Sunday, December 4, 2016

"Daddy Long Legs" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The story is formulaic and the music breaks no new ground. So why did we love "Daddy Long Legs" so much?

1) The two leads (Hilary Maiberger as Jerusha and Derek Carley as Jervis) are magnificent, together and apart. Many songs are classic duets, but in others a unique background vocal arrangement brings the two characters together even when their locations are far apart. It is hard to over-emphasize how effective this is.

2) A two person cast can be deadly if the two actors have little chemistry together. This is not a problem with Jerusha and Jervis. But boy do they make us wait for that first kiss.

3) John Caird's book, adapted from the more-than-100-year-old story by Jean Webster, is perfect. Caird is no lightweight, having written the books for Les Miserables and Candide among others, and he is a master of understatement. There is only one moment, in Act Two, when we feel the action drags, and that is probably the fault of the one song in the show that is excessive ("Charity"). The boy is in love. The girl is in love. No time to stop and sing about it. Chop chop.

4) Paul Gordon gives us songs that stick with us, like "The Color of Your Eyes," "The Secret of Happiness" and "Christmas in Manhattan."

But, in the end, it all comes down to beautiful performances by -- (See No. 1).

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division is delighted to put "Daddy Long Legs" under the mistletoe. You will love the production as much as the performances. Sidle up and give us a smooch. You'll be glad you did.

One Star each for acting, writing and music, with another for Fumiko Bielefeldt's perfect period costumes add up to: FOUR STARS!

"Daddy Long Legs"
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through Dec 31

Friday, December 2, 2016

"She Loves Me" ☼ ☼ BANG

Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's musical "She Loves Me" ought to be entitled "She Loves Me First," because we know that they went on to write the music and lyrics for the incomparable "Fiddler on the Roof." But they wrote "She Loves Me" first. If there is one problem with the season's new San Francisco Playhouse musical production it is a lack of memorable songs. There is cleverness, and a lot of wit in the humorous numbers, but you will search in vain for "Sunrise, Sunset" or "Tradition."

We enjoyed watching Katrina Lauren McGraw (above, left), alone or in ensemble. Nanci Zoppi (below, right) is a standout as Ilona Ritter, the shop girl who longs for romance. Zoppi has a loopy stage presence that counteracts the cool of some of the others.

Jeffrey Brian Adams plays Georg. Georg loves Amalia (Monique Hafen) and Amalia loves Georg, but, you know, a lot has to happen first. Adams plays his usual under-motivated, detached role, while Hafen is at her absolute best when they take the wraps off and let her be Luci Ricardo, like in the delicious "Where's My Shoe?" and "Vanilla Ice Cream."

We applaud the decision to utilize live musicians and place them where we can see them play, instead of in a pit or, worse, using a pre-recorded track. This makes all the difference in the world. There were some unfortunate squeaks but we will take the small pains to enjoy the larger pleasure.

The ensemble of Katrina Lauren McGraw, Leah Shesky and Ayelet Firstenberg are standouts. And we always love Joe Estlack. The musical good-bye each shopper receives upon leaving the store reminds us there was a time before Amazon.


Each season, the San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division looks forward to the Christmas musical at San Francisco Playhouse. These days, we all need escapism. In our opinion, though there are lots of things to like about "She Loves Me," we can't help wishing the music grabbed us more.

TWO STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE for making us wish shopping was still this much fun.

"She Loves Me"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
2d floor of Kensington Park hotel
Through January 14, 2017

Thursday, December 1, 2016

"Miss Bennet" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

This reviewer drove through the traffic to Marin Theater Company with a sense of dread at having to see yet another Jane Austen story. Enough English foppery, enough aristocrats, enough, enough enough! But surprise, oh ye Doubting Douglas! The World Premiere of Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon's "Miss Bennet" reveals the very reason we go to the theater: to be surprised and elated at the power of great writing and beautiful acting.

Where "Pride and Prejudice" stopped, Gunderson and Melcon take over. The last remaining daughter, Mary Bennet, unmarried and consigned to a rural life where her only companions are her books and her pianoforte, has arrived for a family Christmas at Pemberley, the estate where elder sister Lizzie has settled with her husband Mr. Darcy. We find that Mary, boring and unappetizing where Jane Austen left her, has received a shot of Lauren Gunderson and become a modern, capable, brilliant and attractively independent female.

Martha Brigham plays Mary to our delight, alongside Adam Magill as her equally out-of-place romantic interest Arthur de Bourgh. Magill is a young Tim Burton, tall and possessed of a cornucopia of facial expressions, mostly variations on the theme of bewilderment.

