Friday, April 28, 2017

"The Encounter"

The Encounter
Simon McBurney
Based on the Book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu

Simon McBurney & The Binaural Head
“I am now so close, in your ears ... I am now going to take a walk across your head.”

The voice is somewhere inside each audience member as will be in the next one hundred fifty-five minutes many voices of varying dialects and languages; countless sounds of jungle, villages, and overhead planes; as well as music, dancing feet, and a child’s midnight whispers to her father.  One man stands before us on a wide stage populated with a single table, a computer, many bottles of water, and a lone head with two big ears on a microphone stand.  Through our individual microphones, a world unseen becomes vividly real amid the sounds that enter into our mind’s eye from the left, right, back, and front – to the point we may turn to see who is suddenly behind us or may swish at some mosquito buzzing above our heads.  Using technology that is amazingly current (and one, the binaural head microphone on its mid-stage stand, that is actually decades old), Simon McBurney employs the ancient art of storytelling to convey a true tale of a man’s singular journey into undiscovered parts of the Amazon to meet and live for a time with indigenous people.  Along the way, the creator, director, and sole performer of The Encounter (now playing at the Curran Theatre) will hold his cocooned, wide-eyed audience members in raptured attention as he challenges our concepts of time, place, and reality.

Simon McBurney bases The Encounter on a book by Petru Popescu, who in turn writes the story of Loren McIntyre’s true-life adventure as a National Geographic photographer when he ventures solo in 1969 into the remote Javari Valley of Brazil.  There, Mr. McIntyre comes across some indigenous tribe members, follows them for hours into the thick jungle, gets lost all the time taking pictures, and finally finds himself in a village of the Mayoruna – a people totally separated from any signs or contact with modern civilization.  For the next two months, the photographer lives with the nomadic tribe with no common language; yet he finds himself increasingly in deep communication and relationship with some of its members, particularly with one man he calls Barnacle.  As the days pass and as told in the book and in this stage adaptation, the photographer sheds all signs of his own ties to the outer world, including watch, sandals, and even camera and film.

Simon McBurney
The solo performance of this story’s telling is a tour de force like none other any of us has probably ever seen.  Mr. McBurney’s own voice transforms into a variety of narrators and actors, aided by various microphones.  His vocals blend and mix with sounds he creates, records, and then plays back in echoes, random-like sequences, and prescribed patterns.  From a few taps on bottles, boxes, or floor; hand claps and foot stomps; papers rattled or torn; or nonsensical bellows and roars, jungle nightlife and rainstorms, tribal mingling and dances, or annoying swarms of flying insects come to life in the space around and within our listening heads.  Often as if in a frenzy and other times as if in meditative trance, the actor/performer treks, runs, and jumps about the large stage as he tells McIntyre’s story.

And as Mr. McBurney relates McIntyre’s encounters ranging from enjoying a last bag of Cheetos to line dancing all night with the entire tribe to communicating telepathically with his friend Barnacle, he parenthetically addresses us with such questions as “Am I telling this story, or is the story telling me?”   We hear quotes from the lost photographer that deserve more than just our passing attention but have to be stored away for later contemplation: “I was in such a panic that I saw my thoughts running in front of me” or “Death is a vast array of lights being shut off, ” to highlight just a couple.  And we begin to understand, as does McIntyre himself, what it really means to be “with these people,” to “hold still in time,” and to be on a journey to “go to the beginning.”  We also receive lasting lessons on the fragility of the remote environments of our world and of the ripple impact that even one person’s action (like letting go of a rope) can have on an entire civilization.

The intimate, one-to-one storytelling that Simon McBurney achieves is certainly not a one-person achievement.  An entire team of sound engineers and recording artists, headed by Gareth Fry along with Pete Malkin, has previously ventured far and wide (including in the hot, sweaty, mosquito-laden jungles of Brazil) to record many of the sounds we hear.  A number of that team is working throughout the performance like an orchestra of a stage musical to provide a seamless soundtrack timed to the second to the actions and narrative of Mr. McBurney.

