Friday, April 26, 2019

"Undiscovered Country"

Undiscovered Country
Ava Roy

Hunter Scott MacNair, Ava Roy & Chris Steele
It’s the ol’ West when armed, masked bandits regularly rob frightened passengers riding bumpy stagecoaches, only to turn around the next day to hold up a bank, tying up teeth-chattering customers while taking their jewelry, watches, guns, and money.  Only in this version of the Ol’ West, our rather dashing robbers are picking their victims from volunteering audience members, who readily bounce to reenact the dusty coach ride and acquiesce to being bound together with appropriate looks of fright in between nervous laughs.  And in this neo-western, the guys with the guns spout in iambic pentameter, reeling off phrases from Shakespeare’s Hamlet as naturally as the Bard’s own King’s Men.

And what else might we expect from We Players, the local theatre company whose site-specific, highly interactive productions of Shakespearian themes have occurred since its founding in 2000 everywhere from Alcatraz to Sutro Baths to Golden Gate Park.  For this latest premiere, entitled Undiscovered Country, the indoor site is in the glass-and-wood, 1898, octagonal gem located in a little-known, hundred-year-old garden, the Sunnyside Conservatory.  Founding Artistic Director, Ava Roy, has adapted lines from Hamlet to create, direct, and co-star in a triangular love story where the madness of the Prince of Denmark jumps off the pages and into the lives of the two robbers and one of their victims – a mysterious woman who shares their deep penchant for the Bard.  

Jack and Horace live duo lives.  By day, they eagerly don their guns and masks and with much bombastic flair, rob innocents of their money and valuables.  Back at their stark campsite at nighttime, they quickly fall into conversations with lines drawn from Shakespeare, even to the point of re-creating particular scenes from their current focus, Hamlet.  Jack in particular pushes his buddy, Horace, to memorize lines for the next night’s foray into the play and is the one of the two who seems most inclined to eat, live, and breathe the words of his literary idol on a continual basis.

Which is all the more why the two – especially Jack – is astounded when a beautiful woman dressed in a widow’s silk and lace of black lands on the stagecoach they are about to rob, speaking also the tongue of the Bard.  When she is once again in the targeted bank the next day, Jack cannot help but begin a Hamlet-rich tete-a-tete with her, finally prying from her in everyday English where she lives in the town.  His immediate attraction to both her beauty and her Shakespearean delivery draw him that night to gaze upon her window and to call out, “Do you know me, lady?,” to which she answers, “You are a fishmonger.”  Their back-and-forth play of lines from various parts of Hamlet clearly intrigues the woman (who finally lets Jack know she is Aurelia), but it takes a second night’s visit and a back-and-forth quoting and finishing each other’s lines that finally convinces Aurelia that she might – and in fact does – love this outlaw.

As the common outlaw Jack, Hunter Scott MacNair speaks in a Shakespearean tongue befitting actors whose only gun ever held is one made of wood.  The intensity he brings even to everyday conversations is sometimes startling, even to his buddy Horace, who more reluctantly goes along with Jack’s continual game of their playing “Shakespeare.”  The degree of that intensity only grows after Jack meets Aurelia, with the Jack we see only a few feet away from us in this intimate stage-in-the-round becoming ever more distant from the reality around him.  His Jack becomes more and more like the Hamlet he quotes – wandering off in the night leaving sleep far behind; seeing his own entrances of ghosts that send him into manic reactions; or returning in the morn with eyes popping wild, head curiously cocked, and reality long gone from own his crazily created world of warped Shakespeare.  The sweat and tears streaming from Mr. MacNair’s own mad Hamlet are stunning and enough to send shivers down the spines of all us watching.

Even before she meets Jack, Aurelia is taking on the role of Hamlet’s Ophelia, saying to herself in a line portending the changes about to come into her life, “Lord, we know what are now but not what we may become.”  Ava Roy provides her Aurelia with a mysterious air of distance from the world around her as she wanders through her own abode, talking to herself with lines like “Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed.”  But as her Aurelia is drawn to the pull of Jack’s wooing via Shakespeare, she cannot stop herself in replying in kind and even in joining him in spoken and over-lapping duets.  Their union as a couple is erotically accompanied by further, quoted lines, with Aurelia being drawn into the danger-zone realms of Jack-as-Hamlet in ways that she cannot yet predict. 

The effects of Jack’s increasing obsession with Aurelia as well as his increased bouts of total madness as the Prince of Denmark leave Horace suddenly alone and lonely.  Chris Steele (who prefers "they/them") rounds out this excellent cast of three bringing their own march toward a crazed sadness and jealously to full bare with emotional outbursts that are so real as to draw tears from near-by audience members.  Both Horace and Aurelia share a love of Jack that they cannot shake, no matter how violently crazed Jack becomes; and the mutual recognition and acceptance of their joint feelings of affection for Jack lead them into territories heretofore undiscovered by either. 