Brigham brings Mary a delightful wistfulness under her guise as resigned spinster. That Mary and Arthur will get together is unquestioned; the question is can these romantic bumbleheads pull it off in only two acts.

We love the entire cast. The two married brothers-in-law, Mr. Darcy (Joseph Patrick O'Malley) and Mr. Bingley (Thomas Gorrebeeck) are perfect as gentlemen itching to have anything at all to do. They delight in taking poor Arthur under their wing. Laura Odeh plays Anne de Bourgh, who in the Jane Austen story was jilted by Mr. Darcy when he chose to marry Lizzie Bennet. Now, she is back and about to get jilted again, but not until she gets in her licks.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division, recently relocated into the Two No-Trump Tower, awards "Miss Bennet" Four Stars. Everything works. Acting, directing (Meredith McDonough), sets (Erik Flatmo) and costumes (Callie Floor) could not be better. Those with November hangovers can receive a welcome December tonic at Marin Theater Company.

"Miss Bennet"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Dec. 3 through Dec. 18

Monday, November 28, 2016

"Nogales: Storytellers in Cartel Country" ☼ ☼ BANG


Richard Montoya's new play "Nogales: Storytellers in Cartel Country" gives us humor, melancholy and sadness, coupled around the rantings of Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona. Arpaio is the nationally-known advocate of severe justice for every illegal immigrant he can get his hands on.

Joe Arpaio is played brilliantly by Montoya, who starts off answering questions by a reporter (Sean San José) about the questionable murder of a Mexican teenager, shot to death on the Mexican side of the wall, though the shots were fired from the American side, through the border fence.

Arpaio takes off on every question and runs it into his own delusional world. We don't know if Joe Arpaio is really like Richard Montoya portrays him in this show, but even if he isn't we would pay money to see this guy right here. Montoya struts, he shows off to his acolyte assistants, he threatens and all the while manages to stay under control and sound almost reasonable.

San José's character, the reporter, not so much. He is kind of a priest, but closer to a street person. He has heart, but little personality, so he has no chance of standing up to Arpaio. Think Trump and Jeb Bush.

The action takes place inside Arpaio's office in Nogales, but this could be any border town. We are given no sense of place, although Nogales appears to have been selected by -- whom? -- as a town into which to funnel illegals, and thereby capture them more easily. There are so many difficult questions to be considered here. Some more detailed discussion would be very helpful.

There are side stories presented which give us excellent performances by Eliana López, Laura Espino and Carla Pantoja, but their purpose to the central issue, which is what is going on with Joe Arpaio, is unclear so far.

We love Tanya Orellana's Scenic Design and Juan Amador's Sound Design. Amador is onstage as well and he looks good in a cowboy hat.


"Nogales" is new and has wrinkles to work out. Right now The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards the show Two Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE for Montoya's performance as Joe Arpaio. There is excellent acting and a promise of some understanding of an impossible situation. But we are still looking for a story. If we are going to spend so much time with the sheriff, we would like to know more about him than that he is one vato loco.

"Nogales: Storytellers in Cartel Country" 
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Through October 30

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Outside Mullingar ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Playwright John Patrick Shanley has a Tony, an Oscar and a Pulitzer sitting on his mantel (does a Pulitzer sit on a mantel?), but his romantic comedy "Outside Mullingar" is one you won't want to miss. It has a lot of "Moonstruck" in it (also written by Shanley), only instead of big-city Italians this time we get rural Irish. It is one of those rare evenings at the theater when you jump up and cheer at the final curtain and wish you could see the whole thing again.

Jessica Wortham doesn't make her entrance until the second scene but she grabs this show and runs away with it. As much as we loved her as Kiddo in "Upright Grand," this is a role she was born to play. As Rosemary, the neighbor daughter in the Irish farm village, she gives us grand physical humor along with expected rain-spattered Irish melancholy, all delivered with a brogue that, one supposes, is only acting. She fooled me.

 She has been in love with Anthony (Rod Brogan) forever, but he is as passive as the grass. There is a long-standing family feud engendered by Anthony's stubborn father Anthony Sr. (Steve Brady), which centers on a patch of ground sold by him to Rosemary's father, the late and lamented Mr. Muldoon.  Lucinda Hitchcock Cone plays Aoifie Muldoon, Rosemary's mother, who delivers quite a few of the show's great lines, like "Don't think! Thinkin' is worse than February."

Anthony Senior could win a curmudgeon award in any language. He says to Aoife:

"The only reason you own that land is love and spite."

 Aofie: "That's two reasons."

