Thursday, November 30, 2017

"Bright Star"


Bright Star
Steve Martin (Music, Book, Story) & Edie Brickell (Music, Lyrics, Story)

Carmen Cusack
Upfront, let’s just admit that some of the lyrics are full of more corn and clichés than a barn’s loft and that the story’s twists and turns are so unbelievably fantastical that even the audience laughed when the story’s dramatic ‘big reveal’ was reenacted.  And there is an earworm of “A Man’s Gotta Do” (“what a man’s gotta do”) that invades every listening ear and stubbornly remains even as one can do nothing but groan when the irritating song sung by a group of old, white men is reprised.  

But then suddenly one notices that my toes have not stopped tapping, that my hand is patting my leg keeping time with the music, and that I seem to have this perpetual and sheepish grin glued on my face.  Further, the energy in the entire Curran Theatre is fully charged; there is a constant whirling of bodies, set pieces, and even an entire house on the stage; and the star (nominated just last year for a Tony Outstanding Actress in a Musical) is one of the most impressive to land on a SF stage this year.  Yes, Steve Martin’s and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star has some musical numbers that are bland and mundane, some moments syrupy sweet as molasses or overdone as a 1890s melodrama, and a progression toward the inevitable happy ending that makes highly unlikely leaps to get there.  But hey, this is after all a musical; and on the Curran stage, this touring production with many of its original New York cast is in the end a humdinger barnstormer of a show that is a holiday gift not to be missed.

Taking place in the hills of North Carolina, Bright Star jumps back and forth between two time periods and two groups of characters that may have more connections between them than just geography.  A guy in his early twenties, Billy Crane, arrives home in Hayes Creek from World War II duty, finding his mom now is a grave and a childhood friend, Margo, with eyes and hopes focused totally on him.  However, Billy announces his design to move to the metropolis of Ashville to pursue a desired career as a writer and uses an outlandish lie to get attention of the editor of The Ashville Southern Journal. Alice Murphy is known as hardline as they come, having caused even Ernest Hemingway to collapse crying at her desk in order to get into her publication.  Billy Crane’s lie and his charm somehow find a soft spot inside that hard exterior (Miracle Number One of this fairytale-like musical); and a bond is struck that eventually leads to Billy’s first publication.

Carmen Cusack & Patrick Cummings
Alice’s advice to Billy is to write about what he knows, his home; from her view, “It would be easier to get Lincoln on Mt. Rushmore than to get home out of a Southern writer.”  That advice leads her to relive in her mind and on our stage scenes from 1923 in her hometown of Zebulon when she was just leaving her teen years and still living at home with her Bible-thumping parents.  A moonlit tryst down by the pond with the town’s hunkiest and likely richest boy, Jimmy Ray Dobbs, leads to the unintended outcome other, equally innocent, good girls have found themselves.  In this case, while Jimmy Ray is more than willing to marry Alice, his business-minded daddy and her Bible-righteous father have other ideas what should happen to the result of a kiss gone too far.  Neither baby nor boyfriend is seen again by Alice, who heads to Chapel Hill and eventually to her 1945 position as the journal editor. 

The Swirling Musicians of Bright Star
Two separate stories, two different towns, and two time periods interlock as the musical unfolds.  The stories swirl back and forth under the fabulously inventive and energetic direction of Walter Bobbie and the constantly shifting, high-spun choreography by Josh Rhodes.  A large ensemble of townspeople watch with us as the stories evolve, and they continually enter as not only passer-by witnesses and participants, but also as stagehands to position Eugene Lee’s creative set pieces, as the deliverers of props that float from one hand to the next in the blink of an eye, and as background scenes that illustrate and enhance lyrics of a front-stage song.  When called upon to be center stage, the ensemble in full and in subsets moves, glides, jumps, and dances with the full-body-and-soul enthusiasm of a Saturday night hoedown.  All the while the stage is often full of the swirls, leaps, and twirls of the ensemble, a house full of bluegrass music instruments and their players is constantly on the move, circling around more times that even Dorothy’s house in the midst of its tornado.  (Tremendous kudos goes to Music Director P. Jason Yarcho and his string-picking band of six.)  The result is one of the highest energy generating stages I have witnessed in a long time -- all done without ever taking focus away from the spotlight on the principals’ current songs or dialogues. 

