Friday, November 30, 2018

"The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley"


The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley
Lauren Gunderson & Margot Melcon

Neiry Rojo & August Browning
In late December 1815, two years have passed since four of the five sisters of the Longbourn estate traversed many complicated webs and winding routes to land husbands in Jane Austin’s much beloved Pride and Prejudice.  Now as December arrives in 2018, two years have also passed since Marin Theatre Company joined in a three-theatre, rolling premiere of a Lauren Gunderson and Margo Melcon play that picks up and continues the original Jane Austin story (a new work that has been the most produced play in the U.S. for the past two years, including a much-loved production last year at San Jose’s City Lights Theater Company).   Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley that made its MTC premiere in 2016 picks up Jane Austin’s original story and relates how the fifth sister -- a rather-odd-one-out, committed spinster Mary – surprises herself and all her family as she stumbles onto her one true love while the family convenes at Christmas at Pemberley, the ancestral estate of sister Elizabeth’s husband, Fitzwilliam Darcy. 

The playwright team of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon has now returned to the same household and the same few days in December to tell the story again, this time relating what is going on in the basement where the servants of the household hold reign.  Marin Theatre Company once again premieres a visit to Pemberley -- The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley – one that is likely to become just as popular on holiday stages across America as has its predecessor.  Not only is this MTC premiere once again enchantingly captivating, often funny, and in the end heart-warming, the play is quite enlightening about the role of women in the early 1800s of England and the possibilities for self-empowerment even when most laws and customs of the land were stacked totally against them in favor of men -- especially husbands.

Melissa Ortiz & Madeline Rouverol
As the large family of tittering, bickering, and gossiping sisters and brothers-in-law arrives upstairs, three of the estates servants scurry below to shine silver, iron clothes, deliver sherry, and ensure the basket of biscuits (i.e., sugar cookies in the shape of stars) remains full.  Those biscuits appear to be a key reason the estate’s couple, Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy, and one sister, Lydia Wickham, continue invading the large kitchen – as well as their searching a reprieve from all the hustle and bustle of invading relatives above.  One thing that becomes quite clear:  When the landed aristocrats arrive in the domain of head housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, they are no longer in territory that they totally control nor one where they will always have last say.

Jennie Brick is the formidable Mrs. Reynolds – formidable in size, in demeanor, and often in tongue.  She is not past speaking defiantly in the face of the master of the house, Mr. Darcy; and she certainly is quick and prone to correct and command the other two servants, footman Brian and temporary help for the holidays, Cassie.  Mrs. Reynolds is not in any way mean, but she is also not one with a ready smile.  She does not take praise well (“Praise slows me down”), and she does not take well to any sort of change in the kitchen kingdom she controls.  When inventive Brian presents a new cutting board he has created in order to shape multiple, star-shaped biscuits in one swoop out of dough, Mrs. Reynolds humphs, “I don’t want things that are done easily: I want things done well ... Invent on your own time.”  Jennie Brick is scrumptiously delectable as the head cook, household manager, opinionated observer, and all-around ruler of the down-below (and maybe even the up-above).

Her charges include a well-spoken, quick-to-like Brian, whose proper posture and English as well as curiosity and creativity immediately seem more than one might expect from the household’s footman and all-around servant.  August Browning’s Brian has very exacting ways of speaking and very endearing ways of conversing with whomever wanders into the kitchen.  He particularly perks up whenever the newly arrived Cassie is in the room -- a girl he has known since school days (and one who has more than once beat him in playground foot races).  In his star-struck eyes and his attempts to engage in small talk with her, there is no doubt Brian has long-term dreams about his relationship with Cassie.

But Cassie has no time for Brian as she works diligently to make a good impression on the always-watching Mrs. Reynolds in hopes of acquiring a permanent position in the household.  As Cassie, Neiry Rojo exudes a strong-willed confidence of who she is and what she wants in life – and that does not seem to include a husband (which in 1815 England would mean giving away all her rights of property, decision, and future course).  Cassie makes it clear, “I want my own life ... It’s more precious that any man could offer me.”  Cassie is a daring, young woman who does not hesitate to take a stand of firm integrity and opinion when needed – with Brian or even with one of her so-called betters from above.  She also does not hesitate to declare with intended defiance that when accusations get made by others, “it is always the women that are blamed first.”

Down the stairs and into the dawn-to-midnight world of ever-increasing tasks and pressures that these three face as Christmas Day approaches come with much regularity the master and mistress of the household and one sister who feels particularly alienated from the rest of her family.  Melissa Ortiz is Elizabeth (Lizzy) Darcy -- a quite gleeful, completely kind head mistress who pops in for quick chats, a few nicely asked commands, and of course, for biscuits.  She is also bold in her new ideas, like introducing a tree into the household for Christmas – an idea she picked up from German tradition and one that the entire downstairs thinks is quite strange. 

David Everett Moore & Melissa Ortiz
Her husband, Fitzwilliam (David Everett Moore), is stiffly formal, a bit standoffish, but also looking to escape all the sisters and hubbub of the above, asking sheepishly his wife, “Couldn’t I just hide down here until after the holiday?”  Wanting also to hide also from the happy couples above is Lydia Wickham (Madeline Rouverol), a high-voiced, fast-talking (i.e., rarely speaks using any punctuation marks like periods) woman who is visiting without a husband because her husband, George, has been forever banned from the household by Darcy after he did “disgrace this house.” 

