Showing posts with label Concert and Theater Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Concert and Theater Reviews. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

ACT's 'John' Is A Weird, Delicious Treat

This review originally appeared on

Annie Baker's latest play John, currently running at ACT's Strand Theatre, is a story about truth, lies, madness, God, ghosts, and Vienna Fingers, although not necessarily in that order.

John is set in a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, run by Mertis Katherine Graven (Georgia Engel), who prefers to go by "Kitty" though no one else actually calls her that. It's the weekend after Thanksgiving, and Mertis's only guests are a twentysomething couple, Jenny (Stacey Yen), and Elias (Joe Paulik), who are on their way back to Brooklyn after visiting Jenny's family in Ohio.

We learn when he was growing up, Elias was a Civil War buff, despite a childhood spent in California in an Esalen-esque retreat run by his hippie parents. Jenny, who does not share Eli's fascination with Gettysburg, has nonetheless agreed to the stopover, mainly in the hopes it will relieve some of the tension that is currently filling their relationship; they're having "issues."

But once menstrual cramps overwhelm Jenny, she opts to stay behind at the B&B, and finds herself sharing some surprising moments with Mertis and Mertis's equally surprising friend Genevieve (a perfectly deadpan Ann McDonough), an elderly woman who has lost both her sight and her mind.

Technically, there are only five characters in John, though the amazingly detailed set by Marsha Ginsberg is almost a character itself. Every inch is filled with tchotchkes and dolls; a large Christmas tree, complete with a miniature, fully lit town at its base, stands in one corner, with lights that have a tendency to flicker on and off, as if commenting on the action. Another corner is home to "Paris," which is what Mertis calls the tiny dining area, each table decorated with lit-up Eiffel towers. Characters often disappear into the set's second story and a hallway's darkened entryway, their conversations becoming muted, just as they would in an actual bed and breakfast.

The decor's dolls are particularly unsettling to Jenny, who had a complicated relationship with dolls as a child, and with one in particular, an American Girl dolled named Samantha. Of course, Mertis has the same doll, and it sits on the wall, reminding Jenny how much it freaked her out as a kid, and how she was convinced Samantha would stare at her in anger, anger about having to be a doll...

But Samantha the doll isn't the only spooky thing about John. The play is filled with a constant and foreboding sense of weirdness. The blind Genevieve is convinced she can hear the house emitting noises no one else can hear; Mertis tells a story of the house's use as a hospital during the Civil War; and a player piano has a life all its own.

So while much of the play's plot is based in realism, specifically the, at times, painfully mundane story of a twentysomething couple's relationship issues, almost everything else feels slightly supernatural, or at least, unreal.

Mertis opens and closes each act by opening and closing the stage's curtains. She also turns the hands on a grandfather clock, and at first this, paired with some beautiful lighting changes from lighting designer Robert Hand, comes off as just a clever bit of stage direction to help illustrate the passage of time. But when she does it in full view of another character, we begin to question Mertis's mere mortal status.

Annie Baker wrote the role of Mertis specifically for Georgia Engel, and it is the perfect fit. Engel is probably best known for her role as Georgette in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, another role that used her almost ethereal speaking voice in a surprising way: she was supposed to sound dumb, but would often prove herself to be the smartest person in the room.

Mertis similarly comes off as slightly simple. Happy to have company; gullibly partaking in a weight loss scheme that involves hormonal injections; always ready with the perfect cup of tea and a plate of Vienna Fingers when you need them.

But as the play progresses she surprises her guests, and the audience. She reads Jenny a passage from her journal, a daily description of that day's sunset which includes descriptions that are almost gory, ("Phosphorescent oranges, grotesque reds, and blasphemous purples slashed open the sky"); when Eli asks if she's religious, she replies that she's a "Neoplatonist;" when Genevieve comes over for her "daily reading," Mertis reads a passage from H.P. Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu.

Ultimately, all of the characters have moments that come as a shock. (Genevieve's comes after the curtain closes on Act II, so stick in your seats.) But at over three hours long, with two intermissions, John can be a challenging play for some. Annie Baker loves silences as much as she does dialogue, and the play is filled with them. But I found myself loving those silences. They allowed me to really look at that incredible set, and gave me the space to think about what the characters were saying, and not allowing themselves to say. John is a play to be savored.

Monday, December 19, 2016

'Irving Berlin's White Christmas' Is Colorful, Lively, And Predictable

This review originally appeared on

The touring company of Irving Berlin's White Christmas has returned to San Francisco for a ten day run through December 24th, at the Golden Gate Theater. It's a production that's colorful and lively, if a little too traditional.

The show is based on the classic 1954 movie White Christmas, which starred Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera-Ellen. The story is altered a bit, and the production filled out with classic Irving Berlin songs not in the original film, such as "I Love a Piano" and "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm". (Some songs seen in the original film have been axed, like the unfortunately named "Minstrel Number.")

Like the film, the show opens in 1944, somewhere in Europe, as the duo of Wallace and Davis sing White Christmas to their fellow troops. The show then jumps ahead 10 years, with the duo now world famous, performing on the Ed Sullivan Show. Sean Montgomery plays Bob Wallace, the Bing Crosby role, and Jeremy Benton is Phil Davis, the Danny Kaye role.

Davis is written as a total horndog, though Benton plays him as though women are not the first thing on this guy's mind. Still, the plot must follow that Davis is so smitten with the Haynes sister act that he fools his partner into following them to an inn in wintery Vermont, where the promise of a winter wonderland causes an entire train car to sing "Snow."

Kerry Konte plays Betty Haynes, the Rosemary Clooney role. She's a redhead in this version, and she catches the eye of steadfast loner Bob. Meanwhile Judy Haynes (Kelly Sheehan) and Phil are smitten from their first meeting, illustrated in the lovely number, "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing," as the duo starts a dance on a dance floor that soon gives way to a stage filled with stars and fog.

Once the foursome makes it to the inn in an unfortunately temperate Vermont, Wallace and Davis learn that the owner is their beloved former Major General Henry Waverly (played by Conrad John Schuck, an actor I immediately recognized from his frequent appearances in the films of Robert Altman), who has fallen on some hard times, not helped by the sudden rash of vacancies due to the lack of snow.

So, in classic musical fashion, the duos decide to Put On a Show, and help raise publicity for the inn and funds for the Major General. The majority of the show is then a sort of show-within-a-show, as the a large cast of dancers and singers are brought in to rehearse for the big Christmas Eve event.

Lorna Luft plays the innkeeper Martha Watson, a role that was a non-musical part in the original movie. It's an expanded version of the character, and she's now a frequent foil of the Major General, as well as a potential love interest. (The closest thing the show has to a bawdy line comes from Watson, but I won't give away what's probably the show's only surprising moment.)

Luft's number "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" is a nice addition to the show's songbook, but I didn't really need to have it reprised at the end by the character of Susan Waverly, the Major General's young niece; it was just a little too cutesy.

For me, the film's biggest problem is just how boring Bing Crosby is in the role of Bob Wallace. Why any woman would be smitten with him is just beyond me. Sean Montgomery has a bit more charisma, but I still didn't feel any real chemistry between him and Kerry Konte's Betty; she's no Rosemary Clooney.

One welcome change the musical makes from the film is in the misunderstanding that drives the second act. While it's still an "idiot plot," where everything would be sorted out in two seconds if the characters would just talk to each other, it's at least a misunderstanding that makes a lot more sense than the one in the movie did.

Irving Berlin's White Christmas is a classic ensemble musical, where the majority of the numbers are performed by a large group of dancers, with choreography I found a tad dull. Still, the show does have a payoff in its closing number, with the entire cast decked out in their red Christmas best, performing "I've Got Your Love to Keep Me Warm," followed by "White Christmas," as snow falls on the stage, (and if you sit close enough, you might get a few flakes in your hair). It was a finale that managed to temper the Scrooge in me, for a little while.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Roundabout Theater Company's Cabaret Is One For Our Times

This review originally appeared on

I would never have thought a musical that originated in 1966, became more famous as a movie in 1972, and started as a short novel published in 1939, would feel so completely and scarily relevant in 2016. But the current run of the Roundabout Theater Company's production of Cabaret is most definitely a Cabaret for our times.

