Sunday, December 3, 2017

Around the World in Eighty Days: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Michael Gene Sullivan steals the show. No, Ron Campbell steals the show. No, Tristan Cunningham steals the show. Jason Kuykendall and Ajna Jai are terrific too. So let it be known that Mark Brown's adaptation of Jules Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days," in this latest Theatreworks production, is so good that every character makes us howl with delight.

We all know the story, so the show is completely character-driven. From the opening, when Campbell lets loose his fearsome voice as an usher, we are delighted each time he appears, as various British consuls, or Captain Speedy, or Judge Obadiah or even San Francisco's own Emperor Norton.

The little boy inside Michael Gene Sullivan gets to come to the front of the stage. As Detective Fix, he is determined to solve the crime that exists only in his own head, even if to do so he must accompany Phileas Fogg (Kuykendall) on his epic journey around the world. He blusters, he stammers, he creates foolish plots worthy of Wile E. Coyote, all the while maintaining his supposed dignity as a guardian of the crown. He also gets to drive an elephant.

Cunningham is an acrobat and one heck of a Frenchman, for a young woman wearing a bad mustache. She could have made this role pure slapstick, but instead we feel kinship with her attempt to remain a loyal servant to the eternally calm Mr. Fogg.

That Phileas Fogg falls in love with Princess Aouda makes perfect sense, even though it really makes no sense at all. Ajna Jai is excellent in her role as a woman who was supposed to be sacrificed to religious dogma but finds herself instead the love interest of her British savior. We may question whether this is an improvement, but she does not.

There are puns upon puns (yes, Robert Kelley, we heard the "yeah, yeah, yeah" when the ship docks in Liverpool), endless nonstop adventure and spectacular staging. The mystery is not where the iconic balloon is or isn't (explained in the program), but how Ron Campbell can possibly switch costumes and accents so quickly. Too bad about the theme song, not in the play at all but which we sang all the way home.

Take everyone in the family to this show. There were small children and oldsters like us in the audience and everyone walked out smiling and laughing. We love everything about "Around the World in Eighty Days."


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Around the World in Eighty Days" Four Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. It is a seamless production that earns one Star each for Writing, Acting, Directing and Staging, plus a Bangle of Praise for the cowboy (Campbell) scene as their train is shooting over a river in Nebraska. Don't forget the typhoon scene too. Oh, hell, throw 'em all in. Terrific.

"Around the World in Eighty Days"
Theatreworks, Lucie Stern Theater
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through Dec. 31

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

"Shakespeare in Love" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ (FIVE STARS!)

The cast is perfect. The writing is sublime. The actors sing and play their own instruments. The boy gets the girl, kind of, though it's a moot point since the action took place more than five hundred years ago. Bottom line: Marin Theater Company's production of "Shakespeare in Love" is as good as theater gets. Barring a December surprise, this is the best show we've seen all year.

Adam Magill is a star. As young Will Shakespeare, during an age when females are not allowed on a theater stage, he is finding it impossible to find male actors capable of conveying the passion he writes into his characters. Enter Viola de Lesseps (Megan Trout), a beautiful young woman disguised as a man so she might also become an actor, and bingo! We now have more passion than the authorities can deal with. Magill and Trout make us believe they mean it when they kiss, something as rare on the Bay Area theater stage as an unlimited arts budget. 

The entire cast shines. L. Peter Callender, Stacy Ross, Kenny Toll, Mark Anderson Phillips, Robert Sicular and Thomas Gorrebeeck have the greater roles, but there are two show-stoppers in the supporting cast as well: Sango Tajima as the irrepressible young boy who can't quite get anyone to recognize him ( the "Anybodys" character from West Side Story) (Tajima also plays violin in the band); and the audience's favorite Molly (Spot the dog). The Queen does prefer a story with a dog, you see. On Opening Night, Molly, a cross between a standard poodle and a cocker spaniel) kept staring at the audience and wagging her tail as they Oooohed and Ahhhed. What a ham.

This is a collaboration of geniuses. First Shakespeare, then Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman's screenplay for the movie, and now Lee Hall's adaptation of the film for the stage. We know that with a cast of fourteen, each playing multiple roles, there are in fact hundreds of sticky spots. But everything feels seamless. Credit must be given to Jasson Minadakis for Direction, as well as to Scenic Designer Kat Conley, Costume Designer Katherine Nowacki and Music Director Jennifer Reason.

Quickly, away ye to the Buy Now key. Go fast, while tickets remain. Like us, you will want to go again.

 RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ (FIVE STARS!)

We are waiting for the white smoke to come out of the Awards Division Office at San Francisco Theater Blog, because there are rumors of...wait...wait, yes!

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division has awarded "Shakespeare in Love" FIVE STARS! This is the first Five Star Review in more than four years: one star each for story, acting, directing, set and dog. How do you feel about that, Sango Tajima?

 "Shakespeare in Love"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through Dec. 17

Monday, November 20, 2017

"The Royale" ☼ ☼

Marco Ramirez knows boxing, so he realized that actors on stage pretending to be boxers will never feel authentic. So in his "The Royale," making its Bay Area Premiere at the Aurora in Berkeley, he decided to negate the lack of realism my stylizing the pugilism. The main character, Jay (Calvin M. Thompson), as well as Jay's first opponent, Fish (Satchel André), and also his final opponent ( spoiler alert - we cannot tell you who this is) all stand at a distance from one another across the stage and kind of -- dance. To supposedly throw punches they slam their feet down and grunt, and when they have been hit by those punches their facial expressions become pained, or if they have been knocked out, one lies on the stage and one exults.

If you have never seen a boxing match before, or if you ore one of the many who despise boxing for its animalistic overtone, this stylization may work for you. For us -- not so much. The actors have to also stay in time with a complicated rhythmical motif. There is just too much going on to feel real.

Ramirez's story, which parallels the real-life story of Jack Johnson, the great American fighter from the beginning of the 20th century, is more about racism and classism than it is about boxing, and the issues resonate to this day. But the ending -- the final fight -- well, we won't say anything more about it except that the whole show points to the payoff -- the epic struggle between the two great fighters of the day -- and what we get is symbolism. You can't get around it -- you accept this theatrical conceit, or you don't. Many do -- the show has been extended. We don't.

Satchel André is a particularly effective Fish, the primitive man from Mississippi with power in his fists but lacking an appropriate fear of the world around him. Tim Kniffin plays Jay's white manager who cannot help himself from uttering racist dogma.

Atim Udoffia plays Jay's sister, but her insistence on beating her brother down for social ills, about which he can do nothing, grates on this audience member. We want Jay to tell her to just go home. Instead -- well, you'll see.


The San Francisco Theater Blog is unable to get behind this production of "The Royale." We are giving it Two Stars, one for Donald E. Lacy Jr.'s fine performance as Wynton, the wise and world-weary trainer who tries to keep Jay centered, and one for the idea of trying dancing and finger snapping instead of boxing. It is an admirable attempt, but one that, for us, tires quickly, unable to make it through to the final round.

Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison St., Berkeley

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Eva Triology ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

 The thought of seeing a Three Act play on a Friday night was daunting to our hardiest reviewers. So we sent the one person who would be certain to complain about everything: Me.

Then what happens? I love this show. Act One, with but one character, is powerful and intimate; Act Two reveals a cast of characters who give us place and advance the story; and Act Three finishes the action and introduces a little pathos along with a lot of heart. Barbara Hammond's World Premiere is already brilliant. We wonder if she will choose to change one word.

Julia McNeal plays Eva, from younger to older woman. She takes us from not-so-devoted Dublin County daughter in Act One, carrying for her mother who is afflicted with Parkinson's Disease, to the island of Corsica in Act Three, where as a runaway she becomes the fill-in Mom for young Tom (Caleb Cabrera), an American trekker who has gotten separated from his latest Ultra-marathon. (Act Two hints at what may have brought her here.)

We loved McNeal in "Fred's Diner," where she was subdued and put-upon; here she is the somewhat reluctant mistress of her own fate. She gives Eva so much life we find ourselves wishing for Acts Four, Five and Six.

Loretta Greco stages the show brilliantly, especially in Act Two when she keeps the actors in character as the plot spells itself out. What could have become a TV-cop-show investigation instead turns into a fascinating theater piece. Lisa Anne Porter stands out as as Teresa, as do Rod Gnapp as Eamon and the perfectly snake-ish Justin Gillman as Father O'Leary.

It's an Irish show. So it is not surprising that the interior theme appears to be: "Did God Invent Suffering?" Father O'Leary thinks so.

RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "The Eva Triology" Four Stars, one each for writing, acting, directing and staging. We are thrilled to see that the company is continuing to turn out intriguing new pieces.

