Saturday, February 24, 2018

"Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Stephen Sondheim (Music & Lyrics); Hugh Wheeler (Book)

Noel Anthony
The Stage takes the Sondheim favorite, Sweeney Todd, that has graced Broadway three times, the West End four, and grand opera stages in at least ten countries worldwide and strips the musical down to a bare minimum of cast, set, and orchestra, putting it in a time that could be now, fifty years ago, or fifty years from now.  The result is to over-expose the musical’s bloody, raw, and troubling tale where inherent humor found by other productions is minimized and where the clanging of metal, the slamming of coffin-like boxes, and the discordant screeching of chorus voices become notes as important in conveying the story as any sung beautifully and artfully by the individual actors.

For my full review, please continue to Talkin' Broadway:

Rating: 4 E

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street continues through March 18, 2018 at The Stage, 490 First Street, San Jose.  Tickets are available at .

Photo credit: Dave Lepori


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

"The King and I"

The King and I
Richard Rodgers (Music) and Oscar Hammerstein II (Lyrics & Book)
Based upon the novel Anna and the King by Margaret Landon

Laura Michelle Kelly
When a gloriously played overture pours forth hit after hit right out of the Great American Songbook, there is no doubt that the musical to follow is likely to be an evening to be savored.  If the musical is one that has been revived on Broadway four times since its 1951 debut; has won multiple Tonys in both the premiere and subsequent outings; is now in its fifth national tour; and continues many times each year to grace the stages of high schools, universities, and communities every where, then anticipation is even higher for a great evening with an old friend.  The fact that the current touring show landing at Broadway San Jose’s San Jose Center for the Performing Arts comes with a spectacularly stellar cast in an immensely impressive production means that Richard Rodgers’ (music) and Oscar Hammerstein II’s (lyrics and book) The King and I is a sure-fire guarantee to please both the first-timer and the aficionado of the famed pair’s fifth, joint creation -- even for those of us in the audience who saw this same production in San Francisco about fifteen months ago.

Based on a novel (Margaret Landon’s Anna and the King), The King and I finds its roots in the actual King Mongkut, ruler of Siam 1861-1868, and in the British governess, Anna Leonowens, whom he hires to westernize his royal children. Hammerstein’s version finds some truth in the musical’s story how the King is desperately trying to keep his country from falling under the rule of European powers as are many of his neighboring nations.  History shows that the actual king in fact was able to keep tiny Siam independent through his efforts. 

Other aspects of the story Mr. Hammerstein pens are also rooted in historical occurrences, including the fact that the first Anna did live in the palace grounds until a brick house was built nearby for her.  Whether that Anna put up quite the fuss to get her own house that Hammerstein makes so central in the telling of his Anna is doubtful – a battle of wills between the King and the governess that begins almost as soon as she steps off the boat and lets the awaiting Kralahome (the King’s prime minister) know in no uncertain terms that she expects that contract promise to be fulfilled.

As Anna, Laura Michelle Kelly displays from the get-go upon arriving in Siam her fiery defiance with a pointing finger, stern looks, and firm vocals -- all aimed at the King’s shocked emissary (Darren Lee, alternating with Brian Rivera).  This almost cocky confidence leads her to assert her demands for a private, brick house time and again, even to the King himself.  But this same Anna is also the one that melts time and again to show another side of herself as she softens her stance, demeanor, and tone -- first when meeting some of the King’s sixty-seven children and later as her liking and affection for the King himself clearly increases.  Director Bartlett Sher clearly highlights these contrasting aspects of Anna throughout this production – a decision that provides much fun, nuance, and intrigue in the blossoming relationship between the King and the Governess.

Laura Michelle Kelly & Children
When her desired house is not first and foremost in her mind, Anna exudes a love and excitement for the adventure she has set upon with her young son, Louis (an properly English boy, Rhyees Stump).  Ms. Kelley’s first sung words spill out with crystal-clear chirpiness as she and Louis duet in “I Whistle a Happy Tune.”  When she fondly reminisces of her late husband, Tom, and then calls out in song to say, “Hello, Young Lovers” (“whoever you are”), she so easily allows each note to float at a pace and with such distinctive singularity that as a listener, there is an ability to grab hold and relish each rich, beautiful syllable.  And just as wonderful, while she sings, her broad smile reaches out into the outer and upper regions of the theatre – almost as if she were actually looking at and smiling at every individual there.  Ms. Kelley becomes an Anna to deservedly join as an equal in a long line of all the famous ones before her (Gertrude Lawrence, Eileen Brennan, Maureen McGovern, Angela Lansbury, and many more including most recently, Tony-winning Kelli O’Hara).  And having seen her fifteen months ago in the SF run, I can only say Ms. Kelley has take that wonderful performance and made it all the more spectacular and memorable.

