Monday, January 30, 2017

"1776"


1776
Sherman Edwards (Music & Lyrics); Peter Stone (Book)

The Cast of "1776"
How familiar does this sound: A Congress that seems to get nothing done?  A Congress that is divided into two factions that can barely tolerate each other?  Committees upon committees where members of Congress meet to debate ad nauseum and decide little?  Members of Congress debating who should and should not be considered citizens of the United States, focusing particularly on a minority? 
That history unfortunately repeats itself becomes all too obvious in what turns out to be a timely production by South Bay Musical Theatre of the near-fifty-year-old gem, 1776.

For my full review, please go to the San Jose/Silicon Valley section of Talkin' Broadway: http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj70.html.

Rating: 3 E

South Bay Musical Theatre’s production of 1776 continues through February 18, 2917 at the Saratoga Civic Theatre, 13777 Fruitvale Avenue, Saratoga, CA.  Tickets are available online at http://www.southbaymt.com/   or by calling 24 hours a day 408-266-4734.

Photo Credit:  Steve Stubbs

"Anything Goes"


Anything Goes
Cole Porter (Music & Lyrics)
P.G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, Howard Lindsay & Russell Crouse (Original Book)
Timothy Crouse & John Weidman (New Book)

Joy Sherratt
A trumpet, echoed by a saxophone, announces those first few notes that has everyone in the audience ready to sing along; and once the classic hits start tumbling one after another through the theatre’s airwaves, the temptation becomes greater and greater to join in while swaying the body, tapping both feet, and smiling a grin bigger than the Cheshire Cat.  After all, this is Cole Porter and Anything Goes, the 1934 musical where virtually every song has gone on to be included in the Great American Songbook.  No wonder revivals keep gracing the Great White Way, including the latest two in 1987 and 2011 which both won Tony’s Best Musical Revival.  Not only are the songs of Cole Porter big, perennial draws, but so are his uniquely clever lyrics, the rousing choreography (including one of the best tap numbers in all Broadway history), comical elements that make the best of Vaudeville look dull, and a multi-level love story that is full of mishaps, disguises, and many happy endings for all.  But all this is for naught if the production at hand is not first-class, something that is of no concern for the absolutely stunning-in-all-respects, current staging of Anything Goes by Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre where every element – cast, direction, orchestra, costuming, choreography – is eye-popping and ear-pleasing superb!

From the moment she sings her first note in the opening “I Get a Kick Out of You,” Joy Sherratt trips lightly and joyfully through Cole Porter’s up and down path of sharps and flats in ways guaranteed to delight.  Eventually, she glides into long sustained tones that always ring true and pure or even dives into lower, sultry, smoky tones that tempt and tantalize. 

And this is just the first of many songs her blonde-curled, fashion-fancy character, Reno Sweeney, will sing as the fabulous-looking beauty journeys from New York to London on an ocean liner full of dancing sailors; long-legged chorus girls, goofy gangsters, and goofier aristocrats.  The nightclub singer is in love with a certain Wall Street broker, Billy Crocker.  She joins him in a mutual, love-fest song of one-upping compliments (“You’re the Top”) as lead actor Tim Wagner introduces us to a dashing voice that is as handsome in style and tenor as is his tall, slim body in looks. 

But Billy has stowed away on the luxury liner (under what will be a number of wild and wooly disguises) in order to convince debutant and socialite Hope Harcourt (Amy Franklin Leonards) marry him instead of the much older, British stuff-ball, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Chris Vettel).  Billy croons gorgeously his song of love to Hope (“Easy to Love”) in a voice that reaches the required high peaks with total ease and never a hint of distortion.

Reno has decided to help her pal Billy thwart the planned nuptials that Hope’s mother -- the rather ridiculous Mrs. Harcourt played deliciously funny by Ali Lane.  Reno solicits her pal Moonface Martin, a second-rate gangster and “Public Enemy Number 13,” to help her in a series of silly subterfuges, after reaffirming their long-time bonds in a winning duet “Friendship.” Ms. Sherratt and Ray D’Ambrosio sing with glee and gusto, supplementing their close harmonies with coordinated pantomimes and calisthenics-like, facial expressions in a number worthy of the best Vaudeville stage. 

