Saturday, November 16, 2019

"Bull in a China Shop"


Bull in a China Shop
Bryna Turner


Stacy Ross & Leontyne Mbele-Mbong
Mary Emma Woolley (1863-1947) was the first female to attend Brown University, a women’s suffrage advocate, a peace activist, and the president of Mount Holyoke College (MHC) from 1900 to 1937.  She was also in a secret relationship with a former student who became an English professor at MHC during the years Woolley was there, Jeanette Marks.  Recently, MHC hosted a digital exhibition on their lives and the letters they wrote to each other over their near-forty-year relationship -- a story that MHC graduate and playwright Bryna Turner has taken and transformed into a play now in its Bay Area premiere at Aurora Theatre. 

Bull in a China Shop is steeped in the events of history that surrounded these women’s lives – the fight for women’s voting rights, the transformation of women’s education from preparing proper housewives to creating professionals in their own right, and the bold leadership of women like these two in the social and political movements of the times.  But at its heart, the play as penned by Bryna Turner and directed by Dawn Monique Williams is an engaging story of two women’s up and down romance over four decades along with all the drama and comedy entailed during a period when such love was kept as secret as possible, was shunned by most if suspected, and was of course, illegal.

Leontyne Mbele-Mbong & Stacy Ross
Over twenty scenes of those decades play out in the eighty-five minutes during which we as an audience actually spend a good portion of our time laughing.  Bryna Turner’s script is sharp and brilliant in its humor, wit, and satire.  Dawn Monique Williams guides her exceptionally talented cast through moments of tease and tension, quest and quarrel, love and lust – moments that may take place in the early twentieth century, post-Victorian age but appear and sound current in the language the women speak and in the situations they find themselves as they maneuver through relationship, career, and moral challenges.

There is much face validity to Stacy Ross’s portrayal of Mary Woolley, so natural she is in portraying a woman whose first words we hear are “Listen, I’m a bull in a china shop.”  In practicing for an interview to be president of Mount Holyoke, she is like a tornado twirling around the room, declaring as if talking to the school’s hiring committee, “You want a training ground for good pious women?  Fuck that.”  Her Mary gains further steam as if about to walk into the ring for a round of fisticuffs as she asserts, “So you’re afraid they won’t find husbands? … If a man is interested in headless women, send him to France.”

Stacy Ross & Leontyne Mbele-Mbong
Throughout, Stacy Ross keeps her head down and her eyes peeled for opportunities for her Woolley not just to lead a revolution, but in her words, “I am a revolution.”  But when she becomes president, her passion for change and to rebuild the institution “from the ground up” is no less than the passion she so vividly shows when near the woman of her life, Jeanette Marks.  Scenes of the two together are at times as steamy and erotic and yet also as natural as any love scenes one might have ever seen on the stage.  Their pawing, nibbling, and general love-play is all the more fun when we consider the fact that as they undress each other, they are pulling off the boots and unbuttoning the skirts and blouses of an era we often associate holding the most prudish of moralities. 

Stacy Ross & Leontyne Mbele-Mbong
For all her romantic come-ons to her younger companion, Stacy Ross’s Woolley is not hesitant suddenly to unleash knife-sharp remarks to snap her younger lover back into the reality she as the older so clearly sees.  When Marks complains, “You promised me a castle and you gave me a dorm” because they have yet to live in a house befitting a college president, Woolley dryly but with a bite replies, “Drink some water, take your aspirin, and grow up.”

As Marks, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong is equally powerful in her portrayal of a woman determined not to be the “wife” (even though she has moved to Holyoke specifically to be near Woolley), but instead to be her own powerhouse center of independent thought and action while creating her own means for young women’s “find[ing] greater access to their minds.”  Her Marks does not mind also breaking some china along the way as she is openly disdainful of department meetings and sees nothing wrong smoking cigarettes with her students.  With an aspiration to be a great writer, she announces with dramatic flair of a Shakespearean thespian, “I’m going to kill myself” when a review of her first published paper calls it “self-important gibberish.”  While clearly delighted in Woolley’s moves to get her into bed, she is also left hungry for attention when the president’s duties and/or the college’s financial restraints do not meet all her needs for attention or for living somewhere other than in a faculty dormitory.  In those moments, her twitching and restlessness takes over, and her eyes wander.

Both actors rock the small Aurora setting with their dynamic portrayals of two headstrong women who have goals for social, educational, and political reform both similar and singular that sometimes are in synch and sometimes sorely clash.  The rollercoaster ride of their relationship through the years stays on track even after major wrecks along the way because of a love that is so visceral in those moments when each longs for the absent other – noted maybe as in a slightly quivering lip,  word said with some slight hesitation, or a look frozen in a faraway horizon. 

And while the story of their on-and-off love plays out, the two each lead forth in taking stands for the increased rights of women – be it Woolley’s moves to replace a male-dominated faculty with half that is female, Mark’s determination to start a playwrighting class for the women students against the wishes of a Dean who sees such a profession as not one for women, or their paired crusade (after Woolley’s initial hesitation) to take public stands in favor of women’s suffrage.  And in those and other revolutions pursued, each actor moves as a force not to be upended by a traditional dean; by a lover who is feeling dismissed; or by her own temporary hesitation, distrust, or feeling of inadequacy.

