Thursday, May 30, 2019

"Beautiful: The Carole King Musical"


Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Douglas McGrath (Book)
Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil (Music & Lyrics)


Sarah Bockel
It is a testament to the touchstone popularity of a musical that had its world premiere in San Francisco in 2013, returned in 2016, and now is in a limited appearance for its third SF run in a half dozen years that the opening night audience not only packed SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre but was clearly loving every minute of hit after hit song.  That the night’s tunes included Motown oldies/goldies like “The Locomotion,” Up on the Roof,” and “On Broadway” as well as the also much-recorded, much-loved songs like “You’ve Got a Friend, ” “It’s Too Late,” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” meant that hardly a person in the vast arena could sit without breaking into a hum or at least mouthing along the words while also gently swaying, tapping toes, or squeezing the hand of the person in the next seat.

But what has made Beautiful a musical that continues not only to draw crowds in its sixth year on Broadway but also to repeated tour sites is not only the twenty-five-plus, well-known songs by two celebrated song-writing teams – Gerry Goffin/Carole King and Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil – but also the musical’s book by Douglas McGrath which gives their intriguing, back-ground stories.  The central focus is of course on the woman who wrote and sung her title song, “Beautiful,” for her multi-Grammy-Award-winning, 1972 album, Tapestry.  Beautiful: The Carole King Musical tells the story of that music-writing half of a well-known, song-creating duo and how her life’s ups-and-downs – especially the downs – led her becoming an even more famous recording and live-performance star of her own solely written hits.

In a role originally created in San Francisco and on Broadway by Jessie Mueller for which she won in 2014 the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, Sarah Bockel reprises her own role as Carole King after being called to assume the role on both Broadway and earlier touring stages as an understudy of Ms. Mueller.  From her opening number of “So Far Away,” that deep, prior experience with the role shows.  Closing one’s eyes, it is not difficult to imagine Carole King herself singing before us with those distinct vocals that emote a sense of deep reflection, some sorrow, and much inner strength.  When opening those eyes, the curly mass of hair moving in response to the song’s emotional waves immediately calls to mind the renowned star herself.

The opening number – one that was sung by Carole King in her Carnegie Hall debut on June 18, 1971 – gives way quickly to a flashback of Carole Klein as a sixteen-year-old teen, trying to convince that song-writing is her destiny to her skeptical mother, Genie (an oft-funny, stalwart Suzanne Grodner).  Escaping to New York to the offices of music producer Don Kirshner (an also oft-hilarious James Clow), young Carole (who announces to the receptionist her last name is now “King”) sings in a crackly voice, “It Might As Well Rain Until September.” However, the hammy girl sings well enough for the producer’s eyes to light up and to award the song to Bobby Vee.  At sixteen, Carole thus has her first chart-rising hit as a song-writer; and even her mom has to give up (reluctantly) her preferences that Carole play only Bach on their home, upright piano.

Sarah Bockel & Dylan S. Wallach
The sixteen-year-old soon meets another aspiring song-writer whose talents lie more in lyrics.  She and Gerry Goffin create “Some Kind of Wonderful,” with Dylan S. Wallach bringing his ‘60s-sounding, highly attractive set of vocals to the role of Gerry, blending nicely with the still-developing vocals of the young Carole.  When their own duet gives way to the group that will make the song a hit nation-wide – the Drifters – Darius Delk, Willie Hill, Dimitri Joseph Moise, James Michael Lambert, and Avery Smith send the audience swooning through their combination of luscious harmonies and smoothly flowing movements that remind us why the original group has had decades-long staying power.  Later Drifters numbers sung by the quartet – “Up on the Roof” and “On Broadway – are more proof that the Goffin-King duo has cracked the formula for a winning, hot-selling, Motown sound.

Cast Members of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Being only sixteen and still living at home does not stop Carole from falling romantically for her writing partner nor from getting pregnant, leading to the two marrying while both are still in their teens.  As they suddenly enter adulthood together, they continue pumping out more Motown hits, including “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” for the Shirelles and “The Locomotion” for Little Eva.  Harper Miles, DeAnne Stewart, Danielle J. Summons, and Alia Hodge glide and slide in both their notes and their movements as the Shirelles.  Alia Hodge also becomes Little Eva, leading a whole train of back-up singers choo-chooing across the stage with their swinging hips, wheel-rolling arms, and fabulous voices in an audience-rousing “The Locomotion.”  In these and the other ensemble and small-group numbers of the evening, choreographer Josh Prince quickly brings back happy, childhood/teenage memories for many of us of a certain age of once watching those same moves by performing groups on TV’s “American Bandstand.”

Sarah Bockel, Alisson Whitehurst, Jacob Heimer & Dylan S. Wallach
Douglas McGrath makes the musical’s book all the more rich by including also the early career story of another song-writing duo who become not only best friends but also chief rivals of Gerry and Carole.  Alison Whitehurst brings a strong sense of independence, a contagiously attractive personality, and Broadway-worthy vocals and presentation to the role of Cynthia Weil.  When she bursts into Don Kirshner’s office, she soon finds herself teamed with a lyricist named Barry Mann, who is also a working chemist and a self-admitting, self-deprecating hypochondriac. 

Jacob Heimer is both hilarious as Barry Mann and wowingly impressive whenever he sings any one of this duo’s hits featured in the evening’s musical journey.  He ushers in the Mann/Weil “You’ve Got that Lovin’ Feeling,” only to give way to John Michael Dias and Paul Scanlon as they render their absolutely mind-blowing, Righteous Brothers’ rendition of the 1964 single that hit Number One on the charts.  Their duo-combination of a deep, guttural bass and a recklessly high tenor blends into another wonderful trip down Memory Lane for many of us now fully mesmerized in the audience.

Sarah Bockel
The inter-connecting life stories of these two song-writing teams bring background insights to many of the songs we hear that we have known for years.  However, it is both the psychological and marital challenges of Gerry Goffin that become the life-changing influences that we see bit-by-bit tragically but also miraculously create the Carole King the world now knows.  Carole faces more and more frustration, betrayal, and sadness from a partner/husband who says things to her like, “Sometimes you’re such an old lady ... I can’t breathe around you anymore.”  But the more marital breakdowns they have that lead to a final break-up, the more we hear Sarah Bockel’s Carole attain the uniquely powerful and moving voice that she increasingly brings to bear in the songs that will populate King’s masterful album, Tapestry.  By the time we hear her sing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” during a recording session for that mega-hit album, there is no doubt that Sarah Bockel has found the emotional core and soul-stirring sound of the singer Carole King had become by 1972.