Ava Roy, Chris Steele & Hunter Scott MacNair
Ava Roy directs herself and her fellow thespians in a manner and pace that begins light-hearted and playful and slowly turns more foreboding with touches like an increased pace of Jack’s circular pacing, the ever-quickening tick of Aurelia’s metronome, or the nights of a now-alone Horace marked with his whimpers and groans.  The authenticity of the times has been assured by the historic weapon and leather consultation of JD Durst and by the men’s chaps, canvas coats, and leather fringes – as well as elegant outer and inner wear of Aurelia – by costume designer Brooke Jennings.   Special kudos goes to actor Chris Steele, who doubles in the role as Fight Director.  From a few feet to just a couple of inches away from the two rows of wide-eyed audience members, pounding clashes of fists and physical entanglements of falling bodies cause those of us watching to grimace and to hope no harm was really done.  The beautiful indoor setting whose two levels of windows allow the drought-tolerant garden on the outside and the dusk-to-night sky to become a convincing part of the neo-western’s scenery.

Because most of the dialogue of Undiscovered Country is drawn from Hamlet but done so in no particular order of the original play’s story (or at least, not seemingly so), there are a number of times when the lines chosen and spoken go in and out of our listening ears without making total sense, other than we are watching these characters live in a world of their own Bard-ian poetry.  I found it more helpful often to ignore the words and just take in the emotions and underlying meanings being projected.

San Francisco has many unique gifts she bestows upon the inhabitants of the Bay Area.  On this evening, we in the audience were awarded two that for too many people are still strangers.  Sunnyside Conservatory is well-worth a visit, both for its beauty of surroundings and
 for its ongoing programs of performing arts.  We Players is a company whose popularity is certainly growing among its loyal audience but whose singular approach to mostly outdoor, ambulatory, participative Shakespeare is a treasure still needing to be discovered by more folks who relish great theatrical experiences.

Rating: 4 E

Undiscovered Country continues through May 19, 2019 at the Sunnyside Conservatory, 236 Monterey Blvd., San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at

Photos by Lauren Matley

Thursday, April 25, 2019

"Vanity Fair"

Vanity Fair
Kate Hamill
Based on the Novel by William Makepeace Thackeray

The Cast of Vanity Fair
Immediately, we are given advanced warning by the tuxedoed Manager of the Strand Musik Hall that “there are no morals here in our play.”  He comes to the stage’s edge to advise us in more detail: “This is Vanity Fair.  It is not a moral play.  What do these shallow players have to do with your modern lives?” 

That the name “Vanity Fair” refers to a place first created by John Bunyan as a stop-over for his 1678 Pilgrim’s Progress where a never-ending fair takes place in a town called “Vanity” should be fair warning that the play we are about to see is in fact going to live up to the sub-title its author gave the original novel Vanity Fair in 1848: “A Novel without a Hero.”  Of the more than thirty characters we are about to meet, none is without fault; but most are not completely diabolical either.  They are all just humans out to answer for themselves the two questions our Manager posits just before the story begins in earnest: “How will you get what you want?  And what will you do to get it?”  We will soon learn that for our principal protagonist, Becky Sharp, there is not much she will not do in order to ensure she does not live ever again in the poverty of her childhood.”

Kate Hamill has taken on the monumental task of collapsing William Makepeace Thackeray’s 800-page novel – considered as one of Britain’s literary masterpieces of the 19th century – and translating it onto the 21st century stage.  The playwright – who has already successfully done so for such English classics as Sense and Sensibility, Little Women, and Pride and Prejudice – accomplishes the challenge in her new play, Vanity Fair, by requiring seven actors (and various hand puppets and cut-out figures) to take on the thirty-plus characters.  Under the inspired, slight-of-hand direction of Jessica Stone and the wildly imaginative costume designs of Jennifer Moeller, actors often change roles – including ages, sexes, social classes – in a blink of the eye while in mid-sentence.  Such is only a miniscule of the brilliant choices made by director and creative team in this eye-popping, zippy, comedic production by American Conservatory Theatre (in association with Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company) of Kate Hamill’s adventure to take a 19th-century satirical treasure, Vanity Fair, and give it 21st-century edginess and engagement.

Daughter of a penniless artist father and a mother shunned for her career on the stage, Becky Sharp has had to rely on charity and many hours of floor and toilet scrubbing to go to the respected Pinkerton Academy for Girls.  As she leaves it to become a governess – the only job a young, educated woman with no means can hope to have in 1814 London – she is determined to improve her lot, declaring, “I shall win this game or die trying.”  Even though she is not considered by others to be a worthy player in the games of life the more moneyed, aristocratic society pursues, she is immediately on the look for her route into those upper classes, ready to do whatever is necessary using her keenly honed, strong-willed skills of calculation, enticement, and cunningness. 

Adam Magill & Rebekah Brockman
Rebekah Brockman is a devilish, devious Becky Sharp who is also immediately likeable in so many ways.  We may cringe at her tactics to woo the boorish, goofy brother, Jos, of her best friend, Amelia; and we may not approve her trickery to win the hand in marriage of the handsome soldier, Rawdon, son of her first employer, Sir Pitt Crawley.  However, we cannot help but admire her sheer determination, her quick-minded decision-making, and her ability to switch courses of action on the spot in order to manipulate, nay to control the real-time play she is writing for herself with a planned outcome of financial security.  Becky undergoes many situational and personality alterations in the course of her life story – all masterfully, believably, and memorably performed by Ms. Brockman.  Even when she reaches her lowest, more despicable, most unforgivable points (and there are many), her Becky is still someone we cannot help but guiltily cheer her on, given her sheer, stubborn determination to survive and more importantly, to thrive.

