Thursday, December 6, 2018

Dames at Sea
George Haimsohn & Robin Miller (Book & Lyrics); Jim Wise (Music)

The Cast of Dames at Sea
While parodies sometimes aim to make fun to the point that the satire digs deep and hurts, a parody can also be a love letter where laughs are fond remembrances of the original -- beauty marks, warts, and all.  Such is the case for the 1968 Off-Broadway (and later, 2015 Broadway) musical, Dames at Sea – a big-tongue-in-cheek, eyes-twinkling-in-full-delight spin-off of the many 1930 musical extravaganzas of choreographer/director, Busby Berkeley.  George Haimsohn and Robin Miller have created a story about a small-town girl arriving one morning with tattered suitcase on the Great White Way and becoming a talk-of-the-town (and in this case, also of the sea) star by nightfall – becoming as well, of course, a bride.  Their lyrics and the music of Jim Wise cleverly mimic and echo well-known numbers from some of those most famous, Busby Berkeley films, with just enough similar words and notes that one keeps asking self, “Isn’t that the ‘30s song from ...?”

In a year where a number of theatre companies are placing well-done, well-received staged gifts under the Bay Area’s musical, holiday tree, 42nd Street Moon adds a beautifully packaged parody with a Dames at Sea brimming with scenes that elicit laughs galore, with voices that soar and sizzle, and with dance numbers that recall numbers that once filled the silver screens of a bygone era.  And while the film musicals being imitated often had casts of hundreds with full orchestras on multi-leveled stages, the fun of 42nd Street’s poke-in-the-ribs is that there are only six in this cast, two grand pianos as the orchestra, and a stage barely large enough for the ferocious toe-tapping, high-step kicking, and twirling bodies it is asked to accommodate.  

Ashley Cowl
As our story opens, a troupe on Broadway’s 42nd Street is about to premiere its new show – called none other than Dames at Sea – starring its mezzo-soprano diva, Mona Kent.  We meet her in sparkling silver tails, top hat, and bow tie as she is practicing her big number, “Wall Street.”  Mona (Ashley Cowl) immediately gives us a glimpse of what we will later see much more:  a big voice with ability to belt even bigger, the overdone emotions and exaggerated everything of a true Drama Queen, and an ability to tap at speeds that should be against the law.  Add ruby red lips that work with her perfectly puffed cheeks to leave big impressions along with fluttering, black eye lashes that almost brush against those sitting on the front row; and we have a Mona Kent who will show us a bigger-than-life satire of everything we remember and love about big stars like Busby’s Carman Miranda, Ginger Rogers, and Judy Garland.

Jeffrey Scott Parson & Lauren Meyer
Arriving from Centerville, Utah with nothing but a red pair of glittering shoes (sound familiar?) is who else but a red-haired girl named Ruby (a beautifully voiced Lauren Meyer with just the required amount of gingham-cotton innocence).  When she faints from the long trip’s bus-ride hunger into the arms of a sailor named Dick, their rendition of “It’s You” is a hilarious, love-at-first-sight spoof of all such starry-eyed, movie meetings.  As they soft shoe with ever-more exaggerated facials and body moves, their lips come ever so close to that first kiss but never quite touch.  When Dick asks Ruby where she is from and he answers, “You, too” to her “Utah,” we know that we are in for two hours of silly puns and clichés ... and we are more than ready for the ride.

Jeffrey Scott Parson plays the aspiring songwriter, Dick, who is now serving in Uncle Sam’s Navy.  With starry eyes that turn to grinning slits every times he offers us one of his contagious smiles, he sings with pop, zing, and zest about finding his “Broadway Baby.”  While crooning over meeting Ruby, he leaves us in stitches pretending to play a piano that suddenly appears, using any number of his body parts to pound the keys. 

His instantaneously conceived song (along with his glowing cuteness) attracts a watching Mona.  With full flair and fling, she plops her high-hemline, leg-showing self onto Dick’s piano (and as much on Dick as she can) to sing a vocally reverberating, physically seductive “That Mister Man of Mine.”  She has designs on Dick -- his music and his body – that suddenly shatter the five-minute-old dreams of matrimony that the sideline-watching Ruby already has built for herself.

Love is also in the air for Dick’s sailor friend, Lucky (Chaz Feuerstine), and his girlfriend, Joan -- a chorus dancer who has no love for Mona and who has already befriended the just-arriving Ruby.  Amidst a perfectly timed, twinkly-toed tap number, they sing with voices stunningly cute and coy about their planned “Choo-Choo Honeymoon.”  Joan (Melissa WolfKlain) will later truly wow the audience as she provides an electrically exciting lead voice to the company’s Act One finale, “Good Times Are Here to Stay” – a number with all the looks and moves of the big, big dance numbers of the 30s musicals, but one performed with only a total of six on this stage.

