SF Theater Blog

Friday, April 22, 2016

"The Lion" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG !

Benjamin Scheuer had me with his first guitar riff. "The Lion" is the finest show we've seen all year, as well as the shortest. All those songs, all that grief and joy, a brilliant guitarist and singer, a story that ebbs and flows and then flows some more. Half a box of kleenex later you walk out of the theater and you look at your watch and realize the whole thing lasted less than forty five minutes. It's impossible. And yet -- I was there. And you should go too.

Scheuer wanders around the stage, playing different guitars, but, as good as he is, only three of them sound different (electric, small acoustic and the rest). They probably have different tunings, so that's why he does it, but…maybe a different sound now and then? Maybe we could even see that banjo?

OK, we're stretching it. Maybe he could sing in Swahili too. And his name has three vowels in a row.

Sometimes the reviewer needs to shut up. There is nothing in this show but pleasure. Go quickly! "The Lion" only runs until May 1.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG !

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Lion" its highest possible rating for a one man show: Four Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE AND AN EXPLANATION POINT! Ben Scheuer can write, play, sing and perform, and earns a Star for each one. The BANGLE is for the one song that touched us most: "You Make Me Laugh." This is one magnificent love song.

And Prince died today. You know? Music can indeed be transcendent and change our lives for the better. Keep going, Ben. You're on a roll.

"The Lion"
A.C.T. Strand Theater
1127 Market Street, San Francisco
Through May 1

Thursday, April 21, 2016

"Anne Boleyn" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

You love this show before it starts. Nina Ball's castle interior, with all those doors for characters to hop in and out of, gets us ready for all the machinations and pomp of Tudor England.

And it just gets better. This is only the second American production of Howard Brenton's 2010 homage to the mysterious and short-term second wife of Henry VIII. She has historically been presented as an unfortunate victim of Henry's lustful appetites. Here, she becomes a willing conniver whose true goal, in tandem with Thomas Cromwell, is to bring Protestantism to England.

Whatever the truth may have been, Liz Sklar is mesmerizing as Anne Boleyn. In a role that demands we see her as both a woman and a ghost, she keeps us pulling for her, despite the history with which we are well acquainted. Craig Marker is Sklar's equal, as King Henry VIII but even more as King James 1 (Henry's grandson through Mary, Queen of Scots).

We also loved Charles Shaw Robinson's two roles as Lord Cecil and Cardinal Wolsey, as well as Dan Hiatt as Tyndale. And Ashley Holvick's costumes are worth the price of admission by themselves.

Anne Boleyn has been portrayed many times throughout modern history. Here we get a far more nuanced view. Historically accurate or not, it makes for great entertainment.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards "Anne Boleyn" Four Stars. Mrs. Kritic, the reviewer's wife, really loved it. The reviewer himself was enthralled with Act 1 but found his eyes getting heavy during an extended Act II. As is always best in situations involving love and theater criticism, he will err on the side of keeping his head. Four Stars.

"Anne Boleyn"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
 Through May 8

Monday, April 11, 2016

"Cyrano" ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

(Introductory Note: a closer inspection of the above photo illustrates why 17th Century background singers did not stand behind the lead singer.)

Cyrano de Bergerac lived a short life in the 17th Century, a dramatist known for his swordplay as well as his wordplay. In the 1890s Edmond Rostand's"Cyrano" immortalized Monsieur de Bergerac's oversized nose, and the rest is history. The classic story of impossible love and failed opportunity has been performed countless times and in many languages since then. This is even the second presentation by Theatreworks, this time a newer adaptation by Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner.

There are two memorable scenes in Act One. In the first, Cyrano (J. Anthony Crane) becomes the bard, composing and singing an ode in iambic pentameter while simultaneously dueling with a Duke. In the second, Cyrano dispatches a hundred foes, one after the other, all dumb enough to stand in a line and attack him one-on-one. It appears life was cheap in the seventeenth century.

In Act Two we get the memorable balcony scene, where Cyrano declares his love for the fair Roxanne (Sharon Rietkerk), but does it through the mouth of Christian (Chad Deverman), whose nose is the normal size. This is a lovely set piece, with all three actors playing off each other effectively.

It is all good fun, but we must mention that Act Two feels like Acts Two and Three. They desperately need to shorten it or remove the lengthy epilogue, or perhaps it is just a further story that feels like an epilogue. An otherwise witty production grinds to a halt as we duel the author to get to the finish.

 RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Cyrano" Three Stars with a bauble of despair, but the bauble would be removed if they simply tighten up Act Two and pare it down to our admittedly limited Twentieth Century attention spans.

Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through May 1

Monday, April 4, 2016

Joan Jeanrenaud and Charlie Varon: "Second Time Around" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

We have seen lots of Charlie Varon shows through the years. (2016 is his 25th year doing spoken word at the Marsh.) His current trilogy, dealing with issues of aging and taken from interviews at a convalescent home in San Francisco, has a great deal of promise, but we were not knocked over by last year's first installment, called "Feisty Old Jew."

So it is with great pleasure that we can announce that "Second Time Around," a duet for cello and storyteller, performed with cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, is the best Charlie Varon show we have seen in years. The music takes awhile to get going, but when it does Varon can play off the emotion of the cello and Jeanrenaud can riff along with Varon's tale. This is in many ways a perfect match.

As always with Charlie Varon, we have favorite lines. We love his description of his 92-year-old hero Ben Rosenau as "An astronaut with his helmet of white hair." Ben was a bomber pilot in World War II and his memories are the centerpiece of this story. We might prefer that we didn't see the end of the Lou Coombs story coming from so far away, but it is touching nonetheless.