Maribel Martinez
Often the Yin to Becky’s Yang is her best and only friend from school days, the good-hearted, good-natured, and much-generous Amelia Sedley.  As convincingly played by Maribel Martinez, Amelia often sees something in Becky that others around her do not – a reason to love her.  While her Amelia approaches sainthood for some of the life burdens she will be called upon to bear, her Amelia is also quite human and fully able to rage into a childish, temper tantrum; to give a blind eye to the obvious sins of a cheating husband, George; or to ignore the clearly obvious adoration of a lifelong friend, Dobbin, who loves her and continually comes to her aid without receiving a return of such love.

Dan Hiatt & Rebekah Brockman
Surrounding these two completely different but equally strong-willed women is a host of characters ranging from eccentric to quirky to evil to hilarious.  We first meet Dan Hiatt as the evening’s oft-intervening narrator, entitled The Manager.  He enters at times to coach/advise/admonish our two heroines, and at other times, does the same to us as audience – even pointing out individual members in the theatre to throw a jab or two.  But with the quick swish of a front-half-only quilted robe and old lady’s feather-capped wig of grey curls, he instantaneously transforms in voice, countenance, and demeanor into the aged Miss Matilda – wealthy, spinster aunt of Becky’s husband, whom Becky has designs to win over her cantankerous nature in order for her husband, Rawdon, to receive her inheritance.  Dan Hiatt’s flatulent-prone, high-pitched Matilda spits out little, naughty gems that tickle the conspiring Becky (such as “a little creaky and leaky is normal for my age”), but Miss Matilda also has an indignant ire that will rise to volcanic proportions when she discovers more about this lower-class intruder, Becky.

Dan Hiatt will continue to rule the evening’s stage as he becomes later a diabolical, sleaze ball, Lord Steyne.  Steyne will provide Becky with much needed cash as her gambling husband sends them into debt but who will also demand repayment in ways the flirting, teasing Becky is sometimes willing, sometimes reluctant to give.

Adam Magill is Becky’s husband, Captain Rawdon Crawley, a tall, handsome fellow whose talents mostly pay out at the gambling table, with Becky eager to be a partner in schemes meant to cheat other players out of their money.  Mr. Magill’s Rawdon has many likeable, even admirable qualities – including a father’s love for a son the ex-governess mother purposefully ignores – but he also is blind and/or too-forgiving to many of his wife’s dubious dealings with other men.  Among other roles, Adam Magill is also adorable and comical as Amelia’s bent-kneed, ailing father, Mr. Sedley.

Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, Vincent Randozzo & Anthony Michael Lopez
Sir Pitt Crawley, Becky’s first employer, is portrayed by the wild-haired, wild-eyed Vincent Randazzo, who is also the Twiddle-Dee-looking brother of Amelia, Jos – a man-still-boy who repeatedly cannot help but fall under the viperous spell of Becky.  Mr. Randazzo also delightfully becomes a weepy servant named Miss Jemima, a society snob named Lady Chesterton, and a royally robed and crowned King George looking to turn a game of pantomime with Becky into a game of hump-the-king in bed.

Anthony Michael Lopez is the mean and moralistic, Miss Pinkerton, proprietor of the plush academy both Amelia and Becky attend as girls.  He is hilarious as the screeching Miss Pinkerton with her loud disapproval of the lower-class Becky, whom she sees as “a menace to this school and a menace to society.”  But Mr. Lopez, among other transformations such as the puppeteer of Lady Crowley, is primarily on stage as Amelia’s loyal friend and would-be lover, William Dobbin, who naively stays true to her even as she continues to ignore his love.  In that role, the sad-eyed, stoically-stance Mr. Lopez is like the ever-trustful, ever-loyal family dog who takes some abuse, is mostly ignored, but is always ready and eager to please.

Anthony Michael Lopez & Vincent Randazzo
Rather than William, Amelia instead focuses all her love on George Osborne, William’s best friend and fellow soldier who only marries Becky after William convinces him it is the noble thing to do (George having previously dropped her after her father loses his stock exchange job and subsequently his fortune).  Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan is appropriately slimy and dislikable as George, who soon ventures beyond his new wife to tempt her more outgoing, more risqué best friend, Becky.  Ms. Keegan also plays a variety of completely bizarre and zany characters, including Miss Matilda’s much-maligned and hilarious servant, Miss Briggs, and the puppeteer and voice of Rawdon’s brother, Lesser Pitt.

Somehow, Director Jessica Stone magically orchestrates the seamless comings and goings and on-stage alterations of this parade of Becky’s fiendish, freaky, and funny acquaintances (with a couple of genuinely good folks like Amelia and Dobbin also showing up from time to time).  This “vanity fair” of Becky’s world takes place in an immense stage setting of the Strand Musick Hall, the actual site of musical burlesques, pantomimes, and operettas after it opened in 1864.  Designed by Alexander Dodge, the ACT stage is awash with remembrances of that era with dropping curtains of period, scenic drawings; with rolled cloths on giant frames that turn to reveal new background drawings of parlors or street scenes; and with hung paintings that serve to set a larger context of a country manor or a city’s home.  The aforementioned costumes of Jennifer Moeller are a back-stage’s storehouse of quick changes, elaborate ruffles and ribbons, and wigs that quickly come and go before our eyes. 