Set in 1931 Berlin, the story centers on the performers at the Kit Kat Klub and the residents of a local boarding house. The show begins before the audience is completely seated, with some of the Kit Kat Klub's performers strolling and stretching around the stage. When the lights dim, the Emcee (Randy Harrison) opens the show with that most famous of introductory songs, Willkommen, urging the audience to "leave your troubles outside....In here, life is beautiful, the girls are beautiful, even the orchestra is beautiful!"

And indeed, the orchestra is pretty good looking, and not relegated to the orchestra pit. Instead, they perform on a raised stage above the action, with some of the musicians doing double duty as cast members. The stage itself is pretty stripped down, with the main set piece being a series of doors representing the entrances and exits to the Kit Kat, the boarding house, and some trains. This minimalist set allows the audience to focus on the main characters, and also notice the characters that often hover around in the background.

Our everyman hero, American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Lee Aaron Rosen), has come to Berlin hoping for inspiration. After finding lodging at a boarding house run by Fraulein Schneider (Shannon Cochran), Cliff ventures to the Kit Kat Klub. There he becomes entranced by both a former male lover and dancer/singer Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss), who enters the show with the song "Don't Tell Mama." It's a perfect piece for Goss, who is so naturally tiny that I'm not sure that cartoonishly giant chair she sits in during the number was actually all that big.

Cliff and Sally become an unlikely couple, as she basically forces her way into his lodging and bed after she's fired from the club, and he decides to try and make a go at a "normal" life after she becomes pregnant. But neither of them is living their true selves, and it's those ideas of truth and denial that affect every character in the show.

Fraulein Schneider's relationship with Jewish fruit merchant Herr Schulz (Mark Nelson) yields two of the show's most touching numbers, "It Couldn't Please Me More," where a pineapple becomes the ultimate symbol of love, and "Married," which in a heartbreaking reprise forces the characters to admit the truth about the evil overtaking the country around them.

Herr Shulz's character gets the show's most politically charged lines — some are clearly played in direct reference to our current election madness — which resulted in some very audible and extended cheers from the audience.

Goss's Sally isn't a woman who immediately commands a room. She's very slight and flighty; one thought starting before another finishes. But as the show progresses and her situation becomes more dire, she begins to command more attention. Her rendition of the title song is a far cry from Liza Minnelli's movie version. It's filled with much more despair and anger. Life may be a cabaret, old chum, but sometimes you've got to stop the party, or you'll miss the sound of those approaching goose-steps.

After the show, some of the actors gathered for an audience Q&A, and gave some interesting insight into their characters.

Shannon Cochran spoke about the backstory she gave Fraulein Schneider, and how she felt it was able to explain some of the decisions her character makes. "I felt she was a bit ahead of her time, as she's a woman alone, in 1930...She's a woman who grew up with money, who lost it. She sees that [her relationship] can't work, that no one will get out safely. And she does what she needs to survive."

When asked about Cliff's orientation and whether being with Sally was Cliff's way to deny his own homosexuality, Lee Aaron Rosen said, "Absolutely. And he also realizes that [Sally] is far more mature and wise than he gave her credit for, but that he's playing a game every bit as much as she is."

Of the Emcee, Randy Harrison said he gave him an arc and backstory centered on addiction. He also feels the Emcee was, "a little more aware than those around him. He sees what's coming, but rather than fleeing, he just despairs."

And when asked what he felt the main takeaway an audience might get from Cabaret, Harrison said, "The potential consequences of political disengagement."

And that's a truth as important now as it was in 1930's Germany.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

'Wicked' Returns To SF, Is Still A Lot Of Fun

This review originally appeared on

Wicked, the 10th longest-running musical on Broadway, has returned to San Francisco for the first time since 2013. But Wicked and San Francisco have a long history, as it was here that the show had its pre-Broadway trial run in 2003, and its swung back through SF many times since.
And shockingly, I'd never seen it.

That didn't seem to be the case with much of the audience on opening night. I heard folks around me talking about traveling some distance to "see it again," and I definitely heard a lot of singing along during the show.

While I'd never seen Wicked, I was familiar with its story, having read Gregory Maguire's original book, even if the stage version isn't entirely faithful. It centers on Elphaba, (Emily Koch), born with green skin because of her mother's fondness for a certain green elixir. As a young woman, she and her sister Nessarose, (Megan Masako Haley), who has a handicap of her own, enroll in a school that is not unlike Hogwarts. There she is bullied by most of the students, including Glinda (Amanda Jane Cooper), a popular, exceedingly bubbly blond. But, as tends to happen in these kinds of tales, they eventually become friends, and we follow they're progressions from students, to powerful witches.

Taking place in a land as magical as Oz means there are plenty of special effects, and they are, for the most part, effective and not too showy (although there were some issues with the sets on opening night). I loved how the costumes kind of played off ideas seen in The Wizard of Oz, but with some steampunk additions. And the gradual introduction of characters from the movie was a lot of fun, although I do have to say I didn't think those original flying monkeys could ever be creepier; Wicked makes them the stuff of nightmares.

The show got its start on Broadway with Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda the Good, and Adele Dazeem Idina Menzel as Elphaba the Wicked. Those are some pretty big shoes to attempt to fill, but Koch and Cooper both tackle the vocals with aplomb. But it's in their acting and comedic timing that they really shine. Koch's Elphaba is perfectly nerdy, but also tough and deadpan, while Cooper's ditzy and vain Glinda grows up a bit through the course of the play, while still maintaining that bubbly personality that's the center of her comedic performance.

They both have their standout numbers. For Glinda's it's "Popular," in which she expounds on her plans to give Elphaba a makeover. Elphaba's best moment is, of course, the now Glee-enshrined "Defying Gravity," which closes the first act, and demonstrates one of the show's best special effects.

But nothing in the second act lived up to either of those first-act numbers, and that was perhaps the most surprising thing about the production for me. I figured a show that had become so legendary would be filled with numbers I'd be humming all night. Instead, the thing I'll probably remember the most are the lovely moments of friendship between the two witches.

Oh, and those flying monkeys. *Shudder*

Monday, February 29, 2016

Someone Should Put 'Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story On Stage' In A Corn

This review originally appeared on

I was never a huge fan of the movie Dirty Dancing, mainly because its mix of period pop and contemporary songs always bugged the hell out of me, and its story was a very thin romantic cliche. But that doesn't mean I didn't understand its appeal. Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze were incredibly charismatic, and had a definite chemistry. The two of them helped the movie rise above its shortcomings. Which is why a live musical version makes about as much sense as a remake.

And yet, Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage has been touring around the world since 2004, (though tellingly, it hasn't had a Broadway run as of yet), and is now playing San Francisco's Golden Gate Theater though March 20th.

Rachel Boone takes on the role of Baby, and has some passing resemblance to Jennifer Grey. She's pleasantly dorky, but never convincingly makes the transition to blossomed dirty dancer. Christopher Tierney plays Johnny Castle, and does his best to sound like Patrick Swayze; he certainly looks just as good in a black tank top. But, unsurprisingly, he doesn't have Swayze's charm, and never really sizzles with Boone's Baby.

His dance numbers with Penny (played by San Francisco native and SF Ballet School alum Jenny Winton) are the show's best bits of dancing in a musical that has, shockingly, not a whole lot of dancing! There were certainly no numbers that brought the house down, and only two large group dance numbers, neither particularly memorable.

The whole production feels cheap and cobbled together, almost like something a high school would put on. The sets are primarily plain white boards that looks like window shutters, and video projection is used to indicate changes of location, with some of the video coming directly from the movie itself (showing images of the camp grounds, for instance). Sometimes these video "sets" are used to purposeful comedic effect, (the famous practice in the lake has the two leads falling "into" the water, and then flipping their hair back, as if they were soaking wet), but sometimes the laughs don't seem intentional, (a "driving" scene where Johnny mimes driving while standing up is just flat out silly).

