Monday, February 29, 2016

"Macbeth"


Macbeth
William Shakespeare



Conleth Hill & Frances McDormand
Years from now when I look back at all the productions of Macbeth that I have seen from Ashland to London to Edinburgh and many places in between, I am confident that the current rendition at Berkeley Repertory Theatre will be emblazoned in my fondest memories.  While the searing, steely performance of Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth is truly one to relish, it is not any of the actors that I will probably so easily recall.  What will come quickly to my mind will be all the sights and sounds that so enable, enhance, and electrify the words the actors relay in their telling Shakespeare’s story of bloody pursuit power at all costs.  Cold, dark castle walls soar with stark immensity.  Rolling banks of fog hide haunting calls of ravens.  Cavernous dining halls lit in eerie shades appear only to be suddenly replaced by a moor’s wind-swept plain or a deep forest of giant trees.  That this will be a production to remember is clear in the opening moments when a blood-soaked soldier hanging crucified on a gigantic skeleton of a tree provides the setting for the conjuring of three scraggly witches.  That same monolithic tree then suddenly vanishes into thin air with the blink of an eye, accompanied by effects of lighting and sound that shock the senses.  Stunning and surreal are the results of Berkeley Rep’s team of Douglas W. Schmidt (scenic design), Pat Collins (lighting), Dan Moses Schreier (sound), and especially Alexander V. Nicols (for a video design that is beyond words of comparison). 

Frances McDormand
The women of this drama of mostly male roles are real the movers and shakers of the story as powerfully directed by Daniel Sullivan.  Frances McDormand’s Lady Macbeth is clearly in charge with a stone face that is imprinted with her no-holes-barred determination to be queen to Macbeth’s king.  She moves with a resolution that is palpable and speaks in a callously calm, ‘you-will-do-this’ voice as she plots the assassination plan with her on-and-off-again husband.  It is she who does hesitate to grab daggers from her shaking husband and get her own hands bloody in order to ensure the deed to Duncan is fatally complete.  When those hands will later not come clean in her deranged state of sleep waking no matter the wringing, the shiver-producing scream she viscerally emits in agony is now forever embedded as one more memory not to be soon forgotten.

With much less time on stage, Mia Tagano along with the young Leon Jones also leaves her mark on this production as Lady Macduff with her son.  Their intimate interactions in front of a comforting fireplace are endearing and heart-warming while also adding to the pathos the audience feels for their impending doom we know is coming any moment. 

Rami Margron is joined by both Ms. McDormand and Ms. Tagono as three exceptionally creepy, dark weird sisters.  Meg Neville has dressed each in distinct black and gray combinations of robes, feathers, rags, helmet, and leathered crown.  Their voices creak and groan as they dance around with their incantations and predictions to Macbeth.  Daniel Sullivan magnificently directs the witches’ presence in such a way to underscore the permeating and ever-present nature of the chanted suggestions that spawn Macbeth and his wife to deathly deeds. 

Less satisfying, at least in the beginning scenes, is Conleth Hill as Macbeth.  He somehow lacks the deadly determination of purpose that Lady Macbeth so shows.  His voice is too often more like in casual conversation than plied in plots of royal takeover.  His presence is not commanding enough to convince that he is totally hungry for power.  Where he does soar is when his Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost during the banquet scene.  Mr. Hill’s Macbeth then becomes wild-eyed, panicked to the core, and is like a trapped animal in his leaps on table and cowering in corners full of his sheer fear. 

As Macbeth’s loyal Banquo in the opening scenes, Christopher Innvar exudes both a distinguished air of integrity and an immediate concern and fear of consequences of the three demonic women’s predictions.  While Macbeth listens in fearful fascination, Banquo repeatedly brandishes his sword and his gives a warning tone in voice as he converses with Macbeth about the meaning of their messages.  Later, as the ghost suddenly appearing among dinner guests but only seen my Macbeth, Mr. Innvar never flinches from the fixated, fear-producing stare he locks into Macbath’s guilty soul.

James Carpenter
Notable performances are also provided by Korey Jackson as Macduff (who is gripping in first-measured, then-enraged reactions as he realizes the fate of his slaughtered family) and especially by James Carpenter who takes on three quite different, delicious roles.  As Duncan, Mr. Carpenter’s austere but warm and slightly warbled voice along with his greying, shoulder-length locks and beard speak of a king others clearly respect and love.  An appearance as a sack-clothed, slightly inebriated porter -- obviously perturbed to be awoken by loud pounding on the castle door at dawn -- gives Mr. Carpenter a chance to make the most of one of the few humorous moments in Shakespeare’s otherwise dark play.  Rounding out his trio of roles is his green-turbaned entrance as the attentive but suspicious doctor attending to Lady Macbeth’s madness as she confesses things he clearly would rather not hear.  

Adam Magill never seems to capture the essence of the role of Malcolm, the wrongly accused son of Duncan who must flee to England and then return to lead armies to victory and capture his own rightful realm.  Malcolm’s speeches are largely uninspired in delivery and unconvincing to be those of a future king.  Other lesser roles by the rest of the cast also do not always make huge marks of distinction, with none being neither particularly good nor bad.

