Saturday, November 30, 2019

OUT OF TOWN REVIEW: “The Great Leap”

Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap” at Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena, CA:

If her “King of the Yees” was a slam dunk, “The Great Leap” is a driible-off-the-foot out-of-bounds. No coach could ever be so foul, no kid so dumb, no story so concocted.

The San Francisco Theater Blog blows the whistle: DON’T BOTHER. Maybe the Father-Son meme worked in Star Wars. Not here.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Robert Townsend: “Living the Shuffle” ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

Robert Townsend has a fascinating history and he’s really, really funny. Known as one of the pioneers of independent film-making, his first feature “The Hollywood Shuffle” was financed on credit cards and shot for $100,000. It grossed over $8 million. As a stand-up performer, his Hollywood stories are very entertaining but he also shows us the frustration of so many actors of color as they seek to transcend the stereotypical roles offered to them. You can only audition so many times to play a pimp. 

We loved Townsend’s stories about growing up on the west side of Chicago, the lessons he gained from wonderful teachers, his move to Hollywood with Keenan Ivory Wayans and his informal initiation into the rat pack by Don Rickles. His performance of Shakespeare through an African-American perspective is amazing. Not everyone knows that Townsend directed Eddie Murphy’s classic “Raw. We loved the bit about meeting with the censors to whittle down the almost constant foul language in that film.  

This is a very respectful man. Perhaps this is what we love best. And he makes us laugh out loud.
It’s a short run, so hurry over to Berkeley for a fun evening, filled with cool stories, and while you’re laughing you’ll learn something about the most basic lesson of Hollywood: “Just keep working.”

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

 The San Francisco Theater Blog loves this show. Robert Townsend is as good as it gets. FOUR STARS.

Robert Townsend: “Livin’ the Shuffle”
The Marsh Berkeley
2120 Allston Way, Berkeley
EXTENDED Through Through Dec. 15

Friday, November 22, 2019

"Mother of the Maid" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The rare combination of a show that makes us feel alive with understanding, as well as forcing us to think about our place in the world order, has arrived in Mill Valley. Marin Theater Company's production of Jane Anderson's "Mother of the Maid" puts us in a position we have never before considered: what if you are Joan of Arc's mother? Your country is at war with England and your neighbors have been slaughtered. Your daughter has been seeing visions of St. Catherine, who has instructed her to raise an army to drive the invaders away, with God's help, of course.

You know, in your heart, your daughter is insane (and probably not too crazy about boys, as the show hints), but the Mom in you wants to believe the holy story is true. You also know that you are a peasant and that palling up with royalty will end up with you getting the short end of the stick. But you cannot stop Joan from her fate. What's a Mom to do?

In the first place, Joan of Arc's real last name was Arc. (D'Arc, actually.) Who knew?

Played by Rosie Hallett, Joan gives us a fairly typical teenage daughter, except for the swords and armor. She doesn't want to hear any difference of opinion from her parents, and anyway she has convinced the local Priest and Duke to sponsor her. Her father tries to discipline her, but, you know, St. Catherine and God and the Priest are a tough trio to argue with.

Sherman Fracher gives one of the best performances we have seen all year as Isabelle Arc, mother of The Maid, as Joan has come to be known. Fracher should be nominated for Actor of the Year for this role, that gives us a salt-of-the-earth peasant trying to please the royals (especially Liz Sklar as a sympathetic but clueless Lady of the Court).  She is both practical (she can clean her own feet, thank you) and furious, when she realizes the Crown has used Joan to restore its power but has no intention of ransoming her from the English, now that her work is done.

Scott Coopwood is all us fathers, angry but helpless, stung to the heart but unable to make his child understand her inevitable fall. His soliloquy, as he watches his daughter being burnt at the stake, will break your heart and pour hot oil over it.

Robert Sicular is an effective Father Gilbert and Brennan Pickman-Thoon an equally effective Pierre Arc, Joan's would-be-soldier brother. Kudos to the entire cast for making me keep the window open all the way home, that my sorrow at the human condition should not wash me off the Golden Gate Bridge.

RATINGS: ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants FOUR STARS to "Mother of the Maid." This is a brilliant show, with perfect acting to express the unique vision of an Emmy-Award winning playwright. Well done, Jasson Minidakis and the entire MTC team. Please don't miss this show. Afterwards, a few glasses of mead will help.

"Mother of the Maid"
Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through 12-8-19

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Cloud 9: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Caryl Churchill's plays are always a hoot. She defaults your presets. This British playwright wants to skewer everyone's expectations, not only about gender and sexuality, but also how they are presented on stage. Once she's done that, she spins a yarn that makes you nod your head and laugh as you are scratching your chin in wonder.

"Cloud 9" was written in 1979. It is as relevant now as it was then. The story takes place in two time periods, the first in South Africa in 1879, and the second some twenty-five years later, as the characters we saw in Act One have either aged as adults or grown up if they were children.