Director Marc Bruni moves this large cast through the near-fifteen-year timeline and its many scenes with a blended ease that allows scenes to flow like that continuous notes on a music page’s score.  While there is much life drama that plays out (some periods extending into near sappy melodrama), the director adds touches of laugh-out-loud humor that are visually hilarious.  References of a conversation or a song being sung are accompanied by quick entrances and even quicker exits that appear like an invisible hook has rudely yanked off the momentary visitor to the stage.  (One prime example is a quick appearance by John Michael Dias as a singing Neil Sedaka whose “Oh Carol” is oh-so-funny short.

Marc Bruni is given many options for staging his scenes through the scenic design of Derek McLane that goes quickly from mostly bare stage to a split set of multi-leveled rooms of a recording studio.  The latter sets up a highly entertaining ensemble number (“1650 Broadway Medley”) where we get to watch snatches of a host of now-oldies like “Splish Splash” and “Love Potion Number Nine” being recorded all at the same time.  The framed stage and its back wall of inlaid guitars, microphones, speakers, and more become the pallet for spectacularly designed lighting effects by Peter Kaczorowski, with rich, deep colors giving way to streams of neon lights and a lowered curtain of spots.  Brian Ronan ensures all the many singers, the music of Nick Williams’ conducted orchestra, and on-stage bands all balance perfectly through his sound design.  And finally, the costumes designed by Alejo Vietti both trace the development of Carole King from a rather modest beginning to eventual stardom as well as highlight the personalities of all those who cross her life and the fabulously adorned Motown singers who helped make her and Gerry’s songs still to be known and loved today.

Juke-box musicals certainly are not the highest forms of live theatre by any means, especially when compared to other, more ground-breaking and daring musicals like the current Hamilton, Hadestown, or Dear Evan Hansen.  However, like the perennially popular Jersey Boys, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical both provides an evening that feels much like a concert of favorites as well as an evening that tells a rather enlightening and quite engaging story about the people behind the music decades later we still ask Alexa to play for us.  The return San Francisco visit of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical to SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre is probably far from its last and one that is still well-worth an evening of reveling in the songs by one truly great song-writer/performer who is a ‘Queen of Music’ named King.

Rating: 4.5 E

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical continues through June 9, 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


Monday, May 27, 2019

"Kings"


Kings
Sarah Burgess


Sam Jackson
In the recent midterm elections, over one hundred women were elected to Congress, many being first-timers who defeated long-time, often white-male incumbents.  Most ran with a promise to shake up the ol’ boys’ systems and to do some major housecleaning.  Common among their pledges were ones like Sydney Millsap’s, “I can do this because I will have my employer by my side, that’s you [i.e., my constituents].” 

Former accountant and newly elected Congresswoman from the 24th District of Texas, Sydney Millsap, makes now bones whom she works for and for whom she does not, looking point-blankly at a pushy lobbyist in the eye and declaring, “I don’t want to be told what to do by a finance lobbyist.”  Sydney has arrived in D.C. with full intent “to work on policy that really matters.”  But in Sarah Burgess Kings – a new play so contemporary it feels like a feature story from this past Sunday’s Times – Sydney is finding what maybe most of the actual one-hundred-plus women now on Capital Hill are finding: There is an industry of entrepreneurial, competitive, money-hungry lobbyists who have other plans on what she will and will not support.  And no matter how much she tries to ignore them, she begins to understand that the existence of lobbyists are not unlike that of the roaches of the world .  As one such go-getter tells Sydney, “[L]ong after you are voted out of office, I will still be here.” 

Shotgun Players is currently staging a gripping, thought-provoking, even unsettling production of Kings, with a unstated warning clearly coming at us loudly that many of those newly elected, pledged-to-be reformers in D.C. may already be in trouble.  How many of them have heard at every turn from glad-handing lobbyists as does Sydney, “You are one of the most exciting new members of Congress” – said in an automated tone and with a plastered smile that belies any true sincerity?  Can you doubt that most of them, like Sydney, began their tenures looking those same, initial lobbyists in the eye and responding to the so-called compliment with tired exasperation, “So tell me what you want ... I am sure there’s something you want from me.”  Haven’t they also heard the same advice given with a hand on the shoulder and a serious look of supposed concern that Sydney hears over and again,  “Say you cannot support the bill now because the bill did not go far enough”?  But the question rises, six months past their elections, how many will continue to resist the promised checks in their now-empty re-election kiddies – money that will flow if they will only take a meeting with the podiatrists’ lobbyist or maybe give in to one small request from some super PAC who can offer millions of marketing and social media support? 

All any one of them needs to do – just as Syndey has been asked – is back off support of ‘x’ bill or sign on to support of ‘y’ bill.  After all, more-seasoned, well-loved, long-tenured politicians – like Sydney’s home-state Senator John McDowell –have no trouble helping out their favorite lobbyists and their new get-on-board colleagues, as McDowell promises to do for Sydney if she will just back-off a bill with his favorite “It does not go far enough” line. 

But can enough of these newly elected in D.C. do as Sydney does and say no?  Or will they find standing up to the inbred lobbyists and money-hungry leaders of their party will lead – as it soon does for Sydney – to their also finding that D.C. marketing firms will not return their calls, that the Party will decide to run someone against them in the next primary, and that social-media smear campaigns will begin to multiply about them and/or family members, paid for by anonymous super-donors to powerful PAC committees.  All becomes the brutal battlefield for a gritty, determined, and not-willing-to-compromise-her-integrity Congresswoman Sydney Millsap.

Sam Jackson
So powerful and persuasive is Sam Jackson in the role of Sydney Millsap that had she stood at the door to solicit exiting audience members to sign her petition to run for a future political office, I cannot believe any one of us would have turned her down.  With her wonderfully attractive, Texas flow of just enough drawl to notice but not repel, her Sydney also speaks with an air of business, of conviction, and of no-patience-for-fools.  When approached by the big-smiling lobbyists, her edgy tone cuts immediately their non-genuineness to smithereens, with looks of near disgust as she shows her disbelief that they actually think she will take them seriously. 

