SF Theater Blog

Sunday, October 9, 2022

"Otto Frank" ★ ★ ★ BANG

Live theater's magic is that you never know what will happen next. With a performer like Roger Guenvere Smith, in his one-man show "Otto Frank," the suspense is magnified because the man never moves. He sits behind a desk, arms for the most part glued to a corner of that desk. He whispers, he roars. He passes from reflection to prediction. He breaks our heart by breaking his own heart first. This is a piece of emotional and theatrical therapy.

It is impossible for those of us born after the horrors of the Holocaust to comprehend how it must have felt for the real Otto Frank, who survived Auschwitz dreaming of reuniting with his family in Amsterdam, only to discover them all dead upon his return. All that remained was Anne's diary, that he had given to her at age 13 and told her to fill it with her dreams as well as her nightmares. A neighbor had found it and saved it for him.

The current run at the Magic Theater for "Otto Frank" was for only three nights. His next move is to the Public Theater in New York in January.  The show is brilliant, but not for the squeamish. 


The San Francisco Theater Blog grants "Otto Frank: Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Go see it when you're in New York. We recommend it to anyone who wants to be transported for an hour into an actor's personal trance. You already know how the story ends - this one is about great acting. Don't miss it. 

Roger Guenvere Smith: Otto Frank"


Brian Copeland's "Grandma and Me" ★ ★ ★ ★

Brian Copeland's grandmother became a single mom at the age of 57, when she took over raising Brian and his four siblings after their mother died young. For those of us who have raised our own children in far less difficult circumstances, what this woman did is nothing short of  heroic.

But "Grandma and Me" is far more than a shoutout to Grandma. It is a testament to single parents everywhere. Copeland was fourteen when his mother died, but 37 when he and his wife divorced, leaving Copeland to raise his own four children on his own. His new show goes back and forth between his rebellious boyhood and his time as a single dad, as he comes to realize the razor edge all single moms and dads have to balance upon just to get by.

As always, Copeland gives us wonderful voices, particularly of his grandmother and of Sylvester, the man who turns out to be his stepfather. He keeps reminding us of the difference between "broke" and "poor." When you're broke, you're only out of money. You've always got options. When you're poor, every nickel adds up, even when an ice cream cone only costs five cents. "Twenty nickels is a dollar," Grandma warns. 

Above all, this latest Brian Copeland one-man show feels honest. Since one person is playing all the roles, it can get a bit confusing as to whether we are looking at 15 year-old Brian or 37 year-old Brian or 58 year-old Brian. But we don't stay puzzled for long. "Grandma and Me" is very funny as well as deep. It's about life. It's about dancing with your daughter at her wedding. It's even about lasagna. 

RATINGS ★ ★ ★ ★

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants 4 STARS to Brian Copeland's "Grandma and Me." There are so many great lines, but perhaps our favorite is Copeland's observation that when your parents are really mad at you they use all of your names, such as "John Wilkes Booth, you clean up your room right now!" 


"Brian Copeland's "Grandma and Me" 

The Marsh

1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco

EXTENDED through November 19

$ Sliding Scale

Sunday, October 2, 2022

"Indecent "★ ★ ★

In 1906, the Polish/Jewish writer Sholem Asch auditioned his newly completed drama "The God of Vengeance" to the leaders of the Jewish community in Warsaw. In a preview of what would happen seventeen years later, and for the same reasons, Jewish leaders hated Asch's play. Still, this was the beginning of one of the most influential works in the history of Yiddish theater. "God of Vengeance" was translated into fifteen different languages, including English, and played throughout Europe to enthusiastic audiences.

However, when the play had its opening on Broadway in 1923, it was ruled obscene by New York City police, in cohoots with the American Jewish establishment who found Asch's depiction of a Jewish brothel owner and two Jewish lesbians falling in love to be more than they could take. 

The show closed as soon as it opened. but Paula Vogel's "Indecent," which played on Broadway in 2017, has taken it from there. Her interpretation of both Asch's world and, above all, the forbidden relationship between the two women, gives the audience a lot to think about.

Rivka Borek and Malka Wallick are excellent as the lovers who discover each other in such a difficult situation. Lemml, the Stage Manager, who spans the age of the entire show is played with compassion by Dean Linnard. There are fine performances and excellent moments throughout the show.

We wish the story of the writer were not buried. We see him acting irrationally, but why? The story pivots to be about Rivka and Malka to the exclusion of much that has come before. The live Klezmer musicians give the show a Jewish sentiment, but they can only do so much. 


