SF Theater Blog

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Fred Pitts: "Aren't You...?" ★★★★

How does a black man feel while visiting California Missions? "Like a fly in a bowl of milk," says Fred Pitts. He's got reason to feel this way - he is always the only black visitor at each Mission and at each one, fellow tourists, all white, confuse him with any number of famous black people. "Aren't you...Will Smith? Rafer Johnson? Sidney Poitier? Barry Bonds? 
Richard Roundtree (Shaft)? 

Unfortunately, says Pitts, nobody confuses him with LeBron James.

This self-proclaimed history geek takes it all in stride for the first half of the twenty-one missions he is determined to visit, but it does start to get at him. Still, he is learning all the time, as are we, the grateful audience, who get a history lesson while laughing at Pitts's terrific imitations of these tourists, and the docents, his grandmother and his childhood pastor, Reverend Davis.

Do you know about the Chumash revolt of 1824 at Mission Santa Inés or the Gold Rebellion of 1811 in New Orleans, which is the largest slave insurrection in American History? Of course you don't, neither did we and neither did Fred Pitts until he dug a little deeper into the history of the California missions. History class teaches only the history it wants us to know.
"Aren't You..." is a fabulous show. We have one small nitpick, which is that Mr. Pitts could probably learn a bit of Spanish pronunciation, since each mission he visits has a Spanish name. But he's got time. There are a bunch of Baja California missions too and we hope he travels there someday as well. We'll always be happy to laugh and learn from this excellent performer who also seems like a really nice guy.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants Cuatro Estrellas (Four Stars) to Fred Pitts for this superb night of theater. I never listened to my High School History teacher but I will listen to Fred Pitts. There are some difficult squirm-in-our-seats issues we need to think about. Perhaps laughter is the aspirin that allows our historical headaches to heal.

Fred Pitts: "Aren't You...?"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia St., San Francisco
Fridays through Aug. 18

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

San Francisco Mime Troupe: "Breakdown" (2023): ★★★ BANG

You don't go to the Indy Five Hundred to escape the noise. You go because of the noise.  Same with the Mime Troupe, which is about off-the-wall political humor plus a healthy dose of Hippie Nonsense, mixed in with insightful commentary about this year's news, which is pretty much like last year's and will be the same as next year's. If this is not your cup of theater, then we suggest a cocktail in the neighborhood. But if you want to sit on a  blanket in the park and have a great time, yukking it up with people who feel exactly the same way you do, don't miss "Breakdown."

We loved the show, and afterwards the J-Church streetcar was filled with people agreeing this is the best Mime Troupe show in years. The major reason is Jamella Cross, who is all smarmy business in her Fox News red suit and shoes. She is the perfect right-wing show host, searching for any news story that will paint San Francisco as Hellhole for a Day, in order to please her boss Rupert Murdoch, played with delicious sleaze by Andre Amarotico. Cross's performance elevates everyone else's, even with the usual off-key singing and staging oopsies par for an Opening Day performance. Michael Gene Sullivan and Marie Cartier's writing is inspired and the cast blasts through it with moxie.

Kina Kantor plays Yume and Jed Parsario is Felix, our homeless heroes, destined to bring down Jamella and Fox to a chorus of cheers. Felix has many get-rich schemes, all short one crucial element, while Yume seems bewildered by her predicament as she battles her demon (also played by Parsario).

Don't think, just enjoy. Bad guys are bad guys and good guys are good guys, just like in the real world, at least in Bay Area parks during the good-old summertime.


'The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants THREE STARS with a Bangle of Praise to "Breakdown." The show made us laugh and feel good, which gets you three fat ones every time. The Bangle is for Jamella Cross, who is both funny and believable. We hope the Mime Troupe can hang on to her.

San Francisco Mime Troupe "Breakdown" (2023)
Various parks throughout the Bay Area
July 1 - Sept. 4 ( see sfmt.org/press-schedule-by-dates )
(Donations solicited shamelessly)

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

"A Chorus Line" ★ ★ ★ ★

There is little left to write that has not already been written about "A Chorus Line," except that the show premiered in 1975, which is as far from this writer's 2023 IPad as 1917 was when I first heard the Beatles and typed my term papers with carbon paper.

I was then the same age as most of these Chorus Line dancers. 1917 was an ancient history book. World War I. Carbon paper. A typewriter. 

Now we know that stories are the only things that survive. This is in many ways the underlining theme that is being acted out here on stage. Art endures. A dancer dances, a writer writes, a composer composes and if they succeed they capture the times in which they live. The issues never change. Only the outfits.

The SFP production is the outlier today that it was in 1975: a two hour show without an intermission. We discover our attention spans are not as short as advertised.

