Sunday, December 7, 2014

Peter and the Starcatcher: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

If you are familiar with Peter Pan, which probably includes the entire theater-going population of America, you can't help but love Rick Elice's "Peter and the Starcatcher." Based on the successful twenty-first century novels by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, we now have all the "how exactlys" that have concerned us since we were children, like how exactly did Captain Hook lose his hand, and how exactly did the Lost Boys get lost on that island, and how is it, exactly, that Peter managed to never grow up? 

The ensemble cast is all excellent. Patrick Kelly Jones plays Black Stache, the evil both-handed pirate (for awhile), who wants the lighting correct for all his scenes; Tim Homsley, in his first Theatreworks role, is the nameless orphan who becomes Peter; Adrienne Walters is Molly, without whom there could have been no Wendy; and Suzanne Grodner is the delightfully malaproping Smee, the captain's right-hand man, oh, oops.

We cannot forget to mention Michael Gene Sullivan in a quartet of roles, especially Captain Fighting Prawn, as well as Ron Campbell's alliteration-enhanced Betty Bumbrake.

The puns, double entendres and belly laughs fly fast and furious. And we promise one of the funniest scenes of the year when you discover exactly what DID happen to Black Stache's right hand.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Peter and the Starcatcher" Four Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE.  The thing we love best about this show is it doesn't take itself all that seriously, but reaches full-out for each joke without shame. The dialogue might refer to pirate ships or cell phone ads, and who knew about Norse Code? But it all works, and Robert Kelley keeps both feet on the throttle at all times.

The BANGLE of PRAISE is for the death scene of that right hand. Since we already know Black Stache is destined to become Captain Hook, Patrick Kelly Jones's agonizing trip around the treasure chest, never showing us his hand, is absolutely priceless. Take your kids; take your grandparents.

"Peter and the Starcatcher"
Lucie Stern Theatre
1350 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through January 3, 2015

Monday, November 24, 2014

Promises, Promises: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

We get two excellent lead performances (Jeffrey Brian Adams as Chuck Baxter and Monique Hafen as Fran Kubelik), plus two equally first-rate supporting roles (Corinne Proctor as Marge and Ray Reinhardt as Dr. Dreyfuss). We also get a hall of fame book writer (Neil Simon) and two multi-Grammy winning songwriters (Burt Bacharach and Hal David). What can go wrong?

It's the passage of time. Bacharach's music that was cutting-edge in 1968 has become the province of elevators and supermarkets. With the exception of two or three songs (one of which, "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," sung by Hafen and Adams, is a true showstopper), the sound track is peppy, but forgettable. Simon's story, taken from the Billy Wilder film "The Apartment," has some great one-liners, but we all know where it's going. And since the score is wildly jazzy, the six office workers, three men and three women, would have to have been selected to sing first and dance second. Their singing is fine.

Johnny Moreno is good as the big boss. We can understand why the innocent Fran would choose to have an affair with him, but he is a shark in a shallow pool. They all are. The men are forever pulling up their pants and putting on their coats, while the women wait for the divorce that will never come.

In the end, love conquers all. That's nice. What the world needs now is love, sweet love. But that song isn't in "Promises, Promises."

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Promises, Promises" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. Having seen the show on the last night of Previews, it is possible the cast will sing and dance itself into the smooth ensemble feel this score demands. The music and lyrics may echo a different time, but "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," "You'll Think of Someone" and "Whoever You Are I Love You" are timeless songs. The BANGLE is for Adams and Hafen, both of whom are becoming stars before our eyes.

"Promises, Promises"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
(Second Floor of Kensington Park Hotel)
Through January 10, 2015

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Breakfast with Mugabe" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Two hard-headed men face off against each other in a room with slightly out-of-date aristocratic, upholstered furniture and white marble floor.  One is the ruler of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, and the other is Dr. Andrew Peric, a psychiatrist whose family has lived in Zimbabwe for generations, since it was the openly anti-black nation known as Southern Rhodesia. Mugabe is filled with hatred for whites, especially those who oppressed his people for so many years, while Peric demonstrates the conscious and unconscious superiority born into white Southern Africans of his time. The year is 2002.

The difference between the two men, of course, is that Mugabe has all the power while Dr. Peric has none. Peric's hubris forbids him from seeing the danger he is in, while Mugabe's sole purpose in inviting psychoanalysis appears to be an opportunity to humiliate and destroy the doctor.

