Friday, March 29, 2019

"Home"


Home
Geoff Sobelle


The Cast of Home
Say the word “home;” and for most of us a flood of both current realities and long-past memories come to mind along with a host of trite but true phrases we oft hear repeated in our own heads: “Home is where the heart is;” “Home sweet home;” “Oh Auntie Em, there’s no place like home.”  Pictures of family members present and past, the kitchen table the way mom used to set it, the number of ceiling tiles above our bed when we were kids, the smell of dad’s Old Spice, and the sound of the robin outside every morning’s spring window – these and hundreds of other images may pop into any of our heads just at the mention of that one word “home.” 

The skeletal house that eventually becomes a home is the setting for Geoff Sobelle’s highly imaginative, magically constructed, and deeply affecting touring show, Home, now landing on the Roda stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  A play with no plot and almost no spoken words is instead a collage of a two-story abode’s collection of past and present inhabitants -- all coming and going as they co-exist in their every day activities, in their celebrations, and in their times of birth and death.  Passing each other as ghosts in the night, theirs is a highly coordinated, mesmerizing, and oft-humorous dance of juxtaposed daily living where folding clothes, making coffee, brushing teeth, or setting the table become scenes we as an audience are frozen in fascinated gaze, wonder, and amusement.

Geoff Sobelle
The show’s creator himself, Geoff Sobelle, opens the evening meticulously and slowly unfolding and stapling plastic sheeting to a flimsy framework of wood, the kind that eventually will become a strong wall.  Watching him as he goes about his silent task, we begin to understand that a sudden, audible exhale; a glance toward of us with a silent, shrugged “Should I?” or of background music where pulsating notes punctuated with occasional clangs become the sounds of construction – these are going to be the dialogue of this play that is in many ways unlike any we have ever seen before. 

As the plastic-covered frame is finally raised and moves back and forth across the stage, the furnishings of rooms and the people inside them begin to appear.  Step-by-by a house is fully constructed by a host of workers who then become the years upon years of inhabitants with boxes who move into the house, over and again through all those years that the house has ever existed. 

Lee Sunday Evans directs Home with incredibly intricate orchestration among the cast of eight as they become members of this house’s history.  Individuals of various ages, races, and states of dress/undress turn corners to hand off a coffee cup, a box, or a hat without looking and seeing another present/past/future inhabitant, who then takes the object and goes on with the day’s or night’s normal activities.  The director inserts repeated touches of Steve Cuiffo’s planned illusions where a boy might become a man become a woman become again the boy – all as they enter and exit the same door or as they get in a bed and turn under a sheet before rising again as another person.

Dressing, undressing, and dressing again become choreographed mixtures of different people in the same room where an opened closet door may become an entrance for three or four people to back out in parallel stances and actions as they are donning their clothes for the new day’s activities.  David Neumann aids the director in choreographing movements that flow seamlessly with people passing on the narrow stairs without seeing each other, suddenly to turn away and recede into other hidden parts of the house, only to emerge somewhere unexpected – like maybe through a refrigerator door now opened by someone looking for a midnight snack.

Sophie Bortolussi, Jennifer Kidwell & Geoffe Sobelle
Even the activities we all do every morning upon rising – making our bed, trudging to the bathroom, relieving ourselves in the toilet, showering, putting on make-up – these all become the steps of a day’s dance we see carried out in a bathroom that hilariously becomes as crowded as a New York subway.  As more and more people rise from the same bed, those same people enter and exit a shower, with the quick swish of a curtain revealing another naked body different from the one that last entered.  And in the end, it all seems so natural, mundane, and totally wonderful.  Such it is when we too begin to feel this is our home, and we almost remember being a part of it. 

Geoff Sobelle, Justin Rose, David Rukin & Sophie Bortolussi
The lighting design of Christopher Kuhl plays a major role in the magic of life unfolding before us.  As one light in a room goes off, another in the floor above comes on, maybe at the same time one kitchen drawer closes and one bedroom closet door opens.  The instantaneous coordination of unrelated events in various rooms of the two floors lead to mini-scenes of people’s lives that often tell a short, recognizable story of a person’s grief, another’s anxiety, or a third’s excitement.  Sometimes these different vignettes occur in the same moment, parallel glances of different scenes of the house’s history.   At other times, Christopher Kuhl’s lighting focuses our undivided attention on one particular moment -- maybe mundane, maybe moving -- of someone’s life. 

Lighting through windows beautifully fades the day and then welcomes the morning, with the in-between darkened night at one point being the only inhabitant of a now-empty house.  The sound design of Brandon Wolcott provides those inside and outside, nighttime noises that become a chirping, creaking orchestra for someone to hear, if only the house itself. 