When Alice opens the entire show singing, “If you knew my story, you’d have a hard time believing me,” we know immediately that Carmen Cusack is going to reign supreme on the evening’s stage.  Her voice has that perfect country/bluegrass music sound with notes emerging from somewhere deep in the throat and making their way out with just the right warbles, lingering tones, and slightly sharp edges that ensure us this is not going to be a normal, Broadway diva musical.  As the roller coaster ride of a story progresses, Ms. Cusack only becomes stronger in not only the clarity and punch of her singing but also in the authenticity of both her 1923 and 1945 selves.  She melts our hearts when singing to her unborn baby, “I Can’t Wait,” breaks those same hearts when she cries in “Please Don’t Take Him,” and sends our audience hearts soaring when she triumphantly sings “At Long Last” as her life hits the triumphant climax we all know is bound to come.  The face of her Alice is one Norman Rockwell would have surely painted had he met her.  Its expressions, longing looks, and both smiles and tears leave lasting impressions on an audience whose final applause of appreciation is given standing.

A.J. Shively
Likewise impressive is A.J. Shively as Billy Cane, who delivers the musical’s title song with a brightness of tone and manner that totally works, even as we know his youthful unbounded optimism of “I’m on my way, bright star, keep shining on me” has yet to be tested.  Mr. Shively is the All-American guy in a such an innocent way that -- for this particular make-believe story -- we forgive him for being white, male, and full of luck-and-promise in a 1940s Southern world where – if we were to think about it – things are not going so well for a lot of other residents (none of whose darker skin colors is represented in this particular story or this touring cast).

Each of these two leads of the parallel stories has a love interest who fully fits the required bill to flutter audience hearts.  Patrick Cummings is the handsome Jimmy Ray whose sparks -- when around the younger Alice of 1923 -- literally bounce from his body to hers even as he sings with ebullient vocals, “Whoa Mama,” trying to say in teasing words what clearly his body is not saying: “You’re pretty as a daisy, smell like a rose, make a man crazy, but it won’t be me.”  Maddie Shea Baldwin sparkles as the hometown bookstore clerk, Margo, who has high hopes about a certain author on the rise; and she proves her own vocal mettle in a late musical duet with Billy, “Always Will.”

The musical’s best-known number, “Sun is Gonna Shine” kicks off Act Two in a rousing way worthy of any barn-raising party.  Alice’s mom (played by Allison Briner-Dardenne) delivers one of the more inspirational moments of the evening as she gives that kind of heart-felt encouragement to a daughter that every kid striking it off on their own should receive: “Something tells me, it’ll be all right ... the sun is gonna shine again.”

Daddy Murphy, as played by Stephen Lee Anderson, wins many audience hearts after first across as hard-hearted as a rock jutting from yonder mountain.  As Daddy Cane, David Atkinson uses his grainy, back-hills voice to convey authentically a mountaineer’s sad truth to his son in “She’s Gone.”

Nothing short of funny and quirky are Kaitlyn Davidson and Jeff Blumenkrantz as Lucy and Daryl, office associates of Editor Alice, who join Billy for a night of hilarious drinking on the town in “Another Round”  -- a song full of bland clichés about drinking but one also accompanied by skirt-lifting, leg-splitting, and body-twirling jitterbugging. 

The lighting and sound designs of Japhy Weideman and Nevin Steinberg are knockout winners in this production.  Both continually amaze and capture the shifting times, moods, and energies of the production.  The costumes of Jane Greenwood are picture perfect for both the ‘20s and ‘40s and often are changed even as people are walking from one era into the next. 

Many of the songs in this Steve Martin/Edie Brickell musical will soon be forgotten.  What will be long remembered is the sheer energy generated by a banjo-and-guitar-picking score that excites and by a director’s genius for keeping two stories literally swirling in front of us with no confusion occurring amidst what could be a very confusing plotline of unbelievable leaps and unlikely bridges.  And when a superb cast headed by the incomparable Carmen Cusack is added, any occasional faults of lyrics or book are quickly and forever forgiven and forgotten.

Rating: 4.5

Bright Star continues through December 17, 2017 at the Curran Theatre, 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: Craig Schwartz



Wednesday, November 29, 2017

"Shakespeare in Love"


Shakespeare in Love
Based on the Screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman
Adapted for the Stage by Lee Hall,
Marin Theatre Company

Adam Magill and Kenny Toll
“Shall I compare … compare … compare thee … to a mourner’s play?”

A young Will Shakespeare struggles to find the word -- any word -- to start his latest sonnet.  Only after a whispered “summer’s day” comes from his best pal and more-popular-playwright-than-he, Kit Marlowe, does his inspiration begin to kick in (especially as Kit continues to prod with more choice words and lines). 

Every writer certainly has a slump from time to time, but Will’s is bigger than Falstaff’s belly.  He is fiercely searching for a new muse in his life, someone who can save him from yet another lame comedy about pirates and their dogs.  That his inspiration will arrive as a young woman of wealth — one already betrothed to a Lord but one who is desperate to be on the stage that English law forbids her to be so — is just the kind of set-up any young playwright might die a thousand deaths to have.  Certainly it worked well for Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard as the backbone for their 1998 Academy Award winning film Shakespeare in Love, and it is a tantalizing backdrop for the play by the same name.  Adapted to the stage by Lee Hall, Shakespeare in Love is now playing in a must-see, exceedingly entertaining production at Marin Theatre Company.

