Friday, December 6, 2019

"Groundhog Day, The Musical" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG


For those of us who have seen "Groundhog Day," the 1993 film starring Bill Murray, at least twenty times, "Groundhog Day, The Musical" has special traction. Danny Rubin co-wrote the original screenplay and his book for the musical brings us many of the heartwarming moments from the film, especially as concerns Ryan Drummond, who plays weatherman Phil Connors, the Bill Murray character. We wondered if Drummond, whom we have seen in many different roles over the years, could pull off Murray's loveable grump. We are happy to say he does so, and then some. Plus, he is a gifted singer.


Rinabeth Apostol is very entertaining as his co-producer and eventual love interest. She is a star in the making. We also loved the supporting crowd of Punxsutawnians, especially the always entertaining Michael Gene Sullivan.

The songs by Tim Minchin are clever and advance the story. They work within the style of musical theater writing that seems to be today's standard, where the story counts and the songs are there for little but filagree. A fine band anchored by Dave Dobrusky pumps out rhythmical tunes which keep us pulling for boy to get girl.


Special applause for the staging of this show -- a series of revolving baffles and moving turntable that continually bring us back to the morning of Feb. 2. The show is a delight to watch.


Of course there is also a deeper subtext here -- what would you do if you knew that whatever you did on one day would be erased as soon as you awakened the next morning?  Me, I'd move directly to the Hot Fudge Sunday Bar.


RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants THREE STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE to "Groundhog Day, the Musical." We love the story, casting and directing by Susi Damilano. The Bangle is for that hysterical hospital scene. A few breakout songs could help make this show a standard.


"Groundhog Day, the Musical" 
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street (2d floor of Kensington Floor Hotel)
San Francisco
Through January 18
$35-$125




Saturday, November 30, 2019

OUT OF TOWN REVIEW: “The Great Leap”

Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap” at Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena, CA:

If her “King of the Yees” was a slam dunk, “The Great Leap” is a driible-off-the-foot out-of-bounds. No coach could ever be so foul, no kid so dumb, no story so concocted.

The San Francisco Theater Blog blows the whistle: DON’T BOTHER. Maybe the Father-Son meme worked in Star Wars. Not here.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Robert Townsend: “Living the Shuffle” ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼



Robert Townsend has a fascinating history and he’s really, really funny. Known as one of the pioneers of independent film-making, his first feature “The Hollywood Shuffle” was financed on credit cards and shot for $100,000. It grossed over $8 million. As a stand-up performer, his Hollywood stories are very entertaining but he also shows us the frustration of so many actors of color as they seek to transcend the stereotypical roles offered to them. You can only audition so many times to play a pimp. 

We loved Townsend’s stories about growing up on the west side of Chicago, the lessons he gained from wonderful teachers, his move to Hollywood with Keenan Ivory Wayans and his informal initiation into the rat pack by Don Rickles. His performance of Shakespeare through an African-American perspective is amazing. Not everyone knows that Townsend directed Eddie Murphy’s classic “Raw. We loved the bit about meeting with the censors to whittle down the almost constant foul language in that film.  

This is a very respectful man. Perhaps this is what we love best. And he makes us laugh out loud.
It’s a short run, so hurry over to Berkeley for a fun evening, filled with cool stories, and while you’re laughing you’ll learn something about the most basic lesson of Hollywood: “Just keep working.”

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

 The San Francisco Theater Blog loves this show. Robert Townsend is as good as it gets. FOUR STARS.

Robert Townsend: “Livin’ the Shuffle”
The Marsh Berkeley
2120 Allston Way, Berkeley
EXTENDED Through Through Dec. 15
$35-$100

Friday, November 22, 2019

"Mother of the Maid" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼


The rare combination of a show that makes us feel alive with understanding, as well as forcing us to think about our place in the world order, has arrived in Mill Valley. Marin Theater Company's production of Jane Anderson's "Mother of the Maid" puts us in a position we have never before considered: what if you are Joan of Arc's mother? Your country is at war with England and your neighbors have been slaughtered. Your daughter has been seeing visions of St. Catherine, who has instructed her to raise an army to drive the invaders away, with God's help, of course.