Among the many visual impacts of this production that will last a long time in memory is seeing Macbeth, now king, sitting as a very small-looking man on the huge, over-sized thrown once filled by the now-dead Duncan ( a brilliant design by Douglas S. Schmidt).  No more powerful picture could illustrate how out of place and wrong Macbeth is in replacing the previous Duncan.  One can hardly keep from thinking about some of the day’s headlines relating remarks made by current presidential candidates and imaging how any very small many of them might look like in sitting at the chair behind the Commander-in-Chief’s desk in the West Wing. 

Yes, Macbeth is still very relevant in its messages and meanings – especially when served up in such memorable impressions of this overall excellent production by Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Rating: 4 E

Macbeth continues through April 10, 2016 on the Roda Theatre 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

Friday, February 26, 2016

"The Call"


The Call
Tanya Barfield

Alexaendrai Bond, Nkechi Emeruwa, Melissa Keith, Darryl V. Jones & Hawlan Ng
As more and more women delay having their first babies in order to finish school, pursue careers, and/or trek the world on one last grand adventure before settling down to parenting, they and their spouses/partners also face increasing issues of fertility drugs, miscarriages, and a ticking clock.  Many couples turn to adoption, but with that decision comes a plethora of additional stress-raising uncertainties.  Tanya Barfield has written a thoughtful play, at times searing with raw emotions, about a forty-something artist whose career is now on pause as she and her husband leave behind years of unsuccessfully attempting pregnancy and turn down the adoption trail with much hope and excitement, doubts and fears.  Theatre Rhinoceros presents the West Coast premiere of The Call where not only questions surrounding adoption and parenting are tackled but also their entanglements with issues of race, AIDS, and the first world’s values and reactions to the hunger, disease, and poverty of the third world.

Annie and Peter are awaiting a phone call to ensure them their contracted surrogate mother is still on board for a promised baby, but Annie’s intuition is telling her that the mother is having second thoughts.  After listening to a rather elongated story by their visiting African-American, lesbian friends, Rebecca and Drea, about a recent safari mishap while touring Africa, Annie lands on the idea of helping solve that continent’s AIDS-induced orphan crisis by adopting a baby from there as her Plan B.  When a possible daughter has been identified and the four friends get together again, conversation turns with excitement and just a bit of edge of who will be most qualified to do the little girl’s hair (the “lily white” mother -- said at this point in jest -- or one of her Black ‘aunties’).  Doubts about the efficacy of this decision pass among the four as more information arrives.  The agency locates not a newborn as requested, but a two-and-a-half-year-old.  An arriving picture in a text shows a girl closer to four or older whose parents have died.  At this point, Annie’s second thoughts are soaring as she cries that she will miss “seeing her first step, her first word, her first tooth.”  As she backs further away from being the mother of this suggested child (resulting in heightening tensions with Peter, who is still all ready to go), she claims rather selfishly, “I’ll share her with the woman she’ll always wish she knew ... She’ll be my only daughter, but I won’t be her only mother.”

Melissa Keith and Hawlan Ng tackle the roles of Annie and Peter with sincerity but with uneven results.  Part of the issue is that Tanya Barfield’s script employs a lot of chitchat and everyday, household banter between them and between them and their friends, especially during the first half of the play.  Sometimes it appears that each of the two primary actors is just going through the motions of those less-exciting lines.  Ms. Keith slouches and shrugs a lot and shows low energy.  Mr. Ng also low keys many of his lines to the point of making the ‘slice of life’ comments totally humdrum.  Each steps up to the plate for more emotional encounters as the play progresses; but even then their connections and electricity as a couple never seem fully genuine.

Much is the opposite for Nkechi Eneruwa and Alexaendrai Bond as the coupled lesbians, Rebecca and Drea.  Sparks of both mutual attraction and marital sparring erupt between them on an ongoing basis; and their little jokes and irritations are seen in the side smiles, frowns, and raised eyebrows they give each other.  Rebecca is a ball of high energy always with an opinion, a story, and a shoulder to cry on.  She also adds a new element to the story in that her brother and Peter once spent as best friends a year in Africa, where the brother died.  Much has been left unsaid about the circumstances by her and Peter – that is until the rising temperatures and tempers surrounding the adoption cause bubbles of the past to rise to the surface and to burst in several explosions.

Drea tends to push the envelop with her frank opinions.  At one point as Annie is starry eyed about wanting a baby from Africa, Drea comments dryly, “There are a helluva lot of Black kids in the U.S.  Why is everyone running to Africa?”  That comment cuts to the quick for the stressed-out Annie, who shoots back, “Why do no African-American couples adopt in the U.S.  ... Blacks don’t adopt.”  (And thus opens in Ms. Barfield’s script a whole new can of worms to contemplate.)  Throughout the play, as the energy level goes down with just Annie and Peter on stage, it rockets when either or both Rebecca and Drea appear, with their then bringing out the best of the former two.

Darryl V. Jones rounds out the cast as a next-door neighbor, Alemu, originally from Africa.  Previously unmet by Annie and Peter, he starts showing up after he hears about the possible adoption of a baby from his homeland (of many years prior) continent.  He comes to the door with Bundt cake and then returns with a box of syringes, shoes, and soccer balls – hoping those all to make it to Africa when his neighbors go to pick up their daughter-to-be.  Mr. Jones tells one of several long, side stories the playwright inserts into the script; and while it is unclear its full necessity, his animated, spry telling is a delight to watch.  There is also deep sadness underneath those otherwise sparkling eyes as he reveals the difficulties of his own life and the regrets of options not taken. “You get stuck in life, with your eyes backwards,” he says to Annie.  That piece of advice, along with others he gives Annie (such as the astute observation, “You want a child from Africa, but you do not what Africa”) is instrumental in a final resolution she reaches.