The waves of silly shenanigans multiply by the minute as the story goes through countless twists and turns, with every trick and trickster leading to another show-stopping musical number with almost everyone getting a chance to shine at one point or another.  In his satin, seaside robe, Billy’s bone-headed boss, Elisha Whitney, (who has lost his glasses to in a Moonface-executed caper so that he will not detect Billy on board), raises his glass of bubbly and sounds forth with aplomb in “Crew Song” (with Michael Patrick Gaffney playing the role).  His eyes rounder than British pound coins, Chris Vettel sings with baritone bravado right out of Gilbert and Sullivan “The Gypsy in Me,” joined in song, flamenco, and bull-fight simulation by Reno.  Her voice purposefully squawking and squeaking before absolutely diva-belting its fullness, Melissa Momboisse knocks it out of the park in “Buddie, Beware,” as Moonlight’s gal is joined by a bevy of sailors in a sensational song and dance number.  Moonface himself comes back with a hilarious “Be Like the Bluebird” where his “tweet-tweets,” “tra-la-la’s,” and fluttering mannerisms bring waves of laughter from the audience.

Suzanne Brandt’s choreography along with the big, full-cast numbers as directed by David Judson are as close to Broadway perfect as one could ever expect to find in the ‘hinterlands’ of Pleasanton (home of Coastal Rep).  From the mopping, dancing sailors singing in close harmony in “There’s No Curse Like Travel” to the hip-swirling, leg-kicking full-company’s “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” (the latter absolutely jaw-dropping in its overall rousing sound and production), this company has outdone itself.  But it is Act One’s finale that anyone who has ever seen “Anything Goes” anticipates with hope and trepidation:  Can they tap and tap like nobody’s business?  The answer is a resounding, “Yes, you bet your red, white, and blue they can!”  The entire double-level stage of the ocean liner so ably designed by Patrick Brandon literally shakes and shines with tap dancers galore in total unison of toe-and-heel prowess.

On top of all the other superlatives thus far noted, perhaps there is no greater compliment to this production than the visually marvelous parade of costumes designed by Margaret daSilva – a splendorous spectacle that just keeps coming and coming.  Reno’s magazine-cover-worthy wardrobe alone must fill half the back stage, much less all the other multiple changes that most other characters make as they sail across the Atlantic in style – be they socialites, sailors, chorus gals, or wanted criminals.  The sparkling, slinky, snazzy costumes are enhanced by the lighting design of Maxx Kurzunki, as are the changing scenes themselves. 

As Music Director, Brett Strader has insured not a missed or out-of-tune note all night by singer or orchestra member, and his six-piece ensemble plays Porter’s score in full reverence and yet with inspired interpretation.

No matter how many times or on what New York or touring stage one has seen “Anything Goes,” the current production by Pacific Coast Repertory Company is well-worth the journey to Pleasanton and the intimate Firehouse Arts Center.  In every respect, “It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lovely.”

Rating: 5 E

Pacific Coast Repertory Company’s Anything Goes continues Fridays – Sundays through February 12 at the Firehouse Arts Center, 4444 Railroad Avenue, Pleasanton, CA.  Tickets are available at http://pcrtproductions.org or by calling 925-931-4848.

Photo Credit: Berenice Sullivan

"Daniel's Husband"


Daniel’s Husband
Michael McKeever

Daniel Redmond, Nathan Tylukti, John Steele Jr. & Michael Monagle
There are Hallmark-like phrases that pop up daily in our lives on one of those obnoxious Facebook-posted posters that that we habitually ignore, scrolling quickly to a much more interesting cat video or picture of someone’s latest meal.  “Live each day to it fullest.” “Never put off until tomorrow what needs to be done today.” “Appreciate what you have before it turns into what you had.” 

Such admonishments are enough to induce a gag response; but after seeing the gripping, heart-wrenching (and yet at times, ridiculously funny) West Coast premiere of Michael McKeever’s Daniel’s Husband, the urgency to reassess one’s own life, relationships, and abandoned ‘to-do’ list is palpable and blood-pressure-rising.  New Conservatory Theatre Center stages a first-class, not-to-be-missed production of a play that took South Florida by storm in its extended-run, 2015 premiere and is soon headed to an off-Broadway production at Primary Stages.

Mitchell -- a successful, award-winning author – and Daniel, his hot-looking architect and partner-in-life (or is it lover, significant other, or boyfriend?) are in many ways the perfect, 21st Century, urban couple.  They entertain well with homemade, exotic-flavored flan and flowing glasses of expensive wine.  They have a best friend Nathan (also Daniel’s agent) who like clockwork surprises them every few months with his latest boy toy (this time, a blue-lipped hipster in skin-tight pants and wild-dotted socks named Tripp -- almost half Nathan’s age).  They can hardly keep their eyes unlocked, lips apart, or hands off each other as they play a parlor game with their guests (“Star Wars or Star Trek?  Harry Potter or Game of Thrones?” “Betty or Wilma?”).  And they have a visiting mother coming soon (Daniel’s) who clearly adores them and can only talk in gushing swoons about how much she loves “her boys.”

