Thursday, June 15, 2017

"The Legend of Georgia McBride" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG


"The King is Dead. Long Live the Queen." If ever a slogan fit a show, this is it. We loved everything about Matthew Lopez's "The Legend of Georgia McBride," a celebration of not only the world of drag but the dreams and ambitions of us all.


Adam Magill is brilliant as Casey, an Elvis impersonator in a small beach town in the Florida panhandle. Casey's luck has run out -- not only are he and his wife broke, but she has discovered she is pregnant. He then loses his Elvis job at a funky bar on the beach, having been replaced by the cousin of the bar owner. The new act is made up of two drag queens, Miss Tracy Mills (Kraig Swartz) and Anna Rexia Nervosa (Jason Kapoor).


Kraig Swartz and Jason Kapoor could not be better. But Adam Magill is off the charts. Casey must fill in for Anna Rexia Nervosa when she becomes too drunk to perform. The scenes where Miss Tracy instructs the straight Casey on how to dress and act like a woman are absolutely priceless. "Tits up and testicles tucked," she says and Casey gamely straps on his high heels and teeters out to the mike.


Many surprises follow. Casey is good at it -- really good! Audiences start filling up the bar. Bar owner Eddie (John R. Lewis) is ecstatic and keeps adding more shows. The only one who has been kept out of the loop is Casey's wife, Jo (Tatiana Wechsler), because Casey is embarrassed to admit he has been wowing the crowds as a drag queen. This leads to touching moments where Miss Tracy and Anna Rexia speak frankly to Casey about the outcast lives they have been forced to live. Casey realizes he must face his own fears of failure. The lesson here is: we are who we are.


With such grand  humor and slapstick buffoonery, "Miss Georgia McBride" closes gaps between us and teaches us to open our eyes as wide as we can.


The inclusion of Lady Gaga's "I Was Born This Way" as the grand finale number is genius. Perfection. Just like the rest of this lovely show.


RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division is proud to give FOUR STARS and a BANGLE OF PRAISE to "The Legend of Georgia McBride." The Four Stars are for Story, Acting, Directing (Kent Gash) and Set/Lights (Jason Sherwood and Kurt Landisman). The music is perfect. The show is funny and important -- a rare combination. And we can promise that Tammy Wynette never knew "Stand By Your Man" could sound this good.


"The Legend of Georgia McBride"
Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through July 2, 2017
$22 - $72

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

"Hershey Felder, Beethoven" ☼ ☼ BANG


We have seen Hershey Felder in his memorable "Irving Berlin," one of our favorite evenings of theater in recent memory. I wish I could say we enjoyed "Beethoven" nearly as much. Sadly, this Felder performance is funereal. (The set is a grand piano in a graveyard.) The costumes are dark, the set is dark and, above all, the story line Felder has invented, that of the son of a best friend of Beethoven's narrating an outline of the composer's life, is without energy or excitement. There is little connection with the audience. And, amazingly, for a show about one of the greatest composers in the history of western culture, there is far too little music. When Felder plays piano, we enjoy the timeless melodies so many of us grew up with. But there is far too much talk and too many forgettable characters.


Beethoven himself is portrayed as bombastic. Perhaps this was so. But between Beethoven's bombast and the narrator's strained sadness, there is little. Yes, it is a tragedy that Beethoven went deaf so early in his life, but surely there must be something else in the maestro's life we could learn about? Something else must explain his massive outpouring of creativity? Yes, his father beat him. So...that's it?

Hershey Felder is worth seeing at any time. But we wish this show were more about the composer 's music and less about the actor's craft.


RATINGS: ☼ ☼ BANG

 The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants TWO STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE to "Hershey Felder: Beethoven." But be forewarned: if the music of Ludwig von Beethoven could not squeeze another star out of those of us who grew up playing and venerating his music, it may not do so for you either.

A BANGLE OF PRAISE, certainly, for "Ode to Joy."

"HERSHEY FELDER: BEETHOVEN"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
EXTENDED through July 9
$45-$105

Friday, June 9, 2017

"Grandeur" ☼ ☼ ☼


It is rewarding for an audience to absorb pieces of a story and have them come together at the end to reveal the heart of the show. Perhaps we have war and revolution and the vastness of a snowbound continent, but ultimately we care more about Zhivago and Lara. Our brains love the details, but our hearts are involved with more intimate matters.


