Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Russian on the Side": ? ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ?

Wow! There are probably two audiences watching each performance of Mark Nadler's astonishing 'Russian on the Side,' running through November 16 at the Marines Memorial Theatre. One knows the music and gives out stars. The other one doesn't and holds up question marks. But judging from the enthusiastic Opening Night response, people who didn't understand Nadler's musical references were simply swept away by his virtuosity and silliness. The audience barely let him off the stage at the end.

The backbone of 'Russian on the Side' is a tongue-twisting song lyric, written by Ira Gershwin and sung originally by Danny Kaye in the musical "Lady in the Dark." The song incorporates (and occasionally rhymes) the names of 50 Russian composers. Kvochinsky? Stravinsky? Glinka? These are not simple names, but Nadler has learned a vignette about each one and plays a snippet of music that each composer wrote. At the end, he plays 'em all. If you stay with him, it's hysterical.

For those of us who are familiar with classical music and a few famous show stoppers from the Broadway tin-pan-alley tradition, this show is a rare gem. Nadler's acrobatic antics while in front of, in back of, or on top of his grand piano recall a young Victor Borge; his personality and enthusiasm remind you of an even-more energized Martin Short. Nadler is no classical master, but the dude can play -- with one hand or two hands or no hands. He tells funny jokes and fascinating stories.

What in the world is not to like? This reviewer is coming back and bringing his mother.

But hold on now. What about the masses of people who never heard of Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovich, Prokofiev or either Anton Rubenstein, the Russian or Artur Rubenstein, the Pole? If you're younger than, say, forty, have you ever heard 'Stranger in Paradise?' Can you relate to the fact that the song's melody was taken from a theme written by the Russian composer Borodine, who subsuquently became the first composer to ever win a Tony Award seventy years after his death?

It's a funny story. But does it sink in? Maybe. Maybe not.

Mark Nadler doesn't care. He's having a ball on stage. Wearing his morning coat, gold vest and red cravat, his fey, Jewish, Broadway manner comes across as honest and appealing. You, the audience, may get lost but you probably won't. The truth is you won't know if you love this kind of thing until you see it, because you've never seen anything else like it.

Sitting at the end of the aisle to the side of the reviewer was a couple, he a bit older than she. The man shouted, laughed, then jumped to his feet clapping his hands over his head at the show's finale. The woman was less demonstrative. He turned and asked his date: "So, how'd you like the show?" and she paused awhile before saying... "well, it was different."

Different, it is. We love it. Go see "Russian on the Side." If you can dig up your old piano teacher, bring her along.

RATINGS ? ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ?

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards 'Russian on the Side' a rare Four Star Rating with a Question Mark at the start and a Question Mark at the end. The question marks are because The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division believes Four Stars translates as "NOW! GO NOW!" But it has no idea if there exists a wide enough audience for this show.

Three stars would not be enough. Three and a half stars with no question marks would probably be OK, and three and three quarter stars with one question mark would also do. But to hell with it. Four stars and two question marks it is. After you hear Mark Nadler sing Frank Loesser's 'The Ugly Duckling' and Steven Sondheim's 'Next,' and play Rachmaninoff's Prelude Opus 3 No. 2 in C-sharp Minor, first relating the sad story of the grand piano master's lifelong exile in New York, we can talk about the question marks. Please comment when you see the show.

"Russian on the Side"
Marines Memorial Theatre
609 Sutter Street, Second Floor, San Francisco
Tue-Sun through November 16

Sunday, October 12, 2008

"Radio Golf": ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG

After seeing the Northern California Premiere of August Wilson's final play "Radio Golf," this reviewer was enthused, as well as conflicted. I hurried home to read earlier comments about the play, since its official Broadway opening in 2005. Reviewers seem to be in agreement about the show's one red flag -- the lead is so passive it's hard to come down strongly on his side -- but there is a lot of disagreement on just about every other point.

I believe August Wilson saved the best for last -- his most scathing opinions about society as a whole, and race relations in particular, are delivered through the clear lens of a playwright who knows he is dying of cancer. Through the story of the young candidate for mayor (Harmond Wilks, played by Aldo Billingslea), we see the attempt to gentrify the venerable black district of Pittsburgh, known as The Hill, as part of the same struggle being disputed today across the nation. Assimilation means progress, but it also means bulldozing Aunt Ester's house, the 366-year-old conscience of several of Wilson's previous plays. Placing your development office on the Hill is good for your image but it also means somebody is bound to steal your golf clubs out of your trunk.