The show is filled with music, but not a lot of musical numbers. While there is a live band that often appears on stage, the show utilizes both live and pre-recorded originals, although roughly half of the songs in the show aren't played to completion. The two leads don't do any singing either. Instead vocals are left to two ensemble players, Adrienne Walker and Doug Carpenter, including the singing of the show's closing number "Time of My Life."

The film's dramatic moments are kept in, (but don't worry, there isn't a botched-abortion-musical number), and some more are even added, like a clunky group-listen to Martin Luther King's "I have a dream speech." But none of the story's drama is ever allowed to sink in, because dialogue is rushed through, with some scenes seeming to last mere seconds, as if the actors were afraid they'd get hit by furniture changes should they linger on stage too long.

The show also manages to mangle the one moment that should have the most kick: the delivering of the line "Nobody puts baby in a corner." A moment that should feel like time standing still instead comes across as an off-handed remark that doesn't make a lot of sense within the context of the scene, since no one has put Baby in any kind of proverbial or physical corner.

And for that, the entire show should just go sit in an actual corner, and think about what its done.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Phantom Of The Opera At The Orpheum

This review originally appeared on

Since its premier in 1986, Andrew Lloyd Weber's The Phantom of the Opera has broken records as the longest-running Broadway musical of all time, and has played San Francisco more than once. It returns to the Orpheum for a six week engagement via SHN through October 4th.

This latest touring incarnation has been pared down a bit from the original production, with fewer elaborate props (no giant elephant during the Hannibal scene), and a simpler set. But what's replaced those sets is still pretty neat: a kind of rolling cylinder that can serve as a spooky backdrop, opens up to reveal various inner sets, and sprouts stairs that lead characters down to the Phantom's subterranean lair. And yes, the chandelier is still there, although this time around it doesn't so much threaten to crush the cast on stage as kill the audience below it. (Those orchestra seats will earn their cost in thrills).

So, while smaller, this Phantom is still a spectacle, which is a good thing. It's not the type of show you could give a minimalist Sweeney Todd approach to because, save for the best —
and most popular songs — a lot of the music is just plain boring, and without the elaborate sets and costumes to back them, would likely put audiences to sleep.

The story remains the same: Christine (Katie Travis), is an opera ingenue who gets her big break when the resident diva storms off the set, in fear of the "ghost" who haunts the opera house. This ghost is, of course, the Phantom (Chris Mann, in the performance I saw), the mysterious masked figure who has been tutoring Christine in music. Christine isn't even sure if the Phantom is real, or all in her mind, but she comes to reality once Raoul (Storm Lineberger), her childhood love, enters the picture.

The Phantom is a little younger in this version, so he's clearly meant to be more of a potential love interest than any kind of father figure for Christine. But the love triangle doesn't completely work. I never bought that Christine was ever torn between the two guys, mainly because the Phantom is, well, a total dick, and kind of a creepy drip as well. I wanted to take the guy aside and tell him to just own that mask! Go the Daft Punk route and never take that thing off. Or just follow Mariah Carey's lead, and only allow your good side to be photographed! The point is, Phantom, if you want the world to accept you, don't be the creepy guy who enters the party in a cloud of smoke, with a fancy mask on, basically confronting people with "WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT?!"

The show's biggest problem is it blows its wad in Act One. It's this first act that contains the introduction of the Phantom, the boat trip to his underground home, and the two best songs, "The Music of the Night," and "The Phantom of the Opera." Thankfully, orchestration for the latter hasn't changed much since its very obvious 1986 production, complete with synthesizers and electric guitar chords. It's insanely cheesy, and also completely catchy. I still find myself humming it to myself, days later. Act One also ends with the chandelier scene, and the show never again reaches that moment's fun intensity.

As one would gather from the setting, there's also a lot of opera sung. And while it's all in English, it's at times impossible to understand. I'm not sure if this is the fault of the performers, the compositions themselves, (several include three or more people singing at once, but not in harmony), or the sound production. Regardless, large chunks of the lyrics were unintelligible. Still, The Phantom remains a fun, albeit slightly silly show. But, much like the titular character's cursed mug, one half is a lot more fun than the other.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Clean Yourself Up, Or Get Ribbed: Dame Edna's Glorious Goodbye: The Farewell Tour

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Every time I go to the theater, I'm a little amazed by what people choose to wear. Theater tickets are, in general, not cheap, and it seems like paying that kind of money to go out would mean it's a special occasion. And aren't special occasions those times when one dresses up? But perhaps I have it all wrong. Maybe these folks had to sell their smartest outfits in order to pay for their theater tickets. It's a tragic tale straight out of O'Henry!

I bring this up because the attire of the audience is something Dame Edna will not let pass unnoticed, so if you decide to see the show, and have tickets in the first few rows, either clean yourself up, or be prepared for some vicious ribbing. (Dame Edna will insist she's only trying to be helpful.)

I will admit that while I have always been aware of Dame Edna, I have never before taken in an entire show, and am most aware of the character through various appearances on PBS and BBC America. I had no idea she's been around since the 1950s! That puts Edna, and her creator, Barry Humphries, in their 80's (or, as Dame Edna says, "approaching 60, but from the wrong direction"). That's a pretty astonishing run for character that came to life in a small Melbourne theater.

I imagine much of the show and shtick will be familiar to Edna's biggest fans, or "possums," but the video that opens the show, played within the stage's giant bedazzled spectacles, serves as a good introduction to those less familiar. Presented as a tongue-in-cheek version of an "E! True Hollywood Story," it includes vintage footage of Dame Edna, some testimony from celebs, (Hugh Jackman speaks of her years as an acting coach, and the traumatizing "private time" he had to endure after class), and other scandalous history.

Aside from videos, which begin and end the show, it's pretty much all Edna, with the occasional back-up dancers for the musical numbers, and a pianist who remains on stage the entire time. Her interactions with the audience are the primary focus, and while all of this seems quite spontaneous and improvised, have no doubt, it's well rehearsed.

She even manages to work the Bay Area into the show, with tales of her "disappointing daughter," her daughter's "partner," and their house full of pit bulls in Visitacion Valley, discussion of which causes Dame Edna to--in a rather alarming moment--have a very physical reaction. This bit is also the evening's only sour note, as it's a bit of a rant that has no satisfying conclusion.

At the show's end, after the audience has waved a virtual garden of Edna's gladiolas (organically raised in her own garden, using her own manure, of course), there's a surprise appearance by the man behind the woman, Barry Humphries himself. He gives a heartfelt thank you to the fans, and to San Francisco, assuring us all that this is, indeed, the end.

Followed by a plea that we all promise to come back for the next farewell.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Bring On The Dancing Boys: Newsies

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I'm about ten years too old to have been overcome with Newsies fever in the early 90's, but will admit it's always seemed an odd phenomenon. A Disney movie musical that flopped upon initial release, but gained a huge following on video and subsequent airings on the Disney Channel? And it's about turn of the 20th century New York news boys? Who go on strike? And Christian Bale sings and dances? WHUT?

In retrospect, it kind of makes sense. It's filled with a cast of dozens of cute boys in newsboy caps and knickers, who despite the New Yawk accents are about as threatening as your average boy band. Of course tweens loved it.

The stage musical is also a Disney production, and like the movie, I imagine the key attraction is the large cast of dancing boys (although, most seem to have past their teens years by a while ago). There's so many of them, it can be hard to keep track of who's who but I do know this: Jack Kelley (Dan DeLuca) is the defacto newsie leader, and Crutchie (Zachary Sayle) is the one with the crutch.

