, Chicago, or San Francisco.  That the plot of the musical advances importantly through the story told in these ballet sequences as long as a quarter-to-third hour is a tribute to the inventiveness and daringness of the musical’s conceivers.

Sara Esty & McGee Maddox
The peak moment of many ballets is the pas de deux; and An American in Paris does not disappoint along those lines.  Sara Esty as Lise joins McGee Maddox (Jerry) in a climatic tour-de-force demonstration of the two performers’ core skills as professional ballet stars as they dance together in a number sharing the same title as the musical.  The emotion projected by their bodies in arrestingly beautiful motion and by their eyes in longingly locked gazes is intensely tangible.  While each brings voices that hold up quite well in their sung numbers, it is their abilities as dancers that in the end assure much audience appreciation to Ms. Esty and Mr. Maddox during the final standing ovation.

And as was mentioned earlier, the motion of dance is not limited to the humans on the stage.  Bob Crowley has created a set that zooms, flies, floats, and waltzes into place – with panels, banners, and properties of all sorts magically forming alleys and avenues, cafes and storefronts, the river Seine and the backstage of a grand hall.  The massive eighteenth-century buildings of Haussman fall into place from the heavens through the astonishing projections by 59 Projections – just one of dozens of jaw-dropping effects as the designed videography reminds us just how special and globally unique Paris really is.  Even the lighting of Natasha Katz finds ways to dance its way onto the stage, changing times of day and moods of scenes with a painter’s touch.  All is enveloped in a sound design by Jon Weston that brings the aural parts of Paris to life in ways we feel we are almost there.

Finally, Music Director and Conductor David Andrews Rogers renders with a magnificent orchestra George Gershwin’s score, providing a concert worthy of its own symphony hall.  The background played for the long ballet sequences are especially inspiring and intoxicating in their beauty.

Smiles were worn on every departing face of the audience on the opening night of the touring An American in Paris at SHN.  Those in couples were joining hands and/or locking arms as the musical’s romantic airs had their effects.  Those not with that someone special were perhaps looking around to see if by chance their Else or Jerry just might be somewhere in the crowded lobby.  After all, any thing can happen when it is the night of a musical as grand and glorious as this.

Rating: 5 E

An American in Paris continues through October 8, 2017 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com.

Photos by Matthew Murphy








Wednesday, September 13, 2017

"Durst Case Scenario"


Durst Case Scenario
Will Durst

Will Durst
In early summer 2016, Will Durst -- political comedian extraordinaire and a San Francisco Treat if there were ever one – took The Marsh stage by storm in a one-person show entitled Elect to Laugh in which he skewered one-by-one all the many, many candidates then running for president in both parties.  Even then, the missteps, lies, and hair of Donald Trump dominated his jabbing monologue as he opined, “How can you parody a parody?”  Well, 235 (and counting) days after the inauguration that was the largest ever in attendance (according to Donald but not in line with actual photographs), Will Durst is back at The Marsh in his newest show, Durst Case Scenario. He is still using that same line about Trump being a parody; but he is now adding that for him as a political comedian, “He’s pure gold, fool’s gold.”  “He’s done for political comedy what medical marijuana did for Cheetos.”

During his forty or so years in the comic clubs of San Francisco and beyond, Will Durst has remained consistently animated in his hand-waving approach, bombastic in his sudden bursts, loyal to his use of an overhead projector, and willing to lambast any and all members of the political arena – no matter the party or the politics.  However, Donald Trump is clearly a whole new game for Will (“I feel like a jackal feeding on the carcass of democracy”).  For Durst Case Scenario, the comedian has taken off his customary jacket and tie in order engage his audience in mere street clothes.  With renewed vigor, vehemence, and immense lung power, he blasts through the crazy, bizarre, and altogether scary daily (hourly?) screw-ups and mess-ups of this newest president, the 45th. 

His observations, mimics, overhead slides, and rants keep the audience howling in laughter with little time to pause for breath (his or theirs).  As he always says to a San Francisco audience, “You are my target audience; you are people who read, or you know someone who reads.”  But even though we are all laughing at his rapid-fire of quips and jokes about Trump and his White House troop of mostly white people with lots of money, he admits an issue about his current jokes, “Republicans don’t think they’re funny; and Democrats don’t think they’re jokes.”