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants Three Stars to Paula Vogel's "Indecent." We loved the stunning beginning as well as the touching ending. This show is certain to garner enthusiastic reviews. The actors play many roles. We admit to getting a bit confused. 



San Francisco Playhouse

450 Sutter Street, San Francisco

2d Floor of Kensington Park Hotel

Through Nov, 5, 2022

$15 - $100

Sunday, September 11, 2022


"I'll be gone for awhile. Perhaps forever. It's nothing you did."

This statement comes up twice. Both times it is shocking. Our brains cannot process exactly what it means, though we know it can't be good. Though the title of Jonathan Spector's new show is "This Much I Know," the true undercurrent is that none of us know anything at any time about anyone else. Our brains interpret what they see based on any number of factors, none of them necessarily the facts.

This is an actor's play. All three performers (Rajesh Bose, Anna Ishida and Kenny Toll) play multiple roles, sometimes within the same sentence. Toll, in particular, is forced into Russian-accented English constantly, and each time we find ourselves believing him. We love the scenes where Ishida, playing Svetlana Stalin, or Svetlana Stalin's granddaughter Natalya, is trying to reason with Toll, playing any number of Russian family members or bureaucrats through the generations.

Each character has witnessed something horrifying. Perhaps it is an auto crash, or Stalin's executions, or white supremacy and its inevitable outcome. We particularly enjoyed the scenes where Bose, as a professor, is trying to reason with Toll, as a wavering white nationalist on his college campus.

This is what we call a Whole Ride show, which means the reviewer and his wife discuss the play the whole ride home in the car. After "This Much I Know," we both agreed we weren't sure about anything, except that we loved it. The author allows us each to make up our own mind. It feels good not to be spoon fed for once.

This expression of Anna Ishida's says it all.



The San Francisco Theater Blog Award Division is happy to award "This Much I Know" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Lukesh, Ishida and Toll earn one star each for their skilled as well as nuanced performances and the Bangle is for Tanya Orellana's absolutely brilliant set design, done with humor as well as craft. This is the World Premiere for Spector's show. It is already well worth the price of admission.

"This Much I Know"

Aurora Theatre

2081 Addison Street, Berkeley

Through Oct. 2, 2022


Tuesday, August 23, 2022

"Hershey Felder: Chopin in Paris" ★ ★ ★

Let me say at the outset that I am a pianist, as well as a lover of Chopin. I, too, left an acorn on his grave in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, as a gift from my mother, under whose piano bench I spent a good portion of my childhood listening to her play many of the Mazurkas and Polonaises that Hershey Felder performs during his Theatreworks production of "Hershey Felder: Chopin in Paris." The music triggers in me nothing but happiness and nostalgia. 

Sadly, this time, the music is not enough.  Felder's attempt to recreate a fictional piano lesson given by the composer in 1848 is a reach without enough reward. Although he plays with both grace and power, we can never disassociate Chopin, the portrayed composer, from Felder, the actor. And his attempts to answer questions from the audience, in the costume and supposed French accent of Chopin, feels less like Fredryk Chopin than Hershey Felder giving a symposium on Hershey Felder.

Parts are fascinating. Felder's explanation of a Funeral March written for his deceased sister has a great deal of soul, as do his erudite portrayals of Chopin's early life. We loved the story of La Valse de L'Adieu, written as the composer has been dumped by George Sand, as well as a quite astonishing tale about what happened to Chopin's heart after his death. That heart has been around the block. Of course, this is one thing with which reviewers, being heartless, do not have to concern themselves.

Above all, we do not understand the point of answering questions from the audience. Are we at a theatrical performance or in a lecture hall? The performer starts out as Chopin and ends up as Felder. Who is he? For us, please, keep the Fourth Wall up and allow us to us make the decision for ourselves. In the meantime, more glorious music, Sir, if you would not mind. 

RATINGS ★ ★ ★ 

The San Francisco Theater Blog awards "Hershey Felder: Chopin in Paris" Three Stars. A Hershey Felder show is always worth seeing just to hear the man play with such astounding dynamic range. For us, however, the conceit may be wearing a little thin. Is he Chopin? Gershwin? Beethoven? No. He is always Hershey Felder, and he and his audiences seem to like it that way. 


"Hershey Felder: Chopin and Paris"
Mountain View Center for the Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain view
Through Sept. 11, 2022

Friday, July 22, 2022

"FOLLIES" ★ ★ ★ ★

The moment Louis Parnell walks onto stage as impresario Dimitri Weissman, we realize what lies in front of us: an evening of pure, unapologetically joyful theatre. Bill English's direction of Steven Sondheim and James Goldman's "Follies" whooshes us from curtain to curtain and drops us off exhilarated. This is one of the rare Sondheim shows we would like to see last even longer.

