Sunday, January 31, 2016

"Sagittarius Ponderosa"

Sagittarius Ponderosa
MJ Kaufman

Matthew Hannon & SK Kerastas
Transitions are many and messy in most of our lives.  The changes that start a transition from what was to what will be often happen to us, not by us; but even those we initiate, we rarely control the pace or the intensity.  In MJ Kaufman’s new play, Sagittarius Ponderosa, receiving its world premiere at New Conservatory Theatre Center, transitions abound for a multi-generational family of four.  An unwanted change in abode to live once again with parents, losing one’s battle with a disease and others losing a loved one, falling in love both early and late in life, losing a new-found love, moving somewhere along the continuum from female to male – These are just some of the transitions that form a perfect storm for a mother, father, daughter/son, and grandmother.  Even one of grandest trees on earth that resides in a forest outside the family’s house, an Oregon Ponderosa, faces unwanted changes due to climate shifts.  How much these transitions are recognized and dealt with openly and honestly is a large part of what we watch in the seventy minutes of the life slice we surround in an arena set-up.  With touches of mysticism and symbolism, with a setting in both the physical and the spiritual worlds, and with the use of silent isolation of individuals intermingled with intense couplings, MJ Kaufman’s script is at times enlightening and at times confusing, at times engrossing and at times curiously stagnant, at times a success and at times more like a play still in workshop.

SK Kerastas is twenty-nine-year-old Archer, still known as Angela by his family, who has come back home begrudgingly to live (for reasons unknown to us).  Dressed in masculine attire of slouchy shirt, tight jeans, and boots and with cropped hair, walk exaggerated in swagger, and long purple-checkered handkerchief hanging from his back pocket, Archer is clearly uncomfortable at home and with his current state of life, not willing to out himself (even when each parent gives him a clear opportunity).  Neither the actor nor the script help us get to know Archer well enough to understand the whys.  SK Kerastas underplays Archer in an admiring manner, letting subtleties rule; but there is also such vagueness of most outward emotions and inner thinking that much is left to audience hypothesis and wondering.

The closest we come to seeing Archer as a feeling, interacting, reacting person is when he meets Owen, a deep-voiced, woodsy hunk who immediately comes on to Archer, first taking note of his hanging handkerchief and overall looks.  “Wanna fuck?” is almost the first words from his mouth after a few niceties; but that brashness does not at all define the kind-natured, deep-feeling Owen that Matthew Hannon so ably portrays.  Clearly he and Archer have not only the hots for each other but also a symbiotic relationship.  What is not clear in the script or direction, perhaps on purpose, is whether Owen has fallen for a masculine girl taking on a boy’s name, a person he believes is by birth male, or someone he clearly knows is transgender. 

Andy Collins is Archer’s dad, Robert, a man we are told is morbidly sick but who actually looks and mostly acts quite healthy.  He is kind in spirit, seemingly on to Archer’s transition but without actually naming it aloud, and is a troubled man contemplating alone during sleepless nights the transition he is about to make.  He also purposefully and proudly changes his name, perhaps to model to no avail to Angela that such a switch can be done in the family.  (Later, Mr. Collins doubles as an octogenarian friend and suitor of Archer’s Grandma in a manner that is fun and note-worthy by both him and Puppet Designer Dave Haaz-Baroque.)

Michaela Greeley is delightful as the deaf and devious Grandma of Archer (mother of Robert).  She brings a spry, bouncy energy to a woman who stubbornly ignores that her grandchild is not that girly and instead plots how to marry her off to a friend’s grandson.  The playwright includes a rather long pause in overall action as Grandma concocts a love potion, the details of which seem overdone for an otherwise short play where much else is left to imagination.  The potion does work for Grandma but in ways she does not intend, sending her into a life transition she at first resists but then embraces wholeheartedly.

Archer’s Mom is given the least of attention by MJ Kaufman, and thus Janis Delucia does not have much opportunity to shine in this part.  Mom is sullen, worried, and sad due to Robert’s condition; and she in a mutual tug-of-war with Archer (aka to her as Angela), although not much is developed as to the whys and wherefores of their tensions.  It feels in the end we mostly get to watch Ms. Delucia in various states of sleep – and how much can an actor do with that?