While much of this story’s magic happens through the onstage creation of sounds along with their being mixed with pre-recordings, the story comes to full light (literally) by the incredible lighting design of Paul Anderson, especially as it plays out in giant shadows and rippling colors across a massive sound wall as part of Michael Levine’s overall stage design.  Will Duke’s projections enhance our entrance into the jungle’s entanglements and environs.  And all has been directed with precise timing and pace by the performer himself, Mr. McBurney.

The Encounter’s title not only describes a time when a lost photographer finds himself face-to-face with an indigenous people heretofore unmet by modern times, the title also describes our own experience as an audience of a personal, all-encompassing experience with that man’s adventure and with the people he meets.  Bravo to the Curran Theatre for exposing Bay Area audiences to this storytelling achievement of paramount proportions by Simon McBurney et al.

Rating: 5 E

The Encounter continues through May 7, 2017 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at or by calling the Box Office at 415-358-1220 between 10 a.m. and 6 pm. Monday through Friday.

Photo Credits:  Robbie Jack

Thursday, April 27, 2017


Steve Waters

Paul Whitworth
Periodically punctuating the constant, background pounding of drums and the waves of a gathered mob’s protest chants are the grand and majestic chimes of St. Paul’s world-famous bells.  The glory of the Church and the concerns of the people coincide in chorus as all is heard from the other side of a formal conference room’s closed windows.  It is on the very spot of St. Paul’s Cross -- once an open-air pulpit where the common people of London gathered and witnessed many of the historical events of the Reformation, sometimes resulting in riots – where Occupy London continues its day-in, day-out 2011 demonstrations as Steve Water’s play, Temple, opens. 

For some of those connected with St. Paul’s that we will meet in the next ninety-five minutes, this mounting anger being voiced over the banking world’s practices and the growing economic gaps between the Top 1% and everyone else is a sacred cause totally appropriate to occur on St. Paul’s Cathedral grounds.  For others, this litter-filled tent city is an abomination on the holy grounds that is no longer to be tolerated – not to mention that the Church is losing $22K daily due to lost tourist revenue. 

As presented in its American premiere by Aurora Theatre Company, Temple is a gripping, spell-bounding, and thought-provoking piece of live theatre that takes a recent event still fresh in its audiences’ minds – especially given the Bay Area’s likened often contentious and even riotous experiences in Oakland and San Francisco – and presents different perspectives in order to raise a number difficult questions.  What is the purpose of the Church if not to open its doors to those who wish to worship?  But what is also the Church’s role in supporting, even hosting, voices of objection to injustices?  What does it mean to lead the flock, and who exactly is the flock?  When does a church become too much like a corporation, and what is the boundary between what is good for the Church and good for the State (in this case, the City of London)?

Under the astute, steady-paced, yet microscopic-in-emotional-detail direction of Tom Ross, a stellar cast steps forward to raise but never quite answer these questions as well as the ultimate question that comes up again and again:  What would Jesus do?  Where would Jesus be – in His Church or with His people?

Promoted from being Bishop of the rather remote Isle of Man, the present Dean and highest reverend of the 1400-year-old St. Paul’s Cathedral – the same man who cancelled all services two weeks ago due to the Occupy protests outside – is now set to reopen the Cathedral and to lead services again this very day, with the protests still roaring outside.  However, Mr. Dean (as he is called by everyone) is also being asked to sign onto London’s decision to clear the camps – something discussed the evening before in a Church board meeting. 

The decision of that meeting has led his Canon Chancellor – widely well-known and well-loved, maybe more so than the more reserved Dean himself -- to resign in protest.  (The Canon has also chosen to Tweet – and re-Tweet -- to the world his own resignation before a formal announcement can be made at an upcoming press announcement.) 

In addition, the Virger (responsible for logistical details of worship among other things) is completely unhappy (“May I register my disgust ... ?”) that the Cathedral was ever closed and is too on the verge of resigning because she sees the Dean as not having shown enough “mettle” in this whole situation.  A rookie public relations woman is ecstatically eager to help (Lizzie, the so-called, “P.A.”) the Dean craft his messages.  A City Lawyer is pushing him to announce immediately the Church’s (and especially his) buy-in to the clearing of the tent city.  The Bishop of London wants this all to be over and the Dean to ensure everyone is happy.

