Friday, September 30, 2016

"The Brothers Size"

The Brothers Size
Tarell Alvin McCraney

Julian Green, Gabriel Christian & LaKeidrick S. Wimberly
With a tribal air of a long-ago continent or of fields in the another century’s cotton-filled South, three young, black men dance in a trance-like state and sing with moaning tone and hum, “The road is rough ... hmmm, haaaah ... Lord God, it’s rough and hard.” 

And so begins in an imaginary dream state Tarell Alvin McCraney’s intense, moving The Brothers Size, a play about the relationships of two sets of brothers -- one defined by blood and one by unspoken love.  Theatre Rhinoceros revives for San Francisco this play first introduced in 2010 at the Magic Theatre as the second part of a Bay Area shared production of the playwright’s The Brother/Sister Trilogy.  Its haunting mixture of music and movement combines with scenes of high emotional exploration of the boundaries to which love can be pushed and still survive.  With a cast of three, highly talented actors who stretch their own limits of expression, verbally and non-verbally, Theatre Rhinoceros presents The Brothers Size.

LaKeidrick S. Wimberly & Gabriel Christan
The plot of the 100-minute-long The Brothers Size is quite straightforward and somewhat predictable in its basic storyline.  A prodigal son -- in this case brother -- returns home to his hard-working brother after a stint in the state penitentiary.  The garage-owing, older brother is very worried that the younger, fun-loving sibling will once again get into trouble and is thus perhaps overly protective and harsh with him.  Especially troublesome for the older Size is the new, best bro that the younger Size brother met and shared space with in the pen – a jiving guy who seems to have too much sway and influence on the emotions, plans, and desires of his still unemployed brother.  The relationships among the three bump along a hard and swerving road with acute moments of dreamed and real-life contact and confrontation, intimacy and struggle that play out among the various twosomes.  On a dark, country road after a night of movies, clubbing, and joy-riding, a relationship built on un-vocalized, not-totally-understood love comes to a climax just as a cop’s blinking light pulls up along side.  Betrayal, sacrifice, and tough love decisions follow in a sequence of heart-breaking scenes as the truth and nature is revealed of the relationships thus far explored.

The names of the three actors draw on the traditions and deities of the West African Yoruban tribes.  The older Size brother and brawny auto-mechanic is Ogun, the name of the Yoruban god of iron and known as a warrior who oversees deals and contracts.  LaKeidrick S. Wimberly is a giant of a muscled man, reserved and nonchalant when absorbed in his work but massively angry and explosive when overtaken by his exasperation and worry with his brother.  In one such moment late in the play, he rises over his smaller, younger brother with big hands outstretched in vexation as he preaches at the cowering brother his rants, his warnings, and his deep-rooted concerns in rhythmic waves as if from a pulpit.  But after such moments, he also tends to soften, reveal a slight smile and caring eyes, and open up to reveal a heart full of forgiveness and love.

Gabreil Christian is Oshoosi Size, named by the playwright for a divine, cunning hunter associated with the human struggle for survival.  His Oshoosi brings a smile draped in big dimples to many of his interactions, ribbings, pleas, and dreaming.  He flops on the bed to hide from possible employment, jumps high in the air with an idea for fun, and hugs with boylike admiration his startled brother.  But when he hurts or is hurt, his Oshoosi suddenly shows another sullen, sad side of not-so-happy-go-lucky.  And put in close proximity to the friend met in prison, a deep well of emotions and desires often emerge that seem to trouble as well as mysteriously arouse him.

LaKeidrick S. Wimberly, Gabriel Christian & Julian Green
That friend is Elegba, a Puck-like character who seems suddenly to appear from nowhere to tempt Oshoosi, to irritate Ogun, and to fill the scene with his energy and excitement for a life with few restraints.  Named by the playwright for the guardian of life’s crossroads but a god also known for his trickery and chaos, Elegba fully lives up to his African name as he opens up avenues for Oshoosi’s wavering from the straight and narrow path that Ogun desires him to tread.  The gift of a car or the lingering touch of their passing, bare-chested bodies each brings Oshoosi another big step away from Ogun’s control and influence.  Julian Green glides and slithers with both zeal and stealth in and out of the life of Oshoosi, bringing a passion for his friend that seems genuine ... until it does not.

Powerful in this production is the use of dance and movement as choreographed by Laura Elaine Ellis (with additional choreography by Daryl V. Jones).  Various inserted sequences recall a proud and noble history of native Africa, a rich history of hip hop and jazz, and a shameful history of injustice to the black man in slave fields and prison chain gangs.

So much works in the portrayals these three actors of their characters, but unfortunately there are several flaws of the production that diminish some of the final power of performance.  Margaret Adair MacCormack’s set combined with Wesley Rou’s lighting is big in scope with its large sky backdrop; its tall, skeletal, partial doorway that has the hint of a gallows, and its scattered metal, tire, and trappings of a garage.  That set and the changing lighting scheme at times distracts from the powerful dialogue occurring within it, making me wish for something much more barren and simple. 