There is not a vulnerable inch in her thick-skinned armor, no matter how many times the lobbyists try to convince her that a “make-your-own-s’mores” event with other lobbyists “is a part of your job.”  But if a lobbyist is willing to meet her on her own ground – say a Washington Belt location of Dallas’s own Chili’s – then that armor can in fact loosen a bit over a swimming-pool size margarita and a sizzling skillet of Texas fajitas.  But even in Chili’s with a margarita in hand, Sydney has no trouble walking away from compromising her values and even subsequently losing votes.  With a look that sends shivers down the spines of even us in the audience, Sydney leaves sure money and powerful support on the table that she knows is corrupt, willing to tell one stunned lobbyist, “You can eat there alone and people can think ‘What a sad woman’ ... and they will be right.”  Sam Jackson and her Sydney Millsap are a winning ticket, no matter how the next vote count comes out.

Sarah Mitchell
Totally impressive are also those who fast become her adversaries.  Sarah Mitchell is Lauren, a high-paid, much-sought-after, financial lobbyist who absolutely has no time or regard for the freshman congresswoman once she sees she cannot be bought.  Icily she greets Sydney at one point with “Lots of buzz about you and I can see why,” with double meanings clearly projected in her piercing look and abrupt turn of the shoulders to exit hauntingly.  Lauren has her future banked on Texas Senator McDowell, receiving from her lobbying firm $100K every year he stays in office and just waiting for a possible White House appointment when he – as favorite to take the next presidential election – wins office.  The ire with which she explodes when all of a sudden this upstart from the 24th District begins to thwart her much-deserved destiny is an impressive, scary conflagration of immense heat and embers to behold.

Elissa Beth Stebbins
More intrigued of Congresswoman Millsap (but still highly skeptical) is up-and-coming health industry lobbyist, Kate.  Elissa Beth Stebbins’ Kate shows no backing down in taking on Sydney point-by-point in back-and-forth arguing about how Washington works and what is acceptable and necessary for its machinery to operate.  But less caustic and dismissive than her friend Lauren, Kate clearly shows some intrigue and maybe even some respect for this newcomer to whom she still has no problem saying things like “You’re a weird person” and “You have a messiah complex.”  And while she cannot go everywhere that Sydney wants her to go just as Sydney will not do much of what Kate advises, the effect that Sydney has on Kate is a climatic moment that brings hope that out of ashes of defeat in Sarah Burgess’ script that real change can perhaps actually happen in Washington, at least one person at a time.

Don Wood
Don Wood captures so convincingly the ‘good, ol’ boy’ politician we are all so used to seeing on our TV screens and now social media videos.  Senator John McDowell has that down-home, Southern drawl that makes him sound like he is much more common folk than of course he really is.  His smile and ingratiating way of always remembering everyone’s name and to ask about the kid whose name he also somehow recalls is only a happy-face mask of the underlying fierce, ego-centered fighter he really is.  It is that glaring-eyed, fisted persona who has no problem shouting down once he feels personally betrayed by a long-time supporter he has championed for years with, “You were too stupid to pull it off ... Get out of my sight”. 

Joanie McBrien directs this cast of four with a clear desire to take Sarah Burgess’ timely script and to engage us as audience in a way that hopefully causes each member to ask, “What is my responsibility to ensure Sydney’s experience is not the outcome of all those newly elected women in Congress?”  There is a sense of urgency the director has instilled in the atmosphere of the play and an urging that “kings” is no longer the acceptable moniker for those who rule the D.C. scene. 

The Director is supported by an exceptional production team that ensures the words of the script and the power of the actors are the main show of the two hours of the several tense scenes we have the privilege to witness.  Angrette McCloskey’s set design has a modernist and minimalist feel that is heavily enhanced by the multi-walled, multi-angled projections of Erin Gilley, the sometimes comic-relief props of Devon LaBelle, and the dramatic lighting highlights of Chris Lundahl.  James Ard’s sound design brings effects to enhance the right-now timing and the realism of each scene while Miyuki Bierlein’s costumes take the unique mannerisms of each character and translates them in what is worn head to toe.

Shotgun Players’ production of Sarah Burgess’ Kings is nothing less than a ‘must-see.’  Performances are each memorable, with Sam Jackson’s Sydney Millsap particularly worth the price of the ticket.  The play feels as if it had to be written only last week, so timely it is.  Hopefully, Kings is a play that will be produced coast-to-coast on many regional stages between now and November 2020 when the real Sydney Millsaps of D.C. will need all of us to step forward and ensure their fights to resist the siren calls of lobbyists and to ‘work on policy that matters’ continues to be rewarded at the ballot boxes of America.

Rating: 5 E, “Must-See”

Kings continues through June 16, 2019 at the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available at https://shotgunplayers.org/  or by calling 510-841-6500.

Photos by Ben Krantz

Saturday, May 25, 2019

"Falstaff"


Falstaff
Giuseppe Verdi, with Libretto by Arigo Boito

Michael Orlinsky, Kiril Havezov & Richard Zeller
“In this great abdomen are a thousand tongues that proclaim my name ... This is my kingdom.”  With a measure of self-worth and a confidence in his own attraction to the fairer sex that are almost as mammoth as his rotund belly, Falstaff sings with from his tavern bench as if it were his royal throne.  In Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, the perennial Shakespearean favorite through the ages is about to have that inflated view of himself severely tested as he with unashamed gluttony pursues not one, but two wealthy, married women – women who will turn out to be much the more clever and creative in their own schemes to teach Sir John a lesson he will never forget – at least not until the next jug of mead he drowns down his massive gut. 

To bring it sixty-third season to a close, West Bay Opera pulls out all comedic and tongue-in-cheek stops to present a Falstaff that is laugh-out-loud hilarious while also musically ‘Verdi-beautiful.’  Returning to Palo Alto for his eighth, annual production from his home base in Mexico City, Stage Director Ragnar Conde finds a host of ways to ensure the hilarity of Arigo Bonito’s libretto matches the magnificence that Music Conductor José Luis Moscovich attains from the ten principals, seventeen choristers, and twenty-six orchestra members (the last playing from five different locations/levels).  The result is an evening of rambunctious and riotous revelry accented with a stage full of voices melodically glorious in a Falstaff where a smaller-than-usual operatic venue affords the audience up-close chances to feel as if we are right in the middle of all the trickery targeting poor, ol’ Sir John Falstaff.

Richard Zeller
Richard Zeller brings his big-sounding baritone into full play as he barrels through with rum-reddened nose the antics that his Sir John employs to set up his hoped-for duo-trysts with two women whom he believes “keep the keys to the money box” of their rich husbands.  As John fills his belly while dreaming how to satisfy his lust for love, he is clearly also vested in filling his pockets with the gold he needs to continue his life of tavern luxury. 

