Sunday, September 27, 2009

"First Day of School": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG PLUS!

It really makes sense that Billy Aronson's new comedy "First Day of School" is having its World Premiere at San Francisco Playhouse. This very funny, completely off-the-wall farce is the kind of play San Francisco Playhouse does best. The author was too shy to be introduced to the audience before the show on Opening Night, but he was happy to stand up afterwards, as the raucously belly-laughing audience roared its approval.

The set-up is that David (Bill English) and Susan (Zehra Berkman) have just dropped off their two children at elementary school on the first day of the school semester. Realizing they now have nothing planned for the rest of the day, Susan suggests they follow through with their idea to go have sex with other people, who just happen to be the parents of the other children in the school.

Susan has her eyes on Peter (Jackson Davis)...

...and David is thinking about Kim (Marcia Pizzo)...

...and Alice (Stacy Ross).

Eventually, everyone says yes.

But like Maria Muldaur once said, it ain't the meat, it's the motion. The convoluted measures that Peter, Kim and Alice have to take in order to feel comfortable with this new arrangement, which is so perfectly natural to David and Susan but fraught with impossible angst for the other three, lead to three terrific soliloquies at the beginning of Act One, back to back. Peter's, which lasts at least ten minutes, as he attempts to justify why he's going to actually consider thinking about perhaps agreeing to contemplate having sex with Susan, is an absolute classic. You can't stop squirming and you can't stop laughing, but it's the kind of laughter that comes with a desire to either hug Peter or shoot him.

Kim's discussion of her shower ain't chopped liver either.

We won't divulge the plot, but when Susan and David's baby-sitter Belinda (Tori Laher) shows up with her boyfriend Jonah (Myles Landberg), thinking the house is empty, the whole situation gets even crazier.

You've had it with sicko politicians disguising their peccadillos with lame excuses, haven't you? No excuses here, just a fabulous cast and an even better script. You want to see this play.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "First Day of School" three stars with two BANGLES of PRAISE and a Special PLUS! The writing, acting and Chris Smith's perfect hands-off direction each rate a star. The first BANGLE is for Jackson Davis and Marcia Pizzo's soliloquies about how they won't but will have sex with David and Susan, and the second BANGLE is for Bill English's Color Man Sportscaster description of Peter, Alice and Kim groping on the couch. All English needs is a bad toupee and a mike.

The Special Plus!, rarely awarded, is granted for playwright Billy Aronson, who managed to sum the whole thing up in one mouthful: "It's all right for our bodies to do it, as long as our brains don't find out about it."

"First Day of School"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through Nov. 7

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"South Pacific": ☼ ☼ ☼ baub BANG

Richard Rodgers' melodies and Oscar Hammerstein II's lyrics are always timeless. Their ground-breaking musical "South Pacific," which debuted in 1949, not only introduced iconic songs like "Bali Hai," "Some Enchanted Evening" and "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," but also attempted to deal with racism, a subject never before discussed in a major Broadway musical. As always, Rodgers and Hammerstein were at the cutting edge of musical theater. What they did influenced a generation of writers who followed them.

The 2008 Lincoln Center production, which arrives at the Golden Gate Theater for a six week run, packs the pit with a live orchestra, using Rodgers' original scores and orchestrations. No tapes! No synthesizers!

The curtain opens on a spare but beautiful set by Michael Yeargan, showing French planter Emil de Becque's villa on an unnamed South Pacific island. We meet his two dark-skinned children who will figure in the eventual plot. De Becque (Rod Gilfry) enters with Ensign Nellie Forbush (Carmen Cusack) on his arm. She sings "A Cockeyed Optimist."

And that's about it for "South Pacific." De Becque and Cusack lack even a small demitasse cup of chemistry, but they are hot tamales compared to what happens when Lt. Joe Cable (Anderson Davis) comes on the scene. His romance with Liat (Sumie Maeda) is so silly, while remaining extraordinarily unsavory, it smacks of last-minute changes that just don't work.

True, "South Pacific" is a traditional show that needs an understanding hand at the helm. Director Bart Sher and Musical Staging Manager Christopher Gattelli may be hampered by the Golden Gate proscenium stage; still, characters walk in circles, barely avoiding bumping into each other, as they try to hit their marks to stop dead in their tracks and sing another song.

Highlights of the evening all come in a far more concise Act Two: "Happy Talk," sung by excellent Keala Settle as Bloody Mary, followed by "Honey Bun," "You've Got to be Carefully Taught" and "This Nearly was Mine" convey all the spirit and soul of the original show with none of the plodding set-up of Act One (which lasts a full 90 minutes-plus, all by itself).

Do you cut a classic? They certainly could. Act One is interminable. It makes us all long for our own Bali Hai, which is back home listening to Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ baub BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "South Pacific" three stars with a Bauble of Despair followed by a BANGLE OF PRAISE. We who love classic American musical theater should go see this production because, well, just because. They don't come along very often. Don't expect magic, but do expect beautiful melodies, sung by singers whose timing should get better as the run progresses.

