Sunday, June 20, 2010

"The Fantasticks": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

How many times have seen "The Fantasticks?" Hmmm...three, no four, no five! There probably weren't too many people (over the age of thirty) in the audience at last nights Premiere of the 50-year-old Harvey Schmidt/Tom Jones classic who hadn't seen it at least once before.

Why would this be so? It's simple: boy meets girl over the garden wall. He can't have her. Ooops, yes he can. Oops, no he can't. But in the end: Awwww. Is there a better formula than this? Add timeless songs into the mix (that can be played with one piano) and there you have it, brother and sister: a hit.

No, more than a hit. "The Fantasticks" ran from 1960 through just after 9-1-1. It is the longest running musical in history. Chew on that awhile.

Director Bill English has taken the show in a somewhat different direction, with a post-apocalyptic set which suggests there is a theater group in the dismal future which goes around the countryside performing this sweet play for people whose worlds have little pleasure remaining in them. The idea works. But - really - it doesn't matter all that much. Parents are still parents and kids are still kids and love -- well, everybody still needs it.

The cast is terrific. Jeremy Kahn as young Matt and Sepideh Moafi as Luisa not only look their part but they can sing! Louis Parnell and Joan Mankin are very funny as the kids' parents, Ray Reinhardt and Yusef Lambert shine as the aging actor (Henry) and his squire (Mortimer) who does all the death scenes and Tarek Khan is a perfect El Gallo, the bandit Luisa thinks she needs to find. It's hard to pick out a favorite, but the young leads must grab your heart if the show is to succed, and Kahn and Moafi do it with grace.

Corny? Oh God yes. If you plant this radish, you'll get this radish. Don't come see "The Fantasticks" if your idea of a great show is "Urinetown."

But this ain't Mary Poppins either. "The Fantasticks" is really quite a bit darker than anyone ever remembers. Some of its music recalls Leonard Bernstein -- remember that West Side Story opened in 1957 and The Fantasticks in 1960 -- but the songs you are sure to walk out of the playhouse singing are the sweet ones like "Try to Remember," "Soon It's Gonna Rain" and "They Were You."

Here is an interesting note: Author and Lyricist Tom Jones played Henry, the old actor, when the show opened in 1960. Fifty years later Jones is playing Henry again in a current Broadway revival, only this time he really is an old actor.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Fantasticks" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. It's a show where the audience's imagination is everything, so it is crucial not to overproduce it. English's direction and Nina Ball's set and costumes give suggestions, but never get in the way. You'll love the kids. You'll love the codgers. And you'll hum the music for days. What's not to like?

"The Fantasticks"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through Sep. 4

The Marsh's Twentieth Anniversary: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Twenty Stars with many BANGLES OF PRAISE for the Marsh on its Twentieth Anniversary. The awful red seats are at least that old but Stephanie Weisman has promised new seats by the time her third grandchild is born.

What a day it was at the theater on June 20, running into old friends and seeing so many familiar faces. To paraphrase performer Jeff Greenwald, the Marsh is the sourdough starter that gets the whole process rising. So many talented people have come through these doors, and yesterday, like lemmings on fast rewind, many came back to do fifteen or twenty minutes as a Thanks, Yo to Stephanie and the Marsh.

In one two hour stretch we saw shorts by Wayne Harris, Mark Kenward, Dan Hoyle, Mark McGoldrick, Jeff Greenwald, Josh Kornbluth, Scoop Nisker and W. Allen Taylor, and that doesn't include Charlie Varon and Ann Randolph and Marga Gomez and so many others that kept the candles lit up brightly all day and into the night.

Thank yous aside -- there is something amazing that happens when solo performers become part of a Greatest Hits show. One feeds off the other and nobody wants to be outdone. Performers like Kornbluth really excel at stream of consciousness, while everyone else brings out their very best fifteen minutes, or Act One of their current or past show. This reviewer wants to buy that Greatest Hits album. Are we listening, Stephanie Weisman? The proceeds might buy a new red seat or two.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards The Marsh's Twentieth Anniversary Marathon Twenty Stars with many BANGLES of PRAISE. Seeing as Five Stars is as high as we go, you can decide for yourself what it means.

To us it's simple: The Marsh gives our city community-based theater that is first rate. Performers get an audience and an audience gets a shot of on-stage magic. Make jokes not war. It sounds simple, but it's not. That's why you get a BANGLE. That's why we love the Marsh.

