Monday, June 26, 2017

"brownsville song (b-side for tray)"

brownsville song (b-side for tray)
Kimber Lee

Cathleen Riddley & Davied Morales
With sleepy eyes, we peruse the morning paper or slide through the IPhone news updates; and a too-familiar headline catches our eye.  Another family mourns the shooting death of a teen or 20-something, a kid struck down by a random bullet or one meant for someone else.  We think or even mutter out loud, “How tragic;” and at the same time we note with some relief that the location is in the other part of the city or even better, in that city – both areas of the Bay Area we always try to avoid.  We may even secretly register -- without ever saying so aloud – that the victim’s color and/or nationality is not ours.  And then we move on to the next story, shaking our heads in pity as we read about the latest Trump Tweet.

Playwright Kimber Lee (tokyo fish story, the yellow house) is forcing us not to move on too quickly without first hearing the entire story behind a headline that has a tendency to blend in with all the similar ones before and after it.  Like the other, ‘b’ side of the old 45 rpm records, she flips over the oft-played side of the murderous headline and asks us to watch and listen to who one of these young victims of urban shootings really is and to meet the family who must live forever with his loss and their grief.  Shotgun Players stages a powerful, moving, and immensely important production of Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray) and challenges us all to leave the theatre, ready to re-commit to take a stand and to resist with resolve the NRA’s control of our legislators and leaders.

When tragedy strikes unexpectedly, all sense of time and of reality can suddenly become skewed.  Kimber Lee’s script -- under the astute, sensitive, yet no-holes-barred direction of Margo Hall – blurs the boundaries present and past, reality and dream, alive and dead to underline the disorientation and disarray a bullet can have on the lives of others.  The effect is that even as audience, we are not always sure what realm of reality or dimension of time we are witnessing.  However, we are always totally cognizant that the story unfolding in all its complicated levels is so much more than that initial headline, so much more impactful than just one life lost.

Davied Morales
Tray is in many ways just a typical teenager: one minute remote and moody, smart aleck and sassy, or altogether belligerent and obnoxious while the next minute charming and cute, joking and jovial, or even totally lovable and loving.  As Tray, Davied Morales captures in his frequent “yo’s” and “shit’s,” his slouching and sliding style of walk, and his boyish looks smacking of disinterest and disregard the teenage boy of eighteen that any parent would readily recognize.  His star-athlete, accomplished-in-school Tray pretends he is working on a scholarship application essay when he, his Grandmother, and all of us know he clearly is not -- that sheepish grin when caught being a dead give-away.  He is a boy intense in feelings that he may be reluctant to express but that show in his eyes, his tensed-up muscles, and his sudden, spontaneous bear hug that startles his grandma as much as himself.  Masterfully, Mr. Morales ensures we get to know, to like, and even to love this boy named Tray – guaranteeing that his inevitable, tragic ending will affect us in ways a headline never can.

Mimia Ousilas
Tray is particularly joyful and magical when with his young sister, Devine, sweetly and whimsically played by Mimia Ousilas.  A girl somewhere in the transition of soon becoming a teen, she blossoms in every regard when fancifully dancing, playing games of tease, or just walking hand-in-hand with her big brother.  Ms. Ousilas’ Devine does not talk a lot, but she speaks volumes in the messages she conveys about her love of a brother and the loss she is reluctant to accept as reality.

Davied Morales & Cathleen Riddey
The relationship of Tray with his Grandmother, Lena, is one of being tested and testy, of being watched and watched over, and of acting agitated while being actually full of adulation – with each of these dichotomies being descriptors of the relationship from Lena’s perspective also.  Cathleen Riddley gives a rich and riveting performance as the Grandmother who is not shy in pointing her wagging fingers, shouting 4-letter-word warnings, or shoving her diminutive body up against that of her sprawling grandson’s as she drills into him her point of view how he must act and what he must do.  The intensity she brings into every moment on stage is immense. The depth of felt emotions behind her hardened furrows of past hurts and sorrows is seen in every muscle’s movement and in a face that both darkens and brightens in full array.  But it is in that deep, gravelly voice where the concerns, the hopes, and the love of Lena the grandmother can be heard most loud and clear.

Eric Mei-Ling Stuart
Tray’s ability to confront, forgive, and forge a path for possible redemption (even past his too-soon demise) is shown through a surprise and unwelcome visit by his step-mother (and Devine’s birth mother), Merrill.  Adoring wife to their now-deceased dad (dead also through bullet wounds), Merrill returns after years of fighting grief-spawned addictions that led to her abandonment of her kids and to Lena’s doing all she can to be sure Merrill is permanently absent from their lives.  Erin Mei-Ling Stuart’s Merrill is clearly living on the edge, doing all she can to make it through another day without falling back into her life dependence on drugs.  She moves and speaks with a tentativeness and tension that mirror the inner battles she fights each day just to stay sober and on the straight-and-narrow.  But she also shows hopeful signs, especially when with Tray, that this is a fight she can now win.  Ms. Stuart is yet another member of this stellar cast who gives a gripping performance.