And the Dean is simply looking for wisdom from somewhere – be it from the young P.A. or from God -- whoever will advise him first and surest.

As the Dean, Paul Whitworth seems consumed by an inner sense of built-in caution in the very way he moves and the nervous looks of his spectacled eyes.  When speaking to others, his is a voice that is often trying but not quite succeeding to sound in the surety and authority one expects from a grand pulpit.  When he sinks into a window sill with his head lowered into his cupped hands, we know that this is a man who shudders at the decision he feels called upon to make, and we begin to understand he is also foreseeing another decision he will feel compelled to make about his own career.  Mr. Whitworth provides a masterful portrayal of a man of God who is being forced to be a corporate-like leader.

Paul Whitworth & Mike Ryan
Mike Ryan is the hot-blooded, determined, sometimes fiery Canon Chancellor – a man clearly in a love/hate relationship with his Dean and yet one who ultimately shows that he holds respect and admiration for the position the Dean fills and is in.  His Canon Chancellor clearly sides with the Prophets of old more than with the Priests -- with those willing to howl in the streets against the injustices around them versus hiding away within the sanctuary of the church and its formal services, roles, and ordinances.  He embodies the modern prophet as he Tweets his messages and as he pits himself with the fury and even the bite of a bulldog, standing up against the more staid and cautious Dean and all the Church’s growing corporate-like ways.

Sharon Lockwood & Paul Whitworth
As Virger, Sharon Lockwood too has a stubbornness of position and belief that comes across in the manner she holds her bodily stance firm in its foundation and often grim-faced in its countenance.  She shows a boldness that betrays her short stature and a willingness to call out her superior for what she sees as his weakness of position. 

Syvia Burboeck & Paul Whitworth
With her near frenetic pace in and out of the room; mile-a-minute talking; and hands full of nervous, energy-filled movements (not to mention curtsied bows each time she encounters the Bishop), Sylvia Burboeck comes close to stealing the show and certainly offers both heart and humor to an otherwise often tense and serious set of surroundings.  Leontyne Mbele-Mbong is an embodiment of a somewhat sleazy lawyer of the city as she walks about bending her body constantly in elastic fashion, with hands constantly moving and head bobbing and twisting in almost weird manners – all the time making such statements like, “Has London lost its marbles, its nerve, or both? The whole world wants to know!” 

In his royal purple shirt, priestly collar, and extremely large gold chain and cross draped around the neck, J. Michael Flynn’s Bishop of London is certainly king-like as he prances about trying to let the Dean know that he (and the world) is watching and evaluating the Cathedral leader’s every move.  His statements are often as pronouncements, with every consonant fired as if from a cannon.

Paul Whitworth, Sylvia Burboeck, Sharon Lockwood, Jack Wittmayer & Grady Walsh
An inspired touch of Mr. Waters’ script and Mr. Ross’ direction is the late entrance of two cherubic chorister boys, played by youngsters Jack Wittmayer and Grady Walsh.  Their angel-like voices sing a simple anthem that helps those gathered in the conference room to rise above their entrenched differences, personal resolutions, and difficult decisions to remember their mutual love and respect of each other and of their God – even if questions raised among them have not been answered consensually.

Richard Olmsted has created a magnificent conference room with its large, paned windows overlooking toward an unseen mob.  The lighting of Jeff Rowlings highlights both the grey skies of outdoor London as well as the wonderful richness of the paneled, inside walls.  Chris Houston’s sound design of bells, drums, and muffled crowd noises is an important character of this play -- almost as necessary to the story and its meaning as any of the individual actors before us (not to mention the humorously but telling interruptions of cell phones that convey an entirely clever message all onto themselves).  The costumes of Callie Floor define Church hierarchy as well as individual personality peculiarities. 

In the end, this Aurora Theatre Company production of Temple is just enough unsettling and uneasy, just enough question-raising without answer-giving, and just enough fascinating into a behind-the-scenes of incidents within our recent memory to be a real winner.  That is particularly true when the production is also so overall superbly directed, produced, and acted.

