Monday, February 11, 2019

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Tennessee Williams

Rob August & Allison F. Rich
What is it about sixty-plus-year-old this play about one family’s secrets, doubts, deceptions, lies, greed, unmet sexual desires, and mores still reflecting the Deep South’s century-old defeat that makes it one of the American stage’s favorites?  The Stage presents a stellar cast and a spell-bounding production that can takes its place proudly alongside the great stage and film versions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – a San Jose production that is as physically demanding, emotionally exhausting, and achingly eye-popping as any I personally have ever seen.

For my full review of this outstanding production, please proceed to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj154.html.


Rating: 5 E

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues through March 3, 2019, at The Stage, 490 First Street, San Jose.  Tickets are available at www.thestage.org.

Photo Credit: Dave Lepori

 

Saturday, February 9, 2019

"American Night: The Ballad of Juan José"


American Night: The Ballad of Juan José
Richard Montoya
Los Altos Stage Company

Adrian Torres, Carlos Diego Mendoza & Dan Cardenas
Maybe it was when I first heard the Mexican-American actor say “jew” for “you” or when his character talked about wanting to get into the “Jew-S-A” that I began to check out.  After all, I grew up as a kid in an era when I remember – now with much embarrassment and regret – watching on black-and-white TV and laughing at Bill Dana’s José Jiménez or Looney Tunes’ Speedy Gonzales.  So the “jew” hit me wrong, even though I knew coming in that Richard Montoya’s American Night: The Ballad of Juan José is seen by others as a celebrated, satirical romp through American history – one with a much-touted, world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2010 and subsequent, well-reviewed performances across the nation.  But that one word along with an early scene of corrupt, Mexican police trying to bribe a reluctant Juan José where again the portrayals to me made me cringe more than laugh unfortunately left me in an mood that grew more and more irritated as I continued to watch the next near-two hours of Los Altos Stage Company’s production of American Night: The Ballad of Juan José.

For my full review, please continue to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj153.html.

Rating: 2 E

American Night: The Ballad of Juan José continues through February 17, 2019 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



Friday, February 8, 2019

"Border People"


Border People
Dan Hoyle


Dan Hoyle
How many average-sized, white guys can start a one-man show in San Francisco taking on the South Bronx, slang-filled dialect and the smooth-moving body motions of a six-foot-five black man and not get booed off the stage?  What if that same white actor employs numerous other ways of positioning his eyebrows, eyes, mouth, posture, voice, and even black tee shirt in order to depict Mexican, Iraqi, Saudi Arabian or Afghani individuals?  What actor of the majority race can get away with portraying unapologetically on the stage other minority races and cultures, especially in a week when top governmental officials from Virginia are being pressured to resign for past instances of black-facing?  The one actor I know that no one would ever question his sincerity of purpose or his integrity of such presentation is Dan Hoyle, celebrated and honored creator and performer of past shows such as Tings Dey Happen about Nigerian oil scandals and The Real Americans, featuring everyday folks from Red States telling their side of what is important in life.

Dan Hoyle
Under the astute, sensitive direction of his co-developer, Charlie Varon, Dan Hoyle presents at The Marsh, San Francisco, the premiere of Border People, “dedicated to those who cross borders geographically or culturally, by choice or by necessity.”  Based on interviews he had in such diverse communities as the South Bronx projects, Canadian refugee safe houses near the U.S. border, and border towns along Southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, Dan presents eleven individuals who tell us their frank, emotionally packed stories – all authentically unveiled in their own words, voices, and cultural/personal idiosyncrasies.  As each emerges from a brief blackout interval from the last story, we are struck that before us is a totally different looking person than the last we saw -- maybe this time with one eyebrow always higher than the other or with a mouth frozen horizontally barely moving while speaking or with hands that speak as loudly in their gentle waves and spread-finger placement on the chest as do their words being heard.  And from all these mouths come accents ranging from the high, sweet, delicately accented voice of an Iraqi woman to the rapid, hushed Spanish of a twenty-year old (his words translated for us in projection).

