Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"Billy Elliot": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

In the world of entertainment, the hardest thing to do is write a story that can be explained in one sentence. But try this: "English lad from coal country wishes to be a ballet dancer instead of a coal miner." And there you have Billy Elliot, the Musical, originally a film and now a stage show, with music by Elton John and book and lyrics by Lee Hall. The show was a well-deserved smash on Broadway and is now touring across America.

You are pretty much guaranteed to love the show, if you meet the following qualifications:

1) You like underdogs
2) You like underdogs who can dance
3) You like underdogs who can dance and are sweethearts.

It will help, but it is not absolutely essential, if

4) You can understand a word of Northern English dialog.

If you meet qualifications 1-3, Number 4 is not a deal breaker. Obsolootly nowt.

This is a long show (nearly three hours) and the the role of Billy is an arduous one. For this reason, and perhaps also due to child labor law, they have five different actors on board to play the title role. On opening night we saw 15-year-old local hero J.P. Viernes. He is an excellent actor, if perhaps a bit of a nervous dancer in front of the hometown crowd. His friend Michael (Jacob Zelonky, age 12), in a far more abbreviated role, was funny and fabulous, as were dance instructor Mrs. Wilkerson (Faith Prince) and Billy's Dad (Rich Hebert).

If you are among those who see Elton John's name on the music credits and fear you will be getting more dumbed-down Disney, fear not. The songs in Billy Elliot, particularly in Act One, may make you love Sir Elton again. The first four numbers in the show are all knockouts, from the impressive opener "The Stars Look Down," through "Shine," the emotional "We'd Go Dancing" (sung by Patti Perkins as Billy's grandmother) and the exceptional "Solidarity," which does what Broadway used to do: the song involves your heart while the choreography, where a child's dance class intermingles with angry striking miners and hardnosed police, brings you to your feet.

There is much to enjoy about Billy Elliot. The success of the show depends on how much you identify with little Billy. On Opening Night this was easy, but there are four other Billys waiting in the wings. Some will be stronger dancers and some will be stronger actors. The role needs both. Billy Elliot will dazzle you.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Billy Elliot" Four Stars. It's a show you don't want to miss. The ratings would perhaps have been somewhat higher if the size of the Orpheum stage had permitted more fluidity and range of motion from the dancers. This is probably one of those shows you'll wish you got to see in New York. But it is still a solid four star production and worth every quid.

"Billy Elliot (The Musical)"
Orpheum Theater
1192 Market Street, San Francisco
Through September 17

Sunday, June 26, 2011

"Tigers Be Still": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

We had a slightly disconnected feeling while watching Kim Rosenstock's "Tigers Be Still," which is having its West Coast premiere at SF Playhouse. The laughs seem to be coming a mile a minute, judging by the enthusiastic audience reaction, but there is a sad, unsettling underscore to the entire four-person, one-act and character-driven show. And then comes the scene at the end -- in a shoe closet, no less -- that puts everything into perspective and gives heart and soul to what had felt, up to that point, like a pleasing but rather lightweight tale.

The cast is so good we could have happily bought a cookie and sat back down to watch them do another show, any show.

Sherri (Melissa Quine) is perky and her sister Grace (Rebecca Schweitzer) is the Anti-Perky. Both are delightful, with slovenly Grace getting most of the laughs. She has been lying on the sofa sipping Jack Daniels and watching endless loops of Top Gun since being dumped by her fiance Troy. (Small dog lovers beware: Troy has left his chihuahuas in Grace's care. Bad idea.) Sherri, meanwhile, is gamely trying to get up and go to work as an art therapist at the local middle school.

She has gotten her job as a favor to her mother (the unseen Wanda) from Joseph (Remi Sandri), the school's principal, who was once Wanda's high school flame. Sherri's first assignment is to work with Zack (the fabulous Jeremy Kahn), Joseph's son, whose face would be blank with teen angst and boredom if his dancing eyes didn't betray him. Though Zack is supposed to be a troubled teen, his spirit is what allows Sherri to realize her own worth, and she in turn is able to begin to turn her family around.

There's a lot here. And it's very funny. It may be that a little more soul at the outset, instead of vaguely disconnected gags and set pieces, may help us care a little more about the characters from the beginning, rather than needing to get to the end to sit in our seats as the lights come up, saying to the next person over: "Yeah! Now I get it! Fantastic!"