As opening night looms large, so does the doom of a theatre that is suddenly being demolished to make way for new development, leading the company to premiere its Dames at Sea where the musical most belongs -- on a ship (Uncle Sam’s) at sea.  The move is thanks to a past affair Mona had with its Captain – the Captain being played by Keith Pinto who has switched personas and added a mustache from his first-act role of being the manically impatient, always barking and screaming theatre producer/director, Harry Hennesey.  (That added mustache, by the way, becomes one of the evening’s funniest threads as he continues to play both roles back and forth.)

Keith Pinto & Cast
Playing the Captain that Mona still calls her “Kewpie Doll,” Keith Pinto is like a live, animated cartoon character as he seeks to reignite the love spark with Mona.  As Mona and the Captain satire in their duet “The Beguine” every hot, tango-love number ever performed on screen, the Captain woos with panting passion his old flame.  Keith Pinto employs hysterically quivering lips, eyes that open as large as full moons, and a mouth that distorts into an uproariously funny shape while he sustains seemingly forever a final, sung note of love.

Chaz Feuerstine, Melissa WolkKlain, Lauren Meyer & Jeffrey Scott Parsons
What a hoot Nicole Helfer must have had in planning and executing her dozens of directorial jabs and jokes that are especially fun for anyone who is still a fan (as am I) of the big ‘30s musicals.  As choreographer, she has excelled in leading us down memory lane to enjoy frenetic tap dancing, easy-going soft-shoe side-steps, gal/guy numbers full of lifts and twirls, and of course those prop-pretty circular dances around a singing starlet (props like opening and closing umbrellas).  Lucky for her in both roles as director and choreographer, this cast of six performs flawlessly all that she has asked -- and more.

Designing period, stage costumes that glitter, dazzle, and often amuse, Ashley Garlick adds her own contribution in both jabbing some fun and clearly admiring with respect all the many changes of dress made in each of those big productions of the ‘30s.  Brian Watson’s set design is simple in nature but high in humor, doing its best also to pay some homage to the Art Deco looks of the period.  Michael Palumbo’s well-positioned, well-timed lighting cues focus well the full-stage and the singular-spot numbers of the evening.

Music Director extraordinaire, Dave Dobrusky -- in his thirty-eighth time reigning at the keyboards of a Moon production -- is joined by a second baby-grand player, Ken Brill.  Their incredibly sounding duet of Jim Wise’s score is well worth an evening concert on its own. 

No fault of the two talented musicians, their joint, piano mastery is also where lies the one big issue of the evening (along with the spirited hammering of tapping shoes):  The decision not to use either individual or stage microphones for the six, singing performers means that in too many numbers, some lyrics are completely lost – especially when both pianos are in crescendo mode and up to a half-dozen pairs of tapping feet are hitting the wooden boards with all the might they can muster.  From Mona’s opening “Wall Street” to Ruby’s fabulously rendered “Star Tar,” too many lyrics simply can not be ascertained – even by this reviewer sitting on the first row.  Hopefully, this is a problem soon to be corrected by a company that has historically prided itself (or so it seems) in presenting musicals without any use of mikes.

That said, enough is understood that makes 42nd Street Moon’s song-and-dance love-parody to the outrageously wonderful 1930s musicals an evening to be relished and remembered.  For sure, “Good Times Are Here to Stay” at the Moon’s Gateway Theatre – at least through the musical’s December 16th closing.

Rating: 4.5 E

Dames at Sea continues through December 16, 2018 in production by 42nd Street Moon’s Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-255-8207.

Photos by Ben Krantz Studio

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

"Tuck Everlasting"

Tuck Everlasting
Chris Miller (Music); Nathan Tysen (Lyrics); Claudia Shear & Tim Federle (Book)
Based on the Novel by Natalie Babbitt
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

Natalie Schroeder and Eddie Grey
For anyone who has seen even a few of the over 165 productions that Artistic Director Robert Kelley has directed in his near fifty years at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, then it soon becomes easy to recognize when the curtain opens that ‘this is a Kelley show.’  His shows exemplify in every respect a core set of values of celebrating the human spirit by exploring who we are and our potential; of exuding optimism and hope even when faced with life’s biggest challenges; and of creating theatre art that overflows with humor and heart, pathos and passion, excellence and exceptionalism.  And if the show he directs is in December, there will be snow falling as the production climaxes and as the audience exits the theatre.

And all this is once again true for the visually stunning, musically uplifting, and thematically intriguing and inspiring Tuck Everlasting, now being staged by TheatreWorks and directed by Robert Kelley as a true holiday gift to the Silicon Valley community.  Chris Miller (music) and Nathan Tysen (lyrics) planted the seeds for the eventual 2016 Broadway offering by writing its first two songs at a TheatreWorks writers’ workshop in 2010.  They were big fans of Natalie Babbitt’s 1975 novel, Tuck Everlasting – already considered a children’s classic – which explores the question of “If you could live forever, would you?”  Bringing first Claudia Shear and then Tim Federle to complete the book of their musical, the entire team birthed a musical where magic can be found in a forest spring and a country fair, where family unity and unlikely friendships equal eternal love, and where the concept of eternity is discovered to be more than just living forever.