Everything Sir John does is hilariously over-blown and wonderfully over-done, from the voluminous layers of clothing he dons to the grand sweeps of his arms used to accent his words to a mouth that can open in cavernous proportions both to eat and to sing forth his propositions and promises.  So intent is he on his own greatness and so hungry to appease his ever-gnawing appetite for a beautiful woman’s kisses and her husband’s gold that he is as blind as a bat to all the obvious schemes playing out around him that are meant as righteous and roisterous revenge for his own devilry of sending the exact same two letters of love to two women who are best of friends.

Patrice Houston, Anatasia Malliaras, Taylor Haines & Veronica Jensen
Taylor Haines and Veronica Jenson are the two desired flowers that Sir John hopes to pluck of their innocence and their money, playing Alice Ford and her friend Meg Page, respectively.  The scene where the two friends first discover that each has received exactly the same letter as the other with only their names changed – letters with such Falstaff lines as “You are the merry wife; I am the merry conqueror” – becomes musically and comically a thoroughly entertaining mixture of mocking Sir John and of planning how to lure him into a trap he cannot escape.  When joined by Alice’s other friend, Mistress Quickly, and Alice’s daughter, Nannetta, the four women join in intricately countering melodies as they push their plotting into firm plans. 

Veronica Jensen & Taylor Haines
As events unfold and schemes become ever more silly, Taylor Haines as Alice in particular has a number of opportunities to ring forth in her soprano brilliance that rises in its clarity and beauty above the farcical events on the stage itself.  Sometimes cheeky, sometime coy, her Alice sings in just the right manner to fool Falstaff into believing she might actually love him while at the same time her voice and facials are laughingly declaring just how much a fool she knows he is.  Notes flow displaying both the powerful strength of her character and the sureness of her abilities to outsmart the men around her.  As it turns out, not only must she teach Falstaff that there is a Renaissance MeToo Movement bubbling up in her garden, but she must also do the same for her too-quick-to-distrust husband. 

Krassen Karagiozov
During a disguised move his wife has helped plot in order to fool Falstaff into a planned rendezvous with the Thames, Alice’s husband Ford gets himself caught up in believing that his wife actually is planning on a secret tête-à-tête with the balloon-shaped scoundrel.  Krassen Karagiozov as Ford shows up at Falstaff’s chosen abode – the Garner Inn – in the guise of “Signor Fontana.”  “Fontana” is a supposed admirer of Alice, offering greedy Falstaff a bag of gold to seduce a supposedly shy Alice in order to ready her for his own approaches.  Ford’s “Fontana” employs wonderfully animated slyness to fool the gullible Sir John who almost slobbers in his anticipation of earning money for an illicit affair that he thinks he is already scheduled to have in the next hour. 

The rich, rolling tones of Ford’s baritone explode with ignited punch once he believes Falstaff is actually going to have such an affair with his wife, reaching into impressive falsettos to express his mounting, quick-judged jealousy.  The soon-to-be cuckolded husband that Falsetto had earlier jollily described to “Fontana,” is exactly the horn-wearing victim that the real Ford now believes himself to be.  In this rip-roaring scene and in the ensuing shenanigans, Mr. Karagiozov continues to shine both musically and comically.

Richard Zeller & Patrice Houston
Playing major roles in setting up and executing the traps for Falstaff is Mistress Quickly, a name and persona Verdi borrows from Shakespeare, transforming Quickly from the Bard’s malapropism-prone inn-keeper and sometimes friend of Falstaff now to be a round and jolly lady of society and loyal friend of Alice.  Patrice Houston is deliciously funny in her tempting seduction of Falstaff to fall not once, but twice to the fates of embarrassment he will undergo in the hands of her friend, Alice.  Better yet, Ms. Houston’s deep and beguiling mezzo-soprano has a range fun and furious that varies from mocking mimics of the easily-fooled Falstaff to thunderous warnings of approaching doom when she scares Falstaff that Ford is about to discover him in the arms of Alice – all of course a pre-planned scheme to get the giant into an even-more giant basket of dirty laundry.  Each time she is on the stage, Patrice Houston brings energy, frivolity, and vocals that reach down deep to tickle and to impress us as audience.

While all the hoopla, disguises, and grand chases are occurring in order to teach Falstaff a thing or two, Verdi and Boito have included a love story involving the Fords’ daughter, Nannetta.  Father Ford is trying to shut down the love-birds while Mother Alice is intent that Nannette shall marry the man she loves and certainly not the old, rich nincompoop her husband has chosen (a stumbling, ridiculous Dr. Caius played with bumbling brilliance by Michael Mendelsohn).  (Wouldn’t you think that Ford would finally realize his only fate is to be out-smarted by his more-clever wife?)

Anatasia Malliaras is one of the evening’s true joys vocally.  As Nannetta, she time and again takes Verdi’s runs of trickling notes and brings joyous interpretations.  Her soprano so easily glides, then hangs, and then ever-slightly trembles as she sings of her love for Fenton, played by tenor Dane Suarez who has moments of his own accomplished vocals but also seems somewhat strained in several of his passages.

In this finale of Verdi’s career, the role of the Chorus is not a major one; but when called upon, Chorus Master Bruce Olstad ensures the voices blend with style and sparkle.  Chorus members really get to join in the fun in a full-on, frantic search where Ford thinks he is about to find Falstaff making love to his wife, just one more scene directed by Ragnar Conde that milks every opportunity to increase the gag and the frolic.

The Cast of Falstaff
The three acts, each with two scenes, play out on a stage designed by Peter Crompton where a middle, drop-back section and steps up to its raised position provides some depth and variety possibilities as we move from inn to the Ford home to its garden and finally to Windsor Park.  But it is in Peter Crompton’s Disney-esque animated projections that a major element of the evening’s hilarity and sheer ‘wow’ lies.  A large portrait comes to life as its bearded resident makes faces watching Falstaff being fooled by Ford as “Fontana.”  Huge, sculpted shrubs in the shapes of animals dance across the English gardens projected in the three-dimensions of the stage’s walls while skies beautifully change their hues as day proceeds through is stages of light and cloud changes.  What cannot be projected on the walls populates the stage itself through the flasks, mugs, and even baguettes provided by properties designer Shirley Benson.

Abra Berman brings to yet another Bay Area stage her over-the-top creativity and jolly-good fun in designing the costumes of this Henry V era of England, having particular whimsy with those that the larger-than-life Sir John dons.  Lisa Cross adds her period touches in wigs and make-up while Steve Mannshardt once again proves himself to be lighting designer extraordinaire.  Finally, designer Giselle Lee has ensured both effects and balance of sound support the beautiful music of singers and orchestra as well as enhance the frolicking story.

