Friday, September 20, 2019

"The Great Wave"


The Great Wave
Francis Turnly

Sharon Omi
Almost every stormy winter, we natives of the San Francisco Bay Area read the tragic news that along the city’s Great Beach or nearby coastal areas someone has been swept to sea by a sudden-appearing “rogue wave,” never to be seen again.  In 1979 off the west coast of Japan, two teenage sisters venture out during a terrific rain and lightning storm to a nearby beach.  A great wave appears – picture the famous nineteenth-century, woodblock print “The Wave” by Hokusai – and one sister disappears.  But in this case, the other stunned, surviving sister claims that she saw through the blinding rain and soaring waves two strange men grabbing her disappearing sister.  Their mother is also sure her daughter is still alive because if she were dead, “I could have felt it.”

As bone-rattling, eye-popping sound (Bray Poor), lighting (Lap Chi Chu), and video (Tara Knight) designed effects of an oceanic storm sweep through the Roda Theatre, Francis Turnly’s The Great Wave begins.  Currently in its gripping American premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, The Great Wave is full of mystery and suspense, little-known history and real-time relevance, and a family’s undying love and unwavering search for truth.

Police inspector, Takeshi, believes Reiko is still in shock over losing her sister as she keeps insisting that she saw strange men with long hair taking her sister away during that horrific storm.  He is much more certain that the male schoolmate, Tetsuo, who suggested in a lark to the girls that they all go to the beach that night is somehow connected to the girl’s demise.  The missing girl’s mother, Etsuko, also believes Tetsuo is the one who is to blame for Hanako’s disappearance; and even when he is released by the police with no evidence to counter his own story that he never went to the beach, she demands that Reiko stay away from her friend.  

But neither Tetsuo or Hanako’s family is willing to let go of the idea that somewhere that girl is still alive.  Each begins what will be a year-in, year-out pursuit to find her: Etsuko through messages in bottles sent to sea as well as homemade paper lanterns launched at the shore; Reiko through posters by the hundreds printed and posted/re-posted; and Tetsuo through journalistic research to find out about other coastal disappearances of the time.

Jo Mei
What none of them knows – and probably most of us in the audience did not know upon entering the theatre – is that in the ‘70s/80s, agents were in fact abducting people off the coast of Japan in order to take them to North Korea, where they were persuaded to teach future spies to speak and to be Japanese.  Francis Turnly’s play – one based on a true account of such an abduction – takes us next to North Korea where we find the frightened, confused Hanako in a bare, concrete-walled room where the only decoration is a hung photograph of he who is always referred to as “The Great Leader.”  A smiling but stern Official explains to the girl who cries to go home that “we would like you to stay with us awhile” because “our Great Leader requests you perform a duty.”  Further he informs her that she is here because “the sea chose you.”  Her task is to learn Korean with a promise that if she does, she can then go home. 

To go much further in this intriguing story would be to give away too many of the many twists and turns still to come.  This real-life mystery is at times like a wide-screen movie, with epic proportions as directed by Mark Wing-Davey on the Roda’s massive stage of two levels as the action alternates between the two countries over what will be twenty-five years.  The impressive scenic design of Chika Shimizu with an elevator stage element moving up-and-down to change settings and scenes allows parallel, sometimes over-lapping scenes between the two countries and between the ever-present sea and the confinements of North Korean rooms of interrogation and/or instruction.   Contrasting home settings of the two locations move seamlessly in and out while the costumes of Meg Neville bring the harsh contrasts of two cultures, economies, and political systems into our reality. 

As educating, captivating, and eventually genuinely moving as Francis Turnly’s story is, the play’s first half hour or so suffers from dialogue that is often a bit clunky and mindless, with actors delivering those lines too perfunctorily, almost as if casually reading from a script the first time.  As interesting as the set-up and as wowing are the visuals of video and lighting, the play takes quite a while to grab its audience. 

However, about halfway through the first act, things start to click in every respect – script, actors, and direction – and by intermission, there is a buzz in the lobby of “I can’t wait to see what is going to happen next.”  By the second act of this two-hour, thirty-minute show, I for one went from being mildly interested to being totally enthralled and emotionally moved by the back-and-forth and eventually interlocking action of the two settings and stories.

Jo Mei & Paul Juhn
As is typically true at Berkeley Rep, the cast – in this case an all-Asian ensemble – is in the end stellar to a person.  As played so convincingly by Jo Mei, the transformation of the abducted Hanako is at times reminiscent of what many of us once saw after the kidnapping of Patti Hearst, with our more and more wondering if Hanako’s increasing loyalty to “the Great Leader” and to her duties as a North Korean citizen is a matter of survival or of a true conversion.  A mirroring metamorphosis in her Korean instructor, Jung Sun, is uncanny to watch as Cindy Im goes from an emotionless, unformed, barking teacher to Hanoko to become herself a coy, soft-spoken version of a young Japanese woman (having been taught by now-instructor Hanako).

