Thursday, June 28, 2018

"School of Rock"


School of Rock
Julian Fellowes (Book); Glenn Slater (Lyrics); Andrew Lloyd Webber (Music)


The Cast of School of Rock
The man who began his celebrated, much-awarded career writing a rock musical when he was twenty-two (Jesus Christ Superstar) returned to that genre to premiere in 2015 School of Rock, an electrically pounding good time featuring this time not twenty-somethings, but kids aged nine-to-twelve.  Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) once again has struck a resounding chord among theatregoers, with the Broadway show (with book by Julian Fellowes and lyrics by Glenn Slater) now closing in on its third year on the Great White Way, with a show soon to be two years in London’s West End, and with a touring company making its way across the land, now at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre.  As over a dozen of talented youngsters run and bounce all around the stage – while also acting, singing, dancing, and often playing instruments – School of Rock zaps and zings with preteen energy and effervescence.  While the screaming and screeching of their young, high-octane voices can be a bit much and their much repeated jumping up-and-down soon wears its welcome out, their abilities to play and look like pros with instruments often almost as tall as they in the end ensure School of Rock gets a gold star and a solid, passing grade.

But there are also cast members taller than four feet, and it is one of these who is always center stage in School of Rock – a sloppy dressed, pooching-stomach middle-ager most at home when rocking out on stage, sitting with a beer in hand, or lying in a ball while sleeping late in bed.  Out-of-work soloist and guitarist, Dewey Finn, weasels his way to become the substitute teacher of all the aforementioned fifth-graders, cheating his long-time best friend, Ned Schneebly, out of the job ed was supposed to get. 

Rob Colletti & Vincent Molden
When Dewey arrives at the exclusive, private school (tuition, $50K/year) – late and looking very hung over – he stumbles into his class of munchkins as they are finishing music class, playing instruments like cello, violin, and grand piano.  Immediately, wanna-be-rock-star Dewey recognizes how he might revenge his recent booting from the band he started, No Vacancy.  He is intent in beating them in an upcoming Battle of the Bands with a new group composed of young, musical prodigies.  All he has to do is turn classical aspirants into hard rockers; do away with math and social studies and substitute rock history and rock appreciation; and convince the stunned and skeptical kids to spend most of their daily class time practicing while not drawing the suspicion of the school’s strict and prudish principal, Miss Mullins.

During his first foray into song to accompany his flying fingers on electric guitar, Rob Colletti lets loose his rough-edged, gravelly vocals to blast forth Dewey’s rock-star dreams in “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock.”  As he half sings, half screams lines like “At the top of Mount Rock, I’ll be blowing out amps playing stadium shows on my sold-out galactic tour,” Dewey bends, struts, flops, and slides his rather rotund stature over the entire stage, with no care of possible bruises or bumps. 

That Dewey could care less in the beginning about being a teacher beyond the $950/week salary that will go a long way to pay his over-due rent is quite obvious.  However, once he begins to recruit his students into a full range of roles from singers, instrumentalists, security guard, lighting and costume designers, and even manager (during a rousing, fun “You’re in the Band”), his Dewey becomes a full-speed-ahead steamroller to ensure stardom is in each of the kid’s (and his) near-term future.  Rob Colletti is not the greatest of singers, and he often seems like he just stepped out of an inane Adam Sandler movie; but Dewey’s uncouth, unkempt, unabashed manners do begin to win us over and to ease off enough to let us see the heart and caring that this so-called teacher develops for his students.

Although academics have been tossed out the window, what these students learn turns out to be the feel-good, inspiring message that Andrew Lloyd Webber seems to want us to hear about the merits of music education within today’s schools.  In this “pre-Harvard” elementary school, parents are mostly worried about their kids’ high achievements, often ignoring their children’s true needs and desires.  The students themselves protest this stance as they sing the moving “If You Would Only Listen,” one of the night’s best songs lyrically (but unfortunately delivered with a bit too much shrill stuck in highest volume).  But as Dewey pushes and prods the students to discover their rock musical talents, he also helps them unleash the parts of themselves that many of their parents have ignored; and these awakenings become some of the most memorable moments of the musical. 

Theo Mitchell-Penner
Lawrence (Theo Mitchell-Penner) is a boy others have shunned and sees himself as uncool; but behind the keyboards, he makes magic happen and grooves to become cooler than cool.  Vincent Molden as Zack is a Mick-Jagger-in-the-making as his electric guitar wizardry woos Dewey, his fellow students, and eventually his uptight, controlling dad.  Former cellist, now calm-and-collected bassist Katie (Theodora Silverman) and once-too-rowdy cymbalist, now rockin’/sockin’ drummer Freddy (Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton) also transform right before our eyes and those of their parents.  When all the students join in a number left over from the 2003, Mike White film – the movie’s and this musical’s title song, “School of Rock” – their voices finally back off of the collective near-scream into beautiful harmonies with wonderfully expressed feelings (making me wish Music Director Martyn Axe and/or Director Laurence Connor had made that decision a dozen songs prior). 