As a long-time subscriber to San Francisco opera, I can attest it is absolutely a joy to attend a production by such a stellar company as West Bay Opera where the vastly more intimate setting of the Lucie Stern Center allows me to see clearly facial expressions without binoculars.  To enjoy close-up the acting as well as the singing is an opportunity that all opera faithful should avail themselves.  And for the die-hard musical-theatre buff who avoids operas, I can think of no better time to jump in and become opera-hooked than the Verdi opera that at the end of the nineteenth century clearly set the path for future musical comedies on Broadway and the West End.

Rating: 5 E

Falstaff continues with performances May 26 and June 1 and 2 in production by West Bay Opera at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.  Tickets are available online at www.wbopera.org, by calling the box office at 650- 424-9999, or by stopping by the West Bay Opera box office, 221 Lambert Avenue, Palo Alto.

Photos by Otak Jum

Friday, May 24, 2019

"American Psycho"


American Psycho
Duncan Sheik (Music & Lyrics); Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (Book)


Kyle Ewalt & Kipp Glass
How possible is it that having the perfectly tanned body that has been honed to the hilt so that every muscle tautly glistens, wearing only the latest and most expensive big-name designer wear, and always eating in the restaurants where most can never afford or even get reservations – How possible is it that being this person gives you a free pass to do any atrocity imaginable and for no one even to blink an eye?  If you are all this and your name is also Patrick Bateman – big-time, New York investment banker during the Reagan, all-about-me ‘80s -- then what’s the problem?  Being Patrick means you are home-free to live out your obsession with slasher movies, become in real life your hero Freddy Krueger, and continue to be everyone’s social kingpin even as your hands are covered in your victims’ blood.  And on top of it all, you get to be center stage in your $60 Ralph Lauren whitey-tighties in your own musical, American Psycho – now in its slickly produced West Coast premiere as another Ray of Light boundary-pushing, sight-and-sound-exploding musical.

Beginning as a controversial 1991 book and becoming a psychological horror film in 2000, Duncan Sheik (music and lyrics) and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s (book) musical version of American Psycho debuted in London in 2013 and in New York in 2015.  Critical reception in both locales was mixed at best, and both runs were short-run; but for Ray of Light Theatre, this is the perfect challenge.  In this current production of a show full of bloody, horrific, on-stage murders by a totally disgusting, unlikeable person (but one who is definitely hot eye-candy), ROL once again surprises and exceeds the expectations of its perennial fans like me – returning patrons who have come to admire immensely the company’s ability to take quirky, weird, and rejected-by-most-others musicals and make them first-class, San Francisco hits.

Immediately in the two opening numbers (“Morning Routine” and “Selling Out”), we get a taste of the vision Director Jason Hoover has implemented near flawlessly for Ray of Light’s American Psycho.  On the two walls intersecting in an angular corner (Angrette McCloskey, scenic designer), eye-popping projections splash advertisements, New York street scenes, and pop-art-like words like “No, No.”  (Video designer Erik Scanlon’s creations will continue to wow the entire evening.)  Ensemble members dressed in ‘80s correct-black with just the right slits and tears to be extremely club fashionable (Katie Dowsie, designer) move in mechanistic, robotic patterns with arms, legs, and bodies coordinated almost as if drawn by a video-game animator (only a small hint of the evening’s terrifically imaginative and wildly unusual choreography by Leslie Waggoner).  Voices rise in harmonies both harsh and melodic (Ben Prince, music coordinator) while splashes of color red, purple, green, orange (but never pastel) begin to set the evening’s mood through a lighting design by Weili Shi that will later project blood red on the raised hands of the murderous perpetrator, Patrick Bateman.  And after several years of my and other critics’ complaints about the Victoria Theatre’s sound system, a newly installed system allows Jerry Girard’s outstanding sound design to reign supreme, including the pre-recorded, accompanying score (i.e., no live band) which normally I detest a company using in live theatre.

Kipp Glass
In these first two numbers, the exceptionally tall and totally svelte Kipp Glass establishes front-and-center the ego-centric, narcissistic, callous, and greedy nature of his Bateman, trumpeting “I want it all” while also giving us fair warning with looks dark and foreboding and a voice with clear edge, “You see me gliding, but there’s something hiding in the shadow ... uh-oh, uh-oh,” with the “uh-oh’s” echoed in song by the weaving, pumping, bending ensemble around him and in projection by huge words plastered on the walls.

As if that were not enough fair warning of what is to come, Patrick provides more early signs of an eventual breakdown during a meeting of the high-powered firm as he struts about as he were king – where each hotshot investor is trying to one-up the other.  Bateman is blasted into envy hell when his competitive nemesis and fellow Pierce and Pierce colleague, Paul Owen – who does not even get Patrick’s name right – bests him on obtaining an exclusive account, on securing a reservation at the most desired New York restaurant, and worst of all, in splashing his new, designer business card in front of everyone, making the new one Patrick just showed off look like an Office Depot special.  The result is a hilarious but telling “Cards,” with Eric Scalon’s mine-is-bigger-than-yours projections adding to the humor of the “Oh, Baby, Baby, you’re such a card” sung lyrics.

The casting of Kyle Ewalt as Owen is brilliant in that he matches in height and body type Kipp Glass’ Bateman, with the two towering over in both stature and persona all others on stage.  However, Owen is a much looser, jovial, likeable giant of the investment world while still being fiercely competitive, a bit sleazy, and just as willing as Bateman to snort some coke off a toilet seat in a late-night club.  In both slow motion and high speed frenzy, the two dance on a floor filled with all the beautifully dressed in “Killing Time,” giving Kyle Ewalt a chance to show off his ability to play air guitar with his mile-long, raised leg.  Even on the dance floor, he can out-do the more-and-more pissed-off Patrick who Paul still calls “Marcus” (while unknowingly also making deprecating remarks in his drug-high, drunken state about Patrick Bates to the man himself).

Melinda Campero, Danielle Altizio, Desiree Juanes, Madeline Lambie, Kirstin Louie, Jill Jacobs
As Bateman’s frustration with his life and with all the woes of the world grow closer to a crazed breaking point (something we increasingly see in his grotesquely frozen grimaces), we meet the women of his life who provide contrasting portraits of the ‘80s extremes.  His girlfriend, Evelyn (Danielle Altizio) and her bestie, Courtney (Kirsten Louie) pour forth in fine voice all the big-name designers they both admire and abhor in “You Are What You Wear,” backed up by runway style women swiveling their bodies with no obvious 1980s cares except to be seen and to impress. 

