Friday, April 1, 2016

Palo Alto Players​ Celebrates 85 years - April 9, 2016

Palo Alto, CA – Palo Alto Players​, the first theatre company on the Peninsula, will hold its first annual benefit to celebrate the company’s 85th Anniversary​, on Saturday, April 9, 2016 ​at the Lucie Stern Community Center Ballroom​, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. The inaugural gala, entitled “Players Through the Decades,” celebrates the company’s 85­year history through story and special performances, and honors the leading players that have contributed to the growth of Palo Alto Players over the last eight decades. All proceeds from the event will be used to further the company’s mission of providing high quality, performing arts programming to the community. Tickets (starting at $85) can be purchased online at​or by calling 650.329.0891​. The evening will begin at 6 pm with a private reception for VIP ticket holders and underwriters. At 6:30 pm the doors open for guests to enjoy dinner and drinks, followed by entertainment from Palo Alto Players’ favorite actors highlighting scenes and songs from past seasons, and an exciting live and silent auction, featuring an array of one­of­a­kind experiences like a walk­on­role in an upcoming production, getaways, and specialty packages. The event will also honor former Artistic Director Peter M. Bliznick​, retired Patron Services Manager Susan Ron​, and Philanthropist Margot H. Driscoll​. Each will receive the Leading Player award to recognize their indelible impact on Palo Alto Players and the theatre community. “Whether you have been an actor, subscriber, or occasional audience member, if Palo Alto Players has touched your life, I hope you will reunite with us on April 9.” says Board President, Eugenie Watson.​“This gala is our opportunity to celebrate and say thank you to the City of Palo Alto, our supporters, the artists and the staff that have made it possible for Palo Alto Players to produce great theater season and after season for this community.” Tickets are $85 (regular seating) and $185 (VIP seating) each and include the performance, gourmet dining and drinks. Tables are also available starting at $1,000. Underwriting levels, which include tickets for the Gala, Palo Alto Players​• 1305 Middlefield Road • Palo Alto, CA 94301 650.329.0891 • •

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Quantum Love : Inferno Theatre Company : A Review

                                                                  ***  out of 4 stars

This is a fascinating contemplation on how human love operates under the same principles governed by quantum theory, general relativity and their various components.

Although the story is nonlinear and decidedly unconventional, the central theme is carried inexorably forward, much in the same way one can follow the direction of a ball in a game of pinball - the path may appear haphazard, but important points are scored along the way. 

At times playwright Giulio Cesare Perrone’s (artistic director of Inferno Theatre Company) premise is presented as more analogy than metaphor. That’s apparent early on inasmuch as he points out that the human body is composed mostly of water molecules, subject to the same laws of physics as any other atomic structure.

And yet, he doesn’t hesitate to toss in a metaphor here or there whenever it suits his purpose. For example, we’re reminded, with the help of some nicely conceived and executed multi-media projection, that among water’s many properties is that it travels in waves,  just as electro-magnetic particles do. 

As one might expect, music is also integrated into the performance, whether it be a brief, touching violin solo by the talented Emmy Pierce (as "Air"), or an amusing “rap” sequence sung by the entire cast. Dance and movement is ubiquitous as well, including some modest yet effective tango numbers (courtesy of Tango Maestro Robert Fields). 

The rhetorical effect of these devices is obvious; yet the elegant direction by Mr. Perrone  and skilled improvisation by the ensemble manage to insert the music and choreography discreetly into the overall staging.  
L-R:Tenya Spillman, Jody Christian, Simone Bloch, Emmy Pierce, Michael Needham

The journey begins with each performer carrying a suitcase as they travel through the “time space continuum.” As they unload their baggage, the action unfolds as a series of familiar romantic encounters, with each vignette a variation on the central premise. “Love,” in all its permutations, is explored as the characters attempt to explain the process in objective scientific terms. It’s as if Carl Sagan had been tapped as a script consultant to lend his both perspective and authenticity to the proceedings

Of course, the nature of love is anything but dispassionate, and there’s a danger that the arcane jargon could rob the piece of its very humanity. Indeed, whatever the origin and purpose of love may be, it can often have profound emotional consequences, whose description is better suited for a more poetic sensibility, rather than the cold, empirical observations of the scientific mind. 