One of her best moments is not when she is singing but when she allows her total comedic side to shine as the King gets her finally to agree never to have her head any higher than his royal noggin and then proceeds to lower himself position by position until finally prostrate on the floor.  Anna, in her enormously hooped skirt, becomes a mixture of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett in her exaggerated twists and flops, grimaces and grins, as she makes sure her head in fact does not eclipse his.

Her royal partner in this charade of wills is Brian Rivera (alternating the role with Darren Lee).  Mr. Rivera immediately shows his very human, vulnerable side as the all-mighty ruler of Siam while half-singing/half musing in “A Puzzlement.”  His King constantly shows his own stubborn streak that fully matches Anna’s; but he also has, like she, his own soft and humor-loving side that Mr. Rivera has many delightful ways in demonstrating.  This is particularly true when his children parade in front of him in the eye-catching, warm-hearted, and funny “The March of the Siamese Children” (one of several masterful sets choreographed by Christopher Gattelli).

Joan Almedilla
Equal impressiveness of voice and acting come from a number of other key contributors.  Lady Thiang, the head wife that so deeply loves her kingly husband (even with all his faults that she clearly acknowledges), delivers one of the evening’s highlights with “Something Wonderful.”  Joan Almedilla explains to Anna her love for her King/husband with a voice that pleads in tone for Anna’s understanding while it also teaches what true love really means.  With each ensuing stanza, a climatic intensity slowly approaches note by note, totally revealing the depth of her feelings for her husband.

Love, in this case a forbidden one, is also the focus of relationship between Tuptim, the King’s newest wife and a ‘gift’ from the Burmese king, and the Burmese envoy and student who brings her to Siam, Lun Tha.  Q Lim and Kavin Panmeechao beautifully blend their voices in notes clearly interlocked in love as they sing “We Kiss in a Shadow.”  The two once again draw huge audience praise as they sing of their doomed, not-to-be union: “In these dreams, I’ve loved you so that by now I think ... I will love being loved by you” (“I Have Dreamed”).

"The Small House of Uncle Thomas"
There is also so much more that could be said in praise of this magnificent musical and production.  The totally charming “Getting to Know You” featuring Anna, the royal children, and the wives; the visually, culturally, and musically show-stopper ballet, “The Small House of Uncle Thomas” narrated by Tuptim and presented by a host of royal singers and dancers; and of course the much-anticipated, fully appreciated “Shall We Dance?” where Anna teaches the King to waltz as they both step close to mutually expressed love – These are all favorite moments that returnees cannot help but savor and first-timers will never forget.

The Cast of The King and I
Much of the evening’s impact also comes from a production team that has brought the awe and quality of New York’s Great White Way to the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.  From the opening moments when a huge sea-faring boat emerges to dock in a bustling, red-sky Siam harbor, the sets designed by Michael Yeargan create an exotic set of scenes.  His royal palace scenes majestically rise and shift with tall, oriental columns that dance in a slow ballet across the wide stage.  Dotting the scenes with an array of color and with an enchanting mixture of East and West are the costumes of Catherine Zuber.  Donald Holder’s lighting and Scott Lehrer’s sound designs further suggest a faraway dreamland of the foreign but familiar.  Bringing all the atmospheric magic together is the underlying beauty of the mixed local and touring orchestra, conducted by Gerald Steichen who clearly knows how to take a Richard Rodgers score and ensure it both recalls what we fondly remember as well as makes it all sound once again fresh and exciting.

And now this reviewer must confess:  I love Rogers and Hammerstein musicals -- each and all of them.  I always enter with both anticipation and with dread, hoping for another evening of being swept away in the well-loved music and story and yet afraid that my expectations are raised so high that disappointment is assured.  With the current Broadway San Jose presentation of the touring The King and I, I walked away elated with not the slightest bit of regret of seeing this production a second time as it once again visits the Bay Area!

Rating: 5 E

The King and I continues through February 25, 2018 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts as part of Broadway San Jose, 255 South Almaden Boulevard, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

Sunday, February 18, 2018

"Lucia Berlin: Stories"

Lucia Berlin: Stories
From A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin

Jeri Lynn Cohen
Each of five stories by an author who once claimed, “Everything I write is autobiographical” offers independently a glimpse of one salient moment in her rollercoaster life.  When presented together, the five provide a heart-warming, inspirational journey from heart-breaking depths to her victory over alcohol addiction.  As a short-story writer, Lucia Berlin was only marginally known and read during her lifetime; but eleven years after her death, a compilation of her life’s stories was published as A Manual for Cleaning Women, hitting the New York Times bestseller list in its second week.  It is from that book -- which went on to sell more than all her previous books combined -- that the team members from Z Space’s Word for Word have chosen five stories to present as a new work entitled Lucia Berlin: Stories. 

