Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Reunion" ☼ ☼

The reunion that playwright Kenn Rabin seems to be talking about in his two act drama "Reunion" is not the one we think is about to happen. Tom Gillette (Marvin Green) had affairs with two of his high school students while he was their drama teacher. One of them, Valerie (Alexandra Creighton), accused him of rape and had him sent to prison, where he remains; the other, Julie (Lauren English) has continued corresponding with Tom in prison, and is attempting to wring a confession out of Valerie in order to gain Tom's freedom.

It's the developing friendship between Valerie and Julie that is the real relationship here. The two women could not be more opposite but they each have found different ways to deal with what happened to them in High School. The show presents issues that need to be talked about -- for example, when is sex consensual and when is it not -- but the problem with this play is that you'd just as soon never see any of these people again. Tom is pure smarm, Valerie is too stupid for words and Julie's delusional relationship with Tom is, above all, terribly sad.

Greene's Gillette is hard to swallow -- can this obvious a predator fool the prison psychiatrist (Emily Rosenthal) this easily?  Do they really do those penis tests? Are we watching a universe so unlike the one we live in that whatever happens makes sense?

Maybe. Creighton's Valerie is the one who appears to grow -- she's the strongest. The others just seem trapped. This isn't a show you want to think too closely about.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards division awards "Reunion" Two Stars. As part of SF Playhouse's excellent Sandbox Series, this World Premiere will give playwright Rabin plenty of feedback to work with. We love shows with premises that make us work. If Mr. Rabin can give some more heart to Valerie, Julie and Tom he will bring us into their story, rather than keep us out in the audience, in the dark, happy we're out here and not in there.

San Francisco Playhouse
Sandbox Series
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through June 30

"The Scottsboro Boys" ☼ ☼ ☼

John Kander wrote the music and Fred Ebb wrote the lyrics for several of the most popular and long-lasting musicals in American theater history. Cabaret was a brilliant and nostalgic look at the lost world of pre-war Berlin, while Chicago was a sendup of the windy city in the1920s, where everyone was on the take and couldn't wait to sing about it. The Kandernebb (as they called themselves) songs were perfect and the stories made us laugh and sing.

But Ebb died in 2004 while he and Kander were still working on "The Scottsboro Boys." Kander and others finished the show. This time, the nostalgic musical form is minstrel music and the subject is nothing less than racism in America. Making sense of all this is a lot to ask of a composer, a lyricist and a book writer.

The show would be easier to digest if racism in 2012 were as dead as fascism in 1935 Berlin or prohibition in 1930 Chicago. As it is, the stereotypes involved in minstrel music, and the lyrics to the songs, even though we know we're supposed to wink and nudge and know the authors don't really mean it, make us cringe as much as clap. You may love this show but you may despise it. Even we, knowledgeable about the theatrical concept and mindful of the pedigree of these two great American songwriters, aren't sure where we stand.

Of course, Kander and Ebb didn't get to refine the show together, as all songwriting teams do once a show is mounted and takes on a life of its own. This is a pity.

Clifton Duncan, as Haywood, singing "Make Friends with the Truth" and J.C. Montgomery, as Leibowitz, doing "That's Not the Way We Do Things (in New York)" are terrific. There is a too-short moment during "Go Back Home" when Eugene, played by Nile Bullock, sounds like a young Michael Jackson. Clifton Oliver and James T. Lane's "white, Southern girls" -- Victoria and Ruby -- are amazing, and especially in context of the damage these two women did to nine innocent men.

So many fine moments, and yet, though the musical score is evocative, it is strangely subdued. A cast as good as this one could rock the house. But salvation is not the story being told here. You don't get to celebrate with The Scottsboro Boys, because they didn't either.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division is wrestling with a rating for this show. It has four star moments alongside two star moments. It has painful racial slapstick riding in the same rail car with touching irony. It is the story of a generation's pain condensed into one act of theater. It is not supposed to make you feel good. Not feeling good is not why most of us come to the theater. So be warned. When it's hot, it's hot and when it's not, you squirm.


"The Scottsboro Boys"
A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
EXTENDED through July 22

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"A Behanding in Spokane" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Just look at that picture. You've got Daveed Diggs and Melissa Quine handcuffed to the radiator pipes, creepy Rod Gnapp climbing in a window, with his performance-honed lunatic gaze, and don't forget the gasoline can with the gas-soaked rag holding the lit candle which will most likely blow the place to smithereens.

Note also that Carmichael (Gnapp) has only one hand. This is not an accident.