Two real strengths of the production are the set and the direction.  Christian V. Mejia cleverly creates several distinct settings in the small space provided, including a snowy, majestic Ponderosa pine and a bedroom that illustrates the uneasy, uncomfortable states of the transition of the play.  Ben Randle has taken a script that in my mind still has many issues and has underlined some of its strengths by the pace and the pauses employed.  For example, several times simultaneous scenes occur of the four family members alone in their struggles of anticipated or present transitions they face, pointing out without words how lonely dealing with change can be.

James Ard also shores up the story and atmosphere with scene setting musical compositions and sound design.  Anthony Powers has a strong lighting design, and Miriam R. Lewis’s costumes communicate powerfully the personalities and idiosyncrasies of each person.

Perhaps the biggest issue with this new play is that it is too abbreviated.  There is not enough attention and time given to character development and to revelation of motive of both each person’s actions and inactions.  On opening night, I also personally had several conversations with audience members who were quite confused and/or had developed totally different scenarios from each other of what was really going on.  While some differing interpretations are expected and can be fine for any play, I think the gray areas of this particular script go overboard.

Congratulations to New Conservatory Theatre Company for staging yet another in a long series of world premieres of LBGT-oriented plays, especially producing a play focusing on the “T.”  The fact that it does not totally work in its nascent form does not mean it is not worth the risk of viewing as long as the viewer comes knowing all is not yet perfect.

Rating: 2 E

Sagittarius Ponderosa continues through February 28, 2016, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photo by Lois Tema

Saturday, January 30, 2016

"Tigers Be Still"

Tigers Be Still
Kim Rosenstock

Akemi Okamura & Melissa Weinstein
City Lights Theater Company has taken the extremely clever script of Kim Rosenstock and produced through a fine production team and talented cast a Tigers Be Still that keeps the audience in tears – either through hundreds of reasons to laugh or a few heartthrob moments as the darkness of each of the play character’s depression gives way to a new dawning of hope.

Please follow this link to my full Talkin' Broadway review:

Rating: 4 E

Tigers Be Still continues through February 21, 2016 at City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 408-295-4200 Monday – Friday, 1-5 p.m.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

"Satchmo at the Waldorf"

Satchmo at the Waldorf
Terry Teachout

John Douglas Thompson as Louis Armstrong
Our first glimpse of him is not what we remember from those bigger-than-life pictures of his sparkling eyes shining through squinted slots, huge smile of ivories that became his trademark, and rounded face always aimed upwards ready to rasp out a familiar tune we so loved.  Across the massive dressing room stumbles a hunched-over, old man clearly exhausted and suffering from arthritic pain.  After tumbling onto an over-sized divan and taking a few whiffs from a near-by oxygen tank, his first words to us are, “I shit in myself tonight ... I ain’t kidding you folks at all.”  Like most elderly folks, he must first tell us how his “heart’s gone bad, kidneys shut down” before he can get on to the business of the evening – sharing with us, his mostly white audience and thus most probably true fans and friends, the story of his long life of joys and injustices.  Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf, superbly presented by the American Conservatory Theatre, takes us behind the scenes following one of the last performances of the famed trumpeter and singer, Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong.  First-hand, we hear of a complicated life that began in 1901 among whores in New Orleans, that skirted dangerously with the likes of Chicago gangsters Al Capone and Dutch Schultz, that filled the stages of both Southern dives and New York monolith hotels, and that overtime disgusted young African-American jazz artists who followed in his musical pioneering footsteps. 

With the familiar gravely voice, tendencies to stutter the first words of his sentence (“Bu, Bu, But” or “An, An, And”), and a smile that shines forth in quarter-moon fashion even as he chatters away, John Douglas Thompson quickly establishes that he is the great Louie so many in the audience remember – even if the stooped, hobbling man before us is only a shadow of the man we once saw on TV and movie screen.  He begins by shaking us up a bit with facts we may not have known (“I had me four wives, a whore, a piano player, and two chorus girls”) but quickly moves to more personally serious topics to tell us his side of the forty-year relationship with his manager, “my boss and my friend, Mr. Glaser,” as well as his rebuttals to the likes of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie “who treat me like shit.” 