Members of the Ensemble of Lucia Berlin: Stories
Told in the company’s unique manner of theatrically staging the written words right off the book’s page with sentences often pieced together in sequenced phrases by several actors in passing, Lucia Berlin: Stories is powerfully narrated by an exceptional cast who convey with humor, pathos, care, and empathy the author’s total story through these five pieces.  Nancy Shelby and JoAnne Winter direct this eight-person ensemble through a constant maze of complicated, constant changes in scenes, characters, and motifs.  And always the story reigns supreme as sentences and paragraphs flow seamlessly from one actor to the next, each relating the story as if reading from the book’s page. 

With all its dependence on the words of the story, Word for Word opens Lucia Berlin: Stories with a powerful, silent sequence (choreographed by Christy Funsch) as a woman lashes out in an alcohol-induced rage, is arrested and bound, and is transferred to a cell of some sort.  She and the cast around her – all of whom figuratively mime her chaos and capture – are dressed in grey-striped outfits (designed by Michelle Mulholland) that could serve as the wardrobe for either prison or a mental institution, both of which we will learn our heroine will often frequent as this and the other stories progress.  The loss of control, the desperate need for another drink, and the agony of the alcohol’s consequences are all captured in these first couple of minutes – all to be repeated in more graphic sequences as we learn more details of her life.

Jeri Lynn Cohen
Jeri Lynn Cohen is Carlotta in the first story, “Her First Detox,” and will also be known as Lucille and Mrs. Bevins in the stories to follow; but her “Everywoman” is clearly always the author, Lucia.  Ms. Cohen is nothing short of brilliant as she conveys the anxiety, the deviousness, and the deceit as well as the good-naturedness, generous spirit, and boundless ingenuity of a woman who is drunk more often than not.  She is a mother of four who somehow makes breakfast for them at 7 a.m. after sneaking out at 4 a.m. to walk one-and-a-half miles to be the first in line to buy a four-dollar bottle of cheap vodka at 6 a.m. (from the story “Unmanageable”).  In “Emergency Room Notebook,” she is an emergency room attendant who kibitzes with her co-worker about good-and-bad deaths/smart-and-dumb suicides in between also comforting families of the newly dead or patiently once again listening to the fake screams of the woman known as Marlene the Migraine – all done before she frantically dashes to the parking lot for a giant swig from a bottle of booze.  Throughout each of these stories, Ms. Cohen conveys a woman who is not a demon, who could be someone we all know, but who definitely has a monstrous, pervasive problem that consumes much of her life and effects the lives of kids who must hide her keys and wallet in order to keep her safe and hopefully sober (not).

Indiia Wilmott, Norman Gee, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Gendell Hernández & Ryan Williams French
One of the most important aspects of Lucia Berlin’s works and this cast’s depictions is to put a face of humanity on those we often pass quickly in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, or on Any/Every Street throughout the Bay Area.  Those we see as just another drunk are in these stories real people with names, quirks, heart, and humor; and they are a community of people the rest of us mostly want to forget.  Yes, there are the moments when they are rolling and reeking in their own wretched situations as is shown in several of the stories (like a bone-chilling chain-gang-like opening of “Unmanageable” where a line-up of the intoxicated chant in grunts and groans while stomping their feet in a dance of desperation).  However, we see the chumminess and the camaraderie that “Lucia” has with her fellow lovers of the bottle in scenes like a very funny incident in the story “502” where her abandoned car rolls into the inhabited Chevy Cosair of Ace, Champ, Little Ripple, and Horatio – guys who may be drunks like she but who are also people that any of us just might like if we got to know them.

The myriad of roles the other eight members of this ensemble play to fill in the details of Lucia’s stories range from street drunks to her kids, from doctors/nurses to grieving/wailing Gypsies, from jail warden and neighborhood cop to inmates in a prison.  The variety of accents, demeanors, personalities, ages, and sexes each person is asked to assume (often for only a few seconds) is astounding; and the orchestrated movements, shifts, and transformations occur without a word dropped from the continuous flow of the story’s narration among the nine ensemble members.  Cassidy Brown, Ryan Williams French, Norman Gee, Gendell Hernández, Delia MacDougall, Indiia Wilmott, and Phil Wong are together an ensemble extraordinaire – each bringing well-calculated, naturally appearing nuances and particulars to the many persona they inhabit.