Framed as a play within a play, Shakespeare in Love takes us back to the late sixteenth century as the playwright-in-the-making, still early in his career, is looking for an advance for his next play from one (or actually both) of London’s rival troupes. He is also in frantic search for a new idea of what is the world to write as a follow-up to his recent Two Gentleman of Verona.  The Queen (as in Elizabeth) has requested a play with a dog in it; the theatre entrepreneur Henslowe has hired him to write a comedy entitled Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter; but Kit Marlowe keeps pumping him with ideas about a love story of the son and daughter of two rival, Italian families — a story that is destined to be as tragic as it is beautiful. 

That story begins to play out in real life when Will meets Viola de Lesseps after sneaking into a party her father is giving in honor of her expected engagement to Lord Wessex — a union she has no interest in making.  What Viola does want to do is to fall in love with the handsome playwright she on the sly kissed (and much more) at her engagement party.  And she is determined to be in his upcoming play. 

Adam Magill & Megan Trout
To do the latter, she dresses as a new actor in town named Thomas Kent and lands the lead role of someone called Romeo in Will’s play — one he writes as the two secret lovers live the developing script day by day (actually night by night) with new pages guiding both rehearsals and their making of love.  All the while, even though Will keeps promising the impatient Henslowe that a happy ending (and maybe a pirate or two) is coming, everything in the emerging script and in his own life begins to point otherwise.

Megan Trout & Adam Magill
Adam Magill and Megan Trout could hardly be better than they are as Will and Viola.  Mr. Magill has all the angst, impatience, and near-suicidal tendencies of a writer in trouble until he transforms into an energized and ebullient creator of iambic pentameter lines that seem to flow with full ease of guaranteed excellence.  That metamorphosis is seen and heard in his whole demeanor as he embodies, after meeting his Juliet, the very Romeo he is creating word for word.  In the beginning, he is an impetuous boy-barely-man who is willing to risk life and limb for just one forbidden kiss.  That kiss stimulates the flow of all kinds of juices within him, one of which fortunately for the world is the ever-increasing ability to write beautiful verse without Marlowe’s prompting. 

As Thomas the actor, Viola the aristocrat, and Viola the lover, Megan Trout reigns supreme.  When dressed in hat and mustache as the disguised Thomas, she is a talented Romeo in rehearsal whose lines are delivered with a sensitivity and sensuality that her fellow actors fully admire (none but Will knowing that there is a reason this Thomas brings something unique they have never seen before among their colleagues on stage).  As Viola the betrothed, Ms. Trout is reluctantly dutiful, courageously sneaky, and proudly resistant all at the same time (especially the last when repeatedly barked commands by her fiancé Lord Wessex, played with full aristocratic and chauvinistic snobbery and haughtiness by Thomas Gorrebeeck).  But when Viola the lover, Megan Trout is a Juliet prototype who could inspire almost any would-be poet.  Arm-in-arm with her Will with lips touching lips, the two create a script that causes all watching hearts to skip more than a beat or two.

Like in most of the Bard’s canon of plays, many of the minor, lower-class characters of Shakespeare in Love are memorably delicious and delightful.  Similar to the nurse in Romeo and Juliet, Viola’s nurse is often a show-stopper, well worth watching every moment she is on stage.  As the nurse who supports and continually covers up on the sly Viola’s love affair with Will, Stacy Ross is particularly hilarious as she covers her ears and sings in off-key (and loudly) in order to hide from herself and the rest of the household the rather loud love-making coming from her mistress’s bed.  Ms. Ross is also a bawdy tavern owner, Mistress Quickly, who gives a young Sam (Ben Euphrat) a chance to leave for a moment his normal role as lady on stage to be a man in bed.  And as Queen Elizabeth, Ms. Ross reigns supreme, especially in the wry humor she so well delivers in both her voice and her royal countenance.

Robert Sicular is Henslowe, the impatient and worried owner of the Rose Theatre, whose overall jovial demeanor and friendship to Will betrays the persistent pushiness he tries to use to get Will to write in his pirates and ensure the tragedy-in-the-making has a happy ending.

Adam Magill & Sango Tajima
An impish dwarf of a kid named John Webster, as deliciously and devilishly played by Sango Tajima (among four other roles), has a myriad of ways to don a face-filling frown; and while she plays the bad boy, it is tough in the end not to love her John.  Kenny Toll plays with flair, heart, and fun two key chums of Will: his inspiration for needed words to woo Viola and fellow playwright, Christopher Marlowe, and a exceedingly handsome and seasoned actor named Ned Alleyn.

