Monday, June 22, 2015

"The Addams Family"

The Addams Family: A New Musical Comedy
Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice (Book); Andrew Lippa (Music & Lyrics); Based on Characters Created by Charles Addams

Guided to our seats by a giant, grunting Lurch with the help of his friend Thing (literally a boxed-in hand with perky personality), we as audience are more than ready to see our favorite ghoulish family from black-and-white TV days.  As soon as the band starts the familiar tune, everyone is snapping fingers at the appropriate rests and waiting for the curtain to part.  And then there they are -- Gomez, Morticia, Wednesday, Pugsley, Grandma, Uncle Fester, Cousin It, and Lurch – all lined up in that family portrait we remember so well, singing a rousing and fun When You’re an Addams.  From that moment on, the excellent cast and intimate staging of San Jose’s The Stage ensures the audience is in a complete spell and trance for an evening of laughs and delights with The Addams Family.

Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice weave a simple tale known well to stage audiences (think La Cage au Faux, e.g.).  A family most would not consider ‘normal’ (the Addams) is visited by one of the most boring and normal of all families (the Beinekes) on the occasion of two of their kids (Wednesday Addams and Lucas Beineke) somehow falling in love and deciding to get married.  The result is shock, chaos, some potion drinking that loosens things up, and important “ah-ha’s” on all parts of what “family” really means.  From the beginning, we all know the ending will be happy; but to get there, we get to explore notions of normality while laughing all the way.  As Morticia reminds us, “Normal is an illusion: What is normal to the spider is a calamity to the fly.”

In many ways, the story is secondary to the characters themselves; and this Addams family seems to have stepped right out of the TV screen (or for older patrons, the Sunday Funnies) onto our stage.  Each is in appearance, voice, and demeanor much like we all remember and want them to be.  Johnny Moreno is the debonair, Spanish Gomez Addams with the right Latin accent and romantic moves.  He is appropriately shorter than his pencil-slender, angular-faced beauty of a wife Morticia (the outstanding Allison F. Rich) whose wide-open, intense eyes that never blink pierce intensely all the way to the theatre’s back row.  Together, their chemistry is electric, especially in a climatic duet Live Before We Die, leading into a sensually danced Tango de Amor.

Each of the other family members also rises to our cartoon-remembering expectations.  The bow-carrying, petite daughter Wednesday (Courtney Hatcher) is on the one hand precocious, sullen, and quite willing to torture her brother Pugsley (the stubby, pouty Zac Schuman) to his (and our) delight as he is strapped to a body-stretching device in their duet Pulled.  But as Gomez notes, “Wednesday’s growing up … she’ll be Thursday before you know it.”  Ms. Hatcher also convincingly portrays Wednesday’s determined struggle to cut her Mother’s apron strings and to break from family darkness to a sunnier side of life.  As her husband-to-be Lucas, Jeffrey Brian Adams also teeters between obedient, puppy son to a commanding father who at first wants no part of this strange family and a defiant, heads-over-heels-in-love young man who declares in duet with Wednesday, “I am Crazier than You. 

The evening’s true knockout numbers come from yet two more of this talented array of character actors who deliver Andrew Lippa’s pun-filled lyrics and peppy music with gusto.  Alice Beineke (Elise Youssef) falls prey to a Pugsley-planned trick on his sister in a riotous truth telling that brings down the house and totally shocks the two families in the vaudeville-voiced Full Disclosure.  D. Scott McQuiston gives the evening’s top performance as the loving, quirky, wise counselor-to-all Uncle Fester.  His love song, The Moon and Me, to the girlfriend hanging above in the night sky captures the true heart and hope Fester strives to bring to all the discordance and confusion around him.  And as he notes, “In matters of love, distance is the key.”

What makes this production particularly special in music and fun are The Ancestors, six Addams family members (ranging from speared knight in helmet to guillotined lady in gown) who come back from the crypt for an annual visit and who remain at Uncle Fester’s bidding) to help ensure love wins out.  The ghostly costumes (by Abra Berman), strong voices in harmony, and eclectic choreography deftly executed (by Brett Blankenship and Carmichael “CJ’ Blankenship) combine for some of the best moments among many really good ones throughout the evening.

For anyone who saw the original, critically-panned, 2010 Broadway production of The Addams Family and was disappointed as much as I, it is important to know that many changes were made before the Great White Way version took to the touring road and then on to regional stages.  Songs, like a nonsensical one about a giant squid, were replaced with new ones as well as a much-improved story line that make Gomez’s and Morticia’s relationship much more intriguing, interesting, and intense.  The Ancestors themselves are delightfully now much more central in story and song.  When this revised book and music is revamped in a setting like the compact, audience-close The Stage in San Jose along with an excellent cast directed so expertly by Tony Kelly, the result is family-friendly fun for all ages. 

In the immortal words of Morticia, “Death is around the corner, and the other end is your coffin.  Feel better?”

Rating: 4 E’s

The Addams Family: A New Musical Comedy continues at The Stage in San Jose through July 26, 2015.

