Thursday, October 18, 2018

"Waitress"


Waitress
Jessie Nelson (Book): Sara Bareilles (Music & Lyrics)

Christine Dwyer
Every day she bakes twenty-seven pies, including one each day that she creates as a new recipe on the spot – pies with names like Big Guy Strawberry, Polka Dot Peach, Lost Shepard’s, and Deep (Shit) Blueberry.  At Joe’s Pie Diner where everyone wants once again to know “What’s Inside,” Jenna is rolling out another crust and filling it with plenty of sugar, singing somewhere between dreamingly and wistfully, “My whole life is in here.”

So opens Waitress, the Jessie Nelson (book) and Sara Bareilles (music and lyrics) delicious musical that continues to pack them in on Broadway since its 2016 opening and is also in the midst of a national tour, landing now at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre.  The main ingredients baked into this musical based on the 2007 movie by the same name include our apron-wearing heroine, Jenna, who sings with buttery beauty; her crusty co-worker, Helen, with tart remarks aplenty; her other waitress pal, cream-puff sweet Dawn stirred with much anxiety; and Cal, the salty, over-sized cook whose bitter bite is more show than real.  Whipping in an appetizing mixture of music flavored with hints of pop, country, and ballad (all played by an outstanding, onstage band of six conducted by Lilli Wosk), Waitress is a dished-up dessert that is filled to the brim with domestic dilemmas, surprise romances, heart-warming friendships, and just enough fun and funny to make this pie a pleasant-tasting offering.

With past starring roles in Wicked, Finding Netherland, and Rent, Broadway’s Christine Dwyer is an immediately likeable, clearly talented in all respects, Jenna.  As she bakes and sings (“What Baking Can Do”) she remembers with soft, silky tones a mother who taught her all she knows about baking and dreams with sustained notes of increasing hope of a life where she does not continue to live in an abusive relationship, as did her mom.  With scenes of her father beating her mother still cropping up in her moments of baking alone, she must deal with a brute of a husband, Earl (a repulsively convincing Matt DeAngelis), who daily takes her tips, drills her why there are not more, and then downs his beer amidst growled threats and glaring but lust-filled eyes.

After Jenna and her waitress sisters discover in the café’s bathroom that she is pregnant – the self-test result sung in “The Negative” that leads to Jenna’s final reaction of “Shit” – Jenna finds herself in a doctor’s office to meet the handsome but hilariously boyish and awkward, Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart).  When she presents the “I-never-eat-sugar” doctor with a tempting Marshmallow Mermaid pie, the two employ enough mixed metaphors in their duet “It Only Takes a Taste” for us soon to understand that more than pie is the subject of their sung, first-time tête-á-tête:
“It only takes a taste when you know it’s good
Sometimes one bite is more than enough
To know you want more of the thing you just got a taste of.”

As her pregnancy blossoms, so does the attraction between doctor and patient – both married by the way.  The two try to convince themselves in “Bad Idea” that their relationship is just that, but their cat-and-mouse dance around the examination table ends up on top with more than just the patient.  More denying and more efforts to keep their doctor/patient distance runs counter to the gorgeously sung duet, “You Matter to Me,” where his tenor easily lifts to expressive, soft falsetto to combine so naturally with her underlying notes of equal beauty.  Ms. Dwyer and Mr. Fenkart play with masterful moves and often funny results the magnetic attraction/repulsion game where heart/lust and brains/morals are in constant conflict – until they are not.  

Watching their cat-and-mouse game is Nurse Norma (Rheaume Crenshaw), clearly disapproving with her loud huffs, puffs, and snide one-liners but still more than willing to enjoy Jenna’s calling-card pies.

Other romances are also baking in the oven; and each is just as unlikely.  Chief among these is between a frenzied, always nervous Dawn (played with shrill by Jessie Shelton) and her online, blind date Ogie, who shows up at the café after their previous night’s first, five-minute date to steal the show and eventually Dawn’s reluctant heart.  As the oddball Ogie, Jeremy Morse easily receives the night’s biggest laugh-filled applause as he jumps, stomps, screams, and sings his way into Dawn’s life in “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me.”  Their love becomes sealed when he reveals he has played Paul Revere in American Revolution reenactments, something the Betsy Ross in her can relate.  When they later sing a hilariously staged “I Love You Like a Table,” the quirky sounding voices of both blend perfectly for a union sure to come soon.

Advice to Jenna on how she needs to leave Earl before her baby arrives comes from varied sources.  The aged curmudgeon and owner of the diner, Joe, is played with an outer hard crust by Larry Marshall but with increasing signs of a soft interior and some wise words for his favored waitress, Jenna.  Both he and Becky encourage her to enter a pie-baking contest with a first prize of twenty grand (and thus a ticket to escape the abusive Earl). 

Anastacia McCleskey brings her commanding vocals to bear in “I Didn’t Plan It” for a jarring wake-up call that Becky gives Jenna: “Look around you, ain’t no saints her, baby; we’re all just looking for a little less crazy.”  Like old Joe, her outside brusqueness combined with oft-bawdy remarks to hide a heart bigger than sky-high meringue.  

