Sunday, July 17, 2011

"Fly By Night": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG !

The scores are in for the Opening Night World Premiere of Kim Rosenstock, Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick's new musical "Fly By Night."

Story: Very Good
Acting: Terrific
Music: Pretty Good

Act One is novel and exciting. The music pays off the action, there is plenty of humor and by intermission we still don't know what is going to happen. The table is set perfectly for Act Two.

Right now, Act Two takes a long time to get where it's going, but the blackout scene at the very end ties up most of the loose ends. The show's most meaningful song comes at the end, and you get to exit the theater humming the one riff from Act One that reappears constantly throughout the show. That a fortune teller would be the one who composes the riff makes perfect sense in the fantasy world presented.

We have a love triangle, composed of actress Daphne (Rachel Spencer Hewitt), her kid sister Miriam (Kristin Stokes) and sandwich maker Harold (Ian Leonard, who was so fantastic in TheaterWorks' recent [title of show].

We also have the aptly named Crabble (Michael McCormick), who owns the sandwich shop where Harold works; and Mr. McClam, Harold's father, whose ode to his deceased wife Cecily is the show stopper. Keith Pinto has a smaller part as Joey Storms, the failing playwright.

But good as they all are, the show is stolen -- hijacked -- run away with -- by Wade McCollum, who plays The Narrator. He narrates but he also sings, plays several characters, and puts his stamp on every bit of action. He is seldom off stage. Without the Narrator there is a simple love story; with him we are twisted into a different way of looking at the world.

It's a World Premiere, so there are problems. Right now the show is fantastical, but the music is not. Lyrics are clever, but the four piece rock and roll band isn't given much to play. This isn't fuddy-duddyism -- we love rock and roll as much as anyone and have the blown ear drums to prove it. We'd just like a few more songs as good as the last one.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Fly By Night" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE and a Big Fat Exclamation Mark. Having just seen Kim Rosenstock's "Tigers Be Still" we can feel her novelistic touches all over this libretto. The way the story weaves in and out of time is brilliant. The cast, with a special nod towards McCollum, is excellent and so is Bill Fennelly's direction, though we could see them taking a few more chances as time goes on, to match the off-world sense of the plot.

The BANGLE OF PRAISE is for the way they keep Mr. McClam from telling his story for almost two full acts. He tries, nobody will listen. We, like they, think he is just another tired old man living in the past. When he finally gets a chance, he turns out to have not a sleepy story but an incisive and heartfelt song to sing. The way they pace this moment is the stuff of terrific theater.

And the exclamation point: thanks to TheatreWorks for giving new shows a shot, first with the New Works Festival, where "Fly By Night" appeared in 2010, and then working with them to earn a place on the main stage.

"Fly By Night"
Lucie Stern Theatre
Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through August 13

(press photos by Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Marin Shakespeare: "Macbeth": ☼ ☼ ☼

"A drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come." From the mouths of the Scottish royalty tumble one famous phrase after another, many of which have embedded themselves in our everyday English language. Flawed Macbeth and evil Lady Macbeth, loyal Banquo and the batty three witches are characters we know as well as any in all literature. As we hear "out, damned spot," "double double, toil and trouble," and "the milk of human kindness" we shake our heads and marvel at how one man could have had so much influence on the way we speak to our world.

And then, when Opening Night is over, the voice of the asp whispers in our ear: if this weren't Shakespeare, if "Macbeth" had been written by the unheralded Joe Plotnik, would we be gushing so over a plot where character development is nil and there are only one emotion (anguish), one motivation (revenge) and one action (slaughter)?

Well, if Mr. Plotnik had written "false face must hide what the false heart doth know" or "Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing," we probably would.

How many tens and tens of thousands of Macbeths, of Banquos, of King Duncans have there been? For our money, Marin Shakespeare's William Elsman is the craziest Macbeth yet. Under Lesley Schisgall Currier's direction, Elsman infuses Macbeth with great power and presence, but there is little underneath. The eternal question of why a noble Lord would travel so quickly from successful general in battle... ambition-fueled insanity...

...must be answered not by words but by the actor's performance. A Macbeth this pathological gives us no clue and therefore little to pity.

Darren Bridgett's Banquo is loyal and solid, Alexandra Matthew's Lady Macbeth is evil incarnate at the outset (but strangely passive as time goes on) and Scott Coopwood's Macduff makes us all think that he's the only thane with a brain, the guy we would follow into battle. After all, he with the strongest voice and most dynamic stage presence should be King, shouldn't he?

In the supporting roles, James Hiser's murdering presence is perfectly drawn as well as Madeline Harris's Seyton and Third Witch.

Abra Berman's costumes are fine, as is Mark Robinson's spartan set design. It all comes down to what you think of Macbeth, the man who would be King, and then is, and then isn't. And as for his wife: "look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent underneath."

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards Marin Shakespeare's "Macbeth" Three Stars. It's hard to beat listening to fine actors performing classic Shakespeare, while sitting outside in a small, wooded amphitheatre. Macbeth is not King Lear or even Anthony and Cleopatra. But it grabs you, if only by the majesty of its language.