Rounding out the cast in a smaller role but one with large and memorable impact is William Hartfield as Tray’s friend, Junior -- a boyhood pal who appears to have fallen into the frays of street gangs and their dealings with drugs.  But when his Junior has a sidewalk, come-to-the-altar encounter with a grieving Lena, his gang member persona melts away for few seconds in a powerful scene under the heat of Lena’s words and love in a performance by Mr. Hartfield that leaves its mark.

What Lena learns from Junior is a lesson that is a shocking truth hard to believe but important to know behind many of those early morning headlines we all read in haste.  On the streets, young men build a feared reputation and survive by building points, points given them by other gang members for shots fired, for bodies produced. 

That street bounties are gained by taking the lives of boys and young men like Tray is a shocking, sorrowful, but important message of this impactful play.  Shotgun Players is to be commended in many regards both for bringing Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray) to the Bay Area as well as for assembling such a remarkable cast and creative team to insure audience members will leave different from when they entered Ashby Stage.  Hopefully we exit never to forget that recurring headlines of shootings can only be halted if all of us determine that guns must be eliminated from our streets and our youth.

Rating: 5 E

brownsville song (b-side for tray) continues through July 16, 2017 on the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, , 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 510-841-6500.

Photos by Cheshire Issacs.

"What You Will"

What You Will
Max Gutmann

Amelia Adams & Jim Johnson
Rarely, if ever, can anyone in the Western World go through a day without either quoting or hearing quoted at least a few, choice lines from the 118,406 William Shakespeare left us.  What if several thousand were selected from his thirty-seven plays– purposely and cleverly of course – and rearranged into a new comedy?  Max Guttman has done all that and more in What You Will, a new work first given a developmental reading in 2016 and now staged in its world premiere by Pear Theatre.  The result is a fast-paced mélange of quips and quotes that provide in their new play placement as much or more fun and laughter as do the silly mix-ups, the slapstick shenanigans, and the singularly unique characters that the playwright has created in true Will style.

Please continue to Talkin' Broadway to read my full review:

Rating: 4 E

What You Will continues through July 16, 2017 at Pear Theatre, 1110 LaAvenida, Mountain View.  Tickets are available at or by calling 650-254-1148.

Photo by Pear Theatre

Sunday, June 25, 2017


JC Lee

JC Sclazo & Ed Berkeley
How inevitable is it that most boys will play war when they are kids, that plastic helmets and swords will be badges of honor to wear, and that lifelong bonds will often form with other guys as they tumble on the fields of backyard battle?  And how likely is it that those same boys will grow to be men and go to war where the boundary between game and reality, fun times and horrific events, life and death becomes porous and confusing? 

Human history says to-date the inevitability is still incredibly high that the lifetime march of boys and men toward war continues, resulting in the deaths of bosom comrades.  New Conservatory Theatre Center presents its third world premiere of the 2016-2017 season, staging JC Lee’s Warplay, a new work whose very title asks us to contemplate when, how, and maybe why a boy’s playtime games seem fated to become a man’s demise.  JC Lee also adds the complication of what happens when Fate dictates that a boyhood bond develops into a manhood relationship where love for another and duty to country conflict.

Based on the events of the Trojan War as told in Homer’s Illiad, JC Lee’s Warplay focuses on two key players, Achilles and Patroclus, renaming them simple ‘A’ and ‘P’ and making them contemporary in their modern speech and references.  In the background, far-off sounds of modern artillery occasionally punctuate their jockeying dialogues – verbal back-and-forths that often sound like two teenagers bragging and teasing their best bro.  As the war sounds get menacingly closer under the stars of night, a common returning theme between the two is when will ‘A’ head back to the battle and why can’t ‘P’ come along. 

Ed Berkeley & JD Sclazo
‘A’ tries to prepare ‘P’ for what he increasingly knows is Fate’s path for ‘P’ – no matter how much ‘A’ tries to intervene to halt that inevitability.  ‘A’ clearly acknowledges his heavenly deemed role as “hero” of his own life’s story and that “I’ve spent my whole life preparing for this [i.e., the war at hand].”  He is uncomfortable and even irritated that ‘P’ sees himself as just a small sapling in the forest next to ‘A’s’ bigger tree rising high into the sunlight.  But war, time, and Fate march on; and there is a sense of finality and fatality in each young warrior’s whispered “I love you” to the sleeping other – something they seem reluctant to say aloud in the bright of day.