For the rest of my rave review, please proceed to Talkin' Broadway:

Rating: 5 E, “MUST-SEE”

Tuck Everlasting continues through December 30, 2018 produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.  Tickets are available at

Photo by Kevin Berne

Monday, December 3, 2018

"A Christmas Carol"

A Christmas Carol
Alan Menken (Music); Lynn Ahrens (Lyrics); Mike Ockrent & Lynn Ahrens (Book)
Based on the Story by Charles Dickens

The Cast of A Christmas Carol
Hillbarn Theatre of Foster City, a company known for its rousing, inventively produced musicals, stages the musical version of the perennially holiday favorite, A Christmas Carol.  Unfortunately, many problems abound in this latest offering – many technical and some in the rendering of dance and song – all resulting in a highly energetic, definitely sincere, but surprisingly disappointing outing.

For my complete review, please proceed to Talkin' Broadway:

Rating: 2.5 E

A Christmas Carol continues through December 16, 2018 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 650-349-6411.

Photo Credit: Mark and Tracy Photography


Friday, November 30, 2018

"The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley"

The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley
Lauren Gunderson & Margot Melcon

Neiry Rojo & August Browning
In late December 1815, two years have passed since four of the five sisters of the Longbourn estate traversed many complicated webs and winding routes to land husbands in Jane Austin’s much beloved Pride and Prejudice.  Now as December arrives in 2018, two years have also passed since Marin Theatre Company joined in a three-theatre, rolling premiere of a Lauren Gunderson and Margo Melcon play that picks up and continues the original Jane Austin story (a new work that has been the most produced play in the U.S. for the past two years, including a much-loved production last year at San Jose’s City Lights Theater Company).   Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley that made its MTC premiere in 2016 picks up Jane Austin’s original story and relates how the fifth sister -- a rather-odd-one-out, committed spinster Mary – surprises herself and all her family as she stumbles onto her one true love while the family convenes at Christmas at Pemberley, the ancestral estate of sister Elizabeth’s husband, Fitzwilliam Darcy. 

The playwright team of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon has now returned to the same household and the same few days in December to tell the story again, this time relating what is going on in the basement where the servants of the household hold reign.  Marin Theatre Company once again premieres a visit to Pemberley -- The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley – one that is likely to become just as popular on holiday stages across America as has its predecessor.  Not only is this MTC premiere once again enchantingly captivating, often funny, and in the end heart-warming, the play is quite enlightening about the role of women in the early 1800s of England and the possibilities for self-empowerment even when most laws and customs of the land were stacked totally against them in favor of men -- especially husbands.

Melissa Ortiz & Madeline Rouverol
As the large family of tittering, bickering, and gossiping sisters and brothers-in-law arrives upstairs, three of the estates servants scurry below to shine silver, iron clothes, deliver sherry, and ensure the basket of biscuits (i.e., sugar cookies in the shape of stars) remains full.  Those biscuits appear to be a key reason the estate’s couple, Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy, and one sister, Lydia Wickham, continue invading the large kitchen – as well as their searching a reprieve from all the hustle and bustle of invading relatives above.  One thing that becomes quite clear:  When the landed aristocrats arrive in the domain of head housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, they are no longer in territory that they totally control nor one where they will always have last say.

Jennie Brick is the formidable Mrs. Reynolds – formidable in size, in demeanor, and often in tongue.  She is not past speaking defiantly in the face of the master of the house, Mr. Darcy; and she certainly is quick and prone to correct and command the other two servants, footman Brian and temporary help for the holidays, Cassie.  Mrs. Reynolds is not in any way mean, but she is also not one with a ready smile.  She does not take praise well (“Praise slows me down”), and she does not take well to any sort of change in the kitchen kingdom she controls.  When inventive Brian presents a new cutting board he has created in order to shape multiple, star-shaped biscuits in one swoop out of dough, Mrs. Reynolds humphs, “I don’t want things that are done easily: I want things done well ... Invent on your own time.”  Jennie Brick is scrumptiously delectable as the head cook, household manager, opinionated observer, and all-around ruler of the down-below (and maybe even the up-above).

Her charges include a well-spoken, quick-to-like Brian, whose proper posture and English as well as curiosity and creativity immediately seem more than one might expect from the household’s footman and all-around servant.  August Browning’s Brian has very exacting ways of speaking and very endearing ways of conversing with whomever wanders into the kitchen.  He particularly perks up whenever the newly arrived Cassie is in the room -- a girl he has known since school days (and one who has more than once beat him in playground foot races).  In his star-struck eyes and his attempts to engage in small talk with her, there is no doubt Brian has long-term dreams about his relationship with Cassie.

