Thursday, October 28, 2010

"West Side Story": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG 1/2 baub

It's Romeo and Juliet set in New York City in 1957. Puerto Rican Maria falls in love with el gringo Tony. Their love can never be. Maria's brother Bernardo is the leader of the Sharks, a Puerto Rican street gang. Tony's best friend Riff is the leader of the Jets, an Irish-Italian street gang. There's a rumble. Bernardo kills Riff. Tony kills Bernardo. He and Maria try to run away but they only make it as far as the playground. Maria's jealous suitor Chino kills Tony. You see it coming but you get a huge thump anyway. Curtain falls.

Many have called Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story" score the finest musical score in the history of musical theater and you wouldn't get an argument here. From the first jazzy strains of "Jet Song" to the heartbreaking ballads "Somewhere" and "One Hand, One Heart," and from the humor and social commentary of "America" and "Gee, Officer Krupke" to all the marvelous compositions behind the spectacular dance numbers, you feel, first of all, that you are in the company of a musical genius and, second, that this is also a really good yarn.

And let us not forget: lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Arthur Laurents. Choreography by Jerome Robbins. Only the finest names in half a century of Broadway.

Yes, there will be nattering nabobs and naysayers who will point out that Kyle Harris's Tony started out like Tim Lincecum in his first two innings of the World Series last night, held only a mile from the Orpheum Theater -- they both got battered around a bit. Kyle's Harris's last few notes on "Maria" were worrisome. But, like Timmy, Kyle recovered and finished the show with brilliance.

Ali Ewoldt as Maria? Well, put down your I-phone and run down to see this woman sing and dance. Ali Ewoldt IS Maria -- vulnerable, strong, beautiful, a voice like la voz de Dios and, by the way, bilingual. This is important because the 2010 production has been updated -- always dangerous when you're dealing with a classic.

They have made the decision to have the Sharks and other Latino characters speak to each other quite a bit in Spanish. Even some of the songs, sung by Latino characters, have been translated into Spanish. This may not bother you, mi amigo bilingual, but it bothered us a lot. Not in the dialogue -- it makes sense for Puerto Rican immigrants in 1957 to be speaking some Spanish to each other -- but the songs too? This reviewer, who is one of those who knows every note of the original score, cringed every time it happened.

But it's nothing you can't live with and we were talking about Ali Ewoldt -- she is worth the price of admission all by herself. There's a lot else to cheer about too: David Saint's direction, John O'Neill's musical direction and the brilliant sets and lighting by James Youmans and Howell Binkley make the smaller Orpheum stage come alive. Doc's drugstore, the playground and the rumble spot under the highway feel like they might have when the show premiered at the Winter Garden 53 years ago.

The women actors, especially, shine, We loved Michelle Aravena in the Rita Moreno role of Anita, all the women in "America" and, of course, Ali Ewoldt. The women bring home the yuca. We can't wait for another helping.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG 1/2 baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "West Side Story" Four Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE and half a bauble of despair. The songs translated into Spanish -- sorry, amigos. This is a no no. Did they sing The Star Spangled Banner half in Spanish at the ball game? No. Come on. Half a bauble for you.

But it's a beautiful show, even with the baubalito. A BANGLE of PRAISE for the sensual choreography, adapted by Joey McKneely for a smaller stage. West Side Story doesn't come along very often. Hearing and watching this show, you understand what the fuss has been about for all these years. Wear your orange if the Giants are still playing.

"West Side Story"
The Orpheum Theater
Market Street at Eighth and Hyde Streets, San Francisco
Through November 28

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"The Great Game: Afghanistan": ☼ ☼ PLUS BANG

We suppose one has to begin a review of "The Great Game: Afghanistan," the trilogy currently at Berkeley Rep on a run that began in London and goes next to New York, like this: "For a project with such historical scope, involving the piecing together of twelve short plays from twelve well-known playwrights, each with a story to tell about different segments of Afghan history, the show is educational and teaches us things we need to know."

There. My review did too.

But if you peruse this tender scene with a little more care, you may see a small child, looking up at his elders with a look of bewilderment on his face, as he pronounces: "But Papa! The Khan isn't wearing any clothes!"

"The Great Game" is a trilogy, but each is made up of four shorter works plus a few historical vignettes. Play One, by far the most interesting, deals with the British mucking up the whole region in the first place, as part of their "great game," which is to say the Nineteenth Century view that Central Asia was simply a playground in the overall power struggle between England and Russia. The very first segment, entitled "Bugles at the Gates of Jalalabad," written by Stephen Jeffreys, is alive with action, plots and subplots, color, excitement and even a murder. It is followed by a fascinating view of a negotiation between Sir Henry Mortimer Durand (foreign minister of British India from 1895 to 1894), and his Afghan counterpart Abdur Rahman, the Amir of Afghanistan until 1901. Their give and take, and refusals to compromise until they finally do, are beautifully drawn, and both Michael Cochrane as Mortimer and Raad Rawi as Abdur Rahman are excellent.