For anyone at last summer’s show, there are a number of jokes and too many of his overhead slides that are repeats; and some events that took place way back then are related as if no one would have heard of them yet (like Trump’s making fun of a disabled reporter, which occurred in last year’s campaign).  His announced focus on Trump deviates often as he fills in with everything from a few “dirty jokes” to re-visiting some of the primaries of last year (again, mostly re-treads from his 2016 show). 

Still, even for any of us seeing both shows, he is correct when he says of this current show, “People need this ... They’re seeking community ... “I’m shepherding people through their PTSD.”  And by the sound of the roaring guffaws, it is clear he has provided the pabulum this audience so desperately needs at this moment in time.

But there is an underlying, darker tone this year in this rants and raves with a more ominous feel to it than there was fifteen months ago.  He is speaking for more than just himself when he says we are all working our way through a new version of Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grieving.  He is voicing for many in this very blue-state audience as he notes we have moved through the first four stages of “Denial, Denial, Denial, and Denial” to the final stage, “Fucked.”  With that, he goes into a final funny but telling tirade of “I don’t care anymore.” 

Fortunately after admitting such things as “every meal I now order extra gluten” and “I now go swimming forty minutes after eating ... I don’t even wait an hour,” he does provide a serious coda to the evening.  In a number of final charges, he urges the audience to “Resist” – daily and in every way possible.  After all, he is the self-pronounced canary in the mine; and this comedian who has spent his entire career in a running commentary about the politics around him is now most definitely worried.

Rating: 4 E

Durst Case Scenario continues in an extended run through November 21, 2017, Tuesdays, 8 p.m. at The Marsh, San Francisco, main stage, 1062 Valencia Street.  Tickets are available at http://themarsh.org or by calling 415-282-3055 Monday – Friday, 1 – 4 p.m.

Photo by Pat Johnson




Tuesday, September 12, 2017

"Luna Gale"


Luna Gale
Rebecca Gilman


Jamie Jones, Devin S. O'Brien & Alix Cuadra
On any given day in the U.S., over 400,000 kids are living in foster care environments, with at least a quarter of those placed by the courts with blood relatives in what is classified as kinship care.  Social workers are assigned to each of those children to ensure where they live is safe, with whom they live is a proper fit.  Caroline is one such social worker.  Caroline currently has ninety active cases.  For each of the ninety, Caroline must investigate the possible caregiver, visit frequently the living situations, see the child interacting with the caregiver, determine what the parents must do to ready themselves for once again being a full-time parent, and ultimately recommend to the court when and if the real parents can once again see (much less assume parenting) their child. 

Luna Gale is a newborn, just one of Caroline’s ninety cases.  Her late-teen parents are on meth.  Luna Gale is underweight and sick.  Her Grandmother wants to take over her care. 

Thus opens Rebecca Gilman’s gripping play, Luna Gale, now receiving its Bay Area premiere at Aurora Theatre Company.  Complications and mysteries multiply as Caroline digs into this one case; and the Aurora production soars with a director, cast, and creative team who ensure the audience will never again forget the heart-breaking situations, the moral dilemmas, and the near-impossible tasks that thousands of social workers like Caroline face every day, 365 days a year.

Jamie Jones is quick to establish her Caroline as always efficient and effective.  She enters the hospital’s emergency waiting room with an air of an investigator, plummeting the two meth-high kids (also parents of Luna Gale) with multiple questions, picking up on any detail reluctantly offered and going for the jugular with yet another question or even a blunt opinion/conclusion. 

It is not that she is uncaring.  It is just that she is serious about protecting the unseen baby who has been ignored for some number of hours/days before being rushed to the hospital by the doped-out parents.  And she needs to -- no she must come to a conclusion quickly what happens to this baby.  She assesses this baby must be placed in some sort of foster situation out of the parents’ reach (at least for now), and she has decided that in a matter of ten minutes because she has many more cases to attend to before day’s end (which is probably late tonight).