As mind-blowing as much of this imaginatively wild creation by Kate Hamill, Jessica Stone, and A.C.T. is, there is at least one major issue.  Peppering the evening are both ensemble and solo sung numbers – composed by Sound Designer Jane Shaw – that often are neither performed that well nor make a lot of sense.  They certainly have the air, feel, and look in presentation of a pre-Vaudeville, music-hall era; but the lyrics are too often non-discernable; and when they are understood, they do not do much to advance or enhance the story.

Because that story is somewhat complicated and is told in this version in such a wonderfully unusual manner, I at times found the first act a bit difficult to retain full focus and to stay interested.  There are early moments of stop-start-action pantomimes; there are cast-choreographed sequences that abruptly intervene into the story; and there are of course the many characters that change quickly and constantly their personas.  By Act Two, the story settles into a more understandable flow with characters we now know a bit better; and we also finally become emotionally more involved and attached to their outcomes.  Perhaps fewer of the clever touches in the early telling might aid a quicker commitment by someone like myself to the intrigue of the story itself.

That said, American Conservatory Theatre’s production of Kate Hamil’s adaptation of Vanity Fair is a smorgasbord of production surprises whose massive undertaking by both playwright and director results in an intriguing story whose final message is a warning to us all in today’s materialistic society:  “We want what we want and nothing can stop us ... Welcome to Vanity Fair.”

Rating: 4 E

Vanity Fair continues through May 12, 2019 on the Geary Stage of American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Scott Suchman

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

"The Importance of Being Ernest"

The Importance of Being Earnest
Oscar Wilde

The Aurora Cast
Two young socialites both are engaged to Ernest, only there is no Ernest – at least not until two young dandies can rush to church for a late-afternoon re-christening, each planning to become Ernest to cover up his habitual propensity for lying.  But before such radical altercation of identities can occur, a purse found long ago in a railway station locker; a long lost, three-volume novel; and a tearful confession by a now-regretful governess play parts in allowing truth to rear its rare-seen head.  As one of the young men openly admits, “It is very painful for me to be forced to speak the truth; it is the first time in my life that I have ever been reduced to such a painful position and I am really quite inexperienced in doing anything of the kind.”

But ignoring truths and creating convenient realities are as natural as breathing for the deliciously eccentric characters that Oscar Wilde populates his wildly popular The Importance of Being Earnest.  Since its London premiere in 1895, the final and most popular of his literary creations has been re-staged in many forms worldwide -- live theatre, cinema, and even opera.  Aurora Theatre Company now joins the one-hundred-twenty-plus-year parade of productions with a fantastically directed, superbly acted, and beautifully produced outing that teases and tickles at every turn.  Director Josh Costello orchestrates both staccato-speed delivery of Wilde’s galore of epigrams and exaggerations as well as sudden silences where the tremble of a lip, the rise of an eyebrow, or the immense rounding of the eyes evoke hilarious results.  Aurora’s Earnest is an evening of Oscar Wilde at his finest where nothing serious is meant to ward upon everything that is trivial.  Mockery of all without making malicious fun of any is easily accomplished through Wilde’s brilliantly farcical script and the joyful, funny, and yet serious attention it is afforded by both this director and his cast.

Patrick Kelly Jones & Mohammad Shehata
Algernon (Patrick Kelly Jones) and Jack (Mohammed Shehata) are two gentleman of some leisure, both best friends and both living double lives.  In the country, Jack is seriously engaged in overseeing the upbringing of his eighteen-year-old ward and heiress, Cecily (Gianna DiGregorio Rivera).  He has created for himself an errant, younger brother named Ernest whom he uses as an excuse regularly to go to the London in order to also see and court on the sly Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen (Anna Ishida), with whom he assumes the name of Ernest.  Back in the country, his made-up stories about his bad-boy brother Ernest have intrigued Cecily, who has in turn created in her diary an entire scenario of this Ernest having asked her for her hand in marriage.

London dweller Algernon finds his avenue of escape from his over-bearing Aunt Augusta (Gwendolen’s mother, known to others as Lady Bracknell) and her unwanted social obligations by pretending to have an elderly friend in the country, Bunbury, whom he must frequently visit.  This “bunburying” has now become his favorite occupation.  He also has surreptitiously discovered the location of Jack’s country estate and conceives a plan to show up uninvited as Jack’s fictitious brother, Ernest – even more a surprise to all when he arrives since Jack has decided that very day to arrive home in mourning clothes, announcing his brother has died of a chill in Paris (Jack having tired of the ruse of having such a brother).

