Monday, April 30, 2018

"Tinderella: The Modern Musical"


Tinderella: The Modern Musical
Rose Oser (Book), Weston Scott (Lyrics) & Christian B. Schmidt (Music)

The Cast of Tinderella
Two years ago, I raved in a review about a world premiere musical that I described as “a modern fairy tale with no happy ending guaranteed but a lot of sex and excitement getting there.”  The tight, fast-paced, and ever funny and exciting production ran just seventy-five minutes as Tinderella: The Modern Musical took an age-old tale about a girl looking for her prince and updated to one where this girl swipes frantically right and left on Tinder until her hopeful match is found in cyberspace.  At the time, I described Faultline Theater’s Tinderella as a musical with “clever, gritty lyrics (Weston Scott); music of mixed genres but always with today’s beat (Christian B. Schmidt); and a book that snaps and sizzles (Rose Oser).” 

Some of that is still true for the latest, expanded-to-two-hour version by this same team of Tinderella: The Modern Musical, now in a joint production by Custom Made Theatre and Faultline Theater.  However, as the story lengthened, characters added, and new songs written while some old disappeared, much of the magic of that initial fairy tale has unfortunately given way to rhymed couplet lyrics that too often sound trite and forced; to sex scenes that have become not just edgy and fun but high-school, locker-room silly; and to a storyline that has lost some of the original, fun spoof on Cinderella as it broadens to focus on not one but two twenty-something women learning to let go of the same man.

The new opening number “Like Me” is less about Tinder dating and more about Millennials constant attention on social media and collecting likes and shares.  That in itself is still fun enough as their rousing voices ring out about San Francisco as “a city of friendship, friendship at a price,” where “if you like us, then we will like you more.”  One of those wanting to grab the likes of others is Meg (Juliana Lustenader), a blonde who could be from somewhere in the very white Midwest in her skirt of flowers and sparkling, perfect complexion.  She sings in an almost young girl voice while snapping selfies left and right, “I want the picture perfect life, to be someone’s picture perfect wife.”

Brandon Noel Thomas & Juliana Lustenader
Unlike her totally perfect and already married-with-kid-and-dog sister, Allie  and her adventurous best friend, Tanya, who join Meg in their own selfies and in singing “Picture Perfect,” Meg has no real clue how to find her happiness.  That is, until her “fairy, fucking roommate” Dylan decides it is time to become her “fucking fairy godmother.”  In a tight, black outfit and nylons that stretch over his gigantic self to the point of tearing, Dylan sings “Magic, More or Less,” calling on Adele in his atmospheric, high falsetto to help him out.  Brandon Noel Thomas in nails long, pink, and pointed has more advice and opinions for Meg than Dear Abby – all given with much swish and drag-inflected swagger.  His Dylan at times sings in a voice worthy of any diva but unfortunately at other times, ventures off-key and flat.  But always, Dylan is on stage in Meg’s living room, ready to pounce with a pointed comment and ready to be fabulous – just as he magically makes her over in new dress when she finally finds a potential beau and a date to a party with Marcus.

Sarah Jiang & Jackson Thea
As Meg looks for her lover with Dylan’s help, a side story is occurring that runs throughout the two hours between two on-and-off-again lovers, Julie (Sarah Jiang) and Marcus (Jackson Thea).  Marcus wants to follow Julie to Texas where she is heading to graduate school and with her to set up a ranch where they can have ponies and kids.  Julie wants none of that as their disparate dreams become evident in a well-harmonized “Look Around You.”  Ms. Jiang is particularly strong in voice and character portrayal as Julie, showing off her light and airy voice in “The One,” in which she realizes, “There’s so much more life I need to take ... Is where I am the best place I can be?” 

Meanwhile, the Tinder part of the story is heating up as Meg goes searching.  Silhouetted guys appear in three doorways with pick-up lines that all sound pretty good – that is until their cartoon-like dances and poses keep degenerating into “dick pics” and a do-wop anthem to “penises.”  Andrew Chung, James Seifert, and Ryan Wakamiya take their turns in out-lewding the others as they take selfies focused on their dangling members (all of which only Meg – and not us -- sees on her ever-present IPhone). 

The Cast of Tinderella
The match made in cyber heaven for Meg is of course a now loose-free Marcus (or so he is pretending to be).  It is at his “Super Cool Party” she is going, but not before much drinking and wild but sophomoric and silly dancing (choreographed by Meredith Joelle Charlson) occurs prior to her late arrival.  The thrusts, jumps, and arm jabs of the second act’s opening number give way to a “Slow Grind Love Song” where Meg, now arrived, seems to have lost all notion of finding a perfect husband or even a nice boyfriend and is ready to butt-grind along with all the drunks around her.  That sudden and unexplained switch in her nature and character is one of the parts of this reincarnated Tinderella that works less well, in my opinion; and the entire party scene helps that story to lose some focus and punch even with all its over-the-top, drunken frenzy.

Adiellyn Mendoza, Juliana Lustenader & Alex Akin
After the required midnight split by our princess (in her way short dress of much silver glitter and glitz), the stories of Meg, Marcus, and Julie continue to mix and match where happiness is still to be defined for each.  Meg scores Juliana Lustenader’s best number of the night in “Any Minute” as she waits for the morning-after IM from Marcus.  Allie and Tanya show up to help Meg get a “Reality Check,” with Adielyn Mendoza and Alex Akin proving in that one number to have the night’s best voices in a song that is perhaps the best-written one of the current musical.

Ken Savage directs Tinderella with many clever touches, using the three doors of Randy Wong-Westbrooke’s brick walled set design to full use.  The issue with this reincarnation of the original Tinderella is much more in the script and song changes than in the production team’s overall fine efforts. 

The costumes of Alexis Lucio greatly enhance the main and ensemble characters (with the exception of the choices for Dylan’s clothing, which seemed more appropriate for someone on the streets than for a fashion-conscious, gay, fairy godmother.)  Maxx Kurzunski’s lighting design helps bring Tinder pics to full life while Evan Wardell’s sound design keeps those Tinder, Facebook, and Instagram “likes,” “shares,” and “messages” sounding forth on continuous cue.  (There was on opening night a number of times the mikes taped onto each actor caused annoying static and buzz, but hopefully that is something that can be corrected for the rest of the run.) 