With a façade of objectivity that is not totally unfeeling but more Solomon-like in its quick assessing and judging nature, Ms. Jones is pinpoint perfection in her portrayal of Caroline.  At the same time, situations (her own and those of this case) will complicate and muddy the waters.  As the days of the play’s story tick by, Ms. Jones will show an incredible range of emotions ranging from anger to anguish, caring to critical, pride to prejudice.  Throughout, she will enlighten the audience in ways few of us probably had clues at the play’s beginning about how the life of a social worker borders each day between a job doing God’s work and a job for a person condemned to hell.  In the end, Jamie Jones as Caroline is a social worker who will not be soon forgotten by any in the audience.

Devin S. O'Brien, Alix Cuadra & Jamie Jones
Alix Cuadra and Devin S. O’Brien are Luna Gale’s parents, Karlie and Peter.  Ms. Cuadra’s Karlie is a mom who clearly is not ready to be one.  The pull that meth has on her is strong; and its effects are seen in her hollow-looking stares, her tense body, and her half-spoken answers.  There are sparks of love and caring that suddenly emerge in her countenance for the baby she cannot presently have in her sole possession; but those brief sparks can fade quickly as angry reactions erupt when questions go places she does not them want to go.

As Peter, Devin S. O’Brien begins as a slouched-over, non-responsive, do-nothing dad in the hospital waiting room who would rather sleep off his high than answer Caroline’s questions.  A week or so later, he emerges as a young guy eager to please the social worker, even as he shakes his foot uncontrollably, bites his non-existing nails, and scratches almost-to-bring-blood his neck.  He is a kid now crashing and trying to stay off meth for good.  The fully credible, heart-touching performance that Mr. O’Brien gives as a young dad who really does want that baby back is one of the most stellar among many strong performances of the evening.

As probably true for any of the thousands during Caroline’s long career as a social worker, there is nothing simple about this one case of Luna Gale.  Caroline is after all only human and can hardly be blamed for mishearing Luna’s grandmother, Cindy.  She really did not mean to laugh when she heard Cindy say that she had twelve years ago accepted Jesus as her “personal trainer” (instead of “personal savior”).

Laura Jane Bailey & Kevin Kemp
Laura Jane Bailey is superb as the evangelical-leaning Grandmother who is pushing to be the baby’s permanent foster parent.  A major dilemma for Caroline is that the big smiling Cindy is one moment sweet, accommodating, and apparently capable of being a wonderful caregiver and the next moment, off on a frenzied tirade rattling that “the end days are upon us” and claiming if Luna lives with her daughter Karlie, “she’ll never be saved.”  Ms. Bailey is just getting her Cindy into first gear for what will be a full-blown battle to win possession of her granddaughter.

The complications for Caroline only mount.  Kevin Kemp is the soft-spoken, enticing-with-kind-words Pastor James who allies himself with Cindy to convince Caroline to recommend the grandmother for permanent parenting of Luna Gale.  His handsome demeanor and genuine-enough smile (or is it?) are deliciously intriguing as we and Caroline try to figure out him and his real motives. 

Jamie Jones & Joshua Marx
And why does Caroline’s much-younger-than-she boss, Cliff, appear to be best buds with the Pastor as the two now stand in her office?  Cliff is a boy-manager who seems to have it in for Caroline and is all over this one particular case for some reason.  Why is that?  Joshua Marx adds mystery and intrigue to this ever-more-complicated case; and his portrayal as the straight-and-narrow, by-the-books boss is disturbing and delightful at the same time.

Rounding out the exceptional cast is Jennifer Vega as Lourdes, a recent “graduate” of the foster-child program whom Caroline has developed a special relationship through the years.  She is who Caroline hopes all her Luna Gales will some day become.  But as appreciative as Lourdes is of all that Caroline has done and still is doing for her as she heads to community college, there is something unsaid in those sad eyes that keep diverting to the ground as her answers are more and more vague to Caroline’s questions.

The overload of all the Caroline’s of the foster care world is illustrated vividly in the scenic design of Kate Boyd.  Labeled boxes that surely contain thousands of pages of case notes and court pronouncements are the bricks of Caroline’s office walls and are even the foundation on which the raised stage sits.  The costumes of Callie Floor clearly highlight the personal characteristics of each person -- from the uptight-upstart of a boss Cliff to the too-pleasant-to-be-believed Pastor James to the organized-to-a-‘t’ Caroline.