Rating: 5 E

Temple continues through May 14, 2017 at Aurora Theatre Company’s Main Stage, 2018 Addison Street, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 510-843-4822.

Photos Credit: David Allen

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

"The Memory Stick"

The Memory Stick
Donal O’Kelly

John R. Lewis, Joseph D. Valdez, 
& Lyndsy Kail
In a co-commission with the Dublin City Arts Office and the Irish Theatre Institute, The Stage opens a world premiere The Memory Stick by Donal O’Kelly – a play about what it means and what it costs to stand up against all odds.  Lyrically directed, often as in a dreamscape, by Tony Kelly, the play employs story telling, soul searching, heritage exploration, and mystic escapes to scenes of the past by the three principal characters – mostly all done within the confines of a sweat lodge built on their military base.

For my complete review, please follow the link to Talkin' Broadway:
Rating: 4 E

The Memory Stick continues through April 30, 2017 at The Stage, 490 South First Street, San Jose, CA.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 408-283-7142.

Photo Credit: Dave Lepori

Monday, April 10, 2017


Joseph Stein (Book); Charles Strouse (Music); Stephen Schwartz (Lyrics)

Recent Refugees Arrive in "Rags"
In 1989, a little company in Palo Alto called TheatreWorks  staged a version of Rags -- a 1986, major Broadway failure -- that both helped establish the company’s national reputation as well as send the musical on a long journey of periodic revisions and revivals to keep alive this story of America’s history that still speaks of all our histories.  And now under the inspired, heart-felt direction of Robert Kelley, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley revives nearly thirty years later its latest rendition of Rags --  one that is truly epic in its opera-like breadth and depth and yet one that is grippingly personal in its focus on the individual, immigrant experience.

For my full review of this must-see production, please follow the link to Talkin' Broadway: 

Rating: 5 E

Rags continues through April 30, 2017 at at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View.  Tickets are available online at  or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday – Friday 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Saturday – Sunday, Noon – 6 p.m.

Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Saturday, April 8, 2017

"New Girl in Town"

New Girl in Town
Bob Merrill (Music & Lyrics); George Abbott (Book)

Allison F. Rich & Chris Vettel
A down-and-out, former prostitute returns to seek out a father she hardly knows; goes to a local bar on New York’s seedy dockside to await him; and orders not one, but two (and thinking about three) whiskeys.  The ol’ Swedish dad -- a salty sailor who likes flirting with local women of the night and is now confined to working on a river barge – comes looking for the little girl he once abandoned whom he now thinks is a nurse in Minnesota.  The two meet but not until the sailor’s common-law wife has already discovered (between the second and third whiskeys) that she and the new girl in town share a common past – a secret the older ex-strumpet may keep as long as her will to stay mostly sober remains firm.

Such is the set-up for the 1957 Bob Merrill (music and lyrics) and George Abbott (book) musical, New Girl in Town -- an overall much cheerier, more upbeat version of Eugene O’Neill’s dour and serious 1921 play, Anna Christie.  With a rousing, dance-filled, opening number by the dock’s teasing streetwalkers and ogling sailors entitled “Roll Your Socks Up,” it is immediately clear that this 42nd Street Moon offering will be a toe-tapping, fun outing even if there may be some revelations to come that cause some temporary hiccups and heartburns along the way.  After all, this is a musical of the fifties when happy endings are a sure-fire guarantee.

Chris Vettel
With sad eyes gazing in wide search of some unknown horizon, the bearded, wizened Chris sings in a deeply rich, emotionally wavering voice about his “Anna Lilia” as he is “looking for memories not there” of a daughter not seen in fifteen years.  Singing and speaking in an accent authentic of a Swedish immigrant of the early 1990s to New York’s Lower East Side, Chris Vettel as the old sailor opens his heart in genuine welcome and love to the daughter he has hardly considered for so long.  Immediately he now becomes protective, ready to guard her against any advances by young sailors the likes of whom he once was.