A young boy (David Rukin) with a bottle of wine breaks suddenly the fourth wall and brings an invitation to a lady in the audience that she cannot resist.  What follows in the last thirty or forty of the night’s one hundred-plus minutes (no intermission) is an orchestrated chaos of flowing activities and events from both a year’s and a life’s cycles simultaneously play out before us.  A myriad of seemingly old and new friends along with a mixture of families of many generations arrive, drink/eat, quarrel, sit in solitude, and eventually move out for good.  And a house becomes in front of our eyes a rich bank of a home’s memories.

It seems inevitable that any audience member visiting Geoff Sobelle’s Home will have a similar experience as I did.  More than once, I found my own set of memories blending into the scenes being staged before me -- memories of my home growing up with its delicious smells of my mom’s cooking, of my grandfather sitting in his rocker telling me a story, or of the home where my now-grown kids used to run through happily screaming like maniacs.  Geoff Sobelle’s Home is a house so worth visiting at Berkeley Repertory Theatre as it opens up rooms in our own locked-away memories of the places where we have lived and where we also have hung pictures, greeted relatives, told a story before bedtime, or just brushed our teeth in welcome solitude.

Rating: 5 E

Home continues though April 21, 2019 on the Roda Stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/ or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Thursday, March 21, 2019

"Falsettos"


Falsettos
William Finn (Music & Lyrics); William Finn & James Lapine (Book)

The Cast of "Falsettos"
Facing us on the other wise dark, blank stage is one of the four corners of a large, light-gray cube consisting of many large, various shaped pieces fit tightly together like a puzzle.  From that incredibly fascinating Rubiks-like cube will emerge living rooms, doorways, beds, steps, and dozens of other aspects of David Rockwell’s scenic design – all symbolizing a tight-knit group of people we will get to know whose lives come apart and reassemble in various and changing segments, only from time to time to emerge once again as a whole.  In William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos – now playing on tour at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre – life and love; family and friends; new lovers and ex-lovers; gay and straight, living and dying; happy, angry, and sad are all part of the complicated ups and downs, ins and outs of growing up, of being in relationship, and of finally feeling comfortable figuring out what it means to be human.

Falsettos is an all-musical journey through three years of the lives of Marvin, his ex-wife Trina, his ten-year-old son Jason, his much-younger lover Whizzer, and his psychiatrist Mendel.  Neighbors and friends, Dr. Charlotte and her life partner Cordelia, eventually round out the configuration, resulting in many oft-changing patterns of sometimes intersecting and sometimes non-intersecting relationships.  William Finn began exploring Marvin and his core family in the 1979 one-act musical In Trousers.  Two years later, James Lapine joined him as they penned March of the Falsettos, followed in 1990 with the third edition – in the bleak peak of the AIDS crisis – with Falsettoland.  In 1992, the latter two one-acts were joined into the present musical, Falsettos.  The SHN production is a touring version of the much-celebrated (and now much-seen on current, repeated PBS airings) of the Lincoln Center Theatre, 2016 revival.

A story that has much pain, conflict, regret, and inevitable sorrow threaded throughout also has loads of humor, lots of genuine caring, and uplifting expressions of love that cannot help but touch hearts of those watching.  In other words, the story is about life itself as most of us experience it in any of our own three-year segments. 

The other thread in this particular slice of these lives is being Jewish, a source of much of the humor and a key element of especially the plot in Act Two’s reenactment of Falsettoland.  In fact, the musical begins with an introduction of the kind of bickering we will see cropping up time and again as the four men (with Trina chiming in from the sidelines) sing “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” all dressed as if they were part of the original Exodus and taking time to tell a part of that story as the Red Sea suddenly appears and splits before our eyes.  We also get a glimpse of the never too complicated but always clever choreography of Spencer Liff as the shepherd staffs of these ‘ancient Jews’ become canes for a variety of dance modes, moves, and styles.

Max von Essen
As Marvin, Max von Essen steps forward to begin telling his story in “A Tight Knit Family” – a story about a man who is leaving his life for a gay lover but who will spend much of the next two hours still wanting that ex-wife to be above all loyal to him.  That same Marvin ends his opening number with a repeated, “I want it all.” 

As the central character, Marvin is a man that is in many ways hard to like very much.  He is often like a spoiled child, wanting to be the center of everyone’s love and attention while himself finding it difficult to reciprocate without making accusations, pouting off by himself in a corner, or erupting into a full-on shouting match with almost any one of the others around him.  Mr. von Essen captures well the approach/avoidance nature of Marvin’s struggles with everyone from his ex to his lover to even his son.  From a delivery standpoint, his is the weakest of sung vocals among this cast of outstanding singers; yet he rises time and again effectively to sell numbers that serve as milestones in his journey to come to grips with his decision to leave his wife Trina, with his struggles to be a good father to Jason, and his difficulty to love fully and unconditionally Whizzer.