But to the house in the middle of night does come a stumbling drunk, bruised and black-eyed, and totally disheveled George Wickham (a perfectly matched for the scoundrel’s role, Kenny Tull).  A surprisingly sympathetic Mrs. Reynolds (who clearly once loved him much as she watched him grow up) allows him to stay but warns him to stay hidden in the basement  -- neither to be seen by his wife (who continually pines away for her absent husband whom she has not seen in some weeks/months) nor certainly by Mr. Darcy.

Kenny Toll & Jennie Brick
The appearance of the wandering prodigal – whom we soon learn has no livelihood, is a womanizer, and yet can be quite charming in his own rough way – ignites a series of unfolding discoveries that transform the basement’s kitchen into a beehive of angry accusations and shout-filled confrontations.  All starts with Cassie’s discovering a letter in George’s muddy coat as she washes it.  The gasps of surprise, disgust, horror, and even delight the note elicits (according to who happens subsequently to be reading it) sets up a flurry of activities that the celebrating family members above have no idea are occurring. 

As events unfold from Christmas Eve through Christmas Day and into Boxing Day, we witness heretofore hidden, powerful aspects of Elizabeth, Mrs. Reynolds, and eventually even Lydia emerge.   We see a Cassie who remains true to her posture of high integrity and her firm ambition to better herself in her own independent way; but we also see her new lighten up her whole countenance with ah-ha’s about what life might offer for a future that she had once rejected.  Out of a family crisis that never reaches the upstairs celebrations emerges personal transformations and new opportunities for happiness for all those who live in and venture in the house’s below – save the wily and truly wicked George.  For those in the “down-under,” Christmas goes from bleak to blessed, largely due to feminine courage, initiation, and cultural boundary-busting. 

Megan Sandberg-Zakian directs with a pace of both alacrity and occasional, welcome pauses the whirl of downstairs events, never leaving us breathless but always keeping our undivided attention and desire to see what happens next.  Wilson Chin has created a massive underground world of a plain-walled but stately kitchen that is its own bounded territory, separated from the glittering festivities above by a fortress-like, wooden staircase heading up and to the right.  The set’s large, opaque windows clearly help us understand this domain’s inhabitants are separated in more ways that one from the outside world around them, with the excellent lighting schemes of Wen-Ling Liao adding to the atmosphere of shadows and diffused light that exist in the massive basement.  Liam Roddisil and Rachel Hurado have populated the scene with dozens of properties that authenticate and give personality to the servant’s busy basement.  Sharath Patel helps establish both the era and the season through her choice of music as sound designer while the costumes of Courtney Flores ice the cake in defining the upstairs/downstairs nature of the story as well as enhancing the various personalities, strengths, and faults of the characters we meet.

Both the writing team of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon and the cast and production team of Marin Theatre Company are on a roll.  Just as Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley has proven to be a crowd pleaser, it is evident upon exiting this year’s The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley that this new work may well repeat that initial installment’s cross-country, repeated stagings in the next two years.  After all, it would take a Scrooge not to walk out of The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley thoroughly pleased and ready to wish with big smiles everyone met, “Happy Holidays.”

Rating: 5 E

The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley continues in an extended run through December 16, 2018 at Marin Theatre Company, at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA.  Tickets are available online at http://www.marintheatre.org or by calling the box office Tuesday – Sunday, 12 -5 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne


Thursday, November 29, 2018

"A Bronx Tale"


A Bronx Tale
Chazz Palminteri (Book); Alan Menken (Music); Glenn Slater (Lyrics)

Joey Barreiro & Frannkie Leoni
Based on real life occurrences, A Bronx Tale is a coming of age musical about the life of its writer, Chazz Palminteri, ages nine to seventeen.  Set in the 1960s Italian and African-American neighborhoods of New York – two neighborhoods close in distance but separated by an invisible, dare-not-cross wall – A Bronx Tale reflects the organized crime and the racial strife that ruled the ‘hoods of the Bronx in the ‘60s while also pitting a boy’s love of his father against the boy’s adoration of a local crime boss.  When in his teen years he also becomes infatuated with a local African-American girl, the formula is complete for a teenager’s coming to terms of who he really wants to be and whose values and advice are going to govern his life.  Starting as a one-man play before turning into a movie, moving to Broadway as a one-man show, and finally being adapted into a full-blown musical, the end result that is now on tour and at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre is best described by the now-grown Calogero himself as he sings in the opening “Belmont Avenue,”
“This is A Bronx Tale, and it’s my story,
The one that shattered the world that I knew.”

Frankie Leoni & Richard H. Blake
After an introduction to the Italian neighborhood that is lined with the stoops of its working class inhabitants and with establishments like Madonna’s Bakery, Dino’s Pastry Shop, and Mike’s Deli, a nine-year-old Calogero receives advice from his hard-working, bus-driving dad, Lorenzo, to “Look to Your Heart.”  As they discuss their favorite topic, Yankees baseball, Richard H. Blake as Lorenzo sings in a beautifully sincere, totally authentic voice his oft-repeated advice to his son, “Look to your heart; being a man means you take what you got and you use it ... Just use your talents and don’t you dare waste it.” 

