SF Theater Blog

Friday, July 13, 2018

Sunday in the Park with George ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ (FIVE STARS!)

Before the show started Thursday night, Director Bill English said, "The beginning of this show is so different. It is about art, not necessarily about entertainment." He needn't have worried. San Francisco Playhouse's production of Stephen Sondheim's 1984 masterpiece "Sunday in the Park with George" is brilliant in every respect. It is not your average Broadway musical, and you probably won't exit the theater humming a melody, but you get to see the master in his prime. No one has ever written lyrics like Stephen Sondheim. The argument about him, if there is one, concerns his music. To this listener, Sondheim uses lyrics to tell the story and music to support the lyrics, and not the other way around. Everyone can't be Leonard Bernstein. And no one else can be Stephen Sondheim.

John Bambery and Nanci Zoppi bring emotion and honesty to George and Dot. Both singers are actors first, so their lovely voices spring from the hearts of their characters. Zoppi, who we loved in "Noises Off" and "She Loves Me" at SFP, always surprises us. She is a natural comedian so our first reaction is always to smile. And then, she sings. Bambery is from Boston and we hope he sticks around awhile.

Anyone involved with "Sunday in the Park" will understand the artistic dilemma, so brilliantly depicted in Act Two's "Chromolume #7, "Putting it Together" and "Children and Art." If your children ask whether they should go work for Google or try painting for a living, take them to see this show. Take them anyway. There are life lessons here that are not unique to theater. The creative process is alive in all of us. How we bring it out is what differentiates artists from...well, reviewers.


The San Francisco Theater Blog awards "Sunday in the Park with George" FIVE STARS! What? Did I say Five Stars? Nobody gets Five Stars. We must be getting soft. Perhaps a misprint?

Nope, no misprint. One star each for writing, directing, acting and staging makes Four, and a Fifth for the audacity of Sondheim and James Lapine in looking at George Seurat's famous painting, "Un dimanche après-midi à l'île de la Grande Latte," and deciding the only thing missing was the story of the painter. And now we know. Five Stars. In any language. Ask the guy with the pipe.

"Sunday in the Park with George"
San Francisco Playhouse
2d Floor of Kensington Park Hotel
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Through September 8

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Dry Powder ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Our brains explode as they contemplate the survival of the fittest and realize that the bad guys are going to make it and we're  not. Nonetheless, we loved Sarah Burgess's "Dry Powder." A primer on the financial community's devotion to winning at any cost, we leave the theater feeling like a dinosaur staring up at the approaching comet. Where will we hide? Dude. I need to call my lawyer.

Emily Jeanne Brown (Jenny) and Jeremy Kahn (Seth) live to impress megalomaniac Rick (Aldo Billingsley), their boss at KMM, his private equity firm. The way to do that is to bring in new acquisitions that will add to the bottom line. How they do that, and what that acquisition will do to the company being acquired and all the people who work there, is not on the table. A few fractions of a percentage point will tell the tale. Nothing else is to be considered.

Feelings are weak and control is strength. The strong survive. The weak perish. Let's go get coffee.

Jeff (Kevin Kemp) has a suitcase company that is set to be acquired by Rick's firm. Seth brought in the deal. Jenny sees less profitability unless Jeff's company is immediately dissolved, with manufacturing moved from California to Bangladesh. This is unacceptable to Seth, and to Jeff...or is it?

We love the interplay between Seth and Jenny. The dialogue is fast and crisp. Both Kahn and Brown make us feel they have been doing this for years. Billingsley knows how to fume. The minimal set by Tanya Orellana helps us concentrate on the often-vicious dialog, while Victoria Livingston-Hall's costumes are simple -- one business suit per character. Rick's is expensive. Seth's and Jenny's look lived in. Jeff's is shlumpy. The brown shoes tell us everything we need to know.

Everyone has their price and it is always personal. Rick is the one who knows this best. In the end, that price is usually less than one would think.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Dry Powder" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise for Kahn and Brown. These two could take their act on the road. The Bangle is for Sarah Burgess's writing. As "dry powder" is financial talk for cash on hand, great dialog is the dry powder of the playwright. Burgess has plenty in the bank, although, amazingly, this is her first produced play. We will hear from her again.

"Dry Powder"
Aurora Theater
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through July 22

(*there are no bad seats at the Aurora. By cheapies. You will miss nothing.)

Saturday, July 7, 2018

In Brauanu: ☼

Nazis are easy pickings for writers. They are evil, or they are ridiculous. Playwright Dipika Guha has chosen to go for laughs. Sadly, her new "In Braunau" is more weird than funny. The laughs are about modern cultural references, but never about what she seems to feel is the heart of the show: the hidden Nazi in all of us.