To the former, he entrusted on an initial hand-shake a lifetime of managing his career and finances so that he could do what he did best: “I’m just an old ham actor ... in the cause of happiness.”  Over and again, Louis tells us in one breath how much he misses his one-time friend and manager, now dead two years; and in the next he bitterly calls him a “mother-fucker” for a perceived breach of that first, spoken contract between them. 

Of the young jazz greats who have turned their backs on him, he is both bitter and mystified.  Shaking his head and swearing a streak of four-letter epitaphs, Louis (“not Louie”) does not understand how they cannot see that “swinging and singing are the two biggest things I did for jazz” and why they now think of him as an “Uncle Tom” because most of his audiences “look like a carton of eggs sitting out there.” 

Mr. Thompson’s Louis is clearly proud of his lifetime of achievements, none more that seeing himself for the first time in a Loony Tunes cartoon as a trumpet-playing angel. “Can’t get any more famous than that,” he boasts in the biggest of smiles and sparkles.  He is also deeply in love with his fourth wife of thirty years, Lucille, as we see in one of the more tender moments of the evening as our Louis tells with eyes near tears how his young wife made sure he had a decorated tree waiting for him in their hotel room after a Christmas Eve show, the first he had ever had in his life.  Mr. Thompson is masterful in baring all sides of Louis Armstrong’s huge personality in authentic and believable fashion, all the time reminding us as he gingerly undresses his tux to his underwear and redresses to go upstairs in the hotel to his wife that he is old and tired, satisfied and frustrated, willing to die soon but eager still to keep living.

John Douglas Thompson as Miles Davis
What makes a good telling of the Armstrong saga all the more great are the split-second switches our one-man show does to become Glaser and Miles Davis.  In a blink of the eye, time and again our Louis goes from a limping, crumpled old man to a six-foot-plus giant who has both business man and Chicago mob written all over him.  His Glaser tells us in a back-of-throat echo, “I am Louie, Louis is me ... To me, he is like a son.”  Glaser gets ample stage time to parallel Louis’s life’s accounting, adding in his version of the details --  like how he had to carry into their tour bus food in paper bags for Louie when they were in the South because the whites who flocked to his shows would not let him come into their restaurants.  As Glaser, John Douglas Thompson unveils a different tale from Louis’s, one also full of anguish as well as satisfaction with the way things played out between them and one that makes our hearing Louis’s anger over perceived breach of trust even more sad.

When turning into the young Miles Davis, no less remarkable transformation occurs by Mr. Thompson. The soft, breathy Davis admonishes his sometime hero for just wanting “to make all those white folks happy ... like some old-time darky.”  In exasperation, he asks us, “Why can’t he wipe that grin off his face?”  -- the very grin most of us in the audience still adore seeing.

If there is any slight disappointment in Mr. Teachout’s script or Mr. Thompson’s depiction of Louis Armstrong, it is that while we hear over and again as he caresses and cleans his horn, “My life, my soul, my everything came out of this trumpet” and as he tells us, “When I sing, I smile,” we get to hear almost no music in this ninety minute tour de force.  Probably everyone arrives expecting this to be a mixture of his singing and playing the trumpet; and we just have to readjust our incoming outlook as we clearly enjoy the fantastic, highly entertaining show we get instead (as witnessed by the instantaneous standing ovation in the end).

Gordon Edelstein has directed a flow of stories and characters that never misses a beat, neither too fast nor too slow.  Set in the kind of magnificent dressing room one might expect of the famed Waldorf Astoria, the play quickly announces when Glaser or Gillespie have taken over Armstrong’s body by wonderful reflections of other scenes in Set Designer Lee Savage’s plateau of mirrors across the back wall.  Kevin Adams’ lighting design also accentuates beautifully the changes of mood and scene that quickly occur throughout.

American Conservatory Theatre presents a gift to its San Francisco audience by bringing John Douglas Thompson and Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf to the Geary Theatre.  This is an opportunity not to be missed.