The industrial set, made up of steel stairs, runners, and scaffolding, rolls around the stage to create the various settings including the slums, newspaper headquarters, a vaudeville theater, and rich newspaper tycoon Joseph Pulitzer's office. While the plot involves price gauging, child labor, unions, and strikes, it's presented rather simply: the newspaper bigwigs decide to increase the cost of the "papes" they sell to the newsies by 10 cents per bundle, and the newsies, already poor and virtually homeless, fight back by going on strike.

Yes. This is a socialist musical, centered on child workers, produced by Disney. My head nearly exploded too.

There's a subplot about a young reporter named Katherine (Stephanie Styles) who falls in love with Jack Kelley while writing about the boys, but frankly, I found their story kind of snoozeville. The musical is at its most fun and entertaining when the large cast of newsies are doing their group dances, which often include moments of tap, and lots of leaps and somersaults, all perfectly synchronized.

The musical's highlight is probably "Seize the Day," which features an ingenious use of newspapers as dance props, (and provides super fans a change to seize some of those papes, as they're tossed into the audience). And while some of the slower numbers are pretty enough, ("Santa Fe;" "Something to Believe In"), I found myself wishing those songs would end so we could get back to some newsie dancing.

That's one advantage those young movie fans had back in the 90's: a fast forward button.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Fine Balance Between Dark And Light: Blithe Spirit

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Blithe Spirit, Noel Coward's classic comedy about marriage, mortality, and spirits has landed in San Francisco for a brief twelve night run, featuring Angela Lansbury in the role that won her a fifth Tony award in 2009.

Let's be honest. This revival could co-star the cast of "Saved By the Bell" and it would still be worth seeing because that's Angela-Frickin'-Lansbury up there, she's 89 years old, and she's amazing. But, thankfully, the cast proves to be much better than a Screech and Slater production.

Lansbury's role is really a supporting one, but her character, Madame Arcati, is the comedic lead upon which everything else follows. The entire play takes places in the 1940s English countryside home of the Condomines. Charles is a mystery writer working on a new novel about a homicidal medium. Ruth is his proper English wife. Second wife, to be exact, and the play opens as they discuss the evening's upcoming dinner party/seance. Neither believes in the possibility of actual spiritual contact, but oh, won't it be a hoot to give it a shot?

The guests include another proper English couple--Dr. and Mrs. Bradman--and, of course, Madame Arcati, the medium who tools around town on a bicycle, and has a fondness for cucumber sandwiches and a dry martini.

While the evening is supposed to all be in good fun, it soon turns out Madame Arcati is no charlatan, and the ghost of the first Mrs. Condomine, Elvira, materializes...But only Charles can see her.

Lansbury is delightful in every scene she's in, but the highlight is certainly those times that Madam Arcati must go into a "trance." This trance usually accompanies a recording of Irving Berlin's "Always," and always involves a solo dance that...well, is a little hard to describe, but oh so perfectly executed.

Charles Edwards--perhaps best known in the States as Lady Edith's baby daddy on "Downtown Abbey"--plays Charles as both completely freaked out and helplessly entranced. Jemina Rooper is the ghostly Elvira. Rooper is no stranger to playing ghosts, having also played one on the British series "Hex." She's a small spitfire of a spirit, and you can tell why, if presented with a choice between her and the new Mrs. Condomine, Charles might go for the ghost.

Charlotte Parry's Ruth Condomine is ironically and appropriately icy as the living wife, and she gets to stretch and play a more comedic side of her character in the second act. And special mention must be made of Susan Louise O'Connor's excellent physical comedy in the role of the Condomines' ditsy and manic maid, Edith.

The play, at first glance, seems rather silly; uptight English, daft old ladies, and horny ghosts? But it is the genius of Noel Coward that pushes it into darker territory, with a hero that doesn't seem too concerned with the death of loved ones, and an ending that, viewed through modern eyes, is a tad misogynistic. But it's that fine balance between dark and light that makes the play the classic it is, worthy of revival, and worth seeing. And Angela Lansbury is that little extra icing on the cake.

Blithe Spirit plays the Golden Gate Theatre through February 1st.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Preaching To The Choir: Kinky Boots

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Kinky Boots, based on the 2005 movie, with a book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, tells the story of a family-run shoe factory in Northampton, England that is facing changing times, and possible bankruptcy. Son, and only heir, Charlie (Steven Booth) hopes to start a new career in London, but returns home upon the death of his father. A chance meeting with a drag queen named Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker)--who accidentally breaks a shoe over Charlie's head--gives Charlie the idea to revamp his shoe biz, creating quality women's boots for men, or more specifically, drag queens. (Although the insistence that no woman's shoe can hold a man's weight is, well, specious.)

Is there a musical called Where Do I Belong? or Who's My True Family?, because I have yet to see a musical that isn't essentially about one or both of those two things. Kinky Boots is no different, and in fact has one song, "Charlie's Soliloquy" that opens with the lyrics, "Do I belong here?" That would seem a ripe topic for satire, but Lauper's lyrics are completely earnest, as is too much of the musical.

Other numbers fair better. Lola's introduction, "Land of Lola," complete with backup dancers, definitely charged up the audience. Lindsay Nicole's solo "History of Wrong Guys" includes some nice bits of prop comedy. And the second act ensemble number, "In This Corner," involving a slow-motion boxing match, is clever and original.

It's when the show slows down to get serious, such as when Lola, nee Simon, tells his "it gets better story," and pleas with an ignorant factory worker to accept him as he is, that it begins to suffer under the weight of its own earnestness. There's nothing wrong with the message, of course. It's just that in SF, they're definitely preaching to the choir.

Kinky Boots is at its most fun when Lola and her energetic band of colorful drag queens (The Angels) take over the stage. The dancing, at times, borders on the gymnastic, and Kyle Taylor Parker's got a great voice and a great pair of legs. I'm glad this musical exists, happy it was a hit, but really hope it gets some more play in cities less likely to pack the opening house with local drag stars. They need it more than San Francisco does.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Theatrical Time Travel: I Love Lucy Live On Stage

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I Love Lucy Live On Stage seems like a weird concept for a theatrical show: recreate two episodes of the classic sitcom with performers imitating the iconic characters of Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel. These are, after all, shows anyone with an internet connection can watch any time they want, not performances lost in time forever.

But luckily, Lucy Live is more than just the mimicking of a classic. Instead, it's a little bit of theatrical time travel. The show is presented as it would be in the early 1950's: the audience is there to see the recording of two "I Love Lucy" episodes, complete with a host; a quartet of singers performing live between-act commercials and musical standards; and even a tourist from Oklahoma named Birdie Mae Figg, (really actress Denise Moses), who makes her way through the audience before the curtain goes up, seeking autographs from all the movie stars she sees. (Apparently, I'm an actress famous for her work in Westerns; I gladly gave her my autograph.)

The show is presented without an intermission, but with a slight break between episodes, featuring a trivia contest between two audience members. (Well, one audience member and Birdie Mae Figg.) The first episode is "The Benefit" in which Ethel asks Lucy to ask Ricky to perform at a benefit held by her women's club. Lucy, of course, wants in on the act, and insists she be included in the show. The second episode is "Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined" wherein Lucy, once again, hopes to break into show business by auditioning for a Broadway producer friend of Ricky's, but an eye exam leaves her hopelessly blind during her jitterbug audition.

An obvious question would be why they didn't choose much more memorable episodes to recreate, like Vetameatavegamin, or Lucy stomping grapes. I think one factor may be it's easier to accept the actors and their imitations when they aren't doing things you've seen many times before. Also, these episodes require only two sets: their apartment, and the Tropicana club, both of which fit on the stage. (Although the Tropicana is a little cramped.)

Thea Brooks doesn't look or sound exactly like Lucy, but makeup and hair go a long way to create the illusion. And she can definitely dance a blind jitterbug, and sing as badly as the real thing. Euriamis Losada looks even less like Ricky, (he's much more handsome), and he actually sings a little better than the real Ricky, too. But the Cuban accent is spot on. ("Lucy! You have some 'splaining to do!")