Well, sort of. In Act Two, the actors from Act One change parts and sexes and everything seems pretty darned confusing, until you sit back in your chair and roll with it. It is a pleasure to do so.

Evan Winet plays the quintessentially Modern Major General in Act One and a bearded spoiled child in Act Two. Mario Mazzetti plays Winet's Victorian wife in Act One and grown-up Edward in act Two, while Alejandra Wahl is baby Edward followed by adult Vic. Others in the cast play duplicate roles and genders as well. Alan Coyne is particularly evil as a black servant although he is white, followed by a coldhearted, trolling gay man who may actually be the only one with a moral compass.

We loved the costumes by Candice Liao, not an easy task due to changing eras. Allie Moss's direction keeps everyone out of each other's way, also not a simple assignment.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Cloud 9" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. Act Two runs a bit long as the author is trying to lead you home. The idea seems to be "Relax. We Are Who We Are. Try Laughing."

The Bangle is for the entire ensemble cast. We really got behind this show.

"Cloud 9"
Custom Made Theatre
533 Sutter Street
Through Dec. 15

Sunday, November 17, 2019

"Bull in a China Shop" ☼ ☼

For a show with a title like this one, surprisingly little gets broken. A historical fiction based on the professional life of Mary Wooley, the first female student at Holyoke College who became its Eleventh President in 1901, we get little historical information except the bare outlines. Attitudes began to change at that time, but we see very little of that on stage.

What we spend our time observing is the relationship between Wooley (Stacey Ross) and her ex-student and long-term partner Jeanette Marks (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong). Author Bryna Turner wants us to understand how difficult a relationship like this one must have been, but if these two are burning there is not much fire. Ross's Wooley is detached from Marks except when the younger woman protests loudly enough to be heard, and Marks seems perfectly willing to be the kept woman on the University payroll.

Jasmine Milan Williams's Pearl is another story. Pearl is in love with Jeanette Marks.

Played with a ton of flair, Pearl has all the heart we wish we saw in either of the two leads, who don't appear to even like each other very much. So Pearl's soliloquy about love and its effects stands out. It is the show's highlight moment.

Mia Tagano is very good as the voice of the school establishment, caught between the male regents and her own desire to modernize women's education. Rebecca Scweitzer has a limited role as a housemate of Jeanette Marks in later days.

For us, one of the show's problems is that four decades pass but the women don't really age or change. And the f-bombs. In 1901? Really? Well, maybe.

In the end the story becomes one of power. If Mary Wooley’s role were played by a man, it would not surprise us, but neither would there be a statement to be made. We wish we were sure what that statement is.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division gives “Bull in a China Shop” Two Stars. If the history of gender issues are important to you, you will want to watch Stacey Ross and this cast re-enact the early 20th Century. But don't expect fireworks. Or a china shop. Or a bull.

“Bull in a China Shop"
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through Dec. 8

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

NASSIM: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !!!!!

This review will be short and sweet, because you are already running out of time. "Nassim," playing at the Magic Theatre for only five nights, is unlike anything else we have ever seen. Nassim Soleimanpour is an Iranian playwright living in Berlin who has figured out what a performer on a stage can do to bring an audience into his heart. And he isn't even the performer. He is offstage half the time.

A different actor, chosen by Artistic Director Loretta Greco, takes the stage each night, having never met Nassim nor seen the script. The actor is as much in the dark as we are as to what will happen next, as he or she opens an envelope which will tell him or her what to do or say. We saw the amazing Safiya Fredericks on Tuesday night. Wednesday (tonight) will feature Sean San Jose, Julia McNeal on Thursday, Sarah Nina Hayon on Friday, Lauren English for Saturday's matinee and James Carpenter Saturday evening.

Each actor follows video instructions from Nassim, and ...oh, this is silly. There is no way to explain it. If you are unaccustomed to trusting your faithful but normally grumpy and difficult-to-please reviewer, allow me to say: Now is the time. Go see this show. Then write and thank me.

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼ ☼ !!!!!

What the hell? FIVE STARS? Is there music? No. Will a show on one evening be like any of the other shows? No. Can we guarantee brilliance? No. But we saw it. How often can we say that?

What we have here is a strange but brilliant hybrid of mime, improv and humor that will have you and the rest of the audience leaning forward in your seats so you don't miss anything. And you will learn some very lovely Farsi. 

Yes, friends. Yes. Just go.

Seats are not expensive, but pay extra if you must so you can sit in the center section and not on the sides. The performer's reactions are every bit as fascinating as the material. 

And a special shout-out for Director Omar Elerian. 