Saturday, June 20, 2015


David Henry Hwang
Palo Alto Players

Photo credit: Joyce Goldschmid
Chris Mahle as Daniel Cavanaugh and Joyce F. Liu as Xi Yan
Language mix-ups and cultural misunderstandings abound, romance unexpectedly heats up, and hilarity permeates Palo Alto Players' current Chinglish.  Presented with a superb ensemble, six of whom speak fluent Mandarin, Chinglish continues through June 28 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.

My full review is posted at Talkin' Broadway, a first for me.  I am now the S.F. South Bay critic for this national arts website.  Please follow the link for my take on this excellent production.

Rating: 4 E's

Monday, June 15, 2015

"Choir Boy"

Choir Boy
Tarell Alvin McCraney
Marin Theatre Company

Acclaimed playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney does not lightly skirt difficult contemporary issues in any play he writes, especially those confronting African American families and their young males.  Yet he often comes at these problems through a lens avoided by most modern stages: Faith and its core role in forming and bonding Black communities.  In Choir Boy, Mr. McCraney targets head on homophobia in the African American community, teenage bullying, and the pressure of strong group norms and codes on individual choices (not unlike the sacred codes seen in youth gangs but here as a school’s code of conduct).  He does so surrounding us with the movingly beautiful voices of young men singing traditional spirituals and hymns in a cappella harmonies.  The result is must-see regional premiere of his Choir Boy at Marin Theatre Company.

Set in the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys (where African American boys study and board somewhere in a southern U.S town), Choir Boy opens and closes on graduation, a day when the biggest honor goes to the next year’s leader of the school’s renowned choir to solo the institution’s sacred anthem, Trust and Obey.  In the interim year of our play, the highly talented and quite effeminate Pharus Jonathan Young assumes the student head of the choir, a role to which he brings full flamboyance, inflated ego, and wit-filled intelligence.  His nemesis, Bobby Marrow (also nephew of Headmaster Marrow), mocks and scorns each limp-wristed flair of Pharus, any suggestion at more contemporary sound for the musical ensemble, and all of Pharus’s attempts to make points with fellow students or the faculty.  The tensions grow, sides develop, and inevitable eruptions occur.  But at any given moment amidst all this teenage angst and fury, one voice in song soon joined by harmonious others magically leads to a few moments of truce and brotherhood.  Through these sacred songs of another century’s slavery (often made more contemporary through the talents of Darius Smith as Music Director), the boys are able to express individual and collective frustrations, fears, hopes, and dreams.  Figuratively and literally, the boys bare their souls and bodies to us as audience in uplifted, angelic voices as they relate the journeys each undergoes to face and come to grips with family, peer, and self-image issues and conflicts.

As Pharus, Jelani Alladin is masterful in the role he reprises from a recent Washington, D.C. (Studio Theatre) production.  In voice, he soars into high octave realms with clear notes that hang in the air like melodic rainbows.  As an actor, he spontaneously and naturally creates singular moments of ecstasy, agony, and every emotion in between that any young boy might feel who is full of faith, himself, and life’s every opportunity to shine as well as one plagued by peers’ smirks, a headmaster’s wariness of his leadership abilities, and his own desires of body that he dare not show to others.  Also from the D.C. cast and equally stellar in his role is Jaysen Wright as Pharus’s jock-muscled, humble, and totally handsome roommate, Anthony Justin ‘AJ’ James.  Mr. Wright threads throughout the play a solid, steady portrayal of AJ’s quiet, respected leadership of his peers as well as steadfast, loyal friendship to the outcast Pharus, modeling in a powerful, moving way what it means to reject being a silent bystander and instead to take a bold step to help a friend in need.  These two flawless performances are well-matched by three other actors who dig deep to express the anger of a now motherless boy who feels threatened by this sissified star Pharus (Dimitri Woods as Bobby), to play the bully’s reluctant lackey who really wants just to be a nice guy (Rotimi Agbabiaka as Junior), and to be the somewhat sanctimonious future preacher who has a torturing secret that takes a darkened shower to reveal (Forest Van Dyke as David Heard).  Coupled with point-on acting for each is the ability to sound off in song to express deep-down doubts, desires, and dreams.

Equally strong are the two adults who have journeys of their own to traverse in the course of this one hundred minute story.  As a Caucasian and former Drew teacher who is coaxed out of retirement to teach ‘creative thought’ to these restless teens, Charles Shaw Robinson as Mr. Pendleton is undaunted by initial, vocalized skepticism of his white presence. He proceeds to bring a light-hearted, joyful portrayal of a teacher who is determined both to challenge and to care about his students – that is until one of them uses the ‘n-word’ to another.  As Headmaster Marrow, Ken Robinson stands tall, proud, and steady in his leading and mentoring these boys whether counseling Pharus on tempering his wrist movements and three-octave laughter or sternly dealing with his nephew’s stubborn and sullen dislike of Pharus (and seemingly also of him, his own uncle).  Like every one in the play, Headmaster Marrow too has a crisis moment as he cries out in prayer for guidance in the evening’s most plaintive, heart-wrenching solo that is stunning in its emotional and tonal depths and heights.