Also spot on is Lori Hammel's Ethel. Ethel's is not the easiest voice to mimic, but close your eyes and you'll swear that's her on stage. It's a shame they didn't pick episodes that were a little more Lucy and Ethel-centric.

The show is definitely lively; the minute you get a little tired of the Lucy shenanigans, they break for a commercial, which include "Dinah Beach" (Sarah Elizabeth Combs) singing the Chevrolet song, and a visit from Speedy the Alka Seltzer boy (Denise Moses again), among other surprises. The costumes are also terrific, full of brightly colored new look dresses, and broad shouldered suits.

I'm not sure how appealing the show would be for the younger set, let alone someone who's never even seen an episode of "I Love Lucy." But those with a love of all things mid-century and a soft spot for nostalgia will probably love Lucy all over again.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Jazz Hands And Hat Tipping: Chicago The Musical

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Here's something I didn't know prior to seeing the San Francisco premiere of Chicago the Musical at the Orpheum Theatre on Friday: it's a comedy! And a really funny comedy, at that!

My only previous exposure to Chicago was the 2002 movie that won a surprising number of Oscars. I saw it once, thought the songs were definitely catchy--a few of the cast members certainly sang them better than others--but aside from that, I wasn't too impressed. And I certainly don't remember laughing much.

But the stage production is an entirely different matter. It's a biting and laugh-out-loud funny satire about fame, tabloids, and America's hunger for sinners. The original musical, with a book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, premiered in 1975, was a huge hit, ran for almost 1000 performances, and was revived in 1997. And it's pretty much been playing somewhere ever since. This touring production features John O'Hurley as Billy Flynn (and he's getting top billing since he's probably the best known actor in the cast, him being J. Peterman, and all), Terra C. MacLeod as Velma Kelly, and Bianca Marraquin as Roxie Hart.

The production is pretty simple; it's all about the songs, which are almost all instantly recognizable at this point, and the choreography, in this case choreography by Anne Reinking "in the style of Bob Fosse," which means, yes, lots of jazz hands and hat tipping. There are no real sets to speak of, aside from the bandstand, which is on the stage, allowing the performers to interact with the musicians and the conductor. The costumes are all black, and all skimpy--pretty much what you'd expect to see in a 1970's musical. Tight, tight pants and sheer t-shirts on the men, leotards and fishnets on the women. (Aside from Billy Flynn, who's forever in a tux.)

The musical zips along, opening with the memorable "All That Jazz," and before too long both Roxie and Velma are in prison for murder, and their fellow inmates perform "The Cell Block Tango," (aka "He Had It Comin!"). It was with this number that I began to notice the show was a little...subdued. I don't know if it was a problem of opening night stiffness, or just a need to turn the audio up a little bit on both the singers and the band, but the number didn't have the simmering up to a boil energy it should have.

Roz Ryan's performance as Mama, with her big number "When You're Good to Mama," punched things up a bit, with powerful vocals and comedic delivery. And John O'Hurley is definitely the show's consistent comedic relief, from his opening number "All I Care About," surrounded by burlesque girls with feather fans, to the excellent "ventriloquist" routine with Roxie, "We Both Reached for the Gun."

Bianca Marraquin's Roxie Hart was the show's biggest revelation. She plays the character's combination of naiveté combined with calculation, and a starry-eyed yet ruthless lust for fame perfectly. There's nothing pathetic about her Roxie Hart, and her solo number/monologue "Roxie" is riveting and hilarious.

Terra C. MacLeod's Velma is tough and funny during her solos--including the opening number--but her best moments come during her interactions with her rival, Roxie, and her duet with Mama, "Class." But being that one of her biggest solo songs is her pleading with Roxie to join her in a duo act, with "I Can't Do It Alone," it's fitting that she hits her highpoint with the show's finale routines with Roxie, "Nowadays" and "Hot Honey Rag."

Seeing the musical made me go back and re-watch the movie, just to make sure I wasn't wrong with my original assessment. I maintain I wasn't. The original musical is just so much more fun, and I'd recommend this current production over watching the movie any day.

Monday, September 29, 2014

For The Fans: Pippin

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I've gone to a lot of musicals in the past year or so, but the majority of them have had pretty simple stories, and songs I already knew: your standard "jukebox" musical, which seems to dominate the Broadway stage these days. Pippin is a "classic" musical: original songs; a story loosely based on history; and that sometimes uncomfortable mix of drama and flair that you can either accept, if you're a fan of musical theater, or have a hard time with, if you're not.

Pippin was first staged in 1972, with choreography by Bob Fosse, and songs by Stephen Schwartz, and if you look back at clips from that original run (which starred Ben Vereen) it just oozes 1970s theatricality, in all its tackiness. The version currently running at the Golden Gate Theater through October 19th ran on Broadway last year, and won a Tony for best musical revival. It hasn't been updated so much as brightened. Gone are the shabby monotone costumes of the rag tag group of "performers" from 1972, replaced by colorful circus clowns, acrobats, and contortionists, and the setting has been moved under a bright blue big top. Still in abundance, however? Jazz hands. Lots and lots of jazz hands.

Pippin's the hero of the story, a prince in a roughly medieval era, on a quest to find his ultimate fulfillment in life. Guiding him through this journey is the Lead Player--a kind of circus ring leader--and the players themselves, who often represent life's vices: play instead of work; hedonism above responsibility; sex without love. Pippin goes to war, becomes king, realizes that's a little too much work, and continues on his quest until he eventually meets a widow and her son, and settles in with them, still unfulfilled.

Matthew James Thomas, who played the role during its Broadway run, is Pippin, and he infuses the role with a loose-limbed nerdiness, his hair always in his face, and his jeans and long sleeved t-shirts hanging off him; his Pippin always looks appropriately out of place.

The Lead Player role originated by Ben Vereen is now played by a woman, and I was excited to see Sasha Allen in the part. I first noticed her in a little indie movie called Camp back in 2003. Her performance in that film always stuck with me, and I'm glad to say she's even better in Pippin. Her singing and dancing are terrific, and she has some surprisingly strong dramatic moments during the show's finale.

John Rubinstein, who originated the role of Pippin back in 1972 now plays the role of Pippin's father, Charles, in a nice bit of circular casting. Luci Arnaz has a showstopping number as Pippin's grandmother Berthe, singing "No Time at All," that almost brought the audience to their feet. (Starting October 6th, Tony-winner Andrea Martin replaces Arnaz in the role, while Arnaz joins the Broadway cast.)

This revival's circus theme has some San Francisco ties, as local Pickle Family Circus alum Gypsy Snider is behind that bit of magic. And to be sure, there are some great stunts, and awe-inspiring moments during the show's two-hour running time: fire; knife-throwing; balancing acts; lyrical performances on hoops over the stage. But there are also long bits where the story drags. Pippin, at times, comes off as a whiny rich boy, and the ultimate source of his happiness (if he can even call it that), doesn't feel genuine. There's an old moral being told, about how you can find happiness in your own back yard, but Pippin's choices feels like weighing drudgery over the creepy world of a circus: neither seems that great!

Fans of the original musical are unlikely to be disappointed with this version, though. There are no blasphemous changes, (the biggest comes at the show's very end, but even Schwartz has said he prefers the newer version), and the show's mix of anachronisms, fourth-wall-breaking, and Fosse-influenced dance remains. But if you aren't someone who enjoys the genre, don't look to Pippin to change your view on that front.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Completely Believable Barbra: Buyer & Cellar

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Barbra Streisand has a basement full of crap she's collected over the years. Really, who doesn't, in some form or another? But Barbra's basement is a little different. You see, it's been designed to look like a small town street full of quaint little shops. Her old costumes can be found in the antique clothing store. Dolls are in Bee's Doll Shop. And of course, let's not forget the Gift Shoppe, full of mementos and tiny bars of soap. Don't believe me? Here:

This is something you'll learn right off the bat at Buyer & Cellar, the one-man-tour-de-force that has made a move from off-Broadway to San Francisco. Yet that bit of insanity is in fact the only true thing in the play, and this is made perfectly clear from the beginning, when star Michael Urie sits on the stage, a copy of Barbra Streisand's book My Passion For Design in his hands.