Stacy Ross & Mia Tagano
Mia Tagano is the tow-the-line, tight-lipped Dean Welsh who yet garners the reluctant courage at times to give in to the shifts and changes that both President Woolley and Professor Marks want to undertake.  She protests to Woolley, “You’re making the school too political,” and suggests, “You might be trying to upend the concept of womanhood,” only to be a wonderful mixture of stone-faced, shocked and maybe just a bit satisfied in hearing from Wooley that she is correct on both counts.

A further, excellent performance is provided by Rebecca Schweitzer as philosophy professor, Felicity, who is a big-hearted friend and oft-jolly housemate of Marks and who turns into her own model of firebrand and mover/shaker when it comes to the fight for suffrage.  As a communication bridge between the two during one of their periodic breakdowns, her Felicity is hilarious as she conveys messages from the downstairs to the upstairs.

Leontyne Mbele-Mbong & Jasmine Milan Williams
Jasmine Milan Williams places herself on the ballot for ‘best featured actress’ as she delightfully, devilishly plays undergrad Pearl who has proclaimed herself president of a fan club of a few young women at Holyoke who are rooting for the success and continuation of the relationship they see between Woolley and Marks.  As a work-study student who is assigned linens in the faculty dorm, she has discovered letters under Marks’ sheets that have led to their secret society and to her own vividly portrayed, puppy-love infatuation of Marks herself.

Ulises Alcala has dressed our principals in clothes both of the time and ahead of the time but in keeping with their vision for women and for themselves.  (Culottes or ties for the president?  Sure, why not?)  The exquisite scenic design of Nina Ball suggests ivy-covered walls and the interior of a college’s chapel while quickly opening panels and drawers in the wooden wall to allow the interiors of offices and bedrooms to appear.  The lighting of Kurt Landisman brings the dappled shadows of a tree-filled campus to mind while also sharpening the focus on moments of individual crisis or wrapping in warm hues a couple’s passion.  Lana Palmer’s sound design adds touches like low, background booms warning of impending quarrels and the playful signs of a young girl’s rocks hitting her professor’s/would-be-lover’s window.

Aurora Theatre’s staging of Bryna Turner’s Bull in a China Shop is fun, inspiring, educational, and sexy all at the same time.  But even more, the play reminds all of us whatever our sex or age or profession that having the odds supposedly stacked against us is no reason not to plow ahead if the vision of where we want to go and what we want to accomplish rings true in our soul and heart – be it a vision of social/political change, of love, or of both.

Rating: 5 E

Bull in a China Shop continues through December 8, 2019 at Aurora Theatre, 2018 Addison Street, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at https://auroratheatre.org/ or by calling the box office at 510-843-4822.

Photo Credits: David Allen

Thursday, November 14, 2019

"Miss Saigon"


Miss Saigon
Claude-Michel Schönberg (Music); Richard Maltby, Jr. & Alain Boublil (Lyrics); Alain Boublil (Adaptation from Original French Text)

Anthony Festa and Emily Bautista
The story originating from Puccini’s much-beloved opera Madame Butterfly is well enough known that most audience members arrive – as they might for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – anticipating the tragic ending to its ill-fated love story.  Decade-long runs both in London and New York in the 1990s as well as continual, packed-house tours worldwide these past twenty years also mean that many will have seen an earlier version of Miss Saigon, the multi-award-winning hit of Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Richard Maltby, Jr. and Alain Boublil (lyrics). 

As the years have passed since its premiere, an array of voices from critics, scholars, and musical-theatre lovers have mounted against a musical in which Asian women are portrayed as prostitutes sexually assaulted on stage by American GIs, where the heroine of color commits suicide so her son of mixed race can be raised by his white father and lily-white wife, and where negative stereotypes of Asians are wrapped up in one viperous character audience members try their best not to like due to his cunning and cheeky side conversations with them.  And yet as witnessed by the sold-out, delayed opening at San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts (the previous night cancelled due to the scenery stuck on the highway mid-route) and by the sustained applause and standing ovation at the evening’s end, Miss Saigon still has adoring audiences who either do not see, ignore as irrelevant, or see as ‘historical reality’ the disturbing aspects of this Vietnam War era story.

A white soldier (Chris) falls unexpectedly heads over heels in love with a first-night call girl (Kim) just arrived from a war-ravaged, Vietnamese village.  Their mutual, genuine attraction is surrounded by a collapsing Saigon in the closing days of the Vietnam War, 1975.  Their few days of love-making retreat are peppered uninvitingly by her pimp (aka The Engineer) who wants to use their love as his ticket to America, by Chris’s friend (John) who sees nothing but upcoming disaster in this hot romance of the moment, and by Kim’s Communist betrothed (Thuy) who shows up wanting to whisk her away from the Yankee scum.  Missed connections between the two lovers in the final hours of America’s panic-stricken retreat from Saigon mean the soldier heads home, leaving a bride-in-name -- if not on legal paper -- with a son soon to be born. 

Three years pass while Kim faithfully awaits Chris’ return, barely surviving the new regime’s cruelty or her terrifying escape with her son, once again to find herself on sex-trade streets, this time in Bangkok with a baby.  Plagued with nightly dreams of the woman he left behind, the ex-solider after a year remarries and tries to move on with his life in the U.S.  But his friend’s discovery of the whereabouts of the survived girl and the existence of a son send the man and his now-wife to an ill-starred rendezvous and the tragic ending all audience expect but are still often tear-filled to witness. 