Distracting too is in the way Darryl V. Jones directs the delivery of the playwright’s parenthetical script notes that the actors emote -- the kind of lines that one reads in a story announcing a quote, a mood, or a movement.  These too often interrupt the mood of the moment in the way they are delivered with too much emphasis and/or humor. 

Finally, this is a play where music plays a big part of the message delivery; and Oshoosi himself is touted as a gifted singer.  Unfortunately, the sung portions of this production often do not match in quality the rest of the actors’ excellent performances.

But when it comes to the story’s climax and its preceding threads of relationship exploration and boundary testing by these three men, Theatre Rhinoceros in the end has delivered a moving, thought-provoking rendition of The Brothers Size.  Especially for anyone who has missed earlier Bay Area productions, The Rhino’s interpretation is one that is well-worth a visit to the Eureka Theatre.

Rating: 3 E

The Brothers Size runs through October 15, 2016 at at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at or by calling 1-800-838-3006.

Photos by Stephen Ho

Sunday, September 25, 2016

"Other Desert Cities"

Other Desert Cities
Jon Robin Baitz
City Lights Theater Company
Lauren Tothero, Jeff Kramer & Mary Gibboney
It’s Christmas 2004 in a Jewish home in the desert; and the family is going through morning, holiday rituals before heading to the club for crab claws and roasted pork. 

Welcome to the loving Wyeth household, where a family reunion threatens in a matter of a few short hours to turn into family dissolution.  City Lights Theater Company opens its 34th season with the Pulitzer runner-up of 2012 by Jon Robin Baitz, Other Desert Cities, in a production that is magnificently directed to near perfection by John McCluggage.

Please click to my full review on Talkin' Broadway:

Rating: 5 E

Other Desert Cities continues through October 23, 2016 at at 529 South Second Street, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at

Photo by Taylor Sanders.


Saturday, September 24, 2016

"Waiting fot Godot"

Waiting for Godot
Samuel Beckett
Dragon Productions Theatre Company

Robert Sean Campbell, Jim Johnson, Ronald Feichtmeir & Michael Champlin
It is about something, surely.  It is about everything, maybe.  It is about nothing, probably not.  And whatever it is about, it all happens twice, in two acts, in two days.

Producer and Director Jeanie Smith joins the vast parade of those before her to bring her vision of the iconic play Waiting for Godot to the Second Stage Series of Dragon Productions Theatre Company.

Please follow the link for my full, Talkin' Broadway review:

Rating: 3 E

Waiting for Godot continues through October 2, 2016 as part of Dragon Productions Theatre Company’s Second Stage Series.  The play is presented on its main stage at 2120 Broadway Street, Redwood City, CA. Tickets are available online at or by calling 650-493-2006.

Photo by Dragon Productions Theatre Company


Thursday, September 22, 2016

"King Charles III"

King Charles III
Mike Bartlett

Robert Joy as Charles
What is it about us Americans that we have such a fascination with the very Crown and its royals that almost 250 years ago we fought a revolution to escape?  And when we hear the accented speech of that faraway Isle, why do we tend to go gaga and give immediate credence to whoever is speaking?  Whatever the reasons, Mike Bartlett’s 2015 Olivier winning play, King Charles III, that is now opening the American Conservatory Theatre’s 50th season has all the ingredients to wow its San Francisco audiences.  The Windsor family members we have glued ourselves to see on TV screens at all hours of the night during weddings and funerals are all there (Charles, Camilla, Princes William and Harry, Duchess Kate, and even Princess Diana).  There is near-scandal and open rebellion; inside scoop from within the thick walls of Buckingham Palace and raucous debates of shouting ministers inside Parliament; and a bad boy prince, an adored angel’s ghost, and two royal wives full of ambition for their would-be-king husbands.  What more can we Americans ask for at a time when we are universally OD’d with the daily disappointments of our own, current election cycle?

With a requiem mass echoing majestically all around them, the “future history” play opens with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and a line-up of royals stoically mourning with no shown emotion.  William, who confides to us that  “my life has been a lingering for the throne,” has his first official meeting with the Prime Minister – a meeting where he discovers two bits of news that do sit well at all in the head that is soon to be resident of the kingdom’s crown.  As it turns out, as king it is his constitutional duty to sign all bills passed by Parliament even if he disagrees with them; and the first one looking for his pen and putting new restrictions on the freedom of the press is one he immediately dislikes in no uncertain terms.  The fact that he refuses to do what his mother always did and just sign on the dotted line leads to unforeseen repercussions in the hallowed halls of Parliament, in the streets outside his very palace’s walls, and in the sanctuary of his own family’s quarters.  The ultimate outcome of his noble stand based his notion of historical role of his to-be nobility becomes a script with twists he does not foresee – especially when his former wife returns in ghostly form to declare to him, “You’ll be the greatest king we’ve ever had.”