Winning the hearts of his fellow actors as well as we the audience is Liam Vincent as a stuttering, wanna-be thespian, Ralph, who becomes an unlikely star. L. Peter Callender is the bombastic and blustery Burbage, Henslowe’s rival theatre owner, and proves that the union among actors is even stronger than the drive to secure one’s own packed house.  Lance Gardner and Brian Herndon each ably take on multiple roles, with the latter being the pompously pious Tilney who keeps trying to close the very theatres that his sovereign queen likes to attend. 

And as he often does when on a local stage, Mark Anderson Phillips leaves a fantastically memorable impression as Fennyman, the money man behind Will’s production who goes from demanding bully to  a sentimental producer with a big heart and a bigger desire to be on stage himself.

The Cast of Shakespeare in Love
The intimate Marin Theatre is a perfect setting for Director Jasson Minadakis to give this production the kind scrappy, make-shift feel that provides authenticity to Shakespeare’s early, low/no budget beginnings.  With many of the actors also picking up instruments to provide music along the way (under music direction by Jennifer Reason) and with they and others often watching scenes playing out around them (as if observing fellow thespians rehearsing), there is a real feeling of excitement, spontaneity, and community throughout the production.  The warehouse look and feel of Kat Conley’s excellent scenic design where a rolling ladder becomes a balcony or a staircase and trunks and boxes in the background serve as seats and leaning posts enhances the director’s and the playwright’s vision for the play’s raw energy. 

Katherine Nowacki’s costumes establish the rag-tag nature of many of the characters while also letting us see the aristocrats and queen in all the finery and exaggerated collars that we also see in textbooks and museum paintings (not to mention PBS series).  The lighting of Kurt Landisman is a particular star in this production as he creates light that seems to seep in from unseen cracks and to have the glow of candles and torches.  Sword fight scenes are wonderfully planned and choreographed for both laughs and thrills by Fight Director Dave Maier and Choreographer Liz Tenuto.

Lee Hall’s adaptation of the Norman/Stoppard screenplay emphasizes even more than the original flm the determination of one woman to forge a place on the world’s stage — or at least on London’s — for talented actors of her sex.  While we as audience are moved by the doomed love story of Romeo and Juliet, we cannot help but be thrilled by the stand this fictional feminist of sorts takes in the stead of all the women who did dare to make their historic ways onto the forbidden stage.  Brava and bravo to Viola and to Lee Hall as well as to Marin Theatre for this engaging, enthralling, and educating Shakespeare in Love.

Rating: 5 E

Photos by Kevin Berne










Tuesday, November 28, 2017

"Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley"


Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
Lauren Gunderson & Margot Melcon


James Lewis & Melinda Marks
There is so much to like in the script by Laura Gunderson and Margot Melcon if one is looking for a light, pre-holiday diversion. The director and cast of this City Lights production sparkle and glow in their evident joy in producing the play, with the result that it would take a Scrooge not to walk out of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley thoroughly pleased and ready to wish everyone met, “Happy Holidays.”

For my full review, please continue to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj103.html.

Rating: 4 E

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley continues through December 17, 2017 at City Lights Theatre Company 529 South Second Street, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at https://cltc.org/ or by calling 408-295-4200 Monday – Friday, 1-5 p.m.

Photo Credit: Steve DiBartolomeo

Sunday, November 26, 2017

"Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets"


Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets
William S. Burroughs (Book); Tom Waits (Music & Lyrics)

The Cast of Black Rider
What kind of play will be penned by a writer who, as a young man, shoots and kills his wife while playing with her a drinking game of “William Tell”? Imagine his then discovering an old German folktale where an unsuccessful suitor makes a deal with the devil to win his bride, only to shoot her with a magic bullet that is under the devil’s spell.  The resulting play by William S. Burroughs (with music and lyrics by cult-favorite Tom Waits) that premiered in Hamburg, Germany in 1990 – Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets – can be described in a wide range of words: cartoonish, bizarre, freaky, spooky, intriguing, confusing, disturbing.  And while audiences may at times be scratching their heads to ascertain the why’s and wherefores of the staging and the story, the current production at Shotgun Players is certainly packing them in every night, with December pre-sold-out audiences already leading to a two-week extension in January; and it is still only late November!

