Saturday, December 18, 2010

Noises Off : South Valley Civic Theatre: A Fun Time at the Theatre

This show has had its run, so there's no point in a detailed review. Suffice it to say that this was a first rate production of an uproariously funny play. The cast was uniformly fine, with standouts too numerous to mention. It's such a pleasure to laugh out loud and mean it! I'll certainly be back to see future SVCT events..

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Lion in Winter : Actors Theatre of SF : A Failure of Tone and Talent

Goldman’s searing expose of royal dysfunction was a critical hit, if not a commercial one, when it was produced in the ‘60s. It’s not hard to imagine how the strange marriage of familial depravity and acerbic wit would strike a chord with the iconoclastic mood of the time.

But offering a modern sensibility to a drama set in a medieval historical context can be a daunting challenge. Should it be an outright satire; or perhaps the material can be approached with shades of grey humor, if not entirely black? And there’s always a danger that placing too much emphasis on the comedy would devolve into something reminiscent of Mel Brooks.

The key, then, would be too commit to a tone that makes sense and play it for all it’s worth. This, of course, requires consummate skill, especially when the actor is being asked to complement the tragic machinations of the plot with dialogue that often borders upon self-mockery. This high wire act could be fatal if the performer does not achieve the perfect equilibrium.

And there’s the rub of this production. It’s obvious that the process of developing a coherent intonation was sorely lacking any good creative ideas. That basic flaw, however, does not excuse the paucity of talent on display among an aimless cast desperate for a compass. A failure of such proportions is uncharacteristic of Actors Theatre. ‘Tis a pity.

Babes in Arms : 42nd Street Moon : Another Winner!

The Great Depression of the '30s was not just an economic phenomenon. To avert a descent into an emotional abyss as well, the nation almost universally embraced the ebullience and optimism provided by the American musical. The gifted songwriting team of Rodgers and Hart were without peer in their uncanny ability to mitigate the despair with memorable melodies and clever lyrics destined to become popular classics.

To capture the prevalent spirit of an ostensibly simpler time in a manner that rings true during an era where irony has supplanted sentiment would appear to be a tall order. As current events have revealed, however, history has a bad habit of repeating itself. And despite the veneer of 21st century cool, deep down people will always remain visceral creatures. The powers that be at 42nd Street Moon have never lost sight of this basic truth.

That is why virtually all facets of this wonderful production succeed brilliantly. The cast is uniformly fine, with precise comic timing, superb vocal proficiency and inspired acting performances offered throughout. Most notable are Tyner Rushing (Delores), Sophia Rose Morris (Baby Rose) and Joshua James (Marshall), who inhabit their characters with such utter abandon that they’re a sheer joy to behold. And the balletic moves of young Isaiah Boyd would do Ballanchine (the original choreographer) proud.

Direction, both acting and musical, is executed with a refreshing creative acuity. Staging and choreography for the relatively large ensemble are, in a word, outstanding. The intricate and delightful choreography composed for the two “Gus (Danny Gozart) and Delores (Rushing)” duets are just a sample of the many highlights. And the several choral numbers are delivered with enough exuberance to elicit goose bumps!

Notwithstanding the consummate skill on display, the musical is not without its shortcomings. Most unexpectedly, despite featuring tunes that have become sentimental standards, the strong political themes of the story almost eclipse, albeit entertainingly, the essential romanticism. This is due, in part, to the lack of any perceptible chemistry between the two leads, Michael Scott Wells (Val) and Alexandra Kaprielian (Billie).

Moreover, Ms. Kaprielian’s performance, including her competent renditions of perennial favorites “My Funny Valentine” and “The Lady is a Tramp”, tended to emphasize the artifice of her meticulous technique over heartfelt emotion. She’s undoubtedly quite talented, but arguably miscast here. And one has reason to suspect that she was understandably intimidated by the generations of legendary singers who have covered the songs before her. That's a tough legacy to follow for anyone!

Nitpicking aside, this is without a doubt one of the best revivals I’ve had the good fortune to witness in a long time. I recommend, without reservation, that everyone march their way down forthwith to the Eureka Theatre and experience this little gem of family-friendly merriment before it becomes history once again!

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Christmas Carol : Northside Theatre Company San Jose : Nicely Done!

Dickens’ paean to the indomitability of the human spirit is the quintessential Christmas story. As such, it has been produced countless times by anyone courageous, if not foolish, enough to give it a try. That being the case, is it possible to bring something new to the perennial favorite?