A girl named Summer is a headstrong, resistant force that threatens at first Dewey’s keeping his band secret from the administration; but when she is made band manager, Iara Nemirovsky sings forth, “Band, get ready and let’s groove,” bringing strong vocals that fire up the group beautifully in “It’s Time to Play.”  Likewise, extremely shy Tomika (Grier Burke) only needs to have a chance to be lead singer (not back-up, thank you very much) when her “Amazing Grace” knocks the socks off Dewey and an appreciative Orpheum audience, with that crowd-pleaser only being a taste of what is to come later when her little voice rockets skyward with great ease and power in a song she writes for the band, “Teacher’s Pet.”  Both Summer and Tomika prove that these highly talented kids sound their best when allowed not to screech and squeal.

Rob Colletti & Lexie Dorsett Sharp
While W.C. Fields famously claimed “Never work with animals or children,” fortunately Lexie Dorsett Sharp did not listen to him and decided to give it a go with these dozen-plus kids in the role of the prim-and-proper principal of Forest Springs Preparatory, Rosalie Mullins.  Her sparkling, tongue-in-cheek “Queen of the Night” aria from The Magic Flute is the first time we see glimpses that there is some gaiety and gusto behind those spectacles and conservative, blue dress.  When she loosens up at the local Roadhouse Bar with Dewey and lets loose with “Where Did the Rock Go?,” Ms. Sharp then delivers the night’s best song with a voice that shakes, rattles, and rolls. 

Anna Louizos creates a wardrobe of costumes that define the uptight parents, faculty, and principal; the sloppy but lovable Dewey; and the uniformed cuteness of the kids.  The quickly appearing set pieces also designed by Ms. Louizos take us from band stages to a classroom full of rolling desks to a faculty lounge paneled and perfect.  Natasha Katz’s lighting is full of any band’s needed spots and beams while sparkling with the pizzazz of a rock concert’s premiere.  Sound designer Mick Potter ensures that Martyn Axe’s background orchestra of a dozen-plus never overpowers or drowns out the classroom rock band on stage. 

With a book fairly shallow, there is never any doubt the happy, feel-good way that School of Rock will end.  The show’s choreography is overall repetitious and unimaginative.  The music is not Andrew Webber’s most memorable, and the delivery is too often (but definitely not always) over-done (fault of director, not of actors).  However, School of Rock is in the end heart-warming and even inspiring.  It is very often funny and always full of fun.  And by the sounds of the whoops and whistles on opening night, this touring version of School of Rock now at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre is definitely a crowd-pleaser – especially for the younger set.

Rating: 3.5 E

School of Rock continues through July 22, 2018 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com.

Photo Credit:  Matthew Murphy


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

"Soft Power"


Soft Power
David Henry Hwang (Play & Lyrics); Jeanine Tesori (Music & Additional Lyrics)
Curran Theatre (in partnership with Center Theatre Group)





Conrad Ricamora & Ensemble Members
In the past twenty years, a number of twists and turns have challenged the notion of what defines the Great American Musical.  Avenue Q, Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, and certainly Hamilton are just some of the wildly successful, more recent premieres that push all sorts of boundaries and plow new territories.  Now joining that celebrated list of musical innovations is David Henry Hwang’s (play and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori’s (music and additional lyrics) Soft Power, a category-busting “play within a musical.” Beginning as a politically charged comedy, Soft Power suddenly explodes into a full-blown musical, complete with a twenty-two-person orchestra.  That the rib-tickling play opens in early November 2016 in the U.S. and then jumps one hundred years into the future to become a fiftieth anniversary, full staging of “Soft Power, the world’s most beloved musical” (produced in now globally dominant China) is just one of the many brilliant, unexpected delights of this new, must-see musical -- now on San Francisco’s Curran Theatre stage after its world premiere at Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group.

Just as he did in writing his award-winning Yellow Face, David Henry Hwang places himself as the central character DHH of Soft Power, played with great nuance, twinkle, and savvy by Frances Jue (who also starred in Hwang’s Yellow Face and M. Butterfly).  The comedic opening of Soft Power is a Hollywood-based negotiation between the sportive and somewhat pushy American screenwriter DHH and a more reserved Chinese producer Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora).  The latter is not shy in using his steady flow of dry humor to counter attempts by DHH to include in the proposed script obvious flaws in the Shanghai setting (with Xue Xing insisting the smog-ridden Chinese skies must be always clear and blue in the final film).

The on-stage portrayal of Asians by Americans is given a funny, but truthful examination between Xue Xing and his bombastic, blonde American girlfriend (Alyse Alan Louis as Zoe).  They both admire and condemn The King and I for its Western-centric idea that a nineteenth-century British woman teaches the barbaric King of Siam how to rule more justly (while also being a tear-producing love-story with songs that soar).  (That both Conrad Ricamora and Francis Jue magnificently starred respectively in Broadway and touring versions of the classic musical is a wonderful in-joke of this Soft Power’s casting.) 

Conrad Ricamora & Alyse Alan Louis
In a quick switch, Alyse Alan Louis goes from girlfriend Zoe to become Hillary Clinton.  Hillary is in Hollywood for a last-minute campaign swing, setting up a chance meeting between herself and Xue Xing where there is a moment of eye-to-eye attraction that certainly affects him for life, if not her.

As the election of 2016 comes to a head with the results for Hillary being a horrific shock for her, Xue Xing, and at least half of America and most of the world, Francis Jue’s Hwang has his own tragic, near-fatal surprise – one that mirrors a real-life event of the playwright himself that happened while writing early drafts of this show.  That event lands our DHH in the emergency room and into a dream world that becomes Soft Power, the Chinese musical, stage sensation of the twenty-second century. 