As the ever-vigilant mother, Etsuko, who finds solace conversing with the rocky shore of the sea (more of Chika Shimizu’s stunning set design), Sharon Omi embodies in her performance a mother’s courage to believe and a persistence through the years not to give in to what seems inevitable reality.  Her often quiet or underplayed presence is powerful in the strength she portrays of a mother’s love. 

Similarly, as the sister Reiko who remembers with great sorrow and guilt the final sisters’ quarrel she had with Hanako before they rushed into the storm that night, Yurié Collins gives yet a third performance among this family grouping that is striking and memorable.  The two-plus decades of her search for her sister via papering the country with her home-made posters and those same years of her pushing a government’s reluctant, closed-mouthed foreign officer, Jiro (played by Paul Nikauchi), to reveal what was known about her sister and missing others are portrayed magnificently through the intensity of a sister’s love and the admirable stubbornness of character that Ms. Collins shows in her Reiko.

Julian Cihi, Yurié Collins & Sharon Omi
As the initially accused friend, Tetsuo, Julian Cihi personifies in Tetsuo’s dogged pursuit of truth – and his relentless loyalty to the family of the girl he only knew as a kid – the life-long guilt the boy-now-man bears for instigating the foolish foray into the raging storm and for then abandoning the girls to go to his own safe and dry home.  That singular, year-in/year-out focus – often to the neglect it seems to all other of life’s possibilities – that he, Etsuko, and Reiko give to finding the whereabouts of Hanako is at times incredulous, stretching the story’s believability.  However, the convincing genuineness of these three actors and the compelling, ever-more-intriguing series of events of the playwright’s story in the end convinced even this skeptical reviewer that twenty-five years is not too long for such love and devotion to be sustained.

Providing chilling performances that lay bare the austere nature and the punishing atrocities of the North Korean regimes of those decades are Stephen Hu as Kum-Chol and Grace Chang Ng as Hana.  The natures of their particular roles must remain unsaid in this review in order not to spoil the suspense of the story.

(It must be said that on opening night, there were a couple of bumbling properties and clumsy attempts at recovery that dampened  (pun intended) The Great Wave.  However, my guess is that by the second night, those will be long-corrected.)

Villains and villainous acts – present and past – populate this fact-based tale. Through characters’ own tear-filled accounts, we as audience witness the results of a history that starts with Japan’s imperialistic takeover in 1910 of Korean land, language, and life and later includes hellacious occurrences of WWII when tens of thousands of Korean women were raped by Japanese soldiers.  But we also experience a North-Korean, modern era where a government’s absolute control of its people is demanded in a society where memory of Japan’s past sins is also vivid and revenge still sought. 

Where our sympathies should ultimately lie is difficult always to assess; but in this Berkeley Repertory Theatre production of Francis Turnly’s The Great Wave, what we are most sure is the lasting power of a family’s bonds – bonds that refuse to be weakened by years of no communication by those long separated, by two countries in a perpetual state of being mortal enemies, or by a modern-day democratic government that autocratically refuses to admit either its past sins or its present knowledge of secret goings-on.

Rating: 4 E

The Great Wave continues through October 27, 2019 on the Roda stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/boxoffice/index.asp or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

"Hickorydickory"


Hickorydickory
Marisa Wegrzyn
Dragon Productions Theatre Company


Zoe Lytle, Troy Johnson, Allie Bailey, and Sarah Haas
In the imagination of playwright Marisa Wergzyn, the so-called “mortal clock” is a pocket watch every human carries within – one whose chain is wrapped around our hearts, with our death date and time engraved within.  A swirling mixture of mystery, science fiction, fantasy, magical reality, and even dark comedy, Hickorydickory dares us to contemplate what would we do if we knew the exact minute we will someday die and whom would we tell or not.  Further, this 2009 Wasserstein Prize-winning script – now in its Bay Area premiere at Dragon Productions Theatre Company – challenges us to consider what “tethered by love” really means and for what relationships we might take time off our mortal clock and transfer to someone else.  

Please continue to Talkin' Broadway for my complete review: 
https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj177.html.


Rating: 3 E

Hickorydickory continues through September 29, 2019 at Dragon Productions Theatre Company, 2120 Broadway Street, Redwood City.  Tickets are available at http://www.dragonproductions.net or by calling 650-493-2006.

