SF Theater Blog

Friday, February 10, 2017

"Fool for Love" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Eddie and May have been knocking us out since 1983, when Sam Shepard first directed "Fool for Love" at the Magic Theater.  The new 2017 Magic production, directed by Loretta Greco, features Jessi Campbell as May and Andrew Pastides as Eddie, with Patrick Russell as Martin and Rod Gnapp as The Old Man. The original cast could scarcely have been any better.

Andrew Pastides brings Eddie that Sam Shepard vulnerable macho. He is good with a lasso rope  and apparently is irresistible to May, no matter how she tries to be rid of him. (We do wait for him to tie the rope around her.)

Jessi Campbell's May is tortured at the prospect of getting back together with Eddie, who has just shown up into her new life, and yet, as we see at the end, this is not an avoidable love affair.

Rod Gnapp plays himself, as Shepard pokes holes in the wall between actor and audience, and Patrick Russell makes us feel for the hometown boy who has no idea what he has stepped into. Both Eddie and May have memorable monologues towards the end, as we finally figure out who The Old Man is, along with the torment that haunts Eddie and May. These two monologues are Sam Shepard at his best.

People don't change. We are still Fools for Love.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division wishes to advise our readers never to mess with a bad-tempered woman driving a stretch Mercedes. We have to thank the never-seen Countess, without whose intervention the lighting guy wouldn't have had so much fun.

We award "Fool for Love" Four Stars. Cast, staging, direction and text deserve a star each. This is a rather pricey show, for the Magic, but it is worth every penny.

"Fool for Love"
Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through Feb. 26

Sunday, February 5, 2017

"The Real Thing" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The play is thirty five years old and has lost none of its wit. In these days of one act plays to help with limited audience attention spans, Tom Stoppard gives us more than two hours of repartee. Act Two alone is seventy five minutes long, which is fearsome to consider before the show starts, but it flows by neatly and seamlessly.

"The Real Thing" shows us a masterful writer at the peak of his talents and the new Aurora Theater production gives Director Timothy Near an excellent six-piece ensemble of actors to work with. The music is also a plus -- songs from the '70s fill the house and then are diminished onto someone's radio in a corner of the set. We know Sound Designer Cliff Carruthers did not come up with this idea but his execution adds immeasurably to our enjoyment of the show.

Our story belongs to Elijah Alexander, who plays Henry, a playwright known for his clever use of words. Henry's problem is the scenes he creates on stage end up following him into his real life. His primary love interest is Annie (Liz Sklar)...

...with whom Henry has taken up while married to Charlotte (Carrie Paff). At the time, Charlotte was married to Max (Seann Gallagher).

Then, there is Billy (Tommy Gorrebeeck), who is attracted to Annie, and vice-versa, and, ultimately we meet the Scots revolutionary Brodie (also played by Gorrebeeck). We love Brodie. We can imagine another show with Brodie as Henry and Henry as Brodie, as long as Stoppard would write it.

There are the usual twists and turns but in the end it comes down to love. More or less. An excellent production of a classic play with a strong ensemble. What's not to like?

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Real Thing" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. The thing that stops us from granting a fourth star to a play that has earned a thousand stars in its time, is the writing of the characters who are not named Henry. Henry has all the pithy quotes -- "I don't think writers are sacred, but words are..." -- and it is he that wields the cricket bat. We come to see what he is looking for: the act of falling in love. As for the other characters, well, bollocks. They are on their own.

"The Real Thing"
The Aurora Theater
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley

Through March 5

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"Native Son" ☼ ☼ ☼

Nambi E.  Kelley's adaptation of Richard Wright's classic "Native Son" looks great. Director Seret Scott keeps the characters zipping in and out of Giulio Cesare Perrone's porous set. The story revolves around Bigger Thomas (Jerod Haynes) and Bigger never stops moving. He leaps up staircases, dives through windows, jumps from one door to another, plays around with his girl and moves back and forth chronologically, while at the same time committing a few heinous crimes. There is no time for reflection.

Which is a shame. We re-read Native Son after we saw the show. In the book, we see Bigger for what he is, a frightened, angry black man unable to understand let alone deal with his demons. The issues he faces resonate deeply with us. But in the play we get little understanding, only angst and emotion. At the end, Bigger stares out at us as the police are closing in. He is confused. So are we. Lights out.

