Friday, December 11, 2015

"Emma" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

There are icicles in Phoenix and look out for flying pigs. We thought it would take that long before we could again have the divine opportunity to leave a theater humming the songs from a musical -- and then still be humming them the next day! Thank you Mr. Paul Gordon.

Also, curse you Mr. Paul Gordon! Earworms!  "Mr. Robert Martin" will not leave us alone, to say nothing of the lovely "Emma." This is a price we are willing to pay.

Reworked for the 200th Anniversary of Jane Austen's "Emma," Gordon originally premiered the show with Theatreworks in 2007. It became one of the the most successful shows in Theatreworks' history, and is now back for a reprise which, if anything, has only added luster.

Theatreworks favorite Lianne Marie Dobbs returns to play Emma, our heroine with better intentions here than in Austen's original story. We find her a Regency-era Luci Ricardo, bumbling in all her attempts to be a good matchmaker. Her Ethel Mertz is the wonderful Leigh Ann Larkin, making her Theatreworks debut as Harriet Smith. A gifted physical comic, she goes from down in the dumps to infectiously happy with the shrug of a shoulder. Her song "Humiliation" is one of the high parts of the show, and its reprise is show-stopping.

An equal to Miss Dobbs's Emma is Timothy Gulan as Mr. Knightley, Emma's brother in law, rival and, eventually, well, you can guess. Gulan is also reprising his role from the original 2007 production.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Emma" Four Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The show could scarcely be better, despite a somewhat slow beginning. Paul Gordon is a treasure. We loved his "Being Earnest," also here at Theatreworks, in 2013. Hopefully, when he runs out of English stories to adapt he can start in on ours. 

We award the BANGLE for the musicality of this show, as epitomized by the lovely set piece when Emma plays and sings adequately at the piano but is then replaced by Miss Fairfax, played by Sharon Rietkerk. Sharon Rietkerk can REALLY sing. Of course, William Liberatore is actually playing the piano in the pit, so let us send out a Jolly Ho Ho to him, as well as a sizable chunk of the Bangle.

Luci Stern Theatre
500 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through January 2

A Christmas Story: The Musical ☼ ☼ ☼ BAUB

You've still got a few days left to see the brief run of Benj Pasek, Justin Paul and Joseph Robinette's staged adaptation of the popular 1983 film "A Christmas Story." Now "A Christmas Story: The Musical," the show stars an ensemble of children, helped along by the usual holiday assortment of loving mom, dumb dad, drunk Santa Claus and evil schoolyard bully who gets his.

It appears we were the only people in the theater who did not know the original movie. It helps a great deal to know the film, for there were appreciative "ah-ha"s from the audience each time a new scene presented a familiar situation. The triple-dog-dare scene pictured above is one of those.

We loved Ralphie (played by Myles Moore on Opening Night), the boy who wanted nothing but a bb-gun for Christmas, despite all his elders' worries that he would shoot his eye out. For a young boy Moore has a marvelously assured voice. Parents Susannah Jones (Mom) and Christopher Swan (The Old Man) were appropriate 1940s midwest parents. Little brother Randy (Joshua Turchin) made us laugh with recognition as he tried to stand up in his winter clothing.

In fairness, we have to say that we could do without the Chinese restaurant scene at the end (Fa ra ra ra ra). It's hard to say whether the most offensive part was the scene itself or the raucous laughter of the theater audience.

The dance scene with Dad leading a bunch of Rockette-like dancers using lamps as extra legs was quite funny.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "A Christmas Story: The Musical" Three Stars with an unfortunate Bauble of Despair for the final scene. Director John Rando and Choreographer Warren Carlyle are to be commended for getting that many kids to dance, sing and act in such a professional manner.

"A Christmas Story: The Musical"
The Orpheum Theatre
Market Street
through December 13

Monday, December 7, 2015

Playwrights Foundation's Flash Plays: NO RATING

An evening of 1-2 minute "plays," presented in clusters of nine or ten plays one after the other, each cluster featuring one rotating ensemble of actors and directed by a different director, leads this viewer to several conclusions:

1) Put enough playwrights in a room with enough word processors and you will find out about their lives, their concerns and their views about the world in which they live.

     1a) Judging from the topics of the plays selected, the authors are not worried as much about the outside world as they are about gentrification in the Mission, gender, sexual orientation and technology.

2) Directors matter.

3) Headlines be damned, our artists reflect what they see around them. They may worry every few weeks about another mass shooting, but they are concerned every day with economic survival and existential issues.