Tinderella: The Modern Musical ends with a full and rich-sounding ensemble singing “Okay,” a song that lets the earlier frenzy of the musical settle into a self-reflective mode for Meg and Dylan.  Walking away, I had that “OK” feeling about the musical’s reincarnation but lacked the grinning exuberance that the original musical’s final number of “Happily Ever After” (even when it did not all turn out that way) left me.

Rating: 3 E

Tinderella: The Modern Musical continues through May 26, 2018 at Custom Made Theatre (in a joint production with Faultline Theatre), 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at www.custommade.org or at http://www.faultlinetheater.com or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).

Photo Credits:  Jay Yamada

Sunday, April 29, 2018

"Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes"


Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes
Part One: Millennium Approaches
Part Two: Perestroika
Tony Kushner

Francesca Faridany & Randy Harrison
1985.  Gay men are dying by the thousands while a president refuses to acknowledge their plight.  Some hospitals turn them away untreated; the rubber glove and facial mask industry is suddenly soaring; and people everywhere are afraid to shake hands, to hug, or even to go see those men with the telltale purple lesions.  By the end of 1991 -- the same year Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Part One, Millennium Approaches premieres at the tiny Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco – almost 180,000 cases of full-blown AIDS had been reported in the U.S.; and AIDS is the Number Two killer of men 25-44.  And as the much anticipated Millennium approaches with both widespread excitement and dread, the deaths continued to rise with AIDS being the Number One killer of all Americans by 1994. 

In 2018, the twice (for Parts One and Two) Best Play Tony winning Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes once again opens on both coasts, in New York and at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  Since its initial opening, contracting HIV is no longer a death trap leading to full-blown AIDS.  Further, the rights of LGBT have greatly expanded across the country and much of the globe, and same-sex couples are marrying and even having kids by the thousands.  But while we survived the Millennium, the clouds have once again darkened as individual states chip away at the LGBT rights won, as a new president’s administration threatens on almost every imaginable front and spouts lies as if truth, and as we hold our breaths to see if the 5-4 slim majority of the Supreme Court that has awarded many of LGBT rights will continue to hold that margin. 

Into this current, uncertain, and troubling atmosphere, Berkeley Repertory Company opens its production of Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America in a production whose messages once again speak truths relevant to our current circumstances.  And, the production does so in ways magnificently stunning in every respect.  Visually, aurally, intellectually, emotionally – no matter the dimension – Tony Taccone directs an Angels that soars to the heavens and back, plunging us into the depths of a hell that plagued the plays’ years of 1985-1990 but leaving us with a message more relevant today than ever:  “We are not going away ... More life, the great work begins.”

One of the reasons Tony Kushner must have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Angels in America is that his massive, two works (each three-and-a-half-hours long) operate on so many different and complex levels of both the real and the fantastical while maintaining a seamless flow as the numerous acts and scenes relay their many interlocking stories and characters – all of which are accessible, immediate, and clear via his script.  Political debates, theological wanderings, and psychic moments of madness could be deadly for an audience, but Tony Kushner keeps us on the edge of our seats for hours with stories and their people that draw us in and do not us let go.  And all along the way, we laugh and laugh even when we should perhaps be crying because the playwright has peppered his script with the morbid but still funny humor that often exists side-by-side in our scenes of human tragedy.

Benjamin T. Ismail & Randy Harrison
Prior Walter is a thirty-year-old, New York gay man whose four-plus-year relationship with Louis Ironson in essence comes to an end when he reveals to Louis “the wine-dark kiss of the angel of death” on his arm – in other words, “lesion number one” of his AIDS.  Louis immediately freaks out and begins his exit, while still professing how much he loves Prior.  Their individual stories are one thread of many to be woven in this Angels quilt about to spread before us, and both Randy Harrison as Prior and Benjamin T. Ismail as Louis are exceptional in their individual portrayals.  Each will go through trials and agonies that will rip in different ways at our heart’s chords: Prior, as his body deteriorates in inhumanly cruel seizures both physical and mental; and Louis, as his increasing guilt for abandoning the one he loves will lead him too quickly to jump into another relationship with someone who is opposite of him in almost every thing he values.

Bethany Jillard
Parallel to their stories and soon-to-be linked both physically and metaphysically with each of them is that of Joe and Harper Pitt, a married couple who call each other “Buddy” and only kiss when they can do so quickly on the cheek.  Harper is hooked on Valium and is obsessed with things like the destruction of the ozone layer and a sense of “things collapsing” and “systems of defense giving way.”  She welcomes, or so she thinks, a man coming out of her couch who promises to whisk her away on vacation to Antarctica.  She describes her life as full of “maybes,” including her husband’s love for her.  Bethany Jillard is intensely wonderful as Harper with hands that clasp, grip, and frantically flit in such ways to speak their own discourse.  Her story will intercept in a dimension not known on this earth with that of Prior’s, with their becoming a kind of ethereal friends and mutual support system that cannot be easily defined in everyday terms.

Danny Bittstock & Bethany Jillard
Joe Pitt is a Mormon, Republican, and up-and-coming, federal-court lawyer who finds himself wandering Central Park in the dark of night, “observing.”  He prays for God “to crush me, break me up in to little pieces, and start all over again” because of an attraction to men he refuses to acknowledge or to give a name.  When he meets Louis sobbing in a courthouse bathroom, they start down a path that eventually leads them into the bedroom, even though Louis describes Joe as one of those “Reaganite, heartless, macho, asshole lawyers.”  Danny Binstock plays the good-looking Joe with All-American branded all over his demeanor and perfect hair.  The journey of his Joe will transform him through stages of being scared and helpless like a little boy to being hot and steamy as a desperate lover to being threatening to self and others in his outrage as a man unsure who he really is.