Aurora Theater's production of Fraser Grace's 2006 play is buoyed by an amazing performance by L. Peter Callender as Mugabe. While maintaining a studied, intellectual exterior, Callender is so tightly wound as to seem never more than a second from explosion. It is a brilliant character study, though we can never know how true the stage Mugabe is to the real-life Mugabe.

Mugabe's wife Grace, played by Leontyne Mbele-Mbong is equally frightening. She alternates between threatening, when her husband is not around, and docility when he is. Dan Hiatt's Dr. Peric shows frustration but somehow never fear, while Adrian Roberts plays Gabriel, an aide to the Mugabes. Gabriel's job is to "know everything and say nothing." This is not a happy bunch of folks.

The play isn't happy either. We are left wondering not only how a government as racist as Rhodesia could ever have existed, but also how a tyrant as evil as Robert Mugabe could still be in power in 2014.

It's a difficult assignment for a playwright: the audience is aware that the real-life Mugabe turned even more evil after the period discussed here. We assume Dr. Peric is fictional, but Robert Mugabe is anything but. We leave the theater a little bit unhinged.

 The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Breakfast with Mugabe" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The Bangle has to be for L. Peter Callender, whose every gesture makes us shudder. This show will not make you feel very good about real life, but it is an exciting night in the safe confines of a theater seat.

"Breakfast with Mugabe"
Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
EXTENDED Through December14

Friday, November 14, 2014

"77%": ☼ ☼ BANG

In Rinne Groff's "77%," we see a modern couple caught up in the modern world. Melissa (Arwen Anderson) is the high-powered executive, doing deals by the minute on her cell phone, while her husband Eric (Patrick Russell) is the struggling artist and stay-at-home dad. They have two young children and he wants another while she is, at best, ambivalent.

The voice of reason is the third corner of the triangle: Melissa's mother Frankie (Karen Grassle), who has been recruited to help with the kids while her husband, Melissa's father, is sailing his sloop in Chesapeake Bay. Frankie says and does very little in the first half of the play but her entrance as a real character, which comes after Melissa and Eric have gone through a crisis in the pregnancy clinic, marks the spot where we begin to understand what all the fuss is about.

The actors are excellent, especially Anderson, who makes sure we don't like Melissa very much while also conveying a solidity her husband appears not to have. Eric should have a spine inserted, which may or may not be the author's point. Frankie just needs to take better care of her cartilage. Groff spends a lot of time getting to the final image -- the bone that is cracked but fixable. Your enjoyment of this show may depend on whether or not you think fixing the skeleton of this relationship makes any sense at all.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "77%" Two Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. We enjoy the way the show is minimally staged -- the two chairs and single table leave it to our imaginations to fill in the details.

San Francisco Playhouse Sandbox Series
Tides Theatre
 533 Sutter Street (top floor), San Francisco
Wed- Sat through Nov 22

Monday, November 3, 2014

"Recipe" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The World Premiere of Michael Gene Sullivan's "Recipe" has all the energy and farce of a San Francisco Mime Troupe show, which is no surprise since Sullivan is Writer-in Residence for the Mime Troupe. It's a million dollar idea and you don't have to sit on a rock in Dolores Park to see it.

Four women bakers are the best muffin, cake, cobbler and pie makers in town, but this is just their cover. Their true name is the Morning Glory Baking Circle for Revolutionary Self-Defense and they are dedicated to the revolutionary politics of their youth. Overthrowing the fascist Amerikan (with a k) government would be fine, as long as the pig tastes their muffins first.

The show is belly-laugh hysterical, especially in Act One, and the cast is terrific. Tamar Cohn as Ruth (muffins) brings down the house with every Pantherish posture.

Phoebe Moyer and Lynne Soffer play the bickering lesbian couple Lillian and Helen (cake and cobbler) with luscious pleasure while Jan Zvaifler's Janice (organic pastry and joints in the kitchen) is a delight as the ex-child of the summer of love, whose stories always revolve around who she was banging at the time. Mime Troupe vet Velina Brown is the hapless reporter sent to do an interview on the four women with unexpected results.

Like a Mime Troupe Show, where the authors never quite believe you already know and probably agree with their politics, "Recipe" gets mired in political diatribe in Act Two. The surprise ending is satisfying but could get there a lot faster. World Premieres are like that. The author will have plenty of feedback to use for trimming his show.