As six violins, three woodwinds, two French horns, and more burst into a glorious, full-sounding overture that rivals anything Rogers and Hammerstein might have written – all under the musical direction of David O – the scene shifts to a 22nd Century, red-draped stage and a story of Xue Xing as he is first heading to Hollywood way back in 2016.  That journey and his chance meeting with Hillary Clinton has evidently taken on epic proportions over the past hundred years in China.  We also learn that the 2016 election was evidently a turning point when the U.S.’s world domination of both hard power (economic and military) and soft power (culture and arts) began a long decline just as China’s sun was rising on both horizons.

Conrad Ricamora
With a voice of rich, ballad proportions, Conrad Ricamora’s Xue Xing steps to center stage to be the star of this Chinese musical that is a homage-of-sorts to the once-great American musical, now the Great Chinese Musical.  Jeanine Tesori’s music and her and David Henry Hwang’s lyrics smack of everything from Gershwin to Rogers and Hammerstein to Sondheim, with sidetracks into country and western, blues, and hard rock.  Mr. Ricamora brings a wide-eyed innocence and wonder to his character whose once-encounter with Hillary now takes on a new intensity.  He also grows into heroic stature as Xue Xing steps forward to rescue the world from total destruction.  (This is, after all, still a musical, where anything can happen!) 

Alyse Alan Louis
Once in the musical part of the evening, Alyse Alan Louis becomes a Hillary who steals the entire show.  As the still-candidate in 2016, she red-white-and-blue’s it, singing and dancing up a storm to woo voters in a Las Vegas styled MacDonalds.  Going from her designer pants suit into a skin-tight, all-legs, Wonder Woman outfit, she enters the campaign rally atop a giant cheeseburger. 

Later as a stunned, defeated Hillary -- hiding in a closet surrounded by the famous “H-in-arrow” posters -- Ms. Louis rivals the force and rawness of Janis Joplin and the strength and power of Tina Turner as her Hillary defends democracy, even as defeat stares her in the face.  The treatment the playwright and the actress gives to Hillary speaks volumes of the deep love and respect they have for her, even as they ensure that we howl with laughter at the antics of the famous politician.

Joe Hoche
Democracy in America receives pointed jabs as Jon Hoche as the Chief Justice stretches his mouth into cavernous, smiling proportions while explaining in a rollicking song the complexities of the ballot box and the electoral college that have ensured Hillary did not succeed when all thought she would.  When Xue Xing hears that the “Dear Leader” means to nuke the most-hated China, Xue Xing rushes to D.C. to confront in the White House a gun-toting horde of suit-and-tie bureaucrats.  As the sneering, swaggering Veep, Raymond J. Lee sings atop his throne of a six pack of beer, “Nothing says I love you more than a gun.”  That he, all his underlings, and all their very blonde and panty-showing gals are wig-wearing, white-faced Asians playing Caucasians is one of the great tongue-in-cheek reminders of what American musicals have traditionally done in the opposite direction.  (Remember Yul Brenner as the slanted-eyed King?)  

As Xue Xing keeps running into points where it appears all is about to go South for him, Austin Ku magically and hilariously shows up as “Bobby Bob,” a blonde-haired (of course) savior-of-sorts who uses his own gun to save his chosen pal’s hide.  Also appearing out of the blue throughout the show is Maria-Christina Oliveras as Hillary’s over-protective, bossy Campaign Manager.  Both she and Austin Ku take small roles and make them big through fabulously tailored personalities that leave their jocular mark.

From Budweiser-bedecked columns in the White House to the U.S.’s most lavish restaurant called MacDonald’s, David Zinn has much fun in creating the scenes of Soft Power.  Equally finding many ways to draw chuckles in parodying America’s historically stereotyped views of Asians, Anita Yavich has a heyday in creating the costumes for the show as does Tom Watson with all the blonde wigs he gives this Asian cast to wear.  Sam Pinkleton’s clever, often rambunctious choreography winks with glee at 1930s and ‘40s dancing duos in tux and evening gowns and at classic scenes like dancing cowboys in Oklahoma. 

Leigh Silverman directs with a big smile the shifts in time and place as well as mood and mode, ensuring we as audience get to laugh a lot while being in somewhat awe of this play/musical that is not quite like anything we have ever seen.  She also makes sure that plenty of points are made that both warn us how dangerous and dreadful our own present political situation is while reminding us that democracy can and will prevail, giving us a nudge to keep up the faith and not lose heart.

That encouragement to believe -- that obligation to believe -- comes through a stunning coda to the entire evening by Francis Jue as David Henry Hwang.  In a first-small, then ever-growing-stronger voice that shakes with emotion, DHH sings of his dream and belief “that I can be somehow worthy of democracy.” In a week when the Supreme Court upholds Trump’s travel ban, when children by the thousands are still separated from their parents, when women’s rights to choose suffers more losses, and when Kennedy announces his resignation to make way for a ultra-conservative Supreme Court, we all need to hear Francis Jue sing, “We have the power ... I still believe.” 

Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE

Soft Power continues through July 9, 2018 at Curran Theatre (in partnership with Center Theatre Group of Los Angeles), 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: Craig Schwartz Photography

Monday, June 18, 2018

"Good. Better. Best. Bested."