Rating:  5 E

Satchmo at the Waldorf continues through February 5, 2016, at the Geary Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"Gem of the Ocean"

Gem of the Ocean
August Wilson

Juney Smith, Namir Smallwood, David Everett Moore & Margo Hall

Through her walled displays that could as easily be in an art gallery as on a theatre’s stage, Kimberlee Koym-Murteira captures the essence of the themes and stories of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean.  A beautiful liquid prism wall of overlapping squares of many shades of blue recalls the journey of slaves across the Atlantic.  Wooden chairs (one with a washboard as backing) hung on a wall, to be used as needed and then returned, speak to a people that have had, time and again, to set themselves down in humble settings before picking up and moving on again.  A massive collage of scenes from the 1904 Hill District of Pittsburgh both establish the time and the location of the story and the nature of the intertwined stories that will act as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to paint an overall picture of the past, present, and future of Africans come to America.   Finally, the walls all rest on a floor that suggests that great, faraway continent where the ancestors of those we will meet were so horribly separated forever.  Marin Theatre Company presents a soaring, sensitive, and -- in every way imaginable -- sensational production of this first of August Wilson’s plays about the African American experience in the ten decades of the Twentieth Century.

The beginning of any new century is often full of hope while still carrying the consequences of the past one.  The collage of stories of those living and passing through 1839 Wylie Avenue are of those who remember slavery, those who risked lives for theirs and others’ freedom, those who are working hard to establish their own roots in what is in essence a new world for them, and those who are still running from oppression toward hoped-for salvation.  Framing all the pieces of our evening’s puzzle is a too-familiar story, then and now.  An African-American man is accused wrongly of a petty crime (in this case, stealing a bucket of nails from a local mill) and ends in his committing suicide, choosing to die as an innocent rather than be falsely jailed.  This atrocity inflames this 1904 Black community, resulting in an uprising and an act of destructive defiance that will be repeated over and again in Watts, Boston, Memphis, Baltimore, and too many other American cities.  As background music (composed and directed by Kevin Carnes) of distant African chants, moaning hymns born in slavery, early jazz notes, and later hints of honky-tonk and even rap so profoundly alert us, August Wilson’s play is truly one of yesteryear, yesterday, and today.

Margo Hall
Our setting is the home of Aunt Esther, a former slave who declares matter-of-factly her age to be 285 years old, meaning she was born the year the first African arrived on American shores.  As a conjurer, healer, and master storyteller, Aunt Esther is the history of her people in all she seems to know of the past, to instinct of the present, and to see of the future.  Her long, earth-mother dress has a patchwork of faces on it (as we learn in our program) of the likes of Emmett Till, Mike Brown, and Oscar Grant; and her dangling jewelry and beads speak to the African journey from original roots to present day (all thanks to Katherine Nowacki’s both symbolic and time-authentic costuming).  Margo Hall is a gigantic presence in the petite, aged body of Aunt Esther.  Her face speaks volumes in both its radiance and in its furrows; and her piercing, miles-deep eyes both have seen and do see more than most mortals around her.  Aunt Esther’s raspy voice is both clear and confident with clairvoyant guidance to those seeking help and loving and calming in moments of soothing the pains of others around her.  There is no doubting her when she declares, “It is man that takes God’s creation and turns it over to the devil” or when she commands, “If the world don’t turn the right way, you got to fix it.”

Living with Aunt Esther are Eli and Black Mary.  Eli is an ex-slave who cares now for Aunt Esther; talks in slow, measured cadence; and knows that freedom does not come easy for the Black man: “You got a long row to hoe, and you ain’t got no plow ... you ain’t got no mule.”  David Everett Moore is solid in his conveyance of this man who is doing all he can, including building a wall of rocks, to protect his adopted family from the evils he sees around them.

As Black Mary, Omoze Idehenre conveys a woman who is eager to help Aunt Esther but to do so in her own independent way.  A large woman with broad shoulders ready to offer others’ comfort, she is also exceptionally light on her feet and graceful with her hands and arms as she, like others around her, silently and spontaneously illustrates in mime-fashion both her and others’ stories --  a technique Director Daniel Alexander James poetically uses throughout to connect current words to the tribal mystical traditions of the past. 