Jason Sherwood’s wood-paneled, semi-circular set with five door openings clearly establishes that each of our boys enters Drew with a unique history, now facing the joys and challenges of being on his own in this sanctuary of a religious boarding school.  Watched over by variously illuminated pictures of iconic African American men from Du Bois to Obama, these boys are free to pursue their education in ways many of their contemporaries in both urban and rural America are not.  Here apart from gangs, under-funded schools, and the majority society watching their every move and threatening them at any moment on any street, these boys are still often hurting, scared, angry, and lonely.  We see that just being a normal teenage boy is really tough.  Boys here at Drew struggle with self-identity issues, a mother who seems not to care, a father who too quickly marries after a boy’s mother dies, boys who taunt and tease, competition for attention and leadership, issues of body image – issues that teenage boys everywhere face with varying degrees of success.  Tarell Alvin McCraney seems to be pointing out an obvious conclusion about the plight of more typical African American teen boys:  How close-to-impossible their journeys toward adulthood often must be when they have all these ‘normal’ boyhood hurdles to maneuver plus those added by a majority society that tends to shun and demonize them. 

In Choir Boy, Mr. McCraney raises many questions with no easy answers, leaving us both uplifted by heavenly music and shouldered with earthly challenges of how to provide for every boy the needed sanctuary and space to struggle and survive.  This is a play to be seen and heard, to be contemplated and discussed.

Rating:  5 E’s

Choir Boy has been extended at Marin Theatre through July 5, 2015.

Friday, June 12, 2015

"Club Inferno"

Club Inferno
Kelly Kittell (Concept, Book & Lyrics)
Peter Fogel (Music & Lyrics)

In full gender bending, drag queen, and divas-galore style, Thrillpeddlers revives the 2000 glam rock musical Club Inferno with gusto, glamour, and glitter.  Based on Dante’s Divine Comedy and with a plot overlay of The Wizard of Oz, Club Inferno recounts the unexpected journey that rock performer Dante takes to hell and back after she hits her head during a performance at rock venue, Club Inferno.  Waking to find herself at the lowest depths of the fiery kingdom and believing she is not really dead, Dante is desperate to find her way back home.  Enter the guitar-playing, Greek great Virgil who pledges in song to rescue the wild-haired blonde (I’ll Help You Find Your Way) and who introduces her to Xaron, the conveyer of souls out of Hell.  Together, the threesome begin to traverse the nine levels of the Nether World via an electrifying elevator that Xaron controls with his scythe, rocking out together with full band accompaniment, You’ve Got to Get Down (“in order to go up”).

The fun really begins as our trio encounters on each level famous personages who are damned for eternity but are still eager to sing and entertain any passers-by.  On the Level of Lustful, a strikingly tall, wide-eyed Cleopatra opines Love Is Hell; Noah Haydon delivers the Nile Queen’s stories of unfulfilled love with strong voice and pizzazz.  Coming out from the depths of the Gluttonous Level, a zaftig Mama Cass (Leigh Crow) first says in Martha-cynicism “What a dump!” and then joins in a particularly strong, well-sung duet with none other than bulimic Karen Carpenter (Amber Sommerfeld).  It seems the two are now lesbian lovers who relay in My Other Half a number of dualities that bonds them together:  “I am the doughnut”, “I am the hole;” “I am dessert,” “I am casserole;” “I am Duncan, I am Hines.”  Act One ends as three women whose final demise involved losing their heads (Marie Antoinette, Isadora Duncan, and Jayne Mansfield) enter as just heads on silver platters.  Via the lowest of modern technology but serving up the night’s best entre in terms of entertainment value, the heads of Noah Haydon, David Bicha, and Zelda Koznofski bobble When Your Number’s Up (“you gotta go”) while their headless bodies dance wildly before them. 

Continuing toward the upper regions of Hades in Act Two, Dante, Virgil, and Xaron meet more damned luminaries, with some knockout performances along the way.  Noah Haydon returns this time as Durga (the 8-armed wife of Shiva in Hindu mythology) on Level Fraudulent, aided by a back-up chorus who become her waving arms as she totally lets loose on Blow Your Mind Away.  Particularly noteworthy in white, sparkling cleric’s cloak (with huge, diamonded cross) is Sister Aimee (a Pentecostal evangelist who allegedly milked her faithful throngs of their dollars so that she could vacation with a married man).  David Bicha is delightful as he sermons in song about Little White Lies.    And maybe the funniest moment of the evening is when the Ice Queen herself, Judy Garland (Zelda Koznofski), enters with red slippers and body frozen in a cube and belts as only Judy can, “Angels and devils are everywhere on the road to fame.”  Of course Judy, on this final level of Great Abyss, ushers in a little Oz conclusion to Dante’s plunge and resurrection into and out of the regions of sin.