During the short introduction, he explains how playwright Jonathan Tolins was inspired by the book--and Barbra Streisand's Oprah appearance promoting it--and imagined what it would be like to work in that quaint personal mini mall. Urie goes one to tell us everything else we are about to hear is fake--just to make sure the very famous and "litigious" Streisand understands, should she ever actually come and see the play.

He also makes it clear that he's not an impressionist, and that enough people--"even some women!"--have "done" Streisand before, so his interpretation is less impression, and more impressionistic. After this introduction--which includes readings of choice passages from the Streisand book--the play begins, with Urie now Alex Moore, a struggling actor in Los Angeles who, after being fired as mayor of Disneyland's Toontown over an unfortunate churro incident, goes on a job interview in Malibu, at a huge ranch house, guarded by "brand new barn doors that look old."

After meeting the assistant in charge, he learns that the job involves working in a basement full of "shops." He will be the sole shop worker, and he'll only have one customer, the "lady of the house," who enjoys the immersive experience of "shopping" her own things. Of course, he thinks it all sounds horrible and a bit insane. Until he learns who the lady of the house actually is.

He admits he's not a stereotypical gay Barbra Streisand fan, but that he is well aware of her, and considers her part of his "gay heritage." So when offered the job, be dives right in, manning the shops while wearing a uniform, days spent dusting French dolls and listening to the incessant "whir-ir-ir" of the frozen yogurt machine. Until one day, Barbra actually shows up.

Urie's Streisand isn't dead on, as he warns, but it's still kind of perfect, and he transitions from Alex to Barbra seamlessly. The play's best laughs come the unexpected things Barbra does and says in that cellar full of shops, so I won't spoil it. But know that it's completely ridiculous, and yet, somehow, completely believable.

Urie is just stupendous. He's probably best known for his role as one of Betty's nemeses on "Ugly Betty," and he was certainly funny, if a tad stereotypical in that, but his comedic talent are on full display here, and he doesn't disappoint. Playing Alex, Alex's failed screenwriter boyfriend Barry, Barbra's assistant, and Barbra herself, he makes every character completely recognizable through body language and cadence, while never going completely over board. His comedic timing is so dead on, I can't imagine anyone else ever being able to play the part as well. (Apparently, it was originally written with Jesse Tyler Ferguson in mind, but should he ever take over, he'll have some huge and hilarious shoes to fill.)

It's not all laughs. There are some genuinely moving moments between Alex and Barbra, and the inevitable end is both poignant and brilliantly comedic. Going into Buyer & Cellar I had my doubts. It seemed too on-the-nose in its subject matter: A gay man making fun of Barbra Streisand? Come on now. But turns out it's a truly funny and insightful look into fame, fans, and the desire create to one's own personal utopia.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Entertaining And Slightly Exhausting: Motown: The Musical

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

It's too bad Berry Gordy can't make an on-stage appearance at the end of every performance of Motown: The Musical, as he did at San Francisco's Orpheum Theater on Tuesday night, because the 84-year-old legend nearly brought the house down dancing jubilantly with the cast. It was a hell of an end to the entertaining and slightly exhausting jukebox musical.

Gordy wrote the show's book, and it's loosely based on his 1994 autobiography, detailing the rise of his music empire, from 1938 to 1983. The legendary 25th anniversary TV show serves as the musical's framing device. Act one opens with energetic dueling performances by The Temptations and The Four Tops as they rehearse for the show, while an aging Gordy (Clifton Oliver) is home, lamenting the loss of so many of the names he helped create as they moved away from Motown and on to bigger paychecks. Will he actually show up at the anniversary show?

The time then moves to the past, making a quick stop in Gordy's childhood (the fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling was a pivotal point for Gordy as a child), eventually settling on Gordy as a young man and songwriter. After writing some songs for Jackie Wilson ("Reet Petite" and "Lonely Teardrops") Gordy decides to pursue songwriting and producing full-time, and "Motown" (the naming of the company is an amusing moment) is born.

The pace of the show is breakneck, with over 50 songs from Motown (and other Berry labels) performed. Of course, not all of the songs are done in full, so one song often blends into another, and the groups performing those songs aren't always clear (for instance, if you aren't a fan of The Temptations and The Four Tops you probably won't know just which is which).

A lot of groups and singers are portrayed over the course of the almost three-hour musical, with much of the cast playing three or more different roles. The show's major focus is the relationship between Gordy and Diana Ross (Allison Semmes), who Gordy meets when she's still in high school, and hanging around Motown with her group, The Primettes. He sees something in the group, and especially the one "with the big eyes." The Primettes become The Supremes, and after many failed songs, eventually ends up as Motown's biggest act.

Semmes does a good job of mimicking Diana Ross's smile-filled singing style, and her voice is dead on, though the big eyes everyone keeps talking about...aren't. Smokey Robinson (Nicholas Christopher), Gordy's best friend, and Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse), his brother-in-law (at least for a while) are the two other main characters, and both actors are great, particularly during the songs. Of course, the whole cast does a lot of singing, so much so that there's not a lot of room for plot. Events happen at breakneck speed. Hit records are being made, groups split up, Kennedy gets shot, and then war protest breaks out in what seems like 10 minutes time. Die-hard Motown nerds will probably have a hard time with all the liberties taken with the musical timeline.

Because there are so many songs, there are a few times when tunes are used in an expository way. Sometimes this works, (when Smokey Robinson must face angry Alabama police on stage while singing "I don't like you/but I love you" from "You Really Got a Hold on Me"), and sometimes it doesn't, (Diana Ross sings "I Hear a Symphony" while laying in bed next to an impotent Berry Gordy; but perhaps the awkwardness of that scene was amplified because Berry Gordy was sitting in the row in front of me).

A lot of ground is covered in the first act, while act two focuses on Gordy's move to Los Angeles, the discovery of the Jackson 5 (Reed Lorenzo Shannon is fantastic as young Michael Jackson), disco, and the looming threat that the label will have to fold as more and more artists--including his beloved Diana--move on to bigger things. But Gordy vows to fight, releasing even more hits. (He seems to remember he's got Stevie Wonder in a closet somewhere, as Wonder makes a brief appearance as a child in act one, and isn't heard from again until the end of act two).

By the time the finale and the 25th anniversary reunion arrived, I was just plain tired, and couldn't blame them for completely overlooking Michael Jackson's immortal performance during that show. Who'd have the energy for that?

Well, maybe Berry Gordy would.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Falling Slowly: Once, the Musical

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I liked the 2006 film Once well enough, but didn't fall madly in love with it as many of its fans did. I certainly understood the appeal of the film, and a few of the songs made it to my iTunes, but I couldn't get past feeling like the male lead was a huge...jerk.

In 2012, the stage musical based on the film made its Broadway debut, and it went on to win eight Tony awards. The traveling company of Once now comes to San Francisco for a three week run at the Curran Theater.

The basic story from the film remains: A young Czech woman hears a young Irish man singing a passionate song to a group of listeners who are...slightly less passionate about him, and he's on the verge of quitting his music for good. But she is enraptured, and convinces the man to let her hear more. This involves the fixing of a vacuum cleaner, and a visit to music store owned by a very animated musician who knows karate. Yes, the show is quirky.

The man and woman are nameless in the play, known only as the Guy and the Girl, and are played by Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal. The Girl is also a musician, taught piano by her father back in Czechoslovakia--before his own musical career was cut short by arthritis and he killed himself, so she has personal experience with moody musicians. She's such an encouraging, engaging, and positive force that the guy can't help but go along with her plan to record a demo. He's also a bit smitten with her, while she is reluctant to return his affections, as she has a daughter, and hopes to reconcile with her estranged husband.