We see that heart in moments like the mesmerizing trio she sings with Jenna and Dawn, “A Soft Place to Land,” where their individually sung lines flow in repeated rounds into beautifully blended harmonies.  “You have a dream is a soft place to land, may we all be so lucky” is just one of many examples where the lyrics and music of songwriter/actress Sara Bareilles work so well to make Waitress much better than one might expect from yet another movie-based musical.

A diner full of all the trimmings from cubby-holed kitchen to multi-layered tables full of hungry patron) is part of the main set designed by Scott Pask.  Other scenic elements from Jenna’s pie-making, shelf-encased corner to her drab, clearly unhappy apartment appear/disappear seamlessly.  A scenic backdrop of a cloud-enriched Southern sky is painted with a lighting design by Ken Billington that provides dawn’s hope even when the storms of the story are most threatening and even when the tilted shadows of windows in the apartment suggest no hope of escape.  Suttirat Anne Larlarb’s costumes help define a southern, small-town collection of personalities that are often stock in nature but unique with touches that make them memorable.  Director Diane Paulus combines forces with Music Director Robert Cookman to blend musicians and acting ensemble into an orchestra of sorts of instruments and clapping hands that provides effective, mood-setting/altering backgrounds to the story. 

There is nothing that feels like ‘this is just a touring version’ of the Waitress now at SHN’s Golden Gate.  From set to sound to staging, Waitress has that Broadway look and appeal with a cast that sells itself in song and portrayals and a story that is a good mix of funny (even silly), romantic, hard-hitting, and uplifting.

Rating: 4.5 E

Waitress continues through November 11, 2018 at 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com.

Photo Credits:  Tim Trumble

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

"The Mystery of Edwin Drood"


The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Rupert Holmes (Book, Music & Lyrics)


The Cast of The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Guggenheim Entertainment is now staging at its 3 Below Theatres and Lounge an rip-roaring, rambunctious, and riotous The Mystery of Edwin Drood -- Rupert Holmes’ 1985 musical that garnered five Tony Awards out of eleven nominations, including Best Musical.  As soon as the theatre’s two aisles fill with a variety of jovial, oddball characters dressed in late-nineteenth century wear – stopping along the way to greet audience members as if old friends – it is clear that this is not going to be a typical musical outing.  We soon realize that we are watching something that has aspects of a rowdy, English music hall in the 1890s, of a contemporary Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, and of the yet-to-appear Vaudeville shows of the U.S.A. 

Please proceed to Talkin' Broadway for my complete review:  https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj140.html.


Rating: 4 E

The Mystery of Edwin Drood continues through November 11, 2018 by Guggenheim Entertainment at 3 Below Theatres & Lounge, 288 South Second Street, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at https://3belowtheaters.com/.

Photo by Guggenheim Entertainment
 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

"The Obligation"


The Obligation
Roger Grunwald
The Mitzvah Project in association with Playground


Roger Grunwald
The April 12, 2018, edition of The New York Times printed the following findings from a survey released a few days earlier on Holocaust Remembrance:
- 31% of Americans and 41% of Millennials believe that two million or less Jews were killed in the Holocaust (not the actual six million or more).
- 41% of Americans and 66% of Millennials cannot say what Auschwitz was.
- And an astounding 52% of Americans think Hitler came to power by force (versus by vote of the electorate)!

Roger Grunwald, himself the son of a Holocaust survivor, is dedicating much of his creative talents and his time to ensure the collective memory of what happened does not continue to fade until hardly anyone in future generations remembers “a world gone mad.” 

Taking a story he first told in a short play, The Mitzvah, and turning it into a fuller, one-man show in which he stars, Mr. Grunwald returns to the Potrero Stage in order for the Mitzvah Project in association with Playground once again to stage the 2017, much-lauded, world premiere, The Obligation.  A story of the Holocaust told primarily through three disparate characters he masterfully interchanges, The Obligation is Roger Grunwald’s wake-up call to us, his audience, to be on constant outlook for ingrained, insidious prejudice that can emerge any time – and in fact is showing its ugly head even now. 

Continuously smashing the boundaries of time, space, and persona during the one-hour, twenty-minute performance, Mr. Grunwald skips back and forth between 1936 and the present and many points in between.  With him, we travel from Bialystok, Poland to Auschwitz, to New York and back again.  And with hardly a pause for breath, he switches between the heavily accented voice of a Polish Jew named Schmuel Berkowicz to the vile gruffness of a half-Jewish lieutenant in the German army named Christoph Rosenberg to the wry, witty comments of an unnamed comedian looking, acting, and sounding much like Groucho Marx.  And along the way, sometimes he is just Roger Grunwald, looking directly to us in the audience, and urging us with eyes unwavering in their intensity, “We have to stop making a demon, a devil, out of the other.”