On opening night, the otherwise joyful journey to the hot pit was marred, especially in the first half, by our trio being over-miked to the point of frequent distortion.  Understanding Peggy L’Eggs as Dante (a.k.a. Matthew Simmons) -- who also tended to over-sing and thus go off key too often that first half – and Birdie-Bob Watt as Xaron was often near impossible.  Maybe they were just trying to perform in true glam-rock style, but losing the lyrics in a musical story is not worth ensuring the totally authenticity of the genre.  As Virgil, John Flaw was much more successful than his fellow travelers in the opening numbers and half to play his lead guitar and deliver a relatively strong, clear line of vocal melody even with the miking system on steroids.

Any Thrillpeddlers production seems to excel particularly in the costume and make-up departments.  Club Inferno is ever more fun and eye-catching due to the period-appropriate costumes that lend authenticity while retaining expected Thrillpeddler outlandishness.  (Kudos to Glenn Krumbholz, Jim Kumiego, and Tina Sogliuzzo).  Likewise, eyes and lips full of glitter, nails and cheeks of every hue, and needed scars and scares are the art works of wig master and make-up advisor Flynn DeMarco (probably aided by the creativity of many of the actors themselves).  James Blackwood’s scene-setting floor and wall paints and simple, yet effective props round out the effects needed to create rock club and hell alike.

Along with seeing Beach Blanket Babylon, Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate, I find myself these days advising visitors to include a night at the Hypnodrome and Thrillpeddlers if they want that to have that ‘only-in-San-Francisco” experience.  Maybe the Company will not produce the next Broadway hit or meet the expectation of some high-browed theatre-goers, but my experience says almost anyone is sure to have a mind-boggling, first-class night of fun when visiting 575 10th Street, San Francisco.

Rating: 3 E’s

Club Inferno continues at Thrillpeddlers’ Hypnodrome through August 8, 2015.

"Fallen Angels"

Fallen Angels
Noel Coward

Imagine in 1925 a twenty-four-old aspiring playwright writing a riotous comedy about two married women plotting together to have a weekend fling with a visiting Frenchman while their husbands are off on a golf holiday!  Ninety years later, such a set-up seems a bit ho-hum; but at a time when women had just won the right to vote and were still seen as existing mostly to please their husbands’ whims and to be domestic goddesses, the young Noel Coward must have been daring to bring Fallen Angels to the stage so early in his career.  As produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, this rarely revived gem is furiously funny and a must-see not so much because of the playwright’s somewhat shallow, outdated plotline but because of a stellar cast, inspired direction (Artistic Director Robert Kelley), and extremely high production values in set and costumes.

The play’s set up in Act One is as follows:  Two couples that are best friends have serendipitously had the same conversation as the husbands are about to take off together for a weekend of golf, leaving the wives to fend for themselves.   Each couple has concluded that after all of five years of marital bliss, they are no longer ‘in love,’ but now just ‘love’ each other, which for the men seems perfectly fine.  When Jane comes over to see Julia once the boys have departed, they soon discover that ‘love’ without passion may not be in fact enough and that they are ‘ripe for a lapse’ out of holy wedlock.  This is especially true since a certain Frenchman (Maurice) has sent postcards to both of them, his former flings, that he is arriving in town after a 7-year absence from their now-married lives.  Hilariously, they each go hot and cold on the idea of a weekend trip into Elysian’s fields; but the more they remember their brief affairs with Maurice, the more they both decide to welcome him with open arms (vowing never of course to let him come between their bond as friends).

Sarah Overman (Julia) and Rebecca Dines (Jane) tease us in Act One for what becomes a riotous Act Two.  In Roaring 20s, slinky evening wear of high style and bright colors (as designed by the Bay Area queen of costumes, Fumiko Beilefeldt), Julia and Jane titteringly await what they hope will be a doorbell to sexual bliss (at least for one of them).  As they become tired of just coyly chatting, a double martini, a bottle of champagne, and a several-course dinner send each down the path to an increasingly tipsy, then totally drunken state.  Every emotion imaginable is expressed by these two wonderful actresses in ever-increasing exaggeration with limbs flying in all directions.  As conversations full of silly one-liners slur, as the ability to sit or walk straight (or to answer a phone) diminishes, and as just placing a napkin on their laps becomes a heroic act, we in the audience roar in total delight.    However funny these two are while imbibing, they are just as convincingly hilarious the next morning in Act Three when arising totally hung over, to the point my own stomach felt a bit queasy watching them and remembering such awakenings in my past.  Oh, and what about that close sisters-for-life bond these two professed the day before?  Oops!  

But Julia and Jane have not alone in the apartment.  Responding to every ringy-dingy of a hand-held bell is Saunders, Julia’s new maid who threatens to steal the show every time she comes through the swinging door from her off-stage kitchen.  Tory Ross excels as this modern Renaissance woman who displays so matter-of-factly that every thing she can do is better than anything her aristocratic superiors can do (as she casually plays a piano concerto, sings an opera aria, provides golf advice, speaks fluent French, cures in 30 seconds a deadly hang-over -- just to name a few of her skills).