We meet Kim standing frozen in fright as around her on this her first evening as a woman of the night are her half-naked sisters-of-the-trade being assaulted – spread eagle by humping, drunken GIs.  With a voice not of a diva but of a young, still-developing girl not ready yet for the forced womanhood she faces, Emily Bautista as Kim sings in soft tones “The Movie in My Mind” as sustained notes denote her desperate hope to escape to a world far away from this Saigon hellhole.  Her youthful innocence shines through both in vocals and in a face that lights up in belief of love’s promise as she joins with her just-met soldier love, Chris, in “Sun and Moon” – a duet whose temperature rises as they caress and sing, eye-to-eye and inches apart. 

Emily Bautista and Anthony Festa
In his opening “Why God Why?” Anthony Festa as Chris slides beautifully from note to note as his tenor-voice searches to understand how fate has surprisingly introduced this young girl Kim to him just as the world around him is disintegrating and he is about to head home to America.  His Chris and Emily Bautista’s Kim magically, even erotically bond, lending the same face validity to their instantaneous attraction audiences have awarded Shakespeare’s lovers for centuries. 

Three years later, Chris sings through tears in “The Confrontation” as he admits to his now-wife of a romance of his past.   It is soon afterwards with his final cry of heart-stopping anguish as he holds a dying Kim in his arms that we as audience know that the memory of Kim and that first night have never really left him – no matter how much he has tried to convince himself, his friend John, or his wife Ellen.

Both Emily Bautista and Anthony Festa have many moments of vocal brilliance throughout the evening.  However, there are a number of times when they (along with other soloists) fall into the trap of blasting notes in trumpeting volumes every time they sing anything in the upper ranges of the musical scale.  Each has a tendency to give us the big, Broadway-stage voice with too-much-expanded vowels when more restraint and more variance of volume and tone would communicate so much more.  This is especially glaring at one point when Kim sings to the toddler son in her arms “I’d Give My Live for You” with an intensity and volume that smack of a diva on center stage rather than a mother cuddling her son sitting on the ground. 

Red Concepción
Red Concepción plays The Engineer, the unsavory, self-centered owner of “Dreamland” in 1975 Saigon who lures in Yanks to relish among his scantily clad girls offering drinks, drugs, and delights of the flesh.  He sings with the voice of a sleazy serpent in “The Transaction” and draws our contempt as he physically and verbally abuses novice Kim to do his will with the GIs pawing her.  But his Engineer strives to win over our sympathy along the way, doing all he can to remind us of our mixed emotions for other musical theatre favorites such as the seedy but seductive M.C. of Cabaret or the creepy but clownish Fagin of Oliver. 

The musical’s creators want us to see The Engineer as a warped, but very real Every Immigrant – that person who just wants to make it to America to find what is sure to be gold-studded streets where money grows green in trees.  Mr. Concepción’s devilish and at times clownish antics tempt us to like him and sympathize with him.  We laugh at and even with him as we witness “The American Dream” where he imagines himself among a stage full of feathered Vegas dancers while riding atop a Cadillac with champagne bottle in hand (just one of several, huge, elaborate, and immensely impressive productions conceived by Director Laurence Connor and executed by Choreographer Bob Avian).  However, as an audience in MeToo 2019, The Engineer is particularly a difficult character to award much sympathy, particularly as staged in this production with the difficult-to-watch abuses and treatment of women in the Saigon and Bangkok scenes of brothel-based bars.

J. Daughtry plays Chris’s loyal friend, John; and in doing so he brings the night’s richest, most impressive set of vocals.  His powerful voice trembles with evangelical conviction in Act Two’s opening “Bui Doi” where he preaches in song to a solemn group of former soldiers, “We will not forget who they are, all our children ... conceived in hell and born in strife.”  The scene is moving not only because of his preaching prowess or even for the full harmony of the men’s choral responses but particularly for the accompanying projections of the faces of forgotten, abandoned children who were in truth left in crowded camps of squalor after the Vietnam War.

Other noteworthy performances of the evening include Jinwoo Jung as Thuy and Christine Bunuan as Gigi.  Thuy is a Viet Cong soldier turned Communist official who is promised in hand to his cousin Kim and then shunned away.  Mr. Jung’s strong voice rings forth with a sharp, piercing intensity that sends chills down one’s back as he pronounces to the rejecting Kim, “Saigon is doomed and so are you ... This is your curse!” 

As a streetwise call girl, Christine Bunuan as Gigi sings “The Movie in My Mind” with a voice echoing its haunting predictions what will eventually happen to her, Kim, and the other girls of the night.  Later, she shows heart and soul as she leads the same girls in a beautiful “The Wedding Ceremony” as Kim and Chris are blessed in cultural style to begin their short life together.

The Fall of Saigon
The most impressive moments of this traveling production tend to occur when many-to-most of the thirty-five-plus cast are on stage in elaborately conceived numbers that depict everything from busy street scenes of rushing passers-by to a propaganda-like depiction of the New Vietnam with its marching, ribbon-waving patriots to the nightmarish escape of the final GIs on a helicopter hovering dangerously overhead while hoards scream behind locked fences to be rescued.  Many kudos to all the creative team whose combined efforts make this show on the road have all the appearances, sound, and eye-popping effects of a show on the Great White Way.  (That said, the night I attended, there was an unexplained glitch that delayed the show twice – once for over a half-hour near the end of Act One and then again for an additional ten-or-so minutes to the intermission.)