With an eye both toward boyish playfulness and pranks as well as toward adult passions of war and love, Ben Randle directs this world premiere in a manner leaning toward the poetic.  Metaphors that abound in script are allowed to emerge naturally in the conversations and actions (as well as set design); and like a poem, some of the individual lines and symbols are not readily understood immediately but work collectively and in the end to paint a moving, lyrical picture. 

One prime example is a recurring image of rabbits.  Watching the play, the increasing predominance of cuddly rabbits – bunnies that more often than not meet an unhappy ending -- is curious and frankly puzzling with no answer emerging as to why a rabbit.  The metaphor becomes much clearer in a post-theatre, Google search when one discovers that the Achilles heel of a rabbit and of a human are structurally close enough that medical researchers use the former to study how to heal injuries human’s incur in their Achilles.  When one pieces together what we know through Homer of Achilles’ own fatal flaw and how his time on earth is tied to the vulnerability of his heel, then the startled fear that ‘A’ shows each time a rabbit suddenly appears with a message and the anger that erupts as he kills yet another rabbit become important underlying threads in the play.  (Unfortunately, there is no dramaturgy provided in the program to help the audience understand this rather obscure, but important reference.)

Ed Berkeley
Both actors in Warplay are exceptional in conveying the unique personalities of their epic-based predecessors.  As ‘A’(chilles), Ed Berkeley takes his status of gods-given hero rather matter-of-factly, often conversing at an almost ho-hum level in succinct fashion.  The river runs deep within him as can be seen in those big, intensely earnest eyes that belie the shoulder shrugs, slight smirks, and overall demeanor smacking on boredom that contrasts greatly to the over-active, high-strung ‘P.’  But when it comes to his feelings toward ‘P, he leaves no doubt that those are anything but casual – even if they are not expressed in words directly to the man he clearly loves.

JD Sclazo & Ed Berkeley
‘P’(atroclus) is a wound-up ball of nervous energy – skittish in an ADHD mode much of the time.  The arms and legs of JD Sclazo cross and uncross as often as seconds ticking on a clock, usually at the same time his body is swaying or he is walking in circles around the more stabilized, silently watching (with slight smile showing) ‘A.’  His lightening bug movements mirror the frustration he voices to ‘A’ that “I’m not special” and the realization that “I don’t register except as your diversion.”  His drive to be somebody only makes ‘A’ increasingly tense and worried as he tells ‘P,’ “Quit trying to prove yourself ... Just be who you are.”  The bold belief more likely retained from boyhood that nothing can really harm me is evident in Mr. Sclazo’s portrayal of ‘P.’ But the deeply knitted furrows in ‘A’s’ forehead indicate that he knows more than he wants to admit about P’s future, with Fate having already marked his and ‘P’s forward trail.

The interplay of boys playing and men warring is seen throughout the set so well designed by Devin Kasper.  The black sands of a war-torn landscape butt up against a bombed-out wall covered with military tarp and are dotted with the toys of a kid’s backyard.  A ladder leading up to a tented door could be a boy’s homemade tree house or a soldier’s improvised shelter. 

Ed Berkeley & JD Scalzo
The lighting design of Christian V. Mejia casts shadows and shapes that sometimes remind one of boys playing games and other times, of nature’s portending possible doom.  The sound design of Theodore J.H. Hulsker carries its own warnings in both the far-off explosions of war or in the choice of music that surrounds the small arena.  Miriam Lewis’s costumes and Adeline Smith’s properties never let us forget these are boys in men’s bodies, kids facing adult decisions and consequences.

JC Lee’s script is indeed poetic and powerful, even if certain references are a bit unclear (like all the rabbits).  Unfortunately, in my opinion, the play is too short for a main-staged production.  At barely seventy minutes, the play lasts less than the time many of us living in the ‘burbs of San Francisco Bay Area took to get to the City to see it, much less to go home.  I personally find such short offerings a bit frustrating, even when they are overall quite good. 

That said, the acting, directing, and creative team choices of NCTC’s Warplay are all note-worthy and admirable.  As a world premiere production, there is much to ponder and to admire.

