SF Theater Blog

Monday, June 10, 2024

"Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration" ★★★ BANG

No one is more beloved in theater circles than Stephen Sondheim, who
passed away in 2021. His musicals such as "Company," "Sweeney Todd" and "Into the Woods" are triumphs within the musical canon. After Sondheim's death, many of his songs became available for licensing. Robert Kelley and William Liberatore have collected thirty-six of these and organized them thematically into a chronology of those complicated relationships Sondheim loves to write about: we meet, lust and get together, followed by marriage, kids, boredom and breakup,  We get an entertaining evening of lightning-fast lyrics and plays on words, brilliantly executed by a super-talented six-person ensemble, 

Solana Husband is excellent as Sally. Her "The Miller's Son" from A Little Night Music is a standout as is "Agony Reprise" from Into the Woods, sung and acted by Nick Nakashima and Noel Anthony. We also loved Melissa WolfKlain's "The Wedding is Off," from Sondheim on Sondheim, She seemed to know what she was talking about.

Many ensemble numbers are skillfully done, like the opening "Invocations and Instructions to the Audience" from Frogs and Putting it Together, and the title tune "Being Alive," from Company.

"Being Alive" succeeds on many levels, but is somewhat hamstrung by conditions placed upon it.

For example, many Sondheim songs were made available, but not all were, and there was a limit of three from any one show that could be used in a new show. In addition, no collaborations were allowed, which meant the glorious and tuneful songs written with composers other than Sondheim himself, such as Leonard Bernstein or Jule Styne or Richard Rodgers, were disallowed.

Sondheim loves melody, such as in "Send in the Clowns," but he loves changing cadences and polyrhythms more. If you already love this material, you will be in heaven. If you don't, you will jump with joy when you hear the few tunes you can sing back in the car. 


Quentin Quarternote, The San Francisco Theater Blog Music Reviewer, is a notorious grump. He always wishes "Into the Woods" was a One-Act, for example. But he loved most of "Being Alive" and is granting THREE STARS for this production. We are adding a Bangle of Praise for the cast, who have had to learn to project challenging lyrics while changing tempos and dancing around a stage. This is tough stuff and all six pulled it off without a foxtrot-up. 

"Being Alive"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through 6-26-24

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Torch Song: ★★★ BANG

 "This Time the Dream's on Me" plays as the curtain rises. Arnold Beckoff wants a normal life, or as normal as a gay, despairing drag queen can aspire to. His mother wants Arnold to grow up and get a real job, a wife an a child. Arnold wants the same thing, or so he says. But the dream is far away and no one is trying very hard.

Marin Theater's two-act adaptation of Harvey Fierstein's 1982 "Torch Song Trilogy," directed by Evren Odcikin, drops a few characters from the original, but the idea is the same. Arnold (Dean Linnard) sees the world through shmutz-colored glasses. He needs everyone to understand and respect him, as long as he gets to behave the way he likes and do the things he does to the people he wants to do them with. His mother (played by Joy Carlin) is still suffering from the death of her husband. Her suffering matters to her far more than Arnold's -- after all, he only lost his boyfriend but SHE lost a husband!

The innuendo is of Jewishness, guilt and suffering, a tried-and-true hat trick of New York  angst that Arnold and his mother's thick matzo-brei Brooklyn/Miami accents are meant to convey. Look! They're wearing the same slippers! 

We also have Arnold's current kinda-sorta love interest bisexual Ed (Patrick Andrew Jones), clearly a gentile because he is repressed and quiet, and Ed's wife Laurel (Kina Kantor), unable to make Ed stop thinking about Arnold, and Alan, the BoyToy, played with panache by Edric Young, and then, in a questionable casting decision, a grown man (Joe Ayres) does his best to convince us he is fifteen year-old David, a troubled gay teenager with the demeanor of an eight-year-old but the face and blue suit of an adjunct professor.

Maybe you just had to be there.