While we only see them briefly in Act One and not again until Act Three, Mark Anderson Phillips and Cassidy Brown as Fred and Willy take relatively small parts and exploit them in every way possible.  Each plays the high-society, rather stilted husband to a ‘t’ in Act One; and each deteriorates into panicked, bubbling idiots in Act Three when he believes his wife has betrayed him.  (Mr. Phillips at one point lets out a multi-octave shriek that is worth the price of admission.) 

But what about the debonair, supposedly Adonis-like Maurice:  Does he ever arrive?  The man who is described by our adoring wanna-again-be-his-lovers as having the biggest smile with the whitest teeth does not disappoint when Aldo Billingslea makes a grand, late-in-the-play entrance as Maurice.  Quickly sizing up the tangled chaos before him of goo-goo-eyed wives and ticked-off, highly suspicious husbands, Mr. Billingselea uses well every minute he has on stage to take command and to set up yet one last intriguing twist to this non-stop two hours of audience laughter and fun.  (And his bow later with Saunders is almost as good as his entrance!)

Not enough can be said in praising this well-directed ensemble who produce cornball wackiness with such flair and finesse.  While I am not sure I need to see Fallen Angels again for the story, I am totally attempted to return to TheatreWorks just to watch this cast once again perform their magic.

Rating: 5 E’s

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley continues it Fallen Angels on the Mountain View Performing Arts Center stage through June 28.

Monday, June 8, 2015

"The Book of Mormon"

The Book of Mormon
Trey Parker, Robert Lopez & Matt Stone (Book, Music & Lyrics)
Orpheum Theatre

The perfect musical:  What constitutes such a thing?  Soaring music that people are humming as they leave with some lyrics they are actually remembering and mouthing?  Choreography that is letter-perfect and both traditional and up-to-the-moment current?  A story that captivates as well as inspires?  Rip-roaring comedy as well as moments of heart-touching sentiment?  Characters that could be next-door neighbors and those so fantastical that it is hard to believe what you are seeing?  Or how about a biting satire that knows few boundaries but also knows how to make fun without being bitter or mean? 

As the hundreds of thousands know who have lined the streets and clogged the online markets across the country for tickets, The Book of Mormon satisfies all these criteria and more.  From the creators of Avenue Q (Robert Lopez) and South Park (Trey Parker and Matt Stone) has come perhaps the first true, classic musical of the 21st Century, one that should last generations.  From the first moments of doorbells and smiling-faced boys in white shirts and black ties in Hello to the resounding and uplifting full-cast harmonies of the closing Tomorrow Is a Latter Day, this recounting of two young Mormons’ mission to bring their naïve optimism and faith to the wilds of Uganda plagued by AIDS, warlords, poverty, and famine is full of fun, shock, heart, and damn good music.  First-time goers will find it hard not to shudder wide-eyed at some of the references about God, female genitalia, and other body functions and parts (including those of Jesus).  At the same time, they will surely soon be singing along in their heads the irreverent tunes and smiling at the joy, exuberance, and innocence in which the songs are delivered.  The journey our Mormon boys take in discovering the differences between dogma and faith, saving and helping, and selfishness and selflessness become lessons for us all amidst the hilarity and spectacle.  In the end, paradise becomes not somewhere on a distant Mormon planet but something the boys and their new Ugandan friends create themselves in the steamy jungle; and we are all inspired.

To a person, everyone in this SHN touring cast is outstanding in every note delivered, line uttered, and step danced.  It cannot get much better in live theatre than Elder Price’s (blue-eyed, angelic Billy Harrigan Tighe) I Believe or the native young girl Nabulungi’s heartfelt dream of a paradise called Sal Tslay Ka Siti (Salt Lake City).  The Baptize Me duet between the lovable Elder Cunningham (who has never bothered to read the real Book of Mormon and instead makes up its stories and teachings full of Ewoks and frogs) and Nabulungi (daughter of the local, village leader) comes with many double meanings between religion and sex and is sung with full conviction and tenderness.  The celebratory number I Am Africa brings the Mormon boys and the ravaged villagers together to declare in swelling harmonies their oneness with each other and with the mother continent.  Time and again, this cast rises to stellar levels in ones, twos, and ensembles to sing and sell the brilliant lyrics and memorable tunes of MessieursParker, Lopez, and Stone.

For any musical buff, further delight comes in discerning the many past musicals whose songs and lyrics are comically and admirably referenced.  From The King and I to The Wizard of Oz to Evita, musicals are mimicked with tongue-in-cheek and winks of the eye.

Having seen the original cast on Broadway, I was both excited and skeptical in seeing this third-time-to-town touring show in SF; but I could not have been more delighted and elated in reacquainting myself with The Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon continues at the Orpheum Theatre through June 27.