After intermission we flash forward to the British Foreign Office present day, and then back to the 1920s. Not much to text home about.

Play Two gives us two theatrically pleasing segments, both following the intermission: David Greig's "Miniskirts of Kabul" and Colin Teevan's "The Lion of Kabul." Each is set in Kabul in the 1990s. In both we are allowed into the heads of our characters instead of feeling like we are trapped in a History of South and Central Asia seminar.

Play Three, well, it drags. And drags. Someone is imprisoned and someone is shot and someone is betrayed and then a soldier comes home to present day England and has to face a wife whose reaction to him being home must make him miss being a target of the Taliban.

Play One has most of the new information. Who knew the British had lost 16,000 men in a fateful retreat? Who ever heard of the Durand Line? This is very important stuff.

But Play Two and Play Three are set roughly in the present. We already know this story. We know the players are flawed. We know they lie. We know it is all about power. We wish to know something of which we are not already too painfully aware. And we also know how this story is going to come out. We've been here before.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Great Game: Afghanistan" Two Stars Plus with a BANGLE of PRAISE. This is a convoluted rating. If we could separate the shows for individual ratings we would probably give Play 1 Three Stars Plus, Play 2 Three Stars and Play 3 Two Stars. We cannot recommend seeing the trilogy but we can definitely recommend Play One and, if you like that one, Play Two.

But in the end, "The Great Game" leaves us with unwelcome ambivalence. There are two messages delivered:

1) America should not leave Afghanistan in 2011. Nation building takes time.

2) The Taliban has all the time. We have the expensive watches. We can no more cobble together a nation from this conflicted and tribal country than Tito did in Yugoslavia. We should run for our lives.

Both messages may be true. But ambivalence and lecturing do not a great play make.

"The Great Game"
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Roda Theater
2015 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through November 7

Sunday, October 17, 2010

"Seven Days": ☼ ☼ ☼

The World Premiere of Daniel Heath's "Seven Days" shows the playwright to be sharp, witty, crafty and young. His plot concept (the graph above -- where people plot their love lives) and his characters (the young couple, the older couple, the much older couple) demonstrate his talent; Susi Damilano's direction manages to allow a whirlwind of movement on a small stage, while the author's viewpoint that all relationships are doomed prove the author to either be very wise or in need of a new graph.

David Cramer steals the show. As Tank, the father of Robert (Aaron Murphy), Tank is one of the two characters who make us laugh out loud and whose inner worlds we care about. Tank is half of the older couple, and Anna (Jessica Coghill) is half of the younger couple. Tank and Anna get all the great lines. Perhaps Anna's view on relationships comes closest to that of the playwright: "We can never un-remember what we want to forget most."

Tank is fed up with everybody, but is strangely attracted to Beatrice, a woman he meets at an art installation (Phoebe Moyer), who just happens to be the mother of Al the artist (Cole Alexander Smith).

Al is everybody's problem. As the installation artist whose idea it is to have people plot their love lives in public so he can use them in his newest art piece, and as Anna's would-be fiancee despite the fact that he is forever pointing a video camera in her face, it would probably make some sense to have him not be quite so dweeby. That Anna, who has not just fallen off the turnip truck, could love Al, who acts maybe fourteen years old, is not all that plausible.

Or is it? Maybe this is the point. We don't love whom we're supposed to, like Robert and Eve (Donna Dahrouge), and we don't NOT love those with whom we share little (like Tank and Beatrice). We love because we love. Our amorous lives start out at Point A and end at Point B, which might take seven days, or a month or a decade, and when it's over it's over. You probably have to be under thirty for this to be a surprise to you.

Nice. As Tank says: "That's my line. That's all I get."


RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Seven Days" Three Stars. This is a strong rating for a World Premiere. There is a very nice synchronicity in the Sandbox Series at SF Playhouse, with playwright, actors and production team always enthusiastic to showcase promising new writers. The lines on the graph seem to be pointing up.

"Seven Days"
San Francisco Playhouse (Studio B)
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Wed-Sat through Nov. 6

Sunday, October 10, 2010

"Superior Donuts": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

Tom Langguth's set just made me hungry. "Superior Donuts" is set in a North Side Chicago donut shop, and though it's run down and has seen better days -- and the donuts, sadly, are props -- you still can't deny the staying power of sugar and grease when they are combined with a love story or two.

