Friday, July 22, 2022

"FOLLIES" ★ ★ ★ ★

The moment Louis Parnell walks onto stage as impresario Dimitri Weissman, we realize what lies in front of us: an evening of pure, unapologetically joyful theatre. Bill English's direction of Steven Sondheim and James Goldman's "Follies" whooshes us from curtain to curtain and drops us off exhilarated. This is one of the rare Sondheim shows we would like to see last even longer.

There may be more going on here than simply what we see in front of us. Everyone on stage and in back of it, in balcony or orchestra seat, performer to producer, rehearsal pianist to reviewer, all of us have come through a period of profound insecurity and plague. "Follies" had been cast, rehearsed, built and then postponed once already, in 2020, by the ultra-villain Covid-19. This current 2022 production has had its own problems with the virus. So, as we sit in the theater, wearing our masks, vaxes checked at the door, feeling somewhat insecure about other theater goers in front, to the side in back and above us, our delight in the production is probably added to by a sense of relief and joy. All these costumes! Music! Dancing! Singing! Characters falling in and out of love! 

We're back!

At its heart, "Follies" is about keeping the dream alive as we age. Each character's personal story is presented in Act One, and then in Act Two the young man and woman from the glory days between World Wars, when Weissman's Follies was at its peak, stands next to the person they have become in 1971, when this show was written.

Of course, this being Stephen Sondheim, there are so many zingers flying around you can't catch most of them, like "Hey Mr. Producer, I'm talkin' to you, Sir," and "Waiting for a nice man, like a Ziegfield or a Weissman..."

Some of the songs are better than others, a few of the performances miss the mark. But there are many standouts, such as the ensemble's "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs," Maureen McVerry's acidly hysterical "Could I Leave You?," Cindy Goldfield's spectacular "I'm Still Here," sung while maneuvering a turntable to continue standing in one spot, and the very funny "The-God-Why-Don't-You-Love-Me-Blues," sung by Anthony Rollins-Mullens and danced by Catrina Manahan and Emily Corbo.

RATINGS:  ★★★★ 

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division's Special Subsection for Stephen Sondheim Shows grants FOUR STARS to San Francisco Playhouse's production of "Follies." It's that good. You've got plenty of time - it runs until September 10.

San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco
Through Sept. 10, 2022

Monday, July 18, 2022

Nan and The Lower Body: ★ ★ BANG

Vagina vagina, vagina. There, I said it.

Before seeing the World Premiere of Jessica Dickey's "Nan and the Lower Body," we must understand the story is pure fiction. Dickey's real-life grandmother, Nan Day, was in fact a scientific researcher who was instrumental in discovering the then-unknown disease of Multiple Sclerosis. Our story, however, is an imagined working relationship between Day and Doctor George Papanicolau, the inventor of the Pap smear, which has saved the lives of countless thousands of women since the early 1950s, by giving them a chance at early detection of cervical cancer.

Dr. Pap, however, as far as anyone knows, never worked with Nan Day, so the story presented here, of a shy researcher, her clueless minister fianceé, the fabulously eccentric Doctor himself and his disappointed wife -- might be based on reality or it might not be.

If I hadn't read about this in the Promo notes, would it have mattered? Maybe not. The Doctor (Christopher Daftsios) is bombastic and quite likeable, perhaps like the real Dr. Pap, and Nan (Elissa Beth Stebbins) is sharp but conflicted, perhaps like the real Nan Day, and her fianceé Ted (Jeffrey Brian Adams) is a clueless shmo, as perhaps he was. But if he was that obtuse,  would this ambitious, rural minister really have such modern beliefs about women's equality? More to the point, would someone like Nan fall for this guy? It's an unexplained mystery. 

And how could a researcher arrive at her brand-new job, fall over with an obvious ailment we know we're going to find out about sooner or later, and within ten minutes have this dedicated doctor 
ready to turn his life's research over to her? It is all entertaining, but on a soap-opera level. It never feels real.

The one thing that is definitely true is that most men and women are uncomfortable with using the word "vagina." There are several very entertaining bits as we watch first Nan and then Ted squirm over it. The scene where the doctor expalins to Ted what the stirrups in his office are used for is a classic. He wants to get out of there as soon as possible, and we kind of do too.

Lisa Ramirez's Mache, Dr. Pap's wife, was the character we identified with best. She has been the doctor's first donor, his best friend and companion since they were youngsters in Greece. Now, she is older. Nothing is the same. And Dr. Pap has found a new, younger researcher.