Rating: 5’s  

Sunday, June 7, 2015

"My Fair Lady"

My Fair Lady
Alan Jay Lerner (Book & Lyrics); Frederick Lowe (Music)
Fox Theatre, Redwood City

Through an imaginative set, a few clever directorial touches, and inspired casting of the lead heroine, Broadway By the Bay has staged a My Fair Lady that leaves its own unique niche in the long history of this much-produced gem of the American musical genre. 

Whether through staged or filmed versions of G.S. Shaw’s play Pygmalion or of this Lerner and Lowe musical, how can anyone who has ever stepped into live theatre or watched the TNT classic movie channel not know the basic story of the sharp-tongued, cockney flower girl of 1912 London who becomes a sophisticated princess due to a bet made between two old bachelor linguists?  Out to prove to the skeptical but congenial India-dialect specialist Colonel Pickering that the King’s English is the only factor separating the classes, Professor Henry Higgins eagerly takes on the task of teaching a young, uneducated but extremely street-smart Eliza Doolittle how to be a lady.  He does so through repeated, ad nauseam practice of now famous and comically mocked phrases like, “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.”  Along the way, this much-loved American musical tackles historical (and often reflects current) issues of class difference, treatment of women, and intellectual elitism.

Scenic designer Annie Dauber’s latticed, domed frame of a stage-filling glass palace serves all internal and external scenes equally well with just the twist of a few curtains or the lowering of appropriate lights or chandeliers.  It also resembles the birdcage our Professor Higgins has in his home, reflecting the sheltered and controlled life we see him live as well as highlighting the way he treats his caged Eliza like a private pet for his and Pickering’s amusement.

Stepping into roles that many stage and screen actors more famous than they have engrained in audience minds is not a small task for whomever tackles either Eliza or the Professor.  Both Samantha Williams and Scott Solomon admirably succeed in taking their places among this illustrious cadre.  As flower girl Eliza, Ms. Williams squeals, slinks, and sniffles her way to extra coinage and the attention of the nearby Higgins in the opening scenes.  Her cockney is shrill and convincing, and she sings and dances with contagious energy.  The subsequent, grueling vocal exercises she undergoes punctuated with her gobbling chocolates give way to an elegant, tall, and absolutely stunning lady whose signature I Could Have Danced All Night is beautifully rendered in full, almost operatic voice.  As an African-American playing Eliza, Ms. Williams naturally deepens the role by reminding us that the glass ceiling of this doomed palace world of 1912 restricts women and racial minorities alike.  Her casting is thus brilliant on many levels.

Photo by Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin
As the pushy, peppery professor, Mr. Solomon brings his own flair of egocentricity, stubbornness and full-steam-ahead persistence to his goal of winning a bet.  His Higgins also displays a boyish naivite toward everyday life and the people around him that is funny and a bit endearing.  Unlike some of his predecessors, this Higgins does not speak but actually half-sings many of his solos.  He gives numbers like I’m an Ordinary Man his own manner of alternating pensive reflection of loving his own solitude with a wonderfully frenetic panic about having “a woman in my life.”

Loud, long applause is the well-deserved reward for Sergey Khalikulov’s On the Street Where You Live when, as love-sick Freddy, he parks himself outside Eliza’s door and delivers and later reprises in clear, gorgeous baritone this famous anthem of admiration.  Full company numbers, energetically and pleasingly choreographed by Camille Edralin, are well-sung and fun to watch, especially in the beautiful period costumes provided by Valerie Emmi.  Disappointing, however, and not receiving the expected applause and immediate encore reprises are any numbers involving Alfred P. Doolittle.  We as My Fair Lady audiences are accustomed to this red-nosed, jolly (and ale-loaded) father of Eliza bringing us close to our feet With a Little Bit of Luck and Get Me to the Church on Time.  Neither number scores its potential in this production, mostly due to Gary Stanford, Jr.’s inability to pull off consistently a realistic cockney accent and due to his singing with too much guttural throat and not enough comic joy. 

Key for any modern My Fair Lady not to feel too dated is how the transformation of Eliza occurs in such a way that her new “princess” is in the end not seen as subordinate to her “prince,” an issue in many earlier film and stage versions.  Director Ken Savage has solved this issue in several subtle ways that make this production particularly satisfying – mostly in the winding down minutes of the play.  When Henry Higgins believes he has lost Eliza for good, he pines through song I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face, a song usually sung as he sits alone in his study.  Mr. Savage instead places him on the street outside, exactly in the same spot Freddy sang his love songs to Eliza.  This positioning helps us believe our egocentric Professor may in fact deep down be a suitor himself.  Along with a final, curtain-closing moment when Eliza literally has Henry eating out of her hand (versus the normal ending of her reluctantly handing him his slippers), directorial decisions begin to make a big difference in how we as a modern audience can accept this somewhat dated story.  Kudos to Mr. Savage.

All in all, this My Fair Lady may not rank as the most memorable ever production, but it certainly brings enough talent to enough key roles as well as some production and directorial decisions to make it a well-worth night on the town.