But when new-to-the-foursome Tripp asks innocently, “Why aren’t you two married?” and then is youthfully persistent in not letting go of the inquiry, fireworks that have evidently exploded in the past once again fill the room with a party-busting conflagration.  Marriage is “an archaic institution fundamentally wrong,” lambasts Mitchell, and is meant only for “incipient queens who want to assimilate.”  For Daniel, this tired argument once again totally exasperates him, and his volley of responses helps send the perfect couple into a downward spiral of ever-louder shouting that is accompanied by stomping around the room and glaring looks that could kill.  Daniel, it seems, just wants “to call you my husband” – a mainstream, heterosexual branding Mitchell has no intention of ever tattooing on his being.

And then something happens – that moment when in a split second everything changes:  An unintended word, a knock on the door, an outside event, a feeling of something going on inside not quite right.  Michael McKeever cleverly and skillfully has lured us into the lives of this couple, their friends, and their mother.  We have laughed a lot at their gay sniping, shaken our heads either in agreement or not with their differing views on marriage, and maybe have even speculated over who will now end up in bed with whom among the four friends (because surely there is going to be some kind of swapping going on eventually ... This is a gay play after all). 

But then Michael McKeever inserts one event, one quick moment, just a blink of the eye; and his play turns itself inside out, upending all the assumptions, preconceptions, and preliminary conclusions we have reached thus far about the people we have met and the relationships among them.  The result is now a play that is staggeringly sobering, deeply thought-provoking, and subsequently soul-searching for all watching its unfolding.  From parlor arguments about gay dating habits among friends and gay marriage between long-term partners, he has moved us into questions of what is family, how do we protect ourselves and our loved ones from unexpected upheaval, who makes what decisions for whom, and what does loss – any loss of our core being—really look and feel like.

Allen Sawyer directs the pace, emotional swings, as well as the character and plot twists and turns with deft decisions that pay off big time – especially given the talented cast he is handed.  Michael Monagle is a smooth, suave Daniel Bixby who glides his tall, lanky body through its debonair hosting, who grimaces and mostly bears it silently when his egocentric but well-meaning mother arrives, and who shows in passionate eyes and clinched hands his almost desperate desire to marry his Daniel.  However, when he steps forward to within inches of the audience’s front row to explain the plot twist the playwright inserts into his and Daniel’s lives, Mr. Monagle is stunning in his sobering soliloquy before he moves into a second-half persona that surely breaks the hardest heart in the spell-bound audience.

Mitchell, when on his high horse about his marriage, is like an orator on a great stage.  His finger-pointing arms flail in great dramatics as his voice flows up and down in intensity and volume in roller-coaster fashion, rising and falling for the intended effects of commanded attention and final persuasion.  He is also the snappy friend who can come up with continual one-liners about the latest, young date or the loving ‘son-in-law’ who can cozy up to his partner’s mother in ways just to irritate his lover and clearly place him in her favor forever.  But as does Mitchell, Daniel Redmond too collides head on into the playwright’s 180-degree plot turn; and the physical response, change of demeanor, and range of emotions he then displays as an actor are masterful and key to the show’s final message and success.


Michael Monagle, Christine Macomber & Daniel Redmond
As Lydia, mother of Daniel, Christine Macomber makes us believe she is just a nice, old lady who likes “kazoo concerts and pet sweaters” (the latter for her four dogs and many cats).  Sure, we soon see she is also carrying some baggage from her long-deceased husband (“the man was a clown car of demons”), but the love she has for “her boys” seems genuine as seen in her twinkling eyes and a smile that should warm any heart (but somehow, not so much her son, Daniel’s).  The shifts post-plot-change that Lydia makes, however, are chilling.  That smile, while still there, takes on an entirely different meaning as Ms. Macomber excels in her character transition.

John Steele, Jr.’s twinky Tripp may like to carry around a Little Mermaid back pack; but at times, he seems to be the only adult in the room.  His bright-colored lips are a show unto themselves when he is full of his twenty-something cuteness; but this “old soul trapped in a young boy” time and again shows he has a heart that is huge, convincing, and inspiring.  His temporary boyfriend and friend of the ‘family,’ Barry (Nathan Tylutki), is the one who seems more immature of the two as he seems to be in constant pursuit of the next, new thing to date; but his bearded face cannot hide his own deeply felt reactions to the changes soon to occur in his and his friends’ lives.