With reddened eyes deep set that join with bushy eyebrows expressively to emote their own emotion, passion, and determination, Robert Joy brings to stage life a Charles that may surprise an audience who will attempt to compare him to the real-life Charles we have watched waiting in the shadows for years finally to rule.  This Charles is forthright and daring and is willing to push beyond boundaries his mother never crossed in order to make his opinions known.  He is animated with waving hands and shows alacrity of full body movement as he makes clear his points and presses his questions for understanding the ins and outs of a constitution that is sometimes more tradition-defined than chronicled in ink. With a voice that can ring with new-found authority as well as embrace with heart-felt affection, he also carries a face that maps in its well-worn grooves years of waiting and preparation for this very moment and lights up in color and brilliance as his courage to act increases.  Mr. Joy is stellar in these and a dozen more dimensions that all add up to a performance near perfect. 

Around him is a cast full of actors who each bring authenticity, intrigue, and individual nuance to their characters.  In contrast to his father’s fully expressed passions, tall and handsome Prince William (Christopher McLinden) is much more reserved, almost statuesque, and quite formal -- at least until the ambition of his wife persuades him to rev up his gears to fuller velocity.  His brother, Prince Harry, is in the mold of Prince Hal of Shakespeare fame and of the reputation of the real Harry Windsor we read about in the tabloids.  Harry Smith is outstanding in his rambunctious, rebellious rendering of a prince who wants out of palace walls and their age-old expectations and instead wants a life of fast food restaurants, a suburban home, and a possible wife from a no-name family.

The women paired with all three of the royal men are great contrasts among themselves, each being a power and influence behind her man.  Michelle Beck is a nightclub surprise meet-up for Harry named Jessica who immediately besots him in ways that even surprise her.  She brings a confidence of her own self, an inherent depth of wisdom and intuition, and a sense of street-learned adventure (as well as a lot of sexy instincts to match and play well into Harry’s hormonal risings). 

Jeanne Paulsen is the loyal, quick-to-defend wife of Charles, Camilla, a step-mother clearly not that loved and only tolerated by Diana’s sons.  Her non-royal but quite gentrified bloodline shows in her perfectly poised dignity, exacting speech spoken from deep in the throat, and definite opinions about her husband’s legitimacy to assert his kingly rights.  

Rounding out this female trio is Kate (Allison Jean White), the Cinderella bride of William whom all the country seems to adore.  Kate has the ability to hide behind her beauty a calculating, no-holes-barred ability to do whatever necessary to be sure the next king and queen will be whom she believes they should be.

Three others are pulling puppet strings to manipulate to their desired outcome Charles’ decision not to sign the press freedom bill.  Ian Merrill Peakes is Prime Minister Evans who comes to have tea and a perfunctory weekly chat with the new king-to-be and walks away with neck reddened, veins popping, and hands in frozen grips of frustration.  His chief rival in Parliament, opposition leader Mr. Stevens (Bradford Farwell), is all smiles in his confidential suggestions of tactics to a grateful Charles but shows his sleazy side as politician as he loudly opposes the next throne’s inhabitant when put in front of cameras, press, and fellow politicians.  And with hints of treachery akin to Othello’s Iago, James Reiss (Dan Hiatt) is Charles’ palace secretary who carries behind his all-seeing, always-judging, tight-faced countenance the willingness to betray for a good he sees greater than personal loyalty.  All three of these veteran actors play their parts to the hilt in convincing, conniving manners.

Every aspect of this stunning production by a stellar, creative team of artists is worthy of headline accolades.  Daniel Ostling’s set is massively impressive with its kingly statues looking down from their high-perched alcoves onto the arch-filled walls of an inner Buckingham hall.  Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design is flawless in execution and regal in its results as eyes are shifted to catch singular stage moments or are opened wide to take in full-stage, lusciously lit grandeur. 

Without a doubt, the play would lose much of its overall sense of awe without the original music and design by Mark Bennett as the sounds of ceremony, protest, and parliamentarians all surround and engulf with crystal clarity at the needed times.  The costumes of every day life and royal proceedings have been magnificently generated by Jennifer Moeller’s imagination and impeccable sense of style.  Finally, the moments of tension and tenderness, of suspense and surprise, and of tough calls and tough love masterfully come to be due to the directorial prowess of David Muse.

And as if all the above indicators were not enough for even the casual reader to run to the nearest computer or phone to get a ticket for King Charles III before all the ACT slots sell out, get ready for the icing on the royal cake.  Mike Bartlett’s brilliant script is largely written in the Bard’s own iambic pentameter verse – full of the kinds of metaphors, unique phrasings, colorful words, and even occasional rhymed couplets that the Master’s audiences always love.  When delivered by the phenomenal cast of the American Conservatory Theatre, the music of Shakespeare sings through in the telling of a tale that William himself would surely have been proud to pen.

Rating: 5 E

King Charles III continues through October 9, 2016, on the Geary Stage of the American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at  415-749-2228.