Late in the action, one character muses on how Broadway no longer is hiring as many dancers (in 1975) as they once were. Of course, this is before so many chorus lines around the world would be decimated by the plague of the 1980s, but no one knew about that in 1975, when the worst thing that could happen was not to get a desperately needed job. 

Original choreography by Michael Bennett, a giant of the era, should be enough to bring anyone into this show. San Francisco Playhouse empties out its entire stage to make room for 21 dancers and succeeds wildly. The opening sequence, featuring "I Hope I Get it," and I Can Do That," two of fourteen songs by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban, tell the whole story with no explanations needed.

You all know the plot: 17 dancers vying for 8 spots. Their personal trials and what has led them from around the country to an audition room in New York. We, the audience, get to root for our favorites to be picked. And then -- you may need to be reminded. We promise you will be moved now, in our age of robotics and AI, as much as you were when we were all just hoping to be asked to dance. 

RATINGS: ★ ★ ★ ★ 

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants Four Stars ★ ★ ★ ★  to "A Chorus Line." Yes, the story is long and somewhat implausible ( a casting director actually taking the time to query the dancers as to their feelings), but at its center is love for what we all do. "God, I'm a dancer.  A dancer dances." 

Special mention to Dave Dobrusky for leading a flawless band through a precise and difficult score, to  director Bill English for figuring out where to put all those people, and to Nicole Helfer for keeping them graceful. From the cast, we especially love Danielle Cheiken's Maggie (on left in photo above) and Samantha Rose Cárdenas's Diana (center, below). But these are only two of a standout cast. For us, they all get the job.

"A Chorus Line"

San Francisco Playhouse

450 Post St., San Frqncisco

2d floor of Kensington Park Hotel

Through Sept. 9 (Long Summer Run)


Sunday, July 2, 2023

"Atomic Comic" ★ ★ ★

Once George Maguire, Maureen McVerry and Sharon Gless hit the video, Atomic Comic comes to life. Before that, we are in a scary situation. While Sarah Phykitt's scenic design looks intriguing, the clowns cavorting on stage seem confused and the slapstick slaps with little stick.

Perhaps this is the point -- that the life of a clown is difficult in the best of times and the pandemic has made it worse. Agent Willem (Maguire) has booked the three clowns (Sara Toby Moore, DeMarcello Funes and Colin H. Johnson) into a dead-end gig in Chowchilla (something to do with marshmallows) but even that gets canceled. Then, Moore's father dies. And her marriage breaks up. Oh, and cancer.

Aha! NOW we've got someone to root for. Poor clown. grumpy agent, vermouth-pouring partner (McVerry) and sharply entertaining analyst (Gless) arrive on the video backdrop and things start making sense. Sharon Shao plays an off-her-meds social worker who says she hates clowns but is clearly angling for her red nose.

There are some truly hysterical bits, notably the Kaiser Permanente sequences and the spectacular opera takeoff. That one alone is worth the price of admission. There are a few songs as well. Moore is a terrific singer. 

Honestly, though, it's a slog through that beginning. 

We would like to know where Kenna Lindsay (Props Fabrication) got all those suitcases.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division has had to pause before rating "Atomic Comic." The great bits are Four Star stuff, but they are bits, not show. For the most part the clowning is just a few rems above a yawn. We love the story, once we get to it. Kudos to Z-Space for taking a chance with a show that has heart. We feel it has a chance to develop into something special. 

"Atomic Comic"


450 Florida Street, San Francisco

Through July 8


Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Hurricane Diane: ★ ★ ★

Madeleine George’s “Hurricane Diane” opened last night at the Aurora in Berkeley. The idea is that the demigod Diana, the gender-fluid Dionysius of ancient Greece who was the patron saint of theater as well as a champion of sexual liberty, has returned to Earth, in this case to Monmouth County, NJ. Her mission is to warn citizens that the earth’s biological clock is ticking down to zero, but her true purpose seems to be to seduce as many suburban housewives as possible, thereby reducing them to worshiping acolytes. They all hate their stupid, pathetic husbands so they don’t need a lot of convincing. 

On one hand this is Sappho's Magical Mystery Tour, and there were cheers as each housewife fell, but on the other hand a very real message is being delivered here: humans have destroyed the Earth, which means human existence is finished. lady, so you may as well submit to Diane's not-too-subtle advances.

Stacy Ross is Diana. 

She is a wisecracking landscape designer whose very presence excites Beth (Gianna DiGregoria Rivera), Pam (Luisa Sarmol) and Renee (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong). These kaffe-klatch ladies appear powerless to keep Diana from re-purposing their crabgrass. The one exception, however, is Carol, played by Rebecca Schweitzer who is determined to be the last woman standing, even if this means saying adiós to Mother Earth. 

