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