Then we meet Mervyn the desk clerk (Alex Hurt). He's every bit as wacked out as Carmichael, but Mervyn is oblivious. Carmichael knows his quest is loony, and Toby (Diggs) and Marilyn (Quine) realize they are small-time hoods. But Mervyn -- dear Mervyn. There aren't 52 cards in the deck between all of these goofballs, and that's why we love "A Behanding in Spokane" so much. Seeing it at San Francisco Playhouse feels like coming home for Christmas. These are the types of shows that have made the theater's reputation. Weird, wild, wacky and wonderful.

We really love Daveed Diggs. Every time we see him (he was so good in "Jesus Hopped the A Train") he jumps out and steals the show. In "Behanding," we can't help but hope he gets out of this pickle. (It's too bad about that busted speed deal though.) He's also about to get his head blown off. Maybe. That man with the gas can is capable of anything.

The cast of four is perfect and Susi Damilano's direction keeps us hopping from surprise to surprise. Like other Martin McDonagh plays there are plenty of body parts flying around. Can you imagine a food fight using severed limbs?

Lots of swearing. Lots of n-word. Lots of f-word, and m-f word. And the King of the Monkeys. What's not to love?

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "A Behanding in Spokane" Four happy, gloopy stars. The four actors split three stars and the writer, director and clean-up crew share the last one. 

Favorite lines: Mervyn: "You're barking up the wrong alley." 
Carmichael (talking to his Mom) "Aw, Mom! That doesn't mean I'm not a racist!"

The show is recommended for mature audiences. We wouldn't let any of these clowns in.


"A Behanding in Spokane"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through June 30

Sunday, June 17, 2012

"Vital Signs" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

If this reviewer ever finds himself shut up in the neurological ward, he wants Alison Whittaker to take care of him. A nurse in real life, her one-woman show "Vital Signs," in which she portrays an entire floor of patients as well as her fellow nurses who are in charge of them, is filled with empathy and humor.

It doesn't hurt that Alison Whittaker is a natural performer. After all, she is talking about awful things -- including a great deal about what the nurses call  "The Six P's" (We can only remember pee, poop, pus and pills). The patients are terrified and the nurses underpaid and overworked. But as she takes us from character to character, including the crazy Mr. Lulu, Donnie the quadriplegic, Ruth the large-mouthed nurse, Denzell the swishing orderly and Leticia, a most improbably sympathetic patient, we can't help but laugh more than we think we should. Still, we are never far from the realization that all of us, some day, are likely to end up on a floor just like this one.

We love the way she opens: "I'm a nurse. If I asked you to bend over, drop your trousers and allow me to stick a probe up your anus, you'd be happy to let me." We love the way she closes. In the middle we walk the floor with a veteran nurse and we say to ourselves: "I'm sure glad that's her and not me."

This is a very rare thing to hear in this column, but: the show could have gone on even longer.

Alison Whittaker is still developing "Vital Signs." It's rewarding already. Whittaker reminds us of Ann Randolph in her physical mimicry and this is a very high compliment.

RATINGS:  ☼  ☼  ☼ BANG
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Vital Signs" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. David Ford's direction is spot-on. The upstairs room at the Marsh can be an oven, but nobody seemed to mind. We were all too busy laughing.

The BANGLE OF PRAISE is for Nurse Ruth's description of the perfect patient. We're not going to tip it off, except to say that one attribute might be "no living relatives."

Alison Whittaker's "Vital Signs"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Through July 21 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

"American Idiot" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG!

Larger, and with some new material added, the new traveling production of Green Day's "American Idiot" is a visual and audio powerhouse. The music has been toned down in volume from the successful Broadway run, but the lyrics might still be difficult for you to make out so it helps if you're familiar with the original Green Day CD before you go in. But even if you don't know Green Day from Black Sabbath you will love the energy of this show.

It's a simple story: bored youngsters head to the big city, bad things happen and they return all the wiser -- more or less. Here, Johnny (Van Hughes), Tunny (Scott J. Campbell) and Will (Jake Epstein) decide it's time for their Big Adventure, except that Will has impregnated his girl friend so he has to stay home. Johnny runs into girls and drugs, Tunny ends up in Iraq and Will, who has stayed home, sits on the couch with his bong and beer. When they all meet up again, nothing has changed much.

But this is rock opera, a show inspired by the music. The idea is not to develop characters but to make those powerhouse choruses jump out at you. Do they ever. With Green Day you get anthems. "Take on the World," Giving it All Away," "I Don't Care if You Don't Care" -- the band sings these refrains over and over and you can't help but sing along. It feels great.

It's a little disconcerting that so much can be made of so little -- after all, nobody seems to learn anything except that the world stinks. But stop it, Dude. They're nineteen. It's rock and roll. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the audience is all younger than you are. When was the last time that happened in the theater?

