Saturday, August 30, 2008

"The Best Man": ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG

Gore Vidal has a pedigree. He is the grandson of legendary blind Senator Thomas Prior Gore of Oklahoma, a distant cousin of Jimmy Carter and Al Gore and was even a Democratic candidate for Congress in 1960.

1960 was also the year that Vidal wrote 'The Best Man,' which has opened a five week run at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. It's a quasi-serious look at what goes on behind the scenes as two candidates for President, each in possession of a big pile of dirt against the other, vie for the best time to unleash their allegation. It is irrelevant that neither of the allegations is quite true. All a candidate has to do is smile, Secretary of State Russell reminds his campaign manager: "War is declared, and we just smile. We're like animals. All these predatory teeth!"

Charles Shaw Robinson's Secretary Russell is a dead ringer for former New York City Mayor John Lindsay, a handsome patrician from the privileged "Groton/Harvard" set. Think John Kerry, an educated man who finds it difficult to relate to the common man. His opponent, the slimy Senator Joseph Cantwell, played like a coiled rattler by Tim Kniffin, is a self-proclaimed "man of the people," armed with little intelligence but a surfeit of personal ambition. It's Kerry versus Bush all over again, except that Vidal wrote "The Best Man" almost 50 years ago.

Who will win? We don't know the outcome until the end and the winner is not who you think. Well, it's exactly who you think, because the play's largest flaw is that the outcome is telegraphed for the entire second act.

That's its only shortcoming, though. "The Best Man" has the satirical sensibility of a SF Mime Troupe show, only with far better writing and a superb cast. You'll laugh a lot, when you're not choking in realization of how little anything ever changes.

Charles Dean gives a fine reading as ex-President Hockstader, who gets most of the good lines (speaking to Cantwell: "It's not your being such a bastard that I object to, it's being such a stupid bastard."). And we can't forget Deb Fink whose cigarette-smoking, calculating Southern Belle is spot on perfect as Mabel Cantwell, wife of Senator Joe.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Best Man" Two and a Half Stars With a Bangle of Praise. It's a high Two-and-a-Half, though and the only reason it falls short of Three Stars is it feels a little dated. Not that Vidal doesn't see the world through wide-open eyes ("An immoral President?" laughs ex-President Hockstader. "Do they come in any other flavor?"). Maybe it's just getting a little too close to home.

The Bangle of Praise is for Elizabeth Benedict's perfect Mrs. Sue Ellen Gamadge, National Committee Woman for Russell. She makes us laugh and cringe at the same time with her hats, her gloves, her tightly corseted walk and all her pronouncements about "the women," as in "...the women don't trust intelligent men, Mr. Secretary."

"The Best Man"
Aurora Theater
2081 Addison St., Berkeley
Wed.-Sun. $42-$50

Thursday, August 28, 2008

"Cabaret": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG

When you think of 'Cabaret,' you see Joel Gray and Liza Minnelli and Michael York. You see huge production numbers and brilliant direction by Bob Fosse on a stage the size of West Berlin.

Ah, but now come to San Francisco Playhouse and grab one of the front row cabaret tables, put in especially for this run of the Kander and Ebb masterpiece, and the show's patina takes on an entirely different hue. You're not looking at the Kit Kat Klub from a safe distance, you're living in it.

'Cabaret,' for all its hi-jinx and loveable misfits, is one of the darkest hits in the history of Broadway. Starting with the frightening "Tomorrow Belongs to Me," which closes Act One, and continuing through the entirety of Act Two, where each character's edge begins to fray, this is a show that could drive anyone deeply into a bottle of Schnapps.

But then we have John Kander's music and Fred Ebb's lyrics, always light and bouncy, with plenty of trombone oom-pahs to support the waltz and polka beats. They not only add to the story but lighten the mood. When you see 'Cabaret' in a small theater you realize a story with this much historical gravitas had to be wrapped in clarinets and comedy or it would be too much to bear.

