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