SF Theater Blog

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story (Claude Debussy): ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG


Hershey Felder must be getting tired of dreaming up ways to tell the stories of his favorite composers. For us, just listening to him sit at the piano and play, while talking to us about musical history and context, would be more than enough. But not enough for Felder.

In the World Premiere of "A Paris Love Story," featuring the music of Claude Debussy, Felder adds a bit of autobiography, as he relates the story of a young boy (Felder), infatuated with Debussy's music, who travels through Paris searching for homes where Debussy lived, bridges the composer may have crossed, and of course the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral. When Felder announced the boy was standing in front of Notre Dame there was a loud "ohhhhhh!" from the audience.



We love Hershey Felder and would not miss any of his shows. But perhaps the artifice is beginning to show. His French-accented English begins to sound Russian and the story of the young boy in Paris really has no beginning or end. We love Claude Debussy as much as the next person, but the 12-tone music invented by Debussy might not be accessible enough to sustain an entire show.



After the curtain, Felder stood at the front of the stage and took questions from the audience. These were our favorite moments. He is a citizen of the world, erudite and brilliant. His answers were on point and expanded upon. When asked about Notre Dame he reminded us that there are tens of thousands of tourists visiting the cathedral every day. That no one was killed putting out that fire is its own miracle.  At the end, he said, "I can't listen to the news anymore. Just be kind to each other. "



RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story (Claude Debussy)" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Hershey Felder is a wonderful musician but he is somewhat less of a story teller. When the music dominates, as in "Irving Berlin," we can't get enough. In this brand new show there is plenty of music but for now it is taking second fiddle to the autobiography.

"Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story (Claude Debussy)" 
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through May 5
$40-$120

Thursday, April 4, 2019

"Yoga Play" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG


"Namaste. Now go away," says frustrated Susi Damilano, who plays Joan, the recently-hired financial wizard for Jojomon, manufacturer of incredibly expensive yoga wear for women. Jojomon, a billion-dollar company, has recently been outed in the press for using nine-year-old Bangladeshi women to create their products, so Joan has had to come up with a company-and-face-saving scheme. The company needs a guru.


At the end of Act One, we said, "We hope this gets crazy." Fear not, young rabbit. In Act Two a scene develops worthy of Luci and Ethel Mertz. Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari's Raj, he of the bugged-out eyeballs, meets Guruji, the spiritual leader imported from the foothills of the Himalayas who turns out to actually be from Santa Monica. Throw in Ayelet Firstenberg as Romola, the bubbly yoga-teacher with a sharp tongue, and Ryan Morales as Fred, who is only trying to stay employed, and we have an ensemble that keeps us in stitches as well as wondering where they are going next.

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Craig Marker's John Dale, the founder of the company, seen by video-conference from his mountain retreat, is hilarious. He may or may not have another part in the show, in which he may or may not manage to make us howl by only moving his eyes.


We thank everyone involved for the twist at the very end. We say no more.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division, currently practicing in Reviewer Pose, normally known as Downwardly Complaining Dog, grants "Yoga Play" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. The whole thing cracked us up, and that's worth at least Three stars, and the Bangle is for classic lines like, "Bring on the celebratory Kombucha" and "Namaste, you bitch!' Special congratulations to Ayelet Firstenberg for her L.A. yoga-ishness and also for her apology as the off-stage Jojomon worker in Bangladesh who didn't notice the age of the workers: "You know, they're all really small!"


"Yoga Play"
San Francisco Playhouse
Second floor of Kensington Park Hotel
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Through May 16
$35-$125

"In Old Age" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼


Some plays resonate in different ways with different audiences. Mfoniso Udofia's fifth entry into her Ufot Family Cycle, "In Old Age," currently having its World Premiere at the Magic Theatre in Fort Mason, touched us deeply. Even with the sound difficulties of Opening Night, including miking that seemed to disappear when characters turned their heads, as well as one character of a two-person cast speaking in a heavy Nigerian English accent, we empathized deeply with these struggling souls and did not need language to understand their plight.


It doesn't hurt to have actors of the caliber of Nancy Moricette as Abasiama and Steven Anthony Jones as Azell. We meet Abasiama as she sleeps on the sofa of her dilapidated home in Worcester, Mass. The doorbell rings and in walks Azell Abernathy, played, no, inhabited by Stephen Anthony Jones, who has been hired by Abasiama's children to try and repair her floors. Abasiama wants nothing to do with him. She is far more involved with her dead husband and his spirits, who may or may not be living in the back room.


