SF Theater Blog

Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Evita:★★★

 


We throughly enjoyed San Francisco Playhouse's new production of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice's "Evita." Amazingly, this show premiered back in 1978. Anyone familiar with politics then and now will see an obvious similarity between the Trumpies of today and the Peronistas of the 1950s. And we know how that one turned out.


There have always been problems with the score to Evita, all the Tonys notwithstanding. As in many ALW shows, we get one song to hum, one to recall, and the others are basically complex melodies designed to fit Rice's lyrics. LOTS of words. But it all hangs together when high standards are met for acting, singing and dancing. In this production, Nicole Helfer's choreography is a delight. The dancers come right at us in the small theater and we love it.

Sophia Alawi plays Evita with energy but she also lets us into the inner drive of this extraordinary woman. Alawi can sing. As for Juan Perón, played by Peter Gregus, he's got a great chin. And in real life, some of Colonel Perón's moves didn't quite hit the note either.

Alex Rodriguez plays Che, the smug, doubting narrator who is not swept up in the mania about Evita. He has the most complex role in the show. 


By this time, "Evita" is an Old Chestnut musical. One goes to see Old Chestnuts to be swept up in the grandeur of a Broadway musical. "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" is enough to keep us in our seats to watch Evita become the revered icon she still is in her home country, seventy years after her death, as she sings: 

"They Need to Adore Me

To Christian Dior Me"

Knowing history, we are also aware that for this snakebite land, she was as good as they were going to get. 


RATINGS  ★★★

The San Francisco Theater Blog Old Chestnut Division grants Three Stars to San Francisco Playhouse's "Evita." It's a night that will make you feel confident about the future of the American musical in San Francisco.


"Evita"

San Francisco Playhouse

450 Post St.

2d Floor of Kensington Park Hotel

Through Sept. 7, 2024

$30-$125

Sunday, July 7, 2024

"Who's Dead McCarthy" ★ ★ ★ ★




Kevin Barry stories always have humor and depth. In Word For Word's production of "Who's Dead McCarthy" we get an innovative production, perfect direction and a first-rate cast to pull it off -- you can't ask much more from a night of theater. The stories are more polished now than they were when we first saw an unstaged reading last spring. In addition to "McCarthy" and "The Wintersongs," which we saw then, we also get "The Coast of Leitrim," which occupies the evening's entire first act. In all three, an individual member of the ensemble stands out.

Ryan Tasker (above left) is Seamus Ferris in "Leitrim," a young man with little ambition and less self-confidence, who meets his true love working behind the counter in a coffee bar. Her name is Katherine. She is Polish and "knows her way around a head of cabbage," but he is Irish, expecting doom at every turn. The distance between them seems impossibly great. But have faith. Ryan Tasker was born to play Seamus. I promise you will love the ending.

Speaking of which: If anyone ever asks you how to write the last line to a story, refer them to Kevin Barry.



Stephanie Hunt is a magnificent old lady on a train in "Wintersongs." As loony as her dialogue is ("I lost a kidney in 1988"), her facial expressions are even better. Ailbhe Doherty plays Sarah, the young girl unfortunate enough to be stuck in the seat next to the old lady, but not wishing to be rude by moving. There is a twist. Things are not exactly what they seem. 

And in the title piece, John Flanagan's smile and body language warm us to the inner workings of the village doomsayer: Con McCarthy, the man who knows everyone in the village who has died and exactly how it happened. His need to tell everyone else about it has them crossing the street when they see him coming.  Flanagan (below, left), Hunt and Tasker could easily win awards for their roles in these laugh-out-loud and heart-warming stories. 



RATINGS:★★★★ 

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Who's Dead McCarthy" Four Stars. Each actor in the ensemble deserves special recognition. We understand them, we root for them, we love them. Best of all, we get to leave the theater smiling about Seamus and Katherine and the weird way the world works. 


"Who's Dead McCarthy"

Z Space-Below Theater

450 Florida Street

Through July 21, 2024

$40-$65

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. 



RATINGS: ★★★ BANG

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
$$27-$100


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. 



RATINGS: ★★★ BANG


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

$39.50-$65.50

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. 

RATINGS: ★★★★ BANG

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
$30-$125

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.

RATINGS: 

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
$27-$100

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.

"Pipeline"

Atrium Theater

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

Through March 31, 2024

$40