Photos Credit:  Kevin Berne

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"August: Osage County"

August: Osage County
Tracy Letts

The Cast of "August: Osage County"
Without a doubt, the star of Marin Theatre Company’s daring, innovative production of the wildly popular, dark family comedy by Tracy Letts, August: Osage County, is J. B. Wilson’s set.  The multi-storied, multi-room weathered-wood and metal-framed skeleton with no solid walls enables lines from the script to take on greatly enhanced meanings – lines like “You know this house is falling apart.”  When the aging patriarch of the Weston family looks around in sweeping motion to point out “all the garbage we’ve acquired, our life’s work,” all we see is a house with nothing in it but its hollowed-out framing, a few wooden beds with no mattresses, and one massive table.  And it is that table that dominates everything, rising like a middle banister to two rickety staircases going up in steep incline, slanted so precariously that it appears it could flip any moment right on top of the near-by audience.  For a play that exposes in sordid details a dysfunctional family in its last stages of any semblance of being a family, the table where they gather says it all in terms of how warped their relationships really are.

The issue with this production’s star, the scenic design, is that it so dominates and calls attention to itself that time and again, it becomes a distraction, especially when coupled with the decisions made by Director Jasson Minadakis.  Because of the permeability of the many rooms and levels of this frame-only house, we often see the house’s multiple inhabitants and their slightest movements and mimes while also trying to focus on the main interaction of the moment.  Other times during certain altercations, chases, and conflicts, I found myself so fascinated how an actor is going to manipulate those steps without tripping and even at times so concerned about actors’ safety that I forgot to listen to the lines being delivered. 

With an Oklahoma drawl slow and dignified, the aging patriarch of the Weston family, Beverly (Will Marchetti), opens the play by quoting his favorite poet, T.S. Elliot, “Life is very long.”  As he interviews a local girl of Cherokee heritage, Johnna, to be a live-in housekeeper for the family (something his wife has no idea he is doing), he wryly admits, “My wife takes pills, and I drink – That’s the bargain we’ve struck.”  Later, he tells her in what turns out to be a foreboding of what is to come, “The place is not in such bad shape – not yet” (another line that causes a chuckle, given J.B. Wilson’s set).  Bad enough, however, that after this prologue, the play opens with Beverly’s having mysteriously disappeared, with all the immediate and extended family heading home to worry and console, soon to mourn, but mostly it turns out, to bicker and battle with full vigor and venom.

Violet Weston is the matriarch of this clan who pops pills almost as often as most people breathe.  The many pills she openly takes are at least partly consumed to relieve the burning in her mouth from recently diagnosed mouth cancer (a cruel joke of nature for a woman who emits from that same mouth every four-letter word and insult imaginable to anyone and everyone around her).  As Violet, Sherman Fracher jerks her head spasmodically and jawbones her oft-shouted words as she lashes out time and again in monstrous tirades at any and all her family members, often ending the bombing attacks by slumping into a defeated ball of tears and moans seeking those same members’ love and compassion for all her own woes.  When in her doped state, she barely remains vertical as she stumbles down the steps from her bedroom to a waiting, on-edge family below, all the time slurring words to the point of turning them into some unintelligible tongue that they or we can in no way understand.  When only in a mild state of numbness, her venom can strike at any moment, as in one family gathering around the dinner table when her victims await their individual, inevitable, verbal lashings as she proclaims, “I’m just truth-telling ... It’s time we had some truth around here.”  Ms. Fracher certainly gives a tour de force performance although I believe at times her jerky movements of hands, head, and body become so robotic and artificial-looking as to distract from the powerful lines of Letts’ script.

Three daughters/sisters gather in the family homestead to console their mother after their father has disappeared.  Each brings her own personal old and new issues, resentments, and secrets – all of which spill forth both in trickles and floods as the play’s three acts unfold.  Barbara, the first-born, has long escaped the Plains, has avoided the family as much as she can, and has come home with a professor-husband she is divorcing since he is shacking up with one of his college students.  Arwen Anderson reaches deep and discovers many subtle and not-so-subtle ways vividly to express the angst, anger, and, yes, disgust she so often experiences with everyone from her mother to her sisters to her husband and fourteen-year-old daughter.  She rises to larger-than-life proportions when she decides it is time to take over and do a “pill raid” in the house; and yet she collapses into a defeat of will and spirit when, in the end, she is abandoned by those closest to her. 

David Ari is Barbara’s cheating husband, Bill, who is overall a nice guy with a compassionate (if also wandering) heart but with also a temper that knows how to push his wife’s buttons as she pushes his.  Danielle Bowen is her weed-smoking daughter, Jean, who brings an adult edge and look to her teenage body and personality.  Jean also openly flirts with trouble as part of her own rebellion and confusion of the adult battles going on around her.

Sister Number Two is another Oklahoma escapee, Karen, who has arrived from Florida with a fiancé no one knows about or has met (a very slick and sleazy Peter Ruocco as Steve who is quite willing to break away from grace at the family table to answer his cell phone and also just happens to like weed and teenage girls).  Arriving with cheerleader fake moves and smiles, Joanne Lubeck’s Karen tries her hardest to be pleasing, perky, and pleasant as she works hard to convince everyone that she has found the perfect mate (no matter he has been married already three times).  Even after some very despicable behavior by this Steve leads to a quick exit by both, she shrugs it off saying, “He’s not perfect ... Like all the rest of us down here in the muck.”