Roger Grunwald
After reenacting Schmuel’s emotional first glimpse of Lady Liberty once finally arriving in the U.S. after his harrowing, hellish experiences at the hands of Nazi Germany, Roger Grunwald becomes the eleven-and-a-half-old Schmuel (rolling up his rough, woolen pants to become a boy’s knickers) in his mid-1930s hometown of Bialystok.  In a pre-pubescent, squeaky voice that is often full of youthful wonder and curiosity, he describes in meticulous details some of the sights and sounds of the Germans as they arrived in increasing numbers on the streets of his neighborhood.  The boy’s voice turns to nervous worry and stunned horror as he tells us of the day one thousand men and boys were locked up in the Great Synagogue (only to be burned alive) or of the day his father and brother disappeared, never to be seen again.

Roger Grunwald
As his story takes us into the Bialystok where the 50,000 Jews of the city were confined – only 250 of which survived the war --, Mr. Grunwald removes his sweater and persona of the now-adult Schmuel to become a German-uniformed officer.  As he swears and grits his teeth in disgust, Odilo Globocnik describes how and why Poland “had to be cleansed” of Jews in order to make way for the hard-working farmers and factory workers of Germany who needed more land.  As he talks matter-of-factly to us in a ‘just between you and me’ manner about being “the Nazi you never heard of” who “made a career out of being anti-Semitic,” he erotically strokes the Nazi symbol on his coat.  He also snidely reminds us that it is America’s laws about how whites treated blacks that helped inspire Germany’s “cleansing operation.” 

Roger Grunwald
The recreated scenes that Mr. Grunwald so masterfully, chillingly delivers of the stark, still-shocking-each-time-heard-again realities of those times are often enhanced by the vicious sounds of barking dogs, marching boots, and angry orders to screaming victims – all part of the sound design of Theodore J.H. Hulsker who also provides snapshot videos to remind us of the times before, during, and after the horrors.  Brittany Mellerson’s lighting gives a shadowy effect of emerging memories while the set design of Director Nancy Carlin allows the costumes of Brooke Jennings and the locations/moods of the story to be switched seamlessly even as Mr. Grunwald hardly pauses to catch a breath in the frequent transformations.

Roger Grunwald
There are times when the many changes in time, place, and person become a bit confusing; and some of the sideline, almost-lectures border on being pedantic while still being overall powerful in message.  Frequently, Mr. Grunwald leans to the right, raises a cigar in hand, and makes a Groucho-like remark as a kind of sarcastic commentary on the story at hand.  The net effect is interesting, allows some comic relief, but also is somewhat distracting.

One of the most impactful messages Roger Grunwald delivers is in the description of Schmuel’s friend, Duhvid, who was with him in the concentration camps.  The story of how -- twenty years after arriving in New York to become a successful furrier – “Auschwitz hung on to him and never let him go” is heart-breaking and a firm reminder why our memories must never let go of what happened to the six million as well as to all those who amazingly survived beyond the war.  

In a letter his father wrote for his own memorial, Schmuel’s son, Peter, reads, “For years I lived in Death’s House; I know him.”  In The Obligation, Roger Grunwald brings us face-to-face with both the victim and the perpetrator, of the inhabitant and of the architect of that Death House.  We leave Potrero Stage hopefully recommitting to “never stop, never stop” our own obligation to remember and to tell others of them both.

Rating: 4.5 E

The Obligation continues through November 4, 2018 by The Mitzvah Project and in association with Playground at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://playground-sf.org/ or at http://potrerostage.org.

Photo Credits: Leo Correa

Friday, October 12, 2018

"fairview"


fairview
Jackie Sibblies Drury
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, In Association with Soho Rep


Natalie Venetia Belcon, Monique Robinson & Charles Browing
For the first forty minutes or so, we seem to be watching what one character calls, “a good ol’ family drama ... a slice of life ... nothing big and flashy ... just a real story about real people.”  The situations are familiar for anyone who has watched TV sitcoms like Good Times, The Jeffersons, or Family Matters; and the laughs coming from us as audience begin to sound like a piped-in, predictable laugh track. 

Natalie Venetia Belcon & Chantel Jean-Pierre
The clearly upper-middle-class, African American family – in this case, the Drury Family – is preparing for Grandma’s big birthday dinner.  Grown-sister rivalries erupt in the same snippy back-and-forth retorts of a lifetime together; a hubby would rather smooch than help set the table; a rebellious teenage daughter has no compunction putting her tennies on the expensive couch or in arguing for the umpteenth time this week with her exasperated mom; and a brother once again is going to be late for the most important family event of the year.  All is predictable in what we (i.e., the mostly white, as usual, theatre audience at Berkeley Repertory Theatre) expect from this kind of family comedy (i.e., one about a modern-day black family in the U.S.).  That is, all is going as we expect until it definitely is not; and then the joint world premiere between the Rep and Soho Rep of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s fairview takes us into territories not yet crossed by many, if any, prior premieres on this or any other American Stage. 

If a 9.0 earthquake had just occurred on the Hayward Fault underneath us, the upheaval, disorientation, and aftermath of “what just happened?” would not be much different.  But rather than resulting destruction, the shake-up in fairview has the possibility of helping us – the white audience – rethink and reconstruct our own views of what we thought it is like to be in the skin of African Americans in 2018.  The aftermath of this monumental and important play is that many unanswered questions must first be faced and only over time with much soul-searching consideration, hopefully answered.