Jon Wai-keung Lowe has directed this cast with some mixed but overall successful results in delivering a script that relies largely on casual, everyday conversations and situations to delve into issues of infertility; adoption; cultural differences; and underlying racial tensions as well as worries and inborn assumptions about crippling diseases, family histories, and third-world legacies in the future.  His task is aided by his own clever and agile set design with walls that move easily to reveal new rooms and settings.  Kitty Muntzel adds simple but stunning costumes that subtly accentuate the themes of Africa and cultural backgrounds.  Sean Keehan’s lighting concepts and execution offer some beautiful touches.

This is a production that will likely strengthen as days pass beyond Opening Night.  My guess is that the two primary characters will find their way to stronger performances that will match the three, more minor roles; and the director will quicken and vary the pace enough to shore up some of the slower parts of the first half.  All in all, Theatre Rhinoceros is to be congratulated in producing Tanya Barfield’s The Call -- a play that raises a number of very sticky, current questions related to parenting, race, and views of those very different from us.

Rating: 3 E

Theatre Rhinoceros’s West Coast premiere of The Call continues through March 12, 201at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.therhino.org.

Photo by David Wilson

Thursday, February 25, 2016

"Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage"


Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage
Eleanor Bergstein

Christopher Tierney and the Cast of Dancers of "Dirty Dancing"
As two voices in duet brilliantly sing the words all in the audience have been salivating for over two hours to hear, the dance of all dances begins in sultry swerves and dips to raised cheers (and probably some tears) among the thousand-plus in attendance.  In the end, the Golden Gate Theatre is packed for one main reason – to see Johnny and “Baby” grind, swirl, and twirl their synchronized bodies and then to lead up to that final, magnificent lift as she flies triumphantly above his sweat-dripping body.  Eleanor Bergstein’s stage version of the 1987 hit, still-famous film, Dirty Dancing (starring a young and hot Patrick Swayze and equally sexy Jennifer Grey) took its first bow in Australia in 2004, broke box office and run records in London starting in 2006, and smashed more records in Germany and Canada before hitting sold-out performances in various U.S. cities in 2008-2009.  Now in the midst of a U.S., thirty-one-city tour that began in late 2014, Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage arrives in San Francisco at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre bringing a troupe of exuberant dancers with moves and moxie that are sure once again to please fans old and young.

Rachel Boone & Christopher Tierney
On her way to college and then to the newly formed Peace Corps, Frances “Baby” Houseman is first spending her summer of ’63 with her well-to-do family at Kellerman’s, one of the “Borscht-belt,” upscale resorts in the Catskills that once welcomed mostly Jewish families escaping the heat of the New York environs.  Johnny Castle is a house painter’s son who comes in his summers to teach cha-cha to doctors’ and lawyers’ wives, who in turn salivate over his six-pack, muscular body and wavy hair-locks.  The two happen on each other after Baby helps one of the waiters, Billy, carry three huge watermelons into an after-hours, staff-only party where current dances like mashed potato and twist are turning much grittier and grimier than they are on American Bandstand as hips swirl and bodies meld.  An unexpected pregnancy by one of the resort dancers (Penny) leaves Johnny without a partner for a weekly dance engagement at a nearby hotel – a role that Billy convinces a reluctant Johnny to let Baby step into.   A week of intense mambo lessons with Johnny of how to step, dip, and undulate leads to their intense partnering in more ways than just on the dance floor, which in turn leads to major family eruptions when a worried father figures out what is going on.

With a mass of friendly tight curls and a curious spirit aching for some adventure beyond resort games, Rachel Boone is a Baby who lets her natural caution fly to the wind as she moves beyond her first awkward attempts at loosening her groins and slowly catches on how to move on the dance floor with push and purpose.  Her transformation of Baby from teenager to womanhood is thorough and convincing; and the determined courage she brings to Baby to stand up for what is right, no matter the cost to her, is palpable.

Never would one guess that in 2010, Christopher Tierney fell thirty feet onto the stage and seriously hurt himself while playing on Broadway in Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark.  His magnetic good looks and his fabulous skills as a dancer show no evident scars from that horrible accident. His Johnny is just the right combination both of cockiness and cool demeanor, of flirt and sincerity, and of no-cares-for-the-world and loyalty-at-all-costs.  But once he is either with a partner or starring solo on stage, there is no way not to be totally captivated watching this Johnny make moves that turn every inch of his body into a gyrating master of the art of hot, ‘dirty’ dance.

Christopher Tierney & Rachel Boone
Together, Rachel Boone and Christopher Tierney slowly create an electricity that eventually snaps and sizzles each time they are together.  Much credit of their individual winning performances comes in the sexual synergy they create when in each other’s presence.  They can also be quite funny and silly as a twosome, as in a sequence of Johnny’s teaching Baby in a field and then in water how to dance leap against a huge projected backdrop (part on the night’s ongoing, excellent videos and projections of Jon Driscoll). 