Dan Hoyle
The borders that each of these eleven have crossed vary in nature and location, but their stories all ring with an anxiety and often a trauma of living in a world where boundaries come with hard and fast rules, both explicit and unwritten.  Telling his story of many woes but always with a friendly, big-toothed smile, Habib from Saudi Arabia relates how he escaped with his wife and four kids a Saudi Arabia where his life was at risk because he was not Muslim enough and how he then came to California where he was confronted and ridiculed for being too Muslim.  An older black man named Larry tells how a 4th of July picnic with his family – a picnic on a park’s green grass that “If we were a bunch of white people we would look like a Chevy commercial” -- is deemed inappropriate for folks from the projects by a passing cop, landing Larry in jail for protesting his right to have crossed some invisible but forbidden (in the cop’s eyes) boundary.  A young gay man tears up as he explains how he snuck into the U.S., met his boyfriend (one a manager of McDonalds, the other of a near-by Popeye’s), lost his boyfriend, contracted himself HIV via drug use, was deported, and now has no where to go because his Mexican family will not accept him.  For him, many non-passable borders leave him few choices, with his considering stopping medication and just letting eventual AIDS solve everything.

Dan Hoyle
As each narrative spills forth, the telling is void of commentary or judgment by the creator/actor himself.  The policies of the current U.S. administration, for example, are not discussed; but their devastating effects are a consistent thread through many of the mini-memoirs we hear. We are left to draw our own conclusions from stories like that of an Afghani man who escaped a life that began living under the rule of the Taliban who gathered him and his boyhood friends up on Fridays and took them to a former soccer stadium to watch (and cheer on) executions.  With narrowed eyes he explains how he eventually found his way to a Canada, where he now seeks asylum.  He would prefer the U.S. but has decided “Canada is the U.S. of the 21st century ... U.S. 2.0.”   

Likewise, we are left to contemplate how could it be a Mexican-born man with the chosen name of Mike Evans – “the whitest I could think of” – was adopted at five by South Carolinians, fought for his country in the Middle East, but was recently deported because he always thought “permanent residency card” meant forever.  Yet we hear how when dead someday, he would have the right for his body to cross back into the U.S. to be buried here in full military fashion. 

The overall resiliency of most of these individuals and even an optimism that still exists where one might think there could be none very much resounds in the honoring portrayals Dan Hoyle presents in his Border People.  We laugh; we sit stunned and unbelieving; we shed our own tear.  We also are left in sheer amazement of the hope that can still exist for an Iraqi woman -- now in Lancaster, Pennsylvania -- who faces daily discrimination for wearing her hajib but who says with a tearful smile, “When I make a new friend, I think, maybe this can be my country, too.”

Rating: 5 E

Border People continues in an extended run through April 27, 2019, with shows on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 5 p.m. at The Marsh, San Francisco, 1062 Valencia Street.  Tickets are available online at https://themarsh.org/.

Photos Credit: Peter Prato

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

"Metamorphoses"


Metamorphoses
Mary Zimmerman (From the translations of Ovid by David R. Slavitt)

Steven Epp & Sango Tajima
The element that flows, freezes, and flies into the sky as steam is the medium in which multiple, life-altering transformations occur in each of dozen-plus vignettes of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, now in a mesmerizing, intriguing, and entirely enchanting production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  In this co-production with Guthrie Theater, multiple myths of Ovid (as translated by David R. Slavitt) flow from one into the other in, around, and above a stage-filled pool of sometimes glassy serene, sometimes tumultuously stormy water.  The ten cast members themselves metamorphose numerous times into new persona – both mortal and godly – as they wade, float, splash, plunge, and even sink into the watery stage.

As any mythology should, this one begins with a tale of creation.  Demonstrating the separation of waters to expose land, the evening’s introduction explains how Daniel Ostling’s (scenic design) blond, planked decking surrounding the pentagonal “sea” came to be.  Both sea and land are under a mural of the cloud-rich heavens, above which gods will look down, both amused and irritated by the things those mortals do.  As we are told, the gods created “a paradise except something was lacking ... words.”  And thus, “a man was born ... he was born so he might talk.”  Thankfully, one of this progenitor’s eventual offsprings, Ovid, used those words to create the wonderful, ancient stories that Playwright/Director Mary Zimmerman now now streams seamlessly – stories both dreamlike and nightmarish as well as with tongue often fully in cheek.