Indeed, the creative folks at the Northside Theatre Company have more than a few tricks up their sleeves. Namely, a prodigious talent for lighting, sound and set design, and impeccable staging. Not to mention a keen casting sense that’s savvy enough to offer the central role to the inimitable Ross Arden Harkness. A better choice could not have been made!

Scrooge must possess a palpable gravitas to be taken seriously, and Harkness possesses it in droves. He pilots this vessel’s talented ensemble with the assurance of a ship’s captain. And his crew does not let him down, each performing their assigned duties with an infectious, unbridled enthusiasm.

Typically with companies this size, the pool of available talent from which it can draw can leave much to be desired. Remarkably, this little theatre company that could had the good fortune to harvest the cream of the crop for this outing. Supporting turns by Michael Swearington (Bob Cratchit), Melinda Marks (Belle) and Angie Higgins (Christmas Past) are particularly noteworthy. And Leah Kolchinsky (Martha Cratchit) has a singular stage presence that will serve her well as she hones her already considerable skills as an actress.

That being said, one would be remiss if I failed to address the befuddling performance of Timothy Garcia in one scene as the wildly flirtatious Topper. Although his comical approach remains true to the character as described in Dickens’ novella, Mr. Garcia adopts a campy, flamboyant tone that is glaringly out of place. To be frank, after picking my jaw off the floor it left me scratching my head!

Misgivings aside, of which there are few, one should not miss this exemplary little production of a genuine holiday classic!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum : 42nd Street Moon : Mostly a Success

“A Funny Thing…” owes as much to 20th century vaudeville as it does Plautine comedy of ancient Rome, and it remains true to all comedic epochs in between. Interestingly, it has much in common with A.C.T.’s current adaptation of the Moliere farce, Scapin.

The latter, however, has the advantage of having the central role performed by the inimitable Mr. Irwin. Here, we have Megan Cavanagh, playing the quintessential male central character, Pseudolus, with less than stellar results.

Ms. Cavanagh gives the role her all, but her comic talents are slight, as is her boyish voice which proved to be ill-suited even for the forgiving spatial dimensions offered by the Eureka Theatre.

Thankfully, the play works mostly as an ensemble piece, and much of the casting is actually quite inspired. Most notably, Rob Hatzenbeller as the classic braggart soldier, Miles Gloriosis, and Michael Rhone as the hysterically “calm” head slave, Hysterium. If scene-stealing were a capital crime, they’d be sitting on death row!

Playing to a full house, the minimal production values were enhanced by the small confines provided by its intimate venue. Kudos to 42nd Street Moon for once again resuscitating a Broadway standard. This surefire crowd-pleaser is time and dinarii well-spent...

P.S.: I've learned that on the day of this performance Ms. Cavanagh's sister had passed away. This undoubtedly explains her subdued performance. I offer my condolences...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Turn of the Screw : Dragon Theatre Palo Alto : Magnificent!

The success of Jeffrey Hatcher’s riveting adaptation of the classic Henry James novella is wholly dependent upon the unity of purpose of its acting twosome. Both must be utterly committed to revealing the emotional reality of their characters without sacrificing the ambiguous supernatural elements suggested by the narrative.

I am happy to report that Katie Anderson and George Psarras are equally up to the task. Aided by minimal yet smartly designed production values, together they deliver an acting performance tantamount to a harmonious duet that’s operatic in scope. Bravo!

Mr. Psarras’ psychological intensity is apparent from the first line. His preternaturally seamless character transitions, accomplished by subtle physical manipulations and nimble vocal transformations, is most impressive!

And Ms. Anderson’s courageous willingness to completely inhabit the governess’ frightening emotional complexity is truly inspirational. She masterfully embraces her torment without making the mistake of lapsing into a caricature of total madness. Well done!

The debate about whether James’ ghosts are a product of tragic mental delusion or actual apparitions may never be satisfactorily resolved. But one thing is certain: the bravura acting talent currently on display at Dragon Productions is a perfect match for the compelling and beautifully written material. A genuinely gripping and memorable experience!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

First Day of School : City Lights Theatre Company : A Star is Formed

In the tradition of the British sex romp, there is no actual sex on display, let alone nudity, in this very funny American variation. Nonetheless, the underlying theme of repressed passion in suburbia is ubiquitous, and on occasion downright palpable.