The experience of seeing fairview is a carefully, deliberately constructed sequence by playwright and Director Sarah Benson of the audience being at first mildly entertained, then surprised, confused, still amused but in a weird and increasingly uncomfortable way, clearly troubled and squirming in our seats, and finally disoriented and probably uncomfortable as the unthinkable request is made of us.  Why and how that sequence occurs cannot be revealed in a review.  All I as reviewer can do is to urge every reader not to miss the opportunity to experience a theatre event that will surely be much discussed and revisited in dining rooms, wine bars, and university classrooms for years to come. 

There are early hints that what we are observing is not exactly what is really going on.  As host Beverley (Natalie Venetia Belcon) hurriedly peels a pile of carrots while listening (and then dancing with hips and shoulders swiveling around the room) to Sly and the Family Stone’s It’s a Family Affair, there is suddenly a static-peppered interruption with a deep, threatening voice-over nondiscernable -- until all returns to what seems normal.  The same happens later when her rose-sipping, just-let-me-sit-and-watch-you sister, Jasmine (Chantal Jean-Pierre) takes a saunter around the room to the music. 

Monique Robinson
Beverly’s husband, Dayton (Charles Browning) comes and goes, trying to keep his overly anxious/worried/perfection-seeking wife calm and to tell her everything is going to be OK.  But it is when teenage Keisha (Monique Robinson) looks into an imaginary mirror separating the family on stage and us as audience that we get the hint that something we do not yet understand is going on.  She senses all is not quite right when she says to herself, “I want to be all I can be ... But I feel something is keeping me from being all I can be.”  As she says this in a musing, somewhat disturbed voice, she is looking directly into that unseen mirror  ... and thus, at us.

It is Keisha who will eventually be the incredible force that moves us as an audience to reconsider what it means to be us in relation to her -- a young, black, aspiring teenager in America.  Ms. Jean-Pierre is one of eight in this ensemble who each will push through boundaries to provide performances that shatter what we expect of them.  Sarah Benson’s one-hour, forty-minute play is divided into three distinct acts with no intermission.  The first act is the one described above; the next two are when the presence of white people (Natalia Payne, Brooke Bloom, Luke Robertson, Jed Resnick) intersects with the lives of the Drury’s but in ways powerfully unusual and unsettling and unable to be described without ruining the experience for you, the hopeful, next audience. 

Everything that the production staff has done to set the stage and to move along this familiar-comedy-turned new-genre-drama has been highly and specifically done so with purpose.  Mimi Lien has designed an exquisite home for the Drury’s -- all in whites and beiges – that is full of good taste and style and is walled off by a low, black wall separating it and us, the audience.  It looks perfect -- for now at least. 

The sound design of Mikaal Sulaiman does much to lure us initially into areas of comfort and hum-along complacency while later imposing in commanding ways a soundtrack that will upend our view of what is really happening.  The lighting of Amith Chandrashaker focuses us at times on the inner thoughts of family members (like those of Keisha) and will at one point, place us in the spotlight in a way we probably never have previously experienced as audience members.  Costumes by Montana Levi Blanco also fool us in the beginning and later shock us into seriously questioning what is the reality we are assuming of the events taking place.  All has been orchestrated by a director (Sarah Benson) who clearly has worked in close partnership with Jackie Sibblies Drury for incredible synchronization of words and actions that often play in totally different dimensions to produce effects powerful, thought-provoking, and question-arousing.

Is the white majority’s view of the black minority in America a “fair view”?  What would be a “fair view”?  Should there be a view at all?  How can or even can African Americans escape the view of the majority, and why is it necessary that they do?  These are just a few of a myriad of questions going through my head this morning after experiencing fairview last night.  Many new ones will surely emerge in the days and weeks to come.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre (in association with Soho Rep) has once again proven why the company is one of the nation’s leaders in staging productions that literally smash prior, well-established boundaries.  Never will the so-called fourth wall seem quite the same after a visit to fairview, and never will audience members think of race relations in America as they did when they arrived.

Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE

fairview continues through November 4, 2018 in Peet’s Theatre of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/boxoffice/index.asp or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Company

Thursday, October 11, 2018

"The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas"


The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
Larry L. King & Peter Masterson (Book); Carol Hall (Music & Lyrics)
Based on a Story by Larry L. King


Dyan McBride as Miss Mona with Her Girls
Sometimes, real life can actually be more fantastical than fiction.  Such is the case of the history of the Chicken Ranch in La Grange, Texas – a brothel that operated from 1905 to 1973, serving the carnal needs of business men, politicians, farmers, and local athletic teams.  Only after a TV reporter from Houston made it his crusade to expose the well-known, long-term haven for whoopee did the Governor of Texas finally demand its closure. 