"The Eva Trilogy"
The Magic Theatre
Fort Mason, Building D
San Francisco
Through Nov. 12

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Kate Robards: "Ain't That Rich" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

A comedienne is the Opening Act for Kate Robards's solo show "Ain't that Rich" at the Marsh. It's the usual stuff, breakups, an Uber driver, clitorises and orgasms and so on. So when Robards takes the stage we are expecting more jokes. What we get instead is an insightful look at the meaning and impact of money. In this brilliant one-woman piece, money or no money determines both how the world looks at you and how you look at the world.

Born poor in East Texas, Robards plays several characters from her family. Her mom is treated kindly, the rest of 'em not so much. She takes us on an adventure where the young Texas woman working five jobs to stay in college meets the wealthy boy friend from Berkeley whose father sold his business for "eight figures." She doesn't know what eight figures might mean.

Perhaps unlike any Marsh show we have ever seen, there are many moments of serious reflection. As an audience we flow with her as she shows us how being blonde and rich means you get away with things other people don't. Un-blonde and un-rich, we still end up doing some substantial soul-searching.

There are many excellent bits - "The One-Stop Confederate Store" -- the gold shovel -- and above all, the lies a young girl makes up in order to feel "rich" -- that is, equal to everyone else. "Ain't That Rich" is a terrific show. You don't want to miss Kate Robards.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants Three Stars and a BANGLE OF PRAISE to "Ain't That Rich." For a one-person show to be successful, there has to be a reason for the story. So many solo shows simply chronicle the performer's disability -- overcoming the disease or the bad neighborhood or the personality disorder. Kate Robards makes all of us consider both poverty and wealth --  the gifts we have been given, whether we are aware of them or not.

The BANGLE is for the brilliant set piece when Kate is driving her brother to rehab. Pieces like this make us excited for Kate Robards' talent. We look forward to seeing what she does next.

(One word of advice: You're good. You don't need an Opening Act.)

"Ain't That Rich"
 The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Fridays and Saturdays through December 2
$20-$35 sliding scale

Saturday, October 21, 2017

"The Prince of Egypt" ☼ ☼

Here we have another case where a stage musical has been squeezed out of a successful movie. The Dreamworks animated film "The Prince of Egypt" was a hit in 1998, with just about every actor you love voicing biblical characters. Ralph Feinnes as Ramses, Val Kilmer as both Moses and God, Sandra Bullock, Steve Martin, Michelle Pfeiffer -- everyone wanted in. Steven Schwartz (Godspell, The Wiz) wrote the songs. God looked down and was pleased.

"The Prince of Egypt" is now a staged musical, having its World Premiere at Theatreworks. If God is looking down on this one, He better have seen the movie first.

Choreography is by far the best part of the show, with Sean Cheesman's dancers performing several almost show-stopping sequences. The problem is there is no show to stop. Schwartz's songs are painfully trite and steal forgettable melodies from himself and every Disney show of the last twenty years. Philip LaZebnik's book has managed to dumb down the book of Exodus to the level of a bro-mance between two stepbrothers. Ramses, played by Jason Gotay, is Wally Cleaver, upright, handsome and destined to become Pharaoh, but so dense he doesn't realize his "brother" Moses, played by the short, curly-headed, brown-skinned troublemaker Diluckshan Jetaratnam, might actually be one of them Hebrew slave people types.

Moses manages to turn the deliverer of the Jewish people into The Beeve, a reading that defies any book of Exodus you or I ever saw. Ramses says to Moses, "It's good to know you've got my back," dialogue taken directly from The Book of The Little Mermaid. The cast is color-neutral, which ought to be a good thing, but both male and female characters sing with an irritating not-quite-soulful pop inflection, not black, not Jewish, not Middle Eastern, closer to Middle Western. Call it Disney Off-White. Meanwhile, Schwartz can't stop himself from word pairs like "Arrows" and "Pharaohs."

Everything about this show is derivative. BUT, it was a beloved film, starring beloved actors voicing cute little Egyptians and Hebrews, so our guess is audiences will not care.

We enjoyed Will Mann as Hotep, and Julia Motyka as Miriam. These two sing in the voices their characters would actually have. Also, David Crane's Aaron gave a welcome touch of humor, a Jewishness that the rest of the show, as well as the vanilla score, was determined to ignore.

We loved the dancing. And the plagues. Maybe not the discussion in the middle of the roiling Red Sea. Those people were just meshugga.


The Historical Section of the San Francisco Theater Blog awards "The Prince of Egypt" Two Stars. One Star is for the dancing and one is for having the courage to mount a show with twenty-four actors plus a live orchestra. All that talent, drowned in the Dead Sea. Red Sea. Whatever.