What sets Once apart from your standard musical is that every actor is also part of the musical's orchestra. They all play their respective instruments while on stage, sometimes dancing at the same time. (Although the "dancing" is more like subdued movement, not your typical big numbers.) There are usually at least 10 people on stage at any time, filling out such roles as the girl's mother, fellow Czech immigrants, a banker with musical aspirations of his own, and local Dublin pub goers and musicians.

The cast moves around a set that looks like an Irish pub, and in a really fun move, the audience gets to become part of the action, as the stage is opened up for theatergoers before the curtain and during intermission. You can walk on to the pub set, buy an ale, wine, or water, and get a close-up look at it all. Slowly, some of the show's cast makes its way on stage with some instruments and starts to play a few songs, surrounded by the audience. Eventually, the stage empties of its guests, and the play begins.

The energy of these interactive moments aren't matched entirely within the musical proper. There are terrific songs throughout--"When Your Mind's Made Up" and the Oscar winning "Falling Slowly" being the stand-outs, (and that one's performed, ironically, more than once). But sometimes the show is maddeningly slow, grinding to a halt for subdued musical numbers with languid dancing that do nothing to advance the plot.

The central relationship between the guy and the girl is a bit more overtly romantic than it is in the movie. As a result, he comes off as less of a pushy jerk, which is a welcome change. But the story is clearly his, and the girl is there to be his champion and muse; her goals appear to be nothing more than to be a good mother and wife, playing piano at home, while the guy is persuaded to pursue his musical dreams in the Big City. I wanted more for her character, especially since Dani de Waal has such a terrific voice, and is only given one solo song in which to showcase it (the lovely ballad "The Hill").

I'm not sure how fans of the movie will take to this version, as the film definitely had such a genuine, local Irish community energy, that it almost felt like a documentary; the actors here are, for the most part, clearly NOT Dubliners. That authentic feel is almost captured during those moments of interaction with the audience. But when that proverbial curtain rises, it floats away.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Controversial Classic: Porgy and Bess

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Ira and George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess is a classic and historical opera not without its share of controversies, dating back to its 1935 premiere. In some ways, it was a very bold bit of theater, featuring a cast of almost entirely African American characters, performing a musical style of singing (opera) normally dominated by white performers, in a score created by a white guy, utilizing a black form of music (jazz).

George Gershwin also insisted that the lead roles only ever be played by black actors, at least in U.S. productions. While kind of an obvious insistence to make, it was still pretty ballsy for its time.

Still, we're dealing with a story about black characters, written by white men in the 1930s. Racist undertones are going to exist, which is why for many years, very prominent black artists were loath to perform in it. (Harry Belefonte famously refused the role of Porgy in the 1959 movie version, so the role went to Sydney Poitier instead.)

The current retelling, which makes its San Francisco debut at the Golden Gate Theater, first premiered on Broadway in 2012, and went on to win a Tony for best revival. But this retelling has its own set of controversies. Director Diane Paulus and writer Suzan-Lori Parks abridged the opera, and changed the all-singing aspect by adding some spoken parts, making it more of a theatrical musical than an opera.

They also added some depth to the character of Bess, who could often come across as a one note victim, and they've done their best to update the more blatantly caricatured aspects for some of the characters and dialogue. But some of these changes didn't sit well with some purists, who deemed it sacrilege to mess with the Gershwins' work.

But, a faithful adaptation done today could be laughable at best, and downright offensive at worst. I understand the desire to respect an artist's original work. But history changes, and sometimes art should reflect those changes. It's easier to appreciate a work as being "of its time," when it's actually from that time, like a movie. But when you are reproducing that work, and don't have to repeat the embarrassing caricatures of its day, why should you have to?

All that said, I can still see the basic plot raising hackles. Set in 1930's South Carolina, on a waterside stretch of housing known as Catfish Row, the musical focuses on a community that consists of husbands, wives, and fishermen, but also drunks, drug pushers, and beggars.

Porgy is the beggar. Deformed since birth, he walks with a limp and a cane. At the time, begging is the only real option a man like him would have to earn a living.

Bess falls into the "drunk" category, or, as one of the Catfish Row denizens deems her, "a liquor-guzzling slut." She's beholden to a heavy drinker and drug user named Crown, and they both get their "happy dust," (the almost too precious nickname for cocaine) from the pusher and player named Sportin' Life.

When Crown kills a man, Bess seeks solace in the arms of Porgy, and the two broken souls fall in love. But Crown isn't gone for good, and Sportin' Life always seems to be lurking just around the corner...

Audra McDonald won a Tony for her portrayal as Bess on Broadway, but Alicia Hall Moran has taken on the role for the touring production, and while she doesn't quite have the acting chops of McDonald, she's definitely got a terrific voice. Her duets with Porgy are some of the best moments of the show, particularly during "I Loves You, Porgy."

Nathaniel Stampley is Porgy, and he's heartbreaking. He definitely conveys Porgy's sadness and "smiling in the face of hardship" demeanor, but he can be a bit unconvincing when it comes to showing his bubbling rage. As a result, a moment of violence feels more like an accident than something that's been brewing up inside of him.

The supporting cast is large, but a stand-out is Danielle Lee Greaves as the tough-talking Mariah. Her condemnation of Sportin' Life in the form of the song "I Hate Your Strutting Style" was probably the biggest crowd-pleaser of the night.

There are moments when the blend of opera and musical theatricality become an odd fit. This usually occurs when you have the entire cast just standing there, singing; that's the opera. Then there are other moments when the entire cast will bust out a (genuinely terrific) dance routine; that's the musical. There's a separation of styles, when it really should be blended a bit more seamlessly.

And there are also moments that are just plain slow, and if it's slow in a paired down two-plus-hours version, I'd be a little apprehensive to see the full-fledged operatic version. Purists may come away from this production shaking their head, but I think it's a fine way to be introduced to this classic and spend an evening listening to some of the most memorable "showtunes" ever written.

Friday, November 8, 2013

A Real Sense Of Magic: Peter And The Starcatcher

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Peter and the Starcatcher is an odd bit of theater. Not exactly a musical, although it has a few musical numbers. Not exactly a child's play, although it is a prequel to the classic tale of Peter Pan. It fits in an odd space between "serious" theater and light comedy.

Set on a minimal stage, with the large cast of twelve serving as characters, props, special effects, and narrators, the first act takes place on two ships. The exposition for this first act is a little murky, and it took me a good 15 minutes before I could get what was going on, but the gist is: on one ship there is the precocious young Molly, (Megan Stern), her nanny, (Benjamin Schrader--aside from Stern, the cast is all male), and three orphans who are being kept on board as slaves. On another ship is Molly's father, Lord Astor, (Nathan Hosner), and the soon-to-be-revealed villain. And both ships are filled with your requisite crew of salty seamen or nasty pirates.

I am not quite sure why Molly and her father are on two separate ships, but it has something to do with a precious cargo trunk the father is trying to keep out of evil hands. Molly is well aware that this trunk contains "starstuff," a magical MacGuffin that manages to do basically any kind of magic that is required by the play at any given moment, and vows to keep it safe.

One of the three orphaned boys is simply known as Boy (Joey deBettencourt), and Molly takes a fancy to him. Eventually he gets a name--guess what it is--and joins Molly on her quest to save the starstuff.

While Peter may be the hero of that later, better-known story, the stand-out characters here are Molly--a plucky, smart young heroine--and the villain, known, at least for the majority of the play, as Black Stache. He's the comedic center of the show, and as played by John Sanders, he's like a dandy Groucho Marx, often breaking the fourth wall, (and in one of the show's comedic highlights, freaking out behind it), spouting malapropisms, and tossing out anachronistic, pop culture-filled punch lines.

It's there that the comedy can often fall flat, delving very closely into Robin Williams in Aladdin territory. Some of these jokes are so stale--a Kelis "Milkshake" reference? Really?--I just hope that if the show continues to run for years to come, they refresh those references a bit.