But Cassie has no time for Brian as she works diligently to make a good impression on the always-watching Mrs. Reynolds in hopes of acquiring a permanent position in the household.  As Cassie, Neiry Rojo exudes a strong-willed confidence of who she is and what she wants in life – and that does not seem to include a husband (which in 1815 England would mean giving away all her rights of property, decision, and future course).  Cassie makes it clear, “I want my own life ... It’s more precious that any man could offer me.”  Cassie is a daring, young woman who does not hesitate to take a stand of firm integrity and opinion when needed – with Brian or even with one of her so-called betters from above.  She also does not hesitate to declare with intended defiance that when accusations get made by others, “it is always the women that are blamed first.”

Down the stairs and into the dawn-to-midnight world of ever-increasing tasks and pressures that these three face as Christmas Day approaches come with much regularity the master and mistress of the household and one sister who feels particularly alienated from the rest of her family.  Melissa Ortiz is Elizabeth (Lizzy) Darcy -- a quite gleeful, completely kind head mistress who pops in for quick chats, a few nicely asked commands, and of course, for biscuits.  She is also bold in her new ideas, like introducing a tree into the household for Christmas – an idea she picked up from German tradition and one that the entire downstairs thinks is quite strange. 

David Everett Moore & Melissa Ortiz
Her husband, Fitzwilliam (David Everett Moore), is stiffly formal, a bit standoffish, but also looking to escape all the sisters and hubbub of the above, asking sheepishly his wife, “Couldn’t I just hide down here until after the holiday?”  Wanting also to hide also from the happy couples above is Lydia Wickham (Madeline Rouverol), a high-voiced, fast-talking (i.e., rarely speaks using any punctuation marks like periods) woman who is visiting without a husband because her husband, George, has been forever banned from the household by Darcy after he did “disgrace this house.” 

But to the house in the middle of night does come a stumbling drunk, bruised and black-eyed, and totally disheveled George Wickham (a perfectly matched for the scoundrel’s role, Kenny Tull).  A surprisingly sympathetic Mrs. Reynolds (who clearly once loved him much as she watched him grow up) allows him to stay but warns him to stay hidden in the basement  -- neither to be seen by his wife (who continually pines away for her absent husband whom she has not seen in some weeks/months) nor certainly by Mr. Darcy.

Kenny Toll & Jennie Brick
The appearance of the wandering prodigal – whom we soon learn has no livelihood, is a womanizer, and yet can be quite charming in his own rough way – ignites a series of unfolding discoveries that transform the basement’s kitchen into a beehive of angry accusations and shout-filled confrontations.  All starts with Cassie’s discovering a letter in George’s muddy coat as she washes it.  The gasps of surprise, disgust, horror, and even delight the note elicits (according to who happens subsequently to be reading it) sets up a flurry of activities that the celebrating family members above have no idea are occurring. 

As events unfold from Christmas Eve through Christmas Day and into Boxing Day, we witness heretofore hidden, powerful aspects of Elizabeth, Mrs. Reynolds, and eventually even Lydia emerge.   We see a Cassie who remains true to her posture of high integrity and her firm ambition to better herself in her own independent way; but we also see her new lighten up her whole countenance with ah-ha’s about what life might offer for a future that she had once rejected.  Out of a family crisis that never reaches the upstairs celebrations emerges personal transformations and new opportunities for happiness for all those who live in and venture in the house’s below – save the wily and truly wicked George.  For those in the “down-under,” Christmas goes from bleak to blessed, largely due to feminine courage, initiation, and cultural boundary-busting. 

Megan Sandberg-Zakian directs with a pace of both alacrity and occasional, welcome pauses the whirl of downstairs events, never leaving us breathless but always keeping our undivided attention and desire to see what happens next.  Wilson Chin has created a massive underground world of a plain-walled but stately kitchen that is its own bounded territory, separated from the glittering festivities above by a fortress-like, wooden staircase heading up and to the right.  The set’s large, opaque windows clearly help us understand this domain’s inhabitants are separated in more ways that one from the outside world around them, with the excellent lighting schemes of Wen-Ling Liao adding to the atmosphere of shadows and diffused light that exist in the massive basement.  Liam Roddisil and Rachel Hurado have populated the scene with dozens of properties that authenticate and give personality to the servant’s busy basement.  Sharath Patel helps establish both the era and the season through her choice of music as sound designer while the costumes of Courtney Flores ice the cake in defining the upstairs/downstairs nature of the story as well as enhancing the various personalities, strengths, and faults of the characters we meet.