You know, in your heart, your daughter is insane (and probably not too crazy about boys, as the show hints), but the Mom in you wants to believe the holy story is true. You also know that you are a peasant and that palling up with royalty will end up with you getting the short end of the stick. But you cannot stop Joan from her fate. What's a Mom to do?


In the first place, Joan of Arc's real last name was Arc. (D'Arc, actually.) Who knew?

Played by Rosie Hallett, Joan gives us a fairly typical teenage daughter, except for the swords and armor. She doesn't want to hear any difference of opinion from her parents, and anyway she has convinced the local Priest and Duke to sponsor her. Her father tries to discipline her, but, you know, St. Catherine and God and the Priest are a tough trio to argue with.

Sherman Fracher gives one of the best performances we have seen all year as Isabelle Arc, mother of The Maid, as Joan has come to be known. Fracher should be nominated for Actor of the Year for this role, that gives us a salt-of-the-earth peasant trying to please the royals (especially Liz Sklar as a sympathetic but clueless Lady of the Court).  She is both practical (she can clean her own feet, thank you) and furious, when she realizes the Crown has used Joan to restore its power but has no intention of ransoming her from the English, now that her work is done.


Scott Coopwood is all us fathers, angry but helpless, stung to the heart but unable to make his child understand her inevitable fall. His soliloquy, as he watches his daughter being burnt at the stake, will break your heart and pour hot oil over it.


Robert Sicular is an effective Father Gilbert and Brennan Pickman-Thoon an equally effective Pierre Arc, Joan's would-be-soldier brother. Kudos to the entire cast for making me keep the window open all the way home, that my sorrow at the human condition should not wash me off the Golden Gate Bridge.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants FOUR STARS to "Mother of the Maid." This is a brilliant show, with perfect acting to express the unique vision of an Emmy-Award winning playwright. Well done, Jasson Minidakis and the entire MTC team. Please don't miss this show. Afterwards, a few glasses of mead will help.



"Mother of the Maid"
Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through 12-8-19
$25-$70



Thursday, November 21, 2019

Cloud 9: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG





Caryl Churchill's plays are always a hoot. She defaults your presets. This British playwright wants to skewer everyone's expectations, not only about gender and sexuality, but also how they are presented on stage. Once she's done that, she spins a yarn that makes you nod your head and laugh as you are scratching your chin in wonder.

"Cloud 9" was written in 1979. It is as relevant now as it was then. The story takes place in two time periods, the first in South Africa in 1879, and the second some twenty-five years later, as the characters we saw in Act One have either aged as adults or grown up if they were children.

Well, sort of. In Act Two, the actors from Act One change parts and sexes and everything seems pretty darned confusing, until you sit back in your chair and roll with it. It is a pleasure to do so.


Evan Winet plays the quintessentially Modern Major General in Act One and a bearded spoiled child in Act Two. Mario Mazzetti plays Winet's Victorian wife in Act One and grown-up Edward in act Two, while Alejandra Wahl is baby Edward followed by adult Vic. Others in the cast play duplicate roles and genders as well. Alan Coyne is particularly evil as a black servant although he is white, followed by a coldhearted, trolling gay man who may actually be the only one with a moral compass.


We loved the costumes by Candice Liao, not an easy task due to changing eras. Allie Moss's direction keeps everyone out of each other's way, also not a simple assignment.


RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Cloud 9" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Act Two runs a bit long as the author is trying to lead you home. The idea seems to be "Relax. We Are Who We Are. Try Laughing."

The Bangle is for the entire ensemble cast. We really got behind this show.