4) We love Flash Plays. There were several standouts, like Josh Senyak's "Cell Phones," Alison Luterman's "Brooklyn/Oakland," and Michael Sullivan's "The Rock."  But, to be honest, a hundred or so plays are impossible to digest. By intermission we were toast. Some day we would love to see a third as many three times longer. 

Saturday, December 5, 2015

A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

A perfect example of how a million-dollar idea can sustain an entire show, Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak's "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" is a two-act riff with an adequate amount of love and a deliciously hefty dose of murder. It is easy to see how it won the Tony for Best Musical of the Year in 2014.

The idea is that poor Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) discovers that he is eighth in line for the Earlship of D'ysquith. He realizes he will move from rags to riches once the other seven are dead, preferably as soon as possible. Once this dilemma is presented in the first song of the show "You're a D'Ysquith," all we have to do is sit back and watch people succumb in any number of hysterical ways.

The songs are clever in classic Broadway fashion. "I Don't Understand the Poor," "Better with a Man," "The Last One you'd Expect" and "I've Decided to Marry You" are special indeed. The leads (Massey, Mary Van Arsdel as Miss Shingle and Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella) are terrific singers who can also act.

But what sets "A Gentleman's Guide" apart is the brilliant staging. Using every trick in the book plus a bunch of new ones, the actor(s) fly merrily across the stage on the way to their collective demises. The show never lets go of its romp-ish nature and is stronger because of it.

We say "actor(s)" because John Rapson plays nine of them! He is ridiculously brilliant. Playing all the D'ysquith relations who are soon to die, he brings a larger-than-life sensibility to all his characters which take us back to the golden days of Theo Bikel and Rex Harrison. Except this man can sing! Even if you are not a classic Broadway fan, seeing John Rapson act out nine different roles is something you will not want to miss.

One word of warning: we were in Row X, far enough under the first balcony that the lyrics were difficult to hear. Add to this that many of the numbers are sung in an upper-crusty English-ish accent. We heard perhaps 50% of what was sung. But that 50% was memorable. We strongly suggest that if you're going to spend the money to see this show, spend even more and get great seats. 

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" Four Stars. What keeps it from an even higher rating is also its strength: lighthearted escapism. Not that this is bad in these days of unspeakable tragedies, but when you go to the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco in 2015 you have to eventually come out of the theater. And when you do you are in a neighborhood as far from Asquith D'ysquith Junior as you can possibly get.

                                          "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder"
                                                       The Golden Gate Theater
                                                    1 Taylor Street (at Market Street)
                                                                Through Dec. 27

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Word for Word's Holiday High Jinks: ☼ ☼ ☼

"Dancing Dan's Christmas," the first of three Christmas-themed stories presented in Word for Word's 2015 "Holiday High Jinks," is so entertaining that the other two stories coming afterwards have trouble keeping up. Though Joseph Mitchell's "The Cave Dwellers" has some fine moments and terrific acting, the ending is inconclusive. E.B. White's "Christmas and Relative Pronouns," comparing the usage of the word "which" versus the word "that" -- let's just call it "droll." The W4W ensemble, as always, is excellent in all three pieces.

We want to talk about Dancing Dan. Dan, as played by Rotimi Agbabiaka, is a guy without a care in the world, except his life is in danger due to his attraction to the glamorous show-girl Muriel O'Neill, played by Lisa Hori-Garcia. Muriel's other suitor happens to be the dangerous mobster Heinie Schmitz, played by Paul Finocchiaro, who is about to take his revenge upon Dancing Dan as well as Good-Time Charlie Bernstein (Soren Oliver), in whose prohibition-era speakeasy most of the action takes place. Jackson Davis is wonderful as our unnamed Speakeasy Regular, who manages to narrate this heart-warming story while simultaneously getting hammered on Hot Tom and Jerry. Stephanie Hunt plays Gammer O'Neill, whose last moments on earth become filled with treasure.

The three stories are all depression-era vignettes written in the 1930s for The New Yorker. All three are fun, but don't get there late -- the first story, "Dancing Dan's Christmas" is just like Hot Tom and Jerry -- booze, egg whites and cream, kind of like a hot egg-nog -- it will knock you over.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Holiday Awards Division awards W4W's "Holiday High Jinks" Three Stars. Word for Word makes its living choosing dialogue-rich short stories and acting them out on stage, and these three continue the tradition. "Dancing Dan" and "The Cave Dwellers," in particular,  show us the patched and faded face of Christmas during the 1930s in hard-times America, viewed through the cutting lens of New York City. Clearly, we all need to read more Damon Runyon.