The cast is uniformly fine, and work together well. Each member of the ensemble hits their marks and reads their lines with sufficient comic timing and humorous acumen to tickle the funny bone more often than not-sometimes mercilessly!

But, I have to say, Mandy Manousos is in a league all her own. To extend the baseball metaphor, she hits her character out of the park. I’ve observed this phenomenon before, and when I do it’s an utter joy to behold. Some refer to it, simply enough, as the “it” factor.

I don’t have the facility with words to adequately describe it, but when witnessed one can’t help but recognize how special it is. It’s a singular, magical quality that transcends mere acting talent. It’s an uncanny ability to make the absurd seem real. The evocation is never artificial, but comes from a vulnerable space that few are prepared to reveal. You can’t take your eyes off her.

In the event she has the appropriate ambition, and fate bestows upon her the opportunity, stardom is inevitable. I’m so happy to have gazed upon this star so early in her formation.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sunset Boulevard : Palo Alto Players : Poor Casting and Lackluster Material

Sadly, this is a mess. Where should I begin?

The sound design is so unbalanced that the chamber-sized orchestra drowns out the acoustically enhanced performers. Miscues in lighting, coupled with downright poor design choices, are simply too blatant to ignore. Recitative passages alternate with straight dialogue for no discernable reason to the point of distraction. And with the exception of a few songs, none are moving, let alone memorable.

The two leads, who were most likely chosen for their exceptional vocal acumen, approach the material from two jarringly different styles. It’s hard to imagine a more astounding casting misstep!

Annmarie Martin, despite possessing a wonderful voice of show-stopping potential, is wildly uneven in all facets of her performance. She appears lost, as demonstrated by jarring fits of intensity, all the while clumsily feigning either a Mid-Atlantic or West Coast dialect. One wonders if the character equally perplexed the director!

Ashley Simms, blessed with an oral instrument of pleasant melodious range and warm timbre, is just too immature to play a role that demands such obvious gravitas. While no one expects him to fill the shoes of a William Holden, one cannot fathom why anyone would find him well suited for the part.

On a more positive note, a strong supporting turn, both in singing and acting skill, is thankfully delivered by the sonorous baritone Russ Bohard. Unlike his fellow cast mates, he has a clear grasp of the world his laconic character inhabits and his place within it. Bravo! And honorable mention must be given to the artful set and costume design.

While I wholeheartedly encourage continuing support of the good works typical of the Palo Alto Players, this is not a representative sample of that laudable tradition. Reluctantly, I must recommend that one consider an investment of time and dollars elsewhere.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Murder for Two - A Killer Musical : 42nd Street Moon : A Comic Tour de Force!

Kinosian and Blair have publicly professed their allegiance to the conventions of the venerable musicals of a bygone era. The truth is, however, that they’ve composed a minor classic all their own that is as much subversive as it is respectful to the genre. That is no mean feat!

The nonstop humor is played with both broad and subtle strokes, and a perpetual droll wink, by a talented cast of two. To his credit, Adam Overett plays the straight man with enough comic alacrity and musical finesse to weather the force of nature that is Joe Kinosian. It's a daunting task, to say the least, and he succeeds admirably.

Kinosian, co-creator of the piece, adroitly performs ten discrete characters with a near boundless elan. The sheer physical and mental dexterity needed to convincingly portray several personalities while maintaining an insouciant charm is a genuine tour de force. The man is truly possessed with a prodigious, albeit demonic, talent!

Inasmuch as this comedy is also a musical, one is obliged to mention that the catchy melodies don’t wield quite the same impact as the masterfully honed wit of the lyrics. And Kenosian’s singing voice, while more than adequate, doesn’t live up to his acting prowess.

If one were to make a suggestion, despite its relative brevity, the show would benefit from an intermission. It can actually be exhausting just watching Kinosian, and one does detect a slight waning of both endurance and comic-timing during the latter half.

Be that as it may, this successful exercise in manic hilarity is as fun as it gets in live theatre. And it’s hard to imagine a better venue for this scale of production than the cozy ambiance of the Eureka Theatre. Go see it-now!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Fantasticks : SF Playhouse : Excellent Cast Elevate Material

The S.F. Playhouse production of "The Fantasticks" was first-rate. Small, intimate venue, excellent ensemble, great vocals by Ms. Moafi. Not my favorite musical, ergo the four stars, but the strong, talented cast make it very entertaining and a must-see for the musical theatre aficionado!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Music Man : South Bay Musical Theater : First-Rate Production of an American