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Tigers Be Still" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. The cast earns two stars for themselves, for doing what great actors do: managing to wring every ounce of laughter from a play that sometimes feels a little thin. The third star is for the set and direction -- it is intriguing to watch how director Amy Glazer has the actors maneuver through Bill English's single set which never changes even as the scenes and locations shift constantly. They use the whole stage, plus the stairs -- and it's all quite effective.

The BANGLE of PRAISE is for the shoe closet. C'mon. It's too good. This scene, where Sherri and Zack finally are forced to go a little deeper, is the one we will remember when we are watching new Kim Rosenstock shows in the near future.

"Tigers Be Still"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through July 30

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

"Metamorphosis": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Alexander Crowther is a gifted physical actor. It's a good thing, because it takes strength and balance to act the role of Gregor Samsa in the Aurora's production of "Metamorphosis," by Franz Kafka. The story is pushed forward a generation here, into the 1930s (Kafka wrote the story in 1912, at age 29), with Gregor doing most of his work on a slanted section of stage high above the other actors. He climbs, he runs around on all fours, he hisses, he hides under a bed in plain sight. He behaves like a well-dressed insect.

No one, including Gregor, has the slightest idea how his metamorphosis has taken place, seemingly overnight. Gregor went to sleep as a young, aspiring if overworked traveling salesman and woke up as a bug who cannot leave his room. No one notices at first -- until sister Grete realizes that Gregor never caught his train to work that morning. From that moment on, everyone's life has changed.

Kafka, in the only novella published during his lifetime, is not only critical of the staid, middle-class world of Gregor's sister and parents, but foresees the coming storm of fascism which would engulf all of Europe. Kafka used the word "ungeZeifer," to describe Gregor, which has been translated as "insect," but "ungeZeifer" was also the word used colloquially to refer to a Jew. Kafka, a Czech Jew, knew well the various meanings of that word.

Gregor's sister Grete (Megan Trout) gives us another, perhaps even more interesting metamorphosis -- from sweet, adoring sister to hard-nosed realist, chilling in those blond, Teutonic braids. Patrick Jones plays two roles, a smaller one as Gregor's supervisor and a larger, more important one as Mr. Fischer, a potential boarder for the Samsa family. Mr. Fischer is the barely-veiled Fascist in the room.

Filling out the cast are Gregor and Grete's parents, Madeline H.D. Brown as Mother and Allen McKelvey as Father, both helpless players in the larger drama being played out in their living room.

Kafka's story is timeless and the Aurora production is innovative and modern. Directed by Mark Jackson, the show is based on the adaptation by David Farr and Gísli Örn Gardarsson in 2006, which played to great success in London and New York. Nina Ball's set gives Gregor a chance to act like an insect while looking like a human, and the story is helped greatly by excellent musical choices by Matthew Stines which enhance the flow during fairly long silences in the action. The music is classical and violin-based, though in this production sister Grete is a dancer instead of a violinist as Kafka originally wrote.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Metamorphosis" Four Stars, one each for acting, directing, staging and adaptation. It is brilliant theater as well as a chilling reminder that, as humans, our attitudes take a long time to change.

Aurora Theater
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
EXTENDED through July 24

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

"Geoff Hoyle's "Geezer": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !

They ought to re-name the Marsh Theatre "According to Hoyle." Geoff Hoyle and his son Dan Hoyle have both created marvelous solo shows, both of which have hit the Marsh calendar at the same time. Geoff's "Geezer," which has been extended through July 10, is one of those rare theater experiences that will have you laughing your head off while grabbing for your prostate.

Ha ha, no, just kidding. Sort of.

Hoyle is such an intriguing combination of story teller plus clown, mime and stand-up comic. "Geezer" is the story of his life as well as an up-very-close glimpse into the aging process. So how does the Venerable Bede fit into all of this? Don't ask, but Hoyle's twenty second interpretation of The Bede's philosophy is one of the funniest moments of the night.

And there are many. His Mom and Dad in Yorkshire, when he returns home with his American wife, will have you in stitches until you see Hoyle himself as a parent when his own children bring home their friends and he feels it imperative to embarrass them all to tears.

Speaking of parenting, he's right about one thing: "If you cook it, they will come."

And his views of his own Dad, central to his life, are both heartbreaking and incisive. We are spellbound by the U-Boat attack on his Dad in the North Atlantic -- Hoyle Senior is plunged beneath the ocean as we watch him gasping for air -- and in the next moment, Geoff is into a new character with another facial expression and new, unique body language.