Rodney Gardiner & Benjamin T. Ismail
As two women and a girl wash clothes at water’s edge, one tells a tale about a rich king named Midas (“net worth $100 billion”) who continuously searches for more wealth.  After Midas gives refuge to a jive-talking, drunken stranger named Silenus (a hilariously tipsy Rodney Gardiner), Silenus’ heavenly and hunky pal Bacchus (Benjamin T. Ismail) extends to the executive-suited Midas (Raymond Fox) any wish he so desires.  We all know where this is going as the received golden touch leads to everything Midas touches turning to 24-carets, including his playful daughter (Sango Tajima) -- each golden touch so noted by a bell’s tinkling thanks to sound designer Andre Pluess.  As Midas heads in dismay to the end of the world to wash away the golden plague in a pool reflecting the night sky’s stars (as advised by Bacchus), the path he trods turns golden behind him, with the magical beauty of T.J. Gerckens’ lighting design just beginning to expose its palette of wonder that we will behold for the full ninety minutes of these fascinating stories.  As wave after wave of such stories washes onto the stage, welcomed and unwelcomed changes continue to occur whenever kings and queens, gods and goddesses enter the watery domain. 



Louise Lamson & Suzy Weller
A young King Cyex ((Alex Moggridge) leaves his beautiful, adoring bride, Alcyone (Louise Lamson) on an ill-fated, sea journey -- one in which a stomping, tromping Poseidon and his bucket-pouring sidekick ensure the little boat tip overs and its rowing sailors lose their lives.  Accompanied by the original music of Willy Schwarz that provides both peaceful and turbulent scores for many of the stories, this tale of a forlorn wife who searches incessantly with lantern for her husband’s body ends with the two receiving a god’s blessing to reunite as graceful birds flying over a calm sea (and thus establishing what we now know each December as the Halcyon Days of calm weather when these seabirds nest).  By the way, that sympathetic god is the god of sleep (Mr. Epp), who is reluctantly aroused from his snore-filled repose wearing black silk pajamas and a crown of floating “Z’s,” with more “Z’s” raining down from the heavens.


Benjamin T Ismail & Louise Lamson
As the pool’s waves continue to ripple, stories include those about an egoistic Narcissus (Rodney Gardiner) who is frozen at water’s edge in his own self-love and about a forbidden, erotic love affair between daughter (Ms. Tajima) and royal father (Mr. Epp) where body-lifting love-making in red-flowered waters is the result of sexy Aphrodite’s doing (a devilish-red Felicity Jones Latta).  Much purer love occurs between a naked and blind Eros (Mr. Ismail) and his to-be soul mate, Psyche (Ms. Latta), and between a skipping, jolly wood nymph wearing her gingham skirt, Pomona (Ms. Lamson), and a multi-disguised, wooing Vertumnus (Mr. Ismail) – two stories that actually end happily.  On the other hand, there is the gruesome-ending story of how a long-tongued, lizard-like monster called Hunger (Ms. Tijima) latches onto the back of a foolish destroyer of nature (Mr. Epp) and sends him into an eating frenzy that ends with his own foot being salted and peppered before his final feast. 

Rodney Gardiner, Louise Lamson & Alex Moggridge
Some stories are narrated by a third-party while the events occur in front of us, as in the story told in two versions and from the two perspectives of the lovers, Orpheus (Mr. Moggridge) and Eurydice (Suzy Weller), as Orpheus attempts to lead his dead bride out of the Underworld, with the second story’s narrative of Felicity Jones Latta being particularly and poetically powerful.  The many ways water is employed in the evening’s stories includes in this case a stunning raining of Orpheus’ own tears over his crying body, emotionally moving enough to woo the gods to give him an ill-fated chance to find his lost bride.

Rodney Gardiner
Comedy reigns in the story of the sun-glassed, sun-loving Phaeton (a loud-mouthed, whining Rodney Gardiner).  While reclining in the pool on his yellow float and in his bright yellow trucks (just one of dozens of water-worthy, eye-popping costumes designed by Mara Blumenfeld), he unloads his woes against Daddy Apollo (Mr. Moggridge) to his deck-side, note-taking therapist (Lisa Tejero), who is wont to lecture him and then us in words full of psychiatric gobbledygook. 

In all these watery plots from ancient tales, this cast brings a modern sense and a reminder that change is the one constant present in all our individual worlds.  The zealous and silly, sensitive and sensual, brassy and bold ways these actors portray their human and heavenly selves are in every case completely compelling.  Guided by the sheer artistry and unbounded imagination immolating from Mary Zimmerman’s direction, the cast assembled by Amy Potozkin for this co-production by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Guthrie Theater is mythical in its combined capabilities. 