Seeing Miss Saigon for at least my fourth or fifth time, I am now more torn than ever whether to render much-deserved praise for its soaring music, for this production’s many positive aspects, and for performances overall first-class or to join a growing chorus of voices who are declaring that the days of Miss Saigon as a viable entry on a company’s theatrical season should come to an end.  I am still very much on the fence because I do love the music, because I am of an age I remember watching on TV those harrowing scenes of a collapsing Saigon, and because I always tear up as Kim sing’s her final breath and Chris screams his anguish.  At the same time, I conclude that I probably never need nor want to see another Miss Saigon, given its scenes of the mistreatment of women and its underlying but maybe unintended message that white is better than non-white and that a son’s growing up in America with a white father is worth an Asian mother’s life.

Rating: 3 E

Miss Saigon continues through November 17, 2019, as part of Broadway San Jose’s offerings at San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 South Almaden Boulevard, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at http://broadwaysanjose.com.

Photo Credits:  Matthew Murphy


Monday, November 11, 2019

Gypsy: A Musical Fable


Gypsy: A Musical Fable
Arthur Laurents (Book); Julie Styne (Music); Stephen Sondheim (Lyrics)

Kayla Lee, Dakota Colussi, Ariela Morgenstern,
Emma Berman & Amber Lee Wunderlich
The show that New York Times revered and feared theatre critic Ben Brantley has referred to as “what may be the greatest of all American musicals” and Times essayist/columnist Frank Hart Rich Jr. once called “Broadway’s own brassy, unlikely answer to King Lear, Gypsy: A Musical Fable in the end is nothing without a Rose who can join a long line of divas of a certain age to try and live up to the original Rose, the incomparable Ethel Merman.  After all, there are plenty of big shoes, bigger mouths, and biggest personalities that have preceded any Rose who steps on stage to sing those first few notes of “Some People.” 

With the likes of Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, and Imelda Staunton all having tried to outdo each other in the past, what a daunting task for any casting director to undertake to find a show’s Rose.  Fortunately for Bay Area Musicals, the search by Artistic Director Matthew McCoy did not have to go far to land Ariela Morgenstern – a San Francisco native with New York credentials – to take her place in that line-up of past Roses and to bring her full acting gusto, gigantic stage presence, and big-voiced singing bravado into the fabled role.

Any doubts about this Rose are quickly erased when she stomps down the theatre’s aisle demanding with a bullying scream, “Sing out, Louise” or when in her opening song she first belts with true clarity and charisma, “I have a dream, a wonderful dream, Papa.”  Yes, Arthur Laurents (book), Jule Styne (music), and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) would surely all approve with satisfied smiles that BAM’s Gypsy is headlined by a Rose who will once again knock the socks off her audience with her beautiful bellows of blast as have so many of her predecessors.

Emma Berman, Chloe Fong & Ariela Morgenstern
As the musical progresses through its vaudeville and burlesque stages, Ariela Morgenstern only gets better and ever-more convincing in her portrayal of this most infamous of pushy – some would say monstrous – backstage mothers.  Her Rose is a fierce steamroller ready to plow over anyone who gets in her way of making her two girls, June and Louise, big-time stars.  Always in constant motion often in places where directors and her daughters do not want her, she hustles and bustles simultaneously in a half-dozen different directions to scheme, to push aside, and to boss in order to get their names on a marquee’s lights -- even in the end if only on those of a seedy strip joint.  With a voice that can thunder forth like Gabriel’s trumpet before reverberating as if echoing into the Grand Canyon, Ariela Morgenstern commands in song in ways no one can ignore Rose’s wishes. 

Ariela Morgenstern & DC Scarpelli
But for all her bulldozing, stage-mother faults, her Rose can at times melt our hearts.  A prime example is when she sings in duet with her patiently loyal paramour and the devoted booking agent of her kids’ act, Herbie, as the two play off each other in fine and flirty fashion in “Small World.”  Later, when they dance as two lovers in “You’ll Never Get Away from Me,” they both admit in harmony, “I couldn’t get away from you, even I wanted to;” and Rose almost convinces us (and Herbie) that she has a soft enough spot in her heart to let love take over and overrule her “Mommie Dearest” tendencies.  As the ever-hopeful, mild-mannered Herbie, DC Scarpelli brings a debonair, delightful set of vocals along with a charming, captivating demeanor with twinkles in his eyes for Rose’s daughters and resignation in his shoulders for Rose’s delayed ‘yes’ to his ongoing proposals for marriage. 

Ariela Morgenstern
When in the end her prized and adored blonde starlet-in-the-making, Baby June, has abandoned her to star in movies and her terribly shy and second-fiddle Louise has somehow become known for her bare-skin beauty as the rich and famous stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee, Ariela Morgenstern with magnificently arresting voice and big-stepping swagger of a Broadway-worthy star does what all those Roses have done before her:  She takes the spotlight for herself with her own name finally emblazoned in lights all around her.  At that moment, she declares in a vocal volume that rings loud and true to every corner, “Everything is coming up roses, this time for me  ... For me!  ... For me!”  And at that moment, we and her daughter Gypsy easily forgive her for all those years of marching like Sherman over the burning fields of others’ dreams in order only to fulfill her own.  As Gypsy says in the end, “It’s OK, momma!  OK, Rose!”