Good. Better. Best. Bested
Jonathan Spector

The Cast of Good. Better. Best. Bested.
It’s a typical day in Vegas.  Tourists dressed in red, white, and blue roam about drinking and being totally obnoxious – even belligerent – to the gold painted, “frozen statue” of a man.  A Roman gladiator and a foot soldier kibbutz in a quick work break while Spiderman roams the streets posing for pictures-for-pay.  A bachelorette party is assembling, ready to booze and dance the entire weekend while an uptight, nervous man in his business suit opens his hotel door to welcome a woman of the night dressed in a shiny, tight dress barely covering the parts of her body that are supposed to be hidden. 

And far away, on the other side of the world, the unimaginable happens.  Vegas pauses for a moment (neon lights still blinking and fountains flowing), and then everyone searches where to go have another drink.

Thus is the set-up and quick summary for Jonathan Spector’s comedy -- Good. Better. Best. Bested. -- now in world premiere as a joint production between Custom Made Theatre Company and Just Theater.  Loren English directs the ninety-minute, quick-paced series of interwoven vignettes in which each set of characters at one point or another interacts at random with all the others.  Action is non-stop, with time to catch one’s breath only in a few spots where we almost, but not quite, get to know the characters introduced.

And while the mostly bizarre and quirky folks are sometimes mildly funny – when they are not just plain pitiful or downright despicable – there are only a few scattered moments where much general, out-right laughter occurs or is deserved.

Mick Mize
The cast of seven each plays two-to-three often wildly different parts, requiring some quick changes in and out of the myriad of costumes Brooke Jennings has designed for them.  Mick Mize opens the show as Jordon, a charismatic, quick-handed magician in a paisley-decorated red jacket who uses his telepathic powers to wow (and woo) a bride-to-be named Sue (Lauren Andrei Garcia).  Jordon later transforms into a drunk red-neck “Bro” who also make moves on the same Sue, but not before Mick Mize takes a turn also as “Grunt,” a young, Brit soldier who out of the blue goes into a monologue from Edwin Campion Vaughn’s 1917 Diary of a Young Officer.  (The connection of that interlude to the rest of the play somehow went way over my head.)  Meanwhile, Sue takes her turns as a half-sloshed, photo-snapping tourist and as a uniformed private with one night left before being shipped to the Pacific. 

The rest of the cast are equally proficient in quick changes of personality and costume, with not a hitch in the opening night parade of the Strip’s peculiar set of oddballs.  Along with playing a wild party girl on the street, Millie Brooks is Sue’s friend, Marla, a squeaky voiced member of Sue’s bachelorette party who hates dogs and has a funny sequence of walking a dog we never see but very much witness his presence. 

Gabrek Montoya & Jessica Lea Risco
Gabriel Montoya (when he is not playing costumed street characters) is a shy, sad, and sex-starved widower named Alan who has ditched sitting shiva for his deceased wife and instead is putting up the three smackers to spend the evening with tight-dressed, high-heeled, all-business Simone (Jessica Lea Risco).  Their late-night encounter is slow to start as Alan eagerly reads Simone’s online reviews from her past “clients” and is further delayed by news of the horrific event eight thousand miles away. 

David Sinaiko & Tim Garcia
Weaving in and out of the short glimpses of these various lives is an out-of-work, divorced father, Walter, who has lost livelihood gambling and his late-teen son, Sheldon, who is a wound-tight ball of knee-shaking nerves making shady deals on the side as he searches for his “purpose.”  The strained interactions between Walter (David Sinaiko) and Sheldon (Tim Garcia) are some of the best moments of the evening, with Walter trying his best to be the absent father who now cares and Sheldon doing all he can to avoid doing or saying any more than is perfunctorily necessary.

Throughout the passing encounters on streets and in hotel lobbies, projections of both well-known Vegas scenes and everyday crowds of gamblers and tourist flash by, thanks to the excellent work of Theodore J.H. Hulsker.  The sounds of the bustling Vegas environment flood in waves via the design of Jaren Feeley while the spotlights of a stage and the dampened hues of a bar are part of Sophia Craven’s excellent lighting design.

Production-wise, actor-wise, and directorially, Good. Better. Best. Bested. is impressive enough, given the small setting in Custom Made’s intimate theatre.  But where Jonathan Spector’s new comedy does not work so well is as a comedy.  For all its outrageous array of characters and situations – not to mention the big world event that Vegas and its transitory inhabitants puzzle how to react – there are few big laughs and not too many chuckles.  Much of the time, I found myself just watching with little reaction to the blur of oddball activity passing by, never exactly bored but certainly never fully engaged.  Compared to Jonathan Spector’s Eureka Day – recently also in world premiere at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre -- Good. Better. Best. Bested. does not yet seem in the same category of script or subject-matter excellence.

Rating: 3 E

Good. Better. Best. Bested. continues through July 7, 2018 in joint production by Custom Made Theatre Company and Just Theater at Custom Made Theatre Company, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at www.custommade.org or at http://justtheater.org.