Photo Credit: Lance Huntley
 

Monday, September 16, 2019

"Bright Star"


Bright Star
Steve Martin (Music, Book, Story) & Edie Brickell (Music, Lyrics, Story)

Elizabeth Santana
When Alice rotates from the rear to step away from a stage full of townspeople to face us, she opens the show singing, “If you knew my story, you’d have a hard time believing me. ” Immediately we know that Elizabeth Santana is going to make this an evening to relish and remember.  The Managing Director who usually is out front greeting us as audience as we arrive at Palo Alto Players’ Lucie Stern Theatre surprises us tonight not only by starring on stage but also by singing those first few notes with a voice strikingly pure, emotionally authentic, and genuinely exciting.  Already we recognize tonight’s Mississippi-born-and bred star’s natural ease and instinct for the bluegrass, folk, and country mixture of music that Steve Martin and Edie Brickell have written for their 2014 musical, Bright Star.  More than that, however, it is the look in those eyes that tell us that Elizabeth Santana’s Alice has in fact seen and experienced an incredible story that we need now to pay attention and to hear.

But we are actually already quite primed for the opening of the 89th season of Palo Alto Players.  As we approached the theatre, an outdoors bluegrass band plucked and fiddled with great aplomb, delaying an entire courtyard of head-nodding, foot-tapping, and big-smiling people from going indoors.  That group of four was soon joined on stage by five others under the excellent musical direction of Daniel Hughes where instruments from mandolin to viola to cello will combine with the likes of banjo, guitar, and fiddle to keep those toes tapping and sheepish grins glued on faces for the rest of this rip-roaring-and-sweet-melody, two-hour, thirty-minute evening.

Taking place in the hills of North Carolina, Bright Star jumps back and forth between two time periods and two groups of characters that we suspect may have more connections between them than just geography.  A guy in his early twenties, Billy Cane, arrives home in Hayes Creek from World War II duty, finding his mom now in a grave and a childhood friend and bookstore owner, Margo, with eyes and hopes focused totally on him.  However, Billy announces his design to move to the metropolis of Ashville in order to pursue a desired career as a writer and uses an outlandish lie to get attention of the editor of The Asheville Southern Journal.  Alice Murphy is known as hardline as they come, having caused even Ernest Hemingway to collapse crying at her desk in order to get into her publication.  Billy Cane’s brazen but obvious lie and his charm somehow find a soft spot inside that stern-faced, hard-exterior editor (Miracle Number One of this fairytale-like musical); and a bond is struck that eventually leads to Billy’s first publication.

Elizabeth Santana & Frankie Mulcahy
Alice’s advice to Billy is to write about what he knows, his home because from her experience, “It would be easier to get Lincoln on Mt. Rushmore than to get home out of a Southern writer.”  That advice leads her to relive in her mind and on our stage scenes from 1923 in her hometown of Zebulon when she was just leaving her teen years and still living at home with her Bible-thumping parents.  A moonlit tryst down by the pond with the town’s hunkiest and likely richest boy, Jimmy Ray Dobbs, leads to the unintended outcome other, equally innocent, good girls have found themselves.  In this case, while Jimmy Ray is more than willing to marry Alice, his business-minded daddy and her Bible-righteous father have other ideas what should happen to the result of a kiss gone too far.  Neither baby nor boyfriend is seen again by Alice, who heads to Chapel Hill on scholarship and eventually to her 1945 position as the noted journal’s editor. 

Two separate stories, two different towns, and two time periods interlock as the musical unfolds.  The stories swirl back and forth under the small stage’s intimately expressed direction with its big-stage energy and enthusiasm, all due to the inspiration and inventiveness of Artistic Director Patrick Klein, the evening’s stage director.  An ensemble of various townspeople watches with us from various spots on the stage as the two stories evolve, continually entering as not only passer-by witnesses and participants of the stories but also as stagehands to position the director’s own-designed set pieces, as the deliverers of props that float from one hand to the next in the blink of an eye, and as hugging or dancing, background couples that illustrate and enhance lyrics of a front-stage song.

When called upon to be center stage, the ensemble in full and in subsets heel clicks, foot stomps, and dosey-does with the full-body-and-soul enthusiasm of a Saturday night hoedown.  The background and/or stage-circling swirls, leaps, and twirls in line- and square-dance fashions generate electric energy under the direction of choreographer Meredith Joelle Charlson.

Those opening, positive impressions of Elizabeth Santana as Alice only usher in an ever-growing realization that her Alice is the real deal, with the actor not only progressively getting stronger and even more sure in delivering her Southern-accented vocals, but also continually delivering face-validity and authenticity to both her 1923 and 1945 personas.  She melts our hearts when singing a loving lullaby to her unborn baby, “I Can’t Wait,” breaks those same hearts when her song cries with despair in “Please Don’t Take Him,” and sends our audience hearts soaring when she triumphantly sings “At Long Last” as her life resurrects in a climax we all know is bound to come.  And all along the way, we never question the logically unlikely transformations of her life’s fate because Ms. Santana convinces us from the get-go that this story of her Alice is of course true and thus to be believed without question.

As aspiring short-story writer Billy Cane, Brad Satterwhite delivers the musical’s title song with a refreshing voice bursting with his unbounded optimism of “I’m on my way, bright star, keep shining on me.”  Billy is the All-American guy with an innocent, immediately likeable way about him.  His driving vision to write a story others want to read is one we applaud and have no doubt through his uplifting vocals that he will succeed.