A large cast surrounds and ably supports the evening’s two main stars.  Key standouts include Jesse Carrey-Beaver as the resort owner’s dorky son, Niel, with eyes and intentions for Baby but with dance steps and romantic moves comically awkward.  Evan Alexander Smith is the womanizing, rather sleazy but sure-of-himself Robbie Gould who is two-timing left and right Baby’s older, naïve, and highly jealous sister, Lisa (Alex Scolari).  Jerome Harmann-Hardeman is the resort’s bandleader who also brings rich solo voice to a few numbers like “Love Man.”  Doug Carpenter is a particular winner as Billy Kostecki, a waiter who becomes buddies with Baby and who displays great charisma and real heart along with a knockout, rock-star singing voice.  Adrienne Walker lends a luxurious voice in “The Magic Moment” and sends the audience into swoons as she teams with Doug Carpenter in the much-anticipated “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life).”

The choreography of Michele Lynch (inspired by original choreographer Kate Champion) -- as performed in every style from fox trot and cha-cha to 1960s rock favorites to wild and immensely imaginative numbers with bodies flying in every direction – is the real reason to come to Dirty Dancing.  To accompany the fabulous dance numbers, there is great instrumental music by Conrad Helfrich and his terrific band on a second level high above the main stage, but there is actually little singing and few singers in this so-called musical.  The easily switchable set designs of Stephen Brimson Lewis, the stunning and inventive scenic projections on those set backgrounds of the aforementioned Jon Driscoll, and the colorful bobby skirts and formal gowns as well as skin-tight pants and tops of costume designer Jennifer Irwin all combine for eye-pleasing and story-enhancing effects.  And while the story is easy to follow, the book of this play of mostly dance is overall choppy and uninspired. Director James Powell gets us quickly through Ms. Bergstein’s often-clunky dialogue and helps us move on and concentrate on the more spell-bounding dance.

Leaving this touring production of Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage without having an overall good time and being at least a little sensuously aroused would be almost next to impossible.  There is much to like as long as one does not come in expecting more than just snippets of many well-known songs of the era and more than cursory treatment of a story that moves clumsily around all the eye-popping dance.

Rating: 4 E

Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage continues through March 20, 2016 at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA.  Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com

Photo Credits: Matthew Murphy

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

"Ondine"


Ondine
Katharine Sherman

The Cast of "Ondine"
A giant, molded, blue wave that peaks on both ends divides the arriving audience into two halves as a young man and woman -- both bare-footed, loosely clothed – silently cuddle, lounge separately, and run up the wave’s opposing crests, only to slide back down.  The dance-of-sorts continues a full fifteen minutes before the play actually begins, setting a tone for the next seventy minutes where the realms of reality and dream, awake and sleep, earth and sea mingle into mystical haze.  Taking a well-trod fairy tale revisited in many forms -- literary and dramatic -- since its original appearance in an 1811 novella (Undine by Fredrich de la Motte Fouqué), Katherine Sherman explores how unconnected to reality two people can be when deliriously lost in a first love.  Cutting Ball Theatre stages this world premiere in a form that often seems more like a choral poem of intertwined chants and soft movements than a developed play with plot line and dialogue.

Much of the traditional love story between a beautiful water spirit (or in Disney’s version, a mermaid) and a knight-errant remains in this latest iteration of the original novella.  Jessica Waldman as Ondine has been drawn out of her underwater abode by what seems as both insatiable curiosity about anything associated with humans and an evident infatuation with a curly-headed, soft-spoken Hildebrand (Kenny Toll).   This knight-of-sorts exudes youthful sincerity when describing his life mission to “transform matter, seeking perfection.”  On a more practical level, it seems he is actually looking for a solvent that will transform lead into gold.  All of this matters little to Ondine, who alternates between wanting to touch, caress, and kiss her boyish explorer-lover and diving with full splash into learning his language, how to make a good cup of tea, and what it takes to bake a delicious fruit tart.  (The sexual politics of the story, even in this latest script, is a bit hard to swallow as the male ventures out to change the world while the female just wants to be a good domestic companion.  Ouch.) 

As the story of old goes, our knight decides it is time to get back to his quest, leaving Ondine to keep testing her newly discovered eyelids (things not needed underwater) to see if when she closes/opens them, he will suddenly appear.  Things start going downhill at this point for her, and eventually boredom and anger will lead to a decision that will not bode well for Hildebrand or her when he finally does return.  The returning, exhausted knight finds that falling to sleep will mean death, and most of the rest of the play involves many ploys by Ondine to keep him awake.

Both of the key actors bring intense energy, a sense of spontaneity, and a walloping amount of tragic naiveté to Ondine and Hildebrand.  But with the script given them, there is only so far they can develop their characters.  Often their dialogue is short, choppy, and not saying a lot or it crosses into the more metaphorical, poetic realm that is mesmerizing and musical but not particularly intriguing.