Photo Credits:  Jay Yamada



Sunday, June 17, 2018

"A Walk on the Moon"


A Walk on the Moon
Pamela Gray (Book); Paul Scott Goodman (Music & Lyrics with Additional Lyrics by Pamela Gray)

The Cast of A Walk on the Moon
Summer, 1969:  Daily, numbers of casualties from Vietnam scroll across living room television screens while streets fill with angry, mostly young anti-war protestors.  Their peace-loving folk and war-hating rock fills the airspaces along with wafts from their calming, smoked grass.  African Americans continue to search for their post-King leader and their equal rights; women raise their voices louder and more collectively for equality; and a few drag queens at a bar called Stonewall ignite the gay rights movement.  But on July 21, the entire nation and the world hold their collective breathes as Neil Armstrong takes that first step on the moon -- the nation forgetting for a few minutes all the strife, differences, and inequality dividing much of the generations, races, sexes, and the entire country itself. 

In such a summer, a Jewish family of four and a grandmother do what New York and New Jersey Jewish families had been doing for several decades – escape the heat of the City and head to tiny cabins in the Catskills for fun with friends in the so-called Borscht Belt.  Pamela Gray captures their own exploratory, scary, and transformative first steps into new territories of life in her A Walk on the Moon -- a visually, musically, and emotionally exuberant slice-of-summer-life now in world premiere at American Conservatory Theatre.  With music and lyrics by Paul Scott Goodman and additional lyrics by herself, Pamela Gray takes her 1999 movie by the same name; ejects the movie’s twenty-five-plus musical numbers by the likes of Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, and The Grateful Dead; and creates a new musical that spans the girl-and-boy bands of the late ‘50s/early ‘60s; crosses into strains of blues and country; and overall introduces a bevy of new, often hummable songs that are a mixture of fun, romance, reflection, and uplifting inspiration.

The opening number of any musical is a telling sign of just what kind of night it is going to be.  “First Saturday Night of the Summer” sets the bar high, introducing with rousing music the members of the Kantrowitz family as they and their friends arrive at their summer retreat.  Also, the scene immediately sets up a rift that many parents of teens will recognize. 

Alison is apoplectic because her mom did not bring her record player and because she is stuck yet another summer in a boring family tradition while everything important and exciting is happening somewhere else.  In between screaming “I want my fucking record player,” she cries out in song, “The summer of ’69 is there; the summer of ’59 is here ... I want to be a part of it; get me away from here.”  At the moment, we see that Brigid O’Brien as Alison is a powerhouse worth taking full note; and as she later proves, she has a deeply resonating voice that time and again sings forth with a maturity and presence well beyond the actor’s young years.

Katie Brayben
Alison’s mother and present nemesis, Pearl, is also looking longingly beyond these woods surrounding their little cabin, gazing up into the sky and singing “Out of This World” to the big moon and to the man who is about to take a walk on its surface.  “All around the world tonight, people are taking a chance for the first time ... Mr. A, walk the moon for us.”  The vocals of Katie Brayben’s Pearl – a voice full of awe and of a quiet anticipation – only get stronger as the story progresses, opening up and letting her chords ring euphorically in full country rock style in a late Act One reprise of the same song. 

By that point, both daughter and mother have each taken steps into unexpected new love -- their forays beautifully directed by Sheryl Kaller often as mirrored and paralleled secret escapes from each other and from the rest of the family.  During a rousingly staged game of Mah Jongg, Pearl eagerly joins her friends Rhoda (Monique Hafen), Eleanor (Ariela Morgenstern), and Bunny (Molly Hager) along with mother-in-law Lillian (Kerry O’Malley) in a do-wop, nah-nah-nah declaration of independence from their husbands (all back in New York for the work week) via a closely harmonized “World Without Men” – a number reminiscent of the girl groups of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. 

Katie Brayben & Zak Resnick
However, when the gals all go shopping at the hippie-like trailer of the “blouse man,” Pearl decides to hang back and try on a skin-tight, tie-dyed top that the B-Man himself gladly helps her fit into.  The pony-tailed, mild-mannered, and younger Walker (Zak Resnick) employs his freshly jubilant, easy flowing voice in “Something New” to woo Pearl, singing, “It’s never too late to try something new; it’s never too late to see another side of you.”  Moving increasingly closer to her as he reaches into the heavens in gorgeous falsetto, Walker tempts with “Look at the moon, and see a new you ... Something new, something true, something you.”

Nick Saks & Brigid O'Brien
In another part of camp, Alison has also happened upon a surprise in the form of a male.  Dimpled, curly-headed Ross (Nick Sacks) who, with guitar in hand, is chewing away in “Hey Mister President” at the current prez, singing a double entendre, “May I call you, Dick.”  But upon seeing Alison watching him, his melodies quickly morph to more love and peace sounds, followed by his own luring vocals.  With a slight smirk and ever-closer moves toward the initially skeptical but definitely interested Alison, the teen sings with a twinkle, “There’s always something to look up at, there’s always something to see; and if you get bored, just look at me.”

The electricity between both couples sends sparks that cannot in due time be resisted, with many implications for both – especially for Pearl.  Her husband Marty is about to show back up from his job as TV repairman for his weekend at the family camp, with his leading other arriving hubbies in their own male version of a 50/60s group in “Dancing with You,” a number worthy of Jersey Boys with sweet harmonies to die for, topped off by Marty’s (Jonah Platt) crooning tenor. 

As everyone gathers to watch the night's big event in the sky on an unseen tiny, black and white TV screen, mother and daughter with Walker and Ross close by along with husband/father Marty and mother-in-law Lillian all sing with eyes full of wonder and fascination (and for some, total infatuation), “We’ll all be walking on the moon, nothing will ever be the same.” 