The relationship between Marvin and Whizzer, as described in a combative duet entitled “Thrill of First Love,” is one of hot passion in bed and passionate arguing and fighting most of the time when not in bed.  Theirs is much like a dad/teenage-son pattern of ongoing bickering, with Marvin the provider and the demander and Whizzer the one who never can meet the high standards his lover has for him. 
Max von Essen & Nick Adams

Quickly, Nick Adams establishes his easy-going, less volatile Whizzer as amiable and a guy who knows himself pretty well, accepting his own faults more easily than Marvin does his own.  In “The Games I Play,” Whizzer bears his soul to us in a song where he admits, “It hurts not to love him, it hurts when love fades; it’s hard when part of him is off playing family charades.”  We want to root for Whizzer even when we are not sure at times if we do for Marvin.  As the second act progresses, however, Mr. Adams’ Whizzer becomes the person all are there to support, with his gut-wrenching “You Gotta Die Sometime” leaving a lasting, haunting impression as we cannot help but remember his repeated, sung whispers, “Sometime, sometime, sometime.”

Thatcher Jacobs
Whizzer’s biggest fan is Jason, a boy who has difficulty relating to the father who left his mother but who finds in his father’s lover someone he can talk to and feel heard.  Young Thatcher Jacobs is superb as Jason (a role he shares with Jonah Mussolino), bringing big-sounding vocals and a giant personality to the small boy who goes from ten to thirteen in the course of the evening.  With a demeanor all-boy, he shrugs off with little-to-no reactions his parent’s worries and question; yet it often seems as if his Jason is the only adult in the room -- especially in the heat of the planning of his bar mitzvah when in many ways the bar mitzvah seems to him as mostly for his parents. 

Each time Thatcher Jacobs’ Jason has a moment alone in the spotlight, he commands in ways thrilling with a voice that pierces the auditorium with electric energy.  At the same time and all the time, he is also just a boy’s boy who is trying his best to navigate through the drama of his parents’ lives and the mysterious, sudden sickness of his pal, Whizzer.

Thatcher Jacobs & Nick Blaemire
Unlike her son, Trina does not find Whizzer a person she wants to like, much less love – at least not until she begins to see him more through the eyes of her son.  Trina is in the beginning totally pissed about the cards she has been dealt by Marvin and seeks help from Marvin’s psychiatrist, Mendel.  Mendel uses his sessions with her to begin wooing her and uses his sessions with Marvin to question about his ex-wife’s love of wearing negligee and of her frequency of sleeping naked.  Nick Blaemire brings to his Mendel a mixture of something bordering on sleaze, a bundle of boyish mannerisms, and yet at times all-out charm that actually make him totally interesting and fun to watch as he progresses from outsider to full member of the family – the latter once he and Trina become much more than doctor/client.  He sings with a gusto and freshness of spirit and at times lets loose with exuberance that even sells Jason that his new step-dad is a fun guy to have around (as seen in their jumping, shaking, twisting “Everyone Hates His Parents”).

Eden Espinosa
Even after finding a new husband, Trina – like Marvin – has trouble letting go of their past and her lingering mixture of feelings alternating between love and hate.  Eden Espinosa brings the same brilliant, beautiful powerhouse of a voice to the role of Trina that she had as Elphaba in her two past visits to San Francisco, touring here in 2005 and 2010 in Wicked.  Her Trina is a complicated conglomeration of feelings and reactions as a woman wracked with questions why did she once love and marry a man who turned out to be gay and a cheat, why she now feels inadequate to help her own son deal with feelings about his parents breaking up, and why she is suddenly in love with a man who should not have come on to her as her psychiatrist.  When she takes the spotlight for “Trina’s Song” and later for “Holding to the Ground,” we cannot help but be in hushed awe of the tremendous range of emotions she brings in both voice and facial expressions as she lays bear Trina’s admissions and confession, fears and doubts, hopes and dreams.

Audrey Cardwell & Bryonha Marie Parham
Rounding out the cast in the second act is the lesbian couple, with Bryonha Marie Parham as Dr. Charlotte and Audrey Cardwell as Cordelia.  Particularly impressive is Ms. Parham, whose rich, mighty voice shakes at the core with its foreboding “Something Bad Is Happening” as her Dr. Charlotte knows that there is a spreading disease “so bad that words have lost their meaning,” where “rumors fly and takes abound, stories echo underground.” Her compassion for her patient Whizzer, for his family and now her friends, as well as for her wanna-be, not-too-successful wife as a caterer is heard in her sung lines and seen in her solid persona, giving her Dr. Charlotte a position much bigger on the stage than the rather few appearances that she makes during the evening.