Please note That a Two Star Rating is below the recommended Julie Andrews Line. See Sidebar for explanation of ratings. 

"The Prince of Egypt"
Mountain View Center for the Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through Nov. 5

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Obligation: ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

Growing up, we were always assured another Holocaust was impossible. The truth is, these ethnic cleansings are part of America's own history and we can read about them every day in stories from around the world. But all of a sudden, with Donald Trump's takeover of the American government, the Nazis are making a comeback here, along with their white nationalist cousins. America is once again faced with the same issues of organized repression that Roger Grunwald discusses in "The Obligation." If there is one lesson to be gleaned from this show, it is that the bad stuff never goes away.

Grunwald's one-man show, directed by Nancy Carlin, has several brilliant segments, especially his portrayal of a scheming and arrogant Nazi bigwig. Grunwald's characters command the stage and demand that we listen, even when they are telling us things we would rather not hear. As always, Germans are the enemy here, portrayed as hideous, hateful monsters, filled with rage against people they consider their inferiors. We despised them when we walked into the theater and we despise them when we walk out.

For us, this is "The Obligation"'s problem. There is no story arc here, no redemption and little to be learned, except that people do what they do either to protect themselves or to attempt to move up the ladder. We are supposed to be shocked Grunwald's particularly-evil Nazi soldier is half-Jewish. We're not shocked. He is no different than any of them.

On a theatrical level, what is Groucho Marx doing here?

If we are to be warned that prejudice never disappears, "The Obligation" succeeds. The touching understory -- that may survivors of the camps never recovered from the horrors they witnessed -- stays with us. But there is a cost we must pay: it is a dark evening at the theater. Roger Grunwald is an excellent actor telling a thoroughly discouraging story.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division is having difficulty rating"The Obligation." For acting: Three Stars. Roger Grunwald knows what he is doing. For writing: a few holes to fill in. For enjoyment? Perhaps this depends on how upset you get hearing about Nazis.

"The Obligation"
The Portrero Stage
1695 18th Street, San Francisco
Through November 5

Thursday, October 5, 2017

"Thomas and Sally" ☼ ☼ ☼ baub

A revised history lesson in three acts, the World Premiere of Thomas Bradshaw's "Thomas and Sally" attempts to bring to life Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his slave mistress Sally Hemmings. The theatrical conceit is a dialogue between two contemporary, white college girls, one of whom is a direct descendant of Jefferson and Hemmings. The concept is intriguing and the staging fascinating, but there are several red flags that never stop waving. As a result, after a rousing opening in Act One, Act Two slows down and Act Three screeches to a revisionist halt, as the Jefferson descendant attempts to explain how all master-slave relationships weren't really that bad, and some of them were based on love.

If you can manage to push this aside, there is the issue of the dildos.

We are not naive. Just as symphony hall music directors have been complaining for years that no one will subscribe to the yearly series if it does not include Mozart and Beethoven, perhaps dildos and penises are what bring in today's crowds. The conversation between Karen (Rosie Hallett) and Simone (Ella Dershowitz), after Karen has used Simone's dildo and not returned it (and also not washed it off) is inexplicable in a story about Thomas Jefferson. And, as all playwrights understand, when you take the dildo out of the drawer in Act One you have to use it in Act Three. When that happened, every person in our row went, "Oh, Jesus."

And what a pity, because there is true brilliance here. William Hodgson as James Hemmings and Cameron Matthews as his brother Robert bring fire to their roles. L. Peter Callender is a dominant Jupiter, Robert Sicular gives an excellent reading to Jefferson's father-in-law John Wayles and there were intriguing moments from Mark Anderson Phillips as Thomas and Tara Pacheco as Sally.

But not enough. Admittedly, chemistry between actors is not always achievable, but it would have helped explain the smarminess of a fifteen year old slave becoming the concubine of a forty-something aristocrat. It is not enough to have him declare his love and buy her a new dress.

We understand about power, and how the real Sally Hemmings could never have chosen to stay in France where she would be free but also pregnant and penniless, whereas returning to slavery in Virginia could bring relative comfort to her children. We too can choose, if we wish, to believe that the fifteen year old slave remained forever with the forty-ish aristocrat because she loved him. Of course it could have nothing to do with the fact that Jefferson promised to free her only after he was dead. 