Into Ondine’s world come three sisters of the sea:  Mist (Marilet Martinez), Ice (Danielle O’Hare, and Rain (Molly Benson).   Individually and collectively, they show up repeatedly to tell Ondine, “It’s time ... We miss you.”  They each pop out of the oddest places in Michael Locher’s innovative set.  They also come with their natural element in tow (enhanced by Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s sound and by Megan Finley’s costumes), willing to indulge a while with Ondine in chitchat and in the pleasures of a hot cup of tea or a fresh scone.  Together, they become a Greek-like chorus with full poetic phrases that warn and describe but do not say much even though they sound nice.  The synchronous swells of their half-submerged bodies (choreographed by Liz Tenuto) reenact their beloved sea.  The slow back and forth swaying combined with a choral flow that is more chant than conversation provide enough hypnotic powers to cause more than just a few yawns among the mesmerized (and maybe in some cases, bored at this point) audience.

Rob Melrose directs a world of dreams that proceeds in out-of-this-world manners to an expected ending that falls rather flat.  Like a state of half sleep, half awake, some of the dream is clear and interesting; and some of it fades into elements that cannot be quite recognized or understood.  As an art piece, Cutting Ball’s premiere of Ondine is an exhibit with some value in observing.  As a new play with a story that captures and holds attention with characters we come to know and care about, this Ondine falls short.

Rating: 3 E

Ondine continues through March 6, 2016 in world premiere by Cutting Ball Theatre at the Exit Theatre, 277 Taylor Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at http://cuttingball.com/productions/ondine/ .

Photo Credit: Rob Melrose

"Bridges"


Bridges
Cheryl L. Davis (Book & Lyrics); Douglas J. Cohen (Music)

The Cast of "Bridges"
In twos and threes, shoulder to shoulder, and all hands clapping, twenty shining faces looking straight ahead come down the center aisle singing, “We’re heading for freedom ... Look how far we’ve come ... There’s nothing we can’t overcome.”  As they head toward two massive bridge towers leaning slightly frontwards to greet them on stage, already some members of the audience are joining in with “That’s right” and “Amen.”  On the left is the Edmund Pettus Bridge of Selma, Alabama; and on the right is our own Golden Gate.  The times on the two sides of the stage are 1965 and 2008, respectively, and the causes are black voting rights and gay marriage rights. 

We will soon learn that there is more than one bridge that will link with strong bonds the two time periods and the icon landmarks together as one.  In this world premiere musical, Bridges, by Cheryl L. Davis (book and lyrics) and Douglas J. Cohen (music), the title says it all.  Finding, building, strengthening, and celebrating bridges between all sorts of gaps – generational, strained relationships, family ghosts, civil rights movements, present with the past, to name just a few – quickly fills the two hours of this compelling, rousing, and heart-filling new musical.  Staging a world premiere production, especially a musical with all its inherent complexities and treacheries, is risky business; but Berkeley Playhouse has crossed that bridge successfully to produce a real winner that appeals to young and old alike with messages of hope, reconciliation, and call-to-action.

Moving slowly on cane in her flowered, floor-length dress, crusty and hobbling Grandma Henderson is more than just a little peeved she must recuperate her recent fall by staying with her son Robert (an African-American minister of a 2008 Bay Area church) and his lily-white, “gotta-do-it-her-way” wife, Denise.  Without knowing it, she shares frustrations akin to those of her teenaged granddaughter, Franki, and also with her younger self, Francine, forty years in the past in Selma.  Together, the three sing defiantly a theme that will help define the entire musical, “This Will I Overcome” (“all the ones telling me what to do”).  Recently discovered letters bring back and fill in gaps of both fond and painful memories Grandma has of 1965 Selma during the days leading up to and following the marches for voting rights.  Those memories will play out and intermingle with her and her family’s 2008 lives as the stories of two times, two causes, two loves, and two families slowly and surprisingly merge eventually into one united set of links.

Amanda King is the strong-voiced, cantankerous Grandma with a strong streak of defiance and a secret that she has held onto for almost a lifetime.  She remembers when as young Francine in Selma, she met a handsome, white, Jewish boy from New York, Bobby Cohen, who had come from the north to help register black voters.  Her memory scenes recall how, while they prepared for the fateful Selma march across the town’s bridge, his persuasive flirting led her to fall in love at a time and a place when even being seen holding hands could have been fatal for both.  Both Francines join in a joyful hymn across the span of their ages, “Walk in the Shade of the Lord,” as each focuses on her time with Bobby. 

Janelle Lasalle and Joshua Marx are the younger Francine and Bobby who sneak into Selma woods to declare in beautiful melody and waltzing steps, “This Is Our Dance.”  Their passions for each other and for the cause they join other brave souls in Selma lead them to the fateful march across a bridge that horses, dogs, and angry white cops do all they can to stop.  In recounting that day with her grandson Eddie (Caleb Meyers) -- who has needed some convincing history is worth studying -- the story becomes so real that they join in spirit and locked arms with Francine, Bobby, and a whole past generation, singing as they proceed, “March with the Aid of the Lord.”  What Grandma does not yet share is what happened that day when all chaos erupted in vicious attacks of batons and the butts of guns on defenseless heads and bodies – including on her beloved Bobby’s -- and the life-long lie that she has since been carrying.