All of this was captured in a story by Larry L. King and then converted by him and Peter Masterson into the book of a 1978 musical that became a Broadway and touring hit.  With rambunctious, foot-stomping music and more downright hilarious lyrics by Carol Hall than you can shake a stick at (as they say in Texas), The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas takes the original story of the Chicken Ranch and creates a sure’nuff barnstormer of a story.  When put into the hands of 42nd Street Moon under the yeehaw direction of Christina Lazo, ya’ll are sure fixin’ to have a darn good time if’n you make it over to the Gateway Theatre, bless your heart.

Scenic Designer Brian Watson has cleverly created a “li’l ole pissant country place” outside the fictional town of Gilbert, Texas -- complete with two levels of weather-board slabs, all sorts of Texas Aggie booster signs, and the Lone Star of Texas reverently and irreverently filling up cubbies and corners.  Ruling over the establishment is Miss Mona, who informs us in a friendly Texas twang sung with sparkle and wink of the eye that all that happens here is “just lots of good will and maybe one small thrill, but there’s nothing dirty going on.” 

Dyan McBride steps into the six-inch heels of the likes of Ann-Margaret and Dolly Parton (former Miss Monas on stage and cinema) fabulously to portray a big smiling, big-hearted Miss Mona, full of dignity and elegance but also just enough down-home to make everyone – including us – feel a big Texas welcome to her humble abode.  That dwelling in the dusty countryside is also home to a bevy of scantily clad, young ladies of various shapes and sizes, all more than ready to follow Miss Mona’s rules like no tacky tattoos, no wallowing in bed, and certainly no chewing gum.  (“It looks like a cow,” she sings while pointing her long-nailed finger at them in warning.)

The “girls” assembled before us not only can cozy up with friendly manners to the men and boys arriving, they can sing and dance up a storm.  They bring voices that pleasantly harmonize with a Southern bent and just enough thrill and shrill to convince us they are snappy happy to serve Miss Mona and their 24-hour-per-day, arriving “guests.”  Ruby Rae (Anne Norland), Ginger (Andrea Dennison-Laufer), Linda Lou (Yuliya Eydelnant), Angel (Ashley Garlick), Shy (Madison Genovese), and Dawn (Brittany Monroe) each gets a chance to strut her stuff and show off her fine vocals both in their hostess roles at the Chicken House as well as in a number of other roles from Aggie Cheerleaders to self-righteous townsfolk to choir-robed members of the snooping, spying Thorpe Singers.

DC Scarpelli as Melvin P. Thorpe & The Thorpe Singers
It is when those singers and their idol, Melvin P. Thorpe – a TV hotdog reporter who is part evangelist, part showman, and totally narcissistic – begin to go after their latest target as so-called watchdogs of Texas that thunderclouds start to gather on Miss Mona’s horizon.  DC Scarpelli is deliciously funny and irritating as the flamboyant, finger-pointing Thorpe. Light-in-his-slippers but also straight-necked righteous, he alerts his TV audience with a high-pitched, snarky singing voice that “Texas Has a Whorehouse In It.” 

DC Scarpelli as Thorpe & Brian Watson as the Governor
Long-time friend, sometime-lover, and perennial protector of Miss Mona -- Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd – is not about to let Melvin P. Thorpe just come to town and run out the local, thriving business and favorite pastime of many without a fight and a few threats of his bullets flying over the head of a freaked-out, scaredy-cat Thorpe.  Unfortunately, the cowboy gun-waving, barking bravado of the Sheriff (played with much gusto and just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek by Michael Ray Wisely) is all caught on camera, leading to a goofy grinning Governor to give in to protesting do-gooders’ call to “shut ‘er down.”  Brian Watson hysterically plays in an exaggerated, caricature-rich style both the Governor and a local pain-in-the-butt (for the Sheriff, at least), C.J. Scruggs.   In the second act’s opening “The Sidestep,” Mr. Watson’s Governor provides a primer on how to deflect reporter’s questions to say nothing at all with a lot of conviction, leading to a tap-dance that can fool no one but can totally entertain us, the howling audience.

Throughout all the hilarity of this 42nd Street recreation of a Texas real-life farce (with a more than a few artistic liberties taken, of course), the choreography of Christina Lazo wows again and again while at the same time, if often is uproariously funny.  The Aggie cheerleaders of Texas A&M – better known as Angelettes – are Mona’s girls in new outfits and roles as they perform “The Angelette March,” each attached to two life-sized puppets on either side of her and all engaged in a tap-dancing, high-kicking dance line in breast-revealing outfits full of glitz and glitter. 

Michael Barrett Austin as Senator Wingwoah with the Aggies
But that array of dancing silliness is nothing compared to “The Aggie Song,” a sweaty, shirtless romp in the locker room by the winning footballers who give a testosterone-packed display of incredible boot-stomping, high-jumping, and side-stepping.  What they do on a bench while undressing and dressing for a night at Miss Mona’s is a choreographic wonder, with the entire, small theatre literally shaking with their collective pounding of boot heels and toes.  And when they sing in sweet, innocent-sounding harmony “Twenty-two miles until we get to heaven,” we can only wonder at the juices flowing through their steamy bodies as they declare, “Where history and aggie boys get made.”