Rodney Gardiner, Steven Epp, Alex Moggridge, Lisa Tejero & Benjamin T. Ismail
And no finer example of the ensemble’s, the director’s, and the production staff’s magnificent teaming is the coda story presented by the full cast in a pool of candle-lit water where one last act of kindness results in two lifelong lovers (played by Alex Moggridge and Lisa Tejero) being rewarded with an eternity intertwined in each other’s arms.  The beauty of the story’s final words and the hushed scene of flickering reflections welcome an exhausted but now exhilarated Bacchus, who finally finds his redemptive lake.  As the floating lights extinguish, to a person it appears to me that all audience members leave with satisfied smiles and eyes full of the evening’s magic.

Rating: 5- E, “Must- See”

Metamorphoses continues in an extended run through March 24, 2019 on the Peet’s Stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/ or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre



Tuesday, February 5, 2019

"The Revolutionists"


The Revolutionists
Lauren Gunderson


Jenafer Thompson, Maria Marquis, 
Meredith Hagedorn, and Melissa Jones
Lauren Gunderson imagines a sorority of sorts forming during France's 1793 Reign of Terror among four unlikely friends – three real, one fictional – with portraits of their bravery, foresight, and revolutionary spirits emerging in a dramatic play that is also very much a comedy.  In a wonderfully conceived and acted production of The Revolutionists by Dragon Productions Theatre Company -- their mostly untold/unknown stories reign forth in a play whose brilliant script speaks both truth and fiction as laughs rain down from the audience, even as the scaffold’s blade hangs over the necks of all four.

Please continue to the San Jose/Silicon Valley section of Talkin' Broadway for my complete review: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj152.html.


Rating: 4.5 E

The Revolutionists continues through February 10, 2019 at Dragon Productions Theatre Company, 2120 Broadway Street, Redwood City, CA.  Tickets are available online at dragonproductions.net or by calling 650-493-2006.

Photo Credit: Lance Huntley
 

"Late Company"


Late Company
Jordan Tannahill

Baela Tinsley, Cheryl Smity, Desiree Tinsley,  Lawrence Radecker & Kenneth Heaton
The announced menu for the dinner party includes a main course of healing and reconciliation; but as the meal progresses, the dessert begins to look like a food fight full of accusations peppered by cradled secrets, unspoken fears, simmering doubts, and hidden agenda.  It is a year after one couple’s only teenage son has committed suicide by slitting his wrists in the tub.  They have now invited for dinner the parents of the boy who participated in harassing at school and on YouTube their gay son along with the admitted perpetrator himself.  While intentions up front appear genuine on all parts to clear the air and build a bridge toward healing, the recipes chosen for the evening do not turn out as planned.  New Conservatory Theatre Center presents Canadian Jordan Tannahill’s 2013 Late Company  -- excruciatingly painful to witness but powerfully impacting to see.

What becomes clear early on is that there is no agreed-to, consensual outcome for this at-best awkward and uneasy gathering.  Try as all do in the initial introductions and stilted chitchat, what is going to happen when there is finally a call to “Let’s just start” appears to be unclear.  Hosting Michael even tries to release himself from owning much responsibility for what will happened as he says upfront, “Debora put a lot of thought into this ... I just did the appetizers.”  The visiting Dermots nervously comment about Debora’s hung artwork and ask about Michael’s work as a conservative politician, with a game of approach/avoidance ensuing of when, what, how (and maybe even why) in regard to the planned main course of conversation.

At the table meticulously, formally set for the evening, six places have been reserved – five for hosting Debora (Desiree Rogers) and Michael (Lawrence Radecker) and the late-arriving Dermot family of three and one more place-setting for Joel, the son for whom the hosts still mourn daily.  Though dead already a year, Joel is very much present during the entire evening to come, particularly when his parents unpack with detail a box full of his awards and mementos along with Debora’s five favorite photos of him.  Tamara (Cheryl Smith) and Bill (Kenneth Heaton) Dermot dutifully, even sympathetically smile, nod, and listen to the tearful presentations while occasionally glancing at each other with a look of question.  Their son Curtis (Baela Tinsley) looks straight ahead with face tense and eyes frozen somewhere in the far distance, moving only in occasional twitches that seem more involuntary than not.