Frankie Mulcahy
Each of these two leads of the parallel stories has a love interest that fully fits the required bill to flutter audience hearts.  Frankie Mulcahy is the hunky and handsome Jimmy Ray Dobbs whose sparks -- when around the younger Alice of 1923 -- literally bounce from his body to hers even as he sings “Whoa Mama” with ebullient vocals that reflect his raised testosterone levels.  In teasing words that differ clearly from his probing hands and readied lips, he brilliantly sings, “You’re pretty as a daisy, smell like a rose, make a man crazy, but it won’t be me.”  Later, he joins Alice with beautifully touching notes of hope and anticipation in “I Can’t Wait” as he feels the butterfly twitches of their baby in her stomach.  When Jimmy Rae discovers the fate of that baby, Frankie Mulcahy’s piercing voice of forlorn cuts to our very core as we in the audience feel in his distraught eyes and in those sung notes Jimmy’s complete resignation and sadness.

Brad Satterwhite & Michelle Skinner
Hometown bookstore clerk, Margo, has high hopes about a certain short-story author on the rise.  As the love-struck, Southern-drawling Margo who tries her best (without always succeeding) to play it cool when around Billy, Michelle Skinner sings in “Asheville” a good-bye to Billy as he first heads to try his luck at writing.  With a wonderful richness in tones that resound deep emotion, her Margo sends waves of mixed hope and resign as she sings repeatedly, “If it don’t work out, oh you can turn around and come back to me.”

The musical’s best-known number, “Sun’s Gonna Shine” kicks off Act Two in a rousing way worthy of any barn-raising party.  Alice’s Mama Murphy (played by Juliet Green) delivers in vocals sparkling and uplifting one of the more inspirational moments of the evening.  To a daughter who is coming off a tragedy and now about to head to university, she gives that kind of heart-felt encouragement that every kid striking it off on their own should receive from a parent: “Something tells me, it’ll be all right ... the sun is gonna shine again.”  (She and the big-voiced cast also give us a number we will definitely remember and hum/sing on the way home.)

Gary Giurbino & Brad Satterwhite
By the end, Daddy Murphy also wins over an audience who in the beginning detests his hard-hearted, religiously justified actions that Michael Mendelsohn carries out with a look and a voice that are as hard as the rocks jutting from a yonder, North Carolina mountain.  Likewise, we despise the villainous acts of Jimmy Ray’s dad, Mayor Dobbs, even while we are left with another of the evening’s ear-worms that Todd Wright gives us by singing a lusty, gusto-filled “A Man’s Gotta Do” (“what a man’s gotta do”).  But as the story’s third father, Daddy Cane and father of Billy, Gary Giurbino leaves a much different impression as he duets with a background banjo to convey in a moving, quivering voice the sad truth to his son, “She’s Gone.”

Nick Kenrick, Brad Satterwhite & Samantha Arden
Nothing short of likeably funny are Samantha Arden and Nick Kenrick as Lucy Grant and Daryl Ames, office associates of Editor Alice, who join Billy for a night of hilarious drinking on the town in “Another Round.”  Lucy in particular brings to a song that is full of too-tired clichés about drinking a voice that vibrates her sense of fun and life as she and Billy join a stage-full of body-twirling dancers jitterbugging the night away at The Shiny Penny. 

Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star has some musical numbers that are lyrically bland and mundane, some moments syrupy sweet as molasses, and a progression toward the inevitable happy ending that takes unlikely leaps to get there.  In fact, beyond “Sun’s Gonna Shine,” most of the songs by the next day are forgotten.  What will be long remembered, however, from this Palo Alto Players’ uplifting, smile-producing staging is the sheer energy generated by a banjo-and-guitar-picking score and a director’s skill for keeping two stories literally swirling in front of us with no confusion occurring amidst what could be a very confusing plotline of unbelievable leaps and unlikely bridges.  Any occasional faults of lyrics that are forever forgotten are quickly forgiven by a superb cast of nineteen headed by the night’s barnstormer of a star, Elizabeth Santana as Alice.

Rating: 5 E

Bright Star continues through September 29, 2019 by Palo Alto Players at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.  Tickets for the Palo Alto Players production are available at www.paplayer.org or by calling 650-329-0891.

Photo Credit: Scott Lasky


Saturday, September 14, 2019

"Caroline, Or Change"


Caroline, Or Change
Jeanine Tesori (Music); Tony Kushner (Book & Lyrics)

Elizabeth Jones, Cadarious Mayberry, Majesty Scott, Jasmyne Brice, Antone Jackson & Leslie Ivy
It is November 1963; and after a relatively stable 1950s, change is in the air everywhere – some good, some scary, some revolutionary, and in one case, an event tragic for a nation and the world.  But in one of the few basements in the soggy state of Louisiana where most people have to be buried above ground, for Caroline Thibodeaux, her life is the same with little change ever in each hot, muggy day in her purgatory world populated only by a washer, a dryer, a radio, and piles of dirty or to-be-ironed clothes.  After all, she is thirty-nine and in her twenty-second year as still a black house maid, presently for a house of white Jews.