The bauble is for Lt. Joe Cable. He has nice pecs and a pretty tenor, but his role calls for depth. He gives us little.

On the BANGLE side, Matthew Saldivar's Luther Billis is filled with heart and soul. His energy is in stark contrast to the leads. Some enchanted evening, this production may work beautifully, but not yet.

"South Pacific"
Golden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street, San Francisco
Through Oct. 25

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Brief Encounter": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG BANG BANG

If A.C.T.'s production of Noel Coward's "Brief Encounter" were any better they'd have to tear down the old Geary Theater and build a shrine. The staging is without parallel -- the combination of theater and film and old-time English roadhouse irreverence, plus Noel Coward's incisive songs -- and a love story! The only thing they could have done better was to have figured out a way to get everyone in the city into the theater -- leave idiot TV, brain-dead video games and violent cop killer films behind and discover what a brilliant theater experience can be like, if only rarely.

The year is 1938 and the story is so simple -- woman and man meet briefly in an English train station. He is a doctor and removes a cinder from her eye. It is all very innocent until love's thunder begins to crash all around them. That thunder is everywhere, loud with pounding waves, trains blasting through the stage and a backdrop of the beginning of world war; but there is also soft thunder, composed of winks and touches and knowing glances, as we see the everyday lives and loves of the workers in the tea shop. For them, love is simple:

"Any little fish can swim,
Any little bird can fly,
Any little dog
Or any little cat
Can do a bit of this
And just a bit of that.
Any little horse can neigh
And any little cow can moo,
But I can't do anything at all
But just love you."

But as Noel Coward knew, it's never quite that easy. When Alec (Milo Twomey) and Laura (Hannah Yelland) feel waves of passion, we get waves of passion.

"Brief Encounter" was an iconic English film, directed by David Lean in 1945. The question was whether a modern American audience would accept an affair that appears modest by 2009 standards. Oh, my, not to worry. There is a set piece (coupled with film footage) of Alec and Laura riding in a canoe. They fall in the water, so they then must dry their clothing. This scene is so charged with electricity there is not one breath escaping from the audience, as Laura removes her skirt, and Alec his vest, and they sit on a log, together but yet not, as the extraordinarily prescient song "Go Slow, Johnny" is performed in the background. The music appears to be flowing from Laura and Alec's hearts, while their repressed emotions battle to break free.

The scene may be a metaphor for Coward's own life, a gay man writing in the 1930s and 1940s, and it's hard to imagine a song fitting a scene any more perfectly.

Every member of the cast is brilliant. The comedians are funny, the lovers are both tragic and understandable, the musicians weave in and out of the drama and everyone can dance. There are puppets. One minute the cast is in front of us on stage and the next they are with us, in the audience, watching "Brief Encounter," the black and white film being projected on a screen. At times they walk though that screen and merge with film footage of themselves on that train, or in that canoe. The whole shmear is breathtaking.

Love comes and love goes. We have to leave the theater when the curtain comes down, but we don't want to.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Brief Encounter" it's highest rating in years: Four Stars with FOUR BANGLES of PRAISE. We understand that Four BANGLES ought to round off to the next level of Five Stars. There is absolutely no reason that this isn't a Five Star Show, except...well, what if we like the next one more? Sometimes ratings make no sense. The show couldn't be better.

One BANGLE of PRAISE is for Beverly Rudd who plays various roles, most notably Beryl the waitress in the tea shop. She can do anything at all, plus she has a clear Val Diamond-like voice to boot. Another BANGLE is for the live musicians, who intertwine with the action so we never allow our hankies to distract us from the fact that we are also watching a musical. Emma Rice's spot-on perfect direction and stage adaptation grabs the third BANGLE and the entire mixed-media Kneehigh Production takes home the fourth -- and there could have been more. The boat train. The Rachmaninoff piano finale. We could have handed out BANGLES like M&Ms. The large bag.

So what are you waiting for? Get yourself downtown and take the one you love. Make it her birthday present and blow for the best seats. Thank me later.

"Brief Encounter"
A.C.T. Theater
405 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through Oct. 4

Saturday, September 5, 2009

"Yellow Face": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

It took the full forty minute drive home from Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. When the reviewer left the theater he wasn't sure if he'd liked David Henry Hwang's "Yellow Face" or not. Unquestioned was the brilliance of the show's concept -- that every person wears one face that the public sees, but there is another person, with a different face, underneath. Perhaps we humans change faces much as a snake discards skins, which is to say we grow.

Inevitable growth seems to be Hwang's conclusion -- the younger playwright, whose face was that of the Asian activist, battling "Yellow Face" (the trivialization of Asians in films and on television, even to the point of hiring Caucasians to play Asians in roles written for Asians), now has grown older and perhaps wiser. He has come to see that there are other issues involved here. Perhaps he has a new face, or perhaps the old one just has a few more lines in it.