Both the writing team of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon and the cast and production team of Marin Theatre Company are on a roll.  Just as Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley has proven to be a crowd pleaser, it is evident upon exiting this year’s The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley that this new work may well repeat that initial installment’s cross-country, repeated stagings in the next two years.  After all, it would take a Scrooge not to walk out of The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley thoroughly pleased and ready to wish with big smiles everyone met, “Happy Holidays.”

Rating: 5 E

The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley continues in an extended run through December 16, 2018 at Marin Theatre Company, at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office Tuesday – Sunday, 12 -5 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne

Thursday, November 29, 2018

"A Bronx Tale"

A Bronx Tale
Chazz Palminteri (Book); Alan Menken (Music); Glenn Slater (Lyrics)

Joey Barreiro & Frannkie Leoni
Based on real life occurrences, A Bronx Tale is a coming of age musical about the life of its writer, Chazz Palminteri, ages nine to seventeen.  Set in the 1960s Italian and African-American neighborhoods of New York – two neighborhoods close in distance but separated by an invisible, dare-not-cross wall – A Bronx Tale reflects the organized crime and the racial strife that ruled the ‘hoods of the Bronx in the ‘60s while also pitting a boy’s love of his father against the boy’s adoration of a local crime boss.  When in his teen years he also becomes infatuated with a local African-American girl, the formula is complete for a teenager’s coming to terms of who he really wants to be and whose values and advice are going to govern his life.  Starting as a one-man play before turning into a movie, moving to Broadway as a one-man show, and finally being adapted into a full-blown musical, the end result that is now on tour and at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre is best described by the now-grown Calogero himself as he sings in the opening “Belmont Avenue,”
“This is A Bronx Tale, and it’s my story,
The one that shattered the world that I knew.”

Frankie Leoni & Richard H. Blake
After an introduction to the Italian neighborhood that is lined with the stoops of its working class inhabitants and with establishments like Madonna’s Bakery, Dino’s Pastry Shop, and Mike’s Deli, a nine-year-old Calogero receives advice from his hard-working, bus-driving dad, Lorenzo, to “Look to Your Heart.”  As they discuss their favorite topic, Yankees baseball, Richard H. Blake as Lorenzo sings in a beautifully sincere, totally authentic voice his oft-repeated advice to his son, “Look to your heart; being a man means you take what you got and you use it ... Just use your talents and don’t you dare waste it.” 

Joe Barbara & Frankie Leoni
That fatherly refrain begins to take a back seat in young Calogero’s life after he meets local, crime kingpin, Sonny.  Their introduction occurs after the youngster witnesses Sonny gunning down a guy with a bat who is beating up on Sonny’s friend, with Calogero later deciding not to finger Sonny with the murder during a police line-up.  Calogero quickly becomes Sonny’s protégé and good-luck boy; and that new status is immediately noticed by the entire neighborhood who all now go out of their way to give him high-fives and call him “C,” leading Calogero to sing with much charismatic machismo (at least for a nine-year-old) “I Like It.”  Frankie Leoni (who alternates the role with Shane Pry) is a winner in the role of Young C, especially coming alive with kid-filled glee as he helps Sonny win big bucks in a crap game, rolling all the right numbers while excitedly singing “Roll ‘Em” in full voice with Sonny and his gangster buddies.

By the time Calogero grows into a seventeen-year-old (now played by Joey Barreiro), he is well on his way to becoming another of Sonny’s gang of hoodlums, albeit the most special among them.  With names like Coffee Cake (i.e., acne-marred in the face), Eddie Mush (i.e., always gambles and loses); Tony-Ten-to-Two (i.e., how he points his toes); and Jojo the Whale (pretty obvious where that name comes from), these are certainly not the companions Calogero’s father wants for him. 

Counter to Lorenzo’s advice to his son about using his heart and not wasting his talent, Sonny advises C in a song about his hero, “Nicky Machiavelli” that “you gotta choose fear or love, kid.”  C listens carefully as the tall, lanky Sonny (Joe Barbara) sings in a voice and manner reminiscent of an entertainer in a late-night, basement nightclub, “Love can always disappear, but fear is cash in the bank, kid, fear puts gas in your tank.”  Sonny is a mixture of joking leader of his grown-up gang, doting mentor of his boy C, and ready-at-any-moment to be a ruthless killer with no conscience.  Through it all, Joe Barbara’s portrayal wickedly lures us in to like him and want to know more about him, even when we know deep down we should be abhoring Sonny and the influence he is having on Calogero.

Brianna-Marie Bell & Joey Barreiro
Like many teenagers, Calogero also makes decisions and friends that his elders do not support.  Forming his own teen gang of Sally Slick (Sean Bell), Handsome Nick (Giovanni Digabreile), and Crazy Mario (Joseph Sammour), C receives more advice, this time about protecting neighborhood territories and finding the right girl in a doo-wop blending of “Ain’t It the Truth.”  But when Calogero dares to look twice and meet an African-American girl at his school named Jane (Brianna-Marie Bell), both he and she begin to hear from those around them, “You’re just out of your head if you think this ever could be” (“Out of Your Head”).