L-R: Michael Needham, Jody Christian, Tenya Spillman, Simone Bloch
 Perhaps in recognition of this potential shortcoming, the author seamlessly interweaves quotations borrowed from the definitive poetic dramatist - William Shakespeare. 

Surprisingly, the Bard complements the play quite well, and gives it a gravitas and insight into the human condition that no theory of gravity could ever hope to provide. It’s undeniable that the truths he observed some 400 years ago play themselves out in human interactions on a daily basis and are forever relevant. 

Then again, one could argue that the poet vs. scientist schism is a false dichotomy; that is, Shakespeare's words may ultimately simply be a reflection of a consciousness brought to bear by an evolving universe billions of years old.

We are treated to a wonderful reading of a play within a play - the “Nunnery Scene” from “Hamlet,” with an understated and cerebral Michael Needham (as “Andrea”) as the beleaguered Prince of Denmark, unleashing a brutal tirade upon an undeserving and guileless Ophelia (a charming Jody Christian- “Judith”).  The pain his betrayal inflicts upon one so fragile leads inevitably to a tragic act of desperation, and reminds one that the interaction of even nano-particles can bestow a ripple effect not always considered.
L-R: Simone Bloch, Tenya Spillman, Michael Needham

But then, out of nowhere, Mr. Perrone pulls the rug ostensibly from under his core supposition and pens the best line of the piece “I read that the world is flat!” 

Delivered with a devilish naivete by a disarming Tenya Spillman (as “Giulia”) who, donned in a seductive red dress and heels, portrays in one scene an all too convincing “material girl” persona that won’t be bothered with such intangible, esoteric concepts as “particle theory.” Madonna, not to mention Marilyn, would be proud!

It’s evident, however, that this visionary playwright is confident enough in the intent and meaning of his own material to acknowledge throughout that the “physical laws” are nothing more than a transitory exercise of the human mind to get some sort of  handle on the meaning and mysteries of existence. 

This is essentially an expressionistic work. As such, it employs symbolism through the use of props, immersive lighting, and mood-altering music, and designers Perrone, Mike Sweeney, and Bruno Louchouarn, respectively, do an admirable job setting the tone without ever falling prey to any self-indulgent tendencies. 

L-R: Tenya Spillman, G. Scott Heath
Among the many symbols we witness are ebony angel’s wings borne appropriately by two characters who bear the names of "Gabriel" and "Arariel," both angels stemming from Judeo-Christian tradition. Each is rendered with appropriate grace by a down-to-earth and natural G. Scott Heath, and a wise and mysterious Simone Bloch, respectively. 

Angels may at first blush seem out of place here, but somehow it all makes sense in this entertaining potpourri of big ideas from a critical thinker with a heart of a poet. Maestro Perrone should be commended for pulling-off such an ambitious project - on a shoestring budget - without ever compromising his artistic integrity.


"Quantum Love"
Inferno Theatre Company
Written by Giulio Cesare Perrone
One Act: 60 mins. with no intermission
Directed by: Giulio Cesare Perrone
Actor / Performer:    Simone Bloch, Jody Christian, G. Scott Heath, Michael Needham, Emmy Pierce, and Tenya Spillman 

At: San Francisco International Arts Festival
Fort Mason Center, Firehouse 
May 21 thru May 31, 2015

Posted by Gregory M. Alonzo-Bay Area Critic-at-Large on May 31, 2015 (edited)

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Pride and Prejudice : Shady Shakespeare Theatre Company : A Capsule Review

                                                                            *** out of 4 stars

A modest, but nonetheless entertaining production of the timeless, early 19th century story of English manners and morals by Jane Austen. 