But we hope they don't cut out any of the acerbic dialogue between the four women. Please don't lose Janice's Luther Anderson story. (Luther Anderson?) And the music cues: priceless. Sullivan is a terrific comedy writer and "Recipe" is already delicious. It just needs to come out of the oven sooner.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Recipe" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Gary Graves (director) manages to use the entire room to keep the action flowing and the cast and story are endearing as well as entertaining. The BANGLE OF PRAISE is for Tamar Cohn, especially at the end when Sweety Dimples is tied up and...well, you'll see.

Berkeley City Club
2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley
Fri-Sun through November 23
$15-$28 (sliding scale)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Bad Jews: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ SHMEAR

You don't have to be Jewish to love "Bad Jews," which has been extended through October 19 at Magic Theatre. But if you are, the themes, body language, vocal gymnastics and cringe-invoking dialogue will make you remember the joy of driving three hours in traffic to get to Passover at your Uncle Max's.

Every culture has rituals about death. Families gather to honor the deceased but eventually it all comes down to who gets the treasured remains. Author Joshua Harmon has clearly been here before. Two strong-willed cousins, Dapha and Liam, whose names suggest their contradictory views about their heritage, are battling over their late grandfather Poppy's chai, a pendant he has carried with him his entire life, including several years in a concentration camp. Daphna, whose name is really Diane, considers herself the only grandchild who cares about her religion, while Liam is running as fast as he can in the opposite direction. But he has the chai and Daphna wants it.

Rebecca Benhayon as Daphna is the brilliant non-stop-talker who listens only long enough to gather ammunition with which to skewer everyone else in the room. Max Rosenak's Liam is the male equivalent of Daphna -- cruel, self-centered and equally brilliant. These two want what they want, while Liam's brother Jonah (Kenny Toll) and Liam's fiancee Melody (Riley Krull) are trying desperately to stay out of the way.

But you can't do that when you're all trapped in a tiny upper-westside NY studio apartment whose major attraction seems to be a view of the Hudson from the bathroom window. The erstwhile battle over the chai carries with it even more claustrophobic angst inside this cramped space that the three grandchildren and one girlfriend are forced to share.

Oi, can they rant! Melody has no idea what she has walked into. (Her hysterical rendition of "Summertime" does not help.) Daphna's attempted destruction of Melody, and Liam's of Daphna, as beautifully written and performed as they are, come down in the end neither to right, nor wrong, but to the pull of tradition. Tradition! We would have loved to hear Melody sing that one.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Bad Jews" Four Stars with a Shmear. The Shmear, temporarily replacing SFTB's normal BANGLE OF PRAISE is, strangely enough, for the sense of togetherness to which these dysfunctional characters bring us. If they didn't kill each other, we might not either. If being Jewish means using words as clubs, maybe guns we don't need? Sense, does any of this make? Can you end a review with a question mark?
"Bad Jews"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
EXTENDED through October 19

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Theatreworks: Sweeney Todd ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Stephen Sondheim allows tinkering with the settings of his stories, as long as you don't change a word or a note of melody. This time, Robert Kelley and Theatreworks have set the show during the blitz at the beginning of World War II and the action opens in a factory being used as a bomb shelter. But time and place matter little. The story is right out of Shakespeare: revenge driving a man to madness, with everyone ending up lying in a pile on the stage.

Andrea Bechert's abandoned factory leading to a subway station grabs our attention right away. In walk David Studwell as Sweeney Todd and Jack Mosbacher as Anthony Hope. The cast follows and we hear one of the great Broadway Opening Numbers: "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd." Reprised over and again with additional lyrics, this is the show's musical glue, the tune we are humming not only as we walk out of the theater but the next morning as well. There are many other standout numbers, including Mrs. Lovett (Tory Ross) singing "The Worst Pies in London," Anthony Hope's ballad "Johanna" and the hi-jinx of "A Little Priest," sung by an ebullient Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett as they realize just how successful their little venture might become.

Yes, the song "Johanna" and the balcony scene in which it is set rips off West Side Story; yes, close your eyes and the music and long cadences of lyrics might make you think you're listening to "Into the Woods," but in all fairness Sondheim is usually stealing from himself. Think of it as a compliment.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Sweeney Todd" Four Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Writing, acting and singing deserve one star each, with the last star for Robert Kelley's faultless direction and staging (this is a Broadway production done successfully on a smaller stage). The BANGLE goes to Beadle Bamford, played by Martin Rojas Deitrich, whose body does not prepare you for the magnificent lyrical tenor emanating from it. We loved meeting the Beadle.

