Thursday, July 19, 2012

"Upright Grand" ☼ ☼ ☼

When we saw Laura Schellhardt's "Upright Grand" at last summer's Theatreworks New Works Festival, we were staggered with how good a playwright Schellhardt is -- this being her third show in less than two years that we had seen. All are different, heartfelt and filled with raw emotion.

 Of course, there is no better way to insure you will be disappointed than to see the "improved" show you loved when it was new. All the good parts are still here -- the touching relationship between father and the daughter, the innovative (and tightened-up) interplay between the real on stage accompanist (Brett Ryback) and the actors pretending to play the piano, and the constant appearance of the show's true villain -- the inevitable passage of time. Kiddo (Renata Friedman) catches and surpasses Pops (Dan Hiatt), as we know she must, and as she does so every parent in the audience feels an all-too-familiar punch in the gut.

So what's the problem? It may be chemistry. Hiatt and Friedman are both excellent actors but they are abstract with each other, never touching, never really connecting until it is too late. Friedman doesn't seem young, and Hiatt doesn't seem old. In a talk-back after the Wednesday performance, the actors and dramaturg Vicki Rozell claimed the show has changed very little since 2011, but it does not feel that way.

What has improved is pacing and staging; what has not improved is a true connection. Perhaps this is the way Laura Schellhardt and director Meredith McDonough see their two leads, but although we enjoyed this year's production, last year the show tore our guts out.  Then, there were men crying -- yes, men crying in the theater -- all through the house. This year -- well, not so much.

We love the elevation of Brett Ryback's several roles. He acts as well as plays all the piano pieces. He is excellent as a Russian would-be impressario and blind piano tuner, and he obviously knows his Rachmaninoff, Chopin and Henry Mancini.  But perhaps there is a price to pay by adding a third wheel. We knew this show as a duet, a back and forth between Kiddo and Pops. Now it's a trio.

All that aside, "Upright Grand" hits you where you live. This is the World Premiere and they are still working things out -- the Rachmaninoff, for example, was added when the show was already in previews. So give it time. If you are seeing it for the first time you will be entranced. There is never an excuse to miss any Laura Schellhardt show.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Upright Grand" Three Stars.  Staging, acting and music earn one star each. We especially liked Pops at the bar. Pops, you shouldn't have quit. Really.

"Upright Grand"
Lucie Stern Theater
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through August 10, 2012

Photo Credit: M. Kitaoka and T. Martin

Sunday, July 15, 2012

"My Fair Lady" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ Woo Hoo

Last night was the 51st and last Opening Night for San Francisco Playhouse at their Sutter Street addresss. Beginning with the 2012-2013 season in October the company is moving around the corner into their newly renovated and larger quarters in the Kensington Park Hotel, long-time home of the Post Street Theater.

So how better do you go out than with an absolute Five Star performance of Lerner and Loewe's classic "My Fair Lady?" They've stripped it down to two pianos, one on each side of the audience, and filled Nina Ball's unique set with actors who act and sing like they have been doing this show all their lives. Seeing as Eliza Dolittle is played by Monique Hafen, who can't be twenty-five years old (which means My Fair Lady opened on Broadway when she was minus thirty), clearly this cannot be so. Hafen and director Bill English give us a grittier Eliza, far more streetwise than Julie Andrews ever tried to be. They also give us Johnny Moreno as Henry Higgins. We expect Rex Harrison -- a proper (and middle aged) English gentleman, but Moreno gives us a more vibrant, angrier but equally clueless Higgins. This combination could be dangerous, but instead we are spellbound at the energy between the two leads. As an example, take Moreno's "I'm an Ordinary Man" and Hafen's "Just You Wait." It is both a surprise and a pleasure to see what the undertone of class anger can do to these two brilliant songs.

Add in Charles Dean as the swaggering (and staggering) Alfred P. Dolittle, Richard Frederick as Colonel Pickering and Karen Hirst as Mrs. Pearce/Mrs. Higgins, then sit back and listen to perhaps the most brilliant libretto and score ever created for musical theater, and you cannot help but come away feeling you have seen theater the way it is supposed to be seen.