Fierstein's trilogy was a seminally important show for 1982. It still carries a lot of weight in theater circles. But for us, in 2024, this adaptation has big problems. Why would anyone love Arnold? Even Arnold can't stand himself. Why should we care about Quiet Ed? And Mama, for God's sake, Mameleh, is there nothing new that a wonderful actor like Joy Carlin can be allowed to bring into this role? 

There are many knock-out lines, like Mama's at the end: "A problem is never as permanent as a solution." And there are terrific staging pieces, such as the Four-way Fugue in bed, and of course the circular-waving cigarette in the dark back room of the bar. Let's not forget Arnold's fabulous opening (and only) torch song. We wish they would give us more of that. 


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants Marin Theater's "Torch Song" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise for the one torch song we get. Dean Linnard can really lip-synch.

"Torch Song"

Marin Theater

397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley

Through June 2, 2024


Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The Glass Menagerie: ★ ★ ★ ★ BANG

Through the years, audiences have had many different responses to "The Glass Menagerie," Tennessee Williams's first successful play. It is a touching story that can ring different bells depending on when in life you see it.

The playwright was 34 years old when the show debuted on Broadway in 1945. We might see Williams's alter ego in the character of Tom Wingfield (played by Jomar Tagatac), a young man who can't wait to flee his menial job and the cramped St. Louis apartment he shares with his mother and sister. (Tennessee Williams's real first name was Tom.)

Tom's mother Amanda (played with heart and humor by Susi Damilano) is rooted firmly in her real or imagined past, when she was a Southern Belle and the world revolved around the amount of gentleman callers she could attract into her orbit. But the husband she chose has now run away, though his portrait dominates the stage. The Wingfield family has been barely hanging on since then.

Tom has a sister, Laura (who gives us the show's finest and shortest moment, in Act Two). Laura (Nicole Javier) is shy to a fault. She lives a fantasy life playing old victrola records her father left behind, when she is not dusting and rearranging her menagerie of tiny glass animal figurines.

Her mother Amanda's finest dream is to find a gentleman caller for Laura, a man who could perhaps change the family's trajectory.

They are all living in an illusion: Amanda as a desirable young woman, Tom as a poet far from his confining current existence, and Laura who shows her figurines the tenderness of a mother with her babies. But Act One is a setup for Act Two: the arrival of character four, Tom's workmate Jim O'Connor. Played with surprising tenderness by William Thomas Hodgson, Jim represents the real world, the one of possibility. He is alive and sweet, and, for a moment, available. Whatever chances the Wingfield family has depend on Jim O'Connor.

See this show at 20 and you may be attracted to the potential love story. See it at 40 and Tennessee Williams sets you straight. But he might just be getting you ready for A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. 


The San Francisco Theatre Blog Awards Division, bless its heart, grants Four Stars with a Bangle of Praise to SF Playhouse's "The Glass Menagerie."  Susi Damilano was born to play Amanda. She gives an award-winning performance that makes us laugh, something several generations of Amandas have had trouble bringing to the stage. We understand this family.

The Bangle of Praise is for The Kiss. It doesn't last too long, because this is Tennessee Williams and nothing ever does. But watch for Nicole Javier's smile. She makes us understand the family's hope: "Happiness -- and just a little bit of good fortune."

"The Glass Menagerie"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Sutter Street, San Francisco
(2d floor of the Kensington Park Hotel)
Through June 15, 2024

Thursday, April 11, 2024

"Tiger Style!" ★

Mike Lew's "Tiger Style" hits some familiar and resounding notes, especially for Chinese-American audiences. Based on Amy Chua's memoir, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," Lew's take on parenting, expectations that parents have for their children, and, for their part, the children's inability to ever live up to those expectations, will ring many bells for the audience.

This is a homecoming for Francis Jue, who plays four different roles, including the happily-suburban Dad. Jue is a well-respected veteran of Bay Area theater, as is Emily Kuroda, who is given four different roles herself, including Dragon Mom. Will Dao and Jenny Nguyen Nelson play the confused adult children, Albert and Jenny, who are filled with angst and analysis, while their parents seem to float serenely along, happy to have moved up in the world. 