"Word for Word's "Holiday High Jinks"
Z Below
470 Florida Street, San Francisco
Through December 24

Monday, November 23, 2015

"Stage Kiss" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

We've seen Gabriel Marin and Carrie Paff in many, many shows over the years. Until tonight, as they kissed on stage, we never knew that they had once been…wait, that's not true? Are you telling me that actors can kiss like that on stage without, you know, without…

The answer is yes. And no. And maybe. Sarah Ruhl's "Stage Kiss" takes us backstage as we watch a show being rehearsed where the lead actors must kiss whether they like it or not. It's a terrific concept for a show and we walk out of the theatre glad to have our honey on our arm.

Mark Anderson Phillips is wonderful, as always, as the director of the show in which She (Paff) and He (Marin) have been cast, without realizing that She and He once had a white-hot but unfinished relationship. Phillips turns out to be less a director than a voyeur, realizing that these two characters have a chemistry that could perhaps salvage the execrable 1930s play he is directing.

Let's not forget Michael Gene Sullivan as She's real-life husband and Millie DeBenedet as He's midwestern and current girl friend. DeBenedet's Iowa vision of God is a highlight of Act Two.

Allen Darby is very funny as the stand-in actor and Taylor Iman Jones is perfectly hostile as daughter Angela.

True, the ending could be tighter and possibly shorter, but it's Sarah Ruhl. You take the good with the bad so you can get to memorable lines like "How can good actors have sex with bad actors?" and "Marriage is like tattoos. They're forever." It's a nice long run and perfect for the holidays. Take your sweetie.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Stage Kiss" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. The stars are for writing, acting and for Susi Damilano's direction -- after all, the actors have to act like they are rehearsing and rehearse like they're acting. The show manages to move forward smoothly from one wrenching discovery to the next. 

The BANGLE is for all the kissing. We like kissing, even if the actors are acting. He and She fooled us all.

"Stage Kiss"
San Francisco Playhouse
500 Post Street, 2d floor of Kensington Park Hotel
Through Jan 9, 2016
$20 and up

Sunday, November 22, 2015

"The Monster-Builder" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

What a romp is Amy Freed's "The Monster-Builder." Danny Scheie's brilliant Gregor, the mad architect whose modernist visions include constructing a hospital for Alzheimer's patients made out of a series of mazes, is both an award-worthy performance and a send-up of every minimalist piece of art you have ever hated. It feels SO good to laugh at Gregor.

(I can't wait to go back to the de Young to laugh derisively at the white wall surrounded by a frame. I know I'm not alone now.)

The cast is perfect. Sierra Jolene plays Tamsin, Gregor's superbly limber current wife, a natural comedienne who is able to pull off a wonderful set piece where Gregor uses her body to create a new artistic vision. "Careful, Buddy, I'm not in college anymore" is perhaps the best line in the show. You'll see.

Tracy Hazas and Thomas Gorrebeeck play Rita and Dieter, the young architects attempting to stay true to their artistic vision in the face of money and power, and Rod Gnapp and Nancy Carlin are perfect as Andy and Pamela ("call me Pam"), the moneyed patrons you can't help falling in love with despite their housing tract called Rancho Tuscany. An equal partner is Tom Buderwitz's eye-popping set which is a masterpiece of minimalist and functional art at the same time. Art Manke directs, as he did when the show first opened in Portland in 2014.

We love The Monster-Builder. Intelligent, funny and teeth-clenching at the same time, a mix we don't get often enough. Happy to hear it has been extended.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards a next-to-maximum amount of stars to the minimalist "The Monster-Builder."  Special mention to the Abu Dhabi Tower of Justice and Interrogation. We would love to see the show again, if only to see Sierra Jolene's, uh, fluidity.

We ran into Rod Gnapp and Tomas Gorrebeeck on the subway going home. We congratulated them on their terrific performances and they seemed genuinely surprised and grateful to hear compliments, the way actors always react when they are offstage. It has always amazed me that an actor can take me on such a wonderful ride, seemingly rolling down the same roller coaster himself, then morph back into just another guy taking the subway ten minutes after the curtain falls. It's one of theatre's delightful mysteries. Just sayin.'

"The Monster-Builder"
Aurora Theatre Company
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
EXTENDED through December 20

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"Once" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

We all loved "Once," the movie, and got a little weepy with "Falling Slowly," the Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova song that was the best film song of the decade. Usually it's hard to top the original, but we have to say Edna Walsh's book and divine staging at the Orpheum have made "Once" (the musical) far more interesting than the film. Having a band on stage at all times, with various band members having dramatic roles to play, gives us intimacy instead of the necessary distance of a film.