Rating: 3.5 E

Warplay continues through July 2, 2017 on the Walker Stage of The New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos by Lois Tema

Saturday, June 24, 2017

"The Toxic Avenger"

The Toxic Avenger
Joe DiPietro (Book & Lyrics); David Bryan (Music & Lyrics)

Courtney Hatcher, Brandon Noel Thomas, Joshua Marx, Allison F. Rich & Will Springhorn Jr.
The Toxic Avenger is a solid choice by The Stage for summertime fun in much the same way local movie houses decide to give us silly comedies and super-hero flicks June through August each year.  But this particular summer, the high-jinx antics and ridiculously silly situations of the DiPeitro/Bryan satire take on a darker side when we quickly realize that there is a blonde, male version of Mayor Babs living in a certain house of white in D.C.

Please read my full review on Talkin' Broadway:

Rating: 4 E

The Toxic Avenger continues through July 16, 2017 San Jose Stage Company, 490 South First Street, San Jose, CA.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 408-283-7142.

Photo Credit: Dave Lepori

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

"The Legend of Georgia McBride"

The Legend of Georgia McBride
Matthew Lopez

Jason Kapoor, Adam McGill & Kraig Swartz
Elvis shaking his legs in a white jumpsuit, studded with red sparkles and flared in both sleeves and legs.  Drag queens in golden-yellow, butt-showing rain gear, popping their umbrellas and singing of “men” raining from above.  Appearances by Judy, Barbra, Tammy, and a parade of other drag queen faves.  How else should a reputable, respected theatre company named Marin bring its fiftieth year to a close? 

Add to all this frivolity and fabulousness a storyline that shows how the performing arts – even a small-town stage of drag queens -- can bring together folks highly diverse in background, gender, gender identity, race, and personality and turn them into one caring, loving family.  The combination proves Marin Theatre Company’s choice of Matthew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride is nothing short of brilliant as a way to celebrate the Company’s half-century of making magic on stage and changing the lives of its audiences.

Adam McGill, Kraig Swarz & Jason Kapoor
Casey’s vision is to be the best Elvis impersonator ever.  The fact he is now playing nightly only to six or seven beer-sluggers at Leo’s Bar in Panama City, Florida does not diminish his bright-eyed enthusiasm.  However, the fact he neither brings in many patrons nor takes home more than a few bucks is enough to concern both his boss, Eddie, and his wife, Jo.  Eddie’s solution is to switch from Elvis to Miss Tracy Mills, a drag-circuit queen who’s luck is down enough to find herself playing in the boonies of Florida, bringing along her sidekick -- a vodka-and-pill-loving Miss Anna Rexia Nervosa (Rexy, for short).  When Rexy’s bad habits land her mid-show on the dressing room floor, Casey -- now a reluctant bartender – is soon even more reluctant (think deer in headlights) as he is suddenly being readied to go on stage in skirt, wig, and a face full of make-up to lip-sing a Piaf song – in French.  As Miss Tracy tells him, “Honey, it is lip synch or swim ...  If you can’t remember the lyrics, ‘watermelon and motherfucker’ will get you through.”

Change is in the air, and his gig switch from Elvis to Georgia McBride is just the tip of the iceberg for Casey, for Jo, and for everyone else at the club.  The journey is going to be full of bumps and grinds (and not just those of queens in the spotlight), and there will be a few bruises along the way.  But a drag queen knows that life is about going out “with our tits up and our dicks tucked” and that everything else will eventually take care of itself.

Adam Magill brings a host of expressions – from 10-year-old wonderment to teenage hurt puppy to twenty-something naiveté – to his role as Casey.  His tall, curly-headed, slim body often seems and acts more like that of a gangly boy than that of a soon-to-be father; and the charm of youth is written all over his very being.  But when he discovers the feminine side of his straight, cis self, his resurrection as Georgia is a wonder and delight to watch.  His confidence to snap and zeal for sass is enough to make his drag mother, Miss Tracy, very proud.

As Miss Tracy Mills, Kraig Swartz has the cocky confidence, the steady swish in six-inch heels, and that certain flip of wigged head to prove this drag queen has been around a block or two (or probably a few hundred).  With a deep voice of gravel that sounds as if it could be that of some forgotten Aunt of one’s childhood, this brash, take-charge queen also has the kind of heart and soul that those who know the drag world, know is there in abundance.

Kraig Swartz & Adam McGill
When Miss Tracy renders before our eyes the metamorphosis of Casey from all-arms-and legs bartender into a beautiful (if still wobbly and shell-shocked) Georgia McBride, the process is both jaw-dropping in its fascination and back-slapping in its hilarity.  Amidst a constant barrage of one-liners, Miss Tracy does her magic while Casey learns that putting on panty hose is not quite the same as hiking up a pair of jeans.