We love William Hartfield as the Black Rat, the dark side of Bigger's nature. Dressed in a dark fedora pulled down so we cannot see his expression, the Black Rat is Bigger's voice of survival.

  Rosie Hallett and Adam Magill are excellent as the well-meaning but preposterously dense young white couple. Patrick Kelly Jones plays detective Britten, whose viciously racist language makes us hear all too clearly the demented world of Richard Wright's Chicago in the late 1930s.

 RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Native Son" Three Stars, principally because we all need to hear more Richard Wright. Enjoy the action on stage, then go home and read the book.

"Native Son"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through Feb 12

Sunday, January 29, 2017

"The Christians" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The dilemma with Lucas Hnath's "The Christians" is that the doctrinal dispute, that threatens to tear apart the evangelical megachurch headed by Pastor Paul, seems almost medieval. Those monks who argued about how may angels can dance on the point of a pin are not all that far removed from the congregants considering the question posed here: is there a Hell of fire and brimstone, or is it just metaphorical? Aren't we all expected to live a good life either way?

The game changer is Hitler. Does Hitler get to go to Heaven? Pastor Paul (Anthony Fusco) says, "Of course he does. All who accept Jesus are forgiven." Associate Pastor Joshua (Lance Gardner) says, "Not so fast. If Hitler gets in, then none of what we preach makes any sense."

If you come from a religious tradition quite different than this evangelical one, it is hard to believe that someone in the church hierarchy would not just order these two to patch things up, work it out, we've got a major league business going here and let's not ruffle any more feathers. Capisce?

But no. The true bottom line of "The Christians" is that the congregation loves the idea of Hell. They wouldn't come to church at all if they weren't worried about frying in Devil Oil for eternity. No amount of scholarship or progressive thinking will change that. Pastor Paul's sincere question is destroying his church as well as his marriage to Wife (Stephanie Prentice). Moral: Keep your mouth closed and the Good Book can stay open.

We love the full choir, seated on risers or standing to sing. We wish there were more music and somewhat less doctrinal squabble.

 Anthony Fusco is believable as a doubter (especially at the beginning when his progressive sermon is actually cheered by the theater audience), and Lance Gardner's personal monologue towards the end makes us feel sympathetic to his plight. Stephanie Prentice can really sing. How we wish we could hear more of her. And Millie Brooks is terrific  as a member of the choir who must make the choice between the Devil she knows and the uncertain future she is being offered.

Warren David Keith is perfect as Elder Jay, who is the mouthpiece of the Board of Directors. In the end, when money talks, everyone must listen. Finally, we speak about the One True Religion.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Christians" THREE STARS WITH A BANGLE OF PRAISE. One star each for acting, Bill English's Direction and Set, and the way Lucas Hnath makes us feel for the internal anguish of characters who stand on the rock of this megachurch because it is all they've got in the world.

A BANGLE OF PRAISE for the choir from the First Universalist Unitarian Society of San Francisco. Bill English often calls San Francisco Playhouse an "empathy gym." It would also make a grand church. Perhaps there is no difference.

"The Christians"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
(Second floor of the Kensington Park Hotel)
Through March 11

 (There are NO bad seats in this theater)

Monday, January 16, 2017

"Crimes of the Heart" ☼ ☼ ☼

Three sisters from Hazelhurst, Mississippi, have returned to the family home. The year is 1974 and Ol' Grandad is in the hospital again. It is Lenny's 30th birthday. Played by Therese Plaehn, Lenny is the eldest sister into whose hands the care of Ol' Grandad has fallen. She has summoned the other two home, ostensibly to deal with a new problem the family has on its hands: Babe (Lizzie O'Hara), the youngest, has shot her husband.

All three women have their issues, but only Babe (above, middle) has seemingly done anything about it. Meg (Sarah Moser) has a singer career that has stalled, Lenny is mooning over a man she was too afraid to pursue and Babe figures she will just kill herself. But she's not much good at that either.

The Southern-to-the-hilt cliches come hard and fast with the entrance of Chick Boyle, played by the wonderful Laura Jane Bailey. She is the mother nobody wants, especially since in this family the real mama came to an untimely end, along with the family cat.