The young D.H.H. (played thoughtfully by Pun Bandhu) finds himself in the exact situation he has protested against ten years earlier. For his new play, which is opening in only a few weeks, he desperately needs to find a macho, Asian lead. But there don't seem to be any. At the last minute, Marcus (Thomas Azar) appears -- a white man who has discovered he can pretend to be Asian because no one will actually come out and ask him his ethnicity -- they are either prohibited by law or afraid of seeming racist.


But Asian Shmasian. D.H.H. needs Marcus -- so he has to figure out a way to convince himself and his Asian supporters that Marcus is actually -- Eurasian. When he discovers Marcus's father is a Russian Jew, he introduces Marcus as 'Marcus Gee,' and then manages to pass him off as Siberian, and therefore -- somehow -- Asian enough.

The idea is so preposterous it feels completely natural.

Ah, if only the whole play was as strong as that million dollar concept. But that's basically it. There is little drama, less build-up, limited excitement, and only one character who is ever developed. But that one character almost saves the show.

The riveting Francis Jue plays H.W.H., the playwright's father. Though Jue, as well as co-stars Robert Ernst, Amy Resnick, Howard Swain and Tina Chillip play multiple roles, it is when Jue is the father and Pandhu the son that our insides are touched. When we see the old man, who loves his adopted America more than life itself, and has always dreamed of being Jimmy Stewart, now persecuted by the FBI later in his life, while never losing his faith in his country, we understand the issues clearly.

The rest of the play is more slapstick, as other members of the cast (Jue included) lampoon newscasters and US Senators and the media in general. They may be mimicking actual events, but drama it ain't. And with the exception of Tina Chillip's amusing Fred Thompson, they're not all that funny either.

It is as if Hwang needed to get D.H.H. out of his system. He is a gifted writer and if he wants a new face, he can have a new face. We don't really care which face he chooses, but we hope his next play will have a little more plot and heart.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Yellow Face" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. It's too bad, really -- it's such a good idea but it just isn't a four star show. Francis Jue is brilliant. As H.W.H., as Margaret Cho and as the spurned Asian actor passed over for Marcus Gee, Francis Jue earns his own BANGLE OF PRAISE.

"Yellow Face" will give you several belly laughs, and you will drive home thinking about your own face and how it looks to others and to yourself, and that's what great art is supposed to do. When you get home, you will very likely think, as this reviewer does, that you're happy you saw the show.

"Yellow Face"
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through Sept. 20

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

"Awake and Sing!": NO RATING

There will be no review of the very entertaining Clifford Odets' play "Awake and Sing!," playing at the Aurora Theatre through September 27. This has nothing to do with the crackerjack cast's interpretation of the 1935 classic -- it has to do with the new start time for Tuesday Night performances at the Aurora: 7pm. When the reviewer arrives at 7:45 for what he assumes is the normal 8pm curtain, there is little to do but wait until Intermission, with the others who made the same mistake, have a cookie and then go in for Act Two.

Act Two, by the way, is really good. Rod Gnapp is as noirishly creepy as always as Moe, Ray Reinhardt is a terrific patriarch of the Berger family while Ellen Ratner and Charles Dean are excellent as the second generation parents. The puppy seen above enters briefly, receives an AWWWWWWW! from the audience, and exits. But the real show-stopping role belongs to Anthony Nemirovsky, as Sam, the about-to-be-jilted husband. Seeing only Act Two makes us want to see Act One, which we will do soon.

But the Aurora must be used to this because they were all set up with listening devices in their office. The reviewer and his wife and one other couple sat there listening with headsets to the end of Act One being performed on stage a hundred feet away, and to tell the truth it was a lot of fun. Odets wrote this play in 1935, during the Golden Age of Radio, and the dialogue felt just like it would have while gathered around the Motorola in the parlor seventy five years ago. We could hear that the characters were sitting at a dinner table and we saw that table in our minds, heard their Philadelphia accents and imagined what each person looked like when we heard his or her voice.

When you're in the theater, you don't see the actors running through the backstage hallway to get from one onstage exit to another onstage entrance, but you do see them when you're in the office. You hear them on the headsets leaving the stage, then watch them silently tear through the hallway, pause outside the door to adjust their hair, then hear them enter on stage through the headsets again.

It's too bad about radio. What did we get? TV. Sheesh.

RATINGS: (1) NO RATING and (2) Zero ☼ baub baub baub BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division will give no rating for "Awake and Sing!" until we see the show in its entirety.

However, the Reviewer is given No Stars with Three Baubles of Shame, the lowest review possible. He really should know better. On a brighter note, his beautiful wife is awarded a grateful BANGLE OF PRAISE because she didn't say "Didn't you CHECK the time before we LEFT?" even once. Thanks, Hon.

Sorry for the glitch, fans. We'll review later with Act One under our belts once and Act Two twice.

"Awake and Sing!"
Aurora Theater
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through Sept. 27