The conflicting pulls on Calogero’s/C’s life only increase as he tries to be tough and rough with his questionable pals, loyal to his Sonny, a possible boyfriend with Jane, and still somewhat welcome in his own home (where his father is particularly at the peak of disappointment and worry).  As one might expect, bad things happen; but out of bad, lessons can be learned.  In one of the better moments of the evening, Sonny surprises both C and us with his advice in regard to Jane as Joe Barbara’s Sonny shows a different and unexpected side of the gangster while earnestly and with some humor singing in his Bronx-rich way about not letting “One of the Great Ones” get away.

Overall, the original Chazz Palminteri story is fairly compelling as a memoir of a boy’s journey through some precarious paths, given the roadblocks he encounters of compelling crime, inbred prejudice, and natural teen rebelliousness.  In its musical format, the score and songs of Alan Menken do not do much to come even within near distance to those of Jersey Boys, Guys and Dolls, or West Side Story – other musicals whose legacies echo in this musical’s various songs.  None of Menken’s tunes are ones that anyone is likely to wake up the next day humming; and even more damning, the rhyming lyrics of Glenn Slater are for the most part, bland, predictable, and unmemorable.  All that said, there is nothing totally unpleasant in the ‘60s’-sounding music and songs, often sung in the close harmonies one remembers from the boy and girl bands of the time.  But, there is also nothing remarkable.

Delivery by this cast is overall respectable, with the performance of Richard H. Blake as Lorenzo reigning as the brightest spot among the soloists.  The choreography designed by Sergio Trujillo smacks of the moves of back-up singers and dancers for Motown shows of the 1960s, with much grooving of bodies along with jerks, leaps, and splits, and multiple ways of expressing emotions and rhythms with hands and arms.  All such numbers are fun to watch in the moment and too quickly forgotten by the end of the show.

The Cast of A Bronx Tale
As co-directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks, A Bronx Tale moves at a pace that actually makes the evening seem shorter than its efficient two-hour running time.  Costumes by William Ivey Long along with hair and wigs by Paul Huntley provide live portraits of the styles of the 1960s, especially recalling the ethnically different communities of the Bronx.  The scenic designs of Beowulf Boritt depict in metal skeletons the shops, apartments, and hang outs of the Bronx neighborhoods against a backdrop of sky often lit in deep reds and purples as part of Howell Binkley’s lighting schemes.

A Bronx Tale does conclude with what may be the most memorable number of the evening, “The Choices We Make,” as sung by Calogero, his father Lorenzo, and the entire cast in rich, full voice.  Their message is simple but in its own way, true and important for every young teen to hear:  “All the choices we make become part of our story; ev’ry joy and ache, they’re never truly gone.”

Rating: 3.5 E

A Bronx Tale continues through December 23, 2018 at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at Tickets are available at

Photo Credits:  Joan Marcus

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

"Mary Poppins"

Mary Poppins
Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman (Music & Lyrics); Julian Fellowes (Book) with Additional Songs/Lyrics by George Stiles & Anthony Drewe
Based on the Stories of P.L. Travers and the Film by Walt Disney

El Beh
Mary and Bert have danced with animated animals in a cinematic Mary Poppins for almost fifty-five years with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke forever embodying those characters for millions of people around the globe.  On the Broadway and West End stages, new versions of the musical wowed audiences with stunts like Bert tap dancing up the front stage frame and across the stage, upside-down.  How can a local production on a smaller stage compete with such vivid memories of this much-beloved, musical classic? 

That is no problem whatsoever when the director is the immensely creative and a tad devilish Susi Damilano and the presenting company is San Francisco Playhouse with its long history of taking famed musicals and turning them inside-out to expose new and wonderful views.  In an eye-popping, toe-tapping, big-smile-producing Mary Poppins that also has an edgier, darker undertone than most of its predecessors, San Francisco Playhouse places under the Bay Area’s holiday tree a gift that should enchant both fans and newcomers to the Richard Sherman and Robert B. Sherman (music and lyrics), Julian Fellowes (book) musical, Mary Poppins – one based on the imaginative, much-loved stories of P.L. Travers.

Winds in the east, there’s a mist comin' in,
Like somethin' is brewin' and 'bout to begin.
Can't put me finger on what lies in store,
But I feel what's to happen all happened before.
A father, a mother, a daughter,r a son -
The threads of their lives unraveling undone -
Somethin' is needed to twist 'em as tight,
like string you might use when you're flyin' a kite -
Chim chimeny chim chim, cheree chim cheroo!