Broadway By the Bay’s My Fair Lady continues on the Fox Theatre stage in Redwood City though June 21, 2015, and plays June 27-28 on the Golden State Stage in Monterey.

Rating:  3 E’s

Thursday, June 4, 2015

"A Little Night Music"

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

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” not only applies to Dickens’ Paris but unfortunately also describes the American Conservatory Theatre production of the Sondheim and Wheeler modern classic of A Little Night Music.  So much of the evening at A.C.T. soars to great heights, but some cast choices -- specifically those dealing with most of the males – tarnish an otherwise outstanding outing of live theatre.

Riccardo Hernandez’s opening set is stunning with its landscape-size tapestries of rich color and beautiful paintings of forests.  Late nineteenth-century opulence of Swedish upper class is suggested by numerous and elegant chandeliers; and properties are waltzed on and off with beauty and no in-between-scene pause.  Candice Donnelly has designed a fabulous tour of women’s gowns and hats of the period, with each of numerous changes bringing more satiny color, ribbons, puffs, and tucks.  Stephen Sondheim’s beautifully flowing score (orchestrated originally by Jonathan Tunick) with its dozens of waltz sequences is performed without flaw by Wayne Barker and his eight off-stage musicians.  And throughout, couples do waltz and waltz again in ways that are never out of line with the current storyline, thanks both to Val Caniparoli’s choreography and Mark Lamos’ 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 can tell these stories of love sought, lost, and found from several lenses; Mr. Lamos has chosen to emphasize the sexy, erotic chords underlying the waltzing of close-touching bodies and to underline the subtle and not-so-subtle humor of the lyrics and book.  Both choices work very well.

Sticking with the soaring parts of this production (and there are many), the women from oldest to youngest are absolutely magnificent in voice and acting abilities.  Each delivers her moment in the musical spotlight with age and character appropriate clarity and brilliance.  Sondheim’s bullet-fast lyrics and his tricky rhythms and keys are elementary to this group of master performers.

As the wheel-chaired elder Madame Armfeldt, Dana Ivey delivers many of the best comic lines in an authoritative, matter-of-fact voice backed by twinkling eyes and knowing looks as she reminiscences her many past ‘liaisons’ with royalty and as she provides wise (sometimes bawdy) love advice to her eight-year-old granddaughter, Fredrika.  Brigid O’Brien’s Fredrika is wise beyond her years and is often the only ‘adult’ in the room, and she sings with a bright, assured manner that displays optimism of youth and confidence usually seen only in later life.  As the late-teen bride Anne of a much-older widower Fredrik, Laurie Veldheer is appropriately silly and sexy; and she couples with Emily Malcolm to deliver a stunningly sad Every Day a Little Death that speaks to everyone who has ever felt cheated in love.  Ms. Malcolm as the wife of a philandering dragoon Carl-Magnus brings a full range of comic, serious, and even drunken emotions; and every time she appears as her red-haired Charlotte on the stage, notice is taken.  Near the end of the show, Petra (the buxom, saucy maid of Madame Armfeldt’s household played by Marissa McGowan) triumphs as she solos The Miller’s Son,” taking it from its folksy beginning and belting it into a full, only-Sondheim number in Company style.

But most kudos must go to Karen Ziemba as Desiree, the once toast-of-Sweden stage star who now tours the countryside playing Ibsen while also having an affair with Charlotte’s vacuous, overly macho dragoon husband.  Playing a role that has seen the like of Jean Simmons, Judi Dench, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ms. Ziemba brings to the musical’s most famous number, Send in the Clowns, a show-stopping interpretation all her own that is different from the normal song full of regret and sadness.  Desiree reflects on her present state of life with an air of irony and ‘can-you-believe-this?’ attitude that is jaw-dropping.  To me, that one number was worth the price of the ticket and the several-hour commitment.

So, why ‘it was the worst of times’?  Where are the flaws amongst all the many diamonds recounted above?  Unfortunately, to a man, none brings to Sondheim’s difficult, nuanced songs the ability to sing as required.  From mediocre to actually bad deliveries, the men of this cast (including the two in the Greek-like chorus) too often waver on held notes, go off key, and just over-sing in the wrong places.  When in duet with a female counterpart, the contrast can be painful at times (Desiree and Fredrik in You Must Meet My Wife, for example).  When singing together (It Would Have Been Wonderful by Fredrik and Carl-Magnus), so much potential of the wonderful song is lost due to under-performance musically.  As actors, the performances are adequate but never reach the pinnacles of the women in the cast.  The comic aspects of the toy-like soldier Carl-Magnus and of the love-deprived, sex-hungry student Henrik are too under-played by Paolo Montalban and Justin Scott-Brown to bring out the full potential of these delicious parts.  Perhaps the single-most disappointing moment is the manner Patrick Cassidy as Fredrik introduces Desiree’s Send in the Clowns moment.  His reflection of love regrets comes across as if he were just reading the lines for the first time.  Again, the contrast is stark against what comes next with Ms. Ziemba knocks the ball out of the ballpark with the night’s signature song.