Cassidy Brown, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Norman Gee & Phil Wong
Lest anyone doubt, there is a happy ending in perhaps the unlikeliest of locales and situations.  Amidst the otherwise daily boredom, putrid smells, and cramped quarters (six to a cell meant for two) of a prison, the evening’s finale “Here It Is Saturday” is an uplifting look at a now sober-for-good Mrs. Bevins (aka “Lucia”) teaching a writing class to an eclectic class of felons, men whose lives are made just a bit brighter by a woman whom they know has traveled some of the same alleys and inhabited some of the same cells they have.  The final image of the evening is still somber and sobering, but the message is one of a heroine who conquers her demons and touches many lives during both the difficult journey and at its conclusion.

Nine movable, stackable boxes are the principal set design of Oliver DiCicco, Naomie Kremer, and Jacqueline Scott; but in their simplicity comes a plethora of scenes and uses – all becoming part of the constant dance this cast performs in telling a total story that is always on the move.  Particularly powerful is the video accompaniment to many of those scenes as designed by Naomie Kremer -- never any more impactful than a stark sidewalk and its wavering cracks as Lucia makes her 4 a.m. trip and back to the liquor store.  Jim Cave’s lighting casts the patterns, spots, and shadows that further bring these stories to life, while the jazz score composed by Marcus Shelby both honors the love of jazz Ms. Berlin is said to have as well as mirrors the tension, the loneliness, and the occasional triumphs of Lucia and her fellow characters.

Members of the Ensemble
While each of the five stories serves its part in telling Lucia’s overall journey, “Emergency Room Notes” is one that perhaps could be either eliminated or shortened without doing much damage to her overall story.  It is easily a stand-alone, often very funny look at emergency rooms and the people who work there, with the final note that even people who are saving others’ lives have issues themselves (in this case, drinking).  But for the total two-and-a-half-hour Lucia Berlin: Stories (including intermission), this particular story is one of the longest without adding elements quite as essential as do the others.

To a long line of Word for Word, uniquely and successfully related stories that jump from page to stage now joins the world premiere of Lucia Berlin: Stories.  For all of us who harbor stereotypes about the drunks in the street or about those drunks in the office, home, or school, Lucia Berlin: Stories is a must-ingredient of our recovery plan.

Rating: 5 E

Lucia Berlin: Stories continues through March 11, 2018 in production by Z Space’s Word for Word at Z Below, 470 Florida Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photos by Julie Schuchard

Saturday, February 17, 2018

"Non-Player Character"

Non-Player Character
Walt McGough
San Francisco Playhouse, Sandbox Series

Devin O'Brien, Annemaria Rajala, Tyler McKenna & Emily Radosevich
As #MeToo revelations proliferate from the worlds of business, entertainment, politics, education, and beyond and as stories continue to emerge of high school and college students being harassed online by jealous and spiteful classmates, the world premiere of San Francisco Playhouse’s Non-Player Character by Walt McGough could unfortunately not be more timely.  As part of its Sandbox Series featuring new plays receiving something more than a staged reading and something less than a full-on, main-stage production, Non-Player Character under the imaginative, cutting-edge, no-holes-barred direction of Lauren English is a new work setting high standards in its creative approach and its compelling, disquieting, and thought-provoking messages.

Devin O'Brien & Emily Radosevich
Friends since childhood, Katja and Trent are now twenty-somethings on opposite coasts who are an unbeatable team in the virtual world of Spearlight Chronicles III -- an online role-playing game where they meet, chat, and play games regularly as avatars.  While not at a local coffee shop or bar, they still have that same back-and-forth habit of finishing each other’s incomplete thoughts, of providing lots of friendly and even heartfelt support, and of just being friends hanging out.  But when they don their online armor, they are an unbeatable duo as they fight a wicked farmer’s Evil Zuchinni, Enraged Rose, or the most dreaded of all – the Pumpkin-Spiced Doom.

Their virtual meetings and battles are astonishingly recreated by a stellar team that Lauren English has assembled.  Jacqueline Scott’s set design, Wolfgang Wachalovsky’s lighting, and especially Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s sound and projection designs combine with Leandra Watson’s other worldly costumes to put us as audience smack dab in the middle of an online, virtual world that is so real to be both fascinating and creepy.  For the entire first act and some of the second, we only encounter avatars -- some of which are controlled by unseen players and some appearing as NPC’s, a non-player character controlled by the game and not by a gamer. 

But those avatars are in fact very real with deeply felt emotions that develop, grow, and finally want to burst into the open.  It is when a confession of love is sweetly and awkwardly made by Trent’s avatar to Katja’s – a love evidently with real-world roots from their encounters in college – that a glitch pops up in their now exclusively online relationship. 