Joshua Marx
One such young, strikingly handsome seafarer is Matt, whose first glance of the older Chris’s Anna leads him immediately to sing, “I look at her and melt like I am butter in the sun” (in “Look at ‘Er”).  As Matt, Joshua Marx employs a slightly cocky but yet immediately likeable personality to compliment a singing voice that is also contagious in attraction, with an ability to trumpet with clear conviction his feelings for this mysterious girl he suddenly meets.  In his enthusiasm, however, Mr. Marx has some tendency to over-sing a bit and also speaks in some un-determined, often inconsistent accent (Is he Irish with his coal-black hair?) that at times makes it difficult to understand some of his words.

Allison F. Rich
The ‘girl’ for whom he quickly falls and the one her now-devoted dad is bound to see he does not marry is Anna, played with absolute confidence and striking style by Allison F. Rich.  Amid fog and the sound of gulls on her first trip on a barge with father Chris, Anna sings one of several songs (“It’s Good to Be Alive”) in which Ms. Rich’s full, clear resonance rings forth with truth and talent.  Earlier, with some tongue-in-cheek and eyes that sparkle with fierce brightness, Anna sings about a supposed life “On the Farm” from the Minnesota where she was actually a woman of the night, employing broad, bold notes to sell the number.  Later, once love seems to have left her, she sings with reflective soul-searching a moving “If That Was Love” that solidifies Ms. Rich as the true star of the evening.

Judith Miller
Making her own bid for notice on this stage is Judith Miller as Chris’s common-law wife, Marthy, a role she seems to be losing as he makes room in his life and small abode for the now-returned, now-adored daughter, Anna.  Ms. Miller’s Marthy has a smile that shines big and bright when she is happy around her dockside friends and a darkened snarl that furrows deeper the more she drinks when her jealousy of the intruding Anna gets the better of her.  With a voice pleasantly guttural just enough to authenticate “Flings” (a song she sings about her past with fellow women of the night), Marthy also offers a fun, homespun, flair to her duet with Chris in “Yer My Friend, Ain’tcha?”

Members of the Ensemble
Much of the evening’s energy comes from an enthusiastic ensemble of six.  All members bring strong voices for both invigorating harmonies and spotlighted solos, popping personalities to play a variety of parts, and terrific abilities to carry out the snappy, well-coordinated choreography of Kelly Cooper.  Particular group standouts include the more formal dancing in “At the Check Apron Ball” and the full-out stomping and stepping in “There Ain’t No Flies on Me,” both sung with pleasing aplomb and vigorous harmonies.  Michael Birr, Mark J. Enea, Ashley Garlick, John-Elliott Kirk, Laruen Meyer, and Elise Youssef each deserve recognition and kudos.

The Set Designed by Mark Mendelson
In departure from a 42nd Street Moon history of minimal scenery, the set of New Girl in Town is a much-welcome addition to the otherwise, consistent excellence in music and choreography that the company’s loyal audiences have become accustomed.  Mark Mendelson has created a sea-weathered scene of wooden docks full of ropes, nets, and crates; a local bar for sailors and their gals; and a general feeling of the early days of the past century – the last aspect greatly enhanced by the colorful skirts and seaworthy duds designed by Bethany Deal.  Ryan Weible provides the ripple effects of water as part of his impressive lighting design, with Daren A.C. Carollo as director and Dave Dobrusky as music director (and accompanist extraordinaire) ensuring a quick-paced, well-sounding, well-executed one-act musical evening.

The New Girl in Town in some ways is a bit of a museum piece.  There is not a lot of depth of meaning or substance for today’s world.  The songs for the most part are pleasant enough but not exactly ones remembered once back on the street outside.  The happy resolution occurs too quickly and too easily after the heroine has been quite severely abused and rejected by her would-be lover.  But our toes still tend to tap, our chuckles flow easily, and our smiles do broadly appear with that final kiss – and in the end, a pretty good time is obviously had by all as 42nd Street Moon once again revives a musical mostly ignored by all other stages.

Rating: 3½ E

The New Girl in Town continues through April 16, 2017 in production by 42nd Street Moon at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-255-8207.