"Cloud 9"
Custom Made Theatre
533 Sutter Street
Through Dec. 15
$25-$55

Sunday, November 17, 2019

"Bull in a China Shop" ☼ ☼


For a show with a title like this one, surprisingly little gets broken. A historical fiction based on the professional life of Mary Wooley, the first female student at Holyoke College who became its Eleventh President in 1901, we get little historical information except the bare outlines. Attitudes began to change at that time, but we see very little of that on stage.


What we spend our time observing is the relationship between Wooley (Stacey Ross) and her ex-student and long-term partner Jeanette Marks (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong). Author Bryna Turner wants us to understand how difficult a relationship like this one must have been, but if these two are burning there is not much fire. Ross's Wooley is detached from Marks except when the younger woman protests loudly enough to be heard, and Marks seems perfectly willing to be the kept woman on the University payroll.

Jasmine Milan Williams's Pearl is another story. Pearl is in love with Jeanette Marks.


Played with a ton of flair, Pearl has all the heart we wish we saw in either of the two leads, who don't appear to even like each other very much. So Pearl's soliloquy about love and its effects stands out. It is the show's highlight moment.



Mia Tagano is very good as the voice of the school establishment, caught between the male regents and her own desire to modernize women's education. Rebecca Scweitzer has a limited role as a housemate of Jeanette Marks in later days.


For us, one of the show's problems is that four decades pass but the women don't really age or change. And the f-bombs. In 1901? Really? Well, maybe.

In the end the story becomes one of power. If Mary Wooley’s role were played by a man, it would not surprise us, but neither would there be a statement to be made. We wish we were sure what that statement is.


RATINGS ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division gives “Bull in a China Shop” Two Stars. If the history of gender issues are important to you, you will want to watch Stacey Ross and this cast re-enact the early 20th Century. But don't expect fireworks. Or a china shop. Or a bull.

“Bull in a China Shop"
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through Dec. 8
$35-$70


Wednesday, November 13, 2019

NASSIM: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !!!!!


This review will be short and sweet, because you are already running out of time. "Nassim," playing at the Magic Theatre for only five nights, is unlike anything else we have ever seen. Nassim Soleimanpour is an Iranian playwright living in Berlin who has figured out what a performer on a stage can do to bring an audience into his heart. And he isn't even the performer. He is offstage half the time.

A different actor, chosen by Artistic Director Loretta Greco, takes the stage each night, having never met Nassim nor seen the script. The actor is as much in the dark as we are as to what will happen next, as he or she opens an envelope which will tell him or her what to do or say. We saw the amazing Safiya Fredericks on Tuesday night. Wednesday (tonight) will feature Sean San Jose, Julia McNeal on Thursday, Sarah Nina Hayon on Friday, Lauren English for Saturday's matinee and James Carpenter Saturday evening.


Each actor follows video instructions from Nassim, and ...oh, this is silly. There is no way to explain it. If you are unaccustomed to trusting your faithful but normally grumpy and difficult-to-please reviewer, allow me to say: Now is the time. Go see this show. Then write and thank me.


RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼ ☼ !!!!!

What the hell? FIVE STARS? Is there music? No. Will a show on one evening be like any of the other shows? No. Can we guarantee brilliance? No. But we saw it. How often can we say that?

What we have here is a strange but brilliant hybrid of mime, improv and humor that will have you and the rest of the audience leaning forward in your seats so you don't miss anything. And you will learn some very lovely Farsi. 

Yes, friends. Yes. Just go.

Seats are not expensive, but pay extra if you must so you can sit in the center section and not on the sides. The performer's reactions are every bit as fascinating as the material. 

And a special shout-out for Director Omar Elerian. 

"Nassim"
The Magic Theatre
Building D, Fort Mason, San Francisco
Through Nov. 16 ONLY
$20-$75


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

"That Don Reed Show" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG



Less a stage show than a series of short sketches, "That Don Reed Show" is very funny in most places. The Marsh stage feels like a place where Reed tries out new material, some of which is terrific, and one, at the end, which shows you in which direction this brilliant mimic and comic may turn.