Joe Barbara & Frankie Leoni
That fatherly refrain begins to take a back seat in young Calogero’s life after he meets local, crime kingpin, Sonny.  Their introduction occurs after the youngster witnesses Sonny gunning down a guy with a bat who is beating up on Sonny’s friend, with Calogero later deciding not to finger Sonny with the murder during a police line-up.  Calogero quickly becomes Sonny’s protégé and good-luck boy; and that new status is immediately noticed by the entire neighborhood who all now go out of their way to give him high-fives and call him “C,” leading Calogero to sing with much charismatic machismo (at least for a nine-year-old) “I Like It.”  Frankie Leoni (who alternates the role with Shane Pry) is a winner in the role of Young C, especially coming alive with kid-filled glee as he helps Sonny win big bucks in a crap game, rolling all the right numbers while excitedly singing “Roll ‘Em” in full voice with Sonny and his gangster buddies.

By the time Calogero grows into a seventeen-year-old (now played by Joey Barreiro), he is well on his way to becoming another of Sonny’s gang of hoodlums, albeit the most special among them.  With names like Coffee Cake (i.e., acne-marred in the face), Eddie Mush (i.e., always gambles and loses); Tony-Ten-to-Two (i.e., how he points his toes); and Jojo the Whale (pretty obvious where that name comes from), these are certainly not the companions Calogero’s father wants for him. 

Counter to Lorenzo’s advice to his son about using his heart and not wasting his talent, Sonny advises C in a song about his hero, “Nicky Machiavelli” that “you gotta choose fear or love, kid.”  C listens carefully as the tall, lanky Sonny (Joe Barbara) sings in a voice and manner reminiscent of an entertainer in a late-night, basement nightclub, “Love can always disappear, but fear is cash in the bank, kid, fear puts gas in your tank.”  Sonny is a mixture of joking leader of his grown-up gang, doting mentor of his boy C, and ready-at-any-moment to be a ruthless killer with no conscience.  Through it all, Joe Barbara’s portrayal wickedly lures us in to like him and want to know more about him, even when we know deep down we should be abhoring Sonny and the influence he is having on Calogero.

Brianna-Marie Bell & Joey Barreiro
Like many teenagers, Calogero also makes decisions and friends that his elders do not support.  Forming his own teen gang of Sally Slick (Sean Bell), Handsome Nick (Giovanni Digabreile), and Crazy Mario (Joseph Sammour), C receives more advice, this time about protecting neighborhood territories and finding the right girl in a doo-wop blending of “Ain’t It the Truth.”  But when Calogero dares to look twice and meet an African-American girl at his school named Jane (Brianna-Marie Bell), both he and she begin to hear from those around them, “You’re just out of your head if you think this ever could be” (“Out of Your Head”).

The conflicting pulls on Calogero’s/C’s life only increase as he tries to be tough and rough with his questionable pals, loyal to his Sonny, a possible boyfriend with Jane, and still somewhat welcome in his own home (where his father is particularly at the peak of disappointment and worry).  As one might expect, bad things happen; but out of bad, lessons can be learned.  In one of the better moments of the evening, Sonny surprises both C and us with his advice in regard to Jane as Joe Barbara’s Sonny shows a different and unexpected side of the gangster while earnestly and with some humor singing in his Bronx-rich way about not letting “One of the Great Ones” get away.

Overall, the original Chazz Palminteri story is fairly compelling as a memoir of a boy’s journey through some precarious paths, given the roadblocks he encounters of compelling crime, inbred prejudice, and natural teen rebelliousness.  In its musical format, the score and songs of Alan Menken do not do much to come even within near distance to those of Jersey Boys, Guys and Dolls, or West Side Story – other musicals whose legacies echo in this musical’s various songs.  None of Menken’s tunes are ones that anyone is likely to wake up the next day humming; and even more damning, the rhyming lyrics of Glenn Slater are for the most part, bland, predictable, and unmemorable.  All that said, there is nothing totally unpleasant in the ‘60s’-sounding music and songs, often sung in the close harmonies one remembers from the boy and girl bands of the time.  But, there is also nothing remarkable.

Delivery by this cast is overall respectable, with the performance of Richard H. Blake as Lorenzo reigning as the brightest spot among the soloists.  The choreography designed by Sergio Trujillo smacks of the moves of back-up singers and dancers for Motown shows of the 1960s, with much grooving of bodies along with jerks, leaps, and splits, and multiple ways of expressing emotions and rhythms with hands and arms.  All such numbers are fun to watch in the moment and too quickly forgotten by the end of the show.

The Cast of A Bronx Tale
As co-directed by Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks, A Bronx Tale moves at a pace that actually makes the evening seem shorter than its efficient two-hour running time.  Costumes by William Ivey Long along with hair and wigs by Paul Huntley provide live portraits of the styles of the 1960s, especially recalling the ethnically different communities of the Bronx.  The scenic designs of Beowulf Boritt depict in metal skeletons the shops, apartments, and hang outs of the Bronx neighborhoods against a backdrop of sky often lit in deep reds and purples as part of Howell Binkley’s lighting schemes.

A Bronx Tale does conclude with what may be the most memorable number of the evening, “The Choices We Make,” as sung by Calogero, his father Lorenzo, and the entire cast in rich, full voice.  Their message is simple but in its own way, true and important for every young teen to hear:  “All the choices we make become part of our story; ev’ry joy and ache, they’re never truly gone.”

Rating: 3.5 E

A Bronx Tale continues through December 23, 2018 at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com.