Anna Ishida & Gianna DiGregorio Rivera
Cecily gets finally to meet in person the not dead, very much alive “Ernest” (aka Algernon), whom she has secretly engaged, unbeknowst to him.  At the same time, Gwendolen also shows up unannounced at the manor, having followed Algernon to the country in order to visit her “Ernest,” aka Jack.  The fact that both young women are dead-set in only loving someone named Ernest is just one of the many, ensuing hilarious complications that mount in this gentle but quite pointed parody of the upper classes. 

Each of the four would-be lovers is played through immaculate interpretation that is full of both slight subtleties and outright grandiosity.  Declarations of love and of new friendship come surprisingly quick and loud, sounding like the conclusions of business transactions.  But at other moments, feelings that cannot find the words to be expressed are riotously expressed in stone-silent stares, a quivering lip, or near-choking gulp.  The ensemble of four lovers/friends is all the more fabulous in this Aurora production through the inspired casting of a wide mix of ethnicities as these late-nineteenth English socialites, giving the century-plus-old setting and story a wonderfully contemporary feel.  (The one downside of the entire cast’s performance is their ability to reach and maintain a credible English accent.)

Mohammed Shehata & Sharon Lockwood
As Lady Bracknell, Sharon Lockwood commands the stage’s focus every time she enters with her proud nose elevated just a bit higher than everyone else’s.  Her cadence of aristocratic airs is a musical score of delightful ups and downs as she almost sings her meticulously formed words.  When she is angered, her wrath shatters the air with its pompous righteousness.  When she is appalled, words like “hand bag” or “cloakroom” become memory-lasting sound-bites that will ring in audience ears for days to come.

Taking on smaller parts that still leave big impressions are Trish Mulholland as Miss Prism, the affectively prim and proper governess of Cecily, who has her eyes and her blushing tee-hee’s focused on The Reverend Canon Chasuble.  Michael Torres is the amiable minister, quite eager-to-please rich parishioners – and quite pleasingly flustered by the attention of Miss Prism.  He is also the oft-frowning, philosophically speaking manservant of Algernon, Lane. 

Gianna DiGregorio Rivera & Patrick Kelly Jones
Nina Ball’s set design in the intimate Aurora doubles nicely as a London flat and a country manor, both indoors and outdoors.  A flooring resembling decorative stones, a back-drop design of delicately cast iron, and Tiffany-inspired wall-dividers of a rich rainbow of art-deco colors are all greatly enhanced by the come-to-life lighting of Wen-Ling Liao.  Chris Houston has composed happy-go-lucky, period-sounding music that adds sparkle to a sound design where also birds chirp their songs to complete an air of country gentility.  From brightly plaid, three-piece suits to women’s hats perched like colorful nests on bundles of curls to even a three-headed fox fur, Maggie Whitaker’s costumes are a sublime comedy in their own making.

It cannot go unsaid, however, that in the end this and any production of The Importance of Being Earnest stars first and foremost the script of its creator, Oscar Wilde.  His ability to turn everything from simple logic to everyday facts to common phrases upside-down – only to provide new meanings that ring with their own truth – is incomparable.  His tongue-in-cheek observations of that long-ago era time and again ring often ever so wickedly true in 2019.  Consider,
- “It is absurd to have a hard-and-fast rule what one should and what one shouldn’t read.  More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.”
- “If one plays good music, people don’t listen; if one plays bad music, people don’t talk.”
- “Relations are simply a tedious pack of people who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live nor the smallest instinct about when to die.”
- “All women become like their mother’s.  That is their tragedy.  No man does.  That’s his.”

Aurora Theatre Company allows the wit and wisdom of Oscar Wilde to come pouring forth with a production that ripples with naughty energy, simmers in untruths that ring with their own truth, and explodes with a multitude of clever phrases that are guaranteed to bring round after round of chuckles and outright guffaws.

Rating: 4.5 E

The Importance of Being Earnest continues in extension through May 19, 2019 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available online at or by calling 415-843-4822.

Photo by David Allen

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"

Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
David Grieg (Book); Marc Shaiman (Music); Scott Wittiman & Marc Shaiman (Lyrics)

Henry Boshart & Noah Weisberg
Currently at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, there are two one-act musicals appearing, both under the same title as Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – or at least it feels that way sitting through each.  The first, mildly entertaining act is a set-up for the much better, darkly humorous second act, with that first act’s best lines coming from four octogenarian grandparents stuck in a tiny bed together.  As a musical, the only truly memorable song in the first act is the opener, The Candy Man – that being because many of us remember it as Sammy Davis, Jr.’s 1972 hit that came from the 1971 movie, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  As it turns out, that song and the other three songs of the evening that are even close to being interesting are not from the composer and lyricist of this 2017 Broadway musical (Marc Shaiman, music, who also collaborated with Scott Wittiman on lyrics), but are instead all from that original movie and are by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.  If not for some fantastically funny puppetry in that second act and several well-deserved, devilishly hilarious disasters for four, over-grown, over-spoiled brats, the entire evening would have been not much better than a yawn. 