What Louis does not immediately know about Joe is that Joe’s mentor and hero is the man any liberal American at that time probably hated the most, Roy Cohn.  Roy’s story is another major thread of Angels, but there is nothing angelic about him or anything that he strives to do for self or his country.  Stephen Spinella, who won two Tonys for Best Actor for both parts of the original Broadway Angels, perhaps shines above all the stellar performances of this eight-person cast; but there is nothing sunny, good, or admirable about his Roy.  When he pronounces an “s,” there is a serpent-like hiss trailing the words he emits.  His raspy voice roars as he makes on multiple phone lines simultaneous deals with the devil in his own power plays.  When he is diagnosed with a disease that anyone else is calling AIDS but that he manhandles his doctor to calling liver cancer, his Roy joins in a deadly, downward spiral the thousands of other men around him he refuses to see or to help.  We watch a performance of torment and torture by Mr. Spinella that is shocking in its stark reality – all the time he splatters it with the hatred and callous humor of the real Roy Cohn.

These major storylines are just a glimpse of the landscape of tales that Tony Kushner provides in this epic of a history that was still playing out its horrible course even as he wrote it.  Many other characters – some historical, some of this world, and many of another dimension way out of this world – come and go in small-set scenes that stream on and off stage beautifully and gracefully as part the scenic design of Takeshi Kata.  Most of the leads thus far mentioned take on additional roles such as Prior’s ancestors, a hunky Eskimo, and a leathered-up guy in the Park looking for sex. 

Carmen Roman & Stephen Spinella
Carmen Roman is hauntingly perfect as the stone-faced Ethel Rosenberg who -- with just the slightest smirk and always laser-efficient staring eyes -- becomes the frequent bedside companion of the dying Roy Cohn who ensured through his bullying pressures on a judge that she would die in an electric chair in 1953.  Along with taking on other roles from an elder Rabbi to the oldest living Bolshevik, Ms. Roman is equally stony and sans smiles as the exasperated mother of Joe, Hannah Pitt, who becomes interlocked with Prior’s story and blossoms there into a mother figure we all come to love.

Caldwell Tidicue & Stephen Spinella
Caldwell Tidicue -- better known to many as Bob the Drag Queen via RuPaul’s Drag Race – plays Mr. Lies, a fur-coated, nothing-short-of-fabulous travel agent who shows up in Harper’s dreams to whisk her away from her troubled reality.  He is also Belize, the not-taking-any-of-your-crap nurse of Roy Cohn.  As friend of Prior’s, Belize is a mixture of big heart, loyalty, and (still) not-going-to-take-any-of-your-crap.  Mr. Tadicue’s Belize is larger than life with an attitude of “just dare me” while always down-to-earth in advice and truth-telling.  And in the end, his Belize is the real heart of Tony Kushner’s story.

The Berkeley Repertory Theatre production is Broadway Plus in all its creative aspects.  Besides the aforementioned wonders of Takeshi Kata’s scenic design which include brilliantly lit pieces that literally dance across the stage, the projections of Alexander V. Nichols cover the massive walls and backstage with forests, cities, bridges, neighborhoods, and all sorts of subtly changing designs and colors that are a show unto themselves.  The lighting design of Jennifer Schriever is as magnificent as any I personally have seen in a long time, with scenes’ shadows often offering on the walls behind them a mesmerizing, second rendering of the characters before us and with other shadows, lighted paths, and soaring beams filling the air with a storyline all their own.  The large Roda Theatre literally shakes at times with the earthquake power of the sound design by Jake Rodriguez and Bray Poor; and at other times, the effects are subtle background signals of worlds real and maybe not so real.  Montana Blanco’s costumes bring us face-to-face with the bizarre, the beautiful, the bombastic, and the bloody parts of these interlocking, complex stories and their characters.  And all is somehow magically and masterfully held together by a director (Tony Taccone) who -- as he has shown in past Berkeley Rep productions -- clearly knows how to take Tony Kushner plays and milk the hell out of the script to produce world-class theatre.

Francesca Faridany & Randy Harrison
Given the title as well as the iconic posters and pictures that have been associated with Angels in America since Day One, of course there is once missing character not yet mentioned:  The Angel.  Francisca Faridany and Lisa Ramirez alternate the demanding role flying in suddenly from above, with Ms. Faridany playing The Angel for Part One and Part Two on opening day.  Part One ends with her crashing through Prior’s ceiling to declare him as The Prophet, giving him a task in Part Two that he will struggle in his fevered bed to sort out the truth and the reality of what he must do.  As the Angel, Ms. Faridany is both heavenly in appearance and attitude but also with a streak of human wit and flaw running through her.  Ms. Faridany also assumes a number of other roles, including a homeless woman in the Bronx who predicts amidst ranting hallucinations to a bewildered Hannah Pitt, “In the next century, I think we will all be insane.”

Hers is only one of many dire warnings of the approaching millennium that populate Tony Kushner’s script.  Ethel Rosenberg tells Roy, “History is about to crack open. Millennium approaches.”  Harper sees many signs of “the world coming to an end” while even the Oldest Bolshevik warns, “The greatest question before us here, are we really doomed?”  Louis voices to Joe what many even today (long past the Millennium) may be thinking, “You’re scared.  So am I.  Everybody is in the land of the free.”  And Prior says aloud what most must have thought during those darkest years of the AIDS epidemic when Tony Kushner penned these now-classic plays: “Maybe the virus is the prophecy.” 

But Harper herself provides the playwright’s over-riding message of optimism and hope that so many in 1991 at the play’s opening must have had trouble seeing:
“Nothing’s lost forever.  In this world, there is a kind of painful progress.  Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead."

And it is that message of Harper’s along with Prior’s final blessing to us all of “More Life, the Great Work Begins” that certainly makes this incredibly powerful Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes at Berkeley Repertory Theatre as timely in 2018 as it was in 1991 and 1992 in the national themes that these Two Parts once again expose and expound.