Photo Credits:  Joan Marcus

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

"Mary Poppins"


Mary Poppins
Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman (Music & Lyrics); Julian Fellowes (Book) with Additional Songs/Lyrics by George Stiles & Anthony Drewe
Based on the Stories of P.L. Travers and the Film by Walt Disney


El Beh
Mary and Bert have danced with animated animals in a cinematic Mary Poppins for almost fifty-five years with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke forever embodying those characters for millions of people around the globe.  On the Broadway and West End stages, new versions of the musical wowed audiences with stunts like Bert tap dancing up the front stage frame and across the stage, upside-down.  How can a local production on a smaller stage compete with such vivid memories of this much-beloved, musical classic? 

That is no problem whatsoever when the director is the immensely creative and a tad devilish Susi Damilano and the presenting company is San Francisco Playhouse with its long history of taking famed musicals and turning them inside-out to expose new and wonderful views.  In an eye-popping, toe-tapping, big-smile-producing Mary Poppins that also has an edgier, darker undertone than most of its predecessors, San Francisco Playhouse places under the Bay Area’s holiday tree a gift that should enchant both fans and newcomers to the Richard Sherman and Robert B. Sherman (music and lyrics), Julian Fellowes (book) musical, Mary Poppins – one based on the imaginative, much-loved stories of P.L. Travers.

Winds in the east, there’s a mist comin' in,
Like somethin' is brewin' and 'bout to begin.
Can't put me finger on what lies in store,
But I feel what's to happen all happened before.
A father, a mother, a daughter,r a son -
The threads of their lives unraveling undone -
Somethin' is needed to twist 'em as tight,
like string you might use when you're flyin' a kite -
Chim chimeny chim chim, cheree chim cheroo!

And with that “Prologue,” sometimes street artist, sometimes chimney sweep, and all-around handyman Bert lays out about all the plot one needs to know in order to revel in the next, near-three-hours of a story that is not shy in teaching us lessons about parenting, families, and allowing the child in us all to flourish.  As our narrator, Bert is always near-by as the story unfolds of the Banks family and their nanny who suddenly “pops in” after reading a torn-up advertisement that the children, Michael and Jane, wrote about the kind of nanny they want (“You must be kind, you must be witty, very sweet and fairly pretty”).  Mary Poppins is not the kind of nanny the stern, no-smile father, George Banks, wants for his children (“A nanny should rule; a nanny is a paragon who suffers no fool”).  Up the chimney has flown the ad his kids had written and that he has torn to bits; but the ad is not lost to the winds when it comes to Mary Poppins. 

El Beh as Mary Poppins
When Mary Poppins unexpectedly knocks at the door, the part that George gets right about their new nanny is one “who suffers no fool.” That is especially true when Mary is played by the incomparable El Beh, a Mary deliciously wry with ever a slight smirk showing.  This is not Julie Andrews’ Mary P.  El Beh’s Mary has an attitude of self-understood superiority as she matter-of-factly sings in “Practically Perfect,” “My character is spit spot spic and span; I’m practically perfect in every way.” Yet at the same time, she cannot hide that twinkle in her eyes that softens a face that is not prone to smile while on the job – except when she is enjoying fooling the children into “A Spoonful of Sugar,” where a dose of medicine takes on a fruitful flavor each most loves.  El Beh is magically mysterious as she pulls out a whole room’s furnishings from her cloth valise (just part of the rib-tickling special effects designed by Mike “Miguel” Martinez), always singing with a voice solid and sure (but never sweet or syrupy).

Her charges are the mischievous, sometimes rebellious Michael (David Rukin, alternating with Billy Hutton) and the oft-bad-tempered Jane (Ruth Klein, sharing the role with Grace Hutton).  Both are also delightful whenever they sing with voices full of attractively correct, English accent as well of a child’s fascination, determination, and boldness.  Their father, George, is a stiff-necked, stern Ryan Drummond, whose rich, deep voice sings with always a warning of ‘leave me alone’ when it comes to his children or his wife, Jane. 

Winifred Banks, is caught in the middle between trying to please a husband who believes “It is your job to be Mrs. Banks” and wanting to console her children who are only looking for some sign of love from a father who is too much becoming his own parents, who had “no time to for hugs and kisses.”  Abby Haug brings melodic vocals and perfect pitch to explain in “Being Mrs. Banks” an empathy for a husband that is admirable if not also incredible, given his harshness toward her and the children.

Mary sets out to shake up and reshape these kids who have already run off many a nanny with their unruliness and their deep-seeded frustration of having a father who will not even consider taking time to do something like fly a kite with them in the park.  Teaming up with her long-time pal Bert, she ensures that the Banks children have some adventures that are nothing short of out-of-this-world. 

David Rukin, Ruth Klein & Wiley Naman Strasser
Bert soon wins over these kids who are initially skeptical and downright rude when they see his smoke-smudged face.  As Bert, Wiley Naman Strasser sports a cockney-rich, singing voice that brings an immediate smile to anyone listening – including us as audience – and who charms the kids and us with his talents on ukulele, accordion, and even a kid’s play piano. 