Book co-writer James Lapine also directs this touring cast and does so with many touches that make huge differences.  Just the directed decision to have characters often linger a sung note and let it waver in some emotion helps make the all-sung, no-spoken- dialogue book zing with extra power of meaning and effect.  As part of “Marvin at the Psychiatrist (A Three Part Mini-Opera),” his directing Mendel to use one hand with out-stretched fingers to implant his therapy in the directions of either Marvin’s or Trina’s head that then moves in a parallel trance to his slow-waving hand is a fabulous way to show the questionable therapist’s manipulation of the outcomes for the help each seeks from him.  The director’s orchestration of the constantly intricate movements and manipulations of the set’s many puzzle-like pieces by the cast of seven provides additional insights into the overlapping storyline’s complicated relationships.  His decision usually to have in Act One all cast on the set always watching and reacting (and sometimes interrupting) other scenes again re-emphasizes this same concept.

For anyone who is worried that a musical whose roots are thirty-five-plus years old is now out-of-date, a visit to SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre will soon destroy that fear.  William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos is perhaps more relevant and meaningful than ever in a world where once again threatening questions are being raised in this country and all across the globe of what defines a real “family” and who legitimately and legally gets to love whom.  What Falsettos literally sings clearly is that love is love is love if we just give ourselves time and permission to figure it all out.

Rating: 5 E

Falsettos continues through April 14, 2019 at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com.

Photo Credit:  Joan Marcus

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

"Yoga Play"


Yoga Play
Dipika Guha

Ryan Morales, Bobak Cyrus Bakhitiari, Craig Marker (on screen) & Susi Damilano
Who wouldn’t want to run out and buy a pair of soft, stretchy pants with “slow-release, organic lavender activated by water” that has made focus group participants “want to hold on to their clothes even after a sweaty yoga class”?  The executive team of the athleisure company Jojoman (sound familiar, Lululemon-addicts?) is betting customers -- oops, “family” -- will flock to their stores to own a pair of the $200 pants, with their company’s bottom-line then shooting sky-high.  All the new CEO, Joan, must do is convince the founder, John – who is presently in a la-la state of meditative trance in India – to allow her to let go of his vision of  “aspirational branding,” only offering women’s clothes up to Size 8.  She instead wants the company to embrace new “family members” up to Size 12, thus allowing more women to own clothes that “spark joy” – while of course also increasing the company coffers by untold millions.

Founders, executive teams, and their companies who espouse New Age values – like following your dreams, having a daily goal, and “breathing” away your stress – but also will do anything to keep bringing in the big bucks is the hilarious focus of Dipika Guha’s, Yoga Play, now in its second production ever at San Francisco Playhouse.  Under the well-orchestrated direction of Bill English – whose tongue is never that far from his cheek in the many clever decisions he makes – a talented cast of five employs every thing from pregnant pauses, awkward silences, caricatured yoga positions, to Skype messages where cameras get stuck in unknowing crotch shots to satirize the confluence of yoga-gone-wild and profits-above-all.
Ryan Morales, Susi Damilano & Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari

Susi Damilano is superb as Joan, the ever-serious, always-calculating CEO of Jojoman, having recently joined the company after the previous CEO made public comments about the size of women’s thighs being the reason the “family” had started complaining about yoga-wear fabrics being too see-through.  Her mission is to right that wrong while also quickly proving she can make the company ever more successful, dollar-wise.  When the planned roll-out of the new line of lavender wear is suddenly put in jeopardy by a CNN report that the plant in Dhaka is actually employing children as young as nine working twelve hours a day, Joan goes into over-drive to find a solution.  But first – in a company where employees stop to br-r-r-eeeathe while holding hands whenever stress shows its face -- only after she first has her own attack of breath-gasping panic that completely erases her carefully projected image of always being fully-in-control. 

Joan has decided her team must immediately locate a teacher of “original,” “pure” yoga (but not “aerial,” “prenatal,” “heated power,” or “weight-training” yoga).  She wants a yogi with great yoga credentials to help them through what Joan has decided is not a destabilizing, devastating disaster of to their do-only-good brand, but instead is an opportunity to reestablish their brand of yoga “authenticity.”  She makes that decision while trying to ignore the 100,000 Tweets “family” members have already posted after the CNN report about the company they now call “Evilmonyoga.”

Ryan Morales & Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari
Joining Joan in this world-wide search is her Twiddly-Dee, Twiddly-Dum pair of yes-men, Raj (Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari) and Fred (Ryan Morales).  The two are buds who follow the company norm of sharing last night’s dreams during breaks on the company’s outdoor patio (like the one Raj had about having a baby covered in flakey chicken skin).  They are always the first ones to call for a breathing break when Joan starts stressing them out, but they are also themselves hyper-ventilated as they rush – no run – to fulfill her latest wishes.

Through a phone call to his India-American parents (Mr. and Mrs. Kapoor, voiced with parent-loving-and-probing hilarity by Ayelet Firstenberg and Craig Marker), Raj locates somewhere in the Himalayan foothills the perfect-sounding yogi.  When he is flown over-night to be ready for a world-wide audience of millions where he will mesmerize the “family” into believing all is well in Jojoman-Land, the fun really begins.  This yogi, named Guruji, is like none any one has ever seen.  His arrival sets up for ever-loyal Raj a job-enriching role that he is quite literally all bug-eyed to take on, sending the audience into rounds of roaring laughter as Raj’s pal Fred tries to interpret for him (in the night’s funniest scene) the foreign language of his new job. 