There are at least two love stories, maybe even three. The central relationship in Tracy Letts' 2006 play is between Arthur (Howard Swain), the owner of the shop that was opened decades earlier by his Polish immigrant father, and Franco (Lance Gardner), a young black man from the neighborhood who needs a job, and whose ebullient personality is the engine for Arthur's ultimate awakening.

Then we have Randy, the Chicago lady cop, who is trying hard to attract Arthur's attention, but this is a far harder task than fighting crime in the streets.

But ultimately what the playwright is talking about is Chicago -- the hog butcher of the world and collector of crazy accents. We've got an Irish cop, a black cop (Michael J. Asberry), Lady the homeless drunk (Joan Mankin) who comes in every morning for free coffee and a donut, Max (Soren Oliver), the Russian video store owner next door who is trying to buy Arthur's shop, Luther Flynn (Gabriel Marin) the kindly mobster into whose debt young Franco has fallen -- and each character, Arthur included, are trying to define their stance, to scratch out their chunk of Chicago, the address they've been given where the American Dream lives.

Franco, by the way, has also written the Great American Novel.

Leslie Martinson's direction is as fast-paced as the repartee between the characters, but she gives us plenty of room to think about it all. The characters have lives outside the donut shop but here is where they interact.

If there's a problem it's not with the production, but with the show itself. Tracy Letts is a superstar now (after winning a Pulitzer for August: Osage County, as well as writing many wonderful and crazy shows (Bug, Killer Joe and Man from Nebraska) with which Bay Area audiences are familiar. So maybe that's the problem -- we expect more now. "Superior Donuts" is pleasing but not all that memorable. For this viewer, the theatrical trick of having Arthur leave character periodically to face the audience and talk about his back story, injures the show's rhythm. Every time he talks to us, we wonder why he's not in his back room making more donuts.

So August: Osage County it's not. But it's still superior and quite funny. The mystery is why Theaterworks doesn't sell donuts at intermission, instead of those sorry cookies.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Superior Donuts" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE and a bauble of despair. The acting is really good, especially the two leads Swain and Gardner. We expect nothing less out of Howard Swain but Lance Gardner is a revelation. Recently seen in "Auctioning the Ainsleys" (you can read the SF Theater Blog review of "Auctioning the Ainsleys" here), Gardner's role here is equally strong but a lot more fun.

The BANGLE of PRAISE is for the host of wonderful lines, including Arthur's defense of a life with a little comfort in it, and Max's definition of his success in the video business: "The personal touch. And Croatian pornography."

"Superior Donuts"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through October 31

Photos by Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin

Saturday, October 9, 2010

"The Sunset Limited": ☼ ☼ BANG

No one who saw Cormac McCarthy's "No Country for Old Men" came away without thinking "this is one scary (expletive) movie." McCarthy's 2006 play "The Sunset Limited" has a lot of that same bleakness, but little of its redemptive power.

Black (Carl Lumbly) lives in a little flat somewhere in New York City. The play takes place in his humble kitchen (made more so by Bill English's set -- lath, but no plaster on the walls, a very old fridge and small, round table, on top of which, in the geometric center of the action, sits a well-worn bible.

Apparently White, a professor (Charles Dean), has just attempted to commit suicide by jumping in front of the Sunset Limited subway (you New Yorkers must turn off your subway knowledge here), but at the last moment Black, an ex-con who turned to Jesus in prison, appeared from out of nowhere and saved him. They have come back to Black's apartment and the discussion has begun: life versus death, good versus bad, nihilism versus hedonism and, of course, God versus No God. Belief battles with Intellect.

Black has saved White the way Jesus saved Black. Now, can Black return the favor for White?

Lumbly is fabulous -- his lay preacher has known many internal battles with his other side, the dude who was serving time in prison for murder. He is bound and determined to show White the way. White isn't buying it. As he says toward the end: "The one thing I'm not giving up is giving up." White closes the show with a long monologue about how desperate he is. This is meant to convince us that the man just plain wants to die, but for us Charles Dean needs to be a little more subtle here. The speech is so very long that you can't help thinking: "Well, OK. You win. Stop talking and just go do it if you really want to."

"The Sunset Limited" is not a whole bunch of fun. There are only two characters. Black, you get, but you never find out why White is the way he is. To this viewer it is the show's fatal flaw. You care about Black but, really, by the end you're ready to run on stage yourself, open that door and let the man fly into the great White abyss.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Sunset Limited" Two Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Cormac McCarthy fans will appreciate one of his infrequent plays as a piece of the man's evolving literary puzzle. Carl Lumbly is worth seeing all by himself and his performance earns the BANGLE. In the end, Black lets White go out the door with the promise that he, Black, will be back at the subway in the morning. We all know White is never going to get there. And that's about it.

"The Sunset Limited"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through Nov. 6