Brian Wilson, Taylor Bartolucci & Michael Barrett Austin
The talented cast includes other both endearing and totally quirky characters worthy of a quick shout-out.  Michael Barrett Austin is both the twitchy, tee-heeing Mayor Rufus Poindexter of Gilbert and the snappy, sniping Senator Wingwoah – both of whom put their fingers into the air to realize the wind has shifted, meaning they can no longer use those same fingers to caress the bodies of Miss Mona’s girls, something both have been in the long habit of doing.  Taylor Bartolucci is the town’s café waitress, Doatsey Mae, who sings in pitch-perfect Texas drawl (“Doatsey Mae”), of her life’s dreams and regrets with a voice that reverberates in pent-up emotions.  Her slightly hunch-backed, bespectacled portrayal is one of the evening’s best.

Finally, Miss Mona’s household helpmate (and clearly a trusted friend, too) is Jewel –a reminder that in the early 1970s of outback Texas there were limited options for African American women beyond wearing an apron in a white household.  But when this Jewel has a night off and gets to tell the girls what she is going to do, Doris Bumpus receives one of the night’s loudest, most sustained applauses as she sings “Twenty-Four House of Lovin,’” recounting hour-by-hour in exacting descriptions what she plans to do in bed with her in-town boyfriend.  To add just the right amount of titillation, she is surrounded by Mona’s family of girls, who demonstrate in hip-swirling, body twisting, arm-hugging fashions all the scenes she describes.

Much of the evening’s fun comes through the enormous array of flowing evening dresses, skimpy lingerie, rugged cowboy attire, and hokey townspeople wardrobes that Tammy Berlin has designed.  The amount of backstage changing in the oft-short times allotted must have been a feat of much planning and a show unto itself!

The lighting of designer Michael Palumbo, the wigs of Lexie Lazear, and the many properties of Taylor Bartolucci all do their share in creating scene after scene full of sentimental fun and feeling.  Music Director Dave Dobrusky leads on the keyboards a musical ensemble of only three where piano, violin, and bass often sound like an entire band in the background. 

The one slight downfall of the production is that individual mikes could have enhanced the vocals of soloists who, to a person, could have often used a little more ‘oomph’ for their excellent voices to sound at full strength. 

In 2018, the MeToo Movement would probably not approve of this musical, even if it is clearly a farcical look at a weird piece of Texas history. There is some reason to believe this musical may have its days numbered going forward, even if the music, choreography, and overall heart and humor still shine forth in an excellent-in-all-respects production like that of 42nd Street Moon. 

On top of that hesitation about the musical’s merits, in the current political atmosphere it is also a particular downer to see that the righteous but ridiculous right-wingers are the self-declared heroes in the end of this story.  Perhaps when written in the late ‘70s, this was not such a wince-producing moment; but for those of us who must listen to the daily gloats of certain leaders and read the continuous Tweets of one in particular, it is difficult not to be particularly sad that the do-gooders won their day back in Gilbert, Texas.

Rating: 4 E

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas continues through October 23, 2018 in production by 42nd Street Moon at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at http://www.42ndstmoon.org or by calling the box office at 415-255-8207, Monday – Friday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Photos Credit”  Ben Krantz Studio

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

"On Your Feet!"


On Your Feet!
Alexander Dinelaris (Book); Emilio & Gloria Estefan & Miami Sound Machine (Music & Lyrics)
Broadway San Jose

Christie Prades & Adriel Flete
As jukebox, biographical musicals have continued to find their way to the Great White Way and beyond -- often packing in adoring audiences for years even when critics might be at best lukewarm in initial reception – another arrived in November 2015 with the usual, true-to-life, rags-to-riches story with heartaches and tragedies scattered about for good measure.  But On Your Feet! came with a beat, rhythm, and flair quite different from the likes of Jersey Boys, Beautiful, or Motown: The Musical.  With a book by Academy and Golden Globe winner Alexander Dinelaris, On Your Feet! features both the Cuban-beat music and the Cuba-laced, life stories of Emilio and Gloria Estefan.  As the now-touring show arrives at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts as part of Broadway San Jose’s current season (having just completed a month’s stay at SHN in San Francisco), the walls of the vast arena themselves can hardly not shake and sway as the Latin music blasts its way into every corner.  And as toes tap, fingers snap, and heads with huge smiles nod to the beats, a story unfolds how an aspiring psychologist meets a small-time, Miami bandleader – both of Cuban heritage – to become together one of the hottest, most loved, most awarded musical phenomena ever to hit the global stage.

As soon as dancers and bongo/drum players fill the stage in the night’s opening number (“Rhythm is Gonna Get You”), evidence begins quickly to build that the top strengths of this musical lie in the choreography designed by Sergio Trujillo and in the music as played by a percussion-and-brass rich, on-stage orchestra -- the latter directed by Clay Ostwald (one of several members in the orchestra from the multiple Grammy Award-winning Miami Sound Machine).  Number after number throughout the show features both principals and ensemble members in Latin-themed dances where arms, legs, and entire bodies move at a speed and with such exacting coordination to wow the audience.  When combined with the myriad of colors, fabrics, and styles of Latin costumes designed by Emilio Sosa, the stage time and again becomes a twirling, undulating, rising/falling sea of swiveling hips, turning heads, and clapping hands where skirts fly, shoes stomp, and hats/scarves fly and flutter.  And all the time, the orchestrations of the Estafans (with additional ones by Clay Ostwald and Jorge Casas) are played in perfect-sounding blends by this set of outstanding musicians. 