Emma Berman & Chloe Fong
Rose’s young daughters, June and Louise, bring their songs full of squeaks, squeals and silly stage antics to the spotlight.  Emma Berman is delightful as the high-voiced, somersaulting Baby June in a wig of Shirley Temple curls and layers of petticoats who ends every song with an impressive, full-legged split.  She duets with the equally wonderful, stumbling-over-her-own-feet, barely-opening-her-mouth Baby Louise (Chloe Fong) in “May We Entertain You.”  The two are joined by three, soprano-happy ‘boys’ (young girls Amber Lee Wunderlich, Dakota Colussi, and Kayla Yee), all capable of also tapping their toes in a cute “Baby Jane and Her Newsboys.” 

Through clever staging, the sisters and Newsboys eventually transform before our eyes into gangly teenagers who Rose insists on dressing, treating, and selling in auditions as no more than nine-year-olds.  Tia Konsur is Dainty Jane who must continue to sing like she is going on ten when she is actually seventeen, must screech in the highest register possible the required “Hello, Everybody ... My name is June ... What’s yours?” and must end every night with a clumsily twirled baton with  patriotic red, white, and blue all around her. 

Jade Shojaee
Louise is the unselfish sister who endures Rose’s ignoring her (while always doting on June) and making her don a humiliating cow costume with bulging eyes.  At the same, Louise is quick to be the first one to defend and protect Rose whenever anyone, including June, speaks against her.  Jade Shojaee serves up a pleasingly sweet voice full of innocence and loneliness in “Little Lamb” while cooing as a birthday teen over her only childhood friends, her stuffed animals.  She joins June in a fun, sister-bonding “If Momma Was Married” and wins our hearts as she looks longingly in silent, teenage puppy-love gazes at one of the boys of their troupe, Tulsa.  As she watches him practice a dance routine and begins to mirror his moves on the sideline, Jean-Paul Jones as Tulsa wows the audience with his alluring voice and a display of dance moves that begins as a few teasing tap-and-soft-shoe moves and then erupts into a full-stage display with convincing hints of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire as he sings “All I Need Is the Girl.”

Jade Shojaee
Once she becomes Gypsy Rose Lee, Louise is Momma’s dream in ways Rose at first sees as a nightmare and then comes to admire.  Jade Shojaee’s Gypsy has her big diva moments in various stages of elegant dress and undress as she finally leaves timid, no-talent Louise behind to bring a full, mature, and invigorating voice to “Let Me Entertain You.”

In any production of Gypsy, there is one number that always brings some of the biggest howls from the audience and a chance for the costume designer to go wild with over-the-top comic surprises.  When a trumpet-tooting stripper named Mazeppa (Olivia Cabera) begins to place her instrument in the strangest of positions as she instructs novice-stripper Louise how “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” the audience just gets warmed up before her sisters-in-the-trade join her – both a winged, wobbly ballerina named Tessie Tura (Elaine Jennings) and an Electra (Glenna Murillo) whose skimpy costume lights us in revealing places.  While the members of the thrusting trio in this production sing with impressive lungs, I found the overall effect of their act to be less imaginative in costume, special effect, and comic technique that those I have seen in the past and thus, at least for me, a bit of a let-down.

Jean-Paul Jones
The bare, back-stage, brick-wall setting designed by Matthew McCoy is transformed to a dozen or so road-trip locations mostly through a series of spot-lit billboards on either side of the stage, with some minimal set pieces hinting at dressing rooms and various apartment, restaurant, hotel settings.  His lighting design is more successful in establishing the moods of burlesque backrooms, tawdry Vaudeville settings, and the glitzy Minsky’s of New York.  Little girls in stage ribbons and frills, dancing newsboys and farm boys, a silly stage cow, washed-up strippers, and of course the much-renowned Gypsy herself are all costumed with fun and flair and sometimes elegance by Brooke Jennings.  The silly steps and splits of kids on stage, the comic dance antics of trios and duos, and the wonderfully sophisticated solo of Tulsa are all choreographed by the many-faceted Matthew Coy, who also directs the cast of twenty-one.  Finally, well-deserved kudos goes to Music Director Jon Gallo and his nine fellow musicians who serve up Jule Styne’s score with big-orchestra sound from their on-stage presence, especially impressive as they set the mood of the entire evening during the extended “Overture.”

For many reasons but all topped by Ariela Morgenstern as Rose herself, Bay Area Musical’s Gypsy: A Musical Fable is a sure-bet to send toes-tapping, voices humming, and big smiles repeatedly grinning as the company does full justice and more to this musical giant among the Great American Musicals of all time.

Rating: 4 E

Gypsy: A Musical Fable continues through December 8, 2019 as a production by Bay Area Musicals at the Alcazar Theatre at 650 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.bamsf.org/assassins/ for performances Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sundays, 2 p.m.