El Beh & Cast of Mary Poppins
Trips through the park with Mary and Bert become escapades where all sorts of fantastically funny, quirky, and lovable characters become new friends for the kids.  A candy store appears out of thin air whose proprietress, Mrs. Corry with pink, cotton-candy hair laced with Christmas ornaments (played by a lyrically voiced Sophia LaPaglia) sells the children “an ounce of conversation.”  While being watched by a gaggle of quirky souls all dressed in the most color-popping fashions (designed by Abra Berman), Jane and Michael pull from her jar letters of the alphabet that lead to a word that is now synonymous with Mary Poppins.  In an immensely fun number of increasingly fast and complicating sung rounds, a stage full of funny folk spell via awkwardly shaped hands, feet, and bodies the now world-famous word, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” 

That number’s heart-thumping choreography designed by Kimberly Richards is only one of several, stage-filling displays of creative craftiness she brings to the show.  In “Jolly Holiday,” a park packed with strolling passers-by surround a Bert and Mary in toe-and-heel dances where El Beh’s Mary proves she is the one who is clearly in charge – taking the lead as she dances with Bert and even lifting him climatically high in the air.  After an initial slow-motion display of raised knees and poised positions by a bevy of chimney sweeps, the stage practically explodes in stomps, kicks, and high-air heel-clicks in an evening show-stopper, “Step in Time.”  In number after number, Ms. Richards’ choreography -- along with the musical excellence of a well-sung emsemble under the musical direction of Katie Coleman -- proves to be contagiously rousing.

Katrina Lauren McGraw
To a person, members of this sixteen-person cast bring humor and heart to their assigned characters, often playing a number of differing parts.  Along with a brief but hilariously royal appearance as Queen Victoria, Marie Shell is the Banks’ maid and cook, Mrs. Brill, who is at times like a barking battle-ax and at other times, a softie who is just hiding behind her mammoth, harsh exterior a deep love for the family she serves.  Dominic Dagdagan is a park’s statue of Neleus who comes to life to sing and dance and to befriend two kids who need to learn to like/respect folks different from them – even one of the marbled, stony sort.  Katrina Lauren McGraw takes on two of the evening’s most memorable characters:  a stringy-haired, rag-skirted Bird Woman, whose “Feed the Birds” proves to be the evening’s tear-jerker, and a military-tank-sized Mrs. Andrews, an evil-beyond-belief nanny who smacks her lips threateningly as she sings with operatic power and high range, “Brimstone and Treacle.” 

Wiley Naman Strasser
Even with all this talent on the stage and also that in the six-person, hidden orchestra (directed with gusto by pianist Katie Coleman), the evening’s undisputed star is the storybook-like scenes emanating from Nina Ball’s design genius and creativity.  With slanted roofs of chimneys always visible along with a peeping backdrop of projected sky (by Theodore J.H. Hulsker), a passing character – often our Puck-like narrator, Bert – turns the walls as if turning the pages in a book, even as the scenes are also rotating on the stage’s silent turntable.  Scenes take on the pop-up quality and the same whimsy one might surprisingly find in a child’s book.  Characters are swooshed up the fireplace to emerge from chimneys and then to dance and sing on a roof overlooking the Banks’ neighborhood.  There is nothing short of magic and wonder created by Ms. Ball’s scenes, Patrick Toebe’s lighting, and Jacquelyn Scott’s properties that will long remain in the memories of the evening’s audience.

With sparkling stars overhead as their companions, the cast sings “Anything Can Happen,” “if you let it,” bringing an evening to a close with of course a happy ending for all and a head ringing full of much-loved songs revisited, but this time presented with new twists and turns than the ones sung by Julie and Dick.  In the end, Director Susi Damilano and the cast and creative team of this San Francisco Playhouse production of Mary Poppins – with the help of Mary and Bert – encourage us to “broaden your horizons,” “open different doors,” and know that “you may find a you there that you never knew was yours.”

Rating: 5 E, MUST-SEE

Mary Poppins continues through January 12, 2018 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at http://sfplayhouse.org/ or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli.


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

"Pike Street"

 

Pike Street
Nilaja Sun
Nilaja Sun
In August 2017, I saw and reviewed Nilaja Sun's solo performance of "Pike Street" at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  At that time, I contacted several Bay Area companies and suggested they consider bringing her and her compelling story to our local audiences.  While I unfortunately am unable to attend the Berkeley Repertory appearance of "Pike Street," I am happy to re-share my review from that performance of this same show and thus to encourage my readers to attend the Berkeley Repertory show.

Here is my earlier review of "Pike Street."
Pike Street
Nilaja Sun
Barrow Street Theatre Production 

A hurricane is fast approaching New York, and a household in the Lower East Side is busy preparing to ride it out even as the family awaits the return of a Navy Seal son and brother who has been awarded a medal for his bravery in Afghanistan.  The Puerto Rican family refuses to go to a shelter because of Evelyn’s fifteen-year-old daughter who is severely brain damaged and cannot breath without help of a machine (not eat or speak on her own).  To ensure Candice’s dialysis machine will continue to work, Evelyn has brought a generator into their fifth-floor, walk-up flat but has not had time yet to read the instructions for its operation.  Besides preparing for her brother’s welcome, she is trying to appease her alcoholic father who only wants to play the numbers before the storm arrives. She also wants to make sure the elderly Jewish woman below them who is having memory issues has what she needs before the storm hits.
The most remarkable part of the story being told in Pike Street is that all these and more residents of the ethnically rich neighborhood are all played by the piece’s author, Nilaja Sun.  We first see the mouthpiece of this one-person show sitting with a body grossly distorted — head slanted precariously upward, mouth severely askew, and both hands and legs knotted in ways that make one cringe to see.  This is our introduction to Candice, and the performer will remind us from time to time how the 15-year-old is reacting to the people and events around her.  For all the other characters, Ms. Sun employs an incredibly impressive range of voices, accents, body positions, and ways of walking to bring each of the people to life.  
As the thunder begins to rumble and the rains and winds pick up in intensity, the story inside the house also intensifies as emotions become raw not from the storm, but from histories leaving scars that get rubbed raw by memories jarred, challenges made, and stories retold.  Before the eye of the passing hurricane hits, an unexpected storm explodes within the household; and our final image of a young, invalid girl of fifteen takes on new significance given what this family has been through in deciding to ride out the storm.
Rating: 5 E
Pike Street continues through December 16, 2018 at 
on the Roda Theatre stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/boxoffice/index.asp or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.
Photo by Teresa Castracane

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

"Making God Laugh"

Jeremy Ryan, Mary Lou Torre, and Keenan Flagg

Making God Laugh
Sean Grennan
City Lights Theater Company

As the decades come and go over a thirty-year period in the life of one family, many changes occur in the world around them while in the house where the three grown children were raised, many more things stay the same. 