The San Francisco Theatre Blog grants Jessica Dickey's "Nan and the Lower Body" Two Stars with a Bangle of Praise. The Bangle is for Nina Ball's marvelous stage presentation. The show is a visual dream for an audience. As a World Premiere, "Nan" is still a youngster. The production team at Theatreworks will certainly close some obvious holes, mostly on a personal level. We know that the writer loved her grandmother, but we want to feel the same about the characters in her play. We would love to feel love conquers all.

"Nan and the Lower Body"
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through August 7, 2022


Saturday, July 9, 2022


A story rich in meaning for those old enough to remember the Cuban revolution, Cristina García's "Dreaming in Cuban" shows us how families can be split apart by political ideology. Cubans with little to lose often supported the radical changes "The Great Leader" brought to the island, hoping that life in the future would be better than the life they had. Others, especially those whose previous privileges would be taken away by the revolutionaries, could not wait to get away. The family bond was strained, if not severed, and they ended up waving to each other from opposite shores. 

Celia del Pino (Anna Maria Luera, above, left) has remained in Cuba, a loyal revolutionary. But her daughter Lourdes has migrated to America after an incident in which armed soldiers assaulted her and claimed her land for the revolution. Lourdes runs the Yankee Doodle Bakery in Brooklyn. You can't get any more American than that. 

There are many side-stories and the action switches back and forth between Havana and Brooklyn. In Havana, Lourdes's sister (Felicia Natalia Delgado) and her son Ivanito (Eric Esquivel-Gutierrez), who have stayed behind with their mother, are having a tough time. Felicia is a little crazy, fantasizing about sharing a sleeping bag with The Great Leader. Her condition starts out bad and gets worse. 

Her father, Jorge, is dead, but that doesn't stop him from inserting himself into family life. 

Another character with considerable time on stage is Pilar (Thea Rodgers), but her character, like many in this show, feels a bit undeveloped. She is a conflicted teenager. Everyone is conflicted, everyone is stubborn, everyone is angry, everyone is suffering and everyone has a reason.

For us, the show could use some more motion. No one seems to listen to or learn anything from each other. We get a two-act-two-hour telenovela that remains on the surface. We could use someone nice. And it would have been fun to see Pilar's mural.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division gives TWO STARS with a BANGLE OF PRAISE to Cristina Garcías "Dreaming in Cuban. The Bangle is for Anna María Luera whose Lourdes (she also plays a seriously bad-ass police officer) carries this whole show. The historical context is fascinating. Imagine what it would do to our country if someone took it over in an armed insurrection - oops. 

"Dreaming in Cuban"

Berkeley City Club

2315 Durant St., Berkeley

Thursday-Sunday trough July 24

$20-30 (discounts available)

Tuesday, July 5, 2022


"We've just adapted to the suckage," says 20-year-old Zoe, as she tries to explain to her parents why the world seems so bleak to her generation. "We've never gone to an airport without taking off our shoes," she says. Zoe, played to perfection by Alicia M. P. Nelson, is fed up with feeling fed up. She may change the world, unless she slips into a time portal, several of which are conveniently located onstage.

Michael Gene Sullivan (with Marie Cartier)'s 2022 Mime Troupe vehicle "Back to the Way Things Were" is one of the troupe's best in a long time. And it has been a long time -- remember the Pandemic? The Troupe's live performances were suspended for several seasons, but they're back with a bang. Funny, dangerous, silly, revealing and hopeful, sort of, in a Eugene V. Debs rides the Mad Hatter's Teacups kind of way, this is what the Mime Troupe always does so well: we sing along, hiss the villains and cheer the heroes. Sometimes they hit close to home, like the song "Cooked Alive," about our future, which shouldn't be funny, but is.

The other four actors play multiple roles. They are all standouts, but especially Lizzie Calogaro's understanding Alice, Andre Amarotico's slime-ball Milies, Keiko Shimosato Carreiro's bewildered Book (both her parents were librarians) and Norman Gee's Ralph and Herbert. Daniel Savio's songs are fine, the cast often sings in tune, the sound system is adequate and the audience in Dolores Park still yields the occasional flower child-now-grandmother who strolls to the stage tossing flowers, until the security guard escorts her to the rear. 

July 4 is just July 3 without the Mime Troupe. Welcome back, friends.


The San Francisco Theater Blog's Sub-Agency for Live Performances On National Holidays awards "Back to the Way Things Were" THREE STARS. This is a delightful return for San Francisco's most classically irreverent company. If you missed them here, they play around the Bay Area for most of the summer, with two final performances back at Dolores Park on Sept. 4-5.



Various venues throughout the Bay Area: See SFMT.ORG

Through Sept. 5


(Donations enthusiastically accepted)