Photo Credits: Ben Krantz Studio

Friday, April 7, 2017

"Needles and Opium"

Needles and Opium
Robert Lepage

Oliver Normand
Two similar comments seem to be on the lips of everyone as the house lights come up after the final stage bows – whether it is the woman sitting next to me, couples exiting with question marks written all across their faces, or the guys joining me along the downstairs urinals after the ninety-five minute, no-intermission show. 

“Do you have any idea what just happened?  I just don’t get it at all.”

“Never have I seen anything so visually incredible in a live performance.  How on earth did they do all that?”

And both immediate reactions are true to my own experience.  Needles and Opium, a 1991 premiere by Robert Lepage, is a jaw-dropping, armrest-clinching montage of scenes mostly taking place in an elevated, swaying and rotating, gray-walled half-cube about the size of a small hotel room (designed by Carl Fillion).  Two actors defy gravity and literally cause audience gasps as they walk, glide, and tumble on walls that become floor that turn to ceiling – both actors who at times seem to disappear into thin air.  And all during the current American Conservatory Theatre production directed with out-of-this-world ingenuity by the creator himself, Robert Lepage, we are still often left scratching our heads as to what actually is the story we are watching (and if there in fact is a plot) while at the same time wanting the moving spectacle of projections, music, acrobatics, and dance never to end.

Three stories intertwine of people who never meet and who exist in two time periods – stories tied loosely by the common threads of a trip to other side of the Atlantic for performance purposes, of personal struggles to deal with lost loves, and of desperately seeking a refuge to escape pain in their lives (two through opium and/or heroin, one through hypnosis). 

Wellesley Robertson III
Wellesley Robertson III is a silent Miles Davis who speaks only through his haunting, slow-speed notes of jazz that float from his ever-present trumpet (with music and sound designed by Jean-Sébastian Côte).  The performer goes to his beloved Paris in 1949, finds there as a black man the audience love and acceptance that escapes him in America, and falls in love with singer Juliette Gréco.  Upon return to the prejudices of the U.S. without his newfound love, he turns to needles for solace.  Mr. Robertson injects his Miles Davis with a needle like none ever before seen on stage and goes on a drug-infused trip, providing one of the most heart-breaking, astounding sequences in an evening already packed with astoundingly powerful moments – visual and emotional. 

Olivier Normand
Olivier Normand plays the French writer, playwright, performer and filmmaker Jean Cousteau whom we see making a similar, cross-Atlantic journey (1948) in the opposite direction to New York.  On the way home he writes “Lettre aux Américains (“Letter to Americans”), excerpts that we hear as a air-floating, upside-down Cousteau reads the letter in thick-French accent (so heavy in accent that unfortunately much of what is said is often difficult for this American audience to discern).  While in New York, Cousteau creates with Life Magazine a series of photographs we see reenacted as he -- with four arms -- simultaneously draws, drinks, and smokes in another eye-popping sequence performed by Mr. Normand after he magically appears half-emerged in the floor of the moving half-cube.  We also hear of Mr. Cousteau’s own love and hate of opium, a drug he turns to early and often in a life to escape the tragic loss of his one, true love (a young man named Raymond Radiguet).

Wellesley Robertson III & Olivier Normand
But the bulk of Robert Lepage’s script and loosely knit story is devoted to Robert (also played by Olivier Normand), a Quebecois actor who travels to Paris after a recent break-up to do a voice recording for a documentary about Davis and Gréco.  Robert seeks his own refuge in Miles’ trumpet music and Gréco’s “Letter.”  However, Mr. Lepage’s script subjects us to a series of curiously bland, non-impactful scenes where Robert does things like have trouble sleeping in a cheap, Paris hotel (due to all-night love-making next door); talks on the phone to his ex who does not want to talk to him; and has initial trouble getting through the voice-overs for the documentary on Miles Davis.  When the French-and-English speaking Robert moves into the former language, his fast-paced, foreign chatter is unfortunately translated in supertitles too small, too high, and too quickly disappearing above the cubed setting below to be very useful to us as audience – not that the dialogue really seems to matter that much.