This recent stage adaptation of the classic novel pares down the narrative to its essentials and moves briskly under Angie Higgins' nimble hand. I hasten to add, however, that none of the wit, romance or social themes have been lost in the process.

The cast is uniformly good, buoyed by winning, smart performances by Jenna Stich as the redoubtable Elizabeth Bennet, and Jarrod Pirtle as the laconic aristocrat Mr. Darcy. They're given ample support by all concerned, highlighted by disarming, scene-stealing turns by Larry Barrott and Beverly Griffith as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, respectively. 

Performed at the inviting, albeit somewhat rustic, setting of the Sanborn County Park amphitheatre, this is a fun evening at the theatre that deserves both your time and attention!

Stage Adaptation of the Jane Austen novel by Joseph Hanreddy & J.R. Sullivan
Two Acts, with one 15 min. intermission
Directed by Angie Higgins
Thru August 31st, 2014
Sanborn County Park, Saratoga
Arrive at least 30 mins.early for parking ($6.00); seating pads & a flashlight are strongly recommended!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

'Marry Me a Little' : TheatreWorks : A Capsule Review

It's a smartly staged and performed musical revue, featuring melodious vocals, with Sondheim's trademark dark humor and pathos successfully downplaying any sentimentality.

The chemistry between Sharon Reitkerk ("Her") and  A. J. Shively ("Him") is unmistakable, eclipsed only by their undeniable talent and charisma. 

A wonderful production!

Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Conceived and Developed by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene
One Act: 75 mins. with no intermission
Musical Director: William Liberatore
Directed by Robert Kelly
Thru June 29, 2014
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts

Friday, February 1, 2013

Promises, Promises : South Bay Musical Theatre : A Capsule Review

Promises, Promises, the new show at the South Bay Musical Theatre in Saratoga, features an impressive pedigree. With words and music by ‘60s pop icons Hal David and Burt Bacharach, and a book by the prolific Neil Simon – adapted from an Oscar-winning movie by Billy Wilder, no less – how can this musical comedy go wrong? Well, the fact is it went quite right when it debuted in 1968 on Broadway where it became a long-running commercial hit. And this fine community theatre production does not diminish that impressive legacy.

The story is ostensibly a light send-up, but the playwright does retain some of the trademark Wilder bittersweet wistfulness throughout, particularly in the second act. Depicting a pre-feminist era when sexual harassment was almost considered acceptable masculine behavior, the story is certainly an eye-opener in terms of the way women were treated 45 years ago.

Our protagonist, Chuck Baxter (Michael Rhone), is a young, fledgling accountant with a very large insurance company, climbing the corporate ladder by lending out his Manhattan apartment as “tryst central” for a coterie of adulterous, middle-aged executives.

As is de rigueur for the male dominated business office culture of the period, Chuck is on the make, and he has his eye on a waitress in the company cafeteria, Fran Kubelik (Cindy Powell). Unlike the others, however, he’s single and his intentions are strictly honorable.

Unfortunately, Fran is also in the crosshairs of his married, philandering boss, J.D. Sheldrake (a convincingly caddish Damian Marhefka). Of course, complications ensue as we root for Chuck and Fran to get together.

Michael Rhone is the real deal. A winning, ubiquitous presence on the Bay Area stage, he can read a line with uncanny nuance and comic timing; is equally proficient at both song and dance; and can conjure up priceless facial expressions without appearing cloy or affected. He was born to play this role, and he does so with just the right balance of irony and pathos. Bravo!

He’s given ample support by the large cast, including Ms. Powell in a splendid duet of the perennial favorite “I’ll never fall in love again”; Breigh Zack Finnerty as the inebriated and flirtatious bar patron Marge MacDougal; and Bob Visini as the kibitzing next-door neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss.