And with that “Prologue,” sometimes street artist, sometimes chimney sweep, and all-around handyman Bert lays out about all the plot one needs to know in order to revel in the next, near-three-hours of a story that is not shy in teaching us lessons about parenting, families, and allowing the child in us all to flourish.  As our narrator, Bert is always near-by as the story unfolds of the Banks family and their nanny who suddenly “pops in” after reading a torn-up advertisement that the children, Michael and Jane, wrote about the kind of nanny they want (“You must be kind, you must be witty, very sweet and fairly pretty”).  Mary Poppins is not the kind of nanny the stern, no-smile father, George Banks, wants for his children (“A nanny should rule; a nanny is a paragon who suffers no fool”).  Up the chimney has flown the ad his kids had written and that he has torn to bits; but the ad is not lost to the winds when it comes to Mary Poppins. 

El Beh as Mary Poppins
When Mary Poppins unexpectedly knocks at the door, the part that George gets right about their new nanny is one “who suffers no fool.” That is especially true when Mary is played by the incomparable El Beh, a Mary deliciously wry with ever a slight smirk showing.  This is not Julie Andrews’ Mary P.  El Beh’s Mary has an attitude of self-understood superiority as she matter-of-factly sings in “Practically Perfect,” “My character is spit spot spic and span; I’m practically perfect in every way.” Yet at the same time, she cannot hide that twinkle in her eyes that softens a face that is not prone to smile while on the job – except when she is enjoying fooling the children into “A Spoonful of Sugar,” where a dose of medicine takes on a fruitful flavor each most loves.  El Beh is magically mysterious as she pulls out a whole room’s furnishings from her cloth valise (just part of the rib-tickling special effects designed by Mike “Miguel” Martinez), always singing with a voice solid and sure (but never sweet or syrupy).

Her charges are the mischievous, sometimes rebellious Michael (David Rukin, alternating with Billy Hutton) and the oft-bad-tempered Jane (Ruth Klein, sharing the role with Grace Hutton).  Both are also delightful whenever they sing with voices full of attractively correct, English accent as well of a child’s fascination, determination, and boldness.  Their father, George, is a stiff-necked, stern Ryan Drummond, whose rich, deep voice sings with always a warning of ‘leave me alone’ when it comes to his children or his wife, Jane. 

Winifred Banks, is caught in the middle between trying to please a husband who believes “It is your job to be Mrs. Banks” and wanting to console her children who are only looking for some sign of love from a father who is too much becoming his own parents, who had “no time to for hugs and kisses.”  Abby Haug brings melodic vocals and perfect pitch to explain in “Being Mrs. Banks” an empathy for a husband that is admirable if not also incredible, given his harshness toward her and the children.

Mary sets out to shake up and reshape these kids who have already run off many a nanny with their unruliness and their deep-seeded frustration of having a father who will not even consider taking time to do something like fly a kite with them in the park.  Teaming up with her long-time pal Bert, she ensures that the Banks children have some adventures that are nothing short of out-of-this-world. 

David Rukin, Ruth Klein & Wiley Naman Strasser
Bert soon wins over these kids who are initially skeptical and downright rude when they see his smoke-smudged face.  As Bert, Wiley Naman Strasser sports a cockney-rich, singing voice that brings an immediate smile to anyone listening – including us as audience – and who charms the kids and us with his talents on ukulele, accordion, and even a kid’s play piano. 

El Beh & Cast of Mary Poppins
Trips through the park with Mary and Bert become escapades where all sorts of fantastically funny, quirky, and lovable characters become new friends for the kids.  A candy store appears out of thin air whose proprietress, Mrs. Corry with pink, cotton-candy hair laced with Christmas ornaments (played by a lyrically voiced Sophia LaPaglia) sells the children “an ounce of conversation.”  While being watched by a gaggle of quirky souls all dressed in the most color-popping fashions (designed by Abra Berman), Jane and Michael pull from her jar letters of the alphabet that lead to a word that is now synonymous with Mary Poppins.  In an immensely fun number of increasingly fast and complicating sung rounds, a stage full of funny folk spell via awkwardly shaped hands, feet, and bodies the now world-famous word, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” 

That number’s heart-thumping choreography designed by Kimberly Richards is only one of several, stage-filling displays of creative craftiness she brings to the show.  In “Jolly Holiday,” a park packed with strolling passers-by surround a Bert and Mary in toe-and-heel dances where El Beh’s Mary proves she is the one who is clearly in charge – taking the lead as she dances with Bert and even lifting him climatically high in the air.  After an initial slow-motion display of raised knees and poised positions by a bevy of chimney sweeps, the stage practically explodes in stomps, kicks, and high-air heel-clicks in an evening show-stopper, “Step in Time.”  In number after number, Ms. Richards’ choreography -- along with the musical excellence of a well-sung emsemble under the musical direction of Katie Coleman -- proves to be contagiously rousing.