Danielle Levin is the forty-four-year-old middle sister, Ivy, who has up to now remained in the same town as her parents but has mostly been ignored and ridiculed by her mother for not wearing make-up, not donning a dress, and not finding a husband.  Her portrayal of Ivy is the strongest among the three sisters, measured and under-played in a house full of huge displays of emotional outbursts.  Slow to join in the family feuding, she is carrying a big secret that is soon to cause its own bevy of fireworks as it spawns more long-hidden secrets coming to life. 

The family is rounded out in grand fashion by Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae, and by her husband, Charlie, and son, Little Charles; and the actors playing these parts give some of the best performances of Marin’s production.  Mattie Fae is a dyed red head who tends to talk incessantly in her Okie accent (usually with a glass of bourbon in hand), rarely taking time for a breath or to notice if anyone is actually listening.  When Anne Darragh is not being syrupy sweet with her flashing smile, her Mattie Fae interrupts, contradicts, and tenaciously insists that all others pay attention to her opinions, especially the viper attacks she makes about her grown son, Little Charles. 

Patrick Kelley Jones is the son still bearing “little” in his name, even though he is thirty-seven.  He is quiet and mostly off to himself amidst all the hubbub around him but also shows a kindness and generosity that contrasts big time to his mother and other relatives.  Matching him in overall heart and goodness is his father, Charlie (Robert Sicular), whose patience is tried by a wife who adores him but will not, for a reason soon to be revealed, show an ounce of kindness to their one and only son.

Watching all the family tantrums and crises-by-the-hour is the Native American housekeeper, Johanna, perched often in plain sight of the audience in her attic cubbyhole, far above all the downstairs melee.  Kathleen Pizzo plays the one person who others find will listen without outward judgment, who mostly watches eruptions pretending not to notice, but who is also willing to step in and take over when evil shows his very ugly head.  She who hears the elderly Beverly open the play with T.S. Elliot, closes the three-hour tale softly singing to a sobbing Violet another of the poet’s quotes, “This is the way the world ends.”

There is so much to be gained from every line of Tracy Letts’ script, including often much humor.  When Barbara says, “Thank God we don’t know the future ... we’d never get up,” how can we not shake out heads laughing seeing all that she and her family are dishing out at each other’s expense?  Her sister Ivy tells her at one point, after Barbara has been lamenting her life’s storyline, “I can’t believe you and your world view is that dark.”  Barbara blandly responds without a blink, “You live in Florida.”

Sometimes, however, the lines are lost as the director has chosen to have extended periods where family members talk over each other or in separate, simultaneous conversations (which is true to life but not helpful to the listening audience member).  Other times, the music chosen as part of Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s sound design is so intrusive, even during a scene change, that the last lines of the prior scene too quickly vanish as the mood/effects are lost.  Somewhat like the set itself, intentions are great in these production decisions; but the results sometimes are too distracting.

For someone who has never seen Tracy Letts’ play that racked up five Tonys in 2008, the production of August: Osage County playing now at Marin Theatre Company is a definite go-see, go be amazed, and go be enthralled.  For those who have seen other productions, nationally or locally produced, this version may or may not measure up totally, but it will certainly be a visual image that will never be forgotten.

Rating: 4 E

August: Osage County continues through October 9, 2016 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office Tuesday – Sunday, 12 -5 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (Music); Tim Rice (Lyrics)

The Cast of "Chess"
Produced first as a concept album in 1984 with music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus (both formerly with ABBA and later to be associated with the mega hit Mamma Mia) and lyrics by Tim Rice (Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat), Chess is a musical that has historically been re-shaped in song and story sequence, settings, and stagings for literally every production since its London debut in 1986.  Usually sung with little-to-no dialogue, the musical is chocked full of rapidly exploding lyrics as well as breath-taking moments of reflection sung by both soloists and full ensemble.  Gorgeous but difficult duets, trios, and quartets sometimes blend as one in harmony and other times separate into counter melodies of simultaneously delivered monologues. 

Rarely undertaken due to its complexities and difficulties, when it is produced, Chess usually fills large stages in big arenas.  Custom Made Theatre Company has made the daring choice to open its 2016/17 season on its small (one might even say cramped) stage with the world’s latest version of Chess in a production that soars, zings, and pops with a caliber whose delivered brilliance far exceeds the size of the venue.

The Ensemble of "Chess"
In smart black and white outfits that match the various likened-colored squares on stacked stage levels and walls, an ensemble of townspeople set a high standard of musical and choreographic excellence they as a chorus will continue to meet and exceed for the next two acts.  In their opening number, “Merano,” they buzz in close harmonies about their excitement of the upcoming 1986 world championship tournament that is taking place in their small, town in the Italian Alps -- a Cold War showdown that is the subject of the musical Chess.  As the many scenes progress, these six repeatedly re-appear as demanding reporters (“Press Conference”), paper-pushing government bureaucrats (“Embassy Lament”), street seekers of sex and sin in Bangkok (“One Night in Bangkok”), and general narrators of the story.  Each time the three men and three women emerge, they only impress more with their outstanding voices, sophisticated moves, and expressions that speak volumes to support the exacting, always understandable lyrics that they project often with bullet speeds.  As inventively directed by Brian Katz and choreographed by Daunielle Rausmussen, Katie Francis, Toni Lynn Guidry, Paul Hogarth, Rowan Rivers, Gabrielle Traub, and Ted Zoldan deserve standing ovation kudos for being the backbone that holds together this exciting, tantalizing production.