Sadly, the opposite seems true in the World Premiere of Han Ong's "Grandeur." There is no big story, only details. If you are an ardent fan of the words and music of the late Gil Scott-Heron, you may relish the story of the older Scott-Heron (Carl Lumbly), towards the end of his life, being interviewed by the young and fawning journalist Steve Barron (Rafael Jordan). Scott-Heron reveals little, he speaks in riddles that the younger man takes to be signs that his hero has not lost his touch. Scott-Heron's sort-of-niece, Miss Julie (Safiya Fredericks) has a role that feels undefined -- except that she certainly shares Scott-Heron's revolutionary ideal.


In real life, Gil Scott-Heron, even in his prime of the early 1970s, was an acquired taste. Brilliant at times but also a substance abuser, his reputation suffered as he continued to decline to show up at his concerts. For some fans, this was a plus -- the poet refusing to knuckle under to the demands of the commercial marketplace. But though he is played to KJAZ-deejay laconic perfection by Carl Lumbly, our story is not with Scott-Heron, who remains static, but with Steve Barron. Will this young man become a true hero, or is he simply another opportunistic writer attempting to further his own career by scoring cocaine for the old man and then writing about the experience?


The Supertitles at the beginning of Act 2 suggest the latter.


World Premieres are often raw and things always change as the show advances. We are aware that we are watching historical fiction, that no such encounter as is enacted here ever really occurred. So we wish we were left with something at least moderately uplifting. It is somewhat surprising that Scott-Heron's estate would allow such an unflattering, if fictional, portrait.



 RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division gives "Grandeur" Three Stars. Any show with Carl Lumbly is worth seeing and loose ends will become tied up as the run proceeds. We particularly enjoyed Ray Oppenheimer's subdued lighting, which becomes part of our understanding of this latter part of Scott-Heron's life. Also, Sara Huddleston has thrown in some terrific blues guitar at the show's beginning and during intermission.

The CD spoken of in the show, "I'm New Here," is real. It was the comeback album that never quite came back. The CD was released in 2010. Scott-Heron died in 2011.



"Grandeur"
The Magic Theatre
Building D, Fort Mason, San Francisco
Through June 25, 2017
$35-$75


Sunday, May 28, 2017

"The Roommate" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼


"There's a great liberty in being bad."

That's the lasting quote from Jen Silverman's "The Roommate." It supposedly refers to one's first poem, but neither of the two women on stage is a poet. They just like being bad.


We love this show. "The Roommate" requires two major-league actresses to pull it off and they've got 'em. Susi Damilano plays Sharon, the Iowa housewife whose naivete surprises and intrigues Robyn (Julia Brothers), the Bronx hustler who has come to share Sharon's Iowa City apartment. We don't know why Robyn has come to the Midwest, but from the start it is clear she has way too many secrets.


We can't say enough for Damilano. She infuses Sharon with innocence and humor, as we watch her become more and more attracted to Robyn's dark side. Robyn, meanwhile, understands the price you pay when you give in to your baser instincts. She walks the line. On one hand, she truly loves being a thief. She glows when she ultimately begins to describe her scams to Robyn. On the other hand, she has come to care for Sharon and doesn't want to be the agent of her descent. Both Damilano and Brothers are perfect. They make us wish this were a pilot of a new cable show, so we could look forward to the next thirteen weeks.


Theodore J.H. Hulsker's sound is another plus. Not at all what you'd expect, we get both vocal and instrumental pastiches that blend well with Sharon's emotions. Nicely done.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Both ranking members of the San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division went ga-ga over this show. A FOUR STAR rating is the result. Damilano and Brothers earn one star each, plus one star for Becca Wolff's flawless direction and Silverman's story filled with growth and surprises. Special mention for the scene with the gun.



"The Roommate"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
2d Floor of the Kensington Park Hotel
Through July 1
$20-$125

Thursday, May 25, 2017

NEW YORK EXTRA: "SWEAT" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG


The old Studio 54 dance club is now the Studio 54 Theatre. The stage is small and the nine-piece cast of Lynn Nottage's "Sweat" use every inch. We feel the angst of once-thriving Reading, PA, as its factories get ready to pack up and move to Mexico, leaving behind the workers who once felt protected by their good union jobs and at the same time proud to be turning out an excellent product on the line.

Almost all of these same union workers, however, are white. They have been oblivious to their black and Latino brothers and sisters denied access to the union and therefore to steady employment. When the company brass decides to close the factory, all these submerged grievances explode to the surface.