The lighting of Kurt Landisman plays a major role in the production’s storytelling as four-cornered outlines appears as stark shadows on the floor and walls, giving the distinct flavor that Caroline is feeling more and more boxed in and trapped by the cases that fill her day.  Spots zoom in to at just the right moment to put individuals into the witness box or to remind us that the baby is what this whole story is really about at its core.  Kudos goes to Mr. Landisman for one of the best lighting designs of this theatrical season.

Under the flawless direction of Tom Ross, this cast grabs the audience and never lets us go until the final, silent moment where the fate of Luna Gale finally becomes clear.  Aurora Theatre Company has hit a homerun in presenting Rebecca Gilman’s timely and important play.  Luna Gale teaches more than entertains, leaving us with a new-found empathy for the complicated, over-loaded role of a social worker in today’s foster childcare universe.  Even more, Luna Gale reminds us that at the heart of every one of those ninety cases is a precious child just wanting to be loved in a safe, caring home.

Rating: 5 E

Luna Gale continues through October 1, 2017 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2018 Addison Street, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at https://auroratheatre.org/ or by calling the box office at 510-843-4822.

Photos by David Allen

"In the Next Room, or, The Vibrator Play"


In the Next Room, or, the Vibrator Play
Sarah Ruhl


April Culver
Sarah Ruhl’s Pulitzer Prize finalist In the Next Room, or, the Vibrator Play  received its much acclaimed world premiere in 2009 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  Now on the much smaller, more intimate stage of Pear Theatre, the play opens once again in the Bay Area featuring a doctor’s wife, Catherine Givings, who is antsy to experience life to its fullest – or at least to walk one time in the rain without an umbrella.  

My full review is now posted on Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj96.html


Rating: 4 E

In the Next Room, or, the Vibrator Play continues through October 1, 2017 at the Pear Theatre 1110 LaAvenida, Mountain View.  Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.

Photo by Caroline Clark

  

Monday, September 11, 2017

"How I Learned to Drive"


How I Learned to Drive
Paula Vogel

Amanda Farbstein & Eric Reid
“That day was the last day I lived in my body.
I retreated into my head and lived there ever since.”

A night at the theatre is not always an easy, enjoyable experience, even when the production is first-rate.  When the play’s subjects include pedophilia, incest, and misogyny, one cannot expect to walk out laughing or smiling.  One leaves a bit stunned with something like a bad taste in the mouth and a stomach feeling a bit queasy.  The first reaction is to retreat to wash one’s hands; the second is to wonder how many in the audience have had locked-away memories jolted awake by this play.

After it premiered in 1997, Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive won the Pulitzer Prize and almost every Off-Broadway award for Best Play.  When Artistic Director Brian Katz introduced Custom Made Theatre’s eighteenth season opener by saying, “This is a play I have been so wanting to do for years,” we realize that something possibly important is about to happen, even if the story may be at times repugnant in nature.  In a production marked by meticulously timed direction, a superb cast, and an intriguing scenic design, Custom Made brings to the stage Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive where we soon learn that “sometimes to tell a story, you have to learn a lesson” – especially if that lesson is half a lifetime in the making.

Amanda Farbstein
How could the thirty-something woman, our prime storyteller standing before us, ever have acquired a name like “Li’l Bit”?  Actually, coming from a family where genitalia are the prime inspirations for names (Cousin “Blue Balls,” Grandfather “Big Papa, ” and Grandma “Titless Wonder”), being named as a baby for your small vagina is a no-brainer.  But when we learn from her that “even with my family background, I was sixteen or so before I realized pedophilia did not mean ‘people who loved to bicycle’,” we realize that Li’l Bit has come from a clan where holiday gatherings might not be full of the kind of family love most of us would desire.