Craig Marker is larger than life in the initial, projected Skype session as the founder John Dale.  Dressed in the latest of yogi fashion, his bearded, extremely laid-back persona is ready to “ohm” any minute, all the while he is also quick to defend limiting Jojoman’s joy-clothing to Size 8 and below.  A later appearance by a now blonde-headed, pasty-chested Mr. Marker is one that surprises not only Joan and her team, but all of us in the audience.

Ayelet Firstenberg, Susi Damilano & Ryan Morales
Ayelet Firstenberg swings upside down in the air as Romola, yoga instructor to the stars who loses all her meditated cool if anyone – especially CEO Joan and her damn, ringing cell phone – abruptly leaves her presence without “closing out with intention.”  Ms. Firstenberg is also dead-pan funny as Lauren Clark Rose, a purse-lipped interviewer who is totally enthralled of the yoga yogi that Jojoman has flown across the globe for the world to meet.

Nina Ball has created a calming, Eastern-themed setting – one that only Americans could have designed – for Jojoman’s corporate setting that is dominated by a massive, round screen where Teddy Hulsker gets to use his projections genius to “Skype” everyone from Founder John Dale to the much-anticipated interviewee, Guruji.  Kurt Landisman’s lighting adds their own peaceful auras in a setting where nerves still find many ways to become quite frayed.  Teddy Hulsker also designs the sounds that create the effects of soothing musical tones as well as pesky, interrupting cell phone calls.  Rachael Heiman and Laundra Tyme as costume and wig designers, respectively, especially get to have a heyday as they are venture from the correct corporate wear of Joan and her team into designs looser as yogis and wanna-be yogis appear on-screen and live.

Director Bill English, his creative team, and this excellent cast combine their comic artistry –both subtle and everything-but-subtle – to produce a Yoga Play for San Francisco Playhouse that cannot help but ensure an audience exits the theatre still grinning ear-to-ear.

Rating: 4.5 E

Yoga Play continues through April 20, 2019 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.

Monday, March 18, 2019

"Sojourn"


Sojourn
Evan Kokkila-Schumacher



Drew Benjamin Jones and Laura Domingo
For both science-fiction lovers and for anyone who likes a play that mixes mystery, philosophical debates, and political realities with a story that has a very human component, Pear Theatre’s wonderfully acted and inventively conceived Sojourn is a ticket for a rocket ride that must have even playwright Evan Kokkila-Schumacher beaming with sunny pride.  Science fiction takes on all the suspenseful tension of reality-in-the-making in the superbly conceived and produced world premiere.

Please continue to Talkin' Broadway for my complete review: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj158.html

Rating: 4.5 E

Sojourn continues through April 7, 2019 at Pear Theatre, 1110 LaAvenida, Mountain View.  Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.

Photo by Michael Craig
 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

"The Speakeasy: Age of Scofflaws"


The Speakeasy: Age of Scofflaws
Bennett Fisher & Nick A. Olivero
David Gluck, Geoffrey N. Libby & Nick A. Olivero, Producers
The Speakeasy, In Association with Boxcar Theatre



Em Lee Reaves
The year has advanced from 1923 to 1927.  Lucky Lindy flying in his Spirit of St. Louis is thirty-three hours into his heroic conquering of the skies over the Atlantic; skirts and stocks are all flying higher as optimism fills the air; and while Prohibition is still the law of the land, plenty of folks have found ways to be ‘scofflaws’: people who scoff at the law.

And in San Francisco ninety-two years later, merry revelers show up in back alleys, give a secret password, and then make their way to a unknown location somewhere on the border of North Beach and Chinatown to find Joe’s Clock shop and enter through a grandfather clock into the underground world of The Palace Theatre.  Women dressed in flapper dresses decorated with feathers and flowers, beads and rhinestones, and plenty of glitter and fringe and men donning suspenders and spats, gartered sleeves, and lots of black attire all have arrived for The Speakeasy’s latest version of Roaring Twenties fun, the 1927-dated version now entitled Age of Scofflaws.

As each person enters a darkened hallway richly decorated in reds, each carries an official “Treasury Department, U.S. Internal Revenue Prescription,” with all that ails to be cured with “one pint whiskey, one tablespoon every four hours.”  The revelers’ three-plus-hour evening begins either in a large multi-level nightclub; a bustling, crowded casino; or a bar with piano playing and drinks flowing among the many tables’ inhabitants.  In fact, drinking the offered exotic drinks is close to a requirement and will play a big part in the continued enjoyment of the evening as merrymakers begin to roam at will among the several rooms and many hallways, nooks, and crannies in this underground world of “illicit” jollity. 