The dance-club hits also leave their marks as perennial favorites like “1-2-3,” “Conga,” and “Get on Your Feet” give a chance for both singers and dancers to flout their stuff in heart-racing fashion.  At the same time, ballads that swoon and swirl beautifully permeate the air (“I See You Smile,” “Here We Are,” “Don’t Wanna Lose You”) to balance the more furious and frenzied with often closely harmonized odes of love and hope.  And along the way, we learn a story that borders precariously between predictably familiar and uniquely interesting, between genuinely inspiring and absolutely sappy.  At any one moment, the scale may tilt one way or the other – according to both the book’s strengths and faults and to the disposition of the particular, listening audience member.

Christie Prades & Company
Christie Prades sings the iconic numbers of Gloria Estefan with a voice clear and appealing as well as alerting and exciting while often sounding a mixture of Cuban Latin and Nashville country.  This latter is especially true when she renders slower ballads with the kinds of vocal slides and dips one often associates with country stars.  Her Gloria is at her best when she duets with others like her sister Rebecca (the rich-voiced Claudia Yanez) in “Anything for You” or during a dream (“When Someone Comes into Your Life”) with the younger version of her father, José (Eddie Noel, who has one of the night’s best voices with gorgeous tenor notes that float effortlessly in to heavenly heights). 

Pairing with Christie Prades’ Gloria is Ektor Rivera as Emilio, who too brings a voice both sweet and strong.  From the first time Gloria and Emilio meet as his band’s practice, his Emilio has the look of love in his sparkling eyes and in his ever-present grin.  Gloria is more the reluctant to give him any encouragement and is only at the band rehearsal to sing one number at the insistence of her Grandmother Consuelo (a continual, key delight whose of the evening whose personality is contagiously likeable as played by Alma Cuervo).  But that one number that Gloria sings (“Anything for You”) immediately captures both Emilio’s heart and formulates his dreams of where he can take her musically; and the eventually meteoric rise in fame and fortune for the two begins it slow rise. 

Even though their music soon has them selling out crowds on Latin stages both in Miami and abroad, Emilio and Gloria desire to “cross-over” with English-lyric songs in order to hit a broader audience.  This proves not to be that easy, as told in one of the night’s most rousing numbers, “Conga,” where they bring their line-dancing, English-lyric number to a bar mitzvah, an Italian wedding, and a Shriner’s convention in Vegas before finally convincing a record-label executive Phil (Devon Goffman) that the conga lines of young and old non-Latinos are just the beginning to new heights for their joint fortunes.  In the meantime, we as audience are entertained by Italian bridesmaids, rowdy Shriners, and a bar mitzvah boy named Jeremy (on this night, Jeanpaul Medina Solano) who sends the audience reeling in wild applause as his tiny legs spin faster than the blades on an electric mixer.

Gloria finally gives in to the love approaches of Emilio as the two cement their love in “Here We Are,” surprising him and herself as she finds kissing him is more fun than she perhaps had expected.  The one person who is not excited about this union is the demanding, ever-serious mother of Gloria, Gloria Fajardo.  Nancy Ticotin comes near stopping the show when during a flashback to Gloria Fajardo’s earlier life in Cuba places her onstage as a nightclub star singing in a voice that is the night’s most powerful (“Mi Tierra”) – a night that was her last in the spotlight before escaping the Castro’s revolution to come to the U.S.  Ms. Ticotin not only is one of this show’s best singers, her portrayal of the journey and transformation Gloria’s mother undergoes is one of the best-acted characterizations of the evening.

The story of Gloria Estefan is well engraved in the hearts of her millions of fans worldwide – most of whom know all too well the tragedy that struck on a snowy night during a bus ride to a Saratoga, New York concert.  The resulting broken spine and her noble fight against all odds to be someday again in the starring spotlight is much of this musical’s second act. It is this half of the show that tends to bog down at times and to come too close to being soap-opera-like.  But if one is willing to let the overly sentimental, emotion-laden aspects just pass by without too much criticism, there are moments to relish and even perhaps a tear or two to shed –especially when fans of Gloria’s begin sending letters by the thousands to thank her and to wish her a full recovery.  The company members who step forward to sing the wishes of those letters in “Reach” individually and collectively soar to impressive heights in their one chance of the evening to shine vocally. 

On Your Feet! does not break a lot of new ground for American musicals and is not in the same category as some other, more stellar jukebox musicals like Jersey Boys; but at the same time, there are many more of the popular, current genre that are not nearly as good as is this story of the Estefans.  Especially for fans of Gloria and Emilio – and there is a world full of them -- On Your Feet! is a sure bet to please with this extraordinarily talented cast and eye-popping touring production now hosted by Broadway San Jose.