Rating: 5 E “MUST-SEE”

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika continues both in alternating days and in “marathon days” through July 22, 2018 on the Roda Stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/ or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne

Saturday, April 28, 2018

"The People in the Picture"


The People in the Picture
Iris Rainer Dart (Book & Lyrics); Mike Stoller & Artie Butler (Music)

The Cast of The People in the Picture
That there will be an eternity through our living in the memories of those we leave behind is the uplifting promise of the inspiring, engaging, and thoroughly entertaining musical, The People in the Picture, now in a regional premiere at San Jose’s 3 Below Theatres & Lounge.  Set in a duo-timeframe of pre-war to post-war Warsaw (1935-1946) and of 1977 New York, Iris Rainer Dart’s book traces and links three generations of a Jewish family’s women with roots in Yiddish theatre and movies and modern selves planted in TV script-writing and eventually a family memoir.  Through her lyrics and the music of Mike Stoller and Artie Butler, the sounds of klezmer memories ring in foot-tapping, soul-touching melodies while the words of the songs evoke the humor and pathos of an era almost extinguished by Nazi villains. 

For my full review of this not-to-be-missed production, please proceed to my Talkin' Broadway review: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj120.html 

Rating: 5 E

The People in the Picture continues through May 13, 2013 at 3 Below Theatres & Lounge, 288 South Second Street, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at https://3belowtheaters.com/.

Photo by Guggenheim Entertainment

Thursday, April 26, 2018

"The Mystery of Love and Sex"


The Mystery of Love and Sex
Bathsheba Doran


Kenny Scott & Linda Maria Girón
Charlotte and Jonny, who have been pals since they were nine, now are dormie buddies in college and about to host her parents for a ‘heatless’ dinner (aka salad and French bread sans the butter they forgot to buy).  That she is white and Jewish and he is black and Baptist seems not to bother them at all.  Charlotte’s liberal-minded parents, Lucinda and Howard, are fighting hard not to be too concerned that this multi-mixed combo may be on their way at some point to the marriage altar; after all she is southern Christian and he is New York Jewish.  But in Bathsheba Doran’s The Mystery of Love and Sex, now receiving it regional premiere at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, there are many more complications soon to enter into the web of relationships that these four individuals represent from questions of sexual orientation to accusations of racism.  So many ins and outs, ups and downs, and dramatic twists and turns occur that the play at times begins to look like a made-for-TV soap opera on a channel that allows plenty of F-words and full nudity.  Luckily, the NCTC cast overall can hang on well enough during their rollercoaster ride to ensure we as audience are fully entertained during the two-hour, wild outing.

The many short scenes of Bathsheba Doran’s play that premiered at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2015 each seem to bring another surprising revelation by one or more members of this extended family.  As we meet them, Charlotte (Linda Maria Girón) and Jonny (Kenny Scott) are professing how much they love each other.  What is not clear to either of them (and certainly soon not to us) is what kind of love they mean: a brother-sister-like love, a platonic love of a live-in couple with no sex, or a love that could finally blossom into bedroom bliss? 

Soon to complicate the deliberations – but in no way to answer the question – is Charlotte’s confession that she has the hots for Claire, “the girl with the shaved head.”  However, that does not keep her from abruptly stripping in front of Jonny, trying to entice him with all sorts of sexy come-ons for a romp while all the time he huddles in a corner doing all he can not to look or to touch her.  Part of his reluctance is that Jonny is having his own issues finding his proper placement on the Kinsey Scale, something that goes back to a boy named Edward he once met at camp -- the one they both remember was “as pretty as a girl.”

Linda Maria Girón & Kenny Scott
As are often true for early twenty-somethings, a number of love relationships are going to come and go for these two in the course of the five years covered by Ms. Doran’s play.  But their own unsolved mystery of the kind of relationship they actually have and want to continue to have with each other will create a minefield of potential explosions that sometimes do great damage when ignited.  Both actors display a wide range of emotional responses as they traverse Charlotte’s and Jonny’s journeys, from sweet moments that make for someday’s happy memories to foul-mouthed, full-scream battles that leave scars of hurt not too soon forgotten.  And all along the way, each is struggling with accepting to be whom each is not at all sure she/he wants to be ... even thinking at times, as Jonny admits, “I kinda don’t want to be.”

For many playwrights, these two coming of age and coming out stories might be fodder enough for an intriguing, enlightening, and moving play.  However, Bathsheba Doran is only beginning to scratch the surface of all the issues and mysteries underlying these two young people as well as the parents of Charlotte. 

Kenny Scott, Linda Maria Girón & Dave Sikula
From the first dorm-setting lunch party that we witness, the occasional snapping and snarling between Howard and Lucinda provide evidence enough that all is not well, even as they relapse into smiley, cuddly poses from time to time.  Like with the ‘kids,’ theirs is a relationship fraught with mysteries past and continuing, new developments between them and others to be revealed all along the way.  Each has a flashpoint whose conflagration temperature is often quite low.  And when the flame does hit, both Dave Sikula as former New Yorker Howard and Shay Oglesby-Smith as the aging Southern Belle Lucinda know how to let it fly in a force both wicked and wily. 

But wait, Ms. Doran is not done yet.  Let’s add in addiction issues of various sorts all around.   Sprinkle in an author (Howard) whose twenty-nine books evidently have threads of racism, sexism, and homophobia entwined throughout them.  Throw in a young aspiring professor/author (Jonny) who is not about to let those go unnoticed.  Swirl in everyone at some point feeling betrayed, lied to, and abandoned; but be sure to note everyone at some point is forgiving, remorseful, and happy again (at least for a while).  The resulting recipe is a story that just keeps on giving and giving to the point of plunging into overdone melodrama, even while tackling head-on often and with heart topics contemporary, sensitive, and important. 

Often using humor in playful ways and other times employing outright confrontation, stereotypes associated with African-Americans, Jews, women, and gays are effectively tackled by Bathsheba Doran’s script and Rebecca Longworth’s direction.  Attempts at dancing become a great teacher and an effective metaphor for points the playwright wants to make, with the associated scenes some of the best of the evening. 