Noah Weisberg & Company
With his opening number, “The Candy Man,” Willie Wonka announces, “I make chocolate ... the greatest invention of the history of the world.”  But it seems the young-looking Willie is not all he appears and is in fact very old and very tired of making chocolate in the formidable factory overlooking the town.  Willie is out to find his successor and creates a contest to draw five potential inheritors to a first-time-ever tour of the now-dormant factory.  His placing five golden tickets in five chocolate bars (with a promised grand prize among the five of free chocolate for life) causes a world-wide “Wonkamania,” with kids and their parents globally emptying candy shelves of the chocolate that is now once again being madly manufactured by Wonka’s workers.  Willie’s unannounced plan is that the winners are to be invited to the factory for what he has planned as a test of their true characters, with a plan that the last one left standing (literally) will become his successor as The Candyman.

Noah Weisberg’s Willie is a mixture of a carnival huckster, mad scientist, and song-and-dance man.  He sings his numbers not with great Broadway wow but with his own twist of flash and flair that makes it easy for us to listen and play along with him, even when most of his numbers are not all that interesting music-wise.  And while he is by appearance a squeaky-clean-looking character, his inside morals are certainly questionable as he mostly shrugs off to dismayed parents when their kids one-by-one fail his tempting character tests (and totally disappear).  But in the end, his Willie still somehow convinces us that his intentions are good – especially when it comes to our young hero, Charlie.

Henry Boshart
Youngster Charlie Bucket lives in a barely-standing shack with his impoverished mom (a laundress about to be out of work) and his four grandparents, who appear never to leave the bed they share on the second, wobbly floor.  Charlie is candy-obsessed and loves hanging out at a local chocolate store, run by none other than a disguised Willie Wonka.  Charlie is a dreamer like his Grandpa Joe (James Young) who constantly recalls imaginatively when he was a travel agent for Mr. Lewis and Mr. Clark, on a rhino hunt with Mr. Livingston, or with Mr. Custer in his dying moments at Little Big Horn.  Grandpa Joe sings with a gleam in his eye, “Charlie, you and I make something out of nothing,” something Charlie’s hard-working but mostly penny-less mom (Amanda Rose) warns, “Charlie, it’s not good daydreaming about something if it can’t come true.” 

Charlie loves his mom, but he is inspired by and is out of the same ilk as his Grandpa.  So imagine and dream Charlie does (played opening night by Henry Boschart with Henry sharing the part with Collin Jeffery and Rueby Wood).  Charlie sends requests in a wistful song (“A Letter from Charlie Bucket”) and a magically flying paper plane to Mr. Wonka for sweet presents for the ones he loves most (licorice shoe laces and ice cream that never melts for his mom, marshmallow pillows for his grandparents).  Henry Boshart, fresh off his tour of Fun Home, brings vocal freshness, attractive energy and enthusiasm, and a winning smile and personality – completely selling himself to us (and in the end, to Willie) as a kid whose imagination is almost as big as his heart and the one deserving to be a candy king.

The Cast
The other kids we meet during Act One – all played by adults – have some common qualities just the opposite of everything we see in Charlie: spoiled, obnoxious, stuck-up, ego-centric, bad manners – just to name a few of the more obvious ones.  They are each introduced with their equally bizarre and overall ridiculously despicable parents as they each find a ‘golden ticket’ in four production numbers, all mostly forgettable by the time each song-and dance ends.  There is the overly obese from his mountainous intakes of Bavarian sausages, Augustus Gloop (a big burping Matt Wood); a self-centered Russian ballerina covered in pink furs and frills, Veruca Salt (a squealing Jessica Cohen with always raised nose and on tippy toes); a bubble-gun-smacking, self-proclaimed diva (“Queen of Pop” Brynn Williams); and screen-staring, gamer and hacker Mike Teevee (a scowling, belligerent Daniel Quadrino).  There is some humor in the exaggerations depicted by each during their introductions, but the real laughs and most inventive ideas of Jack O’Brien’s direction come in the second half when each meets her/his final demise as they fail to heed Willie’s warnings about such things as chocolate waterfalls or giant, nut-sorting squirrels.

If there is one reason that truly makes an outing to this touring production worth while, it is the second act’s appearance in five of the eight numbers by the “Oompa Loompas,” a chorus line of three-foot-high workers who make all of Willie Wonka’s confectionaries.  The puppet and illusion design of Basil Twist (which won him a Drama Desk award in 2017) transforms the Loompas’ full-size handlers into these midget-size, dancing, singing stars of the evening, sending the audience into loud howls of laughter and long rounds of appreciative applause.  Their crazy leaps, kick lines, and tumbles as well as their munchkin-sounding singing are only made funnier by the red-mop-topped heads of the real people who are otherwise diminutive puppets.  It is with their short-legged dancing that Joshua Bergasse’s choreography finds its best steps of the evening.

Along with James Young’s winning characterization of Grandpa Joe, the one-liners afforded the other three grandparents by book writer David Grieg are an ongoing thread of giggles.  From their crowded bed where it appears they have no legs (part of Mark Thompson’s pop-up-like, storybook scenic design), the oldsters offer forth such numerous quickies like “Hope we don’t die in our sleep” during a series of mutual ‘good nights’ and “Are we still here?” when waking in the morning.  Claire Neumann is Grandma Georgina, Jennifer Jill Malenke is Grandma Josephine, and Joel Newsome is Grandpa George.