The story is one similar to actual newlines of the ‘80s when tournaments of chess and the headlines they generated led to much larger fonts and front-page coverage due to the chilled, dangerous relationship (or lack thereof) between the USA and the USSR.  In this fictional reflection of those times, rwo grandmasters, American Freddy Trumper and Soviet Anatoly Sergievsky, vie not only for who will claim the final checkmate and world championship but who will also claim the same woman they both love.  Egos that inflate to the brink of popping, dirty deals made between opposing government agents, and an abandoned wife and kids behind the Iron Curtain further increase the intrigue of a story that is already filled with the palpable tension of what will be the next move on the black and white game board.  Not just an interesting piece of yesteryear geopolitics, Custom’s current Chess cannot help but remind its audience of the mounting and troubling Russian/American conflicts once again brewing in 2016.

Leah Shesky & Chris Uzelac
As Anatoly, Chris Uzelac rises to the top of the overall accomplished set of principals with an operatic-quality voice that is deep in richness and tonal purity.  In numbers like “Mountain Duet,” he trumpets his part with full confidence while jumping the difficult leaps of scale the composers have forced upon him.  His beautiful baritone is haunting when as a defector from his motherland, he delivers “Anthem.”  Climbing at a measured pace to triumphant heights, he sings, “Let man’s petty nations tear themselves apart, my land’s only borders lie around my heart” (all to the tune of the majestic national anthem of the then USSR).

Less successful in his sung vocals than his counterpart across the board of squares, Mische Stephens as Freddy Trumper, does bring a captivating ability totally to sell the ego-centric, caustic, but chess-devoted persona of the American competitor.  In character with Freddy’s personality, he aggressively attacks the notes and lyrics of numbers like “Who’d Ever Think It?”  He brings an emotional, quivering edge to his childhood reminiscing in “Pity the Child.”  What Mr. Stephens lacks in both cases is the needed power of voice volume as well as the range to hit the required upper notes without strain.  But even so, he never fails to register Freddy’s angst, anger, and shifts of attitude.

Mische Stephens & Leah Shesky
Smack dab in between the two opponents lands Florence Vassy, tournament second and sometime lover of Freddy who soon falls in love with the mysterious and sexy Anatoly.  Leah Shesky as Florence is no-nonsense in her management of Freddy and in her willingness to switch loyalties.  Her voice rings with direct, no-holes-barred intensity as she sings “Nobody’s Side,” echoes with passion and an edge of mystery in her half of “Mountain Duet” with Anatoly, and conveys the underlying emotion of deep self-reflection in “Heaven Help My Heart.”  There is a slight nasal quality to Ms. Shesky’s delivery that somehow works in underlining her authenticity of feelings while not always producing quite the vocal quality the song is seeking.

Heather Orth
A total standout of the entire production is the second half appearance of Anatoly’s abandoned wife, Svetlana, as played by Heather Orth.  When Svetlana sings “Someone Else’s Story,” the low, creeping tones seep in to touch one’s soul as she recounts how “long ago in someone else’s lifetime, someone with my name who looked a lot like me” fell in love with he who now has not left her behind for a new, younger version.  As her voice grows in reverberating volume, the audience is clearly moved and then awards her with the night’s loudest, longest accolades.

Soviet-born Molokov (Martin Bell) and American-born Walter (Stuart Bousel) attempt to move the pieces on the board to pull off deals that meet each side’s objectives, even if it means trying to force Anatoly to throw a second championship match to an unproved protégé on Molokov’s.  Each brings a fine voice that works to reveal the seediness of their dealings and their characters. 

Showing up as a talk-show star among the chess stars is a wide-smiling, appropriately obnoxious TV hostess played by Juliana Lustenader.  Her bright soprano shoots forth her sung questions and commentary with a force that stays true to pitch in its powerful punch.
Alan Coyne & Ensemble

Not as successful in sung delivery is the Arbiter, a quirky, shifty-eyed Alan Coyne who plays a wonderful character but sings with a too-shallow voice.  However, when backed by an ensemble lifting heavy rule books while dancing in drill lines of snazzy steps in precision formations, Mr. Coyne uses his just-OK voice to great and winning effect in “The Arbiter.”

Armando Fox, as Musical Director, leads a four-person band tucked in full sight in a corner of the intimate stage; and the result is as near perfection as could be dreamed.  Never is any one of the un-miked singers over-powered by the instruments; and often the band is able to co-star in ways that totally enhance and not just accompany the singers themselves.