What better holiday gift could City Lights Theater Company give to its loyal audience that Sean Grennan’s Making God Laugh?  Chuckles and sighs aplenty await audiences as they remember the lifeline of their own families -- probably seeing moments that look longingly, embarrassingly, and maybe painfully familiar.  

Please continue to Talkin' Broadway for my entire review:  https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj145.html

Rating: 5 E

Making God Laugh continues through December 23, 2018 at City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, and San Jose.  Tickets are available online at https://cltc.org/ or by calling 408-295-4200 Monday – Friday, 1-5 p.m.

Photo Credit: Taylor Sanders

Friday, November 16, 2018

"Everything Is Illuminated"


Everything Is Illuminated
Adapted by Simon Block, Based on the Novel by Jonathan Safran Foer

Julian López Morillas, Adam Burch & Jeremy Kahn
“No one arrives in this world from nowhere.”  The driving desire to know his own origins sends a young, aspiring writer in the late 1990s to the Ukraine in search of a woman in a picture identified as Augustine whom he believes saved his deceased grandfather as a boy from the Nazis during the Holocaust.  He has no more information except that his grandfather’s family lived in a shtetl called Trachimbrod – a town of mostly Jews literally wiped off the map by the Nazis. 

Based on a novel inspired by a similar but unsuccessful quest made by its author, Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated is a play with the same name as the novel and as a subsequent, 2005 movie.  The adapted play by Simon Block is now in its West Coast premiere at Aurora Theatre Company in a production both incredibly funny and heartbreakingly sad as well as fantastically unreal and starkly harsh in reality as the search for a family’s history becomes a mixture of created fiction and discovered fact.

After a grueling, twenty-six hour train ride, the twenty-something Jonathan arrives in the Ukrainian region where he believes his grandfather once lived.  He is met by his two guides who “take curious Jews where they want to go” as they search for information about families that are no more.  His guides are an animated, hyper-friendly contemporary-to-him named Alex -- whose command of English is hilariously barely past meager -- and  his sour-faced, gruff Grandfather, who speaks no English and poses as blind and deaf when he does not want to be disturbed by others.


Jeremy Kahn
Jeremy Kahn is the overly loud, rather dramatic, and habitually intense Jonathan  -- sometimes on the border of being too much so in Mr. Kahn’s quite zealous performance.  Jonathan has come to the Ukraine believing his online-selected guides are experts in the Jewish history of the area and will know exactly where to take him.  His crusade to know his origins have led him even to begin imagining in a journal the arrival of his great-great-great-great grandmother on the shores of a nearby river – a Moses-in-the-bulrushes-like story he is writing and that comes to life in his head and on our stage even as he is trying to find the mysterious Augustine.  His almost frenetic impatience and anxiety grow when he cannot understand the conversations – often heated with much shouting – between his two guides.  His nervousness of his guides’ credibility only increases when Alex says to him, “It doesn’t say that in our history books,” when Jonathan mentions how much the Ukrainians did not like Jews back during the time of the war.

Jeremy Kahn & Adam Burch
Adam Burch is extraordinarily exceptional in the role of Alex.  From our first glimpse of him as he sits in a café wearing shiny, work-out garb and bouncing his shoulders to the background music’s beat as if in a disco, his Alex commands the stage and much of the story.  He is often our narrator, always relating with a sparkle his amusement, sense of wonder, and sincere like for this Jonathan (whom he mispronounces with pride “Jonfen”) from the faraway States.  He brushes off as no big deal Jonathan’s concern about his black eye that his drunken father gave him or the repeated slaps across the face he receives from the old Grandfather who clearly does not want to be on this adventure.  But his Alex knows the importance to the family of earning the trust and the money of this wandering Jew from America and of the potential business he may bring or may destroy, depending on how successful they are in helping him.

Julian López-Morillas is the barking grandfather whose constantly growled references to “the fucking Jew” smacks of deep-seeded anti-Semitism. The Grandfather protests constantly about the American who does not eat meat (not even liver), who wants them to find a town no one claims to remember ever existing, and who is even hates his treasured dog, Sammy Davis, Jr. Jr. (The dog, by the way, provides us with bone-tickling scenes of a panicking Jonathan being licked by her invisible, in-heat self.) 

We begin to have hints that there is more to this elderly curmudgeon than his rough surface when we see something happen in the Grandfather’s eyes as he first sees Jonathan’s picture of Augustine and as he actually listens to why Jonathan wants to know about the history of a grandfather who lost the rest of his Ukrainian family.  For a few moments, there is a softening that suggests more empathy and understanding than his constant complaints and arguments would otherwise suggest.  And for all his acerbic remarks and dour persona, he defends himself to his grandson, “I am not a bad person; I am a good person who was born in a bad time.”