The tale of a love- and/or knowledge-seeking man making a sure-to-doom bargain with the devil appears in many cultures and in many forms of literature and opera.  In this version, a young clerk named Wilhelm  – “a man of pen and ink” – finds himself in love with Kätchen (and she with him).  However, he lacks the one necessary skill her father most admires and demands of any potential husband:  The ability to shoot and kill yonder dove in the high tree branches.  Desperate to win her hand at any cost, Wilhelm is offered a deal he cannot refuse by a suddenly appearing devil (in this case, a mixed-gender character named Pegleg often calling into mind the MC of Cabaret).  Wilhelm receives six magic bullets destined to hit anything he desires, with one last one reserved by Pegleg to hit the target he chooses.  And like all the devil-bargainers of the past, of course Wilhelm jumps at the offer and the sure route to win his bride’s hand, all the time never contemplating the hell he will unleash on his and others’ lives.

Mark Jackson directs in a highly stylized, often over-done mode that borders between what one might see in an animated film and what one could expect from a B-rated horror movie.  Monologue poems are given robotic, spastic, or full-body trance-like movements to accompany a character’s words.  Various, odd persona come and go with a flow eerie and mysterious as the story unfolds in nothing resembling a straightforward manner.  The songs of Tom Waits pepper the action -- often with haunting, foreboding messages and tones, but also with occasionally beautiful strains that come close to being hummable upon departing (“In the Morning”).

The drama is set within the context of the devil’s sideshow carnival (not unlike the settings of Sondheim’s Assassins or Russell/Krieger’s Side Show). The colorfully fun background set by Sean Riley with its pictures of sundry carnival freaks (and the sign “101% true”) is bordered on both sides by wonderfully scary trees right out of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.  Props by Devon LaBelle range from a regularly appearing coffin (often chauffeuring Pegleg inside it) to a wide range of funny but realistic dead game that were shot by Wilhelm as the newly skilled hunter.  The lighting of Allen Willner is both tongue-in-cheek and threatening as lit bullets make their way toward possible targets.  Matt Stines gets fully into the act of producing this magical fable with a sound design that at times echoes, screams, whispers, and thunders in all the right places.  All in all, the Creative Team excels to ensure the combined vision of the playwright and director comes to full life.

A major star of the production is the five-piece band hovering above the stage in full view and under the direction of David Möscheler.  Over twenty different instruments from bassoon to ocarina to toy drum set, pressure cap, and filing cabinet become the symphony of sounds and sound effects.  A good portion of the ever-shifting moods and many of the spine-chilling anticipations of what will happen next come from the music of Tom Waits as interpreted and played by this wonderful ensemble.

El Beh
The songs of the one-hour, forty-five-minute production (some sixteen in all) are delivered by this cast with some mixed results but also with a number of notable deliveries.  Outstanding when called upon to sing is the night’s overall star, El Beh, who brings her rich, deep, and haunting voice to numbers like “November.”  Ms. Beh superbly crosses the gender line to play the bearded, muscled hunter extraordinaire (and overall full of himself), Robert, who wants Käthchen as his bride -- something she is determined not to happen.

Grave Ng
Also taking on an opposite-sex role in a winning way is Grace Ng as Wilhelm.  Initially, she employs an almost child-like singing voice and boy-like manner as the bookish, non-hunting Wilhelm (as in the duet with Käthchen of “The Briar and the Rose”).  Her character matures as he moves toward his deal with the devil, both in voice but also in wide-eyed determination and eventual horror, with Ms. Ng. making some of the best use of her glasses-encased eyes as an acting asset that I have seen all year on any stage. 

Noelle Viñas & Grace Ng
Wilhelm’s love target, Käthchen, is dressed in her plaid skirt and matching sweater like an All-American school girl by designer Christine Cook (by far the most conventional of Ms. Cook’s wild, wooly, and totally fun costumes for all the other characters).  As Käthchen, Noelle Viñas takes a while to warm into the part both in vocals and character.  But as the musical progresses, she begins to hit every mark bulls-eye, including a body rolling across the stage while singing “Chase the Clouds Away” and a delightfully seductive “I’ll Shoot the Moon,” where Käthchen transforms for a moment into a nightclub singer, enticing audience members (all women, by the way) with her tempting promise of love.

Rotimi Agbablaka
Outlandishly hobbling about in one high-heeled boot of red and one black boot covered in sparkles, the gender-non-specific Pegleg, as played by Rotimi Agbabiaka is both hilarious and diabolical.  He is also often our guide to the story’s background narrative.  While sometimes not quite hitting the mark note-wise, his cowboy interpretation of “Just the Right Bullets” tempts in just the right ways the desperate Wilhelm.

Rounding out the cast are Elizabeth Carter as Käthchen’s mother, Anne; Steven Hess in several roles including her father and grandfather; and Kevin Clarke as a curious character “Old Uncle/Devil” who fills in as sideshow hawker with a loud horn.