Paula Vogel structures her play as a series of memory playbacks -- mostly recalled in chronological sequence – in which Li’l Bit tells of her ongoing relationship with her Uncle Peck, a man about twenty years her senior.  Beginning with a scene in which he one-handedly unhooks through the seventeen-year-old’s blouse her brassiere while they both sit in the front seats of his car, we hear and see played out a number of equally disturbing episodes.  These events go all the way back to when she was eleven as the now thirty-seven-year-old relates in mostly conversational, matter-of-fact manner her story.  Often the context is in her Uncle’s car, as he entices her from an early age to be with him in order for him to teach her to drive – something he seems to do with much care in explicit, step-by-step details.  That concern for her health and well-being is in sharp contrast to his sick, sleazy motives to see and touch (and possibly more) her young, developing body.

Both Amanda Farbstein and Eric Reid give wonderfully under-played performances as Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck, each full of subtle nuance and each all too believable.  Li’l Bit lives with a family she increasingly cannot stand to be around (as we see in a number of scenes where dining-table discussions center on her much-developed breasts or on details of having an orgasm).  Ms. Farbstein convincingly erupts into teenage anger and revulsion as a grandfather continues to insult her breast while a mother and a granny just listen and smirk. 

The only one who seems to understand her and to encourage her to break away and go to college is her Uncle Peck.  The soft, understanding tones that Eric Reid uses to soothe Li’l Bit as well as the big, friendly smile and gentle touches to her arm or shoulder would probably appease any pissed-off niece who at the moment hates the rest of her family.  The icky yet totally seducing part of Mr. Reid’s performance is how much we almost want to like him, just as Li’l Bit herself struggles for years in her own approach-avoidance battle regarding the man.  After all, he never pounces on her or seems to force himself, often saying something like, “You wanna stop?  I won’t do anything you don’t want to do.” 

Mr. Reid is masterful in his portrayal of this Uncle whose magnetism is both attractive and repulsive.  Equally impressive is Ms. Farbstein as we cannot help but understand and empathize how what she allows to happen time and again here on the stage could in fact have happened in someone’s real life – and probably does happen to many equally vulnerable kids and young adults every day.

Peering eyes from a corner of the stage are often watching and reacting in various intensely yucky expressions to the memories of Li’l Bit with her Uncle Peck.  Besides their silent, leering observances, a “Greek Chorus” of three plays a wide range of roles – everything from the bizarre set of relatives worthy of much loathing to the unseen singers of the radio harmonies of the 1960’s (“In the Still of the Night,” “Surfer Girl,” etc.) that Li’l Bit likes to tune into while driving along with her Uncle on the back roads where he lures her. 

Valerie Fachman, Amanda Farbstein & Gianna DiGregorio Rivera
Among other roles, David Schiller is the abhorrent “Big Papa,” using his gravelly voice and slurping tongue to full advantage as the old geezer we hate in a moment’s meeting.  Valerie Fachman plays Li’l Bit’s mother as well as the Aunt Mary who gives a sad defense of her husband Peck that sounds too convincingly real not to be similar to what many family members often say as they sweep under the rug pedophilia incidents that they want to hide, ignore, and forget.  Gianna DiGregorio Rivera takes on a mirror image of Li’l Bit at one point, suggesting the out-of-body experience we all have sometimes in seeing ourselves in incidents that are just too unreal really to be us.   All three are also too reminiscent of the teenagers that plagued many of us as they tease and torture Li’l Bit over her well-endowed breasts.

Katja Rivera masterfully directs the series of difficult memories with a flow of recollections that comes in wave after wave, seamlessly.  At the same time, there are moments for both Li’l Bit and us to breathe more easily as director and playwright join forces as the young woman describes idyllic, pastoral scenes of rural Maryland – offering quiet pictures of the surrounding beauty Li’l Bit still remembers in great detail even after all that was so ugly has occurred to her in those very locations.

Tom O’Brien has created in the small setting a sweeping set design that creates on one side a monument to the automobile and the open road as well cordons off in an opposite corner a space where Chorus and Family can play out their roles.  Maxx Kurzunki’s lighting and Ryan Lee Short’s sound designs along with Kathleen Qiu’s costumes round out a production team’s efforts where each has contributed to a Custom Made production tough to watch but important to see.

Rating: 4 E

How I Learned to Drive continues through October 7, 2017 at Custom Made Theatre, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at www.custommade.org or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).

Photos by Jay Yamada