Truth is, Dad actually makes a lot of sense and Mom doesn't seem at all like a dragon. Ah, kids today.

Blaming their parents doesn't work. So, of course, the next thing to do is...go to China. Waddayaknow! They discover they're not in Kansas anymore.

For this reviewer, this show is meant to be both slapstick and meaningful, which is a hard line upon which to balance. Albert and Jenny's plight would be understandable if it weren't for the unbelievably moronic anglo characters, all played by Jeremy Kahn like Jeff Daniels in "Dumb and Dumber." There is no way either Albert or Jenny or even the playwright could take these doofuses seriously. 

Racism is everywhere, on all sides. Albert's boss, Melvin, played by Jue, is determined to bend over backwards to impress and promote Albert's anglo rival, Russ the Bus. OK, we get it. 

Albert wants the American Dream and Jenny wants the American Rom-Com. But they act like entitled children. They end up in a Chinese prison. And then they don't. And then they get to declare their independence -- to a Customs Agent.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Tiger Style" One Star. But bear in mind we are not Asian. On the other hand, we're not  Black either and we found Jenny's lapsing into black pop dialogue, well...not very nice. This may not bother others -- the audience seemed to laugh at jokes that went over our heads. Clearly, we are not the demographic audience for  "Tiger Style!"

"Tiger Style!" 
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through April 24, 2024

Sunday, March 24, 2024

"Pipeline" ★ ★ ★ ★

Dominique Morriseau's "Pipeline," directed by L. Peter Callender, is brilliantly written and acted. From the opening video backdrop, a disturbing series of newsreels showing police brutalizing Black school kids, to the first bit of audio, featuring a school administrator's voice over a grainy p.a. system informing kids they are not allowed to bring cell phones into their school, "AND THERE WILL BE NO EXCEPTIONS!," we are slammed uncomfortably against the wall of everyday reality. But what follows is a brilliant study of six people caught up in the pipeline that criminalizes students of color and funnels them into our nation's prisons.

Leontyne Mbele-Mbong plays Nya, the mom, whose dream of sending her son Omari (Atlantis Clay) to an upscale private school appears to be backfiring. Omari already has Two Strikes against him - another incident will get him expelled. 

Nya is a teacher at the local school in her neighborhood, the school Omari would normally have attended, but problems in this school are overwhelming. Fellow teacher Laurie (Kelly Rinehart) and security guard Dun (Gary Moore) are caught up in the everyday violence among students, about which they are powerless to do anything. Equally powerless are Omari's girlfriend Jasmine, played with smoldering force by Ije Success, as well as Nya's estranged husband Xavier, played by Michael Gene Sullivan.

Sullivan normally plays characters that make us laugh. Not this time. There is nothing funny about Xavier. 

There are no easy answers. As Nya keeps saying: "Just instruct me. Tell me what to do." 

Each actor gets a monologue and they all shine. We were spellbound by Dun's back-and-forth with Laurie, in which the teacher is about to be disciplined for breaking up a fight between two of her students in which one of the students was having his head slammed against the floor, while Dun, the head of security, was unable to come to her room fast enough because another teacher was complaining at the same time about something else and Dun's line was busy. 

Ms. Morriseau, who was once a teacher herself in the Detroit school system, gets to the heart of each of her characters. But brilliant writing is nothing without equally brilliant acting. "Pipeline" gives us both and leaves us talking about the show for days afterwards.

RATINGS: ★ ★ ★ ★ 

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants FOUR STARS to Dominique Morriseau's "Pipeline." This is a show everyone should see. The current run lasts only one more week, so hurry.


Atrium Theater

401 Van Ness Avenue (4th floor of War Memorial Opera House), San Francisco

Through March 31, 2024


Monday, March 18, 2024

"Queen" ★ ★ ★ ★

We live in an acrimonious world. There are two sides to every story, yours and the other guy's, and there seems to be little attempt to explore the dangers of opinions pre-cast in stone.