Photo Credits: Ben Krantz Studio

Saturday, November 9, 2019

"A Midsummer's Night Dream"


A Midsummer Night’s Dream
William Shakespeare


Norman Gee, Jennifer Le Blanc & John R. Lewis
Coming off recently winning four Theatre Bay Area Awards for this past year’s Twelfth Night, the Arabian Shakespeare Festival opens A Midsummer Night’s Dream that should also be a top prospect for both production and acting awards in the coming year.  Shakespeare’s oft-performed, much-loved comedy of love spats and mishaps; fairy shenanigans; and a hilarious play within the play performed by six hapless, lovable working blokes is normally performed by large casts on grand stages – often outdoors – with spectacular scenic effects and whimsical costumes. 

The trademark of the Arabian Shakespeare Festival is to do just the opposite and still to create a production that – in this case as in past ones – literally sparkles, titillates, and thoroughly does The Bard mighty proud.  With a cast of six who each play three parts, on a stage bare save some movable blocks of wood, and with character identifications depending on singular elements like a leather cap, a pair of black glasses, or a flinging pink scarf, ASF stages a Dream that matches and sometimes exceeds the funny, fantastical, forested worlds of much-bigger productions.

Lindsey Marie Schmeltzer & Maeron Yeshiwas
For someone who has not attended quite as many productions as have I, let me provide a quick summary.  Duke Theseus of Athens is about to marry the Amazon queen, Hippolyta.  As they prepare for their wedding, Hermia, who is secretly about to be engaged to Lysander, resists her father’s insistence that she instead marry Demetrius who just broke up with her best friend, Helena, because he loves Hermia.  Helena, on the other hand, only has eyes for Demetrius, who wants nothing of her. 

Hermia’s father is enraged and insists the Duke force his daughter to marry his choice of Demetrius or condemn his daughter to death, as is an ancient, Athenian law.  The Duke suggests a nunnery instead, leading Hermia to plan a late-night escape with her intended Lysander.  She tells Helena her plans, who decides to betray her best friend to Demetrius, hoping foolishly that he may repay her with more attention and maybe even love.

As all hell is about to break loose when the four mixed-up lovers head to the forest, in the heavens above Oberon, King of the Fairies, voices his frustration with his estranged wife, Titania, who is planning on attending the Duke and Queen’s wedding.  Oberon plans with his trickster sidekick, Puck, a way to punish his wife by using a flower’s potion to cause her to fall in love with the first beast of the forest she sees after waking from a night of slumber.  Oberon wants to help the two couples roaming in the forest straighten out their love issues and sends Puck on a mission also to remedy that situation, which of course he will unwittingly only make worse.

In the third parallel story, six common laborers begin a bumbling rehearsal of a play they hope to stage the night of the Duke’s wedding.  Their choice is an ill-fated love story by Ovid, described by the tawdry troupe’s organizer, Quince, as “the most lamentable comedy and the most terrible death of Pyramus and Thisbe.”

In any production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there is much hilarity to come as Puck uses the love flower potion to cause Lysander (not Demetrius) to fall in mad love with Helena (leaving poor Hermia with no one), as Titania ends up falling in love with an ass (one of the laborers, Bottom, given the head of a donkey by a devilish Puck), and as our thespians lead up to their big world premiere in front of the Duke and his bride. 

But as easy as Shakespeare makes it for any reputable company to glean hilarity from one of his best-written comedies, this ASF production has found through its inspired casting a way to push the boundaries even farther into sheer, slapstick silliness.  Through clever, comic switches of roles by often gender-bending players, actors take on persona opposite in nature in a variety of dimensions.  The mighty in power become in a second role the most humble member of society while then transforming to maybe a fairy in forested flight.  And all we can do is laugh and enjoy while – thanks to William J. Brown III’s excellent, tongue-in-cheek direction – never being confused even for a second as to who is who.

Maeron Yeshiwas & John R. Lewis
John R. Lewis is the Duke Theseus, a man with aristocratic airs speaking in bombastic bursts of consonants to his subjects who have come to talk about their love problems.  He is most interested in giving his stroking, tongue-licking attention to his bride-to-be (Hippolyta) while also adjusting his huge, leather cod piece that is hilariously wont to shift and fall.  Mr. Lewis is also the street-smart, jiving, smooth-moving Puck who delights us with his bigger-than-life-size personality and a body form much more gigantic than the Pucks often playing the part.  Among the “mechanics,” he becomes a childishly eager, always clapping with encouragement Starveling, playing a big-smiling, Southern-drawling Man in the Moon who has trouble rising at the right time.

Annamarie MacLeod
The Duke’s intended, Hippolyta, puffs on a metal pointer that serves as her always-present cigarette as she puts on upper-class airs in her Russian duchess accent, cooing and clawing her soon-husband every chance she can get.  But it is in her other two roles that make Annamarie MacLeod a solid candidate for future, acting-award nominations.  As a pink-scarfed Helena who is initially spurned by her adored Demetrius, she is plucky and pouty, animated and anxious, ready to rant and quick to give a middle-finger response.  Her spread-eagle temptations to a non-interested Demetrius and her over-the-top emotional responses become ever more exaggerated and laugh-producing as mix-ups in the forest multiply.  But incredibly, Ms. MacLeod is even more hilarious in her third role as Bottom, a stage-hogging troupe member who tries to play all parts but who ends up starring inadvertently as the braying donkey that is loved by Hippolyta and catered to by her fairies.  The role of her hillbilly-talking Bottom alone is reason enough to shower much praise on Ms. MacLeod’s performance.