We loved the way Schweitzer developed the role of Carol, from the insipid-ish homeowner obsessed with resale value and curb appeal, to the person who, in the end, controls our destiny -- which is to say, she is all of us. 

The ending can use a little work. We're not sure what Diane and the three Supremes were doing in those robes. 


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants THREE STARS to "Hurricane Diane." What we loved best was the acting. All four women have their moments to shine, though we wish Stacy Ross were a little less current - I mean, would a 3,000 year-old Greek demigod really toss around all those f-bombs? 

I guess they would be PHI-Bombs.

And we really loved Luisa Sarmol. 

Hurricane Diane
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through July 16

Sunday, June 11, 2023

"The Road to Mecca" ★★★ BANG

The Road to Mecca is lined with milk bottles and home-made statues. But Mecca is an afterthought. The real question is whether or not art can play an important role in moving along that road, and if there can ever be communication between those who march blindly down the middle and those who take a different, off-center path.

South African playwright Athol Fugard wrote "The Road to Mecca" during Apartheid in his home country. It was first performed in 1984 and debuted on Broadway in 1988, where Fugard himself played the conservative minister Marius. In the current Z-Space production, veteran actor Victor Talmadge gives Marius a skillful and nuanced reading, allowing us to slowly realize his heart is as conflicted as everyone else's.

Wendy vanden Huevel plays Miss Helen Martins, an iconoclastic widow living in Nieu Bethesda, the most remote village in the Karoo desert, an 800 mile drive from Capetown. Fugard based his story on the real Helen Martins, an artist in Nieu Bethesda who committed suicide when she became too blind to continue sculpting. In our story, Miss Helen is befriended by Elsa (Jodi Jackman), a young schoolteacher from Capetown who has become Miss Helen's only true confidant.

The story is brilliant and the cast every bit its equal. We have to mention Eric Flatmo's picture-perfect set with set decoration by Leah Hammond. The moment we arrive in the theater we feel like we are sitting in Miss Helen's windswept cottage, with its candles, twinkling glass and sense of hope.



The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants Z-Space's "The Road to Mecca" THREE STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. We loved everything about this production, but most of all the ensemble of three actors at the top of their games. This is a show that has you thinking about it for days afterward.

"The Road to Mecca"
Z Below
470 Florida St., San Francisco
Through June 30


Sunday, May 14, 2023

"Chinglish" ★ ★ ★ ★

David Henry Hwang has won a Tony and an Obie and has been a finalist twice for a Pulitzer. His plays, like "M. Butterfly" and "Yellow Face" have been shown around the world, but none, perhaps, is as hilarious and audience-pleasing as "Chinglish." San Francisco Playhouse's production, directed by Jeffrey Lo with fabulous scenic design by Andrea Bechert as well as simple but necessary projections by Spenser Maturing, is nothing short of masterful.

An American businessman from Ohio is trying to sell his commercial signs to the politicians in charge of developing a cultural center in a mid-sized "midwestern" Chinese city. Daniel Cavanaugh (Michael Barrett Austin), with typical American hubris, feels he can charm the Chinese into a lucrative contract for his moribund family company. The Chinese, however, have a different agenda, based around securing income for their own families and associates. Alex Hsu plays Cai Guoliang, who is Minister of Culture. He is under pressure to give the signage contract to his sister-in-law. At the same time, Vice-Minister of Culture Xi Yan, seen above in the green dress and played to perfection by Nicole Tung, is married to Judge Xu, on left in red necktie (Phil Wong), and who might be the recipient of the contract if his wife can successfully seduce Daniel Cavanaugh.

A substantial portion of the show is spoken in Chinese, with supertitles. This is Hwang's supreme joke: no one completely understands what is going on, in part because everyone is receiving inaccurate translations, which reflect more what the translator wants his Chinese boss or American client to hear than what has actually been said.

Sound complicated? It's not. We, the audience, revel in the foolishness and confusion on stage.  It is farce, but we are used to this by now - the politics, especially, feel way too familiar. The pace of "Chinglish" allows us time and enough gags to figure everything out for ourselves. 

And the part about Enron. Wow.

One suggestion: for this performance, because you really need to make sure you can read the supertitles, we might suggest acquiring seats in the middle rather than on one side or the other. Don't miss this show.

RATINGS ★ ★ ★ ★ 

The San Francisco Theater Blog gives FOUR STARS to SFP's production of "Chinglish." Writing is first rate, and then acting, direction and sets keep everything bubbling along. When you consider how difficult casting was, wherein comedic actors fluent in Mandarin as well as English had to be found and assembled, these Four Stars feel even more remarkable.


San Francisco Playhouse

450 Sutter St. (2d floor of Kensington Hotel), San Francisco

Through June 10, 2023