And the choreography by Lee Ann Payne, when not utilizing the entire talented ensemble to spectacular effect, is most affecting in the smaller numbers, including a finely tuned scene between Rhone and Marhefka (“It’s our little secret”).

While the denouement is perhaps not totally convincing, the play under Walter M. Mayes’ solid direction is, for the most part, quite entertaining. And the deft musical direction by Dan Singletary, who conducts an impressively large orchestra for a venue the size of the Civic Theatre (with a requisite strong horn section doing justice to the brilliant Bacharach compositions), seals the deal.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Reckless : San Jose Stage Company : A Capsule Review

Craig Lucas’ aptly named Reckless is a satiric fantasy set in the holiday season that is not quite in keeping with the merry tradition of the genre. But in its own special way this comic odyssey, which is as dark as it is hilarious, is as wonderful and indelible as anything Frank Capra could have imagined.

The intricate story features a resilient, albeit pollyannaish, protagonist Rachel Fitzsimmons (Halsey Varady), coping with a life depicted as a succession of 28 fanciful episodes. At first they appear haphazard, even surreal, but as the story unfolds the thematic underpinnings reveal themselves as both wisely deliberate and firmly grounded in reality.

The play starts with a euphoric Rachel, at home on Christmas Eve, reminiscing about her childhood memories of the festive occasion. But things go south very quickly, as her husband Tom (an affecting Will Springhorn Jr.) warns her that he’s placed a contract out on her life and that a hitman will be breaking in to kill her at any moment.  She narrowly slips away through their bedroom window, thus embarking on an unexpected and amazing journey into self-discovery.

Every principal character in the play is not exactly whom they appear to be; each one has adopted a persona in an attempt to flee a past that the playwright posits is simply inescapable. Mr. Lucas suggests that we are all inextricably tied to and affected by that which has preceded us. Moreover, he asserts that to find “meaning” in it all is a futile undertaking, and that all one can do is to come to terms with what has happened and move forward as best one can. And then, perhaps, the choices one makes will lead to a better existence or even redemption – or maybe not.
Halsey Varady, Michael Navarra and Katie O'Bryon
Rachel’s method for dealing with the cards she's dealt is to constantly verbalize her thoughts and observations and  to place a positive spin on all that befalls her - tantamount to a stream of consciousness monologue. Her denial and self-delusion may be disconcerting and even annoying at times, but it is an effective way of dissociating herself from the pain and loneliness that envelops her. Unfortunately, this coping strategy also serves to separate herself from her own identity.

Halsey Varady’s portrayal of the beleaguered heroine is a genuine tour de force, executing the voluminous lines with a manic intensity that would be exhausting to watch if not for her natural charm and technical virtuosity. Her timing is impeccable, made all the more difficult by the sign language she’s required to employ during many of her scenes. And despite the emotional distance required of the role, Ms. Varady somehow manages to convey an innocence and melancholy that draws one in. Brava!

The supporting cast are required to play multiple roles, and each member does an excellent job in striking the right chord between realism and the absurd. Of particular note are the versatile Dena Martinez as the many diverse therapeutic "doctors" who Rachel encounters along the way, and the superbly talented Michael Navarra and Katie O'Bryon as the couple who take her in early on.

And Kenneth Kelleher directs it all seamlessly and at a brisk pace, staging the many transitions with the clever use of props, whimsical costumes by Jean Cardinale, exquisite sound design by John Koss, and the creative lighting of the inimitable Michael Palumbo.

Don’t miss this latest, memorable entry by San Jose Stage Company that’s head and shoulders above the usual holiday fare.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Die Fledermaus : Opera San Jose : A Capsule Review

Johann Strauss, Jr.’s operetta, Die Fledermaus, is a Viennese comedy with roots in German farce and French vaudeville of the late 1800s. And indeed, from the opening bar of the Waltz King’s brilliant, melodic overture – conducted under the masterful baton of musical director David Rohrbaugh – the promise that fun times are about to ensue is clearly at hand. Thankfully, this wonderful production by Opera San Jose does not disappoint.