We love the ensemble. All four women, plus a sincere Joshua Marx, who plays Barnette Lloyd, Babe's attorney who hopes for more, as well as Timothy Redmond in a smaller role as Doc Porter, are excellent. There really isn't much story except the personal one between the sisters, so the cast has to be top notch. And it is.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Crimes of the Heart" Three Stars, primarily because this is our first review of the New Year, and it doesn't seem right to enthuse about anything right now. This was Beth Henley's very first play (written in 1979) and it won a Pulitzer Prize plus she went on to win an Oscar for the screenplay for the film version starring Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek and Diane Keaton. Nice start, we'd say.

Don't expect anything you haven't seen before. You might feel right at home, if you are from that part of the country, or, like us, you may laugh in all the right places, feel happy when you walk out of the theater, and that's about it.

"Crimes of the Heart"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through Feb. 5

Sunday, December 4, 2016

"Daddy Long Legs" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The story is formulaic and the music breaks no new ground. So why did we love "Daddy Long Legs" so much?

1) The two leads (Hilary Maiberger as Jerusha and Derek Carley as Jervis) are magnificent, together and apart. Many songs are classic duets, but in others a unique background vocal arrangement brings the two characters together even when their locations are far apart. It is hard to over-emphasize how effective this is.

2) A two person cast can be deadly if the two actors have little chemistry together. This is not a problem with Jerusha and Jervis. But boy do they make us wait for that first kiss.

3) John Caird's book, adapted from the more-than-100-year-old story by Jean Webster, is perfect. Caird is no lightweight, having written the books for Les Miserables and Candide among others, and he is a master of understatement. There is only one moment, in Act Two, when we feel the action drags, and that is probably the fault of the one song in the show that is excessive ("Charity"). The boy is in love. The girl is in love. No time to stop and sing about it. Chop chop.

4) Paul Gordon gives us songs that stick with us, like "The Color of Your Eyes," "The Secret of Happiness" and "Christmas in Manhattan."

But, in the end, it all comes down to beautiful performances by -- (See No. 1).

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division is delighted to put "Daddy Long Legs" under the mistletoe. You will love the production as much as the performances. Sidle up and give us a smooch. You'll be glad you did.

One Star each for acting, writing and music, with another for Fumiko Bielefeldt's perfect period costumes add up to: FOUR STARS!

"Daddy Long Legs"
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through Dec 31

Friday, December 2, 2016

"She Loves Me" ☼ ☼ BANG

Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's musical "She Loves Me" ought to be entitled "She Loves Me First," because we know that they went on to write the music and lyrics for the incomparable "Fiddler on the Roof." But they wrote "She Loves Me" first. If there is one problem with the season's new San Francisco Playhouse musical production it is a lack of memorable songs. There is cleverness, and a lot of wit in the humorous numbers, but you will search in vain for "Sunrise, Sunset" or "Tradition."

We enjoyed watching Katrina Lauren McGraw (above, left), alone or in ensemble. Nanci Zoppi (below, right) is a standout as Ilona Ritter, the shop girl who longs for romance. Zoppi has a loopy stage presence that counteracts the cool of some of the others.

Jeffrey Brian Adams plays Georg. Georg loves Amalia (Monique Hafen) and Amalia loves Georg, but, you know, a lot has to happen first. Adams plays his usual under-motivated, detached role, while Hafen is at her absolute best when they take the wraps off and let her be Luci Ricardo, like in the delicious "Where's My Shoe?" and "Vanilla Ice Cream."

We applaud the decision to utilize live musicians and place them where we can see them play, instead of in a pit or, worse, using a pre-recorded track. This makes all the difference in the world. There were some unfortunate squeaks but we will take the small pains to enjoy the larger pleasure.

The ensemble of Katrina Lauren McGraw, Leah Shesky and Ayelet Firstenberg are standouts. And we always love Joe Estlack. The musical good-bye each shopper receives upon leaving the store reminds us there was a time before Amazon.


Each season, the San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division looks forward to the Christmas musical at San Francisco Playhouse. These days, we all need escapism. In our opinion, though there are lots of things to like about "She Loves Me," we can't help wishing the music grabbed us more.

TWO STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE for making us wish shopping was still this much fun.

"She Loves Me"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
2d floor of Kensington Park hotel
Through January 14, 2017