On the other hand, the year is 2017. The audience laughed when hearing Jefferson's noble lines about American democracy spoken against the reality of Donald Trump. It is a blot on Jefferson's personal history that he was never able to practice what he preached about the evils of slavery. "Thomas and Sally" has decided none of that matters. Love and Mozart are the answer. 

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ baub

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division feels that because "Thomas and Sally" is daring in concept, and assuming the running time will be cut as the run continues, and that they will put the dildos back in the drawer and keep them there (they can leave Mark Anderson Phillips's flag flying if this will help sell some tickets), we are awarding "Thomas and Sally" Three Stars but with a bauble of despair. We understand this brings the total ratings down below the Julie Andrews Line (see sidebar for explanation). There is much to like in Bradshaw's new play but an equal amount to fix.

"Thomas and Sally"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through October 22, 2017

Monday, October 2, 2017

Barbecue: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

We loved Act One of Robert O'Hara's "Barbecue," directed by Margo Hall. A San Francisco Playhouse play to the core, the show is funny, strange and unpredictable. The O'Mallerys are an homage to the dysfunctional family. Acting is great, with standout performances by Adrian Roberts, Anne Darragh and the rest of this excellent ensemble. We go with the flow and as Act One is about to close we are on the edge of our seats, giddy to find out what will happen next.

Then boom! The end of Act One. And then Act Two. The ensemble disappears and the explanation begins. We don't want to give anything away, but we will say it's probably more explanation than we need. Margo Hall and Susi Damilano are both excellent as the real Barbara and the Fake News Barbara emerge from under their blindfolds. Damilano is at her best and we get to watch her character develop, but Hall is forced to keep explaining. We know Margo Hall. She can tell a story with her little finger. After the delightful zaniness of Act One, we can't wait for everyone to get back on stage and go crazy again.

We love both Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe and Jennie Brick as the cigarette-toting Aldean. Anne Darragh and Alili Knox make you want to put Lillie Anne through her own private intervention.

Roberts and Clive Worseley as James T, and Kehinde Koyejo and Teri Whipple as Marie round out a cast where there are no incomplete characters. The set manages to look like so many little parks in San Francisco -- beat up and littered with deflated balloons.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division would grant Act One FOUR STARS and Act Two THREE STARS, so we end up awarding "Barbecue" THREE STARS WITH A BANGLE OF PRAISE.  The Bangle has to be for our favorite moment, when Adrian Roberts pulls out the taser. That is humor at its smokiest. "Barbecue" is terrific now and will get even tastier as the run continues.

San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
2d floor of Kensington Park Hotel
Through November 11

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Luna Gale ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Rebecca Gilman has tapped into some of our deepest fears about the way our society deals with our most vulnerable citizens. Here we are talking about the impossible job our social workers have been given to determine the fate of children at risk. Karlie (Alix Caudra) and Peter (Devin S. O'Brien) are meth addicts. They are also the young parents of infant Luna Gale, who has been brought to the Iowa hospital in a compromised, dehydrated condition.

The baby must be taken away from the parents, but to whom should she be entrusted? Currently she is being cared for by Karlie's mother Cindy (Laura Jane Bailey, in a terrific role), but Cindy is a Jesus Freak convinced the end days have arrived. Everyone agrees the foster home system is a complete disaster and must be avoided at all costs. The only way the parents can be reunited with their daughter is to cycle through a series of counseling and rehab, except these programs have been overwhelmed and have no openings. And anyway, MOM (Mothers off Meth) is not going to do anyone much good.

So it all comes down to a judgement call made by the social worker. Jamie Jones plays Caroline, a devoted twenty-five year veteran who is counting the days until her own retirement. Whatever she reports will most likely be agreed to by the judge who makes the final decision, but Caroline understands there are no good solutions. Everyone is flawed, and so is she.

We loved Kevin Kamp as Pastor Jay, which is to say we hated Pastor Jay for his supercilious piety. We also loved Bailey's portrayal of Cindy as someone who has exchanged loneliness for her church. The key line in the show is when the pastor tells Caroline "God will show you love whether you want it or not!" Caroline, who was molested as a child, says "That sounds just like my f***ing father."


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division is happy to grant "Luna Gale" THREE STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE.  Gilman's writing, the ensemble of actors, direction by Tom Ross and perfect set by Kate Boyd keep us on the edge of our seats for two long acts.

The Social Welfare system is a reflection on ourselves. It is terribly inadequate but as a society we have decided we will do no more for our poor. The Bangle of Praise is for the way Gilman forces us to think about all the unfortunate people trapped inside this terrible nightmare.

"Luna Gale"
Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through October 1