Monday, December 6, 2010

African American Shakespeare Company "Cinderella"

When it rains it pours, and when it pours it floods, at least at the African American Cultural Center. What a shame -- yesterday's crowd for "Cinderella" was large and filled with children, and Act One was received very well. Then came the announcement that backstage was flooded, the bathrooms were flooded, the lobby was wet and they would have to cancel the rest of the show.

So they brought the entire cast out onto stage, in costume, and fielded questions from the rapt audience, with Artistic Director L. Peter Callender leading the questioning. Everyone was sad not to get to see Act II, but with The Handsome Prince sitting next to Cinderella in her white ball dress, it was easy to see where the story was going.

This is the eighth year for African American Shakespeare Company's "Cinderella," and it keeps evolving. But you've always got good kids, and bad kids, and good adults, and bad adults, and fairies and pumpkins turning into coaches. The show runs through December 19 so we say give 'em a few days and then try again.

African American Cultural Center
762 Fulton Street, San Francisco
$10 and up
Through December 19

Friday, December 3, 2010

Lemony Snicket's The Composer is Dead: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

We are going to recommend that you run across the bridge, any bridge, to get to Berkeley Rep, which here means "a theater company willing to take risks certain to destroy the world as we know it," in order to catch the fantastic World Premiere of "Lemony Snicket's The Composer is Dead." That is, as long as we don't have to tell you what in the world it is.

It's easier to tell you what it's not. It's not a puppet show, though puppets by Phantom Limb steal the show. It's not a vaudeville act, though the M.C.'s hairpiece suggests otherwise. It's not a film, though the principal action does take place on, behind, in front of and under screen.

What it is, is living, breathing theater, where everything that could go wrong does. Geoff Hoyle plays both human roles and the whole thing is done with a skeleton crew. Ha ha, you won't get that right now.

We can also tell you this: there is an entire orchestra full of astonishing puppets and the world greatest living composer has been murdered. Everyone is a suspect and every member of the orchestra has a motive. The violas, for example, who are jealous that nobody ever knows what they play. Or the French horns, who are, after all, foreigners.

Or the concert master, who hates the conductor, because concert masters always hate the conductor, or even the conductor himself, because conductors have been murdering the works of composers for years.

Of this we are certain: the composer is dead. He is now decomposing.

The evening is actually made up of two Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket stories: "The Composer is Dead" seamlessly follows "The Magic of Living, Breathing Theater." It takes you a few minutes to get into the first, but if you are a theater buff you will appreciate every scabrous slur. Once we see the orchestra of puppets awaiting Geoff Hoyle's classically vain English inspector, the evening ramps up from fun to eye-popping.

We are grumps here, remember? We don't use these terms lightly. Kudos to real-life composer Nathaniel Stookey, artistic director Tony Taccone and the creative team, especially Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko, who created the puppets. It's short, sweet, funny and exceptionally ambitious.

Of course, the show, theater company and city of Berkeley are destined to fail. We're doomed. Somebody call the police.


The San Francisco Theater Blog awards "Lemony Snicket's The Composer is Dead" Four Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. Berkeley Rep has taken a lot of chances with this production, remaining true to Handler's prose and deprecating humor while creating a visual feast for the eyes. Geoff Hoyle is as wonderful as always -- we loved both his roles. We fear that in real life he comes down to breakfast with Mr. Fuzzles.

Our BANGLE of PRAISE is for the brilliant orchestra, both in terms of puppetry and composition. The show is fun to listen to as well as watch.

Everybody won't love Lemony. But we do.

"Lemony Snicket's The Composer is Dead"
Berkeley Repertory Theater
2015 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through Jan 15, 2011

Thursday, December 2, 2010

"Shrek The Musical": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ PLUS! BANG BANG

In the interest of full disclosure, may it be admitted here that this reviewer is one of the few people in America who has never seen a Shrek movie, knew nothing about the story in advance and went to the show only because it is his job. He figured it would be Green Disney and he'd be miserable by intermission.

He also didn't know that "Shrek," the original children's story, was written in 1990 by William Steig, who wrote so many of the reviewer's favorite children's books, including "The Amazing Bone," that he just happens to know backwards and forwards.

So, Shrekky, move over because this dude is jumping on the bandwagon. "Shrek, the Musical" is one of the finest adaptations we have ever seen and without question one of the best shows of the year. It has everything for everybody. The kids in the audience were jumping with the high energy music, the adults were laughing their heads off and the characters on stage seemed to be having the times of their lives. What a tour de force.

To start with, Shrek himself (Eric Petersen), encased in a fat suit with green makeup, makes his ogre with the heart of green into a loveable everyday guy with a Scottish accent and a voice that can break hearts as well as knock over buildings. His counterpart, Princess Fiona (Haven Burton), plays it for laughs and gets them. Her character is more in line with, say, the heroine in The Wiz, which is to say witty, perky and a wise-ass. She is also a great comic and her voice can (and does) break bird's eggs. Petersen and Burton are the perfect once animated-now real stage couple.

The sidemen are, if possible, even better. David F.M. Vaughn's Lord Farquaad, played on his knees to make him seriously short stuff, is absolute genius. We laugh every time he hunches across the stage. By the end of the show he has become totally fey, bringing no end of joy to the audience, but this is in the Steig tradition, which is to say adult comedy that sails happily above kids' heads. What children love is Farquaad's harmless venom and grand comedy.

They also L-O-V-E the fart song. (We did too.)

Don't forget Pinocchio (Blakely Slaybaugh). Does Blakely Slaybaugh have knees? And that dragon. How in the world do they do that?

You won't see better and more creative staging anywhere. Tim Hatley won a Tony for his costuming and it's easy to see why. You need to see this show, friends. We've got to keep Pinocchio working.


This is a Five Star Show with a Five Star Cast, Five Star Staging and Costuming and maybe even Five Star lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire -- but you'll notice Four Stars Plus. Look, everyone can't be Leonard Bernstein but we just saw West Side Story. Jeanine Tesori's music is meant for children, so it is simple to a fault. But the songs are still head and shoulders above the drek you find in 90% of adult musicals and 100% better than Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Sorry, Little Mermaid, but Shrek eats your lunch. Fabulous songs, both innovative and touching, include "Big, Bright Beautiful World," "Story of My Life," "Who I'd Be," "I Think I've Got You Beat," and the very beautiful "When Words Fail."

Give us "When You Wish Upon a Star" and you've got Star Five.

The first BANGLE of PRAISE is for the rats. You'll see. And the second is for Farquaad. David F.M. Vaughn is amazing.

This reviewer realizes he must find fault or else he will lose his Frequent Whiner Card, so let's say that the donkey (Allen Mingo Jr.) is so stereotypically Mammy-black as to make us vaguely uncomfortable. It is probably a good sign that only the aging liberals in the crowd kind of gritted our teeth when the donkey followed his directorial orders, probably to be 'cute.' We hear Eddie Murphy does the same thing, playing the donkey's voice in the movies. Maybe he does. Just sayin'.

Go see Shrek. And don't be embarrassed when you fall in love with this production, like the five year old in front of us who never sat down for two and a half hours. It's that exciting.

"Shrek The Musical"
Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market Street (at Grove Street), San Francisco
Through Jan. 2