One thing I hope they never change is the second act's opening number, featuring the cast as singing mermaids, dressed in ingenious costumes featuring fans-as-fins, and other kinds of junk one might find at home (or floating in the sea), including a crown of baby doll legs and bras made out of juicers and tea cups.

While I'll always be a bigger fan of movies than I am of live theater, I do appreciate when theater does things that just can't be done in a movie. Casting adults as kids, for example, is something that you can get away with in the distance of theater, but in a film would likely come across as creepy and off-putting, requiring the casting of real children who probably wouldn't have the chops to handle the comedy.

And having the cast create waves out of shaking ropes, a giant crocodile out of a string of white flags and red lanterns, and creaking doors with their bodies is something that could only be done in theater. It's things like this that give live theater a real sense of magic--a throwback to childhood play and storytelling that fits perfectly in Peter and the Starcatcher.

Friday, October 18, 2013

For The Fans: The Wizard of Oz

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

In the past three weeks, I've gone to see three live musicals, which, for someone who isn't exactly musical theater's biggest fan, is a lot. One of these reminded me why I don't tend to like musicals, (see: Carrie); another surprised me by how enjoyable it was, (see: Beautiful); and the latest made me ponder whether it's something only true musical fanatics can love.

That musical is The Wizard of Oz, a revamped version adapted by Andrew Lloyd Weber. Unlike the recent movie Oz the Great and Powerful, which was essentially a prequel, but couldn't use anything featured in the 1939 movie that wasn't also in the book, this musical is basically the 1939 movie put to stage. Most of the original songs are retained, with the addition of a few new compositions.

One of those additional songs starts off the show, with Dorothy lamenting that "Nobody Understands Me." As a song, it's not too memorable, and made me wonder why the team of Weber and Tim Rice--together for the first time since 1986's Evita--were so heralded in the first place. But it does give lead Danielle Wade something to sing before launching into "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." (Because really, you kind of have to prove yourself a bit before tackling such an iconic song.)

The first act isn't very subtle when it comes to all the things and people that will soon be transformed into the land and characters of Oz, but I guess you don't really look to musicals for subtlety. Dorothy runs away from the farm, meets the Wizard Professor Marvel (Cedric Smith), and returns home just in time to be swept up into that twister and carried into the Technicolor land of Oz.

I was looking forward to seeing how they'd handle that tornado, and was a bit disappointed to see the whole effect projected onto a screen that lowers in front of the stage. In fact, most of the trickier effects scenes are handled this way, which is a bit of a letdown.

Once Dorothy gets to Oz, the set turns colorful, almost garishly so. Glinda's entrance is probably one of the show's best moments, and man alive but I wish I could get a copy of her dress. Aside from Dorothy's blue gingham dress, most of the costumes and character designs differ vastly from the film. The aforementioned Glinda (Robin Evan Willis) is decked in shades of blue and grey, not pink, and the Wicked Witch of the West (Jacquelyn Piro Donovan) is far vampier (and leggier) than her Margaret Hamilton counterpart. And the Munchkins? Well, they're far less...munchkiny.

Of Dorothy's three traveling companions--the Scarecrow (Jamie McKnight), the Tin Man (Mike Jackson), and the Cowardly Lion (Lee MacDougall)--the Scarecrow probably gets the most laughs, playing up the fact that he doesn't have a brain with line deliveries like "I HAVE AN IDEA NOPE GONE!" Falling close behind is the Lion, although the number of gay jokes tossed in is either total pandering or just plain overkill.

Getting back to Danielle Wade's Dorothy, she's very good, and I can see why she won the role on that Canadian reality show. She gives her performance enough call-back to Judy Garland without coming across as nothing but imitation; she's got some of the Garland mannerisms and tics down, and knows when to use them for comedic effect. And she's really, really good with Toto.

Did I mention there's an actual dog that plays Toto? And he's a cairn terrier, just like the original Toto? And he's amazing? And that I couldn't take my eyes off of him whenever he was on stage?

Although when you're watching a stage show that features melting witches, flying monkeys, and a few of the most memorable songs ever written, I'm not sure being enraptured by a dog who's sitting still--LIKEAGOODBOY!--is such a good thing.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Some Kind of Wonderful: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical is, as the title would suggest, about Carole King, the singer and songwriter whose career began as a teenage songwriter, and pinnacled with the release of her 1971 solo album that ended up staying on the charts longer than any other female artist in history, (a record she held until 1993, when it was broken by Whitney Houston and the soundtrack to The Bodyguard).

Carole King's story works so well as a jukebox musical, it's a surprise it's taken this long to happen. (Although fictionalized versions of her story have appeared in two movies I know and love: 1978's American Hot Wax--in which the teenage songwriter is played by Laraine Newman--and the excellent 1996 release Grace of My Heart, starring Illeanna Douglas.) Of course, Carole King had a lot to do with the hold-up, as it's really her story to tell. But perhaps her releasing an autobiography earlier this year had something to do with her decision to give the musical her blessing.

Luckily, it's a great piece of entertainment, and definitely a must-see for Carole King fans, as well as fans of 1960's rock and pop. Because even though the title suggests it's all about her, she's actually just the lead in an entertaining ensemble.

Framed by King's 1971 Carnegie Hall appearance, the musical opens with a long-haired King, (played eerily well by Tony-nominated Jessie Mueller), performing "Home Again" at a grand piano, and then jumps back in time to 1959, when she was a pony-tailed sixteen-year-old Brooklyn college student (she skipped some grades) and aspiring songwriter. She ventures to the Brill Building in New York, and convinces producer Don Kirshner (an amusing Jeb Brown) to buy a song ("It Might as Well Rain Until September") and release it as a single. But what he really wants is for her to write songs for other artists...

At school she meets cute with fellow student and aspiring playwright Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein), and they decide to collaborate on some songs, starting with "Some Kind of Wonderful" for the Drifters, and eventually scoring a huge hit for the Shirelles with "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?"

This particular collaboration is one of the highlights of the show, with King and Goffin composing and singing on a piano, then trying to convince the Shirelles to perform it. Which they eventually do, in a moment I still can't quite believe: as the singers walk across the stage in normal everyday wear, they pass behind a lit-up backdrop, and reemerge, seconds later, in a complete costume change of glittery pink cocktail dresses with chiffon shoulder sashes. I wanted to give the costume designer a standing ovation for that one.

Several numbers are set up this way, seeing the composers writing the songs, and the finished products performed by musical acts representing the Drifters, the Chiffons, and the Righteous Brothers. All these performances are well choreographed and excellently mimicked, although the beautiful simplicity of the original arrangements is set aside several times for grander theatricality.

But King and Goffin aren't the only songwriters in the story. Before long, they are joined by Cynthia Weill and Barry Mann, (Anika Larsen and Jarod Spector, both excellent), another songwriting pair, and their friendship and friendly rivalry results in the two teams writing some of the best pop songs of the decade. (Seriously. Check out the show's song list.)

Of course, it's not all hit pop songs and Pleasant Valley Sundays. Carole and Gerry, facing a pregnancy, decide to get married, which, for a while, works out for them, even scoring them another hit when they get their babysitter Little Eva to perform their song "Locomotion." But bourgeois married life is not to Gerry's liking, and soon he begins to stray. Eventually he has an all-out emotional breakdown, forcing Carole to face life on her own.

The show is broken up into two acts, roughly based around Carole's life with Gerry, and without him. The show's biggest fault is that the second act, which actually follows King's biggest success, is given short shrift, and seems a bit rushed through. This might be because presenting her solo songs doesn't have quite the entertainment factor of her previous hit-making career since they are, well, solo songs. But keep in mind the show is getting its preview run here in San Francisco, before making its Broadway debut, and I imagine some of these pacing kinks may be worked out in the future.

Despite its faults, it's an entertaining, surprisingly funny musical that will likely have you humming the music for days, all while marveling, "I can't believe she wrote all of those amazing songs!"