Brooke Jennings has outdone herself in designing costumes that reflect the chess color scheme of black and white, the 1980s time period, and the various international settings the story takes place.  Austin Kottkamp’s scenic design reminds us of the chessboard without totally duplicating it.  On opening night, the execution of Maxx Kursunski’s otherwise well-planned lighting design faltered much too often, leaving soloists in the dark or only partially lit.  Hopefully, those mistakes have long since been corrected.

While Custom Made Theatre Company’s Chess is not quite flawless, the production comes close enough across the musical, directorial, acting, and creative categories to gain a “must-see” recommendation from this reviewer.  Rare is the opportunity to see a fully staged version of Chess; and probably, in the tradition of the musical, this is the only time this exact version will ever be staged.  So grab a ticket before closing; and go see what will surely be a unique, fascinating, and even surprising evening of quality, musical theatre.

Rating: 5 E

Chess will continue through October 15 in production by Custom Made Theatre Company at 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).

"Disney's The Little Mermaid"

Disney’s The Little Mermaid
Alan Menken (Music); Howard Ashman & Glenn Slater (Lyrics);
Doug Wright (Book)

Kristen Hermosillo & Cheyenne Wells
The Little Mermaid may sound like the perfect outing for young girls and their parents.  While that is certainly true, the opening night crowd at Palo Alto Players that included folks of all ages (including an impressive number of guys and gals in their teens and twenties) proves that this Disney classic is set to be a community-wide hit for everyone.

For my complete review of this outstanding production, please follow the link to my Talkin' Broadway  review:

Rating: 5 E

The Little Mermaid continues through October 2, 2015 as the Palo Alto Players season opener at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.  Tickets are available at or by calling 650-329-0891.

Photo Credit: Joyce Goldschmid

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"Little Shop of Horrors"

Little Shop of Horrors
Howard Ashman (Book & Lyrics); Alan Menkin (Music)
Ray of Light Theatre

Mary Kalita & Sam Faustine
How do you take everyone’s favorite horror, fully-tongue-in-cheek, rock musical about a human-eating plant and ensure that your production will be noticed when this musical has already been produced in the past thirty years on almost every community’s stage in the country in local and big touring productions?  The answer is to turn the musical over to Ray of Light Theatre and let this proven gem for producing quirky musicals with Broadway quality and flair (and an added edge others dare not employ) have at it.  The outrageously enthusiastic crowd on opening night at San Francisco’s Victoria Theatre roared their resounding approval hearing the opening bars of Little Shop of Horrors, assuring that Ray of Light’s production of this Howard Ashman (book and lyrics) and Alan Menken (music) classic is bound to be another sold-out run and success.

Katrina McGraw, Phaedra Johnson & Jacqueline Dennis
Time and again, Ray of Light finds some of the best voices and creative talent in the Bay Area to electrify its stage.  The moment the three Skid Row drop-outs -- Chiffon (Phaedra Johnson), Crystal (Katrina McGraw), and Ronnette (Jacqueline Dennis) – blend and blast their Motown sounds of “shing-a-lang,” “sha-la-la,” and “sh-bop” as they sing about the “little shoppa horrors,” there is no doubt the evening is going to be a rousing winner.  Once the three are joined by the entire cast for the first big number, “Downtown (Skid Row),” the whole joint is jumping, swaying, and doing all they can to resist singing along.  As the three appear time and again crouched in some dark corner, peering high in the rafters with the band, or joined in dance lines as shadows to the main characters of the story, this doo-wop Greek Chorus uses their smooth, snappy, sassy moves and steps to show off their fabulous, nightclub-ready voices.  The Johnson/McGraw/Dennis trio is well worth the price of the ticket and together – in my opinion -- are the big stars of the evening among a cast full of other excellent singers/performers.

The story they help narrate and highlight is well known and simple.  A flower shop in the middle of a ghetto is about to go out of business until a loser of a sweet guy named Seymour discovers that a little, sick plant with a big mouth likes his blood, a succulent he names Audrey II.  Those few drops fertilize a fantastical turn-around for him, for his dippy blonde and shop mate named Audrey whom he silently adores (but who is stuck in an abusive relationship with a nitrous-oxide-loving dentist), and for his boss -- the cranky floral failure, Mr. Mushnik.  The more human blood the plant consumes, the larger she grows; and the richer and seemingly happier the other three become.  But the ever-increasing greed for more human blood (and body and bones) by the plant and for more fame and fortune by Seymour to share with his beloved Audrey leads to disasters on all parts – except for the now firmly rooted Audrey II.

Sam Faustine
Sam Faustine and Mary Kalita are a fine matched pair as the dorky but cute Seymour in his dumpy, plaid vest and over-sized glasses and as the tight-skirted, sweet, and shy Audrey, who sports a black eye from her dentist and a kind heart for Seymour.  When Seymour sings “Grow for Me” to his still sickly plant, he brings a boyish voice that cuts through the air with a sound right out of a 1950s TV show.  In a later number (“Feed Me [Git It]”), he initially swoons in easily-lifted tones, “I don’t know,” and then hammers in aggressive duet with Audrey II, “The guy sure looks like plant food to me.”  Mr. Faustine lets his vocals fully express his love for Audrey when they both excel with heart-swelled intensity in the duet reprise of “Somewhere That’s Green” as Seymour reaches with fabulous falsetto notes to dream of a life that is not to be.