On the opposite end of the scale, we meet Patrick’s assistant, Jean, dressed in her Macy’s rack conservative best, whose admiration for her boss is sweetly sung in “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”  As Jean, Zoey Lytle brings the most accomplished, most impressive vocals to the evening’s stage (among many otherwise fine and fully acceptable ones), wowing the audience later in the story especially with a range from whisper-clear softness to emotion-packed, full-voiced swells in “A Girl Before.”

The biting parody of the ‘80s is the underlying theme of this smartly conceived musical.  Shallow lives of shallower people are cleverly illustrated with ‘80s’-booming beats in the number “Hard Body,” a workout session of the boys from the firm with all their eyes on the oh-so-hot female trainer as they sing and pump with sweaty broohaha.  Beach-and-surf scenes from the hottie-tottie Hamptons highlight wave-floating conversations on what is the latest, just-gotta-have, bottled water.  (Ouch, not much has changed in thirty-plus years, has it?) 

Kipp Glass
But, OK, we all know that what everyone is waiting for is the first slash of Patrick’s ax; for the next bash with his nail-studded bat; and for wire-strangles, electric-saw demonstrations, and even just plain ol’ sprays of bullets.  Yes, kids, these are coming; and they are accompanied by Patrick’s numbers sung first full of gristle-snarled anger, then of frantic desperation, and finally of resigned guilt.  Dancers fall as victims only to rise to fall again (“Killing Spree”) while the near-naked, blood-spattered Patrick sings “I Am Back” as floor-strewn bodies echo his disturbing lines while performing their own unique, lying-prone choreography that is marked with life’s last shivers.  And no matter that the bloody warning is splashed on the wall for all to see – “Abandon All Hope, You Who Enter Here” – when you are as hotly in societal demand as Patrick Bateman, you are sought and welcomed and loved by all, even if only in your underwear and dripping with the blood while everyone else is dressed in the latest Fifth Avenue designs.

That such a story could be so much fun to watch and to laugh out loud; that such a tale could sometimes be showered in rolling harmonies that fall often like delicate, sung waterfalls; and that seeing bodies doomed dance in such brilliant and imaginative form even as their demise is about to occur is a tribute to the brilliance, daring, and chutzpah of the musical’s creators, this director, and especially Ray of Life as a performing arts company.  American Psycho is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but its means and its ends are both much more entertaining and message-worthy than many might give it credit at first glance.  (The latter is especially true in Trump’s America, even with recent gains in finally punishing bad-boy behavior by the famous and rich, thanks to the MeToo Movement.)

From the viewpoint of a person who has never watched and will never watch Freddy Krueger or his ilk on the big screen, Ray of Light’s American Psycho is for me a unique evening of top-notch musical theatre that I heartily and highly recommend.

Rating: 5 E

American Psycho continues through June 8, 2019 in production by Ray of Light Theatre at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco, through October 17, 2015.  Tickets are available online at http://www.victoriatheatre.org/index.php/box-office or http://rayoflighttheatre.com.

Photo Credit: Ray of Light Theatre

Thursday, May 23, 2019

"Anna Considers Mars"


Anna Considers Mars
Ruben Grijalva


Melissa Ortiz, Katie Rubin, Aaron Wilton & Christian Haines
The polar ice caps are no more.  Fiji has disappeared; San Francisco is surrounded by a gigantic seawall.  From sharks to lions, species are going extinct in the wild while decades-long droughts send desperate throngs to attack arriving planes as people look for food.  In such a world, Anna is one of millions who has applied to be among the forty Adams and Eves who will be sent to Mars to ensure the human race continues after the now-inevitable, eventual demise of the earth; and she just received a virtual message on the screen on her glasses that she is a semi-finalist for one of the “golden tickets.”  But if she leaves, what will happen to Barbara the Pacific March Mantis, to Tom, the Western Giant Marsh Bug, or to other “uncharismatic species” (i.e., ugly creatures no one cares about) that she is trying to save from their extinction?  And what about her cancer-ridden, bothersome mom, Renata, who stubbornly won’t die? 

In Ruben Gijalva’s Anna Considers Mars – a play part science fiction, part hilarious comedy with a dark streak, part family drama – Anna faces the possibility of a life-long dream to go to Mars while bumping up against a host of moral dilemmas here on earth.  Anna also sees a chance to escape a world where “everyday someone is having the worst day of their life” (i.e., often her, it seems) to a new world where maybe just the opposite might occur – especially for her.  Now in its world premiere as part of the 23rd Annual Playground Festival of New Works, Anna Considers Mars is a crazy, compelling, complicated, and comedic view of where we may be headed, given the climate change that of course is not really happening (according to our President and large parts of current society).

Wilma Bonet & Melissa Ortiz
For Anna Aguirre, this obsession to go to Mars began as a young girl when she dressed as an astronaut and started screaming in a kid melt-down to her videoing mother that “I’m going to Mars,” and “I’m taking all the kiddies and the doggies.”  With a few edits, suddenly Renata Aguirre has a video that becomes a viral, monster hit with over 200 million followers.  Ever since, the world has known Anna as “The Mars Kid” – a moniker that maybe has helped her to be chosen as a possible Mars pioneer by the Mars Exploration Program, founded by mega-millionaire and entrepreneur Shelley Lawrence.

Melissa Ortiz & Aaron Wilton
Anna has not actually met Shelley; she receives virtual messages from her through the glasses she wears – glasses that all humans now wear close to 24X7 that allow them to filter how others see them in their own glasses (much better than our current Photoshopping to clear up pimples and wrinkles).  Through her glasses, Anna receives reminders, messages, and even advice from her virtual assistant, chosen by her to be a formally dressed in white gloves Brit named Carson (played delightfully in full English dignity by Søren Oliver).  Her mother’s chosen assistant is a half-naked, pretty boy who calls her Queen (one of many roles that Aaron Wilton is called upon to portray, from creepy bugs to Anna’s lonely ex to a cute but amoral doctor to an even-more-naked, primate-wanna-be named Ishmael in dreadlocks).