Young idealists Sarah (Sango Tajima) and Justin (Josh Schell) have decided to open a B&D, that is a Bed and Dinner, in the very home in Braunau, Austria, where Adolf Hitler was born. Sarah calls it "A dark chapter with freshly baked cookies." This makes as much sense as not recognizing the clearly evil designs of their first long-term guests Katrine (Elissa Beth Stebbins) and Alfred (Timothy Roy Redmond). Katrine, channeling Nurse Ratched, and Alfred, looking and acting like Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice. have mannerisms which, one would think, might alert Sarah and Justin to certain nefarious tendencies. 

But Justin has fallen in love. Male-bonding-wise.

There is a Nazi in the basement, who may be imaginary.  Played by Mohammed Shehata, this young man wants Sarah to kill him.

Also participating are Shehata and Sam Jackson (as first guests Jai and Soha) who are, quite correctly, scared out of their minds. Jackson also plays P, an Egyptian refugee with an Israeli accent and an underground website who is trying to make sense out of Sarah and Justin.

No one could really be as naive as these Americans. The author seems to be lampooning characters who are lampoons to begin with. As for the ending, you will have to figure out for yourself what happens to Sarah.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "In Braunau" One Star, for Sango Tajima, whose character at least shows signs of recognizing reality. (See sidebar for explanation of ratings.) The show will improve when Guha decides if her story is horror, comedy, drama, farce, or something else.

And speaking of which: we would be remiss not to mention that leaving the theater you must expect to be assaulted by the Zombie Apocalypse that Market Street has become at night. Nazis upstairs and Zombies downstairs.

"In Braunau" 
The Rueff at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater
1127 Market Street, San Francisco
Through July 7

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Straight White Men: ? ☼ ?

You may love Young Jean Lee's new "Straight White Men." You may find it speaks to issues you find crucial and contemporary. You may laugh out loud, as many in our Opening Night audience did, at things that others in the same audience found sad and depressing. It may be that if you are of an age closer to the dad in this story, as younger audience members hoot and holler, you will turn and ask your seat-mate: "What am I missing? Why are they laughing?"

Not that the slapstick is not funny. Sometimes it is. But this is not Father Knows Best. Everything has an edge. Lee writes that her story is actually about gender -- the entire production team is composed of female and/or gender-nonconforming people, for example. The father and three sons we see on stage, horsing around in both playful and destructive ways, are in this view caught up in gender normative roles. Eldest brother Matt (Ryan Tasker) has given up on the expectations everyone has for the smartest and most-highly educated son. He has returned to care for his recently-widowed father. The other two brothers, successful in their own careers, see Matt's assumed role as caregiver to be demeaning and beneath him.

Dad (James Carpenter) does too, though he is trying hard to pretend otherwise.

Jake (Seann Gallagher) and Drew (Christian Haines), the middle and younger brothers, take turns trying to categorize Matt. Jake wants Matt's reticence to compete in the world to be a political statement, while Drew hammers on Matt to see a therapist.

This sounds pretty much like a family with no women in it. There is another angle, however, which involves Person In Charge 1 (J Jha) and Person in Charge 2 (Arianna Evans). I don't want to take away any surprise, so let me simply say the guy in the dress APPEARS to be calling to Matt and the woman doing all the cleanup APPEARS also to be calling him.

More, we will not say. Anyway, the audience would probably not find it funny.

RATINGS: ? ☼ ?

The San Francisco Theater Blog Department of Confusion awards "Straight White Men" ? Stars. We just don't know how to feel about this show. Did we miss something obvious? The youngsters in the audience seemed to think so. Others, like this reviewer, found ourselves scratching our gray beards and wondering what is so funny about these sad people?

"Straight White Men"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through July 8

Sunday, June 10, 2018

"A Lesson From Aloes" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

A brilliant play never ages. What a delight it is to revisit Athol Fugard's "A Lesson From Aloes." We find ourselves as involved in the lives of Piet, Gladys and Steve as we were when we first saw the show back in the 1990s. Performed in Johannesburg before opening on Broadway in 1981, the show takes us back to 1963 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Arpartheid is fourteen years old at this point and firmly in control of the racial inequalities it has officially visited upon the country. 

Piet (Victor Talmadge) and Gladys (Wendy van den Heuvel) are preparing a dinner for an old friend in the anti-Apartheid resistance. There is tension between the couple, which we realize stems from Glady's recent release from an institution. Of course, the issues are deeper than that -- the government has taken her there on suspicion of agitating against them. And the bitter reason for that becomes even clearer later.

Steve (Adrian Roberts) arrives, a bit tipsy. He has announced that he is taking his family and emigrating to England because there is no more future in South Africa for non-whites. This was true enough in 1963 but Apartheid had more than thirty years left and the situation got so much worse in later years.

There are several lovely sequences when Steve and Piet remember the old days and the good times they had together.