"Sweeney Todd"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through Nov. 2

Monday, September 29, 2014

Don Reed: Semi-Famous ☼ ☼

 The funniest comedians always slug you in the gut every once in awhile. Don Reed has given us this satisfying mix of "ha-ha-ha" combined with "aw-gee-whiz" many times in his past performances. We first saw "East Fourteenth Street" in 2008 but can still see Reed's face and body language as he introduced us to his quirky friends and family, his father and mother and his brothers. We can see little Blinky right now as we write and would love to come back and hear more about all of them.

Sadly, we get too little of that in "Semi-Famous," Reed's latest solo performance. On the bright side, we get some funny bits ("E.T. So Stoned") cobbled around various tales involving celebrities he has come across in his journeys through L.A. semi-stardom. They all start out like bar-jokes: Reed walks into a  bar/club/restaurant and who is there? Jody Whatley. Or Keenan Wayans. Or Barry White. Or Chubby Checker (a peculiarly cruel impersonation). Reed does interesting impressions of all the people he has seen, but that's all there is to it. Like an audition, it's one shot and "next."

When Don Reed brings us into his story and gets us involved with his characters, we're happy to be with him. We love to ride along and meet his creations. In "Semi-Famous" we meet nobody but Reed, as he wanders through the city of the Angels, a semi-famous person having brief encounters with other semi-famous people. We get a few belly laughs. And then we're done.

The San Francisco Theater Blog loves Don Reed but this show: not so much. The Awards Division awards "Semi-Famous" Two Stars. You will laugh for sure, find out something nice about Tom Cruise and pretty much what you expected from Courtney Love.

"Don Reed: "Semi-Famous"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Sat-Sun through October 19

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Ideation ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

It's a little long and talky. It's also brilliant. Aaron Loeb's "Ideation," which is the first play to make it out of San Francisco Playhouse''s Sandbox Series and onto the main stage, takes us inside the creepiest corporate boardroom ever. Five participants in a project planning session start out with self-satisfied smurks and end up in terror, concerned their own lives are in imminent danger.

Mark Anderson Phillips has never been better. As Brock, the team leader, he spouts euphemisms like "liquidation," "transport," "cremation" and "mass graves," which give us a pretty good idea this is no everyday assignment. On the white board he writes "N," which refers to the 'N-Word' which is never allowed to be mentioned. What a surprise when we figure out to what this actually refers to.

Carrie Paff (Hannah) is perfect as the one woman on the team, sent by Corporate HQ to either spy on or assist in this meeting. Jason Kapoor plays the younger Sandeep, whose questions about the team's mysterious assignment only underline his not-so-secret relationship with Hannah.

Michael Ray Wisely is the older Ted who would love to wrap things up and get to his daughter's soccer game, while Ben Euphrat's Scooter starts out as a clueless beneficiary of company nepotism but winds up with more to do than bring Hannah coffee.

Bill English's set design team outdoes itself. The curved lines of stage and furniture and deco-like overhang help us understand nothing is on the straight-and-narrow here, as does the title of the show, another deliciously obfuscating dish of corpo-speak.

RATINGS:  ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Ideation" Four Stars. It makes you feel nervous as well as creepy, but you hang on the front of your seat from opening to curtain. It's hard not to feel excited about a World Premiere of a show this well written and acted.
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
 (2d floor Kensington Park Hotel)
Through November 8

Monday, September 8, 2014

"Rapture, Blister, Burn" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

On one level, Gina Gionfriddo's "Rapture, Blister, Burn" is a primer on the modern history of feminist philosophy, but more to the point it is a women-bonding story, where three generations of women chart out their places on the continuum of female enlightenment. The show is funny, features some fine acting and snappy one-liners; at the same time it is talky. Act One's setup is long but Act Two delivers.

The two main characters are forty-somethings and appear to be on opposite sides of philosophical issues. Rebecca Schweitzer plays Gwen, mother of two who abandoned her career to be a stay-at-home Mom. Gwen is defensive about her life, recovering from alcoholism while living with Don (Gabriel Marin), a man content to slide through life without thinking too much about it. Meanwhile, Gwen's old graduate school roommate and friend Catherine (Marilee Talkington) shows up in town. Catherine had been Don's girl friend back then, but they broke up when Catherine got her degree and a job in London while Don stayed home. There, he fell for and married Gwen.

Now Catherine has the career as a successful writer and speaker that Gwen wants, while Gwen has the family (and the man) that Catherine wants. Catherine's mother Alice (Lillian Bogovich), has recently suffered a heart attack and this has brought Catherine to the realization that she will someday be all alone.