What is clear from both the script of Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets and this director’s interpretation in the Shotgun Players production is that the devil we need most to fear is not the one we may meet someday, but the one we carry around inside us all the time.  In a world today where a certain leader spends much of his Tweeting time railing about all the devils he sees around him and us, William S. Burroughs seems to be warning us that we each are the main source of our potential undoing and that our doom or redemption is totally in our own control.

Rating: 4 E

Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets continues in an extended run through January 14, 2017 on the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at www.shotgunplayers.org or by calling 510-841-6500.

Photos by Cheshire Isaacs.


Monday, November 6, 2017

"Le Switch"


Le Switch
Philip Dawkins

Ryan Vásquez & Steve Rhyne
“Welcome to Library School.  When you leave this program you will be able to classify everything.”

And with that, David in his trademark cardigan of questionable colors and accompanying bowtie begins his first lecture of the new term.  When he goes on to tell the librarian novitiates, “We are the keepers of classification,” David is actually talking about his own life.  He has 1-2-3’ed his entire life and beliefs.  Those beliefs include that no matter that it is 2011 and New York has just legalized same-sex marriage, he has no intent – ever, never – of recreating the mess his parents had and get married himself.  After all, what was his coming out all about at eighteen if not to divorce himself from “traditional” relationships?

That mantra holds firm for David in Philip Dawkins’ Le Switch, now in a well-acted, beautifully set, regional premiere at New Conservatory Theatre Center.  That is until David lays eyes on a certain, to-die-for-cute Québécois, there are no doubts of his confirmed bachelorhood.  But even as he is tongue-tied and blushing upon meeting Benoit, David’s classification system immediately sets in, telling him no matter how adorable, sweet, and loving Benoit is (and he is all that and much more as played by Ryan Vásquez), he will not be part of the gay horde of lemmings jumping over the cliff into dreaded matrimony.

David has also classified himself with lots of other categories that set him apart and make him different in his own mind from most everyone else in the world.  After all, he collects rare books that dominate his NYC apartment and makes a point never to open any of them, only imagining what stories might lie within.  He loves calling himself “queer” in every sense of the word, even though as played so well by Steve Rhyne, he is about as straight-laced looking and acting as ... well, as the librarian that he is.  His twin sister, Sarah, does try to point out to him that he is not all that out of the norm; after all he buys his socks at the drug store, loves playing Monopoly, and uses “3-in-1 Prell.”  But David stubbornly hangs onto his self-defined classifications and rejects anything being “normal” about himself – including any intention of accepting Benoit’s eventual, bended-knee proposal.

In his Le Switch Philip Dawkins establishes the framework for a funny, heart-warming, if not also quite predictable and formulaic romantic comedy.  As directed by Tom Bruett, the NCTC production moves along at a brisk pace with each member of the cast establishing qualities quirky, endearing, and likeable.  (Well, there is actually nothing “quirky” about Ryan Vásquez’s mid-twenties Benoit; he is just over-the-top “endearing” and “likeable.”  And did I mention dimple-cheeked cute?)

The sparks between David and Benoit are visceral, and the electricity shooting back and forth between them is almost visible.  Through his direction of the two, Mr. Bruett ensures that each side or extended gaze, each slight or purposeful touch, and each brushed or intense kiss only makes the eventual outcome more inevitable – even with David’s classification system creating roadblocks through his stubborn demeanor all along the way.

Brian J. Patterson & Steve Rhyne
Much of the play’s humor and also commentary on what committed, love relationships really can look like come from others who make up David’s inner circle of life.  Brian J. Patterson is David’s lifelong best buddy, Zachary, who has asked the confirmed bachelor-for-life to be his best man in a wedding whose colors are “pumpkin and aubergine” (that is, very orange and eggplant purple).  As straight-laced as David is, Mr. Patterson’s Zachary is flashy, over-dramatic, and let’s just say, a bit on the swishy side.  As he admits, “I majored in causing a scene and minored in ‘What are you looking at?’”  Zachary is also totally in love and so very excited finally to be able to marry.

Steve Rhyne & Nancy French
David’s twin, Sarah, has been in a ten-year marriage-of-convenience to David’s non-resident friend, Jamal, in order to help him to be a legal U.S. resident.  Imagine David’s dumbfounded reaction (and more than slight annoyance) when his partner in confirmed ‘never-to-marry’ announces that she and Jamal are now in fact married in more than just the legal document that for so long meant nothing?  Nancy French is a sister any “brudder” would die to have – loving, snarky, fun, and funny.  If she only were not also so prone to call his bluff and start some truth-telling that begins dissembling his tightly defined categories about himself.