As the summer’s weeks come and go, nothing is the same in many ways for anyone.  Culminating in August with something happening called “Woodstock” across the camp’s lake, fireworks are about to explode that make the earlier Fourth of July’s look like mere kids’ sparklers. 

The magical story of new summer discoveries of a mother and a daughter along with the resulting rollercoaster ride where a total wreck appears likely at any moment develops in an idyllic setting.  Towering trees with massive trunks and draping foliage surround rustic cabins with their front porches and well-stocked interiors – cabins that appear, spin, and disappear as part of Donyale Werle’s own magic-making as scenic designer.  Behind and above the trees and camp, night skies of a million stars (or so it appears) welcome the show’s real star, the moon, while dawns, daytimes, and sunsets inflame the sky with colors that often reflect the current emotions of the stage.  When Tal Yarden’s award-worthy projections are not creating miracles in the sky, they are showing scenes of the 1969 summer, from the bloody fields of Vietnam to the body-loving fields of Woodstock. 

Both the scenic and the projection designs are enhanced and electrified by a superb lighting design by Robert Wierzel and by the sounds of nature, of camp announcements, and of a nearby, massive rock festival by sound designer, Leon Rothenberg.  Finally, the ‘60s looks of camping Jersey-ites who are still longing for the ‘50s along with the new ‘60s trends of bell bottoms, tied-dyes, fringes, and no bras are given a full and colorful display by costume designer, Linda Cho.

As a story, Pamela Gray’s A Walk on the Moon is captivating, engaging, and – by the end -- actually uplifting.  The look back at a particular summer that still captures our imagination for its confluence of so many monumental events is fun and fascinating while that unsettling but invigorating search for the next big step in one’s life is something to give each of us some food for fodder and reflection. 

As a musical, the score as played by Music Director Greg Kenna and his outstanding band and the songs of Paul Scott Goodman – as previously mentioned -- are a wonderful mixture of period-sounding pieces with no one song fitting neatly into any one category, giving the entire set of songs aspects of both old and new, yesterday and today.  And while big choreographed numbers are not a part this musical, the choreography of Josh Prince definitely captures the generational differences represented in the story as well as the dream-like wonderment of new loves discovered.

American Conservatory Theatre has a summertime hit in its Summer of ’69, world premiere of A Walk on the Moon.  If the instantaneous, standing “O” of the opening night’s audience is any indication, New York might well be a next stop for this delightful sojourn into a recent generation’s time of upending political, musical, and personal revolutions.

Rating:  5 E “MUST SEE”

A Walk on the Moon continues through July 1, 2018 at American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.act-sf.org/ or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Berne


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

"Finks"


FINKS
Joe Gilford

Jim Stanek, Donna Vivino, Leo Ash Evens & Gabriel Marin
For the first eleven years of his life, Joe Gilford grew up in a household where the 1950s blacklist against Hollywood writers, directors, and actors was very much part of his every day life, given his parents were both on it along with many of their closest friends.  Young Joe was even named for an actor, Joseph Edward Bromberg, whose career and life were ruined in 1951by the now infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities. 

With that kind of upbringing, no wonder the boy who grew up to be a playwright (Danny’s Brain, The Radio Days) chose to pen a script that combines real and fictionalized characters and actual Committee testimonies to create a story about how this decade-plus of continuous hearings affected in such horrible ways people whose only crime was generally being socially conscious and active for human rights causes.  After opening Off-Broadway in 2013 to critical acclaim, FINKS receives its West Coast premiere under the same direction as its New York debut, with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s own Giovanna Sardelli now artistically guiding for her home company a highly engaging, visually electric, and powerfully acted FINKS.

For my full review, please continue to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj128.html .

Rating: 5 E

FINKS runs through July 1, 2018 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View.  Tickets are available online at http://www.theatreworks.org/box-office/ or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday – Friday 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Saturday – Sunday, Noon – 6 p.m.

Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Saturday, June 9, 2018

"Six Characters in Search of a Play"


Six Characters in Search of a Play
Del Shores


Del Shores
“I’m a storytelling thief,” confesses the ever-smiling, hands-flying “minor gay celebrity” (his words) standing just a few feet from his already enraptured audience – about fifty of what must be hundreds of thousands of loyal fans of Brother Boy, Bitsy Mae, Latrelle, Sissy, LaVonda, and ‘Bubba’ Wardell.  Those are the southern, trash-talking, cigarette-and-bourbon-toting family members that so many of us have come to know and love through Sordid Lives, both the play and the TV series. With other award-winning scripts to his credit such as Southern Baptist Sissies and The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife, Del Shores is much more than his self-proclaimed “minor celebrity” when it comes to his hordes of gay (and straight) fans.  His snarly and snappy, Texas-drawling, gossip-loving characters with hearts often the size of the Lone Star State itself have become part of our own kissing cousins through the years.  And if there is anyone tonight in the New Conservatory Theatre Center audience who somehow has missed meeting the clan, that now-lucky soul will surely walk away with some newly acquired friends and family after an evening with Del and his southern folk.