Bill English's direction makes the most of the small stage. Standouts in the cast are Karen Grassle ("Ma" in the NBC series "Little House on the Prarie"), who gives Frau Schneider's character an elegant desperation; Louis Parnell (the excellent Sancho Panza from the 2006-07 production of "Man from La Mancha" on the same stage), who manages to keep the doomed Jew Herr Schultz hopeful; and the brilliant Kate del Castillo, whose legs may even be longer than Liza Minnelli's, and who turns on every light in the house with her stunning reprise of the final "Cabaret."

Shows evolve. The sexual references that were mostly hetero in the 1972 movie are quite a bit gayer in the 2008 San Francisco production, but they make even more sense this way. Frau Schneider sums it up at the beginning of the show in "So What?" There are Nazis everywhere. Live your life to its fullest. If we do that and still go down in flames -- so what?


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards San Francisco Playhouse's "Cabaret" Three Stars with two delightful Bangles of Praise. The first star is for Kate Del Castillo. It ain't easy trying to be Liza Minnelli without going over the edge. Del Castillo is herself and every motion works. Another star is for the supporting cast, many of whom are also members of the band. Will Springhorn Jr., an excellent Ernst on stage and saxophonist up on the riser; and Tania Johnson, who as Fraulein Kost entertains every sailor she can get her hands on while also managing to leave time to play accordion in the band, are both wonderful. A third star, of course, is for the late Kander and Ebb's perfect songs -- "Money (Makes the World Go 'Round)" will stay in your head for days.

A special Bangle of Praise goes out to Frau Schneider's hair and clothing, for which we thank Costume Designer Valera Coble; another is for the pure chutzpah or mounting this play on this stage. Musicals, which can be excruciating in a small space if done poorly, seem to be turning into a trademark at SF Playhouse. Memo to Bill English: "My Fair Lady" is a very good idea.

San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Wed.-Sat. Through Sept 20

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"Grey Gardens": ☼☼BANG

There are unsolved mysteries surrounding "Grey Gardens," having its Regional Theater Premiere through September 14 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. The advance promo calls the show "hilarious" and "heart breaking," but it is neither. What it is is a fascinating look at the lives of two women who lingered for decades on the edges of American aristocracy and privilege. Edith Bouvier (Big Edie) was the aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (young Jackie has a continuing role in the play.) Together with her daughter Edie Bouvier Beale (Little Edie), the two Bouvier women were true eccentrics, whose lives took them all the way from fortune to poverty and from the heights of social acceptance to the depths of despair. It's all true -- you can look it up.

But maybe don't go see the play. Scott Frankel's soporific music, especially in the first act, will put you to sleep in your seat and keep you there through a lengthy intermission. When you snap awake for Act Two, you will find it far more interesting than Act One with several rich and lively musical numbers, but how anyone can survive Act One is the first unsolved mystery.

Why the show was written as a musical is another mystery. It would make a fine drama.

Yes, we know. You saw Grey Gardens on Broadway and loved it. Many will enjoy this TheaterWorks production too, especially those who remember how Jackie O and her sister Lee Radziwill made the front page of all the New York tabloids when they had to keep their aunt's grand home from being condemned. San Franciscans with fatal attractions towards Judy Garland, Maria Callas and other doomed divas may also find this play hard to resist.

Certainly, the two leads, played by several different actresses to represent different periods of the Bouvier women's lives, are all excellent. Beth Glover and Dale Soules, as 1941 Big Edie and 1973 Big Edie, respectively, are terrific. Elisa Van Duyne gives lots of heart to 1941 Little Edie, and Glover, who switches to Little Edie in Act Two, is a fine comic, though where that New York accent came from, since it was nowhere to be heard from Little Edie in Act One, is another unsolved mystery.

It's always nice to hear a live orchestra. They did their best. Lyrics (by Michael Korie) were quite clever and the book (by Doug Wright) might have been more interesting if the entire first act weren't basically a setup for Act Two. That's a lot of setup.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Grey Gardens" Two Stars with a BANGLE. One star is for the set by J. B. Wilson which is, as always impressive; the other is for Cathleen Edwards' costumes. A Bangle of Praise must be granted for "Jerry Loves My Corn," a song of depth and pathos where the music and Dale Soules' vocal bring more than one tear to more than one eye.

"Grey Gardens"
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro St., Mountain View CA
Tue-Sun through September 14