If not for the Oompa Loompas and the dark, grisly, but totally hilarious exits of the four obnoxious kids, this touring Charlie and the Chocolate Factory might not be worth the visit, even given the fine performances by Willie, Charlie, and the grandparents.  The music rarely rises above mediocre and the first act is a near sleeper.  But, stay awake; and the second act becomes a true winner, almost as fun as the evening’s optical-illusion-packed, multi-layered, and stage-surrounding projections by Jeff Sugg – the final and well-worth reason to grab a bar of chocolate (you will be craving one) and head to the Golden Gate Theatre for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Rating: 3.5 E

Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues through May 12, 2019 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at Tickets are available at

Photo Credits:  Joan Marcus

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

"A Spoonful of Sugar"

A Spoonful of Sherman
Richard Sherman, Robert B. Sherman, Al Sherman & Robert J. Sherman (Music & Lyrics)
Robert J. Sherman (Book)

The Cast of A Spoonful of Sugar
In a heartfelt biographical and musical tribute to his grandfather, dad, and uncle, A Spoonful of Sherman, Robert (Robbie) J. Sherman (book) takes us through a ninety-year tasting of fifty-five of the songs his family – including himself – have written, picking them from the more than 250 others he could not include.  Premiering in the U.K. in 2014 and having since toured extensively there and in Ireland, A Spoonful of Sherman now has its U.S. premiere at San Jose’s newest venue for live productions of musicals, Guggenheim Entertainment’s 3Below Theatres and Lounge.  With a cast of five who sing, dance, and cavort with much talent and glee through the plethora of lyrics and tunes, 3Below’s A Spoonful of Sherman is overall delightful and a temptation for humming/singing along that is difficult to resist – songs like “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Winnie the Pooh,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” “I Wanna Be Like You,” “Spoonful of Sugar,” and of course the world’s more translated and most performed song, “It’s A Small World.”

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

Rating: 4 E

A Spoonful of Sherman continues through May 5, Thursdays through Sundays at 3 Below Theatres & Lounge, 288 South Second Street, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at

Photo by Guggenheim Entertainment


Sunday, April 14, 2019

"The Gentleman Caller"

The Gentleman Caller
Philip Dawkins

Brennan Pickman-Thoon & Adam Niemann
“I don’t like interviewers for the very reason they remind me of what I once said,” he says in his syrupy, Southern flow of clever quips.  But a favorable interview is very much what young, boy-looking Tom Williams (“Tennessee for short”) is hoping to receive from the awkward, fumbling, but rather cute drama critic of the St. Louis Star-Times as Tennessee arrives at the reporter’s apartment in early November, 1944.  Tennessee has already sent the critic a carbon copy of his play soon to open in Chicago – one with a working title of The Gentlemen Caller – and hopes to get needed, positive press from this afternoon visit.  But William (Bill) Inge has not actually read the play; seems more intent on pouring himself another drink than in asking another question; and within a few minutes liquors himself into enough courage to try to rape the flirty, flattered, but not-quite-ready-to-go-that-far Tennessee.

Brennan Pickman-Thoon & Adam Niemann
And thus opens Philip Dawkins’ own The Gentleman Caller in which he imagines two meetings over two months time between one young playwright whose re-titled The Glass Menagerie is about to make him the new darling of the theatre world and a non-confident critic who is on a desperate quest to become a playwright himself.  The repartee between the two is hilarious and titillating to observe – driven in great part by the non-stop, cunningly constructed comebacks of Tennessee to anything the slower-responding Bill tries to say in attempted sentences that seem never to reach completion.  New Conservatory Theatre Center presents the regional premiere of this 2018 play in a production bursting with talent in every regard but particularly in the tense, teasing, and testy direction that Arturo Catricala lends the two actors who excel in capturing personalities that bump and grind along until they finally gel into a relationship of respect and friendship (and maybe even love).

Tennessee is the story’s narrator, quickly establishing an easy-going, wink-wink manner with the near-by audience in the intimate setting of NCTC’s Walker Theatre.  Brennan Pickman-Thoon quickly has us in the palms of his flighty hands with his delicious, hypnotic drawl that is of a Shakespearean quality in a Southern sort of way – a combination of vocal ebbs and flows that elevate that region’s oft-mimicked, oft-mocked accent to a level surprisingly beautiful and mesmerizing (with special kudos going to Melinda Marks for her dialect coaching). 

 Adam Niemann & Brennan Pickman-Thoon
But he also brings a cutting edge to the acutely sharp, ever-catchy script that Philip Dawkins provides Tennessee.  When Bill Inge at one point tells Tennessee, “You’re too bitch for me,” the latter shoots back, “That’s like the pot calling the kettle Blanche,” one of several references to plays he has written or will someday write.  In one of the many times his Tennessee makes a side remark to us as audience in reference to something he or Bill has said, he tells us that we will not see Bill’s barking dog Lulabelle running about on the stage because “you should never work with children and animals ... or Bette Davis ... who is both.”  Brennan Pickman-Thoon alone is worth the price of the ticket in order to revel in his delightfully wicked, incredibly insightful interpretation of the early, wonderfully raw version of this later giant of American theatre.

