Saturday, November 19, 2011

"The Soldier's Tale" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

When you say Igor Stravinsky you are talking about one of the musical giants of the 20th Century. Stravinsky wrote the music for "The Soldier's Tale" in 1918, as soldiers across Europe were wandering home to villages whose lives had been changed forever. Stravinsky was broke, since the Russian Revolution had removed his royal patronage and large productions were no longer financially feasible. "The Soldier's Tale," written with Swiss librettist C.F. Ramuz, was meant to be a small, traveling show that could be taken around the continent. Meant to reach large audiences, it is a simple story of a soldier who sells his soul to the devil -- in this case, the trade is his violin for her book of economic prognostications.

Played by the quartet Earplay, led by Mary Chun, Stravinsky's score is rhythmically complex and modernistic. It could have been written today. Or tomorrow. The acting is excellent as well. Narrator L. Peter Callender, Devil Joan Mankin and, especially, Puppeteer, Daughter of the King and co- Director of the show Muriel Maffre, bring this fable to life.


If there is one complaint, it is that the translation of Ramuz's book, by Donald Pippin, in the hands of co-directors Maffre and Tom Ross, make our narrator sound like he is speaking to small children. Perhaps the story did not feel simplistic in 1918, or in its original French. But in 2011 this may be an issue.

The story is intriguing, the acting off-beat and excellent and Stravinsky's music brings it to another level. Do not believe the advertising: there is nothing remotely anti-war about this production. It is the story of a puppet and his unsuccessful struggle against his Devil. There are no conclusions offered nor any to be gathered.

"The Soldier's Tale" feels like a Christmas show and what do you know: it runs through December 18. All ages will love it, including children perhaps ten and older. There are no bad seats at the Aurora.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Soldier's Tale" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. In truth, you go to hear Earplay (piano, percussion, violin, clarinet) perform this wonderful music. The story is secondary to the music -- perhaps this is the way Stravinsky meant it to be.

"The Soldier's Tale"
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through Dec. 18

Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Fela" ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

How do you rate this show? Act One is tremendous, filled with intoxicating and nonstop music, actors and dancers at the top of their game, and costumes and choreography that make you think about the great stage musicals (and concerts) you have seen. The band is smoking! They play for ten minutes before the lights even go down.

Act One is all about the legendary Nigerian superstar Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (played superbly by Sahr Ngaujah).

But in Act Two Fela so loves his mother that he gives her his only begotten musical. In a magical-realism segment that makes you think that if this is Heaven you are definitely going to run outside and lie, cheat and maim just to avoid having to go there, Fela and his Mom do a set piece that will not die. It's a bun-squirmer. In Act One you couldn't sit down and in Act Two you don't dare stand up.

Chiseled and acrobatic Ngaujah as Fela is the show all by himself, though he has capable help in Melaine Marshall as Sandra, Ismael Kouyate as Ismael, Gelan Lambert as JK, Rasaan-Elijah "Talu" Green as Mustafa and Melanie Marshall as Fela's mother Funmilayo.

In Act One we are reminded how we felt when we saw the show in New York. It won three Tonys, but none of the big ones and none for music or acting. Our feeling then was that the stage was too big for this show. But here at the Curran, Fela is intimate, the way he would have been in his own Shrine Club in Lagos. You see him, you feel him and he makes you understand the soul of his music. The first part of Act One, where he explains the origins of the sound he came to embody, manages to be intimate and huge at the same time. The politics of his time make his music feel inevitable. At Intermission we can't wait for Act Two.

In Act Two we realize this is a small stage, there are too many people on it and they have to go through too many hi-jinks to keep themselves in motion, especially with Mama up in Heaven and Fela on a white ladder trying to reach up to her. After "Zombie," the huge worldwide mega-hit that occurs here as Song 3 in Act Two, Fela's part in the show is effectively over. It's all Melanie Marshall from that point on and -- well, the show isn't really about her, is it?

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ baub
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division had an emergency meeting about how to rate this show. Act One truly deserves Four Stars at a minimum, while Act Two would gather perhaps One for "Zombie" and another for "Water No Get Enemy." So this averages out to Three Stars. Three Stars means go see the show.

But tickets are expensive and you must sit in the middle because the sound towers block sight lines for anyone sitting on the sides -- you can't even read the necessary translations which are projected behind the actors so the Nigerian patois can be understood.

The bauble of shame is for the last half of Act Two. If you do not love Fela's mother as much as he did, all the Orishas in the world cannot make you care.

If you want to see fabulous music and understand the life of a world music icon, go see "Fela." Certainly don't miss the standout Act One. What you do after Intermission is up to you.

The Curran Theater
445 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through December 11

Friday, November 11, 2011

"Annapurna" ☼ ☼ ☼ !

The more you think about Sharr White's "Annapurna," the more holes open up in the script. But at the time, as you watch the show unfold in front of you, you cannot help but be swept along by the strong sensual attraction between the two characters, as well as the slow pulling back of a disquieting curtain of mystery.

Rod Gnapp plays Ulysses, the anti-hero, a role that Gnapp seems to embrace show after show. Here he is the dissolute poet who has gotten sober after a rocky ten year marriage to Emma (Denise Cormier). We find out that she has taken their then-five year old son Sam and walked out on Ulysses after a particularly stormy night of drinking. Ulysses has eventually disappeared into the Rockies, to live in a squalid trailer community of CDS's (Can't Do Shits).

Emma has tracked him down as the play opens.

"Holy crap," says Ulysses, standing practically naked in his kitchen except for a loin cloth and a backpack that holds his oxygen tank.

"I know," says Emma, and the story begins.

Nobody can remember what happened on the night of their final breakup. Ulysses was too drunk, Emma was at the store and Sam, who may have borne the brunt of Ulysses's drunken rage, was only five at the time and cannot remember either.

We never see Sam on stage, but we come to learn he has a hearing disability. We also learn he is now in his twenties and is determined to come find his father.

Not knowing what happened to his wife and child after they disappeared that night has haunted Ulysses. Not understanding how Ulysses could have done whatever he did, has consumed Emma. In addition, Ulysses appears to be dying from emphysema and lung cancer, and Sam may arrive at any moment. There appears to be only one key that can unlock the box in which both Emma and Ulysses have found themselves: his poetry.

Yes, that's right, poetry, and here is where the story begins to ring false. Emma seems to love Ulysses's poems at least as much as she loves him. When he speaks Emma shies away. But when he recites his poetry she reverts to the fawning young student she was when they met. Emma has been around the block since then so this shedding of one persona for another seems unnatural, in the same hard-to-believe way that Ulysses and his dazzling wit seem unfazed by his mortal illness, except for an occasional nip on his inhaler.

But Annapurna grabs you. You can't take your eyes off the two ex-lovers, continually returning to take the measure of each other. In the end, with all its mystery, we are watching the best kind of love story: hot, doomed and captivating.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ !

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards division awards "Annapurna" Three Stars with an Exclamation Point! Loretta Greco's direction gives the story pacing, which isn't easy to do with only two actors and a thickly dramatic script. Gnapp and Cormier are both utterly believable, even when saddled with the rather hackneyed 'Ivy League Girl' and 'Cowboy Poet' roles. The exclamation point is a thank you to Andrew Boyce for his intriguing (but hard to clean up) set and to Jake Rodriguez for music that keeps us on edge. This is a World Premiere. The show will only get better.

The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through December 4