The man is a trained mime, clowned with the Pickle Circus for many years and has acted in many Bay Area shows (including the terrific Lemony Snicket show last Christmas), but he has perhaps never allowed us to get this close. "Geezer" will make you laugh and it may make you cry (as it did to the woman in the next seat over). For sure it is first-rate entertainment.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Geezer" Four Stars with an Exclamation Mark! One star is for writing, another for acting, a third for Woody Woodpecker (what a laugh!) and a fourth for Hoyle's assessment of healthy food: "Who wants to eat carboard and drink rice milk to earn two extra days in hospice?"

The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
EXTENDED through July 10

Sunday, June 5, 2011

[title of show]: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !

Holy Ioncesco, Theater Man, talk about a bolt from the blue. When Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen first conceived of [title of show] in order to have something to submit to a new musicals contest in New York, they had no ideas and few expectations. When they finished three weeks later and turned it in, they had written nothing but their own story: a 90 minute show with four actors, a piano player, no scene changes, no costume changes and no production values, about two guys writing a show to submit to a contest. The show's title refers to the fact that they had to put something on the line on the contest submission form where it said [title of show], so that's what they called it.

What did they get? An impossibly wonderful, heart-filled romp through the creative process, with a totally unique presentation and song after song that either crack your funny bone in half or give you shivers of pleasure, and usually both at the same time.

Five Stars! Do you hear that, Jersey Boys? We love love love this show, from the opener "Two Nobodies in New York" to the closer "Nine People's Favorite Thing" with the chorus: "I'd Rather Be Nine People's Favorite Thing than a Hundred People's Ninth Favorite Thing."

What an ensemble cast. Who is our favorite? Probably the 'Hunter' character, played with depth and brilliance by Jamison Stern, but then again Ian Leonard (his co-writer Jeff) is refreshing and wonderful too. Each of the two women: Laura Jordan (Susan), the wisecracking downtown gal and Farah Alvin (Heidi), the delightful and big-voiced uptown gal have their own moments to bring down the house. Together, the four actors sound like the vocal group from your favorite dream.

Yes, there's a dream sequence. And a song about killing those parts of you that keep you down ("Die, Vampire, Die!") and a great one about the two girls wanting their moment in the sun ("Secondary Characters") and a terrific one ("Change it, Don't Change it") about how once you have a little success everyone wants to throw their two cents in.

Perhaps Bell and Bowen didn't realize it, but they have essentially written a primer, a Musical Theater for Idiots book. The summary of that book would be: keep it simple and on point, write fantastic, simple songs with plenty of room for terrific singers to sing them and make the audience love you, root for you, cheer for your success and feel, when it comes, like its their success too.

How DO you do that? On Opening Night the audience stood and cheered for five solid minutes. The four actors standing on the edge of the stage had no idea what to do with this much applause. Afterwards, Ian Leonard told us "I figured this may never happen again so I thought I'd just stand there and take it all in." It's the real deal, folks. You can't buy the book so hurry down to Mountain View and see this show.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !
The San Francisco Theater Blog Award Division may have had vampires steal its grinch filter, but it awards [title of show] FIVE STARS! There is no higher rating! Some may not agree, but The San Francisco Theater Blog would rather be nine people's favorite source for theater reviews than a hundred people's ninth favorite source for theater reviews.

[title of Show]
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through June 26

Photo Credits: Tracy Martin and Mark Kitaoka

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Anna Deavere Smith "Let Me Down Easy": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG BANG

We have followed Anna Deavere Smith for years, always in awe of her prodigious talent and ability to not only get into character but tug at the heart. In her new one-woman show "Let Me Down Easy," although the content and central themes are complicated, the heart has not skipped a beat.

The core of "Let Me Down Easy" is health -- unless it is life and death -- or the health care system -- no, it's death. Or life.

Smith has done interviews with many people, most of whom have experienced bouts with cancer or other serious illness, and she has turned these interviews into monologues with Smith playing the interview-ee on stage. We see famous people like Lance Armstrong, Lauren Hutton and Governor Ann Richards, plus others whose stories are even more compelling, including a tear-inducing representation of Smith's own Aunt Lorraine Coleman, a painfully honest reflection by Doctor Kiersta Kurtz-Burke who was an attending physician at New Orleans's Charity Hospital during Hurricane Katrina, and a fascinating journey into motivation from heavyweight boxer Michael Bentt who spent three days in a coma after being knocked cold.