"Do You Know Your Enemy?" Johnny, Tunny and Will do. It's me. It's you. Cool. This reviewer accepts his responsibility and will get in line for the next fantastic Green Day musical.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "American Idiot" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. If the road show lacks the original hammer to the skull that it had in 2009, it may be because we are all older too. We especially love the exceptional aerial ballet of "Extraordinary Girl," featuring Scott J. Campbell and Nicci Claspell. This one song and set piece defines the entire show and earns its own BANGLE OF PRAISE. Brilliant.

"American Idiot"
The Orpheum Theater
1192 Market Street
Through July 8

Sunday, June 10, 2012

"Wheelhouse" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

It's where the captain steers his boat, it's a batter's favorite spot to hit a pitch and it's also GrooveLily's name for its one-time traveling bus. "Wheelhouse" is the story of a band on the road, the difficulties of keeping everything together, and most of all, a love story dedicated to a dream.

Think musical theater with the emphasis on music. It is more a concert of songs with a plot than it is a plot illustrated with songs. And it is totally enjoyable. We root for these two guys and one girl. We want them to figure it all out, though we can't really ever figure out how they're going to do it.

Valerie Vigoda (violin), Brendan Milburn (Keyboards) and Gene Lewin (Drums, guitar and knees) are GrooveLily. They are excellent musicians and singers but, most of all, they are performers! They play different instruments as well as various characters they meet along the road (Lewin's RV salesman is a hoot, as well as Milburn's game-show host). Milburn's voice is freaky high, but lovely. So is Lewin's. But when Valerie Vigoda is out in front we are drawn to her like agents to a commission. She, with her other two band members, have written book, music and lyrics that are honest and heartfelt, as well as funny and  inventive.

They're doing it with plenty of electronic magic but few mirrors -- almost everything you hear on stage, including the bass lines played by Milburn's left hand, is live ( a few computer sequences are needed at times). You must remember this is a rock and roll band without an electric guitar. The songs would groove harder with one, but GrooveLily is about musical theater, not rock and roll. Volume is 'way down so you can hear the lyrics. It all works fabulously in context.

Our favorite songs: "Giving it All Away," "We're in a Rock Band," and the one song that talks a little bit about the world they are viewing from the bus: "Rootless Life." If there were a few more songs like this one the show would hit us harder in the belly.

As it is we recommend "Wheelhouse" to everyone. It is lighthearted, tuneful and fun. If they choose to take it further, we will be happy to jump aboard that old bus with them.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼ BANG
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Wheelhouse" Four Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. Lisa Peterson's lightning-quick direction and each of the three performers earn one star each. The BANGLE is for musicianship. They make something quite complex seem simple. This is an impressive bunch. We hope they stay together a long time and travel by train next time.

(One more note: Theater audiences are old and getting older. "Wheelhouse" is a show for all ages, but you're going to have to sit up close to really enjoy it. How many 20- and 30-somethings can shell out $69 for a ticket? Sigh. This is our Game of Life. We need to find a way to keep the tires inflated on our theatrical bus.)

Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through July 1


"Bruja" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

If you want to really enjoy Luis Alfaro's "Bruja," which is having its World Premiere at the Magic, make sure you re-acquaint yourself with Euripides' "Medea" -- which you probably missed when it opened, back in 431 BC. The mystical sorceress, driven to madness by lost love, dominated the imaginations of the ancient Greeks and her timeless story touches us still.

Alfaro, in the third of his trilogy of Greek tragedies relocated, loosely, to downtown 21st Century Los Angeles, gives us a Medea (Sabina Zuniga Varela) who is a Nahuatl healer, a Jason (Sean San Jose) who is a day laborer blinded by thoughts of economic success, a virtual one-woman Greek chorus in Medea's servant Vieja (Wilma Bonet) and a Creon ( the always spellbinding Carlos Aguirre), the doomed local tycoon who knows everyone's limits better than they themselves.

We find a few small nits to pick. The kids' passivity makes no sense -- what L.A. kid is not going to run when he sees his mama coming for him with a sword? And the compromises of Vieja's language -- Alfaro wants her to be real, and therefore speaking Spanish or at least Spanglish, but he needs an English-speaking audience to understand her. There are several moments where the author achieves neither. Wilma Bonet, a great actor, could perhaps convey her message more convincingly with less dialog.

This is a terrific show. If you see the story through the eyes of Alfaro and Artistic Director Loretta Greco, you can grasp it at its heart: we all struggle to confront our own monster. Sometimes we slay her and sometimes she slays us but it is always the voyage that brings us home. Que viva la bruja!

RATINGS : ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Bruja" Four Stars. Please, at the very least, read a synopsis of "Medea" before you go. If you don't, certain actions may seem overwrought. But if you do, you will see that the characters have no choice but to behave the way they do. Luis Alfaro has given us a fascinating new path into a story we already know well.

Magic Theater
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through June 24