Marin Shakespeare
Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, Dominican University
1475 Grand Avenue, San Rafael
Through Aug. 14

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

San Francisco Mime Troupe: "2012-The Musical": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

You always get what you pay for with San Francisco Mime Troupe, but this year you get even more. They trashed Dick Cheney until it was scarier than funny. Now they've got Barack Obama to laugh at and, once again, they're back on course. For our money, the troupe's 52nd season's offering "2012-The Musical" is the best work they've done in years.

Newcomers Cory Censoprano and Siobhan Marie Doherty are both terrific additions to the show, and writer and performer Michael Gene Sullivan takes on an even larger set of roles than he usually does. Lizzie Calogero and Keiko Shimosato, as political theater director and "green" corporate donor are chillingly real, and Victor Toman's singing and dancing are perhaps the best of all. As always, the plot is secondary to the message: Power to the People and Death to the Pigs, of course, but also, as refers to corporate largess: "A Girl Can Get Used to it."

Pat Moran and Bruce Barthol's songs, especially early in the show, are better than ever, particularly Moran's "It's All Dirty Money" and "A Girl Could Get Used To It," and Barthol's "Chains of Regulation." The three band members, who seem to play ten instruments at once, are their usual fashionably virtuosic selves.

A few suggestions for the rest of the season: This year's Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence warmup felt like it went on for days: maybe all their silly puns about dykes and queers have gone the way of Dick Cheney and it's time to come up with something new.

(Although we did love the couplet:
Eight, Six, Four, Two
We're tough dykes and we don't have to rhyme.")

You might think about posting a guard at both sides of the stage to keep the foulmouthed crackheads away. There seems to be one every year. The 2012 model took a full five minutes to scream "get out of my fffff__ing way!" as he passed stage right to left. Yes, we know. Crackheads are people too, but...

And please don't touch Raoul Brody's twisted Star Spangled Banner. This is the best singalong in hootenanny history.

As always, you leave a Mime Troupe show with mixed feelings. One, everything they said was correct, except for the things that are just loony. Two, this is an astonishingly talented cast of actors, writers, producers, singers and performers. It's hard to imagine San Francisco without them.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "2012-The Musical" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. The show is entertaining and, for a free show, not too expensive. (You can't NOT throw donations into the various buckets that come 'round before and after the show. And you HAVE to love that t-shirt.) This year's music is better than ever. Of course they take on too many themes. Of course they do.

The BANGLE of PRAISE is for this line: "The Revolution Will Not Be Downloaded." And blessings to brother Scott-Heron, who will have enjoyed that tribute.

San Francisco Mime Troupe: "2012-The Musical"
Various parks and venues throughout the Bay Area
Through August 28
(see for complete schedule)

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Matt Smith's "All My Children": ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Seattle's Matt Smith is a polished performer with many earlier monologues to his credit. Yarns spin effortlessly off his tongue, somewhat in the Garrison Keillor mode, but without any mention of Lutherans. In Smith's new solo show "All My Children," we hear the improbable tale of a man, now in middle age, who looks back on the six most prominent and failed romances of his youth, and after a bit of Googling discovers:

1) His exes all married their next boy friend, and

2) Within three months of breaking up with Matt Smith, each ex was pregnant, and

3) Each ex had one child, and, most importantly,

4) The kids and most of the exes are accessible on Facebook.

Smith's unflappable and affable delivery makes you almost believe that there is a human being on this or any other planet who would actually do what he then did, armed with the above information: he called up every one of the children of his exes and tried to convince them he was their real father. If anyone could make you believe this is a true story, Smith could. But, in the end, as uniquely enjoyable and at all times humorous a tale as he spins, its sheer unlikelihood makes it really hard to believe a word the man says.

Now then, nobody has to believe that Dan Hoyle's stories are word-for-word true, but you can imagine he actually did travel around the country talking to citizens. You can believe that Jeff Greenwald shaggy cow tale about the clerk at the Calcutta Airport. Ann Randolph's Frannie is just plain nuts. Of course she would do what she does.

But calling your exes' children and telling, no, nah. Nobody could POSSIBLY be this stupid -- especially somebody as cool and collected and, seemingly, held together without any visible welds, as Matt Smith appears to be.

So you don't buy it, but you still love listening to it. The characters he talks about (he does not try to imitate their voices) are fascinating, especially once his "daughter" Rita bursts into the picture. You love Mitsuo and Carter. You recognize yourself in Boyd. The story ratchets up when the characters actually begin to interact. And the $100 Koobie Doobie is absolutely priceless and worth the price of admission all by itself.

After the show, this reviewer's friend said to him: "Why would a man actually DO something like that?" The answer, of course, is "WELL, HE WOULDN'T!" But so what? The idea is incongruous but you still can't get enough of it.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards Matt Smith's "All My Children" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. We have the strong sense that if Smith wishes to take this story deeper it could become a classic. Who were the moms? What was going on during his flings with them? Do we recognize the kids in their moms? And how could the kids interact more, and for what reasons of their own? Above all: what possessed this man to do it in the first place? "All My Children" is a brilliant idea and perhaps it will become even more so as time goes on.

The BANGLE of PRAISE is for both incidents involving Koobie Doobies. You have to close your mouth before you start to laugh and then you can't stop.

"All My Children"
The Marsh, Berkeley
2120 Allston Way, Berkeley
Through July 23