With over twenty-five actors, musicians numbering seven, and a script purportedly of 1500 pages, The Speakeasy: Age of Scofflaws – written by Bennett Fisher and Nick A. Olivero as were the 2014 premiere and the 2016 remount that has run continuously ever since – is an incredible accomplishment for the production’s not one, but three directors (Michael French, Leah Gardner, and Nick A. Olivero).  Throughout the night, not only are there ongoing stage shows of comedians, singers, and dancers, there are also multiple, ongoing “happenings” and interactions occurring at any given moment, in any given setting.  With most of the paying guests dressed in their own costumes, it is often a surprise that the period-attired person standing or sitting nearby suddenly is interrupting the evening with drunken slurs, angrily throwing cards at the Blackjack dealer, or accusing a waitress of infidelity. 

Sal (Mark Nassar) with Two Cast Members
Partygoers have the choice of staying mostly in one place to see what develops in that venue, roaming aimlessly around and running into ‘action’ along the way, or following faithfully a particular character room to room (one probably named right out of The Untouchables with a nomenclature like Vinnie, Sal, Mickey or Velma, Viola, Virginia).  The result, as touted by the company itself, is that each partyer is bound to experience a very different evening from all others.  To experience all the different storylines, characters, and dramas/comedies, a number of visits, we are told, are necessary.

While there is not an overall, evident plot for the evening, by chance or by purposeful following, individual storylines do begin to develop.  In our visit, a young, dapperly dressed man named Eugene (Luke Myers) makes it past a scrutinizing Vinnie (Tom Osborne) at the always locked door with a sliding slit for peering out.  Eugene wanders into the bar with eyes wide as half-dollars and a tentative, scared look all about him, only to be noticed and encouraged to have his first-ever drink by the loud, gregarious storyteller, Tom (Kevin Copps) who has been keeping us all entertained in between the honky-tonk piano playing of Elyse Weakley.  As Eugene spills all his worst fears of what will happen if he takes that first shot of gin, lights come down; and a bar-filling dream scene occurs down the center aisle, populated by everyone from gangsters to a teatotaler crusader to a drunken woman Dorothy (Cecilia Palmtag) who has already been pulled down from wanting to dance on amiable bartender Mac’s (Maurice Williams) bar.  Eugene does take that first drink, and his decreased inhibitions lead him to an evening he probably never expected to happen upon entering.

Totally by chance, my hubby and I get to witness further chapters of Eugene’s evening, including a scene as we were passing through a large hallway full of plush couches -- one on which we sat, soon to be joined by Eugene and another young man who evidently works in the casino, Clyde (Robert Kittler).  The initial attraction between the two evidently occurred at a time we were not in the casino, but the scene between the two hesitant wanna-be lovers that plays out around us (with suddenly piped in music and highlighted, special lighting) is nothing short of romantically beautiful and moving – especially considering the time is 1927.  As it turns out, there is another who has been that night attracted to Eugene (Leland, Liam Callister), who after a few too many is now voicing loudly his feeling betrayed (earlier threads of the story we have also missed).  Lucky for us, a final chapter of Eugene’s story will occur as the evening winds down; and we are in the right place at the right time.

And Eugene’s is just one of many threaded tales, others of which we happen to see glimpses; others, we probably never saw at all.  But being at The Speakeasy is not always just a passive experience.  When I arrived, the glad-handed boss and owner, Sal (Kevin Copps) greeted me as if I were an old friend, kibitzing and hugging me with both friendliness and a certain reverence.  Later in the evening as I was enjoying the jazz singing and soft-tap dance of Roland’s (Dedrick Weathersby) “Harlem Strutters’ Ball,” a serious-looking dude in black suit came to get me and took me (alone) to Sal’s office.  Calling me Giuseppe and identifying me as the local, honored consigliore, I am asked to give advice what to do about the Lorenzo Brothers, who that evening have intercepted Sal’s truck-load of smuggled alcohol and have sent to Sal in a wooden box the driver’s thumb (which I unfortunately get to see as proof).  Pulling out my best Sicilian self, I played into the scene as best I could (“Get the sons-of-bitches”) and received his lifelong allegiance and thanks (and another big Italian hug).  I later discovered the scene that played out was being watched through a two-way mirror by partyers who picked up old phone receivers to listen to it all.


And I am sure such scenes and other like them occurred all night in this office, in the dance line’s dressing room (another venue with a hidden mirror for all us passing voyeurs), or in corners and couches tucked away throughout the large venue.  Just as most of us in attendance are boozing it up during the evening, many of the actors’ characters are likewise as part of their storyline having a few too many.  As the third hour of the evening hits, the noise level everywhere increases (not from us, since we as ticketholders have been explicitly warned to “speak easy” and only in whispers to order more drinks). 