Reed is a physical actor with a face of plastic. He molds his cheeks and mouth to look and sound like politicians or persons from his past. We loved both "Slow Motion Theater" bits. Same for his description of Shug, the owner of Shug's tavern, who is a Jackie-Gleason-like bartender who opines about the state of the world while drying his imaginary glass with a towel. The evil Thanksgiving benediction involving "Father God" gives us delightful shivers, seeing as Thanksgiving is only two weeks away. 

Add to that the lovely segment where the audience fills in all the details of a story he is telling. This could be an entire show. As could be the final bit -- a heartfelt discussion of homelessness that shows Don Reed has a lot more to him than a gift for comedy and a face that appears to have no bones. 



Less successful are some of the musical bits -- Don Reed is a gifted performer but not quite Bobby McFerrin.

We go see Don Reed every chance we get. You'll love "That Don Reed Show."

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division still loves Blinky. We grant "That Don Reed Show" THREE STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The Bangle is not only for our favorite jokes, but for the genesis of a sensibility that could vault Don Reed into his own special category.


"That Don Reed Show"
The Marsh, San Francisco
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Sat. and Sun. through Dec. 29
$20-$35



Monday, November 11, 2019

"Gypsy" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG





In the first place it's Jule Styne and in the second place it's Stephen Sondheim. You can stop right there, listen to the songs and go home whistling. 1959 was a good year for Sondheim, having previously finished "West Side Story," and Jule Styne's melodies stick in your ears like wax. And if you don't know the show, there are surprises.




"Clear the decks! Clear the tracks!
You've got nothing to do but relax.
Blow a kiss. Take a bow.
Honey, everything's coming up roses!"


Hundreds of people have recorded this song and it is always fast and peppy. Happy. Confident. It is anything but. "Everything's Coming Up Roses" is about facing failure and the possibility of one's life being for nothing. It is sung by Mama Rose, played by the fabulous Ariela Morgenstern, at the end of Act One, as her world appears to be crumbling. Morgenstern is really good, especially since anyone taking on this career-defining role will always be compared to the Broadway greats who invented it, such as Ethel Merman, Bette Middler and Bernadette Peters among many others, Morgenstern can stand with all of them, as an actor as well as a song-belter.


The story is well known, written by Arthur Laurents from the 1957 autobiography by Gypsy Rose Lee. Mama Rose is the ultimate stage mom, spending her life to give her children the Vaudeville stardom that she herself was never able to achieve. 



"Curtain up! Light the lights!
You got nothing to hit but the heights!
You'll be swell! You'll be great.
I can tell. Just you wait."





Also terrific are Jade Shojaee as Louise, the younger, neglected daughter who turns into Gypsy; Tia Konsur as the adult June; and Emma Berman as the crackerjack younger June who might even steal this show. 


DC Scarpelli is a fine Herbie though he does appear to be channeling Yul Brynner.


And Gypsy wouldn't be Gypsy without the three strippers who teach Louise she's gotta have a gimmick. They are played to perfection by Glenna Murillo, Olivia Cabera and Elaine Jennings.


When was the last time you left a musical actually singing the tunes? For us, the night before last. Go feel good. Bay Area Musicals has a winner on its hands.

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Gypsy" FOUR STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Story, acting, directing, music, it's all here. Our only caveat is to make sure you're in the middle of the Alcazar Theatre. The side seats can be iffy, depending on how far over they place you. We love this show and may beg to see it again, but this time between the goal posts. 

The BANGLE OF PRAISE is for this bridge to "Small World, Isn't It?" The song is perfect. You can't write a better bridge than this, with a message that ought to be hung on America's wall:



"We have so much in common,
It's a phenomenon.
We could pool our resources
By joining forces from now on."



--------------



"Gypsy"
Alcazar Theater
650 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through Dec. 8
$40-$85




'


Wednesday, November 6, 2019

"Dance Nation" UNRATED


The run is over so it's too late to see San Francisco Playhouse's production of Clare Barron's "Dance Nation." It was a somewhat confounding presentation, seemingly out of kilter with glowing reviews from the earlier New York production, including a nomination for a Pulitzer.