Robert Kelley's direction is perfect, and the combination of set (Andrea Bechert), costumes (B. Modern) and lighting (Steven B. Mannshardt) make us feel like we have been teleported from Mountain View to Mullingar.  The show is funny and heartfelt. We can't recommend it more highly.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division feels "Outside Mullingar" has everything a Five Star Show has, except for featured music. Fill me with fiddles and harps, lads, and a five-star we should be havin'. Lacking that, we award FOUR STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE, our next-highest rating.

"Outside Mullingar" make us remember why we go to live theater: a story that moves us with actors who make us laugh and cry. It seems simple when done so perfectly.

"Outside Mullingar"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through Oct. 30

Monday, October 3, 2016

"Pride and Prejudice" ☼ ☼ ☼

The Southside Theater uses the room across from the Magic Theatre in Fort Mason. Acoustics and sightlines are good. This is important for Rita Abrams and Josie Brown's adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice," which features a seventeen-person ensemble under Lexie Papedo Gasparini's direction. There isn't a lot of space on that stage for all those people so every movement counts. Somehow, they manage to pull it off.

The ensemble contains excellent singers, including Brittany Law as Elizabeth Bennet, David Crane as Mr. Darcy, Lizzy Moss as Jane Bennet and Fernando Siu as Mr. Wickham. Poor Mr. Wickham only gets one number but could probably use more.

The Jane Austen story is familiar to everyone who knows the genre: young Englishwomen faced with the choice of marriage or poverty. Aristocracy is evil, the middle class is good, husbands are useful for their income and wives serve to promote the husband's standing. Cash is good but inheritance is better.

Ms. Abrams writes clever lyrics with simple melodies. We especially enjoyed "Five Daughters," "A Husband" and "The One Who I Will Be with You."

"Pride and Prejudice, The Musical," is a lot simpler with less psychodrama than the original Jane Austen novel. For this and for an enjoyable night at the theater, we thank Josie Brown and Rita Abrams.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division finds "Pride and Prejudice, The Musical," difficult to rate. In some ways it feels like a local theater production where production and casting decisions are limited. But in other ways this production is the equal of others with far greater resources. The cast is excellent and there are standout performers in the principal as well as non-principal roles. The songs are catchy and we exit the theater singing.

Three Stars for "Pride and Prejudice, the Musical."

"Pride and Prejudice, the Musical." 
The Southside Theater
Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco
Thurs-Sun through October 9

Sunday, October 2, 2016


Theresa Rebeck's brand new "Seared" takes us inside a restaurant kitchen. It's hot and loud and it smells great. San Francisco Playhouse commissioned this show three years ago and Rebeck has rewarded their faith. How can you not like a plot that includes donuts and bacon?

We love Brian Dykstra as Harry, the part-owner of the Brooklyn restaurant. He is the chef, bullheaded, but alive with ideas and a genius with food. Harry is the artist and his partner Mike (Rod Gnapp) is the money. Where it comes from we would like to know, because Mike's money is not unlimited. Due to a variety of issues familiar to all restaurant owners, the business is failing, despite a recent excellent mention in New York Magazine.

Long time waiter and friend Rodney (Larry Powell) is forced to be the referee during Harry and Mike's constant shouting matches. His is the one voice of reason in this kitchen.

Enter Emily, played by Alex Sunderhaus. She is the food-services consultant, whom Mike has met the previous night in the restaurant. Alice's advice and contacts just might save everyone. But she herself is as unstable as a souffle.

Rebeck's dialogue is sharp, the issues real and they really are cooking bacon on stage. "There are an infinite amount of doors that can be opened with butter," says Harry, one of our favorite lines. But we think the author can add more.  Our biggest problem is with the character of Emily. She is awfully young and high-heelish for a kitchen. Act One ends with a tiny sprinkle of flirtation. Is this it? Emily's motivation is unclear. It might be blind ambition. Or something else. We'd like to know.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division understands this is a World Premiere with many different spices available to continue to season the sauce. We give "Seared," which may turn out to be one of Rebeck's best plays, Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE.  Filled with sharp dialogue and a fascinating glance into a world about which we know little, it will go higher.

As always, stories come down to people. Harry and Rodney, we get. Mike, we pretty much get. Emily, somewhat less. And what about friendship? What about loyalty? Is there a bad guy here?

THE BANGLE is for Larry Powell. His Rodney is spot on perfect, compassionate but realistic. And the man can cook. They all can.

San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street (second floor of Kensington Park Hotel)
San Francisco
Through November 12

Monday, September 26, 2016

August: Osage County: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Jasson Miniadakis's direction of Marin Theater Company's "August: Osage County" is pretty much perfect. Tracy Letts won Tonys and a Pulitzer for writing this show (his father starred in the original production) and they've made a movie out of it starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. Though difficult to mount, it is a stage production at heart. Above all "Osage County" demands a stellar ensemble cast.