Robert “Bo” Golden has designed in the intimate Walker Theatre space a high-styled, well-appointed apartment for these two, fine-living gay guys, complete with both white leather and built-in shelving as well as a “Gay-ola” poster in the hallway and fine-crystal, erect penis on the bookshelf.  Maxx Kurzunski’s lighting gives the modern apartment extra flair and style while Ryan Lee Short’s sound choices connect the scenes with Daniel’s favorite music as well as underline the changing mood of the play itself.  Michelle Mulholland decks out Tripp with his mod flash, Lydia with her aristocratic fashion, and the other gays in their casually cool duds.

Daniel’s Husband is on the surface an argument for and against two gay men deciding whether or not to follow society’s norms and the now-legal path to marriage.  However, Michael McKeever’s brilliantly conceived script is so much more that speaks to any two people -- same or different in sexes -- about what is commitment in relationship, what are the legal ramifications of whatever choices they make, what risks are they willing to take, and how could possible loss – if anticipated ahead of time -- challenge and maybe change long-held beliefs.  In the hands of the stellar team at New Conservatory Theatre Center, these and many other threads of exploration are open for the taking by the audiences of Daniel’s Husband.

Rating: 5 E

Daniel’s Husband continues through February 26, 2017 on the Walker Theatre stage of The New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.nctcsf.org or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photo by Lois Tema

Friday, January 27, 2017

"Fun Home"


Fun Home
Jeanine Tesori (Music); Lisa Kron (Book & Lyrics)
Based on the Graphic Novel by Alison Bechdel

“My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town.
And he was gay,
And I was gay,
And he killed himself,
And I became a lesbian cartoonist.”


Kate Shindle & Robert Petkoff
As blunt and bleak as this summation appears, the musical that fills out the entire story of a small-town, Pennsylvania family -- while heartbreakingly sad at points -- also finds plenty of room for many chuckles and some big laughs, heartwarming memories, first-love romps, and difficult but powerful self-discoveries.  Told as a series of interlocking but out-of-sequence frames of a graphic novel in the process of being drawn, Fun Home is a musical in many ways unlike any before it.  Lisa Kron’s book and lyrics (based on the original, graphic novel by Alison Bechdel) map the somewhat random thought patterns of a creative, remembering mind of an artist as she pieces together her troubled relationship with a father she describes as so much like her ... as nothing like her.  Each word of a song or spoken phrase is placed with purpose of advancing her memoir of self-exploration; and the music of Jeanine Tesori in both background score and in songs supports, clarifies, and amplifies those words without ever trying to overshadow or outshine them.  Carole Shorenstein Hays and Curran Theatre gloriously reopen the reconstructed, historical theatre with a spectacular cast and stunning production of the 2015 Tony for Best Musical, Fun Home.

Kate Shindle, Abby Corrigan & Alessandra Baldacchino
While busily at work with sketch pad usually in her hands, a grown-up Alison of forty-three struggles to come to terms with a period of her life when she comes out as lesbian while in college at about the same time her mother tells her that her dad has always been a closeted gay -- both occurring just four months before he steps in front of an advancing truck.  As she reflects and draws, her sketches spring to life on stage as a Small Alison of eight and a Medium Alison of nineteen join her to create memory-rich moments piecing together a puzzle that might in its completion provide some answers of the many why’s running through her mind. 

Why did a little girl who so desperately wanted her daddy’s love and attention so often get rebuked and ignored?  Why did her mother tolerate so many years her dad’s obvious trysts with gardeners, delivery guys, college jocks, and even high school boys?  Why could her dad not accept who he was as she has been able to accept who she is?  Why was she not able to help him, to save him? 

Her pointed and detailed probing about gender boundaries, sexual orientation, parental tensions and disruptions, emotional abuse of children, and finally suicide are balanced by other, happier memories of sibling silliness, reading a book or singing at the piano with Dad, or soaring high in the air in his arms like an airplane.  And her own story of the first inklings she has as a little girl that she is gay and of the final confirmation as a late teen in a dorm bed with a hot, to-be girlfriend that for sure she is a lesbian fill in more frames of her graphic, somewhat disconnected story  -- a story that in the end is a narrative that finds uneasy but possibly healing resolution.