Rodeo Cowboy Brent Williams gives Smith a chance to wear that hat and swig that beer.

If the show has a fault, it is that Smith occasionally brings us so vividly into the lives of her characters, that we want very much to see them again. You can't help but love Old Miss Effie, in the hospital, and though you don't like Lauren Hutton's view of who gets what in America, you also know she's right.

Maybe what we are saying is we want Anna Deavere Smith to give us Act Two -- to basically kill herself performing -- and bring a few of these people back with a final message. That's not asking too much, is it? It is?

The overhead projection that tells the audience the name of the character Smith is portraying is helpful. The staging is good. But, in the end, what we really want is for Anna Deavere Smith to tell us everything is going to be all right. She's not about to do that.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Let Me Down Easy" Three Stars with Two BANGLES of PRAISE! One Bangle is for putting those hands under Momma's arms to warm them up. You'll know what we mean. The second BANGLE is for Joshua Redman's original music, of which we could use a great deal more.

This is a show you do not need to be up close to appreciate. The less expensive seats in the Roda Theatre will be fine.

"Let Me Down Easy"
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Roda Theatre
2015 Addison Street, Berkeley

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"Tales of the City": ☼ ☼ ☼

When was the last time your Press Pack came with a little plastic bag containing matches, rolling papers and a condom?

And how long have San Franciscans been waiting for this? It's our city, our story, our show! Armistead Maupin probably didn't intend to become Tony Bennett, the late Twentieth Century prophet of our city high on a hill, but that's what happened when he started writing "Tales of The City" as a five-columns-a-week series in the SF Chronicle in 1976.

Thirty five years later, the newspaper column that was spun into several popular novels and a classic TV series, has become a musical. The entire story has been condensed into nearly three hours of songs with a little dialog. The assumption seems to be that everyone in the audience already knows every character, so we'll just face the adoring crowds, stand there and sing about it.

From the moment the curtain comes up and we hear Betsy Wolfe as Mary Ann Singleton bidding good-bye to her mother in Cleveland ("Nobody's City") in front of Douglas W. Schmidt's multileveled 28 Barbary Lane, we are transported back to the Good Olde Days, when "Tales" first came out and our lives felt so extraordinary.

That's why it's a little disappointing. The show is more than ordinary, but it's not extraordinary yet. It has standard show tunes and characters that, without time for development, feel cliched. Not that Jake Shears and John Garden haven't written a few clever and funny songs, especially those that are campy and gay ("Crotch" and "Homosexual Convalescent Center" are true standouts), and not that there are not excellent performances, especially by Wolfe, Judy Kaye as Anna Madrigal, Richard Poe as Edgar Halcyon, Mary Birdsong as Mona Ramsey, Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone as DeDe and Diane J. Findlay in a fabulous smaller role as Madrigal's Mother Mucca -- but the show drags at the beginning. It takes until Act Two to get rolling.

Let us add that this is a World Premiere and it is certain to be a big hit in San Francisco so they'll have plenty of time to tweak it. But high expectation can be a killer. They chose to make "Tales" into a musical, so we want nothing less than "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." Yes, this is asking a lot.

Mouse (Wesley Taylor) sings one heart-rending song ("Dear Mama"), but otherwise is barely part of the action. "Paper Faces" is good and "Ride 'em Hard' is raucous and raunchy. All three are in Act Two.

Dramatically, they only have a few hours of stage time so they had to choose a story upon which to focus. The decision is to make Anna Madrigal the focus of the show instead of what really drove the original version -- the exotic world of Mouse and Mona and Mary Ann, which is to say the late 1970's agony and ecstasy of being young and gay, or gay-tolerant, or a Fag Hag, in a world that was awakening to liberation.

But the real star always was San Francisco. In the musical version, the story could take place anywhere.

Perhaps this is all inevitable. It's like trying to condense the Bible. You can't help leaving out somebody's favorite chapter.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Tales of the City" Three Stars. It is a show you should see, especially if you live in Baghdad by the Bay. But you probably need to be close to the front to be able to hear the music (it seemed quite subdued from the back of the orchestra) and tickets are not cheap. As the run continues it will tighten, and new songs may be added and some deleted. They will have to decide whether to be campy or soulful. Right now campy works, but we could use a little more heart.

"Tales of the City"
A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through July 10