As Grandma reads more letters to engender memories, much is happening in the Henderson household around her.  Pressure is building on Franki (Nandi Drayton) by her Reverend father (the stern and stubborn Nicolas Bearde) to strengthen her college application by joining a new school activity.  As she wanders among hilarious groups of jumping cheerleaders, snobby card players, and aspiring thespians – all demanding in bombastic chords “What Group Are You In?” --  she happens upon a cute girl at the QSA booth (Queer Straight Alliance).  Kylamay Suarez is Jasmine, whose enticing smile, sparkling eyes, and impassioned marketing pitch open all kinds of doors for Franki.  As she becomes a crusader for “No on 8” (the California proposition to outlaw gay marriages), Franki moves closer to a first kiss and to a dreaded conversation with her conservative, yes-on-8” father.  After all, it is he who has led his congregation to “See the Light,” singing on a Sunday in a resounding bass voice, “If they try to build a bridge to cross over, we must block the way.”  

The no vote loses, anger develops (as sung first in despair and then in gathered strength by ’08 crowds in “Freedom, It Ain’t Happening”) and protests ensue.  As Grandma’s memories of the second march from Selma to Montgomery continue to unfold, Frankie and Jasmine join her father’s gay choir director, Paul (Phillip Percy Williams with soaring tenor voice), and others as both generations of marchers sing “Taking a Stand”.  In Selma, voices ring proudly, “We have a right for freedom,” while in California they sing, “We have a freedom to marry.”  When the 2008 protest lands Franki in jail, a plaintive and confessing “Hello Grandma” leads the elder Francine to put the missing pieces into a family bridge long left unconnected; and in doing so, to connect a father and daughter and a father with his past.

Karen Altree Piemme directs a complex set of inter-connected scenes separated in time and place with great dexterity and ingenuity.  She is greatly aided by scene-and-time-informing projections on both bridges (Nick Kumamoto), by Liz Martin’s smart costumes that speak to the story’s two sets of years and cultures, and by the clever lighting and sound design choices of Mark Thomas and Brandon Davis.  Pjay Phillips fills the stage with choreography that showcases appropriately teenage fun, young romance, and fervor of cause.  Music Director David Aaron Brown has ensured voices sing clear and winningly and the band of five plays anthems, hymns, and ballads with full beauty.  The bridges designed by Brian Watson have starring roles throughout, but the set pieces that roll in and out along with two, oft-appearing, raised platforms need some re-work in design not to be so distracting and sometimes unnecessary time-eaters.

In their Bridges, Cheryl Davis and Douglas Cohen have taken the daring move to draw connections and parallels between the black and gay civil rights movements.   How can anyone not leave this Berkeley Playhouse premiere believing that the latter learned much from the former and that both movements have a bond that must remain strong in 2016?  As the full cast of both time periods proclaims, “There’s a bridge, it will hold ... Together we will cross that bridge.”

Rating: 4 E

Bridges continues through March 6, 2016 at Berkeley Playhouse at the Julia Morgan Playhouse, 2640 College Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94704.  Tickets are available at http://berkeleyplayhouse.org or by calling Monday – Friday 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. 510-845-8542, x351.

Photo by Ben Krantz.

Monday, February 22, 2016

"She Loves Me"


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


Nick Rodrigues, Anthony Stephens, Michael Doppe, Morgan Dayley & John Rinaldi
Foothill Music Theatre opens She Loves Me in a fabulously directed production that leaves no laugh unchuckled, no minute empty or dull, and no character (major or minor) without a chance to shine forth with memorable personality. Check out my full review on Talkin' Broadway: http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj31.html


Rating: 4 E

She Loves Me continues through March 6, 2016 at Foothill Musical Theatre, Lohman Theatre Foothill College (I-280 at El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills).  Tickets are available online at www.foothillmusicals.com or by calling 650-949-7360.

Photos by David Allen.

"Champion: An Opera in Jazz"


Champion: An Opera in Jazz
Terence Blanchard (Composer); Michael Cristofer (Libretto)

Arthur Woodley
A lone boxer slowly and randomly punches his bag, gradually picks up steam and style with gathered strength, and finally begins to punctuate his song in staccato beats on the bag.  With that singular, opening composition, Terence Blanchard introduces his and Michael Cristofer’s Champion: An Opera in Jazz --  a musical, visual, and dramatic tour de force exploring compelling themes emerging from one man’s life and speaking to our lives today.  Drawing upon and intermingling the sounds of jazz, blues, soul, Caribbean, gospel, and classical, the composer provides his librettist a rich canvas to paint a story with words simple and powerful that impact at emotionally gut-wrenching levels.  SFJAZZ and San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle have joined their incredible creative forces to produce the true story of a gay boxer of the 1950s and 60s who won titles and hearts around the world but who struggled with who he was as a man, what he did to another one fateful fight, and how he paid dearly in later years for the life he chose.

At the top of an interconnected, five-level stage surrounded on all sides by the audience, an old but still muscular man sits half dressed on his bed, looking distraught and singing in rich, haunting bass, “This is my shoe ... My shoe goes where?”  Arthur Woodley is the now-aging Emile Griffith, a former welter- and middleweight boxing champion, who is slowing losing his memory of the past as well as his sense of present due to years of having his head battered in order to win matches and to entertain millions.  But the past is not totally lost yet as his life and its key players populate on the stage levels below and around him for the next three hours, all the time while he sits on his bed mostly staring at the ground and occasionally interacting in song with his younger selves.  Only when his son Luis (Andres Ramirez) comes in and out to urge him to dress, using tones of sweet tenor to arouse the staring Emile, does Emile occasionally leave his memory world to come to present reality.