Kate Shindle is the adult Alison with short-cropped hair and black, squared-off glasses who physically roams about through the memories that are playing out around her on the huge, Curran stage (exposed all the way to its back, bricked walls).   Along the way, she watches silently as she sketches -- sometime offering spoken commentary and often probing her past in song with pensive, brow-knitted looks of exploration coupled with moments of bright clairvoyance as the pieces magically come together into some new ‘ah-ha.’  “I want to know what’s true, dig deep into who and what and why and when, until now gives way to then,” she sings with a voice determined, clear, and strong.  Ms. Shindle never steps too far out of character of the serious, searching cartoonist/writer and brings much face validity to her adult Alison as a lesbian and daughter in pursuit of who, how, and why she is.  However, when she duets “Telephone Wire” with her dad on their last car ride together on his night of final tragedy, her emotion-packed images of that ride on a dark, country rode and her own hesitation to talk honestly to her dad are sung with spine-chilling effects.

Alessandra Baldacchino
Her story is mostly told through the exceptional acting and singing abilities of her eight- and nineteen-year-old selves.  In a voice full of a little girl’s relentless pleading and yet already a voice hinting at the determined adult she will someday become, Alessandro Baldacchino is the youngest of the Alisons (a role played in some performances by Carly Gold) who insists in the musical’s opening lines, “Daddy, hey Daddy ... I need you ... Come here, hey right here ... Listen to me ... I wanna play airplane.”  Time and again in short interjections and full songs, this young Alison sings with heart, crispness, and a maturity that commands attention.  When she vocally relates in “Ring of Keys” with youthful glee, awe, and a clear sense of “uh-oh” how the sight of a delivery woman (“an old-school butch,” the older Alison comments) grabs her little girl fancy, both the young actress’s stellar abilities and the lyricist’s daring brilliance shine forth in describing this seminal moment:
“Your swagger and your bearing
And the just-right clothes you’re wearing
Your short hair and your dungarees
And your lace-up boots and your keys ...
Oh, your ring of keys.”

Alessandra Baldacchino, Pierson Salvador & Lennon Nate Hammond
When joined by her younger brothers Christian (Pierson Salvador) and John (Lennon Nate Hammond), the three provide one of the night’s biggest applause-getters as they perform their own commercial for their dad’s funeral home, a 1970s, kids’ rock number, “Come to the Fun Home,” complete with a Pledge Polish spray can as microphone.  Dancing in, out, and all around a cherry-wood, satin-filled coffin and singing with voices that soar silly without shrilling, they advertise, “Come to the Fun Home, we got Kleenex and your choice of psalm; stop by the Fun Home, think of Bechdel when you need to embalm.”

As the middle Alison at Oberlin College, Abby Corrigan provides perhaps the evening’s most poignant, powerful performance among a cast where each person is perfectly cast.  Her heretofore tomboyish, rather shy and hesitant Alison explodes into hormone-rich ecstasy with her discovery of her sexual identity as she literally tackles the object of her affection, the hair-spiked Joan (played with surety of her sexual sensuality by Karen Eilbacher).  When Ms. Corrigan sings “Changing My Major” (“to sex with Joan”), she beautifully reflects all the mixed-up feelings of someone just coming out: hesitant, scary, ecstatic, triumphant, totally turned-on.  But when she seeks her parents’ approval of her coming out and returns home to confront their silence on the subject, Ms. Corrigan’s nerve-raw, nuanced acting prowess touches to the core as she hits the target time and again in capturing all the emotions for this teen ... and for the older Alison who is remembering her.

House refurbisher, beloved teacher, and funeral home director but also a closeted, cheating husband and a controlling father, Bruce is a complex man whom Alison is trying to figure out through her juvenile and teenage glimpses of him.  Robert Petkoff sings with a clear voice that shows much excitement and joy in simply looking at an old discovered teapot.  With young Alison, he asks, “Is this silver?  Is this silver or junk?”  In doing so, he seems to be reflecting the watching, older Alison’s question about the relationship she had with her dad.  Was it real?  Was it mutual love?  Was it all surface and full of tarnish? 

Mr. Petkoff’s Bruce is an enigma for her and for us.  We watch him in his escapades, his tirades, and his often-feeble attempts to be a good father and husband.  What we often see is a face that smiles without meaning it, that looks without seeing, and that tries to sound sure and solid with lots of fear and anguish so obviously evident.

As the mother and wife, Helen, Susan Moniz is often in the background, playing a piano alone in the parlor or slipping in and out with worried, perturbed looks.  While her family sings in the beginning of the musical about a household that is all “polish and shine” with “everything balanced and serene,” Helen sings a telling premonition, “And yet.”  Eventually, she has a chance to describe her view of the house on Maple Avenue in “Days and Days.”  In another of the evening’s most wrenching moments, Helen sings in a pained, matter-of-fact voice that grabs one’s listening heartstrings and tugs them deeply as she sings in ever-rich, increasingly intense voice of “days made of bargains I made ... now my life is shattered and laid bare days and days and days ... Welcome to our house.”