In the end, the evening at A.C.T. is full of dreamy music, beautiful scenes, and a wonderful story.  The miscast male set is not enough to ruin, only to tarnish ever so slightly the well-polished trophy presented by the masterfully cast women.

Rating:  4 E’s

A Little Night Music continues in extended run at the American Conservatory Theatre's Geary stage through June 21, 2015.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

"This Golden State, Part One: Delano"

This Golden State
Part One: Delano
Luis Alfaro

Both churches and theatres involve people (often strangers) sitting close together in an auditorium, sharing emotional experiences, and then exiting somehow more closely knit than when entering.  Luis Alfaro has heightened those similarities in dramatic form in his This Golden State, Part One: Delano, now in its world premiere at Magic Theatre.  Andre Boyce’s authentic church setting effectively engulfs audience and actors alike with beamed wooden ceilings, pews for audience, and a small-town church interior with back-lit cross.  In the pews next to many of us theatre-goers are parishioners with veiled heads and Bibles tightly clutched in hand, mumbling prayers in between greeting us as if we were old friends.  There is a vulnerability created in feeling that we may not get to be totally passive observers, a queasiness that is heightened as our play/service opens with the fiery sermon of a jumping, arm-waving, yet friendly enough pastor who clearly addresses all of us and seems to expect a few ‘amens’ and ‘praise Gods’ to come from us as well as the actors scattered among us.  Before the evening is over, we will in fact nervously and then more confidently and even joyfully join in hymn singing, help in some stage tasks, and shake the hands of our fellow congregants as we all leave the service/play.

Elias (our charismatic preacher) has returned from his San Diego congregation to the apostolic church of his childhood in Delano, California, a drought-plagued, rural town populated largely by Mexican-American farm workers who struggle under back-breaking work and low incomes.  Sean San Jose brings to Elias an ease of relating and a familiarity as if we all have known him for some time, but he also exudes an air of mystery and uneasiness that troubles even his wife of two years, Esther, who finds out more about him in two days from congregants than from their two years of marriage.  Mr. San Jose rarely relaxes Elias’s nervous and jerky character except when he retreats trance-like into memories of an event several years prior that evidently led to a sudden midnight departure from Delano (dreams that are aided by the petite and convincing Carla Gallardo as a 16-year-old Romie).   

As Esther, Sarah Nina Hayon is powerful in her portrayal of a preacher’s wife who initially tries to fit into an expected spousal, support role.  Her meek, soft-spoken style with dropped eyes and ongoing twitching of her long, black hair slowly gives way to a more erect, purposeful, and happy persona as she proves herself to be more than just a support role for Elias or for our story.  Watching Ms. Hayon’s transformation of Esther from background to total foreground during the course of the play is a joy.

After some unexplained absence, Elias is in Delano to support the woman who helped raise him, Hermana Cantu, the wife of the Tabernacle of Faith’s founding, now-deceased minister and the woman Elias considers his real mother.  Hermana (Wilma Bonet) is a bent-over but bustling woman of deep faith who is clearly the real anchor of this poor congregation of believers.  While she proclaims, “I am blessed to work in the fields,” she also admits that the work is difficult and anything to make her life a bit easier is appreciated (“Thank you, God, for Bisquick.”)  Ms. Bonet brings to Hermana a strong, deep-rooted, and earth-mother quality that reflects the power of the land on this agriculture community.  Her faith is heart-felt but also full of day-to-day practicalities and personal biases and quirks that make her all the more delightful and even lovable – by those on the stage and in the audience/congregation. 

Transitions and their resulting transformations are plentiful in Mr. Alfaro’s story of California and its Hispanic peoples, a California that we sense has deep roots in traditions yet is branching into new, unchartered territories.  People we meet are dealing with death of loved ones, old age, marriage issues, unclear personal futures, and self-doubts.  How each faces the uncertainties forced upon them by drought, divorce, and death and where each finds the strength to go the next step toward a new resolve is the heart of our story. 
Salvation comes not so much from God but through each other.  Prayer becomes conversation less with God and more a means to share advice and warning with fellow life travelers.  Hands are laid on shoulders and dough alike to provide support and sustenance.  Faith, caring, the strong resolve of the women of the community, and a sense of what it means to be rooted together to the land itself are the keystones of the living history we witness.

Loretta Greco directs moving, engaging sequences that help us become engaged and committed to this congregation around us.  Scenes change with no interruption, and there is a sense of everyday that feels natural and inclusive.  There are times, however, in this final preview performance when mid-scene conversations become overly mundane and slow with not much being added to the story’s progression.  And as our story enters the final five minutes, we experience a couple of false endings that frankly are confusing and head-scratching before the final, very clear and satisfying center-stage climax.  A post-bow return to congregational singing is not effective, feels forced, and diminishes greatly the final resolve of the play.

Rating: 4 E’s

Presented as a co-commission with Oregon Shakespeare Company, the world-premiere of This Golden State, Part One: Delano continues through June 14, 2015 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, San Francisco.