Kraig Swartz, Jason Kapoor & John R. Lewis
John R. Lewis is the club-owner Eddie; his own on-stage mutations as announcer are an ongoing sequence of increasing fun and glamour as his size of audience and revenues skyrocket and his own showmanship blossoms.  The very southern-sounding Jo (Tatiana Wechsler) grows in tummy as she approaches motherhood, but it is her character’s growth in how she views life and its renewed possibilities for herself and her husband that is the real story to watch. 

Jason Kapoor plays the good, ol’ boy that is Casey’s neighbor, Jason -- also Casey’s landlord who gladly offers a beer while threatening eviction.  Mr. Kapoor is also the sometimes venomous, usually drunk drag queen, Rexy, who proves she too has the possibility of some surprising shifts in character that are as spectacular as her lip-singing rendition of Amy Winehouse.

The Marin Theatre Company production team comes close to upstaging the queens themselves with its own flair for the fabulous.  The many sequins, feathers, and colors of satin and sheer that Kara Harmon finds to highlight the gowns of the performers as well as the boots, heels, and wigs she adds for outrageous effects are eye-popping and impressive (as are the drag-a-licious props of Devon LaBelle).  Kurt Landisman’s lighting is often close to show-stopping in its effects, and the sound tracks and sound management of Sean McStravick are any lip-synching queen’s dream.  These ‘empresses in drag’ do more than just stand still, and their snazzy movements in numbers like “It’s Raining Men” and “Express Yourself” have been crafted by choreographer Dell Howlett. 

All has been set in a split-stage by Jason Sherwood between the shabby, crowded dressing room that the queens share (packed with all the parts that eventually come together to spell ‘marvelous’) and the small, modest apartment inhabited by Jo and Casey.  Kent Gash directs the entire show with an air for over-the-top sprinkled generously with outlandish.  He ensures that laughs will be had by all and also provides for moments of soul-searching, truth, and ‘ah-ha’ self-discovery. 

The one directorial downfall is the decision to run the two-hour-plus show with no intermission.  There appears a perfect moment of a surprise-filled discovery where a needed break could be had -- one that would make the rather prolonged drag show at the show’s end a little easier and more enjoyable to behold.

Lots of radical transformations occur during the course of Matthew Lopez’s Legend – physical, career, family, fortune, and more importantly, sense of positive self-image and self-worth.  Attitudes shift as characters expand their universe of how far boundaries can be pushed into new arenas in order to discover one’s true passion.  Stereotypes are challenged.  Assumptions based in exterior appearances and artificial persona are dealt fatal blows.  For all the fake eyelashes flying about, size 13 high heels being tripped over, and falsies being stuffed into glittering gowns, The Legend of Georgia McBride takes time to make important points about the bonding and love that happens behind the scenes among stage performers – even catty, sassy drag queens.

Rating: 4 E

The Legend of Georgia McBride continues in an extended run through July 9, 2017 at Marin Theatre Company, , 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office Tuesday – Sunday, 12 -5 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne

Monday, June 19, 2017

"The Graduate"

The Graduate
Terry Johnson
Based on Novel by Charles Webb & Movie by Calder Willingham &
Buck Henry

Max Tachis & Shawn Bender
‘Cute’ is a word that keeps coming to my mind as I relive The Graduate as produced by Palo Alto Players and director Jeanie Smith – a ‘cute’ that is meant as a total compliment of how chuckling funny, genuinely heart-felt, and absolutely entertaining this stage version of the still-famous film is.  This is never totally the movie as we remember it, but it is also just enough so as to make all the new and surprising curves and switchbacks of plot much more appetizing and satisfying.

For my full review of this production, please proceed to Talkin' Broadway:

Rating: 4 E

The Graduate continues through July 2, 2017 in production by Palo Alto Players at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.  Tickets are available at or by calling 650-329-0891.

Photo Credit: Joyce Goldschmid

Thursday, June 15, 2017

"A Night with Janis Joplin"

A Night with Janis Joplin
Randy Johnson (Creator & Writer)

Kacee Clanton
It’s 1969, homecoming, and the arena is packed.  Up to the microphone steps a curly haired woman full of fringes, beads, and bracelets.  She grins broadly, shouts out, “Hell-oooo, Knoxville,” and then grabs the now-standing audience in her outstretched hands and won’t let go for two-plus hours.  She uses her unique voice full of sand and gravel to cause feet to stomp, heads to bop, and bodies to pump to the hard-rock and soulful blues numbers to come non-stop -- punctuated only by her sharing bits and pieces of who the real Janis Joplin is.