David Everett Moore, Juney Smith & Omoze Idehenre
Juney Smith is the ex-slave and former conductor of the Underground Railroad, Solly Two Kings, whose notched cane is marked to remember the sixty-three slaves he rescued.  Solly is about once again to take that cane and to walk the 800 miles to rescue his sister desperate to leave an Alabama whose laws are about to make it impossible for the great immigration of Blacks to the North to continue.  Mr. Smith’s Solly is a big, burly man whose heart and smile reach out to all around him and whose cheerful outlook betrays his harsh past and present: “You know how they say you should count your blessings?  I can’t count that far.”  Mr. Moore effectively conveys Eli’s determination of singular purpose that will play itself out in major ways for the family and community around him.

Invading the home on Wylie Avenue through an open window is a recent immigrant from the dreaded Alabama, a young, shy, and handsome Citizen Barlow, whose very name underlines the next-generation’s goal of leaving their parents’ slavery behind to find their rightful place in America.  However, before he can move on to settle into this new realm, Citizen must first beg Aunt Esther to “soul wash” him of a huge guilt plaguing him.  Namir Smallwood’s accounting of the ritual his newly found family leads him through is frightening, mesmerizing, and awe-inspiring as he rides an ethereal ship (the “Gem of the Ocean”) to a City of (African) Bones.  His voice rises and falls as the waves of the ocean he crosses; his body writhes in the mental pain he must go through understanding the trials of the past; and his face beams with the redemption he eventually finds by understanding first-hand the history of his people.

Rounding out this excellent cast are two opposites.  Tyee J. Tilghman is Black Mary’s stern but striking brother, Caesar Wilkes, whose success and standing in the majority white community of Pittsburgh as a police officer has come at the expense of the Blacks he pursues for petty crimes like stealing nails.  Mr. Tilghman in cool and evil demeanor embodies the worst of legal righteousness too often to be echoed later in the century when he justifies his actions as “The law is everything; you got to respect the law.”   On the other hand, Patrick Kelly Jones masterfully plays a wily, homespun tinker, Rutherford Selig, whose genuine love and liking for Aunt Esther’s clan is clearly reciprocated and who seems to be the playwright’s way of saying that there are in fact some good whites in this world.

Marin Theatre Company takes a play done in the past in magnificent fashion on much larger stages like A.C.T. and Oregon Shakespeare and totally gives it new interpretation and life that will live on for years in the memories of all who attend this special production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean.

Rating: 5 E

Gem of the Ocean continues through February 14, 2016 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-388-5208, Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 5 p.m.

Photo Credits:  Kevin Berne

"The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee"

The Full Cast

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
William Finn (Music & Lyrics); Rachel Sheinkin (Book)
Conceived by Rebecca Feldman; Additional Material by Jay Reiss

Even though we are collectively fast losing all abilities to calculate numbers, write in cursive, or spell almost any word without technology’s help, we do still have a fascination with that increasingly anachronistic school and community event, the spelling bee.  Evidence the continued popularity on stages all across America and the globe of the hilariously touching and even life-lesson-teaching The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a 2005 winner of multiple Tonys.   

Hillbarn Theatre welcomes the Putnam County whiz kids in a solid and heart-warming Bee full of F-U-N for all.  Please follow the link to my full review on Talkin' Broadway:

Rating: 3 E

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues through February 7, 2016, at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City, California.  Tickets are available at .

Photo Credit: M. Kitaoka

Sunday, January 24, 2016

"The Nether"

The Nether
Jennifer Haley

The Cast of "The Nether"
Already we live in a world where increasingly people are more apt to converse with a colleague in the next-door cube or the date across the dining table online versus in person.  Millions escape to imaginary lands to fight battles and kill invaders as well as to plant farms, sell goods, or solve world problems in games where co-participants are global and never met in person.  Soon, refrigerators will ascertain by our facial expression what we most want to eat; cars will whisk us where we want to go while we sleep or have a cocktail; and we will visit virtually and in real time any museum’s exhibit in the world.  How far out in the future is there a virtual world where anyone can create a personally constructed wonderland realm, invite others to enter, and live for some extended time away from a real world that for whatever reasons, is not the place one wants to be?  What rules will apply in that other world?  If we can already kill millions with imaginary guns today in the virtual gaming world, what are the limits what we can and cannot do tomorrow in the next generation Internet?  Who decides?  Who regulates?  Through presenting Jennifer Haley’s gripping, The Nether, San Francisco Playhouse invites us to ask these and many more intriguing and often troubling questions – questions that will continue to crop into our heads days, maybe weeks after exiting the excellent production.