Emily Radosevich
When not working as a barista at Starbucks, Katja is an aspiring game developer, creating a game based on storytelling versus killing monsters.  Her new life in Seattle has time for work, game design, and occasional online tournaments against monsters.  However in her real-life world, there is no time or desire to have her avatar friendship with Trent (who in reality is back in Lancaster, PA) become what he wants -- a move to her coast in order to be closer to her.

When Katja’s avatar is less than welcoming of virtual Trent’s expressed hope to be more real-world in their relationship, the actual Trent turns to the online gaming community for support and revenge of his hurt feelings.  Via a YouTube-like video, he tells a bitter story of being used by a female who is just looking to advance her own career, no matter whom she hurts along the way.  The vitriolic, anonymous reactions that explode online include language, pictures, and threats that are horrific and scary – all from people who have never met either Trent or Katja but who are now intent on ruining Katja’s life with the same vengeance they use to fight and kill online demons.  And we are witnesses as the play further unfolds to the effects and changes in victim Katja and in perpetrator Trent – neither now any longer avatars in their protective armor.

Both Emily Radosevich as Katja and Devin O’Brien as Trent are mesmerizing to watch as they manipulate and project their avatar selves in the first half of the play.  Both are attractively gawky as they work their way through conversations as avatars -- reflecting some combination of shyness, geekiness, and nervous energy that one might expect from two who are most at home when madly hitting the keys that send their warrior selves to fight the gigantic and deadly threats of a virtual, dark kingdom.  They talk back and forth mostly in spurts, starts, and stops -- often even as avatars unable to look eye-to-eye or to keep their hands from nervously twitching and shaking.

Emily Radosevich
Each of the two actors transforms in Act Two to a real-life person that is often difficult to watch.  Ms. Radosevich’s Katja breaks one’s heart and at the same time raises one’s rage seeing what she is going through due to online attacks that are threatening and damaging in very real ways.  She so realistically captures what we too often read about when someone – particularly a young woman – has become the target of virtual vitriolization.  And Mr. O’Brien’s Trent that we see via room-size videos is now a glassy eyed, smooth-talking monster – more unsettling and scary than the ones he and Katja so cleverly destroyed only a few days prior.

Other virtual and earthly beings inhabit Walt McGough’s new play; but none seems yet fully developed in concept or character while each still has hints of something intriguing.  Most compelling of this lot is Feldrick, an avatar bully who is also part buffoon as played bigger-than-life by Tyler McKenna.  A cross between cave-man and Tarzan, Feldrick is the first hint that there is an underlying gamer culture that is anti-women and just on the verge at any moment to be abusive in attitude and language. 

Feldrick’s sidekick is a slick, high-heeled Morwyn (Annemaria Rajala) who adds some humor as an avatar playing on mute and who also has her own real-life secrets.  But neither her online self or her real-life self (that one portrayed by Dean Koya as Grant) do much to advance the story and in fact are a bit distractive and puzzling in their present forms.

Charrise Loriaux is Naomi, Katja’s Starbucks manager and increasingly, her friend and sympathizer.  Ms. Loriaux’s idiosyncratic and quirky ways of portraying Naomi might work in a different story but seem somewhat disjointed and unnecessary in the present one.

But the strong message of this new work comes loud and clear through the outstanding performances and character development provided for Katja and Trent.  If anyone is at all doubtful that online, anonymous hateful messages are not a real and ever-present threat, consider this.  From just the press release of this play that states that “after a humiliating fall-out, Trent marshals an army of internet trolls to wage real-life war against her” (i.e., Katja), online reaction to the play has included messages (sent by some real person, somewhere) such as “a bunch of f---ts that they are artsy and more educated than other people” and “I’m guessing the play is women and gay men finding stuff straight men enjoy, infiltrating it, and destroying it.”

Yes, San Francisco Playhouse’s world premiere of the virtual world of Non-Player Character is all too real, all too reflective of an online world that is sometimes overrun by unseen, unidentified voices mean and misogynic and whose damage can be real.  This is a new work well-worth seeing and one that, with some further development, will hopefully have legs to play across the nation.