The thirty-three-year-old Tennessee before us is a slight-of-build, somewhat dramatic diva with just enough hip swish to hint at but never enough to scream of his sexual orientation.  In contrast, the slightly younger Bill is rather ancient-appearing as he lumbers, almost stumbles his way around the room, stopping and starting both his physical approaches toward Tennessee and his broken conversations with abruptness.  His emotional expressions go from near nil to full, volcanic explosions in a matter of seconds, with little warning or reason why.  He is a young man caught in a time and a location when being open – even to himself – of his desires for other men is more than he can bear acknowledging openly, leading to desires pent up that suddenly explode in exaggerated passions and then quickly retreat in horror and shame. 

Adam Niemann is outstanding in his capturing the difficulty of facing one’s sexual orientation in a world that would be eager to crucify you in headlines and ruin you forever once the word got out.  He is even better in showing us a playwright-in-the-making who hesitantly comes to the altar of his newfound god, Tennessee, hoping for his blessing but expecting his rejection.  But he is at his best in Act Two when Philip Dawkins awards him a monologue about a life-shaping incident as a boy that Adam Niemann delivers in a gripping, near-monotone fashion, yet one full of deeply hidden emotion that leaves the audience (and even Tennessee) barely breathing during its telling.

During the two meetings of Tennessee and Bill – the earlier in St. Louis and the latter in Chicago after the opening night of The Glass Menagerie – Philip Dawkins leads the two protagonists through topics that allow Tennessee to mentor a reluctant Bill bit by bit through both wit and wisdom what it means to “engage your imagination, the most endangered of American qualities.”  When they meet, Bill both admires and is skeptical of a profession where a person like Tennessee “force[s] the audience into your stories and do what you want them to do.”  While Inge believes that Williams is “the maker of dreams,” Tennessee denies any lofty desire to “change the world” as a playwright, quipping, “I just want to live a life of epic fornifications.”  But writing for Tennessee is clearly his purpose in life and one he is trying to help the young, untested William Inge to understand is a reason to keep on living, even when feeling alone and miserable.  For Tennessee, writing is the end-all, telling Bill, “What is point of being loved for my writing if I can love through my writing.”

Brennan Pickman-Thoon & Adam Niemann
The two meetings also afford a sexually intense dance to occur where Tennessee is tempting and wanting and where Bill sometimes longingly wants and other times rushes to escape.  In a scene involving Bill with a pair of binoculars, a lesbian couple across the alley way in front of an open-curtained window, and a Tennessee whose hands and toes probe ever downward over Bill’s torso as Bill describes between his hot panting what he sees going on between the love-making women – in that one scene Arturo Catricala directs one of the most hotly erotic and beautifully executed scenes I have ever witnessed in live theatre.  For many in the audience, that scene was probably the one worth the price of the ticket!

With walls papered in the scripts of Tennessee Williams’ plays, Kevin Landesman has created the rooms of an apartment and a hotel that have a cozy, intimate feel and that offer the desired safety for the 1944 conversations (and more) between these two men.  The lighting design of Chris Lundahl casts telling, shadowed patterns on the floor to underline shifts in the story’s mood as well as effectively using wall sconces and focused spots to shift those moods.  Kalon Thibodeaux’s sound design, among other gems, ensures a record always sticks at precisely the correct moments for the best of humor.  The costumes of Keri Fitch broadcast the outwardly straight and inwardly straight-laced nature of William Inge while doing just the opposite about both natures of Tennessee Williams. 

Philip Dawkins has taken an actual relationship between two of America’s greatest, twentieth-century playwrights – a known friendship and a rumored romantic attraction – and created a fascinating, enlightening, and totally entertaining accounting of two, fictionalized encounters behind closed doors whose walls tell no secrets.  In the brilliant hands of this director, these two actors, and this creative team, New Conservatory Theatre Center’s staging of The Gentleman Caller is two hours where every minute matches our narrator’s Second Act opening description: “There is a sense all around of something about to happen.”

Rating: 5 E

The Gentleman Caller continues through May 5, 2019 in the Walker Theatre of of the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos by Lois Tema

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

"Adiós Mamá Carlota"

Adiós Mamá Carlota
Luis Valdez
The Stage in association with El Teatro Campesino

Alison F. Rich and Will Springhorn, Jr.
Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino partner with The Stage to premiere a play about a short, little known period of Mexican history when the younger brother, Maximilian I, of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph was named in 1864 by Napoleon III to be Emperor of Mexico, a country France had earlier invaded (along with Spain and the UK).  Adiós Mamá Carlota tells this rather bizarre and ultimately tragic story – for both Mexico and Maximilian – from the perspective of the new Emperor’s wife, Carlota, who ruled with him for two years as Empress before escaping back to Europe where she remained apparently insane and largely in isolation for the next sixty years.  Luis Valdez gives voice in Adiós Mamá Carlota to the ghosts of Carlota’s memories as they come back to haunt her and retell their versions of her and her executed husband’s coronation, reign, and demise.

Please continue to Talkin' Broadway for my complete review:

Rating: 3 E

Adiós Mamá Carlota continues through April 28, 2019 The Stage, 490 First Street, San Jose.  Tickets are available at

Photo Credit: Dave Lepori