The Magic Theatre
Building D, Fort Mason, San Francisco
Through Nov. 16 ONLY

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

"That Don Reed Show" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Less a stage show than a series of short sketches, "That Don Reed Show" is very funny in most places. The Marsh stage feels like a place where Reed tries out new material, some of which is terrific, and one, at the end, which shows you in which direction this brilliant mimic and comic may turn.

Reed is a physical actor with a face of plastic. He molds his cheeks and mouth to look and sound like politicians or persons from his past. We loved both "Slow Motion Theater" bits. Same for his description of Shug, the owner of Shug's tavern, who is a Jackie-Gleason-like bartender who opines about the state of the world while drying his imaginary glass with a towel. The evil Thanksgiving benediction involving "Father God" gives us delightful shivers, seeing as Thanksgiving is only two weeks away. 

Add to that the lovely segment where the audience fills in all the details of a story he is telling. This could be an entire show. As could be the final bit -- a heartfelt discussion of homelessness that shows Don Reed has a lot more to him than a gift for comedy and a face that appears to have no bones. 

Less successful are some of the musical bits -- Don Reed is a gifted performer but not quite Bobby McFerrin.

We go see Don Reed every chance we get. You'll love "That Don Reed Show."


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division still loves Blinky. We grant "That Don Reed Show" THREE STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The Bangle is not only for our favorite jokes, but for the genesis of a sensibility that could vault Don Reed into his own special category.

"That Don Reed Show"
The Marsh, San Francisco
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Sat. and Sun. through Dec. 29

Monday, November 11, 2019

"Gypsy" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

In the first place it's Jule Styne and in the second place it's Stephen Sondheim. You can stop right there, listen to the songs and go home whistling. 1959 was a good year for Sondheim, having previously finished "West Side Story," and Jule Styne's melodies stick in your ears like wax. And if you don't know the show, there are surprises.

"Clear the decks! Clear the tracks!
You've got nothing to do but relax.
Blow a kiss. Take a bow.
Honey, everything's coming up roses!"

Hundreds of people have recorded this song and it is always fast and peppy. Happy. Confident. It is anything but. "Everything's Coming Up Roses" is about facing failure and the possibility of one's life being for nothing. It is sung by Mama Rose, played by the fabulous Ariela Morgenstern, at the end of Act One, as her world appears to be crumbling. Morgenstern is really good, especially since anyone taking on this career-defining role will always be compared to the Broadway greats who invented it, such as Ethel Merman, Bette Middler and Bernadette Peters among many others, Morgenstern can stand with all of them, as an actor as well as a song-belter.

The story is well known, written by Arthur Laurents from the 1957 autobiography by Gypsy Rose Lee. Mama Rose is the ultimate stage mom, spending her life to give her children the Vaudeville stardom that she herself was never able to achieve. 

"Curtain up! Light the lights!
You got nothing to hit but the heights!
You'll be swell! You'll be great.
I can tell. Just you wait."

Also terrific are Jade Shojaee as Louise, the younger, neglected daughter who turns into Gypsy; Tia Konsur as the adult June; and Emma Berman as the crackerjack younger June who might even steal this show. 

DC Scarpelli is a fine Herbie though he does appear to be channeling Yul Brynner.

And Gypsy wouldn't be Gypsy without the three strippers who teach Louise she's gotta have a gimmick. They are played to perfection by Glenna Murillo, Olivia Cabera and Elaine Jennings.

When was the last time you left a musical actually singing the tunes? For us, the night before last. Go feel good. Bay Area Musicals has a winner on its hands.

RATINGS ☼  ☼  ☼  ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants "Gypsy" FOUR STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Story, acting, directing, music, it's all here. Our only caveat is to make sure you're in the middle of the Alcazar Theatre. The side seats can be iffy, depending on how far over they place you. We love this show and may beg to see it again, but this time between the goal posts. 

The BANGLE OF PRAISE is for this bridge to "Small World, Isn't It?" The song is perfect. You can't write a better bridge than this, with a message that ought to be hung on America's wall:

"We have so much in common,
It's a phenomenon.
We could pool our resources
By joining forces from now on."


Alcazar Theater
650 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through Dec. 8


Wednesday, November 6, 2019

"Dance Nation" UNRATED

The run is over so it's too late to see San Francisco Playhouse's production of Clare Barron's "Dance Nation." It was a somewhat confounding presentation, seemingly out of kilter with glowing reviews from the earlier New York production, including a nomination for a Pulitzer.

There were good moments, especially at the beginning when it seemed as if the show had a solid sense of itself. But the author's instructions made this a particularly vexing show to watch. Older women pretending to be younger women and non-dancers pretending to be dancers made disbelief harder to suspend than it might have been,

Reviewers appear to be lauding the show's audacity, as well as Bill English and Susi Damilano's willingness to take chances. This has always been a hallmark of San Francisco Playhouse and we are happy to see it is continuing.


"Dance Nation"
San Francisco Playhouse
2d Floor of Kensington Park Hotel, San Francisco