Fortunately, the non-story for such a dominant character (about whom we do not ever learn enough to care much) is told amidst thrilling projections by Lionel Arnould and stunning lighting by Bruno Matte – creative effects that there are not enough adjectives adequately to describe their inventive magnificence.  Together they turn Robert’s half-cubed environ into an ever-changing, often-moving world of Paris’s streets, his hotel room, and a recording studio – scenes Mr. Normand must manipulate like a skilled artist skilled in gymnastics, ballet, and circus.  Never will we likely see any more incredible exit from a hotel bed than can be seen when reclining Robert yawns his long legs away from bed onto wall to find himself suddenly standing on what is now a floor before then disappearing seemingly into some dark, unknown world beyond the cube itself.

If entering the Geary Theatre in somewhat the mindset of going into a Cirque du Soleil tent, then there is little doubt that when walking out, almost anyone is going to be shaking a head that is bursting with awe-filled memories of scene after scene of mind-blowing experiences.  Sometimes like a souped-up, Disney Park attraction that can leave the stomach a bit queasy and other times like a scene in the most magnificent of ballets, Needles and Opium begs to be seen, to be experienced but humbly asks forgiveness if its meaning is not quite understood from beginning to end.

Rating: 4 E

Needles and Opium continues through April 23, 2017 on the Geary Stage of of American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Tristram Kenton & Nicola-Frank Vachon

Thursday, April 6, 2017

"Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin"

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Lyrics & Music by Irving Berlin
Book by Hershey Felder

Hershey Felder  
Introduction to My April 2017 Review of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin:

When I rate a production a “5 E,” I am saying by definition, “Loved it ... A classic ... would see it again.” 

In January 2016, I first saw Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (regional premiere) and gave the show a resounding “5 E” review on both Talkin’ Broadway and Theatre Eddys.  Last night, I eagerly returned to Berkeley Repertory Theatre to see again Hershey Felder perform his magical walk-through of the 20th Century via Irving Berlin’s vast song library and rich history of encountered personalities.  If anything, Mr. Felder and his show has only gotten better in the past sixteen months. 

The following is a slightly updated review from the original, all of which is still true – and even more true – for this production.  Even the theatregoer who has seen the show in Mountain View, New York, or wherever should seriously consider yet another evening with the incredible Felder/Berlin duo.


With over 1500 published songs to consider (232 hitting Top 10 charts and 25 reaching Number One) ranging from universal classics such as “White Christmas,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Easter Parade,” and even “God Bless America,” how can anyone successfully collapse Irving Berlin’s 101 years of life into just ninety minutes?  Anyone cannot; but for the man who has traveled the globe doing the same for the likes of Gershwin, Chopin, Bernstein, and Beethoven, winnowing down Berlin’s life into a fascinating kaleidoscope of stories, characters, and of course songs – all of which he performs himself – seems on the surface to be a cinch.  Berkeley Repertory Theatre continues the Bay Area’s love affair with Hershey Felder as the company hosts the Eva Price, Samantha F. Voxakis, and Karen Racanelli production of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, with the solo performer writing the book to tell the story of Berlin’s lyrics and music. 

Hershey Felder
Sitting at a grand piano and surrounded by a twinkling Christmas tree as well as furniture, pictures, and relics recalling Irving Berlin’s long life (all beautifully co-designed by the evening’s star with Trevor Hay), Hershey Felder becomes Irving Berlin as a century of his life and of American history unfolds before us in songs and stories galore.  Starting as a five-year-old escaping a Czar’s pogrom in Tyumen, Russia, Mr. Felder as Berlin gives us a first-hand view of his journey across the turbulent Atlantic to the moment he sees Lady Liberty, a sight that affects him, his sense of patriotism, and his music for the rest of his life.  We hear him as he buskers in the streets of the Bowery to earn pennies for his parents, as he graduates to be a singing waiter (a moniker that will stay with him for years in New York gossip headlines), and as he publishes his first song as a teenager in New York’s Chinatown, “Marie from Sunny Italy.”  But at 23 when he publishes “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (“Funny thing, it was actually a march,” we hear), Berlin’s career begins a celestial journey of glorious hit after hit, with Irving Felder giving us both the background story and the song as sung by the master himself in a voice that has the 1920s, 30s, and 40s joyful intonations we now only hear on occasional recordings and films. 

