Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Bell, Book and Candle: ☼ ☼ ☼

It's Christmas, Homie. More reality is not what any of us need. So SF Playhouse's choice of John Van Druten's "Bell, Book and Candle" for its annual feel-good holiday show is an inspired one. First a stage play, then a 1958 film starring Kim Novak, James Stewart and Ernie Kovacs, the show gives us old-fashioned sensibility along with an appealing love story.

See, they're witches. Some of them, anyway, including Lauren English as Gillian, Scott Cox as her brother Nicky and Zehra Berkman as Miss Holroyd. William Connell plays Shepherd Henderson, the prototypical fifties romantic straight man, and Louis Parnell has all the good funny lines as the alcoholic author Sidney Redlitch. Did you know witches cannot cry? Well, they can't, unless they fall in love, which they also can't do. Brooms, yes. Messing with the electricity grid, yes. But matters of the heart? Nuh uh.

Don't fret. Lauren English has special powers. It all turns out fine.

Shout-outs to Kurt Landisman whose lights really make the set come alive. And that cool red love seat: Artistic Director Bill English scores the rare Theatrical Hat Trick for this one -- he designed the set, directs the play and Lauren English is his daughter.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Bell, Book and Candle" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. It's perfect for Christmas, simple, lighthearted and you don't have to buy it a present. The show will work for all ages.

"Bell, Book and Candle"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street (second floor Kensington Park Hotel)
San Francisco
Through January 19, 2013

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Big River: ☼ ☼

A reviewer would be well served to listen to Huckleberry Finn:

"But I never said nothing, never let on; kept it to myself; it's the best way; then you don't have no quarrels, and don't get into no trouble."

So sharpen the points on the slings and arrows: "Big River," based on Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," show written by William Hauptman with music and lyrics by country music icon Roger Miller, is trite to the point of treacle.

"Huckleberry Finn" was published in 1885 and deals with the issues of slavery and inter-racial friendship in the 1840's, along the rivers of Twain's Missouri childhood. It is one of those rare pieces of literature that can be read at all ages, and each reading produces a new revelation. Twain infused Huckleberry's adventures with both humor and depth. The Theatreworks production offers some excellent acting by side characters, particularly the Duke (Jackson Davis) and the Dauphin (Martin Rojas-Dietrich), and Twain's potent zingers make point after understated point.

But the music! To accompany a story of such longing and personal and political upheaval, the show's producers selected a composer with a limited musical palette. Everybody loves Roger Miller songs when he is the artist -- "King of the Road" is a true classic. But "King of the Road" is not Huckleberry Finn, and Big River doesn't even have a "King of the Road." Several of the songs are downright insulting -- notably the idiotic spoof about Arkansas, and practically every attempt at black gospel. For the first time in memory, the score is actually hurt by the inclusion of a pit orchestra. When every song sounds the same, it does not help to add violins.

We would be remiss not to mention that Miller won a Tony Award for composition on Big River. Also, the audience, or certain members in the audience who stood up and cheered at every opportunity, appeared to love the show. We heard one member of the audience say to his companion: "Huck Finn is an American classic. I never read it."

We liked Lucinda Hitchcock Cone as the Widow Douglas and Sally Phelps. James Monroe Iglehart as Jim and Alex Goley as Huck were adequate by themselves, but didn't seem to have much chemistry as the raft-riding centers of the story. Gary S. Martinez as Pap Finn was over the top as Huck's drunken father. Instead of being the dangerous and evil parent that Twain had written, he was painted, like so much of this production, as a cute caricature of hillbilly denseness.

Robert Kelley has been hitting home run after home run for several years at Theatreworks. This time -- not so much.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Big River" Two Stars, Bless Their Heart, one for the Prince and one for the Dauphin. But if you loved Huck Finn as a boy, and even more as a man, you can't help feel sold down the river by this production.

"Big River"
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road
Palo Alto
Through November 30