There were good moments, especially at the beginning when it seemed as if the show had a solid sense of itself. But the author's instructions made this a particularly vexing show to watch. Older women pretending to be younger women and non-dancers pretending to be dancers made disbelief harder to suspend than it might have been,



Reviewers appear to be lauding the show's audacity, as well as Bill English and Susi Damilano's willingness to take chances. This has always been a hallmark of San Francisco Playhouse and we are happy to see it is continuing.

RATINGS: UNRATED

"Dance Nation"
San Francisco Playhouse
2d Floor of Kensington Park Hotel, San Francisco
RUN COMPLETED

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

"The Chinese Lady" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG




Lloyd Suh's "The Chinese Lady" is beautifully written, staged and acted. The brilliant fabric canopy (by Liz Matos) in which the real Afong Moy was made to display herself as a carnival attraction in the America of the 1830s and '40s, is as beautifully constructed as was the story created by the American importers of Chinese artifacts who purchased the 14-year-old from her father to enhance their business dealings. Suh's story is an interpretation of actual historical events.


We loved Rinabeth Apostol as the young, tragic girl who believes she is doing something to enhance Chinese-American relations, and Will Dao, her perhaps even more tragic interpreter. Both know how to act out their employers' desires, but as the years pass neither can avoid seeing the truth: they are prisoners, unpaid and exploited. Their culture is disrespected as they are treated like curiosities in a circus, especially after P.T. Barnum buys them from their previous employers.


The picture this paints of America is troublesome. But it would not feel as sad if our attitudes were not in so many ways unchanged after all these years. The idea of extolling the values of a new culture always loses out to fear of the unknown. 

A highlight of this one-act show is Dao's portrayal of President Andrew Jackson. He has given a meeting to Afong Moy, but proves to be as distasteful as all the others. Atung plays the vainglorious President as well as himself as translator for both Jackson and Afong Moy. He speaks excellent, educated English, but must always translate in simple pidgin. This is a set piece that deserves accolades. 

Props to the Props. Jacquelyn Scott has peppered the stage with perfectly inauthentic Chinese artifacts meant to make Jacksonian audiences Oooh and Ahhh. 


The ending is long, because they seem to be laboring to make a point about racism that we all understood from the beginning. There are no other niggles. This is a terrific show.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "The Chinese Lady" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Acting, directing and staging earn one star each and the BANGLE is for Andrew Jackson. But don't forget how sensitive and vulnerable is Apostol. Congratulations on perfect casting. 

"The Chinese Lady"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through November 3
$15-$75

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Golden Thread Productions: "ReOrient 2019" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼


The delicious thing about reviewing theater is finding the gems. It was exciting to see Golden Thread Productions' 20th Anniversary production of ReOrient 2019, seven short plays written by writers dealing with issues pertaining to the Middle East or to Hyphenated-Americans with Middle Eastern backgrounds. Acting, humor and powerful subject matter were evident in each show; somewhat disheartening was how few people were in the audience. These terrific shows deserve far greater exposure. Hopefully, audiences will build as the run continues.

There were no clinkers. Each show was weird but understandable, with lots of words but no slowdowns in action. Perhaps it helps for a show to be five or ten minutes long. This also eliminates the issue of shorter and shorter attention spans.


The opener, "The Grievance Club" by Rendah Heywood, is a showstopper. Atosa Babaoff plays a seriously pissed-off banker, eager to perform physical mayhem upon the list of aging white men who have eagerly signed up to receive it. Babaoff returns as Maysoon in Yussef el Guindi's "Brass Knuckles." She is determined not to allow her anger to destroy her. She says "Today I will have more empathy for people who are assholes."