And now it is 2017; the difference is she now says, “Hell-ooooo, San Francisco.”  And of course, the Queen of Rock and Roll before us is not the Janis who died almost fifty years ago but rather a reincarnation by Kacee Clanton in which appearance, movements, and voice are an eerie, almost spooky echo of the original one-of-a-kind Janis.  In an evening not to be soon forgotten even as pulse rates decrease to normal and the ear worms left by throbbing music eventually fade from audience ears, American Conservatory Theatre presents in rock concert fashion Randy Johnson’s (creator, writer, and director) A Night with Janis Joplin. 

The evening is nothing less than a joyous celebration of the legend’s music, with the star herself clearly having the best time of all.  So much is the stage her favorite place to be with those she loves the most -- her audience -- that Janis admits, “When I am up here on this stage, it is the only time I don’t feel lonely.” 

Sylvia MacCalla, Kacee Clanton & Ashley Támar Smith
Between rendering many of the now-iconic numbers of the likes of “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Mercedez Benz,” the Janis before us helps us understand the origin of her love of music and the connection of her music to the blues.  “It was really my mom that got me to sing and understand the blues,” she admits.  She tells us how her mom played incessantly the likes of West Side Story and Hello Dolly while she and her two siblings cleaned the house on Saturday mornings (Laura and Michael, both of whom were in the audience on opening night).  But is was when her mom played Porgy and Bess that Janis really began to understand, “The blues, man, they can drag you to where you’re going ... And no one can feel the blues like an every day woman.”

To prove that final point, our Janis shares the stage throughout the evening with one of the earliest African-American “girl groups,” the Chantels, as well as with the women artists who most influenced and shaped her choice of music, her unique vocal quality, and the emotional depth of her delivery – legends like Bessie Smith, Odetta, Nina Simone, Etta James, and of course the incomparable Aretha.  The result -- as masterfully directed by Randy Johnson with hardly a pause for the psyched-up audience to catch its collective breath – is an informative, riveting, and uplifting evening of music and stories.

Every tensed, facial muscle; every fist or leg thrust high in the air; and every jerk, jump, and jolt of her entire body is a clear sign that Kacee Clanton has more than embodied the energy and essence of the real Janis Joplin.  But even more, it is when she rips it open with that signature-sounding voice -- at times so intense and rough, at other times so sweet and smooth -- that we know this actress has done her homework to become an interpretation of Janis Joplin that is stunning, almost shocking for anyone who saw the original on stage. 

Kacee Clanton
Kacee Clanton knows how to open up a song with a blast that blows any audience member leaning-forward to a sudden collision with the back of the seat.  She then digs time and again deep into her gut to find harsh, raw notes and sounds that reach into and shake unforgivingly each audience member’s very being, leaving each dripping in anticipation what this Janis will do next.   And just as surprising and startling, Kacee Clanton -- in full Janis style -- turns the corner to ease gracefully into a voice that is soft, mellow, and comforting.  And through it all, there is always a full sense of optimism, a joy of life – something that makes the music and the persona projected bittersweet to behold, knowing the abrupt and tragic ending that is to come in Janis’ too-short life.

Much of the magic of the evening comes from the juxtaposition of one of her blues inspirations singing a signature song with Janis then providing her reinterpretation.  Identified as only “Blues Woman,” Ashley Támar Davis in strolls slowly across an elevated walkway in Sunday finest (including hat and red fan) to sing in a haunting voice “Summertime,” letting notes linger long and longer.  Janis then takes over and rips a “Summertime” that is desperate, biting, and yet in the end, silvery and soothing. 

Kacee Clanton & Ashley Támar Davis
Ms. Davis returns with a voice pure as honey as Nina Simone in “Little Girl Blue,” followed by Janis’s version of such raw emotion that one’s own memories return to some forgotten time when raindrops fell on an unhappiness, as occurs in the song.  As the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, Ms. Davis sings “Spirit in the Dark” with such exuberant and eruptive vibrations that the real Aretha seems to be in our presence.  When Janis joins her for a wild duet (one waving a white hanky and other swinging her beads), Janis warns, “Ladies, if your wearing a wig, you better pin it down ... It’s getting hot in here.”

Syvia MacCalla
As Odetta, Sylvia MacCalla sings “Down on Me” in a breathy, deep delivery with notes that take a pause before moving on.  Janis takes the same song and transforms it into her electric-beat cries that turn the blues number into something that sends shockwaves and shivers, so stripped down to the raw the notes become.  (Ms. MacCalla is also a hip-shifting, arms-waving Bessie Smith who just puts it all on the table and delivers unapologetically “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”)

Sharon Catherine Brown
A strutting Etta James (Tawny Dolley) kicks the stuffing out of “Tell Mama” as she flings a fist-full of her skirt with a vengeance only matched by her powerful, persuasive vocals.  Sharon Catherine Brown provides one of the night’s most stunning numbers (among many) when as “Blues Singer,” she gets into the roots of “Today I Sing the Blues” and yanks, pulls, and twists the notes so much as almost to hurt before finally releasing a sustained note held so long, so clear, so resounding that anyone listening is left breathless.