But change is something Caroline and all the world around her cannot avoid that November.  In the 2004 musical, Caroline, Or Change – Tony Kushner, book and lyrics, and Jeanine Tesori, music – ‘change’ takes on many faces and meanings for each and all the characters as they sing their hopes and dreams, their doubts and fears, their moments of happiness and their lingering sadness in songs that range from blues to folk, soul to Motown, spirituals to Jewish kletzmer.  Ray of Light Theatre once again proves that the company reigns supreme in presenting rarely done, musically challenging, and message-rich musicals.  ROL does so with a big cast of voices spectacular; a full orchestra superb; as well as direction, choreography, costuming, lighting, and sound stunning in every respect.   The result is a Caroline, Or Change that is a must-see for its theatrical excellence, its emotional impact, and its musical quality.

Dressed in starched white head to toe, Caroline politely says as little as possible with looks often bland and expressionless as she does her job of dusting, washing, and ironing the best she can for the Gellman family – doing what she can to feed and cloth her three, at-home kids on her thirty dollars a week salary.  Ignoring as much as she is able the turbulent social and political changes occurring around her as well as trying to forget the scars of an abusive husband who walked out on her and her kids, Jasmyne Brice as Caroline sings in a stoically powerful voice trying to believe with confidence, “Nothin’ ever happen in underground Louisiana” (“16 Feet Beneath the Sea”).  

But what does happen in her basement ‘office’ is that a sexy, swishing washer suddenly comes to hip-swirling life – scantily clothed as if ready for some Caribbean Isle – with Leslie Ivy as the Washing Machine singing in soaring, Calypso-like voice as she encourages Caroline to keep moving forward through her day and in her life.  Not to be outdone, a deeply stirring and disturbing voice comes from the direction of the dryer as Antone Jackson as The Dryer musically slides and moans in his all-blue-and-sparkling suit and shoes through two-plus octaves of compelling, grabbing notes while urging Caroline in tempting and lusty thrusts, “Time has come, turn on the dryer ... time has come to suffer heat”  (“The Dryer”).  As clothes wash and dry, The Radio comes to shockingly-pink-clad life, providing background narrative and Greek-Chorus-like reactions and advice as Elizabeth Jones, Cadarious Mayberry, and Majesty Scott move and groove in Motown, closely-harmonized vocals and hand-to-foot coordination (“The Radio,” “Laundry Finish,” and others, all choreographed divinely by Angel Adedokan).  Without blinking an eye and usually without much of a smile, Caroline joins in everything from duets to quintets with the inanimate objects around her, giving spark, punch, and oomph to her otherwise long, sweaty, boring day (“Laundry Quintet”).

But humans do also invade the sanctity of her stifling abode.  There is Noah, her boss’ eight-year-old boy, who comes down everyday to talk incessantly while Caroline mostly only nods or even ignores him.  However, she does let him light her a cigarette – a secret they both with devilish looks share since they could each get in big trouble if his step-mother, Rose, finds it out. 

Christopher Ivy, Matt Beall & Judy Beall
As Noah, Christopher Apy brings a contagiously attractive voice at that wonderful point where a boy’s soprano tones have yet to have many masculine hints as he sings about “Caroline, our maid” whom he sees as “always mad,” ‘runs everything,” and “stronger than my dad” (“Noah Down the Stairs”).  Noah runs every day after school to be with Caroline, probably because he misses the mom who died of lung cancer and cannot yet stand to be around her best friend, Rose, whom his dad has now married.  Stuart, his dad (Roy Eikleberry), lives in his own unhappy seclusion, practicing his clarinet and mostly avoiding much alone time with the son who still misses his mom so much.  Of his new step-mom, Noah can only sing with a boy’s biting and sharp snarl, “I hate her , I hate her with all my heart” (“Rose Stopnick Can Cook”).

Yet when Noah is with Caroline, he is clearly happy, even if she only begrudgingly gives him any encouragement.  At night as he sits on his bed and she on her porch and while each looks up wistfully at the moon above, the two sing duets where they share in their minds the things they dare not say to each other during the day.  Providing comfort and solace and a listening ear to both is the big, always changing moon – one that comes to full, arm-spread-and-flowing life by Jacqueline Dennis whose rich, beautiful, and soothing voice also tries to prepare Caroline for what is to come in her life: “Change come fast and change come slow but change come, Caroline Thibodeaux” (“Moon Change”).