Ryan Vásquez & Donald Currie
Rounding out this talented cast is Donald Currie as Frank, another of David’s long-term friends -- in this case an older man who (along with his deceased husband) helped shepherd David through some former, rough spots in his life.  Frank, also a librarian, is a life-long protester for multiple causes and thus oft-inhabitant of a jail cell (although he admits after his latest bail-out by David, “I’m getting too old for this; jail is not what it used to be.”)  Mr. Currie displays a wide range of emotional acumen in his portrayal of Frank, from quirky old man to a partner still very much in love with and grieving for his deceased.  As too a confirmed ‘don’t-need-to-marry-to-love’ gay man, Frank’s example and advice to David becomes a major turning point for the currently conflicted-in-love guy who is much like a son of the elder friend.

Steve Rhyne & Ryan Vásquez
As wonderful as the cast is, the real star of this production is the set and accompanying projections created by Sarah Phykitt.  Sliding floor-to-ceiling panels with various sized panes that move easily in three different depths on stage provide the possibility for many settings and entrances/exits.  They also become the canvases for an ongoing array of beautiful, scene/mood-setting projections, all enhanced by a fabulously stunning lighting design by Sophia Craven.  Much of the evening’s success in conveying this romantic comedy comes from the production’s creative team (including Wes Crain’s character-defining costumes, Sara Witsch’s background sounds, and Chris Daroca’s detailed and fun props).

Philip Dawkins’ Le Switch does not plow any new theatrical ground nor tell a story that has unseen twists and turns for a surprise ending.  This is a play that is just a plain, ol’ good time to watch -- one guaranteed to produce lots of laughs and a few, heartfelt sighs.  New Conservatory Theatre Center has pulled out all the necessary stops to guarantee an enjoyable, smile-producing evening.

Rating: 4 E

Le Switch continues through December 3, 2017 at

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

Sunday, November 5, 2017

"Singing in the Rain"


Singin’ in the Rain
Betty Comden & Adolph Green (Book); Arthur Freed (Lyrics);
Nacio Herb Brown (Music)

The Cast of Singin' in the Rain
As the orchestra ticks through well-known number after number during the “Overture,” the music swells until the one everyone knows is coming begins its familiar float of notes.  And at that moment, a man in hat and with umbrella appears for less than a minute, hanging onto the lone light pole and then swinging around with one arm extended while grinning exuberantly.  It is at that moment that everyone in the Broadway by the Bay audience knows that we are in fact about to see a stage version of the 1952 film almost any movie fan on earth loves to love and has probably seen multiple times, Singin’ in the Rain.  

For my full review, please continue to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj102.html.


Rating: 3.5

Singin’ in the Rain continues through November 19, 2017 at at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway, Redwood City.  Tickets are available at https://broadwaybythebay.org .

Photo credit: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin

Friday, November 3, 2017

"Aladdin"


Aladdin
Alan Menkin (Music);
Howard Ashman, Tim Rice & Chad Beguelin (Lyrics);
Chad Beguelin (Book)

The Cast of Aladdin
With exotic, kaleidoscopic colors of every hue imaginable, Disney’s Aladdin bursts onto the SHN Orpheum stage in a touring version that has more elaborate scene changes, more dazzling costumes, and more jumping tumbling, and even flying cast members than any traveling show in recent memory.  As the bustling market place of the Middle Eastern city of Agrabah comes to life in the opening “Arabian Nights,” sword swallowers, belly dancers, and acrobatic passers-by fill the stage amidst swirling robes and scarves, fast-moving merchandise carts laden with fruits, and little buildings that have their own way of dancing together – all awash with colors gone iridescently wild.  And the bigger-than-life Genie wearing seemingly dozens of yards of dazzling blue tucks and folds proclaims that in Agrabar, “Even the poor people are fabulous.”

The Cast of Aladdin
If the packed audience (even the sourest and most cynical among them now already smiling ear-to-ear) thinks that things will slow down to a normal pace from here, they have sold way too short the fast-paced, eye-popping direction and choreography of Casey Nicholaw; the immense, sparkling sets of Bob Crowley that come and go in a blink of the eye; and the hundreds (let’s say 337) of costumes designed by Gregg Barnes – some with as many as 8,644 Swarovski rhinestones embedded (so says the program).  And try to figure out how the members of the huge ensemble are able to change those outfits of 2,019 different fabrics and trims often in less than thirty seconds.  Even if the music of Alan Menkin and the lyrics of Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, and Chad Beguelin were not potential earworms that will haunt audience dreams for days (which they are), this is a musical that is unabashedly and unapologetically full of wonder, magic, and sheer fun for kids 3 to 99.  Warning: Do not come looking for life-changing messages of any serious nature.