Through the combined geniuses of Nina Ball (Set), Michael Oesch (Lighting), and Theodore J.H. Hulsker (Sound) and under the skillful eyes and direction of Bill English, four scenes magically swirl before us:  One in a real world where evidently no longer there are gardens, flowers, or trees and three in a beautiful, Victorian realm that exists in The Nether, the future generation of today’s Internet.  (Note, ‘nether’ literally means ‘situated or believed to below the earth’s summit.’)  All we see of the real world is a harshly lit, gray walled, claustrophobic room on stage’s edge where a metallic table and two chairs provide the setting for intense interrogations.  When we go into the Nether, we enter lavish rooms of yesteryear with flocked wallpaper, plush furniture, a Victrola playing beautiful music, and green trees galore in park-like environs.  To the latter add a little girl’s richly embroidered dress with layered, peeping-out petticoats or a man’s well-tailored vested suit clearly speaking of the late 19th Century; and in the stark, real world, imagine a fiercely intense questioner dressed all in black with leather jacket and tight pants and boots.  Brooke Jennings’s costumes round out this team’s talents in creating two contrasting worlds that change before us in a matter of a handful of blackened-out seconds.

To populate the above real and nether worlds and to tell a story that unfolds its mysteries in 80 or so sit-on-the-edge-of-your-seat minutes is a cast that to a person is one of the best assembled in many a play at SF Playhouse.  Rubio Qian is the hard-faced, forever-pushing interrogator Morris, whose authority to seek information from the men who one-by-one sit nervously before her is never clear to us and whose main threat seems to be, “You can walk out of here; but if you do, we will rescind your password, and you’ll never login again.”  With eyes that pierce to the core, Ms. Qian is relentlessly persistent and terrifying in some strange, undefined way yet never physically threatens her targets as scenes of interrogation alternate with those of the more beautiful and seemingly enjoyable Victorian world of someone’s imagination, a place we learn is “The Hideaway.”

For reasons that we do not know immediately, Morris’s chief focus is on Mr. Sims, the tall, long-faced, balding Warren David Keith who has evidently been instrumental in creating a world where “we offer a life without consequence.”  Sims is the one character we see as himself in both real and virtual bodies.  In each, he is mostly soft-spoken but with intent of purpose.  In the Nether, he is known as “Papa;” and with that name comes a tenderness, a playfulness, and a way of just appearing from nowhere that is unsettling and more and more nerve-racking.

Louis Parnell & Rubio Qian
In any investigation, someone has to be pushed eventually to squeal.  A married-with-daughter, award-winning teacher of middle school (who also helps out in Sunday School), Mr. Doyle seems to be the one Morris is counting on to provide her the means to her unclear-to-us ends.  Frequent Bay Area and Playhouse favorite, Louis Parnell, may have secured the role of a lifetime as he embodies the gentle, nervous, so-sad Mr. Doyle.  From the first time we see him under Morris’ gaze, how can we not notice his shaking hands reaching to comfort his down-trodden face, his eyes blankly staring to the floor with shocked looks of a deer in headlights, or his voice that quivers on the verge of crying yet never quite going there?  Mr. Doyle holds clues we and Morris want to know more about; yet at the same time, Louis Parnell ensures Doyle has our sympathy and hope that he is actually innocent of any wrong-doing.

Into the pretty Nether world cautiously appears a young, handsome Mr. Woodnut in tweed coat and vest, trim beard, and looks to kill.  Josh Schell adds his own twists in the mounting mysteries that get more eerie and uncomfortable as the minutes tick by.  He befriends our final character, pre-teen Iris, who is more like a live doll that a real girl.  But in this virtual realm, all is concocted, including her draping curls, the perfectly falling folds of her blue dress, and a face that could melt any one’s heart.   