For tonight, Del Shores stands before us to share Six Characters in Search of a Play, “six people I have met that inspired me but I have not found a place for them yet in my plays, film, of TV.”  From the likes of Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, some are members of his actual family; and others are due to happenstance meetings (more likely in a bar) that then became dear, long-term friends.  Throughout, Del (short for Delferd – a name his mother misspelled on the birth certificate) intermingles his own personal confessions and anecdotes with the words and personalities of the six, each of whom he becomes in person with much flair, flash, and fury.  The stories are of course hilarious, but some are also so personal to our teller that tears come to his and our eyes.  We soon discover that however weird and quirky these six are -- just like Brother Boy, Sissy, and LaVonda -- at the core these are real people not unlike someone we may hold dear in our own memory bank – especially if you are a boy from Tennessee like I!

We first meet Sarah from Harriman, Texas, “an elderly actress determined to drink and smoke herself to death before Trump got elected.”  Sarah is a “yellow dog Democrat” (meaning “she would vote for a yellow dog before any Republican”) who calls Del one day crying in between puffs on her menthol cigarette and on her inhaler to tell him she has been asked to audition for a part of the “ugliest woman alive.”  Del delights in telling about his ongoing relationship with Sarah and letting us meet her in person, with her suddenly appearing before us in her shriveled body and tightly pursed lips, sipping through a straw her ice-cold Gallo white wine while talking with a Southern accent that has to be heard to be believed.

Cigarettes and the resulting breathing maladies are a common fixture among the women we meet.  Martha is a “monkey-hating lesbian with COPD” (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) who walks up to the bar in Nashville with her oxygen tank and then excuses herself to go out and smoke a cig.  Why he knows that she hates monkeys is a part of a story involving a gay couple with their long-tailed baby named Cocky, who is supposedly a rabid (no pun intended) fan of Sordid Lives.

As the journey across the South continues, we meet Yvonne (pronounced “Y”-vonne), a vegetarian-hating waitress from Del’s hometown of Winters, Texas, where “time and hair style have stood still for decades.”  He meets Y-Vonne while going to spread the ashes of his adored Aunt Sissy, who died “of pneumonia with a nicotine patch on the back of her ear” and whose last words were “Oh shit” because he showed up at her death bed without his dog, Bitsy Mae, whom she evidently adored almost as much as him.

And then there is Jimmy (the lone man among these six), a “homophobic Mississippi redneck with latent tendencies.”  Jimmy is “one of those Southern boys that barely open their mouths” when talking.  “Seems like they are afraid a cock might fly in,” smirks our storyteller before he jumps into the fantasy tale he has created in his mind about possible back-story of the real Jimmy he once met in a parking lot.

Del takes at one point a time-out to share his family tree with names like Aunt Betsy Ruth and Uncle Humpty (who had no legs) – a tree that has off-shoots galore due to divorces, second marriages, and time spent in prison.  That leads us to meeting Aunt Bobby Sue, “a loud mouth, racist Republican with a big heart,” who always appeared in her “whore-red lipstick” with hair “somewhere between Bobbie Gentry and Priscilla Presley.”  While his mama describes Aunt Bobby Sue as “a loud mouth what-not nothing but cheap, common trash,” we learn from Del just why he loves this woman so much and keeps her memory close to his heart.

And speaking of his mama, Del introduces us to Lorraine, “a once-brilliant drama teacher who has lost her mind and is now obsessed with porn.”  While not the last of the six stories in the sequence, it is the one that stands out – both for the humorous tale of how his mama believes toward the end of her life that she is starring in a pornographic movie entitled “The Orderlies and the Elderlies” and for his heart-warming, tear-producing memories of a mother who quickly accepts her little boy’s being out and gay. 

Del Shores
As wonderful as it is to get to know all these six and many other characters that Del parades before us, the real joy of the evening is getting to know Del himself.  The intimate setting of NCTC’s third stage is a perfect one that almost feels like we are in a living room, sitting around with a friend who is telling us his life story.  When he invites us at the end to join him at the bar for a drink, there is no doubt that he is sincere and that he now sees us as much as friends as we now do him.

Rating: 4 E

Six Characters in Search of a Play ends its too-short run June 10, 2018 at 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.
(Six Characters in Search of a Play will be on stage one night only, July 22, at the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa, Sonoma.  Tickets are available at http://www.sonomaartslive.org/.

Photos by Jason Grindle


Friday, June 8, 2018

"A Lesson from Aloes"


A Lesson from Aloes
Athol Fugard


Wendy vanden Heuvel & Victor Talmadge
The early 1960s in South Africa was a time of increasing police raids, township riots and brutal police reactions as well as unfair trials and undeserved executions.  At the same time, the world began to awaken enough to the horrors of apartheid to declare more and more boycotts and to debate at the United Nations how to deal with a society where the native, majority blacks were treated as non-human beings by the white minority leaders. 

It is into this atmosphere of fear and frustration that Athol Fugard places his A Lesson from Aloes, now in a stunningly crafted production by Weathervane Productions at Z Below.  Premiering in 1980 when apartheid was still the law but set in 1963 in the home of white Afrikaners, Piet and Gladys Benzuidenhout, A Lesson from Aloes focuses on a couple isolated in the island of their own abode for reasons to become clearer in the play’s progression but reasons originating from Piet’s history of anti-apartheid activism.  We meet Piet tending his outdoor garden of various aloe plants, a hobby he has taken up in only the past six months, but whose several dozen specimens seem now to be the main focus of his solitary life. 