Karen Slack, Robert Orth, Kenneth Kellogg & Arthur Woodley
As the younger Emile in his heyday of form and fitness, Kenneth Kellogg in red hat and suit and surrounded by colorful dancers of his native St. Thomas sings with grinning gusto, “I can swing a baseball bat like nobody’s business, and man, I can sing.”  This giant of a man can also make intricate hats, but a reunion with his long lost mother (who had “seven babies in the sun, little orphans everyone”) and an introduction to her friend, Howie Albert, leads to a new life.  With Howie (Robert Orth) salivating and singing about how Emile’s “got that body” and mother Emelda (Karen Slack) persuading him in fast beat “a monkey know what tree to climb,” Emile is coaxed to become a boxer as he is introduced to a hoard of reporters while his three-piece suit is slowly ripped off to reveal a boxer’s gleaming body in his trademark red shorts.  In the meantime, the elder Emile continues plaintively to look at his shoe, blankly asking in stirring, deep tones, “My shoe goes where?”

Scenes of his past continue to pop from Emile’s memory bank that tell of inner struggles and lingering regrets still a part of him.  As the older Emile watches and sings “in the shadows, you are here,” the young Emile makes his way to a clandestine, gay bar full of drag queens and kings and hot boys in dark corners.  There he meets bar owner Kathy Hagan (Michelle Rice) in tight leopard top and skin-hugging pants who instantly takes a liking to the scared but curious god who just walked in.  In a smoky, back-room voice she sings of the “gentler man with a sweet pitched voice” while passing him around her patrons for his and their enjoyment.  Later, Mr. Kellogg’s Emile will be taunted by his boxing foes for the rumors that surround him; told by Howie, “There are things I just don’t want to hear ... to know;” and probe his inner soul in beautiful plaintive notes, “What makes a man the man he is? ... Who is this man who calls himself me?”  His lifelong battle with his sexual orientation climaxes in his deciding to marry a sexy, sassy Sadie (a sultry-voiced, hot beat Chabrelle Williams), all the while warned by the elder Emile, Howie, Emelda, and Kathy in a moving quartet, “You can’t run, you can’t hide from what is going on inside.”

Kenneth Kellogg, Evan Holloway & Arthur Woodley
Into the older Emile’s memory cinema comes painful scenes of himself as a youngster, sent to live with his mother’s cruel cousin Blanche (Alisha Campbell).  With gospel choir in the background, she beats him while with rasp, cruel voice she tells him to ‘hold these bricks above your head.”  A young boy with a light, soulful soprano voice sings, “I have the devil deep inside me” as he holds two cinder blocks above his head.  In a powerful, moving moment, all three generations of Emile sing, “Make me strong, devil ... Make me strong and get me through this night.”  To all, the devil is clearly the boy’s, the man’s bisexuality.

Another demon that impacts Emile’s closing decades to his dying breath is a famous title fight in 1962 with the homophobic, verbally bantering Benny Paret (Victor Ryan Robertson).  Repeated blows by Emile to a head that had been abused even more in a previous fight sends Benny to his grave.  As the Old Emile sings, “Something good turns into something bad so fast.”  The ghost of Benny haunts his decomposing mind in sad progressions of notes and interactions between Benny’s specter and the old Emile.

In an evening full of gripping moments, two others deserve mention.  After the younger Emile, who is now a shell of his earlier self, has lashed out at his mother with a condemning, “You’re just a mother-fucking whore with a shit load of children,” Karen Slack as Emelda stunningly duets with a lone string bass (Marcus Shelby), hugging her lone self and singing, “Love don’t know how hard it is to live ... to breathe.”  In waves that grow in intensity and then ebb to whispers, she ends, “All you do, is done.”

Perhaps the biggest applause of the evening went to the Second Act’s opening minutes.   One boxer with hooded robe covering most of his head and face begins practicing his footwork.  With a stage that becomes his drum, he commences a jazz solo that is packed with complicated rhythms,  sudden shifts in tempo, and beats that electrify – all suddenly accompanied by his jump rope with magical powers all its own.  Choreographer Joe Orrach not only has choreographed the movements and dances that illustrate the opera’s action so magnificently all evening, he solos both here and in the opening speed bag sequence with show-stopping performances.

Along with all the stellar performances that bring this music and story to life, much credit for the evening’s impact must go to Director Brian Staufenbiel and his production team.  Dave Dunning’s a set allows the memories and generations to flow in and out so easily from Emile’s wandering thoughts.  Matthew Anataky’s lighting, built into the set itself and also falling in shadows onto the various levels of stage, highlights in remarkable ways the moods of the stories unfolding.  Costumes by Christine Crook and wigs/make-up by Jeanna Parham fashion not only the key characters in clothing of the times but transform a huge chorus from islanders to reporters to gay bar queens.  Media Designer David Murakami’s multi-screen projections finish the stunning effects; his use of rippled shadows across uneven surfaces is particularly effective in underlining Emile’s muddled state of mind.

Finally, praise must go to Nicole Paiement as she deftly and sensitively conducts the thirty-piece orchestra while also employing a three-person jazz trio.  In this compact arena of the Jazz Center with such close proximity of audience, singers, and musicians, not once do the talented musicians over-power singers nor hide their excellent diction of lyrics.