Carmen Steele
Twelve-year-old Carmen Steele brings a maturity of acting well beyond her years into a very difficult role that again and again pushes the story and us to an edge of an abyss we dare not enter but are forced to peer over.  She is masterful in her innocence and yet behind those full-moon eyes and red-lipped smile a half-mile wide, there are secrets too dark to ponder.  (Please note that the role of Iris alternates between Carmen Steele and Matilda Holtz.  Audiences are encouraged to see the play twice for two different interpretations.)

What is Morris trying to uncover and for whom?  Why is discovering the location of a server more important than nailing a perpetrator?  How far away is the world of tomorrow supposed to be: Later this century or later this year?  So many questions, intriguing and disturbing emerge in this nail-biter.  Once again we are reminded live theatre exists not just to entertain but to challenge, not just to leave us elated but to cause some unease.   San Francisco Playhouse rises to new heights of daring excellence in presenting The Nether, a play that will remain in each audience member’s psyche for a long, long time.

Rating: 5 E

The Nether continues through March 5, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at or by calling 415-677.9596.

Photo Credits:  Jessica Palopoli

"Jersey Boys"

Jersey Boys
Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice (Book)
Bob Gaudio (Music); Bob Crewe (Lyrics)

Keith Hines, Matthew Dailey, Aaron De Jesus & Drew Seeley
What is it about the 2005, multi-Tony-award-winning Jersey Boys in its third U.S. tour and third visit to San Francisco that still results in a standing ovation, sold-out Opening Night and a beginning of yet another extended four-week run?  Is it the set of over-thirty songs (Bob Gaudio, music, and Bob Crewe, lyrics) that, as one actor (Matthew Dailey) in a pre-show Q&A told this reviewer, “These songs are the stories of people’s lives, that bring back hosts of memories of where they were, when, and with whom”?  Is it the harmonies of voices that blend in magical ways, or the incredible personal vocal ranges and sterling singing qualities that this and all previous casts have consistently displayed?  Is it a book (Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) that tells a compelling, heretofore-unknown story of the ups and downs of a famous jukebox group?  Or is it the precise, totally synchronized movements of the four singers’ bodies where hips and heads, arms and legs, single fingers and total torsos all mirror each other with split-second speed (thanks to choreographer Sergio Turjillo)?  For this return visit to SHN Orpheum Theatre where the first national tour began in 2006 breaking all box office records, the answers are all resounding yes’s to these and many more aspects of yet another winning production of Jersey Boys.

The story of this group that, as the program notes, “sold over 175 million records worldwide, all before any of the members turned 30,” is told in four sections matching the four seasons of the year.  Each member of the quartet narrates one part of the time-sequenced story, putting his particular spin on a history that is full of false starts, sky-rocketing successes, personal tragedies, and personal loyalties thicker than blood as well as lies and betrayals that lead to break-ups, personally and professionally.  And the narrations are of course frequently punctuated by the sounds of songs as old friends once heard on 45s and still heard decades later on any streaming service to our phones. 

Matthew Dailey begins the story with the “Spring” section as the dimpled, cocky, heavy-Jersey-accented Tommy DeVito, self-proclaimed founder and leader of the group (and also occasional visitor to what he calls the “Broadway Correctional Institute” – or prison).  Taking us through his search for just the right foursome as the earlier versions of trios and quartets play small clubs and street corners (“Silhouettes” and “You’re the Apple of My Eye”), Matthew Dailey rouses the audience with his gorgeous crooning with full company backup in “Earth Angel.”

The All-American-looking, clean-cut Bob Gaudio (Drew Seeley), who at 15 had already had a #1 hit, “Short Shorts,” picks up the story of “Summer” as he becomes the fourth piece of the pie.  His joining and his talented song-writing leads to the first three big hits, delivered by the four leads in a rousing, toe-tapping sequence of melodies and harmonies that the audience can hardly hold back singing along:  “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like a Man.”  (The hits also coincide finally finding the right name, inspired by a neon “Four Seasons” sign on a bowling ally.)  Drew Seeley as Bob then brings crystal clarity and a radiant spirit as he leads the entire ensemble belting perfectly the ever-popular “December, 1963 (Oh What a Night).” 