Together, the four women on stage with Janis appear in various groupings as both the Chantels and Janis’ back-up singers, the Joplinaires.  Not only is their harmonized singing superb, their synchronized movements are fully reminiscent of all the many great, African-American back-up groups of the ‘50s and ‘60s (women and men), having been wonderfully designed by Patricia Wilcox as choreographer.  When the four appear as Blues Singer, Nina, Bessie, and Etta, their “Kosmic Blues/I Shall Be Released” is a “wow” number that makes the night’s ticket price seem a bargain.

Michael Lent & Kacee Clanton
The evening’s musical success and excellence is due in no small part to the jaw-dropping musicianship of the eight-piece, on-stage band and the music direction of Todd Olson.  (Michael Lent’s electric guitar duets with Janis are especially memorable.)  Rob Bissinger’s scenic design is simple and effective and eye-poppingly enhanced by the psychedelic patterns and colors projected during much of the evening, designed by Darrel Maloney.  Amy Clark’s costumes are a show unto themselves, a memory walk through the electric band and Summer of Love era as well as through the history of some of last century’s greatest, African American women singers and the feathers, sparkles, turbans, and gowns they wore with pride and dignity. 

Particular kudos goes to the lighting designed by Mike Baldassari and Gertjan Houben.  Their choice and placement of spots – triangles shooting from the heavens to envelop singers and musician – is creative, beautiful, and exciting.

For anyone who was in her actual presence in the late 1960s/early ‘70s, for anyone who has since ever reveled in her music, and for that rare person who has never paid her any attention, A Night with Janis Joplin is a must-see in its now-extended stay at the American Conservatory Theatre.  It is hard to imagine anyone not leaving without heart pounding and smile shining.

Rating: 5 E

A Night with Janis Joplin continues in an extended run through July 9, 2017 on the Geary Stage of American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Berne

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

"Hershey Felder, Beethoven"

Hershey Felder, Beethoven
Hershey Felder (Book); Ludwig van Beethoven (Music)

Hershey Felder
Hershey Felder, Beethoven bursts onto the Mountain View Performing Arts Center as a full, classical concert, played magnificently by the sole performer as pianist and punctuated by a narrated story that is populated by both Beethoven and the major players of his life who influenced his music.  Number after number springs forth from the performing aficionado’s keyboard, most of which audience members can quickly identify if not by name, certainly by familiar phrases full of musical drama and by well-known runs melodic and mesmerizing.

My full review appears by clicking to Talkin' Broadway:  

Rating: 4 E

Hershey Felder, Beethoven continues through July 9, 2017 at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View.  Tickets are available online at  or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday – Friday 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Saturday – Sunday, Noon – 6 p.m.

Photo Credit: Christopher Ash

Thursday, June 8, 2017


Han Ong

Carl Lumbly
“Time is the greatest writer of us all.
Time has written over what I’ve written.
Time has made me more moving than I set out to be and
less potent than I was before.”

Time’s march toward some inevitable but as-yet-undefined end for one man is an underlying tension point in Han Ong’s new play, Grandeur, now in its world premiere at Magic Theatre.  How will this man use the time he has left, however long that is?  Is a recent, highly acclaimed LP album a rebirth or a fluke after almost two decades of crack-induced ups and downs?  How will he be remembered?  Why is there sudden interest by national press in the life of this man that many refer to as “the Godfather of rap”?  And why was he largely ignored during his forty years as a poet, musician, and author, using his lyrical, punchy lines to comment on the social and political issues of the day – especially as they affect and involve his fellow African-Americans?  And finally, why exactly is a young reporter from The New York Book Review seeking the old man out?  Is there an agenda noble or one hidden?

Han Ong steps into one afternoon in 2010 of the life of Gil Scott-Heron, a name maybe not on the lips of the masses but a man who is credited to be one of the first, if not the first rapper and reportedly the inspiration for later African-American music genres such as hip-hop and neo-soul.  Into that afternoon comes Steve Barron to an apartment cluttered up to the ceiling with books and memories and are kept dark even though lamps scatter themselves hap-hazard around the room.  (The young writer must first follow the voice of the man he seeks to interview as he makes his way through also-dark hallways of the building.) 