Golf: the ultimate symbol, the white power broker's game. It is fatally seductive to Harmond and his partner Roosevelt Hicks (played by Anthony J. Haney) but a golf club is just another weapon to hit somebody over the head with, if you ask ex-con Sterling Johnson (L. Peter Callender).

August Wilson grew up on the Hill, and The Hill is where all but two of the plays in Wilson's monumental ten-play cycle are set. These dramas record nothing less than a cross-section of the African-American experience of the 20th Century, and August Wilson knew what he was writing about. It's old versus new, and by extension good versus bad. It'll be nice to have a Starbucks and a Real Foods, but who will remember the chicken shack where the two old ladies fried chicken all weekend for neighbors lined up around the block? And what about Aunt Ester? Who will remember her?

Old Joe will, that's who. Old Joe is the show. Whenever Elder Joseph Barlow (played magnificently by Charles Branklyn) opens his mouth, wisdom and stubborness emerge in equal measure. He remembers the exact date of everything important that ever happened on The Hill. It's Old Joe's house the developers want to tear down and he's not about to let it happen. He is helped in his refusal to roll over by Sterling Johnson, the show's other sympathetic man of the people. These two men have the playwright's ear, while the forces of modernity, represented by Harmond Wilks, Roosevelt Hicks and Harmond's wife Mame (C. Kelley Wright) are not looked upon with favor.

Or are they? This is the rub. In the end, neither good nor evil triumph. It is reality that rises to the top. The ending is perhaps troubling, but that must be the way August Wilson wanted it. Many believe "Radio Golf" is not "Fences" or "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," but this reviewer is not so sure. Let's stew on it awhile longer.


RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ 1/2 BANG
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Radio Golf" three and a half stars. Charles Branklyn is so good the author could have written Act Three with only him in it. The cowboy-and-Indian subtext carries a lot of power. And a special BANGLE of Praise is offered to Sterling Johnson for his metaphysical query about the quarter and the vending machine. If you (black people) put your quarter into the machine, and the machine (white power structure) spits it out, whose fault is it? The quarter? Or the machine?

It appears that the author's answer would be: you'd better learn just HOW to put that quarter in, if you ever want to get anything out.

"Radio Golf"
TheatreWorks: Mountain View Center for the Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Tue-Sun through November 2

Sunday, October 5, 2008

"May Day Parade": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

"Diggigi doo BOP doo doo de BOP. Shaka shaka BOOP taka taka de dak!" Wayne Harris doesn't enter stage left, he MARCHES all over it. He's a big man with a lot of energy and he uses it all. Once his 90 minute recollection gets moving, recounting the day he first got to march in the annual May Day Parade in his native St. Louis, as an eight year old child, the ride never stops. Harris plays all the characters from that day in the 1960s -- most memorably his grandmother Mama Bell, who walks with bent over posture, balancing her 'shelf bootie' -- a rear end so big you can carry a tray on it. Family standouts as well are Harris's gentle mother, his hard-working railroad porter father, his brother and his aunts, the deacon's son with the foul mouth, as well as the many wonderful church goers, teachers and beauty shop operators who line the street as Wayne marches by.

Like all one-person shows, the performance is probably more important than the writing. Harris is a fine writer, and "May Day Parade" has many wonderful lines and a terrific flow, but Harris, who has been a performer all his life, dominates the stage in a way most soloists cannot. You can easily see him acting other people's material as well as his own.

One favorite moment is Harris's depiction of the 'Letter Girls,' a group of oversized young women from Beaumont High who, having been judged too large to become cheerleaders, get their moment in the sun dancing to James Brown at the May Day Parade.

Harris informs us that today the May Day Parade in St. Louis is sponsored by McDonalds and it no longer takes place in the 'hood. But his description of the way it used to be makes us all long to have been there, marching down the boulevard, staying in step and keeping it real.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards 'May Day Parade' three stars with a Bangle of Praise. Two of the three stars are for Harris's writing and performing, but the third is for all those drum lines. He is such a musical force on stage that it is hard to stay seated in your little red chair. This viewer wanted to stand up and form a Second Line right behind him.