Maeron Yeshiwas has plenty of opportunity also to take center stage in her role as Hermia, especially as she becomes like a chasing, attack dog with barks of biting insults when she believes Helena, Demetrius, and Lysander are all making fun of her love since Lysander is now supposedly heads over heels in love with her and not his intended Helena, thanks to Puck’s misfired prank.  She also is the fairy Cobweb and the acting troupe’s director, Quince.

Some of the funniest, best-directed moments of the evening occur as Lindsey Marie Schmeltzer switches between a leather coat and a pair of black glasses to play both of the lovers who end up loving Helena, Lysander and Demetrius.  The quick transformations of personality and affections are masterfully coordinated, with other actors like Puck stepping in at times to hold either the glasses or the coat so both lover-boys can be in the same scene.  When she is not running around as one of the lost lovers, Ms. Schmeltzer is the fairyland Flute, who renders a beautiful lullaby to lure Titania to sleep.

Jennifer Le Blanc and Norman Gee switch sexes to play respectively the Fairy King Oberon and his Queen, Titania.  Oberon is a kind of Midwestern, twenty-something good ol’ boy, wearing an air of self-defined coolness and moving with just the right subtle swivels and shakes to ensure that everyone knows that he is hip.  His Titania speaks the Bard’s words with an elegant, deep voice that adds to the impressive display of comic acting, in wonderful contrast to Norman Gee’s angry and stubborn Egeus (Hermia’s father) and his snorting, rough-speaking Snout who rules in his role as the Wall that separates the lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe.  Jennifer Le Blanc is also the bookworm Snug who studies diligently for his role as a not-too-ferocious Lion and is a bearded Philostrate with thick and funny Irish brogue.

How many times are actors warned and yet ignore about being on stage with kids and animals?  Once again, one of the evening’s best moments is thanks to Beatrice, a dog playing duo roles as a winged fairy and as the Moon’s (Starveling) pet.  Beatrice suddenly employs her tongue to bring the audience almost into tears with their laughter.

Lisa Claybaugh’s simple but highly effective mixture of single-colored costumes along with the uses of Beatrice Page’s props are huge aids in helping us as audience keep the constantly changing roles separate.  Joanna Hobb’s lighting with split-second changes brings the magic of the forest to full life, even with no other scenic aids.  Their efforts combined with an incredibly creative director and a highly skilled cast that is clearly having a blast all add up to an evening at Arabian Shakespeare Festival’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that is not to be missed.

Rating: 5 E

A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues through November 24, 2019 by the Arabian Shakespeare Festival at the Royce Gallery, 2901 Mariposa Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at www.aragiashakes.org or by calling 408-499-0017.

Photo Credits: Gregg Le Blanc/Cumulus Light Photography




Friday, November 8, 2019

Amaluna


Amaluna
Guy Laliberté (Creative Guide): Gilles Ste-Croix (Artistic Guide); Fernand Rainville (Director of Creation)

The Uneven Bars Performers
With seventy per cent of the forty-eight-member cast and all of the musicians and singers being women, Cirque du Soleil’s nineteenth and latest show touring the world – Amaluna – is a tour de force of female power and prowess.  In an evening where the reverberating voices, the gasp-producing athleticism, and the eye-popping pageantry of women reign supreme, no better segment demonstrates the awesome displays of female circus and performance skills than the finale of Act One when eight women representing six nationalities wow the audience as their bodies take off in synchronized flight using uneven bars as their launch pads.  Their Amazon warrior depictions match the sheer strength displayed as their bodies swing, flip, and fly – often barely missing each other in mid-air before landing with grace and surety.

And that is just one of the eleven, main acts during the two-hour, ten-minute show (plus a twenty-five-minute intermission) that together tell a story of mystical romance where two lovers discover each other and must endure many tests and trials before their union is assured.  With a storyline that loosely resembles Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the setting is a mysterious, magic-infused island named Amaluna (translated “Moon Mother”) where goddesses both earthly and of the moon govern life of the mostly female inhabitants. 

The Sakaino Sisters
In the story’s beginning, Queen Prospera announces her daughter Miranda’s coming of age, followed by a grand celebration of circling dancers and two, eye-popping peacocks.  Two unicyclists arrive wearing golden-wired skirts as Japanese sisters, Satomi and Yuka Sakaino, perform a daring dance on their single-wheeled chariots.  Racing to the circular stage’s very edge before converging at speeds seemingly disastrous for a twirling meeting in the middle, the two set the pace for an audience-impressing evening.

The Trio of Aerialists
Prospera stirs the heavens to create a thunder-and-lightening storm that engulfs the massive, big-top arena.  The storm’s fury is highlighted by three women (Russian Kristina Ivanova, American Mei-Mei Bouchard, and Brazilian Lais Gomes da Silva) as they take flight on aerial straps than send them bulleting across the dark-blue sky at high velocities that astound.  Each woman is the epitome of precise timing and physical power as she shoots in all dimensions up, down, and around the vast arena, often missing mid-air collisions with the other two by just a hair.

The storm delivers a netted group of shipwrecked men onto the isle’s shore.  Emerging is one named (what else?) Romeo, who of course immediately meets Miranda, with their locked eyes announcing their love to us all.  But a slinking reptile – a half-man, half-lizard named Cali whom we have already seen scamper both high and low – arrives to whisk away Miranda in both protection and because of his own secret love for her.  Now begins the journey of tests and trials before the two lovers are in each others’ arms again.