Adam Birch & Marissa Keltie
Marissa Keltie plays a variety of Ukrainian characters of the countryside, from a barmaid with no time for Alex’s flirting to a peasant in the field with threatening shovel, with no time for his inquisitions about a town called Trachimbrod.  The latter’s reaction to that town’s name is a mirror of each person in the play who first hears the name: A moment’s stunned silence and look of dread, followed by a quick denial of ever hearing of the place.

Adam Burch, Jeremy Kahn & Julian López Morillas
Tom Ross directs a first half of this two-hour, thirty-minute play often with light-hearted, comical touches that can border on cartoonish.  An all-day car ride through the countryside takes on laugh-out-loud dimensions when the auto -- consisting of two wooded chairs and a bench, all on rollers -- turns, twirls, and twists in all directions and combinations of position as the journey goes nowhere in finding the illusive Trachimbrod.  Kate Boyd’s scenic design makes big use of over-sized, yellow flowers from the Ukrainian countryside with lighting by Kurt Landisman adding patterned shadows of rotating suns and dappled canopies of trees.  Matt Stines creates the sounds of an old dog and older car, an idyllic countryside, a train-station café, and bone-shattering thunderstorms – all resulting in the story becoming ever the more vivid on a mostly bare stage where only suggestions of scenes are made.

In the second half, Jonathan’s quest becomes intermingled with an unexpected exploration by Alex of his own history.  Alex clearly knows little of his own past, wondering at one point to his Grandfather, “What did my great-grandparents do during the war?  ... Who did they save?”  The closer Jonathan comes to finding some of his own answers, the more questions begin to arise in Alex’s mind about his own heritage. 

Lura Dolas & Adam Burch
A chance meeting in the countryside with a meek, high-voiced, sweetly pleasant woman with long, white hair becomes a major discovery for Jonathan, the Grandfather, and ultimately Alex.  Her house that is a magical wall of shelved memories -- created through the masterful properties design of Eric Johnson -- becomes the foundation for multiple surprises.  As the old woman, Lura Dolas at one point provides one of the evening’s most spell-bounding, heart-wrenching sequences -- relating in carefully chosen, excruciatingly painful words a history that further unlocks memories and secrets of the Grandfather.  Subsequently, Mr. Lopez-Morillas also holds the audience in silent, stunned attention as the Grandfather’s heretofore-shuttered memories begin to pour forth.

The awarenesses that come to light in Everything Is Illuminated raise many questions as well as incite important truths.  Our histories are deep and are always with us whether we know the details or not – to the point we each probably sometimes do as Jonathan does in his journal and imagine in our minds from where our unknown histories long ago originated.  We are also reminded that our futures go beyond us and live on in legacies of the unborn, as is hinted by the Grandfather who emphatically says more than once, “A father is always responsible for his son.”  But what do we do when remembrance leads to incredible pain and guilt or when discovery ushers in scenes difficult to forgive even from those we love the most?  Are there times it is just better to imagine where we came from rather than actually find out?

The Aurora Theatre Company production of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated (as adapted by Simon Block) lures us in with scenes silly yet intriguing, takes us on a journey where sunny skies darken as shadows grow, and lands us in discoveries difficult to accept but important to comprehend.  The play’s mixture of a writer’s real-time experience and his created fantasy results in an evening that cannot help but leave us with new regrets of never-conceived generations due to entire families lost as well as renewed appreciation of the generations saved and those who saved them.

Rating: 5 E

Everything Is Illuminated continues through December 9, 2018 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available online at https://auroratheatre.org or by calling 415-843-4822.

Photo by David Allen



Monday, November 12, 2018

"In the Heights"


In the Heights
Lin Manuel Miranda (Music); Quiara Alegria Hudes (Book)


The Cast of In the Heights
In 2008, a musical that opened on Broadway and went on to win four Tonys that year (including Best Musical) quickly established itself as one that would influence a new generation of stage musicals.  Not only was the large cast all but one of Hispanic/Latino backgrounds who freely spoke much Spanish throughout, the music that In the Heights introduced to Broadway was the kind of freestyle rap and hip-hop beat that would one day be used to even a greater extent in the phenomenal, further ground-breaking Hamilton.  Lin Manuel Miranda wrote the music and starred in both shows, with Quiara Alegria Hudes (winner of 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her Water by the Spoonful) contributing the book.  In the Heights takes place in a largely Hispanic-American neighborhood of Washington Heights, New York City, with its initial staging featuring an entire barrio of family owned businesses and a large cast of twenty-plus.

Custom Made Theatre Company has a reputation for taking big-stage, well-known musicals and daring to produce them on its rather miniscule stage in the intimate theatre barely seating fifty (e.g., Chess, Man of La Mancha, Next to Normal).  In each case, critics and audiences alike have applauded both the effort and the result.  To end its 2018 season, Custom Made Theatre Company tackles with much vim and vigor the rap, salsa, and captivating story of In the Heights, reducing the cast to an essential twelve and challenging scenic designer Mara Ishihara Zinky to create a variety of local businesses and homes using the interior of a local market and a versatile, rotating cart (which she does beautifully).  While the humor, heart, and heartache of the story of a neighborhood in transition is affecting in this Custom Made undertaking, the core of the musical – the music itself – too often falls short with a cast where some members cannot consistently deliver convincingly the score’s basic requirements.