Carl Lumbly & Rafael Jordan
What we witness is a back-and-forth dance of words, challenges, dead-end alleys, and occasionally genuine connections between the two as the young writer seeks to get his subject to answer his many questions.  Steve wants to focus on Mr. Heron’s first, much-acclaimed novel, Vulture -- published when the author was twenty-one -- and on his newly released LP, I’m New Here, released after a sixteen-year hiatus.  Gil is more interested in a little sparring and then getting Steve to go next door to get him just one little rock of cocaine once Steve has first brought one of his favorite, orange Fantas from the ‘frig.  But somehow, the two figure out how to make this dance of word play work for a series of exchanges in which a young man’s respect and awe for a hero is both justifiably solidified and seriously challenged and an older man’s notions about himself, his life’s work and worth, and maybe his inner premonitions about an approaching end are laid bare next to his current, urgent need for another few minutes of crack-induced high.

Carl Lubley
Carl Lumbly is a tall, lanky Gil Scott-Heron who sits stretched forward in his chair with long arms reaching forward as he bandies in words and occasionally breaks into a rap-like commentary in the presence of the young reporter.  His voice tends toward monotone; his sentences tend to be short; and his phrases are often broken apart by pauses – all as if remembering is part of some shadowy world that may or may not be a place he is any longer interested or even capable of going.  But there are moments when he comes truly alive to show glimpses of his reputation as another Bob Dylan, spitting out poetic lines or giving funny commentary on contemporary life (like a riff he does on various popular magazines to rename them as an offshoot of People magazine).  Mr. Lumbly’s performance is initially largely measured and hesitant with always a touch of wry playfulness.  Later, he powerfully reveals a much darker, sadder side of the poet/crack-user, performed with an ability to solicit not our pity but our compassion for the complicated man we, along with the young reporter, are meeting.

Rafael Jordan
The genius of Han Ong’s play is that it may be as much or even more about the interviewer Steve Barron than about the poet/musician he comes to interview.  Rafael Jordan’s performance is actually the one to watch as he enters as a wide-eyed, maybe naïve, but also clearly daring, young man -- sometimes more boy-like than adult in his wonder and worship of Mr. Heron, whom he always addresses as ‘sir.’  With an almost religious fervor, he declares,
“I believe in greatness.  I believe when you get the touch the hem of greatness, you seize it.  I believe that when anyone touches the hem of greatness, he gets a small taste of eternity.”

In the course of the afternoon, the playwright’s script and Mr. Jordan’s performance muddy and make complex this young man in ways gripping and with questions left hanging about his true motivations, questions not altogether answered.  What is he there really to see, to record?  Rafael Jordan eventually leaves behind his boy-like demeanor with his own vivid, stark memories as a young adult and with an ability to look at and watch his subject in ways that leave us with a shudder and lots of blanks left to be filled in.

Safiya Fredericks
A third person enters twice into this afternoon’s picture, a forty-year-old anthropology student and so-called ‘niece’ of Gil, Miss Julie as he likes to call her.  Like in Strindberg’s naturalistic play of the same name, Safiya Fredericks plays a Julie who is strong-willed and in a power position over the old man she seems to be part care-giver, part watch-guard.  She is suspicious --and without saying it, scared -- of this the fourth reporter suddenly taking interest during the past few weeks in her elder charge, snarling at Steve, “I know who you are ... I need you to know who you are and to be careful who you are... You’re death ... like a herald.”  Ms. Fredericks is a powerful mixture of cynicism, anger, dedication, and fear; and her reasons for all those parts of her come clearer in the unfolding of her own story and of her experience as an African-American woman in the white world around her.

Loretta Greco directs this premiere at a pace and intensity that ebbs and flows, with the movement forward sometimes feeling a bit slow and laborious but at other times, ready to bring one to the edge of the seat.  A memory sequence involving a moving subway and opening the second half is particularly directed with artistry and mystery. That effort is enhanced greatly by the lighting of Ray Oppenheimer, the sound of Sara Huddleston, and the projection of Hana S. Kim (who also designed the dark, claustrophobic cave of an apartment that is loaded to the brim with a life’s worth of memories and works). 

Han Ong’s Grandeur complicates what makes or does not make any one person great and worthy of memorializing and emulating.  He dares to put forward hard realities and to raise some questions about the African-American experience that may make those of us watching uncomfortable and/or leave us with many more questions than answers.  The world premiere by Magic Theatre is not always easy to understand and is sometimes a bit slow, but the outcome is rich fodder for further thought and discussion in the days following its seeing as words and scenes suddenly reappear for reexamination.

Rating: 3.5 E

 Grandeur continues through June 25, 2017 at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., Building D, San Francisco, CA.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-441-8822.

Photo Credits: Jennifer Reiley