Lawrence Radecker is perfect as a guilt ridden Turkish Lieutenant in Mustafa Kaymak's "The Basement," delivering platitude after platitude to a journalist as bodies are hauled away in body bags.

We also loved Sofia Ahmad and Ali-Moosa Mirza, two adults playing eight-and-ten year-old Syrian children, whose besieged lives are illuminated only by Harry Potter in Lameece Issaq's "Noor and Hadi go to Hogwarts." This is a sad one, but perhaps not as chilling as Naomi Wallace's "The Book of Mima," in which the plight of Yemen and its children is played out in a monologue attributed to a Saudi Tomahawk Missile. This is truly brilliant writing, packing a punch and terrific performance by Lawrence Radecker.


We also enjoyed the other two shows, the futuristic "In Spenglic" and "An Echo of Laughter," in which a Hitler who does nothing but guffaw still manages to command the stage.

The show continues until Nov. 17.  Go soon. You will want to tell your friends.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼ 

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants Four Stars to "ReOrient 2019." Do not expect major productions with costume changes and elaborate sets. What each of these seven shows does is make us think, while also giving us room for hope.

"Golden Thread Productions:"ReOrient 2019"
Potrero Playhouse
1695 18th Street, San Francisco
Through Nov. 17
$20-$38




Monday, September 23, 2019

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: ☼ ☼


Let it be said in advance that this reviewer has a conflict of interest. I love Word For Word. I generally receive more than I expect and in almost every circumstance end up floored by both the ensemble of actors and the immense task of taking a story and mounting it, word for word, on a theater stage.


That said: "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is not W4W's finest moment. Clearly, the company realized something was up when they tried to take the shooting of the albatross, the great moral lesson of the 1798 Samuel Coleridge poem, and tie it into climate change as well as the destruction of native American lands. It doesn't work. The poem is arcane, the language is ancient and difficult to decipher and the bringing down of the albatross, in light of the corruption and misery we observe every minute of our lives here in 2019, seems like pretty small potatoes.


Word For Word shows are almost always magical. We found this one ponderous. Coleridge is known to have been an opium fanatic. The skeptic (me), says: "Dude smoked a lot of opium and saw God."

The skeptic's wife says, "I loved the staging."

Critic agrees. Oliver DiCicco and Colm McNally's set, a representation of the open prow of an ancient sailing ship, which also turns into a coffin, is marvelous to view as we file into the theater. It sets the stage for what follows, as the actors parade down a ramp and into the ship.


Charles Shaw Robinson is an excellent Ancient Mariner, but, for us, the rest of the cast is a blur. Directors Delia MacDougall and Jim Cave appear to have been trying hard to figure out how a cast of nine can all speak one poem. Their solution is to have one person speak a few words and then someone else speak one or two, with a third person finishing the line or short stanza. The result is the words themselves lack power as we are concentrating on figuring out whose mouth is moving on stage.


The problem is magnified by the sound system, wherein each actor is miked into a large overhead speaker, with the result being all the voices come from overhead and not from the actor. It is very difficult to bond with an actor whose voice is separated from his body, especially when the words are in 1798 English and the actor does little but stand in one place and mouth a few words at a time.

We generally love Teddy Hulsker's Projection Designs, but this time not so much. Who were those people, anyway, with the white robes and the sun shining behind them? Jesus? Mary? We think so, but one of them looked a lot like Pat Silver. The one line that sticks with us is not the famous one ("Water! Water! Nor any drop to drink!") but instead what Coleridge said about his fantasy woman: "...her skin was as white as leprosy."


RATINGS ☼ ☼ 

The San Francisco Theater Blog gives "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" Two Stars. We understand that this rating places the show below the Mendoza Line (see sidebar for explanation). We applaud Word For Word, as always, for taking chances no one else takes. But ask any ancient mariner. If you go fishing enough times, sooner or later you will not haul up enough for dinner.


"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
A Word For Word Production
Z Space (upstairs)
450 Florida Street, San Francisco
Through Oct. 12
$20-$50