Rating: 3.5 E

Non-Player Character continues through March 3, 2018 in production as a part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series, playing at The Creativity Theatre, Yerba Buena Gardens, 221 4th Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at www.sfplayhouse or by calling 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Friday, February 16, 2018

"At the Statue of Venus" and "Trouble in Tahiti"

At the Statue of Venus
Jake Heggie (Music); Terrence McNally (Libretto)
Trouble in Tahiti
Leonard Bernstein (Music & Libretto)

Steffi Cheong
The familiar opening notes of West Side Story rise in a percussion-piano duet, jazzier and with more edge than the Broadway version.  The evening’s prelude transitions into a probing, vibrating, and emotional “Maria” which saxophonist Michael Hernandez stunningly performs with pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi.  In the meantime, high above a statue of Venus who is taking a break from her podium to read a fashion magazine, museum-goers in 1950’s attire gaze at art.  As the music becomes more discordant with the sax dueling and clashing with clarinets and flute, this Venus (Steffi Cheong) comes to life with movements displaying an urgent searching and a reaching for something out there as if to discover who she really is.  But as the discords become ever more abrupt, her struggles succumb to resuming her position as an armless statute of female beauty, just in time for museum-goers to arrive to view her.

This intriguing, unusual opening is just the beginning of an evening where the search for relationship, love, and personal identity is a running and connected theme between two otherwise unrelated one-act operas: the 2005 At the Statue of Venus by Jake Heggie (music) and Terrence McNally (libretto) and the 1952 Trouble in Tahiti -- the only work for which Leonard Bernstein wrote both music and lyrics.  Under the innovative, imaginative direction of Brian Staufenbiel, Opera Parallèle cleverly and seamlessly links these two works into a before and after story of a woman anxiously, apprehensively waiting At the Statue of Venus for a blind date to show up, followed by a one-day glimpse of a couple whose marriage has all the signs of being Trouble in Tahiti.

Into the earlier scene of museum patrons gazing on a rather bored looking Venus enters an evidently excited young man (Eugene Brancoveanu) singing in his attractive baritone, “I got a feeling there’s a miracle due, gonna come true, coming to me ... Could it be?” As he disappears somewhere into the museum’s galleries, a woman named Rose approaches the statue bemoaning in her mezzo-soprano voice, “Meeting a blind date at the statue of Venus ... wearing black slacks!”  Her concerns and doubts of this venture on this blind date mount beyond just her choice of wardrobe as Rose (Abigail Levis) scolds herself with great comic effect in voice and with wildly expressive cheeks and eyebrows that capture her nervous excitement.  At the same time, she also softly glides through ever-higher notes with much grace as she dreamily imagines who her true love might be.  Always looking on, Ms. Cheong’s Venus reacts in full fascination to this woman seeking and yet scared of a potential date who might give her that same feeling of safety and protection that Rose declares in reflective song once was felt in her father’s arms.

While at the end of Jake Heggie’s captivating one-act At the Statue of Venus
we do not know if Rose has found her man or not, the second half of the evening begins with both Abigail Levis (alternating the role with Renée Rapier) and Eugene Brancoveanu (alternating with Kyle Albertson) returning as a married couple at the breakfast table, now as Dinah and Sam.  Their life together is clearly not a paradise as they struggle to communicate without really ever hearing what the other is trying to say.  Bickering and shooting virtual arrows in a marital battle that one quickly realizes is probably a daily occurrence, Bernstein gives them each moments of longing for more kindness -- for more of what they once supposedly had as a newly married couple.  Ms. Levis brings her gorgeously lyrical voice from the museum as Rose to dreamily now imagine as Dinah a garden where “love will teach us harmony and grace.”  Mr. Brancoveanu’s heavily knitted brow displays Sam’s desperate longing as he too sings in haunting, deeply moving voice, “Can’t we find our way back to the garden where we began?”

Both Rose and Sam also have moments in their day where they escape as best they can.  We see Sam on an exercise bike (while smoking a cigarette), admiring a little trophy he prizes for a win in handball while singing about his own manhood: “There are fish that go swimming and fish that end up in the pot.”  Rose heads to the movies to see “Trouble in Tahiti;” but in her version, she sees herself and Sam on the big screen in “Island Magic,” a wonderfully funny spin on 1950s beach films as delightfully created by projection designer, David Murakami.

Krista Wigle, Andres Ramirez & Bradley Kynard
As Rose and Sam proceed through their day and evening, a trio that one might have found in a Reno nightclub in the ‘50s sings in the role of a Greek chorus, painting a picture of the ideal life of “Sur-bur-i-a,” using the same note pattern this is reminiscent of Bernstein’s “New York, New York” from On the Town.   Soprano Krista Wigle, tenor Andres Ramirez, and baritone Bradley Kynard scat nonsensically, “Skid a lit day, skid a lit day ... ratty boo.”  They also describe how “morning sun kisses” the little white houses, their driveways, and their flagstones on front lawns in the suburbs of places like Scarsdale, Shaker Heights, Highland Park, and Beverley Hills (along with other named, very white, and very upscale ‘burbs of the ‘50s).  Bernstein has given their musical interludes the sound and feel of TV/radio commercials, all accentuated again by the incredible tongue-in-cheek humor of Mr. Murakami’s projections.