As his wife watches with mixed amusement and boredom, Piet tries desperately to identify a newcomer to his mini-forest of thorned, puffy plants – stubborn, sturdy survivors in the harsh South African environment of sand, heat, and drought ... much like the plants’ caregiver himself.  As he mutters about his unnamed friend, Gladys asks with a dimpled smile but eyes a bit sad, “Are you talking to me or to your aloe ... I’m never sure these days.”  Coupled with another remark made with huge sigh by Gladys that time is “passing so slowly these days,” hints begin to mount that life is a struggle not only for these plants, but for the inhabitants of this abode – or at least for the observing, restless Gladys.  “God has not planted us in a tin pan” (like Piet has his aloes).  “I want to live this life, not just survive,” she says with both some despair and some grit of determination.

Wendy vanden Heuvel & Victor Talmadge
But there is also some excitement in the air on this particular day as the sun’s rays start their colorful journey to set (beautifully documented through the projections design of Frédéric O. Boulay).  After six months of no visitors, the couple is expecting Piet’s best friend, Steve Daniels, to come for dinner with his wife and four kids (one, the godson of Piet).  Preparations for an al fresco supper in the open patio floored by sand ignite some spark and playfulness between the couple as they even dance in between setting a festive table.  With gusto, the poem-quoting Piet searches for just the right Holmes, Dickens, or Blake quote for the evening’s toast to welcome their guests.

A contagious energy and enthusiasm for life permeates Victor Talmadge’s Piet as we get to know him in the opening minutes of the play.  He literally bounces around the outdoor, desert setting (one meticulously adorned by scenic designer Deb O), with Piet having a spry, almost boy-like nature that belies his evident years of sixty-plus. 

The contrast between his zeal and the more sedate, cautious Gladys becomes more and more stark, especially when she retreats to the adjoining bedroom where the right hand of Wendy vanden Heuvel tremors ever so slightly as she looks with some claustrophobic anxiety at the four walls around her.  Sitting at her desk to stare at a mirror with a look of some inside fear, she unlocks a drawer to take out a red leather diary and frantically to look for somewhere else to hide it.  We realize that existence in their home of Algoa Park, Port Elizabeth is for at Gladys not a safe, welcome haven – for reasons we will learn.

Tensions in the household mount as the shadows lengthen and scattered wall lights take over the duty of the parting sun’s rays (thanks to the outstanding lighting design of York Kennedy).  The Daniels family has not yet arrived as expected, with Gladys becoming ever more upset, edgy, and prone to strike with a surprising venom at a still calm, patiently waiting Piet. 

When Piet reveals that this is actually the last time they will see Steve and his family because his former activist partner (who has just been released from six months in jail after being betrayed by some informer), are immigrating to England, Gladys is full of longing envy, expressing her own desire to leave the country.  That wish is in clear opposition to the obvious roots that Piet has planted in the country’s troubled soil, a fact that seems tonight to grate ever more on Gladys as each minute passes.

More reasons emerge for Gladys’ nervous anxiety and her ever-more-pointed jabs at the mild-mannered, mostly non-responding Piet (with both Ms. vanden Heuvel and Mr. Talmadge continuing to provide memorable performances).  A point-blank question dealing with Steve’s arrest by a now emboldened Gladys to her quietly staring husband electrifies the scene just as darkness fully sets in. 

Adrian Roberts & Victor Talmadge
But when Steve (Adrian Roberts) finally arrives late in evening (sans family), the mood once again shifts to a joyful reunion and a reenactment by the two friends of a past poetry slam, complete with well-rehearsed actions that clearly they have done many times during nights together over bottles of wine.  That reprise from the evening’s earlier mounting atmosphere of agitation is only brief, as suspicions and accusations – once unspoken – now spill forth from unlikely places, pitting husband and wife as well as friend and friend against each other.  The repercussions of the unsuccessful battles that these two friends once fought for justice has scarred all three in different ways, and each is about to seek a final escape route from this land they love so much – even if that flight is simply into a meager, dry garden of aloes.

Adrian Roberts, Wendy vanden Heuvel & Victor Talmadge
Veteran director Timothy Near guides with astute grace, nuanced gift, and emotional glow this equally veteran and much-talented cast of three.  She allows the rich script and the astounding production elements of set, lighting, costume (Maggi Yule), and sound (Cliff Caruthers) to work hand-in-hand with the ever-arresting spoken and silent expressions of this cast, resulting in a production highly engaging, challenging, and moving.  Its two hours (plus intermission) pass without notice of time as we watch the implications that living in a country where freedom is denied has on both the oppressed minority and on the supposedly free majority – two of the latter who quite evidently suffer their own differing imprisonments of mind and soul. 

Athol Fugard does not let us forget that however bad it is for the Afrikaner sympathizer, friend, and activist, that person’s skin in the end is still white – something Steve, no matter how much his native South African means to him, cannot ever have as a possible refuge.  The power of skin color is a reality, even post-Apartheid, that makes this play still strikingly relevant – even and especially in our own current country.  Not only has Weathervane Productions brought us a play that instructs us of a time now past and the effects those days had on its inhabitants of a land far away, the choice to stage Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes bears its own harsh timeliness.  How can we not draw comparisons to the fact that every day those with darker skins are imprisoned both in our inner cities and at our borders at alarming rates in our own land of the so-called free?

Rating: 5 E

A Lesson from Aloes continues through June 29, 2018, staged by Weathervane Productions at Z Below, 470 Florida Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at http://www.zspace.org/.

Photos by David Allen