SF Theater Blog

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Little Erik: ☼

To review a show I love, or like a lot, is easy. Writing flows from the rich memory of what I saw the night before. And with other shows, I almost always can find something about which I can wax enthusiastically, even in a show that may not meet my minimum standards for recommendation. And then there are theater companies I just like, those who don't have huge budgets but take chances. With these, such as the Magic or Theatreworks or San Francisco Playhouse or the Aurora, I often feel like an evangelist, anxious to spread the good news.

But I cannot recommend Aurora's latest production "Little Erik," billed as a contemporary adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's "Little Eyolf."  Switching gender roles to make it hip, and changing the locale to the tech-savvy Northern California of 2016, can be seen as daring. Our local RN (Reviewer of Note) thought so.

But for me, it all seems kind of silly.  Not one performer makes me believe a word he or she says. Perhaps this is the fault of Mark Jackson, who wrote and directed the show. Perhaps the lack of chemistry between the two leads (Marline Talkington as Joie and Joe Eastlack as Freddie) can be explained by how unrelentingly awful a woman Joie is made out to be. Freddie's ooh-wow revelations about nature might have made sense in the time of Walden, but in 2016 he's just dreary. Plus, he's a leach and a worm. It doesn't matter how many times Joie and Freddie toss around the f-bomb, the sexual undertones are neither subtle nor sexy. We are left with a relationship that makes no sense. These are our leads.

Don't ask about Bernie. Greg Ayres is asked to be both a prancing nerd and attractive to Andi (Mariah Castle) at the same time. It's an impossible task. And what game is Andi playing, anyway?

Folks: it's 2016. Making the Rat-Wife (Wilma Bonet) a Latina cleaning woman is just plain insulting.

They really need to work on the ending. As the droning music builds for the final scenes, we know it's either going to be Terrorism or ... well, the other apocalyptic choice, which would be over the top in a Stephen Colbert spoof. Guess which they choose? (In fairness, Ibsen's ending of Little Eyolf, which was kind of tacked on to his vision of economic and social dislocation, was not great either.)


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Little Erik" One Star. The One Star is for Ibsen, one of the master playwrights of the 19th Century. The Aurora and other companies have done exemplary productions of his plays. Little Eyolf was always a minor Ibsen play. Sadly, at this point (we are commenting on the World Premiere),  Little Erik still is.

"Little Erik"
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through February 28, 2016

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Nether: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Hello uncomfortable.  Jennifer Haley's "The Nether," having its Bay Area Premiere at San Francisco Playhouse, is brilliant and unique, but it also deals with subject matter guaranteed to make you squirm. 

We're not going to describe the plot -- the action is not chronological and anything we tell you will probably be a spoiler. It's enough to say a virtual world has been developed by Mr. Sims (Warren David Keith) to give an outlet to men to indulge the fantasies that in the real world would have them committed. Their goal is to "live without consequence," and this virtual world, or "The Nether," has been valuable for Mr. Sims in several important ways.

You can't talk about the SFP production without mentioning Nina Ball's brilliant revolving set. We are transported from reality to virtuality and back, as well as from real people to their avatars in the virtual world. It would be hopelessly confusing without these set changes. 

What a cast. The 12 year-old Carmen Steele alternates with Matilda Holtz to play Iris, a role that would be disastrous is not played by a surprisingly mature actor. Louis Parnell is perfect as Mr. Doyle, deeply damaged in the real world and seeking redemption in the other. Ruibo Qian plays the Inspector and Josh Schell is Mr. Woodnut. Don't ask, because we're not going to tell you who they are.

RATINGS:  ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Nether" Four Stars. It intrigues you without letting up for eighty minutes. Virtual worlds exist about which most of us have no idea and the relationship between reality and virtuality has never been more difficult to define. Jennifer Haley logs us in and we're happy to go along for the ride.