And that's it. The rest of this brilliant one-act show is all about how two people from opposite worlds, one half-crazy with remembrances, and one trying gamely to overcome his own sorrow, can come to see each other as real people. The show is memorable from beginning to end. The ending brought tears to our eyes and a standing ovation.


Both Jones and Moricette are certain to win honors for these performances. The scene on the sofa where Azell and Abasiama begin talking like one another is a classic. Andrew Boyce's set, in which the floor becomes more and more finished as the handyman and the frightened woman begin to trust each other more, makes us applaud when the work finally is done.

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants FOUR STARS to "In Old Age." This show is dynamite already and we can only imagine how powerful it will become in the next six weeks,


 "In Old Age"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through April 21, 2019
$20-$60



Friday, March 15, 2019

"Actually" ☼ ☼ ☼


This is one of those nights in the theatre where the show is very good and the two-person cast is not only excellent but moves with skill along a tiny stage upstairs at the Aurora. If there is a problem, it is that the subject matter is so distressful and one of the characters so cruel, that we left the theatre feeling less exhilarated than we would have liked.

Don't forget racism. The issue of white privilege rears its ugly head and it's not wearing a hat. If the real world doesn't depress you enough, this one will dig you deeper.


Michael A. Curry plays Tom, a freshman at Princeton whose response to a brand new social milieu is to have sex with as many willing young freshman women as possible. We understand him, we see his backstory and we feel for the spot he is in as a good-looking African-American young man in an overwhelmingly white and wealthy university.



Amber, on the other hand, played by Ella Dershowitz, is deliberately over-the-top as an entitled young woman, with an intellect that has gotten her into an Ivy League school but seemingly without a shred of understanding for others, nor any sense of responsibility for her actions. Director Tracy Ward gives Dershowitz an annoying set of body habits and a voice to match. We arrive at a sexual-misconduct charge whose outcome is preordained. It will change the lives of only one of these kids.



For us, with all the interesting dialogue and steps back and forth through time, from the day Tom and Amber meet through their university "hearing," we wish we could feel a little more for Amber. If we liked her a little more we could have a little more empathy for them both. As it is, poor Tom, man. Nothing ever changes.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼



RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants THREE STARS to "Actually." It is a fascinating show that requires us to think about a nuanced issue guaranteed to make us uncomfortable. This is what theater is supposed to do, isn't it?


"Actually"
Harry's Theatre Upstairs
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through May 5, 2019
$40

Monday, March 11, 2019

"American Hero" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG



Bess Wohl's "American Hero" gives us belly laughs as well as a kick in the pants about what Corporate America does to the minimum wage people it employs and then discards. We love each actor in the four-person ensemble and Allie Moss's direction feels flawless.



The setting is a sandwich shop in a mall. We see three employees being tutored by their boss on how to make the sandwiches the Brand envisions. Paul Stout is Ted, the MBA who has been downsized into this sandwich shop. He still feels if he works hard enough he can rise again into management. Earth to Ted: find a different mall.


Devon DeGroot is exhausted. She works two fast-food shifts at different shops in the mall, one after the other. She seems dim at first, but she's just sleep-derived. Laura Espino's wisecracking Jamie gives us laugh after laugh, though as the show goes on we see she is as desperate as the others to stay employed. David Boyll is Bob, the boss, who clearly knows nothing except what he is reading in the employee manual. Dark times are ahead for everyone.

We love them all. After Bob has disappeared for a week, and they stop receiving any new deliveries of food, and calls to the Regional Office are not returned, it becomes obvious to the three workers that they have been abandoned. But they have pride in what they do and they really need their salaries. So they plot to keep the shop open. The whole idea is so preposterous it isn't preposterous at all, and we are pulling hard for them all the way.


We laughed along with Wohl's terrific dialogue, but afterwards, when we read about the real-life incident that sparked this show, which involved a suicide of the overwrought manager of a Quiznos sandwich shop in Southern California, Wohl's story took a deeper, more insidious turn for us. We wonder if she couldn't somehow involve this more serious story into Bob's disappearance? Any laughs there? Maybe not.

Well crafted and performed, we once again leave a Custom Made Theater show feeling happy. Nobody died. Well, maybe Bob. Unsure.