And change does arrive in the form of forgotten, loose coins in a boy’s pockets.  Step-mom Rose is disturbed that Noah keeps leaving a few cents every day in his pants.  In a fast-clipped, almost frenetic song, Katie Pimentel as Rose encourages Caroline to “just keep it, just keep it” as a means of teaching the boy a lesson (“Noah Has a Problem”).  Caroline is reluctant (“I don’t want to take pennies from a baby”) but begins to see the possibilities of extra dimes and quarters in terms of things she can give her three kids.  Noah starts leaving in his pockets parts of his allowance purposively, believing in his lonely, unhappy head that now Caroline and her kids talk about him and might even want him to come live with them.

In this story that is told almost exclusively in non-stop music, complications will arise as more money is lost and found.  As a president is assassinated, a tragedy of other sorts will hit Rose and Noah’s relationship, one leading to each saying racially based and hurtful things they neither one really mean to say.  And as their relationship changes, each experiences other shifts all around them unwelcome and unsettling but in the end important for each in the process of moving on with their lives.

Markalia Dyson, Royal Mickens, Jasmyne Brice & Antonio Banks
Noah is not the only kid issue Caroline has.  Her own teenage daughter, Emmie, is dismissive of the President’s death (“Just some ol’ white man don’t care about the black man”), is using words like “black” instead of the more safe and accepted “colored” or “Negro,” and is intrepidly argumentative with Rose’s visiting, leaning-Socialist father (Mr. Stopnick played by a twinkly-eyed, firebrand Michael Demartini).  Throughout, Markalia Dyson as Emmie is a next-generation, African American girl who as a young teen is already not afraid to challenge the white supremacy around here.  The young actor leaves a lasting impression on us as an audience, giving her Emmie bold, striking vocals and a courage conveyed in her sung resolves that leave us assured of Emmie’s future leadership in the fight for black equality.

Jasmyne Brice & Phaedra Tillery
Beside Emmie, Caroline also has trouble accepting the changes in her best friend, the high-spirited, big-voiced Dotty, played with a zeal for life and a determination to improve her own lot in life by Phaedra Tillery.  That Dotty now wears bobby socks instead of stockings and wears “flipped hair” and “plaid skirts” to work as a maid is too much for Caroline, who also calls her “high and mighty” for going to college every night.  As Dotty, Phaedra Tillery’s reaction and her subsequent support of Emmie’s new strides are performed and sung with emotions deeply felt, firmly planted, and beautifully executed.

Joining this immensely impressive cast are Royal Mickens and Antonio Banks as Caroline’s two, delightfully cute and playful sons, Jackie and Joe respectively, both of whom bring big voices for their small statures.  Matt Beall and Judy Beall play Stuart’s mostly in-the-background, supportive, and patriotic parents, Grandpa and Grandma Gellman.  Operatic-voiced Martin Bell makes his one, slow-and-big-stepped appearance as The Bus – one to be remembered both for the power of his deeply rich vocals and the mournful message he brings about President Kennedy as he takes Caroline and Dotty home.

Jenn Bevard astutely directs with non-pause pace and seamless flow the continuous story told mostly through fifty-plus, back-to-back songs on the massive, multi-leveled, multi-roomed set designed by Kuo-Hao Lo.  The director ensures the humor and musical talents of a live washer, dryer, and radio have plenty of room to shine and soar while at the same time never shies from laying bear the starkly contrasting difficulties of family/friend confrontations or of a woman paralyzed in a world changing too fast around her.  The costumes of Bethany Deal add much to the fun and fabulous side of the evening while also underlining such blatant differences as those between black maid and white woman of the house.  Kevin Myrick’s lighting design makes nights magical and basements another world that can turn purgatory into appliance-and-radio-led nightclub in a flash. The sound design of Jerry Girard not only helps the lyric-packed musical project sparkling clear in the old, cavernous Victoria Theatre but also adds nighttime dreaminess with the surround sound of frogs and crickets.  Finally, Music Director David Möschler directs the multi-genre score of Jeanine Tesori with interpretive adeptness, leading the eleven-piece orchestra as their music not only accompanies the singing but also often serves as part of the story’s questioning, answering, and echoing with a dialogue all its own.

And if the reader is yet to be convinced that Ray of Light’s Caroline, or Change is a slice-of-life look at America in 1963 that is not to be missed, Jasmyne Brice’s overall performance as Caroline is that in itself is worth the price of the ticket.  After an entire evening of scenes where the slightest shift in her eyes, a shrug of the shoulder, or a word sustained in song can each convey volumes, Caroline gives a heart-wrenching confessional along with a plea to God and to herself of “Don’t let my sorrow make evil of me.” Her climactic “Lot’s Wife” becomes a stunning, show-stopping moment where Caroline begins to realize that the change that she must undergo is to turn her sense of a failed and faulted past into stone, leave it behind, and set herself free to move on.  Her realization is Caroline, Or Change.

Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE

Caroline, Or Change continues through October 5, 2019 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://rayoflighttheatre.com/ .

