Friday, July 13, 2018

Sunday in the Park with George ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ (FIVE STARS!)

Before the show started Thursday night, Director Bill English said, "The beginning of this show is so different. It is about art, not necessarily about entertainment." He needn't have worried. San Francisco Playhouse's production of Stephen Sondheim's 1984 masterpiece "Sunday in the Park with George" is brilliant in every respect. It is not your average Broadway musical, and you probably won't exit the theater humming a melody, but you get to see the master in his prime. No one has ever written lyrics like Stephen Sondheim. The argument about him, if there is one, concerns his music. To this listener, Sondheim uses lyrics to tell the story and music to support the lyrics, and not the other way around. Everyone can't be Leonard Bernstein. And no one else can be Stephen Sondheim.

John Bambery and Nanci Zoppi bring emotion and honesty to George and Dot. Both singers are actors first, so their lovely voices spring from the hearts of their characters. Zoppi, who we loved in "Noises Off" and "She Loves Me" at SFP, always surprises us. She is a natural comedian so our first reaction is always to smile. And then, she sings. Bambery is from Boston and we hope he sticks around awhile.

Anyone involved with "Sunday in the Park" will understand the artistic dilemma, so brilliantly depicted in Act Two's "Chromolume #7, "Putting it Together" and "Children and Art." If your children ask whether they should go work for Google or try painting for a living, take them to see this show. Take them anyway. There are life lessons here that are not unique to theater. The creative process is alive in all of us. How we bring it out is what differentiates artists from...well, reviewers.


The San Francisco Theater Blog awards "Sunday in the Park with George" FIVE STARS! What? Did I say Five Stars? Nobody gets Five Stars. We must be getting soft. Perhaps a misprint?

Nope, no misprint. One star each for writing, directing, acting and staging makes Four, and a Fifth for the audacity of Sondheim and James Lapine in looking at George Seurat's famous painting, "Un dimanche après-midi à l'île de la Grande Latte," and deciding the only thing missing was the story of the painter. And now we know. Five Stars. In any language. Ask the guy with the pipe.

"Sunday in the Park with George"
San Francisco Playhouse
2d Floor of Kensington Park Hotel
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Through September 8

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Dry Powder ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Our brains explode as they contemplate the survival of the fittest and realize that the bad guys are going to make it and we're  not. Nonetheless, we loved Sarah Burgess's "Dry Powder." A primer on the financial community's devotion to winning at any cost, we leave the theater feeling like a dinosaur staring up at the approaching comet. Where will we hide? Dude. I need to call my lawyer.

Emily Jeanne Brown (Jenny) and Jeremy Kahn (Seth) live to impress megalomaniac Rick (Aldo Billingsley), their boss at KMM, his private equity firm. The way to do that is to bring in new acquisitions that will add to the bottom line. How they do that, and what that acquisition will do to the company being acquired and all the people who work there, is not on the table. A few fractions of a percentage point will tell the tale. Nothing else is to be considered.

Feelings are weak and control is strength. The strong survive. The weak perish. Let's go get coffee.

Jeff (Kevin Kemp) has a suitcase company that is set to be acquired by Rick's firm. Seth brought in the deal. Jenny sees less profitability unless Jeff's company is immediately dissolved, with manufacturing moved from California to Bangladesh. This is unacceptable to Seth, and to Jeff...or is it?

We love the interplay between Seth and Jenny. The dialogue is fast and crisp. Both Kahn and Brown make us feel they have been doing this for years. Billingsley knows how to fume. The minimal set by Tanya Orellana helps us concentrate on the often-vicious dialog, while Victoria Livingston-Hall's costumes are simple -- one business suit per character. Rick's is expensive. Seth's and Jenny's look lived in. Jeff's is shlumpy. The brown shoes tell us everything we need to know.

Everyone has their price and it is always personal. Rick is the one who knows this best. In the end, that price is usually less than one would think.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Dry Powder" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise for Kahn and Brown. These two could take their act on the road. The Bangle is for Sarah Burgess's writing. As "dry powder" is financial talk for cash on hand, great dialog is the dry powder of the playwright. Burgess has plenty in the bank, although, amazingly, this is her first produced play. We will hear from her again.

"Dry Powder"
Aurora Theater
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through July 22

(*there are no bad seats at the Aurora. By cheapies. You will miss nothing.)

Saturday, July 7, 2018

In Brauanu: ☼

Nazis are easy pickings for writers. They are evil, or they are ridiculous. Playwright Dipika Guha has chosen to go for laughs. Sadly, her new "In Braunau" is more weird than funny. The laughs are about modern cultural references, but never about what she seems to feel is the heart of the show: the hidden Nazi in all of us.

Young idealists Sarah (Sango Tajima) and Justin (Josh Schell) have decided to open a B&D, that is a Bed and Dinner, in the very home in Braunau, Austria, where Adolf Hitler was born. Sarah calls it "A dark chapter with freshly baked cookies." This makes as much sense as not recognizing the clearly evil designs of their first long-term guests Katrine (Elissa Beth Stebbins) and Alfred (Timothy Roy Redmond). Katrine, channeling Nurse Ratched, and Alfred, looking and acting like Michael Keaton in Beetlejuice. have mannerisms which, one would think, might alert Sarah and Justin to certain nefarious tendencies. 

But Justin has fallen in love. Male-bonding-wise.

There is a Nazi in the basement, who may be imaginary.  Played by Mohammed Shehata, this young man wants Sarah to kill him.

Also participating are Shehata and Sam Jackson (as first guests Jai and Soha) who are, quite correctly, scared out of their minds. Jackson also plays P, an Egyptian refugee with an Israeli accent and an underground website who is trying to make sense out of Sarah and Justin.

No one could really be as naive as these Americans. The author seems to be lampooning characters who are lampoons to begin with. As for the ending, you will have to figure out for yourself what happens to Sarah.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "In Braunau" One Star, for Sango Tajima, whose character at least shows signs of recognizing reality. (See sidebar for explanation of ratings.) The show will improve when Guha decides if her story is horror, comedy, drama, farce, or something else.

And speaking of which: we would be remiss not to mention that leaving the theater you must expect to be assaulted by the Zombie Apocalypse that Market Street has become at night. Nazis upstairs and Zombies downstairs.

"In Braunau" 
The Rueff at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater
1127 Market Street, San Francisco
Through July 7