One of the issues Rebecca Longworth has as director is not losing the emotional flow of the story between all the many scenes -- many of which end in a blackout with some new emotional high or low.  That is not made any easier with scene changes in the small Walker Theatre that are overall clumsy and awkward for the cast members to implement.  Ting Na Wang’s set elements are simple and effective; but they must be pushed, dragged, and carried in so many pieces and ways (along with realistic props designed by Christopher Daroca that more than once fell as they were transported) that the transitions become distracting. 

New Conservatory Theatre Center once again has provided a venue and a set of talented individuals to introduce the Bay Area to a playwright and a new work tackling tough issues and important questions.  That Bathsheba Doran’s The Mystery of Love and Sex sometimes goes overboard in packing so much into its unfolding scenes of love and lust sought, lost, and found again is not a fatal flaw but just a bit annoying and tiring at times.  Overall, NCTC’s The Mystery of Love and Sex is still a worthwhile and entertaining evening.

Rating: 3 E

The Mystery of Love and Sex continues through May 20, 2018 on the Walker Stage of 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


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

"Eureka Day"


Eureka Day
Jonathan Spector

The Cast of Eureka Day
Maybe this is a typical, kindergarten classroom; but probably most of those in America do not have posters hanging on their pristine walls showing a raised fist for “Occupy Oakland,” a sad-faced elephant proclaiming “Global Warming Is a Giant Problem,” or the definition of “eracism” (erasing the belief one race is better than any other).  And for sure very few reside in high hills overlooking incredibly stunning views of the far-off Golden Gate Bridge.  After all, this is Berkeley; so we should not be surprised that the board of the private Eureka Day School nibbles on critically acclaimed, organic scones while agonizing on such meaty topics as whether to add “trans-racial adoptee” to their already long list of racial and ethnic categories for applying parents to use in designating their children.  And the fact the group “spits balls” on topics (while most other groups just brainstorm) or ends its meetings meditating on the just-read words of the thirteenth-century Persian Sunni poet, Rumi, may not be too surprising either, given it is Berkeley. 

But this group that prides itself in welcoming with open arms the ideas of all as it reaches consensus on each and every decision is about to undergo a 8.0 on the Richter Scale when one student (aka Patient Zero) gets the mumps, leading to fifteen and growing the number infected.  In a school where almost half of the parents are proclaimed and practicing “anti-vaxxers,” the resulting rift of this trembler is soon threatening to split the school apart – especially when the local Health Department announces a quarantine of all those children not vaccinated.

Aurora Theatre presents the world premiere of Jonathan Spector’s Eureka Day, a highly engaging, often hilarious, yet increasingly disturbing and thought-provoking examination of what happens when highly intelligent, overall ultra-liberal, and outwardly accepting-of-all people cannot agree on what some see as well-established, scientific facts and others see as mega-biopharm propaganda.  In a time when our country is so split between the right and the left with few remaining in the middle, Aurora Theatre exposes an issue equally divisive and prone quickly to turn ugly among those who probably all agree on 99.99% of all other issues.

For anyone who has ever been a member of any not-for-profit board or committee, watching the five-person governing group of Eureka Day has to bring back some nostalgic and maybe painful memories.  However much members proclaim as does one member, Suzanne, “I’m keeping my heart open to all of you,” the passions most wear on their sleeves of the opinions and biases they hold tell the real story of their well-intentioned openness. 

Lisa Anne Porter & Rolf Saxon
As Suzanne, Lisa Anne Porter speaks often in a voice shaking in its intensity almost as much as her out-stretched fingers tremble to the point they almost appear ready to eject from her hands.  All the time, she keeps a tight-lipped smile on her wild-eyed face as she defends the rights of those who do not believe in vaccinating their kids.  Under the skillful direction of Josh Costello and the brilliant script of Jonathan Spector, Suzanne is not someone we in the end can just dismiss – no matter our own beliefs about vaccinations.  Lisa Anne Porter ensures we hear a tearful side we may not accept but one that should be heard with compassion.

Charisse Loriaux, Lisa Anne Porter, Rolf Saxon & Elizabeth Carter
Charisse Loriaux as the parent, Meiko, is also firm and passionate in her own resolve, often nodding in agreement with the more out-spoken Suzanne.  However, her Meiko shows her own firm sense of opinion and self, suddenly spitting out, “I find the best way not to put words in someone’s mouth is not to put words in their mouth” when she feels too many assumptions are being made about her feelings and views.  As the tensions mount with each new, emergency meeting called, Meiko speaks louder and louder through her focused, silent attention on knitting and her purposefully turned back to the person speaking as if for her.  As some of us have seen in our own board meetings, the signs of an eventual eruption are present in every one of Meiko’s sullen, quick glances over her turned shoulders.

Teddy Spencer
Eli is that board member who is so full of his own enthusiasm that no matter how often he sincerely proclaims that he wants to hear others, he cannot let five words from another person be said before wildly, athletically interrupting, “Oh, oh, oh, but ...”  In his stocking feet -- now in yoga position under his torso on the kid’s work table and then supporting his ballet-like pose atop the same table -- Eli’s arms flail and his flapping mouth rattles forth.  Teddy Spencer is superb as the young wealthy guy who is now a stay-at-home dad after making his high-tech millions – an ex-CEO who still likes to take over with his own opinions that are about as open as a closed door.

Elizabeth Carter
Into this group enters Carina, a new board member who stands out in this group not only with her stunningly beautiful curls and her more reserved presentation of self but her skin color that is in dark contrast to the others in the room.  That Suzanne immediately assumes Carina is here as a representative of those parents on financial aid becomes a flashpoint for later meetings.  In the meantime, Elizabeth Carter as Carina largely observes with mixed looks of some disbelief and some amusement at the group-process-on-steroids around her and the obvious mismatch of declarations of openness and the set-in-concrete stands held.  All the time, she is garnering her own opinions for later impacts.

Rolf Saxon
With hands often raised in front of himself as if in prayer, school administrator and board member, Don, tries his sincerest best to facilitate this gathered group, not only leading the aforementioned “spit-balling” of ideas before “unpacking the list” generated and seeing “where we’re landing right now,” but ensuring the members remember such norms as using only non-gender-specific pronouns.  Rolf Saxon as Don is exuberant in his joy of being the one to lead the discussions, acting as half cheerleader, half therapist as he gently generates such gems as “Let’s focus on the positive of what we can do of what we can do.”