Sabrina Againer
As he roams the island now lost, Romeo meets the Peacock Goddess (Eira Glover) who mesmerizes him with a dance where her limber body appears to have no restrictions in its abilities to enfold upon itself.  Even more impressive is the appearance from the heavens of the Moon Goddess as Sabrina Againer bestows her blessings on the prospective, earthly couple through an aerial display of artistry and skill on a cerceau (a wire hoop), with her body at times seemingly barely hanging on as the hoop swings, twirls, and dives.  She is joined on the surface of a large water bowl by Miranda (Anna Ivaseva), who hand-balances on poles attached to the pool’s sides in a fabulous array of seemingly impossible moves before she dives into the water.  Her erotic dips in and out of the pool of course catch the attention of a certain Romeo who ventures close for a first kiss.

The Teeterboard Boys
But their union is not to be as of yet.  The captured young men who floundered onto Amaluna’s shores with Romeo first must assist the Amazonian athletes in their uneven bar fetes before six of the buff guys (including Danny Vrijsen as Romeo) uses a giant teeterboard to launch each other twenty or so feet into the air.  From those heights, they perform twists, flips, and somersaults with three-to-four gyrations before landing back on earth.  The distances covered, the landings on another’s awaiting body, and the sheer beauty of their half-naked bodies in flight is yet one more memorable highlight of the evening.

Romeo himself solos on a Chinese pole where he literally comes within inches of hitting the ground as he plunges upside down on the pole from high above, using his legs to grab the pole at the last possible split-second to avoid a sure broken neck. 

Lili CIao
But prior to his trial of courage and strength, Lili Ciao of Switzerland creates a work of art in what might very well be the evening’s feat most remembered by the hushed audience who watch her in stunned silence.  Using only her toes, the Balance Goddess picks up with movements incredibly slow and deliberate increasingly longer and heavier palm leaf ribs, adding each to the last to form a giant swirling mobile – one held together merely by its balance.  The thunderous applause is deafening as the completed work of art swings on the tip of one last, giant rib that stands erect only because of the overall balance with the mobile itself.

In one last desperate move to keep Miranda from her Romeo, the reptilian Cali (Vladimir Pestov) takes center stage in an act of juggling as he imprisons below him Romeo in the water bowl.  There is no part of Cali’s body that does not participate in the catching and bouncing of the balls; but as the numbers of balls continues to increase up to an amazing seven, the heights and patterns their flights take on are even more phenomenal.

The Banquine
As the inevitable victory of the lovers is reached, the entire island arrives to celebrate, with ten men and two women performing acrobatics in a banquine, using only locked hands and arms as launching and landing platforms for bodies flying in all directions.  The aerial tricks include trapeze-like feats where the swings are human-formed and towers of bodies serve as diving and landing boards.  

Thiago Andreuccetti & Kelsey Custard
Throughout the evening, a parallel story of love-seeking occurs as the evening’s clowns, American Kelsey Custard and Brazilian Thiago Andreuccetti meet, flirt, and delight each other and the audience while both wandering around the aisles of the arena and performing center stage.  Their comic antics are many; their charm, bursting at the seams. 

As is true for most Cirque du Soleil shows, there is a much more going on than just on the center stage.  Broadway, West End, and opera-stage experienced Diane Paulus directs Amaluna’s central story with a clarity and cohesiveness that is not lost amidst all the circus performances while also populating a number of platforms and stages with fabulously costumed actors, dancers, and singers who provide their own mystic wonder.  Original music by musical directors Bob and Bill is performed by the all-female band under direction of Anne Charbonneau and sung by lead singer Jennifer Aubry of Canada.  The music helps establish the mood of tropical and mythic mystery but is somewhat monotonous and non-memorable over time, even though always performed well.

Scott Pask’s set design creates a feeling of tropical magic and beauty with swirling, bamboo-like branches that sparkle and swing in the skies above, coming to life in all sorts of glitter and color as just a small portion of Mattheiu Larivée’s lighting design.  Of course much of the eye-popping, breath-taking aspects of the evening are due to the costumes designed by Mérédith Caron who creates wispy gowns for goddesses, fierce-looking wear for Amazon warriors, and a ever-moving tail for a man-lizard.

For anyone who has now seen a number of Cirque du Soleil shows, certainly Amaluna looks and feels like many of the others, even with its own unique storyline and its female-focused cast.  The acts are in many ways familiar; the massive staging effects, similar; and the music, pretty much like we have heard in the past.  Yet that does not mean that an annual visit to the latest Cirque du Soleil is not a must for anyone who enjoys the artistry of a circus that in many ways is not unlike an evening at the theatre or opera.  There is an opulence of sensual stimulation that cannot help but bring big smiles as well as physical feats that cannot help but once again send chills down one’s spine and looks of awed wonder into one’s eyes.  Yes, it is time to buy that annual ticket, this time to an island in a parking lot in San Francisco that will amaze anyone from toddlers to centenarians.

Rating: 4 E

Amaluna continues through January 22, 2020 under the Big Top at Oracle Park, San Francisco before moving to Sacramento to perform at Raley Field January 22 - February 23.  Tickets are available at www.cirquedusoleil.com/amaluna or by calling 1-877-924-7783.

Photo Credits: Cirque du Soleil