Anthony Murphy
As is now often the case for Disney, Aladdin started as a big-screen animation hit in 2011 before transforming into its Broadway version in 2014.  At least two aspects of that NYC production seemed to be on everyone’s lips who saw the show:  The magic carpet (“How does it fly like that?”) and the Genie as played by Tony-winner James Monroe Iglehart (“How does that big man move that fast and in so many cool ways as he dances, slides, and tumbles all over the stage?”).  In this touring version, the carpet is still a character with its own personality that leaves jaws open and heads scratching as it swoops, dives, and flies with no noticeable devices or enablers – all the while Aladdin and Princess Jasmine are on board.  And the current Genie in this roadshow – Anthony Murphy – more than fills Mr. Iglehart’s up-turned slippers as he takes on a Cab Calloway persona in his moves, voice, and charisma.  Together, they are worth the price of the ticket, even forgetting all the other razzle and dazzle surrounding them.

Mr. Murphy’s Genie bubbles over with an alluring personality that fills the vast stage.  His humor is aided greatly by Chad Beguelin’s pun- and one-liner-packed book, but he often appears to be spontaneously generating his lines just for tonight’s audience.  He sings robustly with a hint of gleeful mischief in his wide eyes and uses every ounce of his large body to move in ways beguiling. 

Anthony Murphy, Adam Jacobs & Cast of Aladdin
After the Genie introduces the first scene, he disappears until Aladdin finally rubs his lantern, bringing the “riff-raff” boy of the streets the famed three wishes.  That Aladdin finds the lantern while entrapped in a mammoth cave of gold and jewels is due to the show’s villain (always a must for a Disney story), the Sultan’s Grand Vizier, Jafar.  Played with just enough evil to be a tad scary but also with a cartoonish air to be funny, Jonathan Weir is the diabolical Jafar who convinces innocent-enough Aladdin to go into the “Cave of Wonders” to get that lantern so that Jafar can make himself ruler and can marry the beautiful Sultan’s daughter, Jasmine.  (Jafar has been told by a magic spirit that Aladdin is a “diamond in the rough” and the only one who can enter the cave safely.)  His diminutively sized sidekick, Iago, (a delightful Reggie De Leon) is a bad guy who quickly becomes a crowd favorite with his constant flow of silly jokes and with his ability to roll around the stage with short legs moving a hundred miles an hour to keep up with the much taller Jafar.

Adam Jacobs
Adam Jacobs, a local boy from Half Moon Bay, originated the role of Aladdin on Broadway and continues this role in the national tour with the same youthful exuberance, playful nature, and romantic looks and outlooks that served him well on the Great White Way.  When he literally bumps into the Princess Jasmine in the city’s bustling marketplace, the Romeo-Juliet moment is full of sparks flying between them, setting up a storyline headed to that Disney-ending wedding everyone knows is coming.   

Isabelle McCalla & Adam Jacobs
Isabelle McCalla does not disappoint in any aspect (vocals, gumption, or looks) the formula we all now expect of a Disney princess.  When she and Aladdin sing together in two of the musical’s best-known numbers (“A Million Miles Away” and “A Whole New World”), their blended abilities have that Disney perfection that cannot help but wow and please, even if there is nothing much different in either’s sound than is heard from almost any, modern Disney show’s hero and heroine.

And that goes for the rest of this superbly talented and highly diverse cast.  Besides a the large ensemble that both sings and dances with total aplomb, three chums of Aladdin particularly stand out for their zany, reckless, and hilarious ways of cavorting around the streets, alleys, and roofs of Agrabar.  Zach Bencal, Philipe Arroyo, and Mike Longo play Babkak, Omar, and Kassim respectively and prove their mettle time and again when joining Aladdin, the Genie, and/or the entire ensemble in rousing, stage-filling numbers.  Both acts are book-ended with crowded stages of variously clothed (or not) bodies doing everything from tap dances to kick lines to body gyrations of every aerobic description. 

And with those numbers, as has been noted, come Mr. Barnes’ constantly changing costumes that glitter with all the over-done but thoroughly enjoyable flairs we often associate with a Las Vegas extravaganza.  The fantastically striking lighting design of Natasha Katz puts every costume and scene change into a storybook land of wonderfully reflected color.  The brassy, sassy sounds of the large orchestra conducted by Brent-Alan Huffman awaken all the aural senses to match the visual over-abundance of the stage show.

End-to-end, Aladdin is just plain fun.  Everything is over-done, and we do not care.  The talented cast backed by a book full of laughs and songs that are hummable appear to be having the times of their lives throughout.  That energy is contagious, spreading throughout the large Orpheum Theatre and leaving the entire audience with big satisfied smiles as they exit.

Rating: 5 E

Aladdin continues through January 7, 2018 at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com.

Photo Credits:  Deen van Meer