Aaron Wilson, Katie Rubin & Wilma Bonet
Melissa Ortiz exceptionally captures a unique set of characteristics that define Anna’s complex, sometimes contradictory personality.  Much of the time, Anna is doggedly persistent to obtain what she wants from others. Using her nasally, half-irritating voice that has a sharp edge always ready to attack others’ resistances, she pushes potential funders to see the merits of banking the survival of a disgusting species that eats its own feces.  Similarly, she searches for her mother’s hidden vaping cigs while demanding she follow doctor’s orders or face losing all Bingo privileges – a game Renata plays constantly with her quirky, virtual friends.  But behind all that outward armor and ready to battle anyone against what she knows should be done, Anna has deep threads of insecurities and uncertainties – aspects Melissa Ortiz masterfully unveils as the story progresses. 

Anna also has her own desires and attractions, especially for a potential funder for Tom the Marsh bug – a life-long admirer named Malcolm Phillips (a genuinely likeable, good-hearted Christian Haines).  As a kid, Malcolm became enthralled with the rampant videos of “The Mars Kid” and has had ever since on his “bucket list” to one day have a date with her. 

Their meeting while she is asking for big bucks from his company for poor, hideous-looking Tom leads both having an unexpected adventure in the bedroom. But their meeting also leads Anna to a major, ethical decision and a humongous, moral dilemma  – decisions and dilemmas that involve Tom the Bug, Renalta the Mom, Darryl the Ex, Malcolm the Surprise, and Mars the Golden Ticket.

Wilma Bonet & Melissa Ortiz
Not making it easy in any of the tough decisions Anna one-by-one has to make is her mother who suffers from cancer (whom Anna in a slip refers to as “my cancerous mother”).  Their relationship is knotty at best and evidently has been so from the moment Renata ordered in vitro a girl baby with a big heart – a daughter she was sure would take care of her in her old age. But then there was the time she considered abandoning for a life in Fiji (actually a good thing she did not, given Fiji is now underwater).  For us as third-party observers of their mother-daughter struggles, Wilma Bonet’s Renata is a wonderfully entertaining combination of hilarious, endearing, eccentric, and pain-in-the-ass.

Like Aaron Wilton, Katie Rubin assumes a variety of quick-change parts during the two-hour evening (plus a fifteen-minute intermission).  As Shelley Lawrence, she is all business and a Mars-bound celeb.  As Dorothy, she is a chatty Presbyterian with a heavy Minnesota accent who got the call from God to leave her husband and go to Mars.  And those are just two of her several appearances of widely varying personalities.

San Francisco Playhouse’s Susi Damilano joins this Playground team to direct Anna Considers Mars, bringing a full-on sense of humor – deliciously warped a bit a times – and an ability to capture the exasperating but also heart-wrenching struggle between a daughter and a mother who each are torn between personal desires/needs and those of the other.  Brooke Jennings has a heyday with costume design, given the crawling creatures and equally-as-strange people – real and virtual – that show up in the course of the story.  Brittany Mellerson’s lighting takes us from desert brightness to hospital equanimity and much in between while the sound design of Ian Walker provides future-appropriate music and virtual-world sound effects to enhance the director’s and playwright’s vision.

As in most world premieres – especially one that is packed with a myriad of peeks of what the world may be like near its own, self-made extinction – there are some points where Ruben Grijalva’s script introduces incidents as well as characters and virtual entities that seem somewhat extraneous to the core storyline.  There are times one cannot help scratch one’s head with a “Huh?” but even then, there is usually a laugh coming that is well-deserved. 

Ruben Grijalva’s Anna Considers Mars covers much ground in this engagingly excellent premiere through the points made about where such current topics as virtual reality, medical advancements, and climate change may eventually lead us.  But just as important, the play reminds us that some issues – like those of family obligations versus personal dreams – are universal, timeless, and damn difficult to resolve. 

Rating: 4.5 E

Anna Considers Mars continues through June 16, 2019 as part of Playground’s 2019 New Works Festival, playing on the following times and dates: 8 p.m. June 1, 2, 6, 13, and 16; 2 p.m. June 2, 8 and 16.  Performances are at the Potrero Stage, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at www.playground-sf.org.

Photo Credits: Mellophoto.com

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

"Fiddler on the Roof"


Fiddler on the Roof
Joseph Stein (Book); Jerry Bock (Music); Sheldon Harnick (Lyrics)

The Cast of Fiddler on the Roof
After its record-setting, award-winning initial run on Broadway in 1964; its five Broadway revivals since; countless openings on local and touring stages globally and in towns and cities from coast to coast in America – not to mention the 1971 film whose scenes are now emblazoned in the memories of tens of millions worldwide – how can an outing to see Fiddler on the Roof be much more than a repeat experience for the majority of today’s audiences?  Who among theatre-going audiences does not know most of the words of the now-iconic songs (lyrics by Sheldon Harnick and music by Jerry Bock) and who cannot quote lines left and right from favorite scenes (book by Joseph Stein)?  Weddings everywhere still employ “Sunrise, Sunset” as a mood-setter; and almost anyone may at some point use phrases like “Tradition, tradition,” “If I were a rich man,” or “Do you love me?” in often silly sung manners to make a point or get a laugh.  And then there are the Tevye’s of the past of which many patrons probably have an absolute favorite – Topel, Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Harvey Fierstein, etc.  Who would dare compete?  How possibly can yet one more visiting tour of Fiddler be anything but be a dusted-off retread of our collective, past experiences with one of America’s best-loved, most-familiar stories and musicals?

Actually, that is not at all a problem for the current, national tour of the 2015, much-acclaimed Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, now visiting the stage of Broadway San Jose.  Under the direction of Bartlett Sher, this Fiddler explodes in contemporary freshness of concept while retaining enough of what we all remember fondly.  The result is a Fiddler on the Roof ready to reignite returnees’ love and to introduce a whole new generation to a story that in the end is about forced immigration and its profound effects on families and their traditions and histories – a storyline perhaps now more relevant than ever.  From scenic elements to lighting to the stage-filled dancing to even Tevye himself, there is much to surprise and wow any audience member – whether one who has seen a production or the movie a dozen times or this, the first time.

Yehezkel Lazarov
And it does all begin with Tevye himself.  Number One, Israeli actor Yehezkel Lazarov just looks different from the Tevye’s most will remember.  He is taller, more slender, younger looking.  He speaks with a lilt and style more contemporary that the heavy accents of 1905 Russia most of us are accustomed in our Tevye’s.  He still has the shaking shoulders and raised arms during “If I Were a Rich Man,” but he also turns around to shake his buns in a manner I doubt Topel would have ever done.  His sung vocals are often lighter, more nuanced, and fuller of a wide range of emotional display than those of the oft more gruff and ‘bear-ish’ voices of his famous predecessors (all of which, by the way, I personally still admire and love to hear once again on recordings). 