Sherman Fracher (above) is remarkably good as Violet, the role Streep took on in the film. As the matriarch of this dysfunctional family, Violet is addicted to pills and has had a diagnosis of cancer. Sometimes she is a voice of insanity and sometimes she's the only sane one in the room.

Arwen Anderson plays Barbara, who finds herself fighting for control of her own life. Her husband Bill (David Ari, so good in MTC's "Cromwell") and she have split but they are trying to keep it a secret. Hah! There are no secrets in this house.

Barbara is developing into a younger version of her mother, while her two sisters,  Ivy (Danielle Levin) and Karen (Joanne Lubeck) are dealing with their own mountain of problems. Letts could probably write a separate play about each of these women.

The entire cast is excellent, with special mention to Danielle Bowen as Jean and Anne Darragh as Mattie Fae. Secrets. Everybody's got 'em.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division gives "August: Osage County" Four Stars. Writing, acting, direction and J.B. Wilson's set earn one star each. When you can't take your eyes off a Three Act show, you know you're in the presence of masters.

August: Osage County
Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley
EXTENDED Through October 9

Saturday, September 10, 2016

"Dear Master" ☼ ☼

Gustave Flaubert inhabits one side of the stage and George Sand the other. The two famed nineteenth century writers communicated by letter for many years, though they never met in person. Their letters have survived and were made into a dialogue for the stage by Dorothy Bryant. In 1991 "Dear Master" was the first play presented by the small company that grew into the Aurora Theatre. In honor of its 25th Anniversary, the Aurora has brought the production back, directed by Joy Carlin, with Michael Ray Wisely as Flaubert and Kimberly King as Sand.

It's talky. The problem with trying to make these letters into drama is that there was little in real life. Mid-19th Century Europe was a cauldron of revolution and anti-revolution, but neither Flaubert or Sand took part in it, except in their younger days before these letters were written. As we might expect, the two authors had no more solutions in mind than we do today. Flaubert would be today's Republican and Sand today's Democrat, one the misogynist wishing the world would return to an earlier day, and the other the idealist longing for the world to use love to fuel the engines of a newly industrial Europe.

King and Wisely are believable as eighteenth century intellectuals. He blusters, she consoles, she invites him to visit her but he never does. We wish something could have transpired between them, if not in life then on stage. Little does, because little did. The letters between Flaubert and Sand are fascinating as a historical record. As a play, a little less so.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Dear Master" Two Stars, one for acting and one for Annie Smart's set, which allows the two characters to remain in their own comfort zones.

But as for the play itself, as George Sand said, referring to progress: "It is much slower than I expected."

"Dear Master"
 The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through Oct 2

Friday, September 9, 2016

"all of what you love and none of what you hate" ☼ ☼ ☼

Playwright Phillip Howze has taken a simple story, one that has been around since the dawn of time,  and written it into a genre-bursting multi-media performance. The World Premiere of "all of what you love and none of what you hate," presented by SF Playhouse's Playground, is uneven in spots, but gives us a lot to like with even more to build upon.

Britney Frazier plays Girl A. Sad, sad, sad, she has a problem. Depressed into near silence, whenever she tries to talk to her friend Girl B (Tristan Cunningham) about it, Girl B won't stop chattering. Girl A is depressed and Girl B won't listen.

Girl A's mother, played by a self-absorbed India Wilmott, is no help. She seems to be the kind of mother Girl A is trying to avoid becoming.

Meanwhile, Boy (played by Cameron Matthews) has all the youthful exuberance Girl A lacks, but then again she has the problem, not him.

It would have been nice if there had been a little romance. 

...but things really weren't that way. And Boy is not exactly thrilled to hear Girl A's news.

Complete with video screens, cell phones, Facebook, a topsy-turvy set, some magic realism and a long series of nightmares, "a lot of what you like..." makes us ponder the lives of each of these characters.


We have quibbles with Girl A's lack of character development, wherein a long soliloquy at the end seems to arise out of nowhere. The nightmares -- represented by the actors crawling in the dark -- don't make a lot of sense.

But Girl A's story, the young girl overwhelmed by angst, is an eternal one. She may have figured things out by the end. The reviewer's wife thought she had.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ 

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "all of what you love and none of what you hate" Three Stars. It is new and it is flawed but it is also unique. You can never go wrong in the Playground's Reuff Theater. Give it a shot.

"all of what you love and none of what you hate"
The Reuff Theatre at the Strand
1127 Market Street, San Francisco
Thurs-Sun through Sept. 27