There are other songs in the soundtrack, and some of them are brought to life with Stuart Ward's spectacular acoustic guitar playing, but basically this show is a One Song Wonder. And a wonder it is. Even though it was very difficult to hear or understand any lyrics, due both to the Irish and Czech accents of all the performers and perhaps under-miking at the Orpheum, these songs could just as well be in Klingon. (They may have been.) But the emotion of the performers and our desire to see Guy get Girl overcome all issues of language. He loves her. Check. She loves him. Czech. That's enough.

Other musical highlights: The opening "Leave," where somehow Ward manages not to break his guitar in half; the Czech "Ej, Pada, Pada, Rosicka," sung by Girl (Dani de Waal) and her Czech immigrant cohort; "When Your Mind's Made Up," sung by Guy and the band; and a very special soft gospel arrangement of "Gold," a song which seems trite when heard in Act One but its reprise in choir format is quite touching.

So with all those songs mentioned, how can we say "One Song Wonder?" It's just that "Falling Slowly" ear-worms into your brain and days later you are still hearing it, and this despite the fact you have to buy the CD and rip open the package to read the lyrics before you have the slightest idea what he is saying. Nahh, but you knew didn't you? Yeah. (sigh)

"Once" (the musical) won eight Tonys including Best Musical of the Year in 2012. And now, in 2015, we see and hear exactly why. But it's a very short run. Hurry, or you'll be left sitting on your chair at home.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Once" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. The stars are for performance, staging and for Stuart Ward. The BANGLE of PRAISE is for "Falling Slowly," that stupid song that I now hate because I can't stop singing it. It's even good in Klingon.

The Orpheum
1192 Market Street, San Francisco
Through November 1 ONLY
$65-$212 ($20 Rush Tickets available 2 hours before curtain)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

"Proof" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

David Auburn's Pulitzer-winning "Proof" opened in 2000 on Broadway and ran for over 900 performances, although the show is long, close to two hours of drama with no set changes and only four characters. Its success comes from our involvement with the tentative relationship between Catherine (Michelle Beck) and Hal (Lance Gardner).  Catherine is the daughter of a famous mathematician (Robert, played by L. Peter Callender), recently deceased. She studies math as well, as does Hal, who was her father's former student. But with all the talk of elegant mathematical proofs, no one is willing to believe that the untrained Catherine has her father's talent, even when presented with her own elegant theory -- her proof.

There are many wonderful moments, such as her father's flashback monologue about September in Chicago. Robert is perfectly academic, while Hal is a terrific geek, honest and winning while timidly courting Catherine. Superficial big sister Claire (Ashley Bryant) is a little hard to take, interested primarily in getting away from Chicago as she did long ago, leaving Catherine to take care of their ailing father.

It is fascinating that this show, which was cast with white actors originally as was the 2005 film starring Anthony Hopkins and Gwynneth Paltrow, here is presented with a black cast which gives an extra dimension to the issues discussed. The casting works perfectly and this ensemble makes us feel the roles could have been written for them. We love Gregory Robinson's excellent bluesy musical cues between scenes.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Proof" THREE STARS with a Bangle of Praise. The story, the cast and the director (Leslie Martinson) earn one star each while the Bangle of Praise is for the fabulous one-liner that terminates Act One. It's great when you can't wait for Act Two.

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

Friday, October 16, 2015

"The Submarine Show" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

For pure physical comedy genius, sick belly laughs and the sight of two guys having the time of their lives befuddling your funny bones, you must see Slater Penney and Jaron Hollander's "The Submarine Show," playing upstairs at the Aurora for only nine more days. Really. You must.

They're a submarine. They're in the submarine. They're in the water. They're on dry land. They're hacking through the jungle (read: the audience) with machetes. They're monkeys, peacocks, mama birds having babies. They're swallowed up by quicksand (read: behind the audience). They turn beautifully synchronized cartwheels. And they really, really, have to pee. Penney's Gotta Pee Ballet is worth the price of admission all by itself, but, you know, use the bathroom first.

 These guys are already old pros, they are instructors of clowning and gymnastics and circus skills.  Hollander is the Artistic Director of Oakland's Kinetic Arts Center. They've both done turns with Cirque du Soleil. They really know what they're doing.