A man spends the bulk of his life trying to understand how the world around him can forgive him for accidentally killing a fellow boxer but cannot accept or forgive his sexual orientation.  In the end, it takes in a moment of reconciliation between him and his victim’s son, Benny Paret, Jr. (also played by Victor Ryan Robertson) to help him to forgive himself.  Now with some peace of fading mind, the feeble Emile, “And there is nothing more to say in the end of the day.” 

Rating: 5 E

Champion: An Opera in Jazz continues through February 28, 2016 at SF JAZZ Center, 201 Franklin Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at https://www.sfjazz.org/events/2015-16/0223/champion or by calling the box office at 866-920-5299.

Photos Credit:  Bill Evans

Friday, February 19, 2016

"Sam and Dede (Or, My Dinner with Andre the Giant)"


Sam and Dede (Or My Dinner with Andre the Giant)
Gino Dilorio

Sam (Dave Sikula) Drives Dede (Brendan Averett) to School
A writer afraid of words befriends a giant trying to hide.  That the former is the Nobel prize-winning, Irish writer Samuel Beckett and the latter is his French, twelve-year-old neighbor, Andre, already over six feet tall and 240 pounds and still growing, soon becomes hardly noticeable.  After a few days of Sam’s offering Dede (Andre’s preferred name) a ride in his truck to a nearby school in Paris (a favor the real Beckett once extended to a boy giant living next door), the two interact quite naturally as special buddies.  Even though in almost every conceivable way they share little in common (other than a deep love for cricket), the two become genuinely fond and bonded in Gino Dilorio’s version of a fictional, life-long relationship that spawns from an actual, initial encounter.  The world premiere of his play, Sam and Dede (Or My Dinner with Andre the Giant), as produced by Custom Made Theatre Company, is every minute of its ninety a total delight and is guaranteed to bring many audience smiles and laughs along the way and a collective sigh of full satisfaction as its lights go out.

Dave Sikula is the pensive-by-nature, meticulous-by-habit Samuel Beckett,  who arranges and rearranges stage furniture (in this case mostly box-shaped representations), wall hangings, and wine bottles with exacting care (probably mimicking how the famed writer once placed words on a page).  Perhaps like many in his plays’ audiences, Sam claims again and again in conversation with Dede not to know what a play like Waiting for Godot actually means (to which the boy remarks, “Ridiculous”) and even hesitates to admit he is a writer at all.   Giving answers and responses to a curious boy’s questions in the minimalist style typical of the real Beckett, Mr. Sikula offers a Sam quite authentic of how we might suppose him to have been.  But sudden-appearing, barely upturned grins and eyes that glint in delight as he banters with his unusually sized pal offer the possible heart and humor side of the man who also wrote bleak, absurd commentaries on the human condition.

Dede turns out to be quite the boy of words himself.  While not a scholar by a long shot, the boy who will someday move pianos up staircases on his back and will become a famed wrestler in the ring, spouts thought-provoking wisdoms like “The bigger a man is, the fuller he is” or “When people can never forget you, you are never alone.”  Whether he is a boy off to school or later a man going about his life, Dede lives with the fact that “no matter what I do, everyone can always see me.”  As the behemoth boy, Brendon Averett in shorts showcasing his trunk-size legs is just as silly and stubborn, curious and calculating, and bubbly and brash as any pre-teen kid; but he is also insightful beyond his years.  In response to Sam’s ever-funny-to-Dede descriptions of his Godot, the boy posits, “I think theatre should take things and make them bigger than everything ... (but) something has to happen!”

Dave Sikula and Brendan Averett
Once Dede and Sam age a few more years and meet again, Mr. Averett’s giant has a personality to match his size with hardy and deep-throated, French-sounding laughs; sheer exuberance in gulping glass after glass, bottle after bottle of wine; and real joy in kibitzing with old friend, Sam.  Watching his showing Sam a few tricks from the wrestling ring and seeing Sam’s shocked reactions is one of the play’s best of many fine moments. 

Erik LaDue’s simple yet workable stage design of movable and stackable items ably allows Beckett’s deep-in-thought wanderings and placements during each scene change.  The classical music interludes between scenes designed by Ryan Lee Short and the matching lighting choices by Maxx Kurzunski for those breaks as well as for the scenes in between both set the table for the exceptionally fine performances directed by Leah S. Abrams.   

Dave Sikula and Brendan Averett
All (playwright, director, designers, actors) combine forces for several of the most fascinating, final minutes that I have recently (and maybe ever) spent in a theatre.  In their hilariously different-sized sarcophagi with only ghastly lit heads showing, Sam and Dede each detail in continuously over-lapping monologues their last joint meeting years prior on the streets of Paris.  Although neither hardly takes a breath in his rapid tapping out of words, there is no problem in somehow understanding each and everything both are simultaneously saying.  Kudos to all involved.

Rarely have I been to a play where I had so much regret that the end had arrived.  I so wanted Sam and Dede just to keep on meeting and talking ... largely about not much at all and yet about everything.  Custom Made Theatre Company and Gino Dilorio have teamed to produce a winner that even in its first production, feels pretty perfect.

Rating: 5 E

Sam and Dede (Or My Dinner with Andre the Giant) continues through March 5, 2016 at 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at http://www.custommade.org/.