Photos by Nick Otto

Thursday, September 12, 2019

"Admissions"


Admissions
Joshua Harmon
Los Altos Stage Company


Michael Champlin, Quincy Shaindlin and Kristin Walter
Admissions is Joshua Harmon’s hard-hitting, paradoxical look at admission processes at both upper-crust private secondary schools and the most-sought-after private universities.  Now in a riveting, superbly acted and directed production at Los Altos Stage Company, Admissions lays bare for all to examine the true values of two white parents – Sherri in Admissions and her husband Bill, the Headmaster – both who pride themselves in clearing the path for minority and female students to enter and excel at Hillcrest, an expensive, private high school.  But when their own son – who has been able to attend the highly exclusive school free of tuition and has in fact truly achieved much in his four years – finds out he only has a ‘defer’ in his application to Yale, what these same two parents are willing to do to so their white, privileged son can enter the next level of elite education immediately calls to the minds of the audience the recent admissions/testing scandals affecting parents from Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and beyond.  

For my entire review, please continue to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj176.html.


Rating:  4.5 E

Admissions continues through September 29, 2019 at Los Altos Stage Company, at Los Altos Stage Company, 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos, CA.  Tickets are available online at http://losaltosstage.org or Monday – Friday, 3 – 6 p. in person at the box office or by calling 650-941-0551.

Photo Credit: Richard Mayer
 

Monday, September 9, 2019

"An Ideal Husband"


An Ideal Husband
Oscar Wilde
Pear Theatre

  
Aaron Weisberg and Tom Farley
In the midst of his own infidelities to his wife via his live-in, male lover becoming headlines and a life-ruining court case, the famed and wildly popular poet, playwright, and novelist (as well as celebrated, itinerant speaker in the U.S.), Oscar Wilde, wrote a play still widely produced almost 125 years later, one ironically titled – given his own situation – An Ideal Husband.  Pear Theatre stages a totally pleasing, well-acted-and-directed An Ideal Husband in which themes of political corruption, wealth at any costs, deception, and blackmail are countered by those of the power of friendship, love, and forgiveness – themes still very relevant in our own current, best-and-worst-of-times environment.

For my full review, please proceed to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj175.html


Rating: 4.5 E

An Ideal Husband continues through September 17, 2019 at Pear Theatre, 1110 LaAvenida, Mountain View.  Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.

Photo by Michael Kruse Craig
 

Friday, September 6, 2019

"Exit Strategy"


Exit Strategy
Ike Holter


Adam Niemann & Margo Hall
It’s 6 p.m. in early August a couple of weeks before school is scheduled to open.  A thirty-year-old, boyish-looking, white Vice-Principal is trying his best to make friendly small talk about the chocolate cake he left today in the teacher’s lounge to a stone-faced, African American veteran teacher of twenty-three years.  She glaringly sits across the desk from him, pushing aside with sneers his nice-talk and demanding the bottom-line of why this meeting so she can get out of here.  After all, even though their offices are next to each other, they have not spoken in the three years since Ricky Hubble arrived.  Spitting with venom and sarcasm the name “Vice” when addressing the jerky-nervous, stumbly-voiced Hubble – Pam Morse knows why she is now the last teacher he is talking to: “You saved me for last because ... you fear me the most.”

With sudden officialdom, Ricky blurts, “The negotiations didn’t go as smoothly as we expected,” meaning the school where they both work will be closed at the end of the current school year.  After scolding with plenty of four-letter words the “Vice” on his misuse of the word “negotiations” (since there had definitely been no two-way communications in this decision process), Pam remarks she is not surprised.  After all, only forty percent of their seniors graduate; there are only twenty computers in their grossly under-funded school for 3000 students; and everywhere there are “leaks, holes ... even the paint is trying to get away from here.”

The meeting between Pam and Ricky only gets worse as Pam bites into the novice administrator, chews him up like a piece of raw meat, and spits out without blinking an eye insult after insult until both exhausted, the two smoke cigarettes in a momentary truce of silence.  In those few, opening minutes of Aurora Theatre’s latest, grippingly relevant Bay Area premiere  – Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy – Margo Hall proves once again why she is one of San Francisco Bay Area’s most revered actors as she so powerfully represents the pent-up frustration of teachers everywhere who have spent a lifetime in under-funded, largely ignored schools of mostly black and brown students that often end up on the School Board’s chopping block. 

In this case, Exit Strategy is about a planned but fictional closing of a Chicago school – a city where fifty schools have in fact since 2013 been boarded up and often demolished.  We are reminded in the evening’s program about a recent announcement of a planned closing/consolidation in the Bay Area of up to two dozen, likened schools here, making this Exit Strategy all the more important and timely.

After being beaten up by Pam, things do not get any easier for Vice-P Ricky as he walks a month later into the rather run-down, neglected teacher’s lounge (designed with stark realism by Kate Boyd and lit accordingly by Stephanie Johnson).  There, four of the school’s teachers are gathered planning an opening day announcement of the school’s closing to the student body. 