The Cast of Eureka Day
When the board decides to open up their stuck-in-the-mud deliberations (although they would of course never use such terms to describe what is clearly an impasse) to the community of parents at-large, the playwright and director combine creative forces to give us a Facebook Live “Community Activated Conversation” that is both guffaw-producing humorous and eye-popping terrifying.  As Don et al are seriously and sincerely trying to open up conversation about the local government’s required quarantine, projected comments appear at an ever-furious pace (with Facebook pics of those commenting and thumbs up, hearts, and scowling frowns of those responding).  Initial gossip about who has moved where and why too soon turns into insults and four-letter name-calling as those for and against vaccinations fling their furiously typed quips.  The video design of Theodore Hulsker is fantastically real, as the split-second-perfect direction of Josh Costello continues to prove its mettle.

As the foundations of this model school crumble, the scenic design of Richard Olmsted, the lighting of Jeff Rowlings, and the sound of Theodore Hulsker continually remind us that the hell this Board is going through is taking place in a paradise of singing birds and a ever-gorgeous array of setting-sun colors against the distant Golden Gate.  And hats off to Lillian Myers as Prop Designer for creating a classroom that any kid (and lots of adults) would love to go spend a few hours perusing the shelves of kids books and games.

As a former organization consultant, I can attest to the fallacy of any group believing consensus is always the end-all.  That is especially true when the group misinterprets and insists that consensus is the same as unanimity.  Ensuring that everyone is heard and working to a point that everyone can agree to support a decision upon leaving the board room even if some do not agree is admirable and preferable.  However in this adeptly acted and directed world premiere of Eureka Day, Jonathan Spector and Aurora Theatre help us to have that “Eureka,” ah-ha moment of remembering that in fact there are always going to be winners and losers, no matter how rosy we try to paint the picture with our well-intentioned processes.

Rating:  4.5 E

Eureka Day continues through May 13, 2018 on the main stage of at 2018 Addison Street, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at https://auroratheatre.org/ or by calling the box office at 510-843-4822.

Photo Credits:  David Allen

Friday, April 20, 2018

"Head Over Heels"


Head Over Heels
The Go-Gos (Songs); Jeff Whitty (Book); James Magruder (Adapter of Book)
Inspired by The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney

The Cast of Head Over Heels"
What happens when a Renaissance tale of royal romance written in iambic pentameter collides head-on with the jukebox music of the 1980s all-female group, the Go-Go’s?  And what if twists and turns of the story inspired by Sir Philip Sidney’s The Arcadia (1580s) now include same-sex love, gender-bending left and right, and a transgender Oracle of Delphi?  Putting all that together along with rainbow-colored mermaids, dancing (and definitely hunky) serpents and sheep, and erotic shadow-box sex scenes means that New York had better batten down the hatches for the musical that arrives at the Hudson Theatre June 23 and is now in its final pre-Broadway run at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre!  After receiving its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015 with a book by Jeff Whitty and original songs of the Go-Go’s, Head Over Heels has been further adapted by James Magruder and lands as an adult fairy tale on the Curran stage in a fabulously entertaining, eye-popping, foot-stomping musical extravaganza that has 2019 Tony nomination written all over it.

The Cast of Head Over Heels
As the subjects of Arcadia romp about on stage pumping arms and bodies in multi directions and postures while singing, “Everybody get on your feet, we got the beat, we know you can dance to the beat,” we in the audience already find it hard to sit still as the contagious music of the Go-Go’s has young and old alike rocking in their seats.  The kingdom prides itself in its ability to move in unison as if in a hyped-up aerobics class (part of the energetic, robotic, body-stretching choreography that Spencer Liff has created for the entire evening).  However, there is a command that the arrogant, controlling King Basilius has received from Zeus via the mammoth mouth of a snake dropping from the sky to go see the new Oracle of Delphi. 

This larger than life Oracle (Is that a drag queen or drag king or ??) declares that unless four things happen (none of which he wants), Arcadia will lose its beat; and he, his kingdom.  After all, what king wants to give up his crown for a better king, get caught in an affair (but without being unfaithful?), or marry off his older daughter (but to no groom)?  His answer is not to tell anyone other than his faithful viceroy, Dametas, but instead to take all the court on a journey to slay what he now claims the Oracle has demanded:  a golden stag.  Singing “Get Up and Go” and shuffling suitcases between themselves in a relay dance of sorts, the entire court heads off to Bohemia.

Prior to all this drama, the king’s over-sized daughter, Pamela, continues a four-year trend to reject suitors paraded before her by her parents.  Pamela, whose tall and wide proportions are deemed the peak of beauty by all (and especially her), turns her nose up at four, bare-chested Adonises with ripped abs.  Bonnie Milligan belts a voice as big, bountiful, and bold as her Pamela’s overall build as she sings, “Beautiful,” accompanied by a chorus of picture-frame-carrying girls for constant mirror-viewing of herself.  As she journeys to Bohemia with her family, she will begin discovering through a poem that she writes that rather than a manly body, what she actually craves has bodily curves and rhymes with “wits” and “china” (among other words not suitable for this review!).  Pamela will become absolutely hysterical in her yearning as her desires turn into a tantrum state, with Ms. Mulligan’s fiercely fabulous voice scoring big-time in “How Much More” (... “can I take before I go crazy ... how much more heartache?”).

The focus of her secret attention becomes Mopsa, the daughter of the king’s Viceroy, who takes a side trip to the Greek Island Lesbos as Taylor Iman Jones sings a rousing “Vacation” while singing mermaids swim among huge waves -- all part of the fun scenic design of Julian Crouch that often reminds one of a kid’s pop-up story book.  When the two finally discover their forbidden attraction, both bring their diva voices to bear in singing a hyped-up, electric-charged “Turn to You” – all the time other same-sex couples groove and grind around them.