The story's heart is borne by three women friends. Johanna Day plays Tracey, who has spent thirty-two years on the line. She goes up for a promotion along with her friend Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), the first black woman to ever have earned her union card. There was never racial animosity between these two women who have grown up together, but now, when Cynthia gets the promotion, Tracey's disappointment is masked by her belief Cynthia was chosen only because of her skin color. The third friend is Jessie (Alison Wright), who we see in various flashbacks as she descends from hard worker into addiction.


James Colby is excellent as Stan, the bartender in the tavern where most of the action takes place. He and his father, as well as his grandfather, once worked in the same factory. We loved Khris Davis as Chris, Cynthia's son, who along with his friend Jason (Will Pullen), Jessie's son, can no longer see any future for themselves in Reading.

Carlo Albán has the unfortunate role as Oscar, the Colombian-American, also born and raised in Reading. Blacks and whites can agree on one thing: even if he's a home-boy, there is nothing lower than a Spanish-speaking scab. Tough luck, Oscar.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Big Apple Division grants "Sweat" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The story, the ensemble of actors and director (Kate Whoriskey) earn one star each as the various personal and political threads tie themselves together at the end. The BANGLE is for how Lynn Nottage makes us tune into the longing every character feels for the America they either once experienced or dreamed about -- when people had good jobs and the respect that went along with hard work. As President Orange has said: these problems are complicated.

"Sweat"
Studio 54
254 West 54th Street, New York City
Through June 18
$59-$149

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Word 4 Word: "Smut" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼


Alan Bennett, author of The Madness of King George, Prick Up Your Ears and The History Boys, among others, is a literary icon in his native England. His 2011 two-story collection "Smut: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson)" has now been adapted for the Word 4 Word stage by Amy Kossow. It is a smashing success, one of the finest and funniest Word 4 Words we have seen.


Nancy Shelby plays Mrs Donaldson, on the surface a middle-aged widow with little joy in her life. She takes a job at a local medical school as an actor-out of various medical maladies, in order to teach medical students how to react during real-life diagnoses. Her boss, Søren Oliver as Mr. Ballantine, is magnificent in his frustration with his students' lack of humanity as well as his growing attraction to Mrs. Donaldson.


Enter the boarders: Rosie Hallett and Andre Amarotico as two young medical students, whose proposition to Mrs. Donaldson seems preposterous at first: they will allow her to observe them making love in lieu of paying the weekly rent. We then watch Mrs. Donaldson warm to the subject matter before her, which leads to a lovely ending.


Robert Parsons is excellent, as always, as another of Mr. Ballantine's stable of actors. Likewise Delia MacDougall as the dowdy daughter as well as Mrs. Donaldson's friend with whom she can share her intimate secret. But the show is about Mrs. Donaldson. We learn and we grow and then the unexpected takes us new places.


RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Smut" Four Stars. It's that good. The entire ensemble of actors, the story, the adaptation and direction earn one Star each. There is nothing not to love here -- "Smut" delivers. (It usually does.)


"Smut: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson)"
Z Space Below
450 Florida St., San Francisco
Through June 11
ADDED PERFORMANCE SAT. JUNE 10 3PM
$40-$60










"The Mushroom Cure" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG


Either Adam Strauss knows a lot about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or he is an amazing actor. From the beginning of the 90-minute solo performance, where we find him paralyzed with indecision over whether to purchase an IPod or an IRiver, to his adventure with cyborgs and penises in the ambulance towards the end, we are convinced that we are watching one extremely talented comedian as well as someone we definitely don't want to date our daughter.


Zany or Certifiable, you can't take your eyes off him. The story centers around his attempts to find a supply of psilocybin, which is illegal in New York, but he has heard is a possible cure for the OCD that has plagued him as long as he can remember. Along the way we hear a touching story about his relationship with his girl friend Grace, as well as any number of vignettes from the world of people desperately seeking drugs. Strauss is addicted to trying to get better, if only these attempts didn't include using substances that make him worse. Until...well, we'll let you hear that for yourself.



"The Mushroom Cure," he is quick to remind us, is cheaper than Hamilton. And you can learn things too -- like, for example, if you call 911 on yourself you can obtain a transcript of that conversation for only $8.


RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Those Were the Days and Thank God They Are Over Division awards "The Mushroom Cure" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. Adam Strauss is brilliant. The BANGLE is for his unforgettable riff on The Lexicon of Lonely Dinners.

"The Mushroom Cure"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia St., San Francisco
Through June 3
(Wed. and Fri. at 8pm
Sat. at 8:30pm)
$20-$35 Sliding Scale

Thursday, May 4, 2017

"Guards at the Taj" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !


We loved this show. We really loved it. Rajiv Joseph's "Guards at the Taj" is painfully funny, and you laugh when you know you shouldn't, which makes it better. It is dark and preposterous, so I guess we must be too.


One Act, 80 minutes. The show harkens back to the legend of Shah Jahan, the Seventeenth Century Moghul ruler of India, who built the Taj Mahal as a shrine to the memory of his deceased wife. It was to be the most beautiful building in the world, reflecting the light of the moon on the saddened and parched Earth.

The legend continues that after the building's completion, the Shah ordered that all 20,000 workers, including the architect, would have their hands cut off so they could never again try to replicate an edifice of such beauty.

Twenty-First Century meme: the Evil Egomaniacal Emperor. At least Shah Jahan left us the Taj Mahal, not a basket of tacky hotels.


The story is told through the eyes of the two guards, standing next to each other, who have been stationed in front of the in-construction palace for sixteen years, while it was being built. They have the lowest-status, worst jobs in the Moghul Guard world, and they know they won't even be allowed to turn around to see the Taj when it is completed, which is scheduled for that very morning when the sun comes up. The penalty would be death.


They also know that somebody is going to have to chop off all those hands, and, being at the bottom of the ladder, it is probably going to be them.

So here we have the ancient, past, present and future dilemma of man: Our ruler might be horrible, but our life right now is pretty soft. Should we blow the whistle? To whom? Or should we spend an entire night at the chopping block brandishing a sword and a cauterizing iron, and then the next day on our knees mopping up the blood?


Jason Kapoor (right, above) and Rushi Kota are wonderful, each in his own way. Kapoor, as Humayun, has pull, because his father is high up in the power structure. He is inclined to keep his nose down and pretend not to notice any irregularities.

40,000 hands to cut off, not easy to ignore.

Kota, as Babur, the perennially late and far more questioning partner, is outraged at the horror of the situation he and his friend Humayun find themselves facing. He knows their action will condemn 20,000 hand-less men to a life of begging, and that every one of those men will know who cut their hands off. He wants to stand on principle. The penalty, of course, is being pulled apart by an elephant.

There is also an apple dangling over their heads, which is a possible promotion to Moghul Guard heaven: guarding the emperor at the royal Harem.

"Oooh, naked women everywhere," Babur fantasizes.

"Remember, YOU CAN'T LOOK," Humayun reminds him.

We loved Kapoor and Kota equally. This is Humayun's story to tell, but the friendship between the two guards permeates everything. Shall we say it again? We love these two. They need a weekly show.


Also, Annie Smart's set, Mike Post's lights and Fumiko Beilefeldt's costumes are perfect. Make that bloody perfect.

Caveat: several people we spoke with after the show, including a few of our fellow reviewers, did not appreciate "Guards." It was far too dark for them. My wife was on their side. What does this say about your singular reviewer?

It says I know when something works. Please run to Marin to catch Kapoor and Kota doing this show while you can. Have dinner before the show. Afterwards, maybe not a good idea.


RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !

The San Francisco Theater Blog Bloody Indian Fable Department of the Plain Old Awards Division awards "Guards at the Taj" FOUR STARS with an EXCLAMATION POINT! The Exclamation Point is for Babur's matter-of-fact observation: "Swearing an oath not to talk? CONTRADICTION!"

"Guards at the Taj"
Marin Thjeater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through May 21, 2017
$22-$60

Monday, May 1, 2017

"My Name is Rachel Corrie" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG


Rachel Corrie was a young and idealistic college senior from Olympia, Washington who was volunteering with an International Organization in Rafah, a Palestinian border town in the Gaza Strip. There, in 2003, she was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes. She was twenty-three years old.


Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner have built a production from Corrie's e-mails, her journals and stories told to them by her parents. Written in 2005, at first this is a difficult show to watch, because there is only one actor: Charlotte Hemmings. It feels like an extended monologue, and the beginning is peppered with rather clichéd and precious musings -- the vaguely idealistic ramblings of a young woman in her bedroom.


But then everything changes. Hemmings puts on a scarf and the action shifts to Palestine, at which point the emails, the action and the flow of the story become spellbinding. We cannot overstate how involving this one-act-one-actor production becomes.

Charlotte Hemmings has been playing Rachel since 2010, when direction was taken over by Jonathan Kane. She seems born to the part. Hemmings says she has learned the lines by writing them all out longhand, until she feels Rachel Corrie inside her.  She is a joy to watch, particularly as the show moves to its inevitable conclusion.