One example is the final appearance of nightclub and bar singer, Velma Louise Cole (Em Lee Reaves), a deep, smoky voiced chanteuse who in elegant art-deco look has entertained us throughout the night with songs of the era, including “Some of These Days” and “I Love a Piano.”  But when she slightly stumbles to the stage and even whisks the piano player away, she false-starts several love songs before complaining with a slur, “Why do I have to sing about love all the time?”  Em Lee Reaves’ Velma then stuns us all, ‘passing out’ with a fall off the stage that is difficult not to believe she could do so without ending up in the hospital.

The scores -- if not hundreds -- of planned, scripted interactions and events such as the few noted here that fill the evening are supported by a creative team where few flaws are ever evident.  Somehow, lights dim, focus, shift, and go full-lit at just the right moments to focus on specific and general actions and events in multiple locations at the same time – all thanks to the outstanding design of Allen Willner, Gabe Maxson, and Brad Peterson.  The same occurs for sound effects and piped-in music as designed by one of my personal Bay Area favorites, Matthew Stines. 

Ralph Hoy’s multitude of costumes are eye-popping and a show unto themselves as scantily clad flappers dance in beads and spangles; gangster types roam around in their black suits and studded collar pins; and bar patrons arrive with their life stories highly evident by just the manner of period clothes they wear.  The wonderfully designed interiors, secret entrances through the likes of paintings and bookshelves, and the authenticity of everything from lamps to microphones to phones are the artistic results of scenic designers Geoffrey Libby and Nick A. Olivero as well as props designer, Kyle Nitchy.  Choreographers Elizabeth Etler and Kimberly Lester ensure high-kick dance lines, Charleston swinging dancers on tables, and soft-shoe interludes are all well-executed.  Somehow, the three directors have the ability to get the right characters to the right spots time and again throughout the three hours and to have each sudden entrance seem totally spontaneous and each interaction to be one that has no script, but of course does.  Finally, Musical Director Joe Wilcockson has planned the era’s live music that permeates through a five-piece band in the nightclub and a piano player and various singers in the bar area.

The Speakeasy is one of several ‘only in San Francisco’ events that we residents are so lucky to be able to attend and to offer to take our out-of-town guests.  The recently premiered Age of Scofflaws retains all the fun and fascination of the original show and many of the same, core characters; but the new storylines, actors, and songs to match the new timeline of May 21, 1927, beg a deserved, return visit by past patrons and welcome a continual parade of new revelers to an evening of laughs, surprise, musical enjoyment, and of course, the forbidden booze.

Rating: 5 E

The Speakeasy: Age of Scofflaws continues in a secret venue somewhere near Chinatown and North Beach in San Francisco.  Appointments can be scheduled at the present time through July 27, 2019 online for 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays at http://www.thespeakeasysf.com. 

Photos: The Speakeasy



"Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"


Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Andrew Lloyd Webber (Music); Tim Rice (Lyrics)



Matt Ott & Cast Members
Its crazy mixture of musical genres, its clever lyrics that span the millennia in references, and its story of biblical proportions about a boy’s dreams that save a nation and his family all combine to make Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat a perennial favorite to young and old alike, no matter how many times it is revived.  Knowing that, Broadway by the Bay is one of the latest companies to stage the Webber/Rice classic with a Joseph that soars to the heavens.  A cast of thirty-six sing and dance with enough zeal for the story and zest for its delivery to raise the roof of Redwood City’s venerable Fox Theatre.

For my complete review, please continue to Talkin' Broadway:  https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj157.html.  

Rating: 4 E

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat continues through March 31, 2019 in production by Broadway by the Bay at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway, Redwood City.  Tickets are available at https://broadwaybythebay.org.

Photo Credit: Mark & Tracy Photography
 

Friday, March 15, 2019

"Steve"

Steve
Mark Gerrard


Greg Ayers, Clove Galilee, Joey Alvarado, Shawnj West & Daniel Redmond
Five long-term friends – two gay couples and their mutual lesbian BFF, Carrie – are meeting for drinks to celebrate Steven’s birthday.  Steven arrives in a grouchy mood, snapping with a snarl every time his partner of sixteen years opens his mouth and calling loudly for a drink from a waiter that does not come.  But when the Argentinian sometimes-dancer, now-waiter Esteban does arrive, something clicks between them (noticed by all) – all just before Steven then discovers that on his partner’s (Stephen) phone are dozens of sexy, seductive messages to and from Brian, the partner of Matt -- both of whom are sitting right there nervously witnessing the volcanic eruptions that the Birthday Boy now emits.