Peppermint and Ensemble Members
But more illicit love is also in the air.  A shepherd boy who tends to talk in tongues, Musidorus, loves the younger royal daughter, Philoclea, who will declare in clear speech his love for her with his (Andrew Durand’s) over-the-top (and maybe the evening’s best) voice in “Mad about You” (with dancing, kinky sheep as his back-up).  It will take a gender-changing intervention by Pythio -- the Oracle of Delphi played with gusto and grind and marvelously bellowing vocal chords by Peppermint – for him to join the royal train to Bohemia transformed into an Amazon warrior.  That intervention will lead to several other misplaced infatuations and mix-ups, including a humping, bumping nighttime and nude tryst by King Bailius (Jeremy Kushnier) and Queen Gynecia (Rachel York) as they sing in fine voice “Heaven is a Place on Earth.”

The one that Musidorus – shepherd now turned Amazon -- really wants  is Philoclea, the pretty, petite sister Pamela cannot help but ridicule as too plain. As Philoclea, Alexandra Socha brings a soft, melodic innocence to her vocals and an ability gradually to intensify in feeling and volume to deliver in the end a powerful punch (as heard in “Good Girl”).  When she believes love has passed her by and sings quietly in grief that “nothing is gonna change” (“Here You Are”), she blends her voice in intertwined harmonies with her mother to sing, “The love you seek, the love you own, is it so fleeting?”

Michael Mayer directs eight leads and eight ensemble members with an penchant to be just enough naughty to tantalize and tease and with tongue enough in cheek to bring out all the chuckles the Shakespearean-sounding dialogue and lyrics can elicit.  Though set sometime centuries ago, there is a current, timely edge to the story and the approach the director takes, including one character declaring in the end he is ready to let go of his 100% masculine side and to welcome that feminine part of himself, preferring from here on to be referred to as “they” rather than “he.”

The costumes of Arianne Phillips delightfully reside a bit in Renaissance Greece and a lot in the 21st century, with designs wild, wooly, and whimsical all at the same time.  The lighting of Kevin Adams changes its vibrant colors of orange, yellow, blue, and red to reflect the ebullient and changing emotions of the moment; and characters’ sudden shifts and “ah-ha’s” of discoveries explode in hilarious ways in light and sound through the artistry of Mr. Adams and sound designer, Kai Harada.  The six-member, all-female band literally rocks in every respect under the direction of Kimberly Grigsby, perched as they are in the heavens above Arcadia. 

In these and all other respects, Heads Over Heels appears ready to take the Great White Way by storm.  The music of the Go-Go’s will thrill the group’s fans in the way it folds so easily into this fantasy story of old with all its modern new twists.  And those (like I confess, myself) who somehow missed the Go-Go’s in the early ‘80s will walk out and perhaps do what I did this morning during breakfast:  “Alexa, play some Go-Go’s music.”

Rating: 5 E “MUST-SEE”

Head Over Heels continue through May 6, 2018 at the Curran Theatre, , 445 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at https://sfcurran.com/ or by calling the Box Office at 415-358-1220 between 10 a.m. and 6 pm. Monday through Friday.

Photo Credits: Joan Marcus


Thursday, April 19, 2018

"The Gangster of Love"


The Gangster of Love
Jessica Hagedorn


Lance Gardner & Golda Sargento
Two pairs of eyes widen to reveal mammoth rings of white around dark, darting balls as a brother and sister sway with the ocean’s waves, looking for the first signs of the Golden Gate.  While the girl’s eyes sing with wonder and excitement, the boy’s silently scream of anxiety and maybe terror.  Their young, beautiful mother appears with a camera just as the world-famous bridge comes into sight; and the three émigrés from the Philippines pose for the obligatory pictures as they enter San Francisco Bay in 1978. 

And so opens Jessica Hagedorn’s coming of age story, The Gangster of Love, now in its world premiere as commissioned by Magic Theatre, based on the playwright’s own poetry-packed, psychedelic-tinged journey from the age of seventeen into early adulthood.  Under the inspired, inventive, even infectious direction of Loretta Greco, a fictionalized version of Jessica Hagedorn’s true-life story explodes into an epic-scale travelogue of a City bursting in 1978 with scenes, scents, and sounds foreign and fascinating to this young émigré.  Especially for any San Francisco resident of a Baby Boomer age, there are waves of smiles and chuckles among the audience at the references and scenes from the eclectic likes of Trader Vic’s Restaurant, City Lights Bookstore, Clown Alley, and the Elephant Walk along with a sound track of the songs those of us of that age still believe are the best ever written.  But what makes this sojourn into the coffee house poetry readings, street protests, and acid trips of that recent past especially important and uniquely different is that we are given our tour through time and place via a lens rarely seen on the American stage, that of a Filipina-American.

Rocky Rivera – a name she prefers to her given one of Rachelle – steps onto land and is instantly a young woman with a mission to explore neighborhoods full of love-and-life-teeming nooks and niches and to go beyond boundaries she did not even know existed back in her native Manila.  With a small notebook and pen always in hand, Rocky has been preparing for her destiny as a writer since early childhood; and this new poly-everything panorama of San Francisco becomes a perfect breeding ground for her as a budding poet and eventual musician.  

Golda Sargento impressively combines a determined, serious-minded, and inquisitive Rocky with that of a woman-still-girl who delights with brightened, childlike countenance in her many new experiences and friends.  She is also a typical teen who is one moment loving and adoring of her Filipina immediate and extended family and at other times, a belligerent teen who feels boxed in and too dictated by the expectations, traditions, and problems of that family.  As Rocky finds her new powers of presenting herself in poetry and music on stages small and large, Ms. Sargento transforms from head to toe into a Rocky full of self-found liberation, expressing words and ideas with roots in the sun-baked rice fields of a former homeland but now firmly planted in a poetry defined by the streets and alleys of her newfound home and self.

