Monday, May 20, 2019

Wayne Harris: "Mother's Milk" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

He isn't strutting around the stage in the same way as when we saw his "May Day Parade" in 2008. But Wayne Harris still can captivate us with stories about his native St. Louis, when Union Boulevard was filled with unforgettable characters.

Surrounded by bible pounders like his mother, his stepfather (Uncle Bill), and the Reverend Pruitt, Junior, it is amazing that Harris escaped that world at all. As he describes it, St. Louis had "midwestern mentality tied up with Southern ignorance." It wasn't for him. Once he figured out how to march away by playing his bugle, Harris rarely went home. But then his mother became ill.

This show, "Mother's Milk," is about those months when Harris, number three of five children, had to come to grips with his mother's breast cancer, illness and eventual death. These moments, when he returns to St.. Louis, are the highlight of the show.

Harris is accompanied by a small combo (Randy Craig on Piano and John McArdle on bass) and for the most part they impart flavor to the story. For us, we felt that the action tended to stop when Harris moved to the mike to sing and it took a few moments for the story to pick up again. We enjoyed the music and we enjoyed the story but they could probably seam together a little more smoothly. Harris's version of "God Bless the Child" was a standout.

We loved it best when Harris brought to life Reverend Pruitt, or his mother, or his crazy sister, or several other characters from his younger days. His voice became stronger, his body took on a different posture and we were happy to go along for the ride.

It's a heartwarming show. You can't help but like Wayne Harris.

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Wayne Harris: Mother's Milk" Four Stars. We were sorry when it ended and will look forward to his next batch of St. Louis stories.

Wayne Harris: "Mother's Milk"
The Marsh
2120 Addison Street, Berkeley
Fridays and Sundays through May 31
$20-$35 Siding Scale

Sunday, May 5, 2019

"Significant Other" ☼ ☼ ☼

Kyle Cameron's performance in Joshua Harmon's "Significant Other" is so spectacular that it outshadows the rest of the show. Cameron plays Jordan, the gay male friend of three women. They are thick as thieves until, one by one, each of the women gets snapped up by husbands. Jordan ends up feeling old and in the way.

We have seen these female characters in countless sitcoms, the stereotypical fast one, the ditzy one and the more soulful one. The male character is also a cliché, the gay male who is kind but misunderstood, a neurotic Jew, everybody's friend but nobody's baby. Kyle Cameron turns these overused motes into towers of strength with nothing but body language and performance of a brilliant script. He does his best to take a somewhat pedestrian story and turn it into art.

We liked the ensemble cast. Laura (Ruibo Qian) has the biggest part, as the sympathetic friend. Nicole-Azalee Danielle plays Vanessa and Hayley Lovgren plays Kiki, the other two women of this trio, whose ties are far closer than Jordan realizes. We love Joy Carlin but she is wasted here in a simplistic role as Kyle's doddering grandmother.

Of the two men in the cast, Greg Ayers shows great depth in his three roles. August Browning has three lesser roles, including a gender-confusing role as Will.

One thing is for sure: Nobody wants to be Kyle Cameron's understudy.

What is the point here? Gender matters, no matter what anyone says. Friendship counts, but straight women choose husbands over friendship. Gayness means loneliness. And, above all, great acting is every playwright's best friend.


 The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Significant Other" Three Stars. Kyle Cameron's performance is award-worthy and that alone is worth the price of admission. Director Lauren English is wise to give him lots of space. And a special shout-out for Jacquelyn Scott's set. Each scene is a beauty. 

"Significant Other"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
2nd Floor of Kensington Park Hotel
Through June 15

Thursday, May 2, 2019

"Jazz": ☼ ☼ ☼

Gee, such promise. Nambi E. Kelley's adaptation of the Toni Morrison novel, a cast including Margo Hall and C. Kelly Wright and a score by Marcus Shelby. What could go wrong?

On the plus side, C. Kelly Wright's portrayal of the conflicted Violet, whose husband has shot a young woman with whom he was having an affair, is award-show caliber. Hall is her usual seen-it-all-nothing-surprises-me self as both Alice Manfred and True Belle. And Paige Mayes's Parrot, whose every gesture demands our attention, gives us a rare and stunning stage presence.

The truth is, though, that until the actors took their bows and C. Kelly Wright bowed first, we had no idea the story was about her. At least the actors think it is. There are many side stories and unexplained threads that appear and then disappear, to say nothing of time travel and Morrison's expected magical realism that is hard enough to portray on a page let alone on a stage.

And the music -- gee whiz. An adaptation of a Toni Morrison novel set in Harlem in 1926 and entitled "Jazz?" And this is what they wanted from Marcus Shelby? We know and love this man's work. The show desperately needs a wake-up call and it may start here.

Our favorite moments were when Dane Troy, seen above in overalls, who said little but was always on stage, danced with Paige Mayes. In those moments the show seemed to be poised to explode onto a new plateau. Sadly, the segments were short and never returned.

Michael Gene Sullivan plays Joe Trace. Sullivan is an admirable comedian, one of our favorites for many years in the Bay Area. But perhaps due to Awoye Timpo's direction, his relationship with the doomed Dorcas makes little sense -- why, exactly, does the beautiful young girl fall for the somewhat portly. middle-aged soap salesman? -- and then is exacerbated when his wife takes him right back without a thought to the young girl Joe has murdered.

This is "Jazz"'s West Coast Premiere and is sure to be discussed and, hopefully, tightened. Right now there are good notes but they have yet to be assembled into a meaningful score.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants THREE STARS to "Jazz." We enjoyed the show while it was going on, but had looked forward to so much more. With a cast like this, and a performance like C. Kelly Wright's, somebody has to add some oomph. We suggest a phone call to Mr. Shelby.

Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through May 19