It doesn't hurt that there isn't one word that isn't perfect in Alan Jay Lerner's lyrics ("Move yer bloomin' arse!" is what Eliza is shouting in the above shot), nor did Frederick Loewe ever write one out of place note. Those of us of a certain age who either saw the original Broadway production or have heard glowing first-hand accounts from those who did, must bow our heads and accept that a large Broadway house would bring magic of its own to My Fair Lady. But this reviewer must add that a 99-seat house, where you are no further than a dozen rows in front of the stage, instead of cloistered somewhere up in Balcony Three -- it's priceless.

We are sorry to gush. We know our readers are not used to reading such a rave from the Crusty Curmudgeon. We hope to be feeling better by next season.

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼ Woo Hoo!
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards "My Fair Lady" Five Stars with a Woo Hoo! This is as high as we can go without tumbling off the praise precipice onto an earth that is once again flat and filled with Disney Musicals. Those of you who follow SFTB already know we might have a tendency to award Three or even Four stars to your preschooler's Farsi production of "My Fair Lady" or "West Side Story," but Five is a different ballgame.

Think of the Richter Scale -- Five Stars is Ten Megapissles stronger than Four, as Four is to Three. For further instructions, please refer to the Ratings Guide on the right side of this page.

And as for San Francisco Playhouse, who else can follow "A Behanding in Seattle" with "My Fair Lady" and move on to "Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson?" Note from Colonel Pickering to Bill English and Susi Damilano: "You did it."

Now all you have to do is keep it up.

"My Fair Lady"
San Francisco Playhouse
533 Sutter Street, San Francisco
Through September 29

Sunday, July 8, 2012

SF Mime Troupe's "For The Greater Good" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The new SF Mime Troupe production "For the Greater Good" got a less-than-sterling review from the local pundits but this reviewer thinks it's the funniest and best-acted show they've done in years. For one thing, Ed Holmes is back, playing Gideon Bloodgood, an investment banker who will stop at nothing to keep from being incarcerated for his crimes. No one ever did Dick Cheney like Ed Holmes, and when, in real life, Cheney finally seeped back under the rocks from whence he sprang, he took away the Mime Troupe's most appealing character. Then came the financial meltdown and now an upcoming election. Gideon Bloodgood is fictional, but when he buys his daughter a congressional seat we get to  howl out our derision.

This is what the Mime Troupe does best: evil scumsuckers.

Let's also include cheers for Lisa Hori-Garcia as Bloodgood's wealthy daughter Alida ("just call me Tanya") who aspires to be a revolutionary, and for the terrific Reggie D. White as Damian Landless, who dresses like the devil as he slinks magnificently across the stage, but is also the head of the last Occupy Wall Street encampment. White is a newcomer to the cast and we hope he sticks around.

But it must also be said that although Landless is the show's slickest character, he is also its most confusing. We have no idea whether he's a good guy or a bad guy. We understand that writer and director Michael Gene Sullivan must be getting tired of writing good good guys and bad bad guys, so it is tempting to try and make us --gasp -- think. But when we're outside in the park, in the sun, surrounded by tie-dyes and frisbees, we really don't want to think too hard. If there is a fault to "For the Greater Good," it's that we all seem to be complicit in -- something or other.

As for the production itself, we love the way the encampment catches fire. The opening number "Even Better Than Alright," sung by the full cast," "What We Deserve," sung by Victor Toman and Lisa Hori-Garcia, and "Place for You Here," sung by the full cast, are excellent. Composer/Lyricist Pat Moran has to fit in a lot of words and some of the singers can handle them better than others. This year's songs are as good as any in the recent past and the band, as always, is perfect.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "For the Greater Good" Three Stars
with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. It's very good fun with moments that take the show to the level of the best Mime Troupe shows. We love Mr. and Mrs. Puffy.

NOTE TO SFMT: We Press Types love photos. We know they cost money, but it wouldn't hurt to have a photo of Damian Landless in his devil uniform and of Tanya in her stylish camo. If you should ever add these photos to your site, we will post them immediately. Just sayin'...

San Francisco Mime Troupe's "For the Greater Good"
Various venues throughout the Bay Area
See for schedule
All summer long until September 9, 2012
Free (but why don't you buy a t-shirt?)