Katrina Lauren McGraw
To a person, members of this sixteen-person cast bring humor and heart to their assigned characters, often playing a number of differing parts.  Along with a brief but hilariously royal appearance as Queen Victoria, Marie Shell is the Banks’ maid and cook, Mrs. Brill, who is at times like a barking battle-ax and at other times, a softie who is just hiding behind her mammoth, harsh exterior a deep love for the family she serves.  Dominic Dagdagan is a park’s statue of Neleus who comes to life to sing and dance and to befriend two kids who need to learn to like/respect folks different from them – even one of the marbled, stony sort.  Katrina Lauren McGraw takes on two of the evening’s most memorable characters:  a stringy-haired, rag-skirted Bird Woman, whose “Feed the Birds” proves to be the evening’s tear-jerker, and a military-tank-sized Mrs. Andrews, an evil-beyond-belief nanny who smacks her lips threateningly as she sings with operatic power and high range, “Brimstone and Treacle.” 

Wiley Naman Strasser
Even with all this talent on the stage and also that in the six-person, hidden orchestra (directed with gusto by pianist Katie Coleman), the evening’s undisputed star is the storybook-like scenes emanating from Nina Ball’s design genius and creativity.  With slanted roofs of chimneys always visible along with a peeping backdrop of projected sky (by Theodore J.H. Hulsker), a passing character – often our Puck-like narrator, Bert – turns the walls as if turning the pages in a book, even as the scenes are also rotating on the stage’s silent turntable.  Scenes take on the pop-up quality and the same whimsy one might surprisingly find in a child’s book.  Characters are swooshed up the fireplace to emerge from chimneys and then to dance and sing on a roof overlooking the Banks’ neighborhood.  There is nothing short of magic and wonder created by Ms. Ball’s scenes, Patrick Toebe’s lighting, and Jacquelyn Scott’s properties that will long remain in the memories of the evening’s audience.

With sparkling stars overhead as their companions, the cast sings “Anything Can Happen,” “if you let it,” bringing an evening to a close with of course a happy ending for all and a head ringing full of much-loved songs revisited, but this time presented with new twists and turns than the ones sung by Julie and Dick.  In the end, Director Susi Damilano and the cast and creative team of this San Francisco Playhouse production of Mary Poppins – with the help of Mary and Bert – encourage us to “broaden your horizons,” “open different doors,” and know that “you may find a you there that you never knew was yours.”

Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE

Mary Poppins continues through January 12, 2018 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

"Pike Street"


Pike Street
Nilaja Sun
Nilaja Sun
In August 2017, I saw and reviewed Nilaja Sun's solo performance of "Pike Street" at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  At that time, I contacted several Bay Area companies and suggested they consider bringing her and her compelling story to our local audiences.  While I unfortunately am unable to attend the Berkeley Repertory appearance of "Pike Street," I am happy to re-share my review from that performance of this same show and thus to encourage my readers to attend the Berkeley Repertory show.

Here is my earlier review of "Pike Street."
Pike Street
Nilaja Sun
Barrow Street Theatre Production 

A hurricane is fast approaching New York, and a household in the Lower East Side is busy preparing to ride it out even as the family awaits the return of a Navy Seal son and brother who has been awarded a medal for his bravery in Afghanistan.  The Puerto Rican family refuses to go to a shelter because of Evelyn’s fifteen-year-old daughter who is severely brain damaged and cannot breath without help of a machine (not eat or speak on her own).  To ensure Candice’s dialysis machine will continue to work, Evelyn has brought a generator into their fifth-floor, walk-up flat but has not had time yet to read the instructions for its operation.  Besides preparing for her brother’s welcome, she is trying to appease her alcoholic father who only wants to play the numbers before the storm arrives. She also wants to make sure the elderly Jewish woman below them who is having memory issues has what she needs before the storm hits.
The most remarkable part of the story being told in Pike Street is that all these and more residents of the ethnically rich neighborhood are all played by the piece’s author, Nilaja Sun.  We first see the mouthpiece of this one-person show sitting with a body grossly distorted — head slanted precariously upward, mouth severely askew, and both hands and legs knotted in ways that make one cringe to see.  This is our introduction to Candice, and the performer will remind us from time to time how the 15-year-old is reacting to the people and events around her.  For all the other characters, Ms. Sun employs an incredibly impressive range of voices, accents, body positions, and ways of walking to bring each of the people to life.  
As the thunder begins to rumble and the rains and winds pick up in intensity, the story inside the house also intensifies as emotions become raw not from the storm, but from histories leaving scars that get rubbed raw by memories jarred, challenges made, and stories retold.  Before the eye of the passing hurricane hits, an unexpected storm explodes within the household; and our final image of a young, invalid girl of fifteen takes on new significance given what this family has been through in deciding to ride out the storm.
Rating: 5 E
Pike Street continues through December 16, 2018 at 
on the Roda Theatre stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.
Photo by Teresa Castracane