"The Nether"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
2d Floor of Kensington Park Hotel
Through March 5

"Gem of the Ocean" ☼ ☼ ☼

August Wilson's master work is a ten play cycle dealing with the lives of the black population of Pittsburgh's Hill District, where Wilson grew up. Each decade of the Twentieth Century gets one play, with "Gem of the Ocean" taking place first. Set in 1904, in the home of the shadowy 285-year-old Aunt Esther, the play is rich in historical significance.  Wilson completed "Gem" in 2003, two years before his death.

Margo Hall is terrific as Aunt Esther, the role originated on Broadway by Phylicia Rashad. She gives down-home depth to the character hinted at (but never seen) in other plays in the cycle. Excellent as well are Omoze Idehendre as Black Mary and especially Namir Smallwood as Citizen Barlow.

There are many themes in play here, but perhaps the most relevant is how difficult the lives of black people have continued to be after slavery, in 1904 on up to the present day. As Solly Two Kings (played by Juney Smith) says, himself old enough to have been born into slavery: "What is freedom? I got it, but what is it?

Director Daniel Alexander Jones is using the original unedited script with which Wilson always began his rehearsals. He would write extra and winnow it down as time went on. So this Marin Playhouse production contains scenes the author eliminated, segments never before seen. It does not help: the production runs only fifteen minutes shy of three hours. Act One holds our attention while Act Two does not. The music is great but the pace of the show drags, especially in Act Two.

 RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Gem of the Ocean" Three Stars. It's definitely worth seeing, especially for August Wilson scholars. We love this cast. It's always a pleasure to watch Margo Hall. But that's a really long Act Two.

"Gem of the Ocean"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
EXTENDED Through February 14

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Irving Berlin's songs still make all other songwriters take their Ipads and rap themselves on their high-tech foreheads, saying: Why can't I write:

"Not for just one hour, 
Not for just one day, 
Not for just one year, 
But always...?"

The answer is you can't, because Irving Berlin did it first, and, anyway, it's 2016, not 1919, and we want car crashes. Who wants to hear that soppy stuff anymore?

Everybody, that's who, especially every person in the Opening Night audience lucky enough to hear the phenomenal Hershey Felder play and sing Irving Berlin's songs. He also takes us on a theatrical odyssey through the long life of the Byelorussian immigrant (1888-1989 ) who became the most acclaimed American songwriter of the Twentieth Century.

Hershey Felder makes a habit of getting inside great composers, with humor and pianistic genius  -- previous shows have showcased the likes of Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. But the arc of Irving Berlin's life encompasses more than music. It is the history of an entire century, featuring songs written during two World Wars and The Great Depression.  And we get to hear the stories behind such iconic Berlin classics as "White Christmas," "Dancing Cheek to Cheek" and "There's No Business like Show Business." What else? How about "Easter Parade?" Not satisfied, for God's sake: how about "God Bless America?"

The show comes with a thick spatula of shmaltz, for sure. But so did Berlin. For an hour and a half Hershey Felder becomes Irving Berlin. The overheads and old recordings help, but we never really take our eyes away from the performer. 

Felder has become an international treasure, one you should never miss the opportunity to see. We truly love this show, and we would happily give it our top rating of Five Stars if there were only a few car crashes.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division happily and hummingly awards "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin" Four Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Felder earns all of them, as performer and book writer, and the Bangle is for the chills we get when the audience is singing along. No one has the right to remain silent. We can't anyway.  Don't miss this show.

"Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin"
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through February 14

Friday, December 11, 2015

"Emma" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

There are icicles in Phoenix and look out for flying pigs. We thought it would take that long before we could again have the divine opportunity to leave a theater humming the songs from a musical -- and then still be humming them the next day! Thank you Mr. Paul Gordon.

Also, curse you Mr. Paul Gordon! Earworms!  "Mr. Robert Martin" will not leave us alone, to say nothing of the lovely "Emma." This is a price we are willing to pay.

Reworked for the 200th Anniversary of Jane Austen's "Emma," Gordon originally premiered the show with Theatreworks in 2007. It became one of the the most successful shows in Theatreworks' history, and is now back for a reprise which, if anything, has only added luster.