Designer Dave Dunning has created a spinning turntable where period scenes of breakfast nook, living room, office, and gym rotate both to accommodate the ever-changing scenes of the couple’s day but also to highlight that this couple’s life is twirling away, going nowhere.  Matthew Antaky’s lighting design accentuates the stark realities of this couple’s life as well as the dreams they both have for something different.  Christine Crook’s costumes combined with Sophia Smith’s wigs and make-up truly are the icing on a cake that portrays an era that tried so hard to look perfect and happy like the paradise that it certainly was not for too many people who turned increasingly to booze and pills to find their own bit of sought-after heaven on earth.

Beautifully performed music by singers and orchestra alike (under the astute and enthusiastic direction of Nicole Paiement) shows off well the impressive, jazz-laced scores of Messieurs Heggie and Bernstein.  The two stories created fifty years apart mold successfully together an ageless storyline in this Opera Parallèle production of two people seeking that lifelong companion who lives so clearly in their dreams but in reality, is not so easy to find.

Rating: 4.5 E

At the Statue of Venus and Trouble in Tahiti continue in joint production by
Opera Parallèle through February 18, 2018 at SFJazz, 201 Franklin Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Thursday, February 8, 2018

"Reel to Reel"

Reel to Reel
John Kolvenbach

Will Marchetti & Carla Spindt
What does a marriage of fifty-five years sound like?  Her middle of the night mumbles, snorts, and snores?  His habit of opening a squeaky cabinet ever so slowly to hear each tick?  Her end of day footstep that is “like a sack of flour dropped off a three-inch cliff”?  His upset voice that “sits on the back of his throat and there’s sandpaper run through it.”  Her sigh?  His sigh?

A play that is meant to be heard and not just seen, John Kolvenbach’s Reel to Reel is an aural delight, several laughs every of its eighty minutes, and yes, sigh-producing with its heart-touching story of a marriage so ordinary to be nothing short of extraordinary.  Currently receiving its world premiere at Magic Theatre, Reel to Reel is directed by the playwright himself, capturing the spontaneity and fun of a radio play as the stellar cast of four both portray their parts and also orchestrate dozens of sound effects.  The result is one of the most infectious, inventive, and entertaining Bay Area stage productions of yet this still-young year.

We first meet Maggie and Walter – both at the age of 82 -- in 2050 in a flat that looks untouched in décor or technology since they spent their first night there together in 1995.  Maggie is busy at her desk, meticulously working on the tape of a reel-to-reel player (which even back in 1995 would have been ancient), with Walter commenting, “You’re the last splicer alive.” 

Maggie has spent much of her life cataloguing and labeling the noises around her -- the first being her mother’s washing machine which she still listens to when anxious.  (She even re-recorded a noodle cracking 600 times, just to get it right.)  Along the way, not only has she recorded much of her and Walter’s quirks and quarrels, she secretly recorded as a girl 4144 minutes of her parents’ private moments in their bedroom – all of which she uses now as a stand-up entertainer, Maggie Spoon, in shows where her audience put on airline masks to enjoy her act better. 

(By the way, if I were to go see this show again, I would do the same.  It would be a hoot just to hear without the distraction of sight the fabulous sounds of John Kolvebach’s script and these actors’ verbal and sound effect skills.)

Will Marchetti, Andrew Pastides, Zoë Winters & Carla Spindt
The lives of Maggie and Walter alternate between this fifty-fifth year and their first year, with two sets of older/younger actors rising from their onstage chairs with music stands and scripts (think radio play) where they also slam doors, snap sticks, pop balloons, or swish water in a gallon milk container for a myriad of Maggie’s recorded sounds.  While scenes alternate between these two ages along with the ages of 42 and 80, sometimes the various-aged actors interact with each other, sharing hilarious observations about their partners’ idiosyncrasies from sounds to shapes to smells and filling in each other’s incomplete sentences.

- Maggie 1: “I watched a crease appear, on the side of his mouth, a vertical line, and it would go away and then come back and then it stayed; it held fast.”
- Maggie 2: “I named it.”

- Walter 1: I don’t like to admit it, it gives her too much power, but her calves.”
- Walter 2: “My wife’s calves lower my IQ.”

Such fantastically rich language of the playwright rings forth throughout with other lines like “You smell sometimes like earth that’s been heated and is moist ... A mushroom could grow in how you smell” or “On the side of your ass is a hollow ... it’s shaped like a big contact lens, you could store an ounce of water in there.”  The power of John Kolvenbach’s script is that he has Maggie and Walter say things that most of us would never, ever have the creativity to say but can immediately imagine wanting to have said to someone we love.  The lines are delivered as part of everyday lives whose sounds were recorded and preserved by a technology so out-of-date but somehow so wonderfully fresh and alive – in 2050 ... and even in 2018.