This reviewer happens to have a scientist child who is involved in research that may or may not be welcomed by the current political climate. What has to be trusted is the science. Madhuri Shekar's thought-provoking new play, "Queen," opens up the reality of the research world: People do the science, and people have issues of their own that can possibly cloud their results.

Kjerstine Rose Anderson plays Ariel, best friend and research partner of Sanam, played by Uma Paranjpe. Both young women are graduate students at UC Santa Cruz, a minor player in the Harvard/Stanford-dominated world of academia. They are studying the habits of honey bees, whose numbers have been decreasing precipitously over the course of their research. They believe the culprit to be Monsanto, the agrochemical giant, because the bees' decline has corresponded to the introduction of a particularly dangerous pesticide.

Have you ever tried to talk to your family about politics? No matter what you say, it confirms what they already think. There is a name for this: Confirmation Bias. But what about when what your research is attempting to prove influences what you see and how that research is interpreted? Add into this everyone's desperate search for funding.

Mike Ryan plays a professor anxious to make a name for himself on the back of Ariel and Sanam's research, as long as it supports his theory. His career is riding on a blockbuster publication of this data. 

Meanwhile, Deven Kolluri plays Arvind, an Indian-American derivatives analyst whose obnoxious character flaws as a potential boyfriend for Sanam seem impossible to overcome. But he sees the world for what it is, not what it might be. What we see is not necessarily what we get. 

Congratulations to Ms. Shekar and Director Miriam A. Laube for bringing us back to the honeybees, and to nature as well as common sense. The twist at the curtain makes for a honey of an ending.

RATINGS: ★ ★ ★ ★ 

The San Francisco Theater Blog grants FOUR STARS to Madhuri Shekar's "Queen." Story, acting and staging (we love those drop-down study lights) earn one star each and the honesty of the ending earns another. This show gives us hope. 


Lucie Stern Theatre

1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

Through 3/31/24


Friday, March 15, 2024

"The 39 Steps": ★★★ baub baub

 This is our third time around for "The 39 Steps," the previous two productions being in 2011 and 2019. We are happy to report San Francisco Playhouse's production has as much clowning and craziness as the others. Patrick Barlow's adaptation from the 1915 novel by John Buchan and the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film is brilliantly achieved, with four actors playing a multitude of parts, often within seconds of each other. The costume changes and character switches are the best part of the show, as the audience delights in figuring out who is what and why.

We must first mention Susi Damilano's direction, as a LOT is going on at once and the choreography must be perfect. And we loved both clowns: Greg Ayres and Renee Rogoff.

These two are what make a rather mundane spy story into a farcical romp. They might be phony detectives or a Scottish couple operating a hotel on the moors, but wherever they go we accompany them gratefully, laughing all the way.

The two leads, Phil Wong as Richard Hannay and Maggie Mason as Pamela plus any number of tempting molls, appear to be having a great time on stage. They share a glorious comic scene as she must unlatch her garter belt and remove her stockings while handcuffed to her proper Englishman who refuses to look.

Phil Wong's role calls for restraint and this is what we get. His character is kind of blank, though. We knew Henry Higgins was a self-centered, entitled snob. We know nothing about Richard Hannay. 

Maggie Mason can carry her slapstick humor further, and the further she goes the more we like it.The Scottish hotel scene is hard to beat. 

Ms. Mason takes a wonderful turn as Margaret, the randy Scottish lass peeking in the window.

RATINGS ★★★ baub baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "The 39 Steps" THREE STARS with TWO BANGLES OF PRAISE. Bangle One is for Phil Wong's McCorquodale's political speech, which made us realize once again that this is an election year, and Bangle Two goes to Greg Ayres for his incomprehensible Scottish achhhh-cent,  

"The 39 Steps"

San Francisco Playhouse

450 Post Street

2d Floor of Kensington Hotel

Through April 20, 2024