But above all, they're in it for the laughs. There is no dialogue, only relevant and irreverent sounds coming from both of them. Lighting helps, but these guys don't need anything but a sidewalk to be brilliant. Or a pretty lady's lap. Or the back of your chair. It's a short show -- less than an hour -- and everyone is sad to have to get out of the water.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division would love to hand out Five Stars for "The Submarine Show," but that's for PRODUCTIONS, YA KNOW? Here we just have two guys and no props or sets or staging or music or dialogue, for God's Sake. So we are awarding FOUR STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Each performer gets one star for himself and one star for the way they coordinate their physical movements with the other guy. The BANGLE is for Penney's GOTTA PEE BALLET, but it might be for giving CPR to that mosquito or trying to get the sub's dead battery started, except the key went down the drain and into the fish, oh, you know.

"The Submarine Show"
Harry's UpStage
Upstairs at Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through October 25

Monday, October 12, 2015

"Life is a Dream" ☼ ☼ ☼

In Spanish, Pedro Calderón de la Barca's "La Vida es Sueño" (Life is a Dream) is a three act poem, a morality play written, astonishingly, in verse. First published in 1635, in the years since the story has become known as one of the finest works of Spain's Golden Age.

Resident playwright at the Cutting Ball Theater Andrew Saito has done a new translation and shortened it considerably, turning three acts into one and, of course, abandoning the verse. Director Paige Rogers stages the show as a farce in the Exit's trademark experimental fashion. For the most part it works well.

Prince Segismundo is played by Asher Sinaiko with energy and emotion. He is the standout performer of the show, with other excellent performances by Michael Wayne Turner III's Clarin and Sango Tajima's Rosaura. Sinaiko's father David plays King Basilio, who has cast his son into prison because of a dream his wife had before the child was born.

The show plays a bit long, because there is so much slapstick. The central theme -- that you never know if what you are experiencing is real or if it is just a dream -- can only be repeated so many times until you begin wondering if this dream is ever going to end. We enjoyed the battle fought with kazoos and the cast clapping rhythms along with Barry Despenza's drums.

1635 was not a great year. Bad things happened. Calderón de la Barca sums his show up best: "Prophesy never lies when it predicts misfortune."

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Life is a Dream" Three Stars for its audacity and novelty. Asher Sinaiko, who is only sixteen, may be a star in the making.

"Life is a Dream" 
Cutting Ball Theater at EXIT on Taylor 
277 Taylor Street, San Francisco
Through November 1
$10-$50 (many discounts available)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

"Dogfight" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The premise of "Dogfight" is so despicable that an attempt to build a love story around it seems next to impossible. No matter what else comes before or after, book writer Peter Duchan and composers and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul have to deal with this issue first of all. For the most part, they pull it off, and do it with pizazz and style. 

Newcomer Caitlin Brooke as Rose is so honest and fresh that her unlikely fling with Marine recruit Eddie Birdlace (Jeffrey Brian Adams) seems plausible. 

The other Marines usher up a caisson-load of false bravado in advance of their mission to Vietnam which begins the following morning at Oh Five Hundred. They also sing and dance. San Francisco treasure Michael Gene Sullivan shines in all of his parts, especially as the sympathetic fellow vet riding on the bus with Eddie. 

Brandon Dahlquist as Boland is particularly effective as the tough guy Marine and Andrew Humann as Bernstein is the stereotypical tough-talking little guy.

The music has fabulous moments. For us, the standout song of the show is Act Two's "First Date, Last Night," featuring Eddie and Rose, which is the one moment where the music brings us to the truth we seek in this romance. Other great songs include "Nothing Short of Wonderful," sung by Rose, and the rueful "Home Hero's Ticker Tape Parade" which brings us all back to the reality of what the war in Vietnam did to so many unsuspecting vets.

Do we have problems with a show that won many honors when it debuted off-Broadway in 2012? Well, yeah. You don't get a resolution that makes much sense and that follows a premise that may in fact be a true depiction of a traditional Marine custom but kind of makes you gag. But the concept is daring and truthful. "Dogfight" tells its own story. It's not a pretty one but it's a lot of fun to watch.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Dogfight" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Caitlin Brooke pulls off a terribly difficult role. David Lee Cuthbert's lights, English's innovative always-in-motion stage design and Tatjana Genser's costumes complement the story perfectly. We love the yellow dress.

But the BANGLE OF PRAISE has to be for Rose's Right Haymaker. Ethel Merman couldn't have done that. We could use Instant Replay.

San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street (2d Floor Kensington Park Hotel)
Through Nov 7