Cheryl Smith, Desiree Rogers, Lawrence Radecker & Kenneth Heaton
As the conversation focuses increasingly on both Joel and on Curtis’ role in bullying Joel suffered at school (everything from frequent cat-calls to human excrement smeared on his locker), more and more revelations rise to the surface that often surprise more than one person at the table.  The Dermots learn that Joel’s parents had made several trips to the school’s administration about other kids’ cruel treatment of Joel and had been promised that all parents of the accused would be contacted -- something that had never occurred for them as Curtis’ parents.  Michael and Debora learn of questionable videos Joel had himself made (including one making a serious threat to other named students) and which had been widely viewed by students, teachers, and evidently many parents – but not by them (or so both at first say).  The skins of the onion begin to come off at a speed shocking to everyone present as new information or incident that someone (a parent, Curtis, a teacher/principal, Joel himself) knew but had not informed others who should have known.

Cheryl Smith & Desiree Rogers
Differences of opinion also become ever sharper and snappier -- between the two families and especially between spouses.  When Debora asserts her son was not that gay, husband Michael shoots back, “He was as gay as Mother’s Day.”  Pointed implications shoot across the table about the other couple’s family and parental practices.  Temporary bonds of empathy and understanding are formed across family lines – most noticeably by the mothers -- only to be severely, dramatically severed within a few minutes after a new revelation or accusation.

What becomes achingly clear is that the horrible outcome of a suicide, especially that of a child, is due to a complex set of variables.  While the bullying by peers may have been in this case the icing on the cake, many ingredients had been added by a host of people, institutions, and norms/practices to aid and abet.  As one parent suggests (of course only to be rejected flat-out by others), “it may take a village” to cause such a tragedy as the one that has occurred. 

The answers and the next steps most appropriate are not clear to these people; and thus most certainly, not to us.  That is partly due to the wandering conversations that ebb and flow and sometimes dead-end in Jordan Tannahill’s script but mostly due to the extremely complex issue presented.  But what is clear, avoiding the discussions, the questions, and the resulting self-examinations is most certainly not the answer.  As the play ultimately shows, all it takes is one person finally to emerge willing to tell her or his own truth in order to point in the direction of a possible path toward future and eventual reconciliation and maybe forgiveness.

To a person, the cast assembled under the masterful direction of Evren Odcikin is superb.  The emotional ranges displayed by each person are astoundingly wide -- with jarring expressions of anger, silent pauses of pent-up frustration, shocked looks of mounting fear, and sudden floods of flowing tears being examples that one time or another come from several, if not all.  The incredible intensity each person brings to the part portrayed is visceral proof of their individual commitments as actors to the important, difficult subject matter the play addresses. 

Teen suicides, bullying, homophobia, parent/child non-communication, the often-detrimental role of social media in the relationships among today’s teens – these are the topics that this cast is called upon to provide enough stimulation for us as audience to contemplate, raise questions, and hopefully, take action in our own lives and communities.  As an ensemble, hardly a better one could have been assembled than the one on the NCTC stage to tackle such difficult themes. 

Rating: 4 E

Late Company continues through February 24 in the Walker Theatre the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.nctcsf.org or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos by Lois Tema

Sunday, February 3, 2019

"A Little Night Music"


A Little Night Music
Stephen Sondheim (Music & Lyrics); Hugh Wheeler (Book)

Amy Bouchard, Jonathan Smucker, Elana Cowen & Chris Uzelac
Swaying and circling, circling and swaying, a quintet sings in a lush blend of harmonies snippets of fuller songs soon to come while also providing us metaphors in movement and in words of the on-again, off-again love affairs and marriages we are about to witness: 
“Unpack the luggage, la-la-la; pack the luggage, la-la-la.”
... Bring up the curtain, la-la-la; bring down the curtain, la-la-la.
... Hi-ho, hi-ho, the glamorous life.” 

