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