There are several moments that deserve special mention, but the Bangle of Praise is for after the march, when eight year old Wayne relaxes in the park, shoes off, feeling the cool grass on his feet, surrounded by his loving family. He is, in Harris's words: "...sitting on the triumphant side of the struggle." We are so happy for him. And for us.

"May Day Parade"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia St. San Francisco
Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3, through Nov. 9
$15-$35 sliding scale

"Shining City": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

It's not often that you sit through an entire show, waiting for an ending that you don't realize is coming, but then when you see that last scene, which lasts on stage no more than ten seconds, you say to yourself "Ah HA! THAT'S what we're talking about! All right!"

Then, a few seconds later, you turn to the lovely lady sitting next to you and say: "What the hell was that?"

Riding home from San Francisco Playhouse, where Conor McPherson's 'Shining City' is having its Bay Area Premiere through November 22, after you get a chance to mull it about for awhile, you realize you just saw a perfect, perfect, perfect ending. The ghost, see, and John's still in Dublin and he doesn't need her anymore, but Ian, well, he does because, see, he's going down to Limerick and that's not gonna work out, 'cuz the ghost, see.

McPherson is Irish, which explains a lot, because nobody does guilt and loss of faith quite like the Irish. It must be all the rain. Not one character can ever finish a sentence -- everything fades out into an existential sigh. Paul Whitworth's John is having a nervous breakdown as he sits on the couch of brand-new therapist Ian (Alex Moggridge), who has his own demons staring him down. John is guilty because he's been a rat to his recently deceased wife, Ian has run out on his family, and Ian's girl friend Neasa (Beth Wilmurt), has just had a casual affair with a mutual friend. Their angst is thick. Of course, it's raining.

Do we believe in ghosts? Nope...yikes, but what's behind the door? You'll see. It's a great yarn. But if a black cat crosses your path on your way into the theater, think about going to see Jersey Boys.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards 'Shining City' three solid stars, one each for the two principal actors and one for Amy Glazer's precise direction, which manages to keep us interested through a mountain of talk. The ending is so good it earns a Bangle of Praise all by itself. However, the obligatory Moment of Gayness between Ian and Laurence (Alex Conde) makes so little sense it earns its own bauble of despair.

But no worries. Don't miss 'Shining City.'

"Shining City"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through Nov. 22
Tue-Sat. $40

Saturday, October 4, 2008

"Towle's Hill": UNRATED plus ***UPDATE***

*** UPDATE! The Marsh has lowered the price of a ticket substantially to Towle's Hill and wine tasting. So as you read the review below, be aware the show is now only $15 if you mention 'wine tasting' at the ticket counter. For that small price, 'Towle's Hill' has become a bargain!***

'Towle's Hill' is a well written and captivating piece of theater. Mark Kenward (actor and writer) is very believable as farmer Towle Bundschu and is able to propel the audience into an understanding of the difficult lives of California's pioneer vinter families. The story, of one winery's travels from the Gold Rush into the 1970s, is as much a story about California history as it is about wine and the people who make it.

But it's very short (half an hour? a little more?). And if you look at it from a non-theatrical point of view, the show is basically a fluff piece about Gundlach Bundschu Winery, who commissioned it in the first place, and who offers, in exchange for a rather hefty admission price, a taste of chardonnay and merlot after the show.

The wine is very good. The show is very good. The problem is that wine lovers will want more wine and theater goers will want more show.

The Marsh is trying to do something novel here, and we applaud them for it. Hybrid art forms are gaining strength throughout the city and may turn out to be a large part of our entertainment future. Dinner theater like Teatro Zinzanni runs for years, circus combines successfully with hip hop -- why not theater with wine tasting?

Well, why not? The concept is a good one for both sides -- the Marsh would like to reach an audience who doesn't often venture into the Mission, and the winery would love theater goers to think about ordering its wines during dinner at the bistro after the show.

The sour grape in the barrel is the admission price. $35-$50 for a scant half hour paean to the farmer's life, followed by a tiny bit of wine, is just too much for this reviewer to be able to recommend the show, even though -- and mark this for the future when the price comes down -- Mark Kenward and David Ford (director) have fashioned a very winning story on the stage.

'Towle's Hill' is UNRATED

'Towle's Hill'
The Marsh
1062 Valencia St, San Francisco
FRIDAY NIGHTS ONLY through Nov. 21