Having set the stage and now moving aside to assume their roles of a Greek-like chorus, the Quintet watches with evident interest and also all-knowing looks as beautifully bedecked couples enter, the latter now waltzing also in circles, with partners moving from one coupling to the next.  All are watched intently by a young girl who joins the dancers with eyes sparkling and a huge, fascinated grin.  Waltzes become much like smooth, graceful skating on ice as Lamplighters Music Theatre’s A Little Night Music (Stephen Sondheim, music and lyrics; Hugh Wheeler, book) gloriously, tantalizingly, sensually begins with Swedish skies of early 1900 enveloping the scene, clouds swirling in their own patterns of waltzes.

Director Dennis M. Lickteig’s opening is stunning, leaving an audience licking its lips for more tastes of the scenes, story, and music to come.  The luxurious, multi-leveled scene is framed by a draping canopy of trees on one side and a flowing drapery of sheer, snowy curtain on the other, all dripping with the opulence of the Swedish upper class of the late nineteenth century.  That magnificent sky becomes a palette for ever-changing hues that paint the islands of clouds, just part of a breath-taking lighting design by Brittany Mellerson.  Judith Jackson has designed a fabulous tour of women’s gowns of the period, with each of numerous changes bringing more satiny color, ribbons, puffs, and tucks (not to mention also an array of hats and feathers that sit atop the turrets of wigs designed by Kerry Rider-Kuhn).  Stephen Sondheim’s beautifully flowing score (orchestrated originally by Jonathan Tunick) with its dozens of waltz sequences is performed without flaw and much beauty by Karl Pister and his twenty-member orchestra.  And throughout, couples do waltz and waltz again in ways that are never out of line with the current storyline, thanks both to Jayne Zaban’s clever and contagious choreography and Mr. Lickteig’s inspired, impressive direction.
And who can dispute the intriguing story and peerless songs of this Sondheim/Wheeler gem?  Love comes and goes in all shapes and forms among the characters of every age and class.  There is love at first sight, aborted love, illegitimate and adulterous love, secret trysts and publicly known affairs.  Love strikes upstairs and downstairs among this cast of aristocrats and their servants.  The old remember past loves with nostalgia and some regret; the middle-age try desperately and foolishly to thwart aging and recreate the lust of earlier years; the youth either puzzle their way through first attractions or jump at the immediate chance for sex-drive satisfaction. 

A Little Night Music tells these stories of love sought, lost, and found from several lenses.  Mr. Lickteig emphasizes the circular nature of the rotating coupling of the story and reminds us there is a gossipy aspect of this complex love tale as members of the Quintet hover ever-close at hand to eye each other with knowing looks before often coming in to make their own, melodic comments of the goings-on.  (The exceptionally voiced, impishly watching Quintet includes Amy Bouchard, Elana Cowen, Amy Foote, Jonathan Smucker, and Chris Uzelac – each excelling in both solo and combined opportunities.)

The many soaring aspects of this Lamplighters production most certainly include a cast of nineteen who, from oldest to youngest, are absolutely magnificent in voice and acting abilities.  Each delivers singular moments in the musical spotlight with age and character appropriate clarity and brilliance.  In combination with each other -- whether in carefully blended duets, counterpoint quartets, or fully harmonized ensemble pieces -- Sondheim’s bullet-fast lyrics and his tricky rhythms and keys are elementary to this group of master performers.

As the wheel-chaired grande dame Madame Armfeldt, Barbara Heroux delivers many of the show’s best comic lines in an authoritative, but amused-at-life manner.  With faraway-looking eyes that also zero in for pointed looks, she reminiscences her many past ‘liaisons’ with royalty as she provides wise (sometimes bawdy) love advice to her eight-year-old granddaughter, Fredrika.  As she half-sings, half-speaks in a voice etched with a lifetime of exotic (and maybe erotic) adventures, she tells Fredrika of her past lovers while also mixing in a hefty commentary on current practices of love-seeking, which she does not approve. 

Listening intently and understanding much more than she probably should at eight years, Ella Bleu Bradford’s Fredrika is wise beyond her years and is often the only ‘adult’ in the room.  She sings with a bright, assured manner that displays optimism of youth and confidence usually seen only in later life.  Like the ever-present Quintet, she is the only other one who usually has a grasp of just what is happening and who is or wants to sleep with whom.