Peter and the Wolf this is not. And it is not a cello concerto, it is a story embellished with music. The cello adds texture to Varon's voice and Varon gives emotion to her themes. Well done, Charlie Varon and Joan Jeanrenaud.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Second Time Around" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Charlie and Joan earn one star each, director David Ford another. The BANGLE is for the concept itself. Spoken word can be tiresome, and so can a solo musician. As Ben says, it's all about human connection. Charlie Varon and Joan Jeanrenaud have it and allow us to share along with them.

Joan Jeanrenaud and Charlie Varon: "Second Time Around"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Through April 17
$30-$45, sliding scale

Thursday, March 31, 2016

"The Unfortunates" ☼ (generous)


Producers think reviewers are heartless. We are not. But we know we're in for a long evening of musical theater when:

(1) Someone's cellphone goes off in the middle of the tender ballad and the cellphone is the best song in the show.

(2) The story is incomprehensible. It has a lot to do with death. And the plague. And more death.

(3) The lyrics -- oh my. They are apparently written by a collective, according to the program notes. Here are two favorites that we managed to write down.

(a) "scrimmage," "finish" and "limit."

(b) "paper tiger" and "ready, aim, fire."

Most of the show sounds like this, by the way.

(4) They miss no opportunity to be trite. "Your fists are a prison you can't escape from." This from a woman with no arms to a man who is wearing Bluto-sized rubber fists and talking to ghosts.

5) The music. Either rap to rap music or sing old-timey songs to old-timey music. You cannot rap to old-timey music. Everybody cannot be Hamilton.

RATINGS ☼(generous)

We are pleased for the performers, who are putting their hearts into their work.  Same for the live band, a wonderful touch in our modern cost-cutting environment. Our problem is not with them but with whoever made the decision to feature this show. At best, it's Unfortunate.

That said: One Star for the three superior performers: Christopher Livingston as the short, big voiced lead and Jon Beavers as the tall, clowning lead. We also liked Ramiz Monsef as the Doctor. Ian Merrigan as Big Joe was an imposing stage presence but was given an impossible role - a cartoon figure who is supposed to be the romantic lead. Taylor Iman Jones as Rae is a fine actor, we have seen her excellent work in other shows. But even she could not save "The Unfortunates" from heading down, down, down to the infirmary.

"The Unfortunates"
A.C.T. Strand Theater
1127 Market Street, San Francisco
Through April 10

Sunday, March 27, 2016

"The How and The Why" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Zelda, a evolutionary biologist in her fifties, is meeting Rachel, a twenty-eight year old scientist in the same field, for the first time. Rachel (Martha Brigham) is nervous and fidgety, clearly upset about something besides science, while Zelda (Nancy Carlin) is attempting to keep things on an even keel, despite issues of her own. It's not working. There are many layers at play here, not just the how and the why.

"How" and "Why" refer to the two underpinnings of science -- to find out how something works and then why it works that way. The how is easy. The why is where it gets interesting.

Sarah Treem's script was inspired by "Woman," a book by New York Times science writer Natalie Angier, and the character of Rachel is modeled after the real-life biologist Margie Profet, whose 1990s theories on menstruation, morning sickness and menopause led her to be ridiculed mercilessly by the mostly-male science community. 

Brigham's Rachel and Carlin's Zelda are entertaining to watch interact, and their discussions on science are the best parts of the show. There are holes in the script, however, especially when Zelda seems to have the answer at her fingertips whenever Rachel is stumped. The ending seems forced and probably unnecessary.

Joy Carlin's direction has us on the edge of our seats, even though we are looking at two acts of two women doing nothing but talk. What they talk about, and the world they both inhabit, keep us locked in to the end.


She San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The How and the Why" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. This could be a Four Star play if Sarah Treem does what Rachel needs to do: tighten things up and get rid of the question marks. It's a terrific show which will get better.

"The How and the Why"
Aurora Theatre, in the Dashow Wing
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through May 22

"On Clover Road" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

In the first place, San Francisco Playhouse's new venue for their Sandbox Series, the Rueff Theatre, upstairs in the Strand on Market Street, is a spectacular success. It has a Times Square feel, helped along we suppose by the funkiness of the street below. Steven Dietz's "On Clover Road," directed by Susi Damilano in its World Premiere, fills the space and brings the audience practically inside Dietz's dismal and deceptive motel room.

The story is wild and the ensemble of actors is very good, but we have to single out Sally Dana for her role as Kate. We would suggest you see this show as soon as you can because this is a mentally draining role as well as a physically demanding one. We're not sure how she will do two shows on Saturday.

Kate's daughter Jessica disappeared when she was thirteen and was found years later to have entered a cult commune ruled by The Prophet (Adam Elder), a charismatic father figure. Kate has been contacted by Stine (Michael Storm) and asked for money in return for Stine attempting to win Jessica back to her mother.

Well, yeah, sort of. The tale just gets weirder and weirder. Who is Jessica? Is it...her?

Or, is it...her?

Nancy Kimball (two photos above) and Rachel Goldberg (above)  play two young girls whose roles in the cult, and in the motel room, become murkier and murkier. And when Stine disappears and locks Kate behind, our uneasiness steps up to another level

Storm is terrifically menacing as Stine, but we do have one problem: why the bathroom at the end? Why did they not just do what they were going to do out in the open?

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division is currently hiding under its seat. From this safe haven they award "On Clover Road" Four Stars. This is a high award for a first time show, but the book needs one star, the actors need one, direction needs one and Sally Dana has to have one for herself. Add 'em up. Four Stars for a strong performance.

"On Clover Road"
The Rueff Theatre
Top Floor, The Strand Theatre
1127 Market Street, San Francisco
Through April 16