Showing much versatility of personas and demonstrating his own rich singing voice, Robert Hager steps into many roles, including a Partridge-Family-like rock star in young Alison’s dream (“Raincoat of Love”) and a hunky, shirtless pick-up for Bruce who poses as a household helper.  Along with the rest of the cast, Sam Gold provides him and all members with impeccable, time-and-boundary-stretching direction where scenes blend, shift, and mold with split-second precision as Alison recalls her life and draws her story frames. 

David Zinn’s immense stage design where scenes play out on different levels, groupings, and islands is deftly orchestrated in its many changes with a flow that reflects memory’s sparks and fades.  His costumes define the different time periods of the story, the various ages of Alison, and the range of personalities portrayed. 

Ben Stanton’s lighting design is a show unto itself -- but always an enhancer and never a distraction.  Blocks of spotlight define rooms and boundaries; lighted outlines of over-lapping squares remind us of the frames the cartoonist is drawing, and shadows that loom large and ominous warn of what is to come.  Danny Mefford’s choreography adds needed upbeat fun and frivolity when the kids get to be kids.  Kai Harada’s sound design provides the background to give proper context and mood.

Finally, not enough praise can go to Micah Young as Music Director/Keyboardist and to his finely tuned orchestra of seven.  Time and again the soft interventions of cello, violin, clarinet, or other solo instruments echo in soft refrain an important moment on stage or introduce a subtle shift in the cartoonist’s framed story.  The score of Jeanine Tesori is one of the best in memory for a modern-day musical, and this small orchestra provides full justice to her singular and combined lines of musical reflection.

The Cast of "Fun Home"
How could there be a better way to inaugurate the next generation of life for the venerable Curran Theatre than with a musical like Fun Home that seems as if it were written with San Francisco and its diverse audiences in mind?  Congratulations to Carole Shorenstein Hays and to every member of her staff and of the touring cast.  Fun Home is a destination to be visited in person and then repeatedly re-visited in follow-up contemplation.

Rating: 5 E

Fun Home continues at the Curran Theatre through February 19, 2017, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at https://sfcurran.com/get-tickets/?page=event&eventId=401 or by calling the Box Office at 415-358-1220 between 10 a.m. and 6 pm. Monday through Friday.

Photo Credits: Joan Marcus

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

"Native Son"


Native Son
Nambi E. Kelley (Adapted from the Novel by Richard Wright)

Dane Troy, Ryan Nicole Austin, C. Kelly Wright, Jerod Haynes & William Hartfield 
Collapsing a novel that is often listed in the top 100, most significant novels of the Twentieth Century not only into a play but also into a split-second-long setting within the main character’s racing, panicked mind is no small order and fraught with possible missteps.  However, playwright Nambi E. Kelley has handed a tight, tense adaptation of Richard Wright’s 1940 novel, Native Son, to Director Seret Scott; and the result for Marin Theatre Company is a sweat-producing, heart-pounding production that starkly reminds us that the harsh, damning truths of 1940’s White America are in many ways not that different than those echoed by Black Lives Matter in 2017.

Ms. Kelley’s script incredibly captures in ninety minutes almost the entirety of the original, gripping novel that laid out in raw terms the racial divide of America that remained seventy-five years after the Civil War.  A young African-American man, Bigger, living in rat-infested poverty in Chicago’s West Side of 1939, finds himself as the chauffeur for one of the city’s richest families -- the same Daltons who own the shabby, one-room apartment building where he lives with his mom Hannah, sister Vera, and brother Buddy.  A first-night assignment to drive the rich family’s daughter Mary to university is hijacked by the socialite’s other plans to go out with her Commie-leaning, handsome boyfriend, Jan, for a night on the town. 

They choose to hit the South Side’s black establishments, dragging uneasy Bigger into their night of boozing and carousing – all the time telling him “We are on your side.”  But too much drink eventually leaves Mary both unable to walk and totally amorous toward the beautiful Black man who must now take the half-passed-out beauty back to her room in his arms.  When the blind Mrs. Dalton comes in unexpectedly to check on her daughter just as Bigger decides to give in and kiss the pretty redhead, he panics and covers her head with a pillow to suppress any drunken sounds from her. 