Julio Chavez
Usnavi is a first-generation American owner of a small, neighborhood mercado (food and drink market) whose Dominican parents gave their newborn a name they had seen on a on a passing ship (U.S. Navy) as they arrived in this country.  His store is where neighbors tend to stop by each day for coffee, a bite, and the latest barrio news.  Julio Chavez commands the role of Usnavi with a personality magnetic and just enough blushing shyness (especially in regard the girl he likes, Vanessa) to make him especially likeable.  Usnavi opens the show with expressive hands and short-step, hip movements, rapping “In the Heights,” a delivery mode he continues in his own sung numbers throughout.  His quick clipping of the words is overall easy to understand (even for non-rap listeners) and full of emotional fervor.  (However, in the opening number and beyond, at times the sound system does not project his words as clearly or loudly as it should over the background, musical accompaniment -- a problem that persists off-and-on all evening for most of the performers.)

Usnavi’s love interest is Vanessa, who works at a local hair salon and who has ideas beyond just remaining in the Heights and marrying a local boy.  As Vanessa, Nora Fernandez Doane intensely stares into a future when “one day, I’m hopping that elevated train [the noisy one, outside her window] and I’m riding away.”  With one of the stronger voices of the cast, she sings “It Won’t Be Long Now.”  “I’m gonna fly, it want be long now, any day.”

Nina Rosario (Carla Gallardo) has already flown from the neighborhood as first from her collection of friends and family to go to college – something that leads all now to burst in pride.  But financial pressures at Stanford have led her to drop out after less than a year, and her return (and going four months without telling her parents she had already left the school) causes a major blow-up with her parents, Kevin (Sergio Lobito) and Camila (Bidalia E. Albanese). 

Bidalia E. Albanese, Sergio Lobito & Carla Gillardo
When her father decides to sell the family taxi company at a rock-bottom price to enable her to go back to school, more eruptions occur between him, his wife Camila, and Nina.  However, the biggest internal inferno is yet to come when the parents discover Nina and their long-time, trusted employee, Benny (Dedrick Weathersby) – a non-Spanish-speaking African American who has been heretofore treated largely like family – are romantically involved.  Ms. Albanese as mother and wife provides one of the evening’s most powerful moments when she repeated says “no” to all the scream-packed in-fighting of her family, singing a strong-willed, not-going-to-take-this-anymore “Enough.”

Mia Romero, Carla Gallardo, Elena Estér & Nora Fernandez Doane
La familia of this Heights neighborhood includes the hair salon’s gossipy owner who leans toward being overly dramatic with snap and style, Daniela (Mia Romero) and her employee, Carla, the spirited Elena Estér.  Graffiti Pete (Jepoy Ramos) is a street artist who upsets Usnavi with the latest creation he leaves on his store’s wall and who is seen as a local trouble-maker – more due to his low-riding pants and his proneness to slouch and desire for free Slurpies than anything he has actually done.  His pal and the cousin of Usnavi who helps out at the store (doing as little as he possibly can) is Sonny, a joking, street-savvy kid with a keen eye for fairness and justice.  As played with smooth-moving cool and a big smile for all, Edwin Jacobs’ Sonny is the young relative/pal that anyone would like to have.

Michelle Navarrete & Bidalia E. Albanese
The heartbeat of the barrio is the hunched-over and arthritic-suffering yet spry and twinkling woman who is everyone’s abuela, or grandmother, Claudia.  Michelle Navarrete is an inspiration and a delight as the old-in-age, young-in-spirit, and wise-in-all-respects woman who raised Usnavi after his parents died soon after he was born in the U.S.  The stories she relates of the struggles and sacrifices of her life where prejudice by the majority was a frequent visitor is perhaps the most touching, most impactful sequence of the evening.

All of these people’s lives intertwine during three, sultry days and sticky nights in July when a sudden blackout throws their world into discomfort and unease.  The issues of love and family as well as difficult decisions being made by several to close or transfer local businesses for personal or financial reasons occur as the world around them is on darkened edge – even as the fireworks of July 4 light the sky in attempts of celebration.  Tensions rise in all directions until Abuela Claudia reminds them all in one unexpected minute what life and family is really all about.

The story of these recent immigrant citizens is indeed an American one that needs to be told, now more ever.  As director, Nicole Meñez takes this big-stage tale and brings it into sharp focus on the small, close-up stage before us.  She also choreographs some rousing numbers that have a lot of spark and high energy even if they do not always work as well musically.  Mariely Cortes finds ways humorously and lovingly to portray each character’s personality and sometimes quirkiness through her costumes.  Stephanie Dittibern has excelled in designing properties that make us want to go shopping on stage for a treat or two.

Where the show falls and often falls flat is in too many of the romantic duets as well as in the some of the small group and even full-chorus numbers where one or maybe two voices go off key too far or simply over-sing in ways to mar the overall number’s effect.  Unfortunately, there are too many of these “like-fingernails-on-a-chalkboard” moments scattered throughout here and there to be ignored.  Coupled with the musical issues – at least on opening night – were problems with sound balance, missed lighting cues, and a collapsing, background wall that someone chose noisily to fix during one of the solos.  All of these latter issues certainly will be corrected during the run.

But in the end, Custom Made Theatre Company should be commended for stretching the boundaries of is stage to pursue a show other companies its size would probably never consider.  In this case, the result falls short musically; but the cast still finds a way to tell a moving, important piece of recent, American history.

Rating: 2.5 E

In the Heights continues through December 15, 2018 at Custom Made Theatre Company, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at www.custommade.org or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).

Photo Credits:  Jay Yamada