Ed Gonzalez Moreno & Sam Jackson
Before Ricky arrives, emotions, unspoken tensions as well as friendly and not-so-friendly jabs have rocketed back-and-forth among the four.  Arnold (Michael J. Asberry) moves about as if his many years of teaching have left him dead-tired, and he clearly just wants to get this meeting over and move on.  Much younger and bouncier Luce (Ed Gonzalez Moreno) is dying to report on his summer and wants to joke and jive before getting down to business; but he quickly backs away, given the growls and grunts of Arnold. 

Gabriella Fanuele & Ed Gonzalez Moreno
Sadie (Sam Jackson) arrives cheery with a sack of juice, schools supplies, and snacks for her students along with plenty of rat poison – the last because exterminators were cut from last year’s budget.  Her suggestion that it is time to take to the streets and march in protest to keep the school open is met with rolling eyes and explosive back-fire from Jania (Gabrielle Fanuele), who also shoots arrows of near-hate from her narrowed eyes at every remark Sadie makes.  Both she and Arnold have marched those streets with students, teachers, and parents in the past to protest other schools closings; and as Arthur will later tell a student who wants to lead such a fight, “Just stop fighting ... You will lose ... You will always lose.”

And so when eager-to-please Ricky enters a lounge of teachers that by union rules is off-limits to administrators, he is met with a barrage of cynicism when he says with a too-big smile, “I am just here to help.”  After all, as he is quickly told, he was AWOL and away locked in his office when they were on strike the previous school year for better conditions for themselves, their students, and the school.

Adam Niemann’s Ricky is sometimes almost too embarrassing to watch, so awkward, ill-timed, and almost clownish is the Vice-President in his attempts to cheerlead, offer help, and provide some leadership to the teachers – most of whom clearly just want him somewhere else out of sight.  But mid-year when a senior named Donnie decides to hack into the school’s data system in order to send out a “Go-Fund-Me”-like request for needed funds for the school, Ricky’s moment to rise into the role of leader finally occurs. 

Jania insists that Ricky suspend the wrong-doer, screaming with plenty of expletives, “Do your f-ing job.”  Donnie himself – played with bold, raw, and commanding presence by Tre’Vonne Bell – does all he can to make the decision to expel him easy, going on an attacking tirade to a man he bluntly tells, “If your job is the school, I’d say you’re failing.”  To Donnie, this idiot in front of him is not unlike all the other administrators before him in Donnie’s school years – years that he and all his classmates have been forced since Grade One to go up to the teacher’s desk in schools totally forgotten by funders in order to request a few sheets of toilet paper to go do their private business.

Tre'Vonne Bell, Sam Jackson & Adam Niemann
To Donnie’s surprise and the other teachers’ shock (and stunned dismay), Ricky decides not to suspend Donnie but to make him his “Creative Associate,” putting him in charge of the school’s website and solicitation of “our army of 3000 soldiers” to go fight City Hall as part of “Team Winning.”  That decision changes everything.  Ricky suddenly has the flinging arms and fire-and-brimstone of a TV evangelist.  Teachers at first reluctantly and then with high-five enthusiasm band together in t-shirts to plan and participate a rallying march.  And Donnie has a deeply felt cause and a forum that proves he is not a delinquent, but a confident and talented leader.  And so it all seems.

Ike Holter’s biting, brilliant script along with Josh Costello’s no-holes-barred direction bores to the heart of the issue of lower-performing schools (at least by state test standards) whose populations of teachers and students are often in majority of numbers from races and ethnicities in the minority of the cities and states where they exist.  Exit Strategy lays bare the effects of such a closing on communities and students but especially on the teachers themselves – over-worked, under-paid teachers whose own relationships at best are strained due to the pressures of their day-to-day lives where personal and professional have deeply fixed boundaries.  Jania, for example, meets Sadie’s opening-day, chipper hello with an acerbic, leave-me-alone retort after not hearing from her all summer: “You don’t call, you don’t write, you don’t care.” 

As the play and the school year progresses, we see the effects the threat and actual closing of a school have on teachers who are already living in individual islands inside their classrooms, who feel overall very much alone and up against a wall of no-support – even from fellow faculty and certainly from their administrators.  The playwright’s stark revelation at the end of the play is startling and disturbing, where we see how even when at their best, teachers are sometimes – maybe often – left alone to figure how to continue to survive and to serve our nation’s most vulnerable population, our minority students.

Kudos to Aurora Theatre, to new Artistic Director and director of his play Josh Costello, and to this stellar cast and creative team for an important wake-up call in a Bay Area where tomorrow we may very likely read of yet another school consolidation or closing in one of our neighborhoods.

Rating: 5 E

Raw Strategy continues through September 29, 2019 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available online at https://auroratheatre.org or by calling 415-843-4822.

Photos by David Allen