The rest of the story follows a too-familiar story that still plays out today for young, urban, African-American men.  There is little chance for him to do anything but make all the wrong, ever-more-damning choices as the society around him comes to the all, too-quick conclusions based on its long-held, deeply believed stereotypes and prejudice.

The power of this re-telling of Native Son comes to bear in the split-second, fast-paced, tension-filled direction of Seret Scott.  Interlocking scenes play out on a sparse, multi-level, wooden-famed labyrinth (designed by Giulio Cesare Perrone) where Bigger often physically moves between time periods of his life with spoken phrases from one incident being either finished or echoed in another scene and time period.  Ms. Scott creates through astute, imaginative direction Bigger’s inner-brain, thought patterns that range from nostalgic memory to agitated anger to near-hysterical madness. 

The large, figured shadows against black walls; blindly sharp spots at times centered on a lone Bigger; and a mixture of light and darkness playing throughout the maze of the set’s wooden slabs and steps are just some of Marc Stubblefield’s contributions to enhance Ms. Scott’s direction.  Background, pinpointed effects of sound designed by Joshua Horvath set the tones needed to round out a picture the Director creates that portrays the contrasts of the slums and alley-crossed streets of the South Side with the homes of the upper crust of the same Chicago – the latter differences further enhanced through the costumes of poor and rich by Melissa Torchia.

The inevitability of doom for this man whom society has branded from the beginning as a loser is underscored by scores of decisions the director makes in taking the suggestions of the playwright’s inspired script and bringing them to life in ways that often appear as if a multi-screened movie is being shown before us.  One of the most powerful images of the play and the novel occurs near the beginning when Bigger slaughters a foot-long rat before his first grateful and then horrified family.  In Ms. Kelley’s version, the rat is played by a smartly dressed man in three-piece suit and hat, a presence who shadows Bigger throughout his dream/nightmare and who reminds him repeatedly, “When you look in the mirror, you only see that they tell you is a black rat son-of-a-bitch.” 

As The Big Rat, William Hartfield exudes the ever-present premonition of the inevitable as he plays Bigger’s inner voice that eggs on, challenges, advises, and even tries to protect Bigger’s too-bound path toward self-destruction molded by the society around him.  While he is on one hand through his growly, gravelly voice the personification of The Black Rat in the referred mirror, he is also dressed in business best and carries himself with the tall, proud stature of the Man that Bigger might have been if not pre-ordained otherwise.

As Bigger, Jerod Haynes never is out of our sight and from whom it is difficult to turn our attention even for a few seconds from his achingly powerful performance.  While the character remembers in fever-pitched sequences all the event events leading up to his arrest and then projects in his dream the certain conclusion beyond, we see so many aspects of this complex character come to life in Mr. Haynes’ stellar performance.  We watch him with amusement “Play White” with his brother where one is JP Morgan and the other is a poor, black worker.  Or we watch as he looks to the sky mimicking planes flying high above, hearing his deep disappointment mixed with increasingly hate-filled resentment, “Man, I’d love to fly ... White folks don’t let us do nothin’.” 


Jerod Haynes & Ryan Nicole Austin
So tight and taunt Bigger is that, like a stretched rubber band, he often appears about to snap two.  The sudden anger that does suddenly erupt -- especially to family members like when he requires his brother to lick a switchblade -- lets us know that here is a man who is gradually losing all control and judgment even as he fights always to look downward, answer ‘yes’m,’ and never contradict whenever the white folks around him.  Mr. Haynes’s wide range of emotional constraints and outbursts, his wide-eyed moments of both anger and terror, and his animal-like moves and instincts hell-bent on survival balance against those moments when we see him just trying to be a man like other men, taking a few minutes to play pool, to joke with a pal, to love -- even to dream.  Together, Messieurs Hartfield and Haynes portray a Bigger that must be causing Richard Wright to be smiling in awed satisfaction from somewhere in the Great Beyond.

And surrounding the two sides of Bigger in his dreamed sequences is a cast where each person leaves a merited mark on his and our memory.  C. Kelly Wright is magnificent as the tortured mother who cannot understand why her son cannot just love Jesus, work hard, and be a good boy.  As Hannah, she also rises in indignation when the White Man comes to seek his revenge on her just because he assumes she is guilty and worthless by association with her son. 

Dane Troy is the kid brother Buddy, fully convincing in his wanting to be noticed and included by his older brother’s good and bad ideas but also heart-wrenching when he becomes the brunt of Bigger’s tirades.  Doubling as Sister Vera and Girlfriend Bessie, Ryan Nicole Austin is appropriately sweet and silly, seductive and sultry. 