Rating: 3.5 E

On Your Feet! continues through October 14, 2018 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts as part of Broadway San Jose, 255 South Almaden Boulevard, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at http://broadwaysanjose.com.

Photo by Matthew Murphy


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

"Acid Test: The Many Reincarnations of Ram Dass"


Acid Test: The Many Reincarnations of Ram Dass
Lynne Kaufman

Warren David Keith
Carrying his upturned, paralyzed hand with both proud dignity and obvious discomfort, the old gentleman enters limping with a smile genuine and glowing while his words creep out slowly.  “Thank you for being here ... now.”  Explaining that “I was stroked,” he continues to describe what it is now like to live in a world of aphasia.  “It is like my words are stored in a closet ... stuck ... When I pull the door open, things are not stored where I put them.”

That gentle sense of humbleness, honesty, and humor will be a continual thread for the next eighty minutes of what will be a mixture of masterful storytelling, professorial lecture, and off-the-cuff spontaneity.  Or so it will at least sometimes seem that the Ram Dass in front of us is often just elucidating whatever is coming to his head at the moment, even though we know that we are being enraptured by the scripted performance of a gifted actor.  Warren David Keith revives his 2012, world premiere role as Ram Dass in the one-person show, Acid Test: The Many Reincarnations of Ram Dass, written by renowned, local playwright Lynne Kaufman and now on stage once again at The Marsh, San Francisco. 

Once he sheds his paralyzed self and stands before us as a genial, energetic (but now healthy) elderly man, Mr. Keith embodies with equal amounts of grace and gusto the renowned spiritual teacher and LSD pioneer, Ram Dass. He proceeds to relate a life journey of a man who was once Richard Albert – son of a wealthy Jewish family and a former psychology professor at Harvard.  That tenure ended when Dr. Albert became the first professor at Harvard to be fired since Ralph Waldo Emerson – an accomplishment the now Ram Dass seems to wear proudly – fired because he was giving LSD to students as part of his experiments on the magical, mind-expanding effects of psychedelics. 

His introduction to LSD came after meeting by chance Timothy Leary in Italy (who was biking the countryside and “living by bouncing checks”). That encounter led to a long friendship with the famed LSD advocate and to his first psychedelic trip via magic mushrooms (“flesh of the gods”), during which he finds himself inside a rose bud and shedding petal by petal all his former self.  His life pursuit becomes to find inner peace and to discover some absolute truth that will stand the test of time. 

His searching will take him around the world, including playing baseball with locals in Mexico while he and some Harvard colleagues are tripping the light fantastic as well as chasing in Katmandu and the mountainous countryside after a young, handsome guy from Southern California whom he only refers to as “Blonde Guy” or “Laguna Beach.”  That latter accidental meeting leads him eventually to meet a maharaja who “was like an open door to God” that “I stepped through.”  Realizing “it was like he knew everything about me,” our wanderer finds himself kissing the feet of he who becomes the guru who teaches him the meaning of unconditional love as well as names him “Ram Dass” (or “servant of God”).

These and many other stories flow like a stream of memories being recalled in whatever sequence Ram remembers them -- often with some pauses for his own reflection ... often with a moment’s interaction in a personal manner with us, his audience.  We soon forget that we are in a theatre and this is an actor.  We are in the presence of a man who has experienced hundreds of psychedelic trips in his lifetime and who now talks to us with much sparkle of spirit and with also a calming sense of inner peace as he advocates, “Let’s be in the present.”  From him we are learning, “This moment is fine; be here now.”

Nancy Carlin directs the seamless stream of recollections Warren David Keith recounts as he convincingly portrays Ram Dass.  Together, director and actor have teamed to deliver Ms. Kaufman’s script in a mode that never feels like a play.  We just happen to be lucky enough to be here today when Ram Dass has come back to life.  We are here to learn from this once professor, later spiritual pioneer.  And, we leave wondering if there is much more good and positive in LSD and other psychedelics than perhaps many of us had been led to believe.

Rating:  4 E

Acid Test: The Many Reincarnations of Ram Dass continues Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., and Sundays at 5:30 p.m. through November 4, 2018 at the San Francisco Marsh, 1062 Valencia Street.  Tickets are available online at https://themarsh.org/.

Photo Credit: Phyllis Christopher


"Fun Home"


Fun Home
Jeanine Tesori (Music); Lisa Kron (Book & Lyrics)
Based on the Graphic Novel by Alison Bechdel


The Cast of Fun Home
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, under the empathic direction of Artistic Director Robert Kelley, presents a Fun Home whose rooms are full of a family’s sweet memories, troubling secrets, and – in its hidden corners -- liberating lessons for us all. The well-directed, well-executed production is a destination to be visited in person and then repeatedly re-visited in follow-up contemplation.

For my full review, please continue to Talkin' Broadway:  https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj139.html.


Rating: 5 E

Fun Home continues through October 28, 2018 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View.  Tickets are available online at http://www.theatreworks.org/  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