Will Marchetti and Carla Spindt are the older Walter and Maggie, each magnificent in many subtle nuances of portrayal.  Mr. Marchetti’s Walter often speaks with a twinkle in his voice that is so loving and adoring of his Maggie while still acting as if irritated at her inattention while she splices away.  Ms. Spindt’s Maggie is a gentle soul who loves to tease her husband one minute and then act impatient or indignant the next of his constant prodding and questioning, all the time equally returning a sense of love that has aged well over the fifty five years.  (Her Maggie is particularly impressive to watch when she is sitting in on the sidelines, listening intently and reacting to the other Maggie/Walter pair; her expressions are priceless.)

In almost opposite contrast to the older is the younger Maggie, played in award-worthy manner by Zoë Winters.  Her Maggie from the get-go has a sharp edge to her, whether rapidly speaking in paragraphs with hardly a breath or staring forever at Walter while not making a sound or a move.  She is impulsive and impetuous, unpredictable and unbending, determined and devilish.  She is also heads over heels in love with a Walter who at first has no idea who she is or why she wants him.  Ms. Winters is a stand-out in every regard among an ensemble of absolute stars.

Andrew Pastides is also a winner as the younger Walter who often appears as a deer frozen in headlights, particularly as he first meets the invading Maggie (whom by the way shows up uninvited to his apartment even before he knows her name with a suitcase and a reel-to-reel recorder, never to leave again).  He speaks in a manner mild and almost monotone -- except when he first starts freaking out over Maggie’ presence and then over her sudden absence.  He is clearly the younger of Mr. Marchetti’s older Walter, as Walter stays consistent through the years with a sense of half always searching for something lost, half of always knowing he has found it in his Maggie.

The Cast of "Reel to Reel"
Erik Flatmo’s simple yet highly effecting set design establishes the ageless, rather plain apartment that could be in any big city, with huge windows looking out onto nowhere interesting and with the same utensils and clutter from the past fifty years.  The lighting of Wen-Ling Liao provides the bland look appropriate for this apartment while also giving a dreamlike, memory-lane set of shadows and spots.  Meg Neville dresses both Walters in a robe just as comfy and shabby in 1995 as in 2050 and also dresses the Maggies in outfits befitting a woman curious and daring in her youth, sparkling and settled in her twilight.

Magic Theatre, the home of so many world premieres for decades, premieres a Reel to Reel that is destined to have as long or longer life than Maggie’s recording of the washing machine.  This is a play to see, to listen to, again and again.  In my opinion, John Kolvenbach’s Reel to Reel is a ‘must-see’!

Rating: 5 E, MUST SEE

Reel to Reel continues through February 25, 2018 at Fort Mason Center, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at (415) 441-8822.

Photos by Julie Haber

Monday, February 5, 2018

"The Road to Mecca"

The Road to Mecca
Athol Fugard

Diane Tasca & Brianna Mitchell
 Under the sensitive, gentle, and highly intuitive-driven direction of Elizabeth Kruse Craig, Pear Theatre presents a staging of The Road to Mecca that boasts a cast of three that could hardly be more perfect to tell this beautifully moving and yet importantly challenging story of a woman who declares in 1974 South Africa, “The only reason for being alive is my Mecca ... without it, I am nothing.”

For my complete review of this stunning show, please continue to Talkin' Broadway:

Rating: 5 E

The Road to Mecca continues through February 11, 2018 at 1110 LaAvenida, Mountain View.  Tickets are available at or by calling 650-254-1148.

Photo by Michael Craig/Pear Theatre


Terry Johnson

Jim Johnson & Jessica Lea Risco
Terry Johnson’s 1982 play, Insignificance, imagines that in a cheap hotel four people come together for a few short hours – people so universally recognizable that they are only referenced as The Professor, The Senator, The Actress, and The Ballplayer.  Their conversations and confrontations – often intense in words and in physicality -- range from hateful accusations to intellectual explorations to romantic encounters.   The comedy, social commentary, and melodrama of Insignificance receives an engaging treatment in Dragon’s current production, thanks largely to the astute choices of Director Laura Jane Bailey who helps these four celebrities come to life in ways mostly believable and intriguing in a situation quite fantastic and absurd. 

For my full review, please refer to Talkin' Broadway:

Rating: 3.5 E

Insignificance continues through February 18, 2018 at Dragon Theatre, 2120 Broadway Street, Redwood City.  Tickets are available at or by calling 650-493-2006.

Photo by Dragon Productions Theatre