Mary Kalita
Even more convincing in her singing is Mary Kalita as Audrey.   In her initial “Somewhere That’s Green,” her voice rich in Bowery dialect is full of naïve, dreamy hope -- almost cartoonish at times in its tone but with the dynamics, well-timed pauses, and threads of clarity that speak volumes of her musical abilities.  As the musical progresses, Audrey gains her confidence of character that is beautifully reflected in full-voiced, resounding numbers like “Suddenly Seymour.”  Ms. Kalita takes the abused and bruised, self-deprecating Audrey and turns her into a joyful, exuberant girlfriend who sings, “With sweet understanding, Seymour’s my man.”

Brendon North
Another absolute stand-out in this cast is Brendon North who not only plays the sleazy, sick-minded, but still sensuous dentist, Orin, but also a number of other bizarre walk-ons including an all-too-gay NBC executive, a “Life Magazine” editor in drag, and an oily, glad-handed talent agent named Skip Snip.  But it is as the nitrous-oxide addict Orin that Mr. North gets to shine, singing “Dentist” in his deep, guttural voice that oozes with evil, matched by eyes that look like big glass balls glaring their devilment. 

Tim Hart
Not always measuring up vocally but bringing a character that looks at times like he stepped out of the Sunday Funnies is Tim Hart at Mr. Mushnik.  His Jewish characterizations are endearing and funny without stepping too far over the line.  When he sings “Mushnik and Son” with Seymour, the choreographed sequence designed by Lauren Rosi of exaggerated dance steps from tango to ballet swing (and ending in a pose Michelangelo might find perfect for a ceiling) is nothing short of hilarious, as witnessed by the uproar from the audience.

Audrey II (Jessica Coker) & Seymour (Sam Faustine)
An innovation Director Jason Hoover has brought to this production is to cast the voice of Audrey II as a woman rather than a deep-voiced man.  Jessica Coker certainly wakes up all listening (including Seymour) when they first hear her high, feminine speaking voice, “Feed me ... Feed me now!”   As the plant grows more monstrous in size and demands, Ms. Coker lets loose in “Suppertime” with voice big and boisterous.  However, there is missing in this Audrey II the over-whelming, jarring, deep-welled vocals that can make the wide-mouthed mammoth bigger than earthly life could possibly ever produce.

Puppet Designer Devon LaBelle has created several generations of ever-blossoming-in-size Audrey II’s.  On the slight end of the range is the cute, shuddering-in-shyness sprig with over-sized head that Seymour holds (and manipulates cleverly with his own hands).  By the end, Audrey II is a colossal, bloated, leggy beast with shark-like teeth in her cave-like mouth that eats up all the space in the flower shop as well as all its inhabitants.  Billy Raphael and Josiah Minued are somewhere deep in her bowels, expertly operating her every move, twist, bite, and outstretched root.  (They each also play a variety of ensemble roles – mostly of the wino variety -- while Audrey II is still in her younger, anemic stages.)

Music Director Ben Prince has assembled and directs an excellent orchestra hidden in the heights above the stage.  The set’s massive wall is a mixture of corrugated metal, chain fence, and the kinds of discarded boxes, pipes, and garbage one might find in any urban Skid Row.  When Chrissy Curl’s set opens to reveal the small flower shop, dingy and depressed is its ‘pre-Audrey II’ look while things spruce up nicely as her fame grows -- the contrast aided greatly by the lighting design of Kevin Landesman.  (Particularly clever and funny is Ms. Curl’s revelation of Orin’s dentist office.)  Maggie Whitaker and Lexie Lazear combine their talented forces to create each character’s look of the early ‘60s and of the down-and-out and/or the just plain off-beat and wacky through their designed costumes and make-up/wigs, respectively.

The one production issue that continues too often to plague Ray of Light (and other) productions in the old, cavernous Victoria Theatre is sound.  Even though Anton Hedman is a known, accomplished sound engineer, on opening night there were times when the volume balance was off.  The crucial, opening, off-stage voice recalling a time when the human race “suddenly encountered a deadly threat” was so muddled that unless one had seen the musical previously, the set-up was probably lost.  On the other end, the company’s “Finale Ultimo (Don’t Feed the Plants)” was so miss-miked that too many of the final lyrics were lost.  Volume and clarity adjustments hopefully will be made as the show progresses, but it is disappointing that this is an ongoing issue at the Victoria.

But be assured, Ray of Light Theatre has once again opened a show that its growing audiences of loyal fans are going to flock to see and come away delighted (as well as humming, probably singing the well-known classics of Little Shop of Horrors).  This “shoppa horrors” is do-wop fun for sure.

Rating: 4 E

Little Shop of Horrors continues through October 8, 2016 at Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at

Photo by Eric Skanlon