Like they, he delightfully delivers Joseph Stein’s many endearing and hilarious lines as he converses with God, providing his own unique combination of a wonderful twinkle in his eye and the near-exhausted frustration of his bent shoulders – lines like “Dear God, it’s true we are the chosen people, but sometimes why could you not choose someone else?”  Like they, he is especially cute and playful when he prods his wife Golda with “Do You Love Me?”; but his uniquely sustained, roller-coaster way of saying “love” brings even more fun to the song.  His sung tears as he whispers “Little Bird” and remembers his little girl, Chava – a daughter he now rejects after her marriage a Russian Catholic – end in a rumpled collapse that are also creating soon-to-be memories that this latest Tevye, Yehezkel Lazarov, is generating among his many new fans in the evening’s audience.  (Just remembering his many one-off sighs – each with its own distinct character – brings a smile to my face as I now write the next morning these words.)

Among this massive cast of thirty-three, others step forward to take their rightfully deserved place of honor in the long line of those who have memorably had their roles in the past.  Maite Uzal’s Golda has an irritable, no-nonsense edge that clearly comes from a life of pre-dawn to post-dusk household and garden tasks by the dozens.  Her smiles are rare; her time for gossip and chitchat is nil; her patience runs thin.  Tevye’s playful but stubbornly persistent “But, Golda, do you love me?” finally leads to an eruptive roar, “I’m your wife!”  Her Golda then sings in a voice with cello richness and depth to tell him all the reasons of why she finally, almost sweetly admits, “I suppose I do.” A memory maker herself, Maite Uzal is a Golda magnificent.

Natalie Powers, Mel Weyn & Ruthy Froch
As the three daughters who one-by-one test their papa’s boundaries with their marrying by will and not by his decree, Mel Weyn (Tzeitel), Ruthy Froch (Hodel), and Natalie Powers (Chava) each has a chance to prove herself individually – with Chava’s “Far From the Home I Love” being particularly poignant.  Tzeitel also strikingly shines with devilish teasing in the three’s shared “Matchmaker, Matchmaker,” a much-loved number by Fiddler fans that does not plow any new ground in this production; but with Mel Weyn’s animated playfulness, does not disappoint either.

Each of the wooing, young men makes a mark for himself as well.  The visiting scholar from Kiev, Perchik (Ryne Nardecchia) brings a bold, firebrand zealousness that Tevye reluctantly admires and that the village initially mocks but then takes notice when he leads them to break with tradition of men and women always dancing separately.  As Fyedka, Joshua Logan Alexander comes into the story late as the young Russian befriending and then falling in love with Chava and has no songs awarded him; but his tall, kind persona still manifests its presence powerfully. 

However, as often in other productions, it is the poor tailor, Motel Camzoil, who touches hearts the most.  Jesse Weil is the shaking, scared, and almost speechless when we first meet him, especially when in the presence of Tevye.  We instinctively want to hug and protect him while we also cannot help but laugh at his ridiculous, retreating antics and his boyish cries to Tevye of “Please don’t shout at me” as the musters up the courage to ask for Tzeitel’ hand in marriage (one of the evening’s best scenes among many great ones).  But Jesse Weil seals the deal as his own unique Motel when he sings “Miracle of Miracles” with a bubbling, breaking voice full of youthful excitement and energy that bit by bit transforms with increased courage to a more manly bravado, ready to take his bride.

Throughout the evening, each scene seems somehow to be even better than the one preceding it that could have only been described a few minutes ago in a list of superlatives.  Scenic elements themselves, designed by Michael Yeargan, take the massively empty stage and fly magically in from all directions to metamorphose into a milkman’s humble abode with outdoor kitchen, a local tavern, or an entire village of houses hanging in the sky above.  The lighting of Donald Holder is almost indescribable in its scene-setting beauty, with slanted sun beams connecting a spotlighted Tevye with his God for an intimate conversation or with dappled shadows mixing with an array of richly deep celestial colors to set up a song of proclaimed love.  The costumes of Catherine Zuber illustrate long-held traditions, superstitions, and beliefs while also punctuating the changing attitudes among the young as well as the inherent differences of those not a part of this tight, Jewish community.  

Clarinets play a big part in accompanying the scenes and the singers in any Fiddler, and Jeffrey Beyer and Andrew Clark beautifully provide both spirited and haunting melodies that leave their own lasting impressions.  Music Director Michael Uselmann conducts the fine orchestra of eleven while Paul Morland is The Fiddler himself, whose silhouetted presence, familiar melody, and knowing looks at Tevya are reminders of how tenuous and precious the daily lives of these villagers are.

Olivia Gjurich, Yehezkel Lazarov & Cast
It is in the spectacular scenes of dreams and dance where this Fiddler, again like others before it, may be best recalled years from now.  The screeching warnings of Grandma Tzeitel (Carolyn Keller) and the giant, long-fingered specter of Frumma-Sarah (Olivia Gjurich) with her railing siren of sung threats are both a part of a stage filled with ghastly ghosts in “Tevye’s Dream.”  From arm-raised, shaking, and swaying papas, mamas, sons, and daughters in “Tradition” to the frenzied mixture of Jewish and Russian hard stomps and high steps in “To Life” and on to the jaw-dropping, stage-width, knee-slides with bottles teetering on hats in “The Wedding,” the recreated choreography of Christopher Evans reigns supreme with both its homage to the original of Hofesh Shechter but adding its own unexpected newness.  That is especially true in the way Mr. Evans’ choreography utilizes so impressively and in many different ways total ensemble and smaller clusters of synchronized, uniform moves that then suddenly change into a kaleidoscope of patterned, differentiated moves.

The Cast of Fiddler on the Roof
Whether it is The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, The Wizard of Oz, or any of several dozen other Great American Musicals that are now decades old and yet still perennial favorites, revivals can be both welcomed and dreaded.  This touring revival of Fiddler on the Roof is in the end not only welcomed but a reason to celebrate; for not only does the touring company on the Broadway San Jose stage proudly recall many aspects we all cherish of past productions, this Fiddler glistens with its own, more contemporary way of telling a story of that important moment in history well over a century ago we must never forget.

Rating: 5 E

Fiddler on the Roof continues through May 26, 2019 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts as part of Broadway San Jose, 255 South Almaden Boulevard, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at http://broadwaysanjose.com.

Photo by Joan Marcus