RATINGS  ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog loved Bess Wohl's "American Hero," though it made us very hungry. We suggest Prime Rib Combos for each audience member. Short of that, we still award Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise to this tasty Custom Made show. Writing, performing and direction earn one Star each and the BANGLE is for the way the cast slapped out those sandwiches in twenty seconds. And don't forget the show's last line. Please don't answer that phone.


"American Hero"
Custom Made Theatre
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through April 6
$30 (Dynamic Pricing)

Marie and Rosetta ☼ ☼ ☼


I wanted to love this show. I really, really did. The first fifteen minutes, when Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the veteran performer, and Sister Marie Knight, the ingenue, are getting to know each other as they rehearse their music, are magic. Sister Rosetta sings "This Train" and then Sister Marie sings "Were You There?" and the walls are ready to implode with joy. When they sing "Didn't it Rain?" together, I found it almost impossible to remain in my seat. I needed to jump out into the aisles and dance like I was testifying in the church where this music was born.

Michelle E. Jordan as the middle-aged Sister Rosetta and Marissa Rudd as twenty-three year old Sister Marie have a vocal chemistry that gives us shivers, especially when they sing together, and even more so when Marie's piano is added to Rosetta's guitar.



Problem Number One is that neither Marie nor Rosetta are actually playing their instruments. The piano is played by William Liberatore and the guitar by Schuyler McFadden, off stage. The two actors pretend to be playing, but it is just pretend (there is one place where Jordan does appear to be actually playing a guitar solo. Hard to tell.) The difference between actual performance and pretend performance is hard to overcome.

Problem Two is the story. We would expect that the glorious beginning, when the two women create an act they can perform at their various gigs, would continue into letting us see those gigs, including the social and racial politics they talk about encountering. Their music would grow into something even stronger, and we would feel more for these two women, ahead of their time, trying to burst into a world not at all ready for them.


And of course, the unmentioned Problem Number Three: Everyone knows by now that Marie and Rosetta were lovers. Why author George Brant chose to ignore it is a mystery. This knowledge hangs over the closeness we see on stage between the two women. Its absence reinforces the sense of pretend that the show can never quite overcome.


Such a shame. Such beautiful voices. Such an important story -- we are talking about nothing less than the birth of rock and roll here, as it grew out of the church, that fought back to keep its great singers from singing music that it considered blasphemous. Racism, sexism, even performerism -- the segment that details white people throwing pennies at the black performers as an act of derision is a stunner. More of this, please. More singing together. And less pretending.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Rock/Gospel Division awards "Marie and Rosetta" Three Stars. At the outset I told my partner we had a "Five Star Show" happening here. Perhaps it will become so as the run continues. It is still worth coming to see, if only for the first fifteen minutes and the potential of so much more. 




"Marie and Rosetta"
Lucie SternTheater
1305 Middlefield Road
Through March 31
$40-$100

Friday, March 8, 2019

"The Who and the What" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG



It's the modern American dilemma. Dad is a Pakistani immigrant and his emotions are still wrapped up in the old country. His two daughters are Hyphenated-Americans with an emphasis on "Americans." They are still tied to their family, but not to the immutable religious customs of Dad's conservative homeland.


We love this show. Author Ayad Akhtar makes us feel for three of the four characters. Alfredo Huereca's Afzal shows fatherly devotion mixed with religion that rejects modern discussion; his eldest daughter Zarina (Denmo Ibrahim) is far too Harvard-educated to go for the typical assumptions people read into the Koran; and younger daughter Mahwish (Annelyse Ahmad) has her own problems with her offstage, un-seen Pakistani boyfriend. She cannot marry until her older sister does and therefore she must remain a quote-unquote virgin, while also satisfying boyfriend. Afzal wishes to please everyone but cannot thunder his way out of the upcoming storm.


We have trouble with Zarina's love interest, Eli (Patrick Alarpone), because he shows no physical attraction to Zarina, nor she with him. As a white convert to Islam, he is naturally suspicious to his new Atlanta Muslim community while at the same time he is subconsciously a hero to them, due to his white skin. He speaks angrily of the community's disdain of black Muslims, but only in one side comment. We could use more of this. Eli's character feels undeveloped and emotionally barren.




Don't read Zarina's book, Afzal. It won't help. Oops. Too late.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "The Who and the What" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Acting, Staging and Hana S. Sharif's Direction earn one Star each. The Bangle is for the way Akhtar puts religious issues onto the table without talking down to anyone. The show is refreshing and educational at the same time. We get to think while being locked into a well-crafted plot.


'The Who and the What"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through March 24
$25-$70
(Small theater. Cheap seats fine.)