Although the plot involves infidelity, duplicity and revenge, it’s a frothy romp that waltzes its way onto your funny bone and doesn’t let go until the last bottle of bubbly is uncorked. Moreover, its many pleasures are made all the more accessible by the smart decision to recite the spoken dialogue in English – peppered with a few not too subtle modern references.

Gabriel von Eisenstein (tenor James Callon) is a banker’s assistant who’s about to serve a brief stint in jail for engaging in questionable derivative trading – sound familiar? But before he’s able to turn himself in, he’s invited by his friend, Dr. Falke (an impressive baritone Zachary Altman), to a fantasy ball hosted by an 18-year-old playboy, Prince Orlofsky (mezzo-soprano Nicole Birkland in a “breeches role”). Falke assures the reticent Gabriel that his friendship with the warden will ensure his safe surrender the following morning.

In reality this invitation is part of an elaborate scheme by Falke to seek revenge for being the victim of a practical joke in which Gabriel had left him drunk and humiliated in a public square dressed as a bat (aka fledermaus). The plan is to expose the philandering Gabriel for the true scoundrel that he is.

Rosalinde, (soprano Melody King), Gabriel’s wife, sees her husband’s imminent departure as a chance to rekindle a romance with Alfred (a melodious and hilarious tenor Michael Dailey), a former suitor and opera singer who serenades her at every opportunity. Things go awry very quickly, however, and in a case of mistaken identity the hapless Alfred ends up serving Gabriel’s prison sentence!

Of course, ultimately everyone (except poor Alfred) ends up at the prince’s party under disguise, including Adele (soprano Jillian Boye), Gabriel’s spirited chambermaid.

Lyric tenor Mr. Callon handles both the acting and singing chores with equal aplomb, displaying a refined tone and an affable comedic sense. His "watch duet" with Ms. King – “My eyes will soon be dim” – is nicely conceived and executed, and he comes alive vocally in the final terzett with Ms. King and Mr. Dailey (“A strange adventure”).

Unfortunately, one is obliged to add that Mr. Callon’s duet with Mr. Altman (“Come with me to the souper") was virtually drowned out by the vibrant orchestra on opening night.

Ms. King’s performance is fine if not somewhat subdued throughout, and her vocalizations noticeably falter during the closing passages of the beautiful csardas aria “Sounds from home.” She does find her stride, however, in Act 3 (in the aforementioned “A strange adventure”).

The vivacious Ms. Boye is a sheer delight and just about steals the show, displaying impeccable comic timing and a crystalline voice. Her high notes are clear and open, and she performs the demanding coloratura phrasings of  “My lord marquis” (“The Laughing Song”) with confidence and considerable panache. Brava!
  Cast A: Soprano Jillian Boye as Adele
The remaining cast is uniformly good, including bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala (“Frank”), and Kelly Houston in a non-singing role (“Frosch”).

Marc Jacobs directs all elements with consummate skill, employing props as exorbitant as a large Faberge egg, and taking full advantage of his superb set and costume designers (Charlie Smith and Cathleen Edwards, respectively) and utilizing the talented, ebullient chorus (under chorus master Andrew Whitfield) to full effect.

Mr. Jacobs’ attention to detail, however, is perhaps best exemplified during the quieter moments of the lovely opening sequence of the third act that feature some excellent acting technique by Mr. Musik-Ayala. Bravi!

And one must not forget the spectacular and clever choreography provided by Robyn Tribuzi – particularly in the final scenes of Act 2 ("Unter Donner und Blitz”; “Ha, what joy, what a night of delight”) that include an elaborate “falling dominoes” number – performed with the invaluable assistance of her dancers and the entire ensemble.

This is another rousing entry in Opera San Jose’s far too short 29th anniversary season.