The truth slowly emerges. Fugard shows us his all his skill as a dramatist, giving us but a taste as the plot thickens, and couching it in the voices of his characters so we can see how intolerable life has become in their beloved country.

This is a beautiful story and a brilliant rendition. By all means, rush down to Z-Space before June 29.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "A Lesson From Aloes" Four Stars. Story, above all, and then acting, set and Timothy Near's direction earn One Star each. All three actors will reach out and grab you. Their world is different than ours, but Athol Fugard makes sure we feel every beat of their hearts.

"A Message From Aloes"
Z Space Theater
470 Florida Street, San Francisco
Through June 29

Finks ☼ ☼ ☼

By the end of Joe Gilford's "Finks," you have learned more about America in the 1950s than you wanted to know. The wave of Anti-Communist hysteria that swept over the country in the wake of Russia's awakening and emergence as a world power is difficult for us to imagine now. But the underlying message is that fear will always make America react in the most reactionary ways.

Mickey Dobbs (Jim Stanek) is a struggling comic who falls for Natalie Meltzer (Donna Vivino). Natalie is the prototypical Jewish activist of the day, filled with slogans and songs glorifying The Collective. Mickey just wants to work, but becoming involved with Natalie means also being present at meetings of show-business people with left-wing sympathies.

This is what America was like. Being in the room where it happened could get you thrown in jail and blacklisted from your job.

 We love seeing Gabriel Marin again, as doomed actor Fred Lang, plus an excellent set piece as a really tall Lou Costello. Leo Ash Evans plays Bobby, Natalie's professional and bisexual partner. His dance sequences with Natalie, and again at the powerful ending, are highlights of the show.

We also enjoyed Michael Barrett Austin, playing several roles including Elia Kazan (seen below), as well as the imposing Robert Sicular whose severe Committee Chairman look scared us silly despite remembering we were watching a show.

Act One starts too slowly for us, as we become accustomed to the staging, but in Act Two Director Giovanna Sardelli brings us home powerfully.

"Finks" is Joe Gilford's tribute to his parents, blacklisted actor and producers Jack and Madeline Gilford. We become drawn into the personal dilemmas faced by anyone ever accused of a trumped-up charge in a country where insanity has taken over.  In the end, deciding to be a fink or not depends on you. Sometimes, all you can do is dance as names are named.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Finks" Three Stars. The show is one that needed to be written. The excellent dramatic sequences, terrific cast and inventive staging outweigh the stylized comic routines which just make us uncomfortable. A little knowledge of Yiddishkeit --- well, it couldn't hurt.

Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through July 1, 2018

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Jesus Christ Superstar ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Go see the Ray of Light production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" at San Francisco's Victoria Theater. The brilliant twist of an all-female cast adds a dimension to the original show that makes it feel new. Dancing, singing, acting and directing are spectacular. The set is first rate. We left the theater feeling like we had seen a Broadway production.

Composer Andrew Lloyd Weber and Lyricist Tim Rice were in their early twenties when their rock opera debuted in 1970, a new period for post-"Hair" Broadway. The concept of Jesus being the pop star of his day was both loved, on Broadway, and reviled in Christian hinterlands.

But times have changed in half a century. Ray of Light effectively brings mixed media into the new show, with TV screens featuring network bubbleheads treating Jesus's last days in Jerusalem like every other silly and sensationalist newscast. It is a satisfying touch of modernity to see demonstrators on TV carrying signs that say "RESIST ROME!"

Jesus is played by Janelle LaSalle. Her entrance, afro soaking up the spotlight as her followers part to allow her through, is stunning. She sings more like an angel than a prophet.

We loved Maita Ponce as Mary Magdalene. She sings two of the show's most famous numbers, "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and "Everything's All Right." Ponce is very special and we will hear a lot more from her.

Another standout is the evil Caiaphas, sung and acted by Heather Orth. Her deep alto projects malevolent power. She is beautifully cast and played with power.

And let us not forget to mention Costume Designer Maggie Whitaker's clothing all the High Priests in sleeveless power dresses, each in a primary color.

Judas (Jocelyn Pickett) is a strong singer but may be somewhat miscast. As an actor she is given few chances to project any doubts Judas may have had. This may be the director's choice, but it is questionable. In the end we are led to believe she just cheaped out and ratted on her friend.

Well, maybe she did.

Disciples can sing. Apostles can sing. Everyone can dance. One walks on water. What a show.

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Department gives "Jesus Christ Superstar (female version" a very high rating of Four Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The BANGLE is for the delightful twist of the female cast. Director Shane Ray told us one of the reasons he chose to cast the show this way is there are so many brilliant female actors in the Bay Area who come to audition. Aren't we the lucky ones.

 "Jesus Christ Superstar" (female version)
Victoria Theater
2961 16th St., San Francisco
Through June 9, 2018