Vaho, Greg Ayers & Clove Galilee
And thus opens what is actually a comedy that is also packed with much mid-life drama in a somewhat amusing outing entitled Steve by Mark Gerrard, now playing at New Conservatory Theatre Center.  The four men act out their mid-life transition issues in varying degrees of desperation and exploration from the aforementioned sexting (Stephen and Brian) to inviting a hot-trainer to move in as a three-some (Brian and Matt) to having an occasional affair with a waiter who seems somehow to show up everywhere Steven finds himself.  And parallel to all these shenanigans where forty-something ‘men’ are trying to prove to themselves they are still sexually desirable to younger ‘boys’ actually sexually desirable, their best friend Carrie is dying before their eyes.

With that set-up and the further complications that the coupled pair both named a version of Steve also have a young, somewhat unruly son Zachary (whom we never meet), Mark Gerrard’s script certainly has many opportunities for including caddy, snippy, snarky lines that gay men and their lesbian friend can do so particularly well.  But the playwright goes further to juice up the script by including dozens of references in lines spoken, sung, and heard as background music to Broadway musicals, both recent and long ago.  For die-hard theatre-geeks, the play becomes a scavenger hunt with the goal to find and identify all the references.  For those of us who are mere mortals, the additions fly by so fast that many occur unnoticed, or at least leave us unsure why included.

The situations and script of the play are mildly entertaining in and of themselves, with occasional moments of true comedy and others of genuine heart.  But under the direction of Becca Wolff, some of the funniest scenes are those where her genius and that of projection designer Sarah Phykitt elevate the here-and-there laughs into outright hilarity. 

One such scene is brilliantly constructed and is in many ways the highlight of the evening.  Steven stands in the middle of his apartment devilishly sexting with Brian while also dutifully texting with Carrie (who is quite ill in the next room but also with his birthday-boy son, both waiting for promised ice cream) and frantically texting (with no replies) to hubby Stephen (who is actually ‘sex-ing’ with Esteban rather than getting the ice cream).  At the same time, Steven is conferencing on two lines to both his mother and mother-in-law, who then also talk to each other.  As we listen to and watch Steven’s mixed reactions of sexual intrigue, spousal irritation, concern for sick friend and disappointed son, and feigned interest in what his two mothers are saying to him and to each other, we also watch the ongoing texts on the panels of three IPhones projected around the apartment.  The sequence is nothing short of hysterical.

Joey Alvarado & Greg Ayers
Greg Ayers is the Steven with a ‘v’ and probably the ‘Steve’ of the play’s title.  He is often a fountain of over-flowing emotions and outbursts as he experiences both his partner and his best female friend suddenly fading from his life.  At the same time, he himself is unapologetically on the make, falling prey to the tempting teases of a handsome Argentinian (Esteban, played with accented sweetness and sexiness by Vaho).  The huge swings in his reactions and moods are impressive, but frankly his inconsistencies of character also make it difficult to find much empathy for him.  However, in a dream sequence where he says his good-byes to Connie, the script, director, and actors (including Clove Galilee as Carrie) join forces to create a scene truly powerful.

Greg Ayers & Clove Galilee
Ms. Galilee herself is not only the evening’s only female on stage but also the best, most believable performance among this cast of six.  Her Carrie is a loyal-to-the-core friend who is not afraid to call b.s.  She matches tit-for-tat the wit of her gay friends with her own saucy, sassy comebacks; but with her, there is less intent on insulting or hurting with the pokes she might make.  Her approach to the cancer eating away at her health is noble and credible, enough so to break our hearts as well as those of her friends.  Among this group of otherwise questionable sorts, she is the one thing that leads all of them to rise above their own self-interests and sexual drives in order also to find something noble in themselves.

Rounding out the cast are Joey Alvarado as the other Stephen, whose motives for his continued sexting with Brian (even after being caught) are never made clear in the script; Daniel Redmond as a British-accented, easy-going Matt; and ShawnJ West as Brian, whose one-dimensional personality is stuck on sexual innuendos and flirtations. 

Randy Wong-Westbrooke has created an ingenuous, intriguing set design where two roving walls consist of cock-eyed, mixed-shaped compartments with the accruements of the mid-life folks we meet.  The cut-outs in the walls become a pallet for the excellent lighting inventions of Brittany Mellerson, who also creates a sound design that among other things, provides many of the snippets of the Great American musicals that serve as accompaniment to scenes and scene changes.  Jorge R. Hernández populates the set with props that help change seasons and scenes as well as fill the many-shaped compartments on the turning walls.  His costumes go a long way explaining the differences among the quirky characters we meet and to set apart Connie as one who is facing her cancer with dignity.

New Conservatory Theatre Center’s production of Steve is overall enjoyable and certainly well-produced.  In the end, Mark Gerrard’s concept, characters, and script are nothing to write home about or remember beyond a few days, but they do provide enough ammunition for Director Becca Wolff to find plenty of ways to entertain us for ninety minutes.

Rating: 3 E

Steve continues through March 31, 2019 in the Decker Theatre of the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.nctcsf.org or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos by Lois Tema