Let us not forget Avery, the 21-year-old played with passion by Nicole Javier. In many ways the story of the two middle-aged women is told through the younger Avery and older Alice. Avery is energetic and opinionated; Alice has been through it all before. These two understand that life is different than philosophy. Avery and Alice are delights, and for us they carry Gionfriddo's show.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Rapture, Blister, Burn" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE.  The Bangle is for the writing which includes many one-liners, like Don's "Booze and love dupe you into thinking average people are great." Desdemona Chiang's direction keeps things in motion, although there is a lot of prop moving during the scene breaks. The ending is satisfying, if predictable. Women in the audience will relate to the self-analysis to which these women subject themselves; men, on the other hand, may scratch their heads and wonder why.

"Rapture, Blister, Burn"
Aurora Theater
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
EXTENDED Through Oct. 5

Monday, August 25, 2014

"Water By The Spoonful" ☼ ☼ ☼

It is easy to identify with the characters in Quiara Alegria Hudes's "Water by the Spoonful." Each one has been physically or emotionally injured. Several are addicts attempting with great difficulty to remain clean; all are barely keeping their heads above water.

Two parallel stories intersect. In one, ex-Marine Elliot (Miles Gaston Villanueva) is trying to readjust to life back in Philadelphia with the help of his cousin Yazmin (Sabina Zuniga Varela). In the other, a chat-room is hosted by Odessa (Zilah Mendoza), Elliot's birth mother, in an attempt to give crack addicts a place to come and talk, instead of going out and getting high.

Of the two stories, this latter one is fascinating, especially with the help of Erik Flatmo and Steven B. Mannschardt's brilliant set and lights. We find ourselves involved in each of the on-line character's lives. Anna Ishida is terrific as the wisecracking Orangutan, as are Anthony J. Haney as Chutes&Ladders and Patrick Kelly Jones as Fountainhead, two addicts unable to admit how close they are to the edge.

For us real-life story resonates less than the virtual one. Varela is excellent as the girl who got out of the family orbit but is now anxious to become the new head of the family. Villanueva, while giving a lot of energy to his role as the injured Iraqi war veteran, sadly does not exhibit a lot of heart. We see him acting, but he doesn't seem to feel much. In addition, there appears to be a romantic spark between the cousins which makes little sense. Part of the problem may be that the Mountain View Center's sound system was unable to pick up all the lightning fast dialogue; this may be the reason Act Two feels long.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼
 The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Water by the Spoonful" three stars. It is a fascinating concept. When the curtain comes down on Act One the audience is buzzing about what they have just seen and what might come next. We wish we could leave the theater feeling that same excitement.

"Water by the Spoonful"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through August 22, 2014

Photo Credits: Kevin Berne

Monday, August 11, 2014

From Red to Black ☼ ☼ ☼ !

The World Premiere of Rhett Rossi's "From Red to Black" gives us a police drama with twists and turns. There has been a death on the subway tracks in New York City. The two suspects rounded up are young black men. The two police inspectors are Irish, one a thirty year veteran and one younger and greener.

Charles Shaw Robinson plays Inspector Denny Mitchell, a legacy policemen who reminisces about the days when the entire force was Irish and felt like family. His younger partner Jack Flanagan (Matthew Baldiga)  is a by-the-book guy who has strikes against him as far as Mitchell is concerned, not the least important of which is he is a college graduate.

But the story is not about them. It is instead a study about how preconceived notions of race, of class, of guilt and of innocence can lead different people to different conclusions. Once we meet William (Isiah Thompson), we understand this young man and these two detectives do not inhabit the same universe.

William is the heart of this story, but equally important is a smaller but crucial role played by Michael Shipley. Shipley's Lawrence Stevens adds sexual identity into the mix. What really happened in the subway station in the middle of the night is hard enough to decipher without everyone's notions about what others expect of them.  Each of these characters is trapped inside a stereotype and none see a way out.

Susi Damilano's direction is sharp but the show might play a little long. This may be because the actors on Opening Night had a little trouble with their lines. It is clear that SF Playhouse has found an engaging show from another excellent new writer. 

 RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ !
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "From Red to Black" Three Stars with an Exclamation Point!  The show is Isiah Thompson's to steal and he does so. The one-act 90-minute format is perfect. Don't let the false ending fool you -- the best is still to come.

"From Red to Black"
San Francisco Playhouse Sandbox Series
ACT Costume Shop
1119 Market Street, San Francisco
Wed.-Sat. Through August 30