The Marsh Theater
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco

Saturday, June 19, 2010

"Speech and Debate": ☼ ☼ BANG baub

The Aurora Theater's new production of Stephen Karam's "Speech and Debate" shines when Jayne Deely's Dewata (the girl who is always auditioning) is speaking. Her story, about a high school girl continually turned down for the school play, is a resonating one. She has all the great lines and 99.8 percent of the show's charisma.

The show sags with the lack of development of the two male characters, the queeny boy who came out at age ten (Howie, played by Maro Guevara) and the closeted boy (Solomon, played by Jason Frank) who is fighting the usual demons -- religious parents, society who doesn't care and so on). There is little about their plight that makes us care one way or the other about them -- in fact, it appears that after all the angst of Solomon's self-discovery, the lesson we are all to draw is that he is now free to access a gay chat room.

Deely is an absolute delight. As she sits cross-legged on her desk broadcasting her live podcast, in which she inadvertently tosses in personal information that may come back to haunt her, she sings, she chants, she jokes and she draws us toward her. That her drama teacher doesn't want to cast her seems as implausible to us as it does to her. It must be a school full of Mary Martins.

But perhaps this is the author's point -- adults are dumb. They won't talk about politics, or religion, or sex, which is all the kids want to talk about. It's a cyber world now, but the coming-out drama doesn't seem to have changed much through the years. Howie is out and Solomon will be. We get it. They really need to have something new to say to justify the length of this show.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ BANG baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Speech and Debate" Two Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE and a bauble of despair. This review means the show comes up short but Jayne Deely's performance is so good you may want to see her right now, because you're definitely going to be watching her in the future. Also very interesting are the production effects and cyber language. When this cast sings together -- The BANGLE is for the musical numbers, too short and too few -- you see how exciting they could be with a different vehicle.

But that ending? OMG. HELP.

"Speech and Debate"
Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through June 17

Friday, June 11, 2010

"The Tosca Project": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

A.C.T.'s new 'The Tosca Project' is brilliant, fascinating and intriguing-- brilliant for its audaciousness as a dance/theater hybrid; fascinating, especially for a San Franciscan, because you have in front of you the history of more than half a century in North Beach; and intriguing because one comes to the theater expecting theater and doesn't get it -- yet still loves it all.

'Tosca' is an interpretive memoir, centered on the locally famous Tosca Cafe, that today would be called a hipster bar, where for decades artists, dancers and divas from all walks of life hung out together. It has been created by A.C.T. Artistic Director Carey Perloff and San Francisco Ballet's Val Caniparoli. Do not expect dialogue nor character development. Unless you do a bit of reading beforehand you won't have the slightest idea who these characters dancing around on the stage are supposed to be, and you may find yourself frustrated as you yearn to know what is going on.

But trust someone who would normally prefer to sit on hold with Comcast Customer Service in India than attend a dance concert: 'Tosca' will grab you and never let you go. You may not know who but at least you know when -- Robert de la Rose's flapper dresses, diva frocks and beat generation jackets leave no doubt as to the decade.

Robert Wierzel's lighting is filled with clues as well -- the old Italian bartender's lost love not only appears in a bright red dress but whenever her memory is invoked a mysterious red light appears somewhere on stage. This is very satisfying for an audience straining a bit for information from a show with no dialogue.

All the dancers have beautiful moments -- Caniparoli's choreography even manages to make Jack Willis (the bartender) and Gregory Wallace (the musician who arrives and never goes home), two standout actors from the A.C.T. stable, appear graceful. Really.

Several pas-de-deux's stand out: Pascal Molat and Lorena Feijoo's sailor and girl about to be left behind...

...and also the terrific business man/ballerina seduction dance featuring Sabina Allemann and Peter Anderson.

You get social commentary as well -- the silliness of prohibition, and later the old bartender's dislike of the new beats -- and then there is the Rudolf Nureyev character having a questionable seduction-dance with two other men.

A suggestion: there are lots of liner notes. Get to the theater early, go downstairs and read them all while you drink a glass of wine. This will enhance the feast you are about to experience on stage.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Tosca Project" Four Stars and is happy to do so. Often, the premieres of shows developed for the theater in which they are performed end up over-hyped and under-delivered. Not so here. Once you accept you are watching dancers with a few actors and not the other way around, which is to say once you turn off your niggling little theater-brain, you realize you can survive a night without plot, character, even understanding. Take a deep breath. 'Tosca' is a show to sit back and savor.

One last note: there are several arias from Puccini's opera 'Tosca' included in the sound track. Gorgeous.

"The Tosca Project"
A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through June 27