An interesting sidelight is that after Rachel's death, her sister took it upon herself to transcribe every journal entry and every-mail that Rachel had made, from the time she was eight years old. This selfless undertaking seems to mirror the Corrie family. And it makes for great theater.


RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "My Name is Rachel Corrie" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The whole idea of building a solo performance around this historical event earns one star, plus direction and acting earn one star each. The BANGLE is for the stunning way Rachel Corrie summed up the Israeli-Palestinian struggle, with all the world pretending to look in the other direction: "I am questioning my fundamental belief in human nature."

This was in the last e-mail she sent to her mother.

Please do not listen to anyone who tries to cloak Rachel Corrie's experience with ideology. This is a human story. Don't miss it.

"My Name is Rachel Corrie"
The Magic Theater
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through May 14
$25-$50











Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"Temple" NO RATING


"Temple," by Steve Waters, is the fictionalized story of a real-life confrontation between Occupy protestors and London's St. Paul's Church, in 2011. These issues live on today, unsolved and waiting to happen again, as the Western world appears unable to stem the widening economic and cultural gulfs between haves and have-nots. Our positions have hardened, even though we all know where this eventually leads.


Yes, we wish they would all get off their knees, but our basic issue with "Temple" is not ideological, but theatrical. The characters do little but fret. We found ourselves disinterested in the Canon Cancellor (Mike Ryan), disappointed with the Dean (Paul Whitworth), angry at the City Lawyer (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), exasperated at the P.A. (Sylvia Burboeck) and didn't much care about the Virger (Sharon Lockwood). We kept waiting for the man the author intended to be our hero to stand up and be counted. In real life, apparently he did. On stage -- not so much.


We have a real problem with the ending. If the moral of the story is that everyone should dress up and walk out to pray, "Temple" accomplishes it. And the innocent little choir boys...oh, please.


RATINGS: NO RATING

The San Francisco Theater Blog admits it has zero interest in churches or the way their Boards of Directors suffer or don't suffer. So it must recuse itself and give this show NO RATING. Talk and little action do not accomplish much, on stage or out in the real world.

"Temple"
Aurora Theater
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through May 14
$32-$56

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

"Rags" ☼ ☼


Joseph Stein's book for "Fiddler on the Roof" spoke of life on the other side, in the fictional but impoverished Jewish village of Anatevka.  In "Rags," he tried to tell the after-story -- what would have happened to Tevye once he emigrated to New York?


The problem was, Stein got Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick to write the music for Fiddler, and thus produced some of the most memorable theater music of all time. For Rags, Stein worked with
Steven Schwartz and Charles Strouse, no lightweights, but the songs are at the same time too lyric-heavy and not musical enough. There are good songs, not great songs, good characters but no memorable ones, plenty of angst but little joy, ample rhyming craft but, above all --- no Tevye. No larger-than-life character who sings all the great songs, who grabs the audience in a bear hug and will not let them go.

Yes, Jack Kerouac was correct: comparisons are odious. But how can you not compare these two shows, written by the same writer, one the result of the other? Musically, especially, "Rags" just cannot help but remind us of what is missing.

Act One feels long; most of the better songs are in Act Two. We liked Travis Leland as Ben. Likewise Darlene Popovic as Rachel, whose romantic interest in Donald Corren's Avram leads to our favorite song from the show, "Three Sunny Rooms." Julie Benko as Bella makes us cheer for her. It is her would-be romance with Ben that give us characters who seem to be in love with each other.


But the show hinges on the more traditional love triangle between Kyra Miller as Rebecca, her husband Nathan (Noel Anthony) and Danny Rothman as the labor-organizer Saul. But really, there are no fireworks among any of them. We don't care all that much. And that's a good thing, because nothing much happens.


The Irish bosses shake down the Jewish immigrants. The white-shoed plutocrats dance through their lives. Don't forget the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. There's a lot going on, and everyone is singing about it.


RATINGS ☼ ☼ 
 

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Rags" Two Stars. This places it below the Julie Andrews line for recommendation.  See Sideboard for explanation of ratings.

We would like to be more positive about this production as a good many people are involved in getting it to the stage, and it is nice to the eye. But too many blown lines and scratchy vocals, plus a story that stays on one emotional level, make it difficult to feel confident that this new adaptation is about to make "Rags" into riches.


"Rags"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through April 30
$35-$86