Golda Sargento & Jed Parsario
Contrasting Rocky’s journey of self-discovery is that of her brother’s, Voltaire, the boy with scared eyes who seems plagued with a pent-up anger over leaving his philandering father to come with his mother and sister to America.  Jed Parsario is a Voltaire often sullen and quiet in his tight-lipped broodiness; but when he erupts into an explosion of accusations and insults that can target an unsuspecting victim (like his mother’s Caucasian, banker boyfriend, Rick), his Voltaire is almost animal-like in his lashings.  As Rocky soars, he sinks.  The last time we see Voltaire is in a preview of an all-too-common, 2018 San Francisco street scene that is a reminder of how the mental-health decisions of an earlier Governor Reagan were already in 1980 having destructive impacts that now plague our City by the Bay.

As Milagros and mother of Rocky and Voltaire, Sarah Nina Hayon enters a room in order to be in the spotlight – a woman who is always on stage and at one point dramatically introduces herself as “a tourist, an immigrant, and a peasant.”  Every ounce of her being is part of her continuous act in a self-invented spotlight.  From vibrantly alive eyes to slightly twitching shoulders to pointing fingers on hands that move through space at supersonic speeds, Ms. Hayon deliciously delivers a mother who clearly can smother at any moment her children with overbearing love but who is also in combative competition with them in order to be the star of the household. 

Lance Gardner & Golda Sargento
The other seven members of this incredibly outstanding cast play both primary and also multiple secondary roles as both family and friends as well as representatives of the tuned-in, tuned-out multitudes of unique folk who populated San Francisco as the Seventies became the Eighties.  Lance Gardner is the amiable, soft-spoken landlord downstairs named Zeke who falls for an only mildly interested Milagros.  He is also larger than life with heavenly wings as a Jimi Hendrix who comes to counsel and advise Rocky in her dreams (Hendrix being the actual hero/muse of the playwright after she first heard him at the 1968 Monterey Jazz Festival).  Finally, Mr. Gardner is the night’s live percussionist -- sometimes a guy in the corner beating a bongo to punctuate read poetry and later playing Bugsy, the drummer of Rocky’s band.

Lisa Hori-Garcia is Milagros’ somewhat silly but big-hearted, younger sister, Fely, whose husband -- a jokester with a limp named Basilio -- is jovially portrayed by Chuck Lacson.  Each wonderfully doubles in other roles including a painfully shy, weepy poet (Ms. Hori-Garcia) and the legendary, stern-faced clerk of City Lights, Shig Murao (Mr. Lacson). 

Sean San Josée
Coming close to stealing the show in two different roles is Sean San José.  He first is the no-doubt-but-gay brother-in-law of Milagros who shows up for Rocky’s eighteenth birthday in an Afghan coat of fur and suede, lifting his turquois-ringed pinky and shifting his tightly panted hips as two of the many ways he expresses his own fabulousness.  Later -- still donning a distinct, thin strip of hair down the center of his otherwise bald head – Mr. San José is a show unto himself as the Carabao Kid, a revered Filopino poet and activist who gives Rocky her first chance at a public reading of her poetry.

Dezi Solèy
Rounding out the cast is Patrick Alparone, playing a mean electric guitar as Elvis and a member of Rocky’s band, The Gangsters of Love.  Lawrence Radecker covers with ease a wide gamut of characters as the dorky, straight-laced banker, Rick; the legendary poet, Declan Wolf, who mentors with care Rocky; and the outlandish drag queen, Fatima.  Dezi Solèy floats from scene to scene as the belly and hip undulating performance artist, Keiko.  As also an aspiring filmmaker, her smoothly speaking Keiko later escapes to New York, hosting Rocky in a wildly beautiful, music-filled, dance-enhanced LSD trip.

The Magic Theatre Creative Team has in fact created magic in every respect in producing this trippy, music-and-color-lush portrait of a San Francisco still known for puka-shell necklaces, wild-colored pants and skimpy tops, and fringe-swinging coats of suede -- all part of a rainbow array of period costumes by Ulises Alcala.  Hana S. Kim’s set is mesmerizing and exciting with its painted back wall of iridescent scenes of the City upon which her many projections provide memories of people and places of that near-past.  The twenty-five or so distinct scenes come and go with ease as members of the cast roll in and out and build together the many pieces needed to bring that era of apartments and clubs and street scenes back to life, aided greatly by the era-authentic props designed by Lily Sorenson.

Ray Oppenheimer’s lighting combined with Ms. Kim’s projections creates waves of water, floods of raindrops, skies crowed with stars, and dozens of other miraculous and stunning effects.  Sara Huddleston’s sound design brings the music of the era to real life as well as the sounds of a city that is popping with its own rhythm and energy.  El Beh directs the live music that adds so much vibrancy and authenticity to the entire ambience of the period portrayed.

Coming in at nearly three hours (including a short intermission), it does feel that there is some future editing to tighten up some of the world premiere’s many scenes or to eliminate a character or two, such as the banker Rick who adds little to the story.  The first half, though long, pops with much zing and zest with fascinating characters and twists/turns.  The second overall loses some of that zip and bogs down in places, taking on a bit too much of a band concert feel with lyrics largely lost in the loud electronics and scream-prone words. 

(One small but irritating aspect of the entire production that feels like it needs adjusting is how much smoking occurs that wafts into the first several rows of the theatre.  I found myself coughing and my eyes watering too much at times.)

However, as a world premiere, there is so much to like and admire about Jessica Hagedorn’s The Gangster of Love.  Hers is truly a sweeping story of a blossoming writer, her recently immigrated family, their Filipino traditions, and their new city with its teeming life of ethnic-rich backstreet and small-club entertainment and energy.  The unique voice and viewpoint of a young Filipina woman reminds us how richer we all are for those who have in our own lifetimes come from other countries and how important it is that this vibrant stream of new Americans is not allowed to dry up – despite all the vitriolic, anti-immigrant rhetoric rampant in our current world.  What our president refers to as “criminals,” we learn from this story are actually “gangsters” – outsiders and underdogs who are willing to do what is needed to be done to succeed.

Rating: 4.5 E

The Gangster of Love continues through May 6, 2018 at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://magictheatre.org/ or by calling the box office at (415) 441-8822.

Photos credit: Jennifer Reiley