There may be more going on here than simply what we see in front of us. Everyone on stage and in back of it, in balcony or orchestra seat, performer to producer, rehearsal pianist to reviewer, all of us have come through a period of profound insecurity and plague. "Follies" had been cast, rehearsed, built and then postponed once already, in 2020, by the ultra-villain Covid-19. This current 2022 production has had its own problems with the virus. So, as we sit in the theater, wearing our masks, vaxes checked at the door, feeling somewhat insecure about other theater goers in front, to the side in back and above us, our delight in the production is probably added to by a sense of relief and joy. All these costumes! Music! Dancing! Singing! Characters falling in and out of love! 

We're back!

At its heart, "Follies" is about keeping the dream alive as we age. Each character's personal story is presented in Act One, and then in Act Two the young man and woman from the glory days between World Wars, when Weissman's Follies was at its peak, stands next to the person they have become in 1971, when this show was written.

Of course, this being Stephen Sondheim, there are so many zingers flying around you can't catch most of them, like "Hey Mr. Producer, I'm talkin' to you, Sir," and "Waiting for a nice man, like a Ziegfield or a Weissman..."

Some of the songs are better than others, a few of the performances miss the mark. But there are many standouts, such as the ensemble's "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs," Maureen McVerry's acidly hysterical "Could I Leave You?," Cindy Goldfield's spectacular "I'm Still Here," sung while maneuvering a turntable to continue standing in one spot, and the very funny "The-God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me-Blues," sung by Anthony Rollins-Mullens and danced by Catrina Manahan and Emily Corbo.

RATINGS:  ★★★★ 

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division's Special Subsection for Stephen Sondheim Shows grants FOUR STARS to San Francisco Playhouse's production of "Follies." It's that good. You've got plenty of time - it runs until September 10.

San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco
Through Sept. 10, 2022

Monday, July 18, 2022

Nan and The Lower Body: ★ ★ BANG

Vagina vagina, vagina. There, I said it.

Before seeing the World Premiere of Jessica Dickey's "Nan and the Lower Body," we must understand the story is pure fiction. Dickey's real-life grandmother, Nan Day, was in fact a scientific researcher who was instrumental in discovering the then-unknown disease of Multiple Sclerosis. Our story, however, is an imagined working relationship between Day and Doctor George Papanicolau, the inventor of the Pap smear, which has saved the lives of countless thousands of women since the early 1950s, by giving them a chance at early detection of cervical cancer.

Dr. Pap, however, as far as anyone knows, never worked with Nan Day, so the story presented here, of a shy researcher, her clueless minister fianceé, the fabulously eccentric Doctor himself and his disappointed wife -- might be based on reality or it might not be.

If I hadn't read about this in the Promo notes, would it have mattered? Maybe not. The Doctor (Christopher Daftsios) is bombastic and quite likeable, perhaps like the real Dr. Pap, and Nan (Elissa Beth Stebbins) is sharp but conflicted, perhaps like the real Nan Day, and her fianceé Ted (Jeffrey Brian Adams) is a clueless shmo, as perhaps he was. But if he was that obtuse,  would this ambitious, rural minister really have such modern beliefs about women's equality? More to the point, would someone like Nan fall for this guy? It's an unexplained mystery. 

And how could a researcher arrive at her brand-new job, fall over with an obvious ailment we know we're going to find out about sooner or later, and within ten minutes have this dedicated doctor 
ready to turn his life's research over to her? It is all entertaining, but on a soap-opera level. It never feels real.

The one thing that is definitely true is that most men and women are uncomfortable with using the word "vagina." There are several very entertaining bits as we watch first Nan and then Ted squirm over it. The scene where the doctor expalins to Ted what the stirrups in his office are used for is a classic. He wants to get out of there as soon as possible, and we kind of do too.

Lisa Ramirez's Mache, Dr. Pap's wife, was the character we identified with best. She has been the doctor's first donor, his best friend and companion since they were youngsters in Greece. Now, she is older. Nothing is the same. And Dr. Pap has found a new, younger researcher.


The San Francisco Theatre Blog grants Jessica Dickey's "Nan and the Lower Body" Two Stars with a Bangle of Praise. The Bangle is for Nina Ball's marvelous stage presentation. The show is a visual dream for an audience. As a World Premiere, "Nan" is still a youngster. The production team at Theatreworks will certainly close some obvious holes, mostly on a personal level. We know that the writer loved her grandmother, but we want to feel the same about the characters in her play. We would love to feel love conquers all.

"Nan and the Lower Body"
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through August 7, 2022