The insights we gain of Berlin are by the dozens as the evening progresses.  Berlin’s humor is delightful (“I can only play in one key, F# ... Black keys, they stand out”).   We learn his songs came from his everyday experiences (“Every time I can turn a popular idea into a musical number, I win”) and from the grief of a number of family deaths (“I don’t like being alone, so the safest place for me to be is to stay in a song”).  Songs become the gifts he gives to a bride (“I’ll Be Loving You Always”) or to a baby daughter (“Blue Skies”), but as we listen to our on-stage Berlin croon such tunes, it is obvious they are actually gifts that keep giving to all of us.

When at the piano as Berlin, Mr. Felder’s fingers’ fly lightly across the keyboard with speed and spark while his voice often floats in dreamy melodic ease in such tunes as “What’ll I Do?”  Rarely looking at the keys themselves, he instead keeps almost constant eye contact with his audience as if we are in fact in his living room visiting and chatting as friends.  On occasion, our Berlin jumps from the stool and lovingly wanders over to an empty chair to interact with his wife or enthusiastically runs to show us a picture or to tell us a funny story at stage’s edge. 

Some of the best moments of the evening are the many both familiar and less familiar people we get to meet who were big parts of Irving Berlin’s career.  From distinct, back-throated singing of Al Jolson in the first-ever sound film (“The Jazz Singer”) to the blasting voice of the great Ethyl Merman (“Like writing for a steam ship fog horn”), Messieurs Felder and Berlin keep us in fascinated stitches as we hear songs sung in and by the voices of the famous.   Sometimes supplemented by projected films of old, sometimes with our Berlin playing and singing along to recorded music, and often just becoming those voices himself, Mr. Felder walks us through a treasury full of those who sang Berlin’s hits.  Particularly touching is his rendition of the great Ethel Waters belting in passionate pain and then whispering in reflecting sadness, “Suppertime ... and My Man Ain’t Coming Home No More,” a song from a 1933 Broadway musical when Berlin dared star a Black woman on Broadway singing about her husband who had been lynched.

For all that has been revealed about the evening, the above is only a glimpse of the total present Mr. Felder presents to the audience.  Dozens of songs (some of which the audience is encouraged to do the singing themselves), anecdotes that change by the minute, and a parade of personalities who come to life on the stage with Irving Berlin fill the ninety minutes with what could be hours worth of entertainment in any other show.  Supplemented by incredibly well-done projections and film clips by Christopher Ash and Lawrence Siefert and by beautifully effective lighting design by Richard Norwood, Trevor Hay directs Mr. Felder’s flow of almost one hundred years with seamless ease and perfection.  Erik Carstensen ensures the sound clips of singing and spoken voices are as crisp and clear as they were many decades ago (or at least as the original, crackly radios and early films allowed them to be).

To be entertained while also learning so much history about the man behind so many songs that run in their entirety through any of our heads at the mention of any one title – that is a gift.  As Irving Berlin (aka Hershey Felder) reveals to us at the end of the evening, “I wrote for you ... above all, for you.”  Thank you, Hershey Felder and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, for this gift.

Rating: 5 E

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin continues through April 30, 2017, in production on the Main Stage of Berkeley Repertory’s Peet’s Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photo Credit: Hershey Felder Presents

Tuesday, April 4, 2017


Adapted by Kit Wilder
From Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

Nick Mandracchia
Any time a theatre company undertakes a world premiere, much less one commissioned, kudos is warranted for the risks undertaken.  While this new offering of Frankenstein has some issues mainly of script and some of direction (notably in Act Two), the innovative technical and production aspects are wonderful to experience and make the evening’s outing to City Lights overall a worthwhile adventure.

Please follow the link to my full Talkin' Broadway review:
Rating: 2 E

Frankenstein continues through April 23, 2017 at City Lights Theatre Company, 529 S. Second Street, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 408-295-4200.

Photo Credit: Taylor Sanders