Josselyn Ryder & Carey Ann Rosko
As the late-teen bride Anne of a much-older widower Fredrik, Josselyn Ryder is appropriately silly and sexy and sings her “Soon” with lyrical vocals full of smile and spirit.  When her life of luxury becomes more complicated as she realizes her recently-wed husband may have eyes for an old fling, Anne couples with her friend, Charlotte (Cary Ann Rosko) to deliver a stunningly sad “Every Day a Little Death” that speaks to everyone who has ever felt cheated in love.  As the wife of a philandering dragoon, Carl-Magnus, Ms. Rosko is arresting as she in a matter-of-fact, almost emotionless manner asserts, “Men are stupid; men are vain; love’s disgusting; love’s insane.”  As the two conclude that “the looks and the lies” “brings a perfect little death,” the loud bravas of the audience prove the number has hit its target, emotionally and musically.

Samuel Faustine & Robert Stafford
The men of whom they sing are themselves an eclectic collection that run a gamut who can only be described in some combination of confused, cheating, and/or clownish in their attempts at love.  As Fredrik, Robert Stafford brings to bear a rich, velvety baritone voice to deftly tackle the rhymed-couplet lyrics of “Now,” as in marvelously sustained notes he describes his frustration in having married a girl (Anne) who once sat on his lap and called him “Uncle” and who -- eleven months after their marriage -- is still a virgin. 

His twenty-year-old son, Henrik, is devoutly loyal to his cello and his Bible until the aspiring priest touches the breasts or lips of a household maid or looks with puppy eyes at his father’s young bride.  When Samuel Faustine sustains heaven-reaching falsetto notes for seemingly forever while singing “Later,” his youthful voice is full of the frustration and angst that Henrik feels in searching for love as he wonders, “How can I wait around for later?”

Robert Stafford & William Giammona
The trio of love-seeking men who each look the wrong direction before making the right, final choice is the heel-clicking, buffoonish dragoon, Carl Magnus, who is making life for his wife Charlotte miserable as he openly burns the candle at both ends.  His rather disgusting view of women (“a functional but ornamental race”) is sung in an appropriately back-throated voice that bellows with resound and crescendos with noteworthy power as William Giammona deliver’s this philanderer’s warped view of women in a song (“In Praise of Women”) – a song that more than once hints broadly of its kinship to Sondheim’s “Pretty Women” from Sweeney Todd.  

Ella Bleu Bradford & Jennifer Ashworth
The focus of both the infidelity of Fredrik and of Carl Magnus is Madame Armfeldt’s daughter and Fredrika’s mother, Desiree.  The once toast-of-Swedish stage now tours the countryside playing Ibsen while also having an affair with Charlotte’s vacuous, overly macho dragoon husband.  She has also managed now to have a dressing room tryst with her ex-lover, now-husband of teen-age, Anne.  Playing a role that has seen the likes of Jean Simmons, Judi Dench, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jennifer Ashworth is a star among stars in the Lamplighter production, bringing spontaneous-appearing reactions to her own and her lovers’ situations that often are both telling and hilarious.  When the lone clarinet introduces the musical’s most famous number, “Send in the Clowns,” Ms. Ashworth performs a show-stopping interpretation that reverberates a voice full of heart-aching emotion but also life-amassed wisdom.  The later reprise with Fredrik is also a show highlight as the two answer the question “Where are the clowns?” with a confessional but now happily resolved, “They’re finally here.”

One final audience pleaser that cannot go unnoticed is the late number, “The Miller’s Song,” deliciously delivered with much sauciness by Petra (worldly wise and wise-cracking maid of Madame Armfeldt’s household played by Lindsay Stark).  Her bold, brash flirtations and her pointed, wise advice to her unlikely friend, Anne, makes Petra a terrific choice by Sondheim and Wheeler to give their story an upstairs/downstairs flavor. 

Kudos across the board goes to Dennis Lickteig in his initial show direction as Lamplighters’ new Artistic Director as well as to his entire production/technical staff, musicians, and cast.  Not only is the decision to venture beyond the company’s usual fare of Gilbert and Sullivan a welcome one, but the manner that the company brings Sondheim’s music and Wheeler’s story to the stage is stellar, resulting in A Little Night Music that should not be missed over its final two weekends in Walnut Creek and Mountain View.

Rating: 5 E

A Little Night Music continues for two upcoming weekends at the Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, February 9-10; and at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, February 16-17.  Tickets for all performance and venues are available at http://lamplighters.org.

Photos by Lucas Buxman