Standing like a tall, lanky giant with a singing bass voice astoundingly rich and deep and a talking voice slow, measured, and usually soft-spoken, Keith Hines is Tommy’s long-time friend from the neighborhood and singing partner from the beginning, Nick Massi.  While providing the solid, ever-beautiful foundation for the quartet’s close harmonies, Mr. Hines is also exceptionally funny with Nick’s under-breath comments (always suggesting “Maybe I’ll form my own group” to everyone’s rolled-eyes dismal) and when he describes in non-characteristic frenzy ten years of wet towel torments while rooming with Tommy on the road.

And with “Winter” comes the side of the story we have been most wanting to hear, that of the real star of the Four Seasons who eventually becomes the name in front of it all, Frankie Valli.  Aaron de Jesus steps into the role that won John Lloyd Young a Best Actor in a Musical Tony; and he carries on the tradition superbly as the diminutive, angel-voiced Frankie, taking his several-octave range into falsetto heavens with total ease and confidence.  He also solos in numbers that become further proof of the original Valli’s unique talents that have struck chords deep within listeners around the globe for generations (e.g., “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” and “Fallen Angel”).  Aaron de Jesus is totally convincing in not only his singing but in his ability to convey the deep hurts Valli causes and feels, the blind devotion to those who helped him (even when they harm him later on), and the extreme drive that he has to connect with his audiences with a message that can touch each one of them singularly and meaningfully.

Supporting this star-studded foursome is a cast of equally talented veterans of many Broadway, touring, and regional credits.  Among them, Lauren Tartaglia excels as Frankie’s first wife, the fiery in red hair and in disposition, Mary Delgado.  She joins Frankie and the Four Seasons for a heart-touching and closely harmonized “My Eyes Adored You.”  Barry Anderson is the bubbly, boyish Bob Crewe who brings as producer the newly formed Four Seasons into their real fame.  Thomas Fiscella is totally believable as the serious but sentimental mob boss, Gyp De Carlo, who loans questionable-sourced money that both keeps the group alive and eventually leads to disillusion among the original members. 

The two-leveled, erector-like set of Klara Zieglerova is enhanced by scenic pieces that magically and quickly appear and recede as needed.  Lighting by Howell Binkley is a real star in this production (as it was in the original Broadway production where a Tony was awarded) along with projections designed by Michael Clark that highlight nightclub marquees where the group is performing as well as Lichtenstein-style cartoons to illustrate songs and scenes.  Jess Goldstein contributes costumes that reflect the rather conservative donning of the Four Seasons as well as the sparkling dresses of the women on stage of the era.  All is held together with precision and seamless flow by Director Des McAnuff.

Third time around may sound like one too many times for some shows, but for the current touring version of Jersey Boys, this SHN Orpheum Theatre production is yet-again one not to be missed -- whether seeing for the first time or the second, third, or whatever time.

Rating: 5 E

Jersey Boys will continue its SHN Orpheum Theatre run through February 14, 2016 at 1192 Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photo Credit:  Jeremy Daniel

Thursday, January 21, 2016

"Swift Justice"

Swift Justice
Tom McEnery
Based on the Book
Swift Justice: Murder and Vengeance in a California Town
By Harry Farrell

The Cast
A world premiere play about one dark blemish in San Jose’s history valiantly attempts to tell to 21st Century citizens a Depression-Era tale of murder and mob revenge but does so much more like a newspaper column that a drama on stage.  The result is that Tom McEnery’s Swift Justice at The Tabard Theatre Company unfortunately fails as a compelling script for live performance even as it draws in totally pre-sold-out audiences.  My full review is available at Talkin' Broadway:  

Rating: 1 E

Swift Justice continues its pre-sold-out run at The Tabard Theatre Company through January 24, 2016 at The Theatre on Pedro Square, 29 North San Pedro Street, San Jose.  While no tickets are left for this run, tickets are available for the upcoming I Do! I Do!, running February 12-28 by going online at or by calling 408-679-2330.

Photo by Edmond Kwong/Imagewurx.