Jerod Haynes, Rosie Hallett & Courtney Walsh
Courtney Walsh is the blind Mrs. Dalton whose aristocratic dignity and societal status makes room for her somewhat feeble, but seemingly well-meaning attempts to show Bigger that she trusts him, no matter that he “a Negro.”  Even more so, her flighty, laughing daughter, Mary -- with red-hair flinging in ways to taunt and tantalize (played by Rosie Hallett) -- and Mary’s left-leaning boyfriend, Jan (Adam Magill), together bend over backwards in almost cartoonish manners to ‘equalize’ Bigger to their white status.  But as these mixed-up scenes play out in Bigger’s memory, it is clear that he begins to see the outreaches of Jan s having some deeper, truer sincerity, believably conveyed by Mr. Magill’s portrayal. 

Rounding out the cast is Patrick Kelly Jones as the one-person representative of the white police force -- a detective named Britten who comes with all the power clearly on his side to push, provoke, and penalize Bigger and his family in any way he sees fit and just.

For more than three-quarters of a century, Native Son has jarred the thinking and awareness of both black and white America.  As the stage adaptation arrives in a must-see production at Marin Theatre Company, the story of Bigger is shockingly still too familiar in a present-day America that has yet to figure out how to call a halt to the seemingly inevitable destruction of too many of her young, African-American men.

Rating: 5 E

Native Son continues at Marin Theatre Company through February 12, 2015, at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA.  Tickets are available online at http://www.marintheatre.org or by calling the box office Tuesday – Sunday, 12 -5 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne



Tuesday, January 24, 2017

"Uncanny Valley"


Uncanny Valley
Thomas Gibbons


Mary Price Moore & Evan Kokklia Schumacher
Thought-provoking, increasingly intriguing, eventually deeply troubling questions begin to emerge during the current, first-class offering by Pear Theatre of Thomas Gibbon’s Uncanny Valley – a term that refers to the uneasy and even repulsive feelings people often feel toward inanimate objects that appear and act human.

Please follow this link to my full Talkin' Broadway review: http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj69.html.

Rating: 4 E

Uncanny Valley continues through February 12, 2017, 1220 Pear Avenue, Mountain View through July 12, 2015.  Online ticket sales are at www.thepear.org; box office is at 650-254-1148.

Photo Credit:  Ray Renati

Monday, January 23, 2017

"A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine"


A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine
Dick Vosburgh (Book & Lyrics); Frank Lazarus (Music)
Palo Alto Players


Andrew Ceglio, Patty Reinhart & Mohamed Ismail

Calling all lovers of the Marx Brothers.  Maker you way to Palo Alto Players for an uproariously ridiculous riot of A Night in the Ukraine, but beware.  Those masters of bad puns, groaner one-liners, and well-known physical tricks and ploys are not going to show up until after intermission.  First comes a separate review of music celebrating the movies of the 1920s and '30s entitled A Day in Hollywood, an act that does not measure up to what is to come in later in the second but one that the Marx farce as produced by Palo Alto Players makes enduring worthwhile. 

For my full review, please follow the link to Talkin' Broadway: http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj68.html.

Rating: 3 E

A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine continues through February 5, 2017 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.  Tickets for the Palo Alto Players production are available at www.paplayer.org or by calling 650-329-0891.

Photo Credit: Joyce Goldschmidt

Sunday, January 22, 2017

"Cabaret"


Cabaret
Joe Masteroff (Book); John Kander (Music); Fred Ebb (Lyrics)
Hillbarn Theatre

Keith Pinto & Jessica Maxey
Since its 1966 Broadway debut and its initial eight Tonys, the inspiring hit Cabaret has continued to evolve through several major, award-winning revivals in both New York and London, becoming ever darker, starker, and rawer with each new production during its fifty-year history.  Hillbarn Theatre’s current version of this Joe Masteroff (book), John Kander (music), and Fred Ebb (lyrics) icon of the American Musical Theatre is boiling hot from Minute One with sexually explicit grabbing, rubbing, pinching, slapping, and thrusting of every possible body part by a cast dressed scantily in cheap bras, panties, and garters or in leather straps, pants, and boots.  

For my full Talkin' Broadway review, please follow this link:  http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj67.html.


Rating: 5 E

Cabaret continues through February 5, 2017 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard.  Tickets are available online at http://www.hillbarntheatre.org  or by calling 650-349-6411.

Photo Credit: Mark and Tracy Photography