Theatreworks favorite Lianne Marie Dobbs returns to play Emma, our heroine with better intentions here than in Austen's original story. We find her a Regency-era Luci Ricardo, bumbling in all her attempts to be a good matchmaker. Her Ethel Mertz is the wonderful Leigh Ann Larkin, making her Theatreworks debut as Harriet Smith. A gifted physical comic, she goes from down in the dumps to infectiously happy with the shrug of a shoulder. Her song "Humiliation" is one of the high parts of the show, and its reprise is show-stopping.

An equal to Miss Dobbs's Emma is Timothy Gulan as Mr. Knightley, Emma's brother in law, rival and, eventually, well, you can guess. Gulan is also reprising his role from the original 2007 production.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Emma" Four Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The show could scarcely be better, despite a somewhat slow beginning. Paul Gordon is a treasure. We loved his "Being Earnest," also here at Theatreworks, in 2013. Hopefully, when he runs out of English stories to adapt he can start in on ours. 

We award the BANGLE for the musicality of this show, as epitomized by the lovely set piece when Emma plays and sings adequately at the piano but is then replaced by Miss Fairfax, played by Sharon Rietkerk. Sharon Rietkerk can REALLY sing. Of course, William Liberatore is actually playing the piano in the pit, so let us send out a Jolly Ho Ho to him, as well as a sizable chunk of the Bangle.

Luci Stern Theatre
500 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through January 2

A Christmas Story: The Musical ☼ ☼ ☼ BAUB

You've still got a few days left to see the brief run of Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Joseph Robinette's staged adaptation of the popular 1983 film "A Christmas Story." Now "A Christmas Story: The Musical," the show stars an ensemble of children, helped along by the usual holiday assortment of loving mom, dumb dad, drunk Santa Claus and evil schoolyard bully who gets his.

It appears we were the only people in the theater who did not know the original movie. It helps a great deal to know the film, for there were appreciative "ah-ha"s from the audience each time a new scene presented a familiar situation. The triple-dog-dare scene pictured above is one of those.

We loved Ralphie (played by Myles Moore on Opening Night), the boy who wanted nothing but a bb-gun for Christmas, despite all his elders' worries that he would shoot his eye out. For a young boy Moore has a marvelously assured voice. Parents Susannah Jones (Mom) and Christopher Swan (The Old Man) were appropriate 1940s midwest parents. Little brother Randy (Joshua Turchin) made us laugh with recognition as he tried to stand up in his winter clothing.

In fairness, we have to say that we could do without the Chinese restaurant scene at the end (Fa ra ra ra ra). It's hard to say whether the most offensive part was the scene itself or the raucous laughter of the theater audience.

The dance scene with Dad leading a bunch of Rockette-like dancers using lamps as extra legs was quite funny.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "A Christmas Story: The Musical" Three Stars with an unfortunate Bauble of Despair for the final scene. Director John Rando and Choreographer Warren Carlyle are to be commended for getting that many kids to dance, sing and act in such a professional manner.

"A Christmas Story: The Musical"
The Orpheum Theatre
Market Street
through December 13

Monday, December 7, 2015

Playwrights Foundation's Flash Plays: NO RATING

An evening of 1-2 minute "plays," presented in clusters of nine or ten plays one after the other, each cluster featuring one rotating ensemble of actors and directed by a different director, leads this viewer to several conclusions:

1) Put enough playwrights in a room with enough word processors and you will find out about their lives, their concerns and their views about the world in which they live.

     1a) Judging from the topics of the plays selected, the authors are not worried as much about the outside world as they are about gentrification in the Mission, gender, sexual orientation and technology.

2) Directors matter.

3) Headlines be damned, our artists reflect what they see around them. They may worry every few weeks about another mass shooting, but they are concerned every day with economic survival and existential issues.

4) We love Flash Plays. There were several standouts, like Josh Senyak's "Cell Phones," Alison Luterman's "Brooklyn/Oakland," and Michael Sullivan's "The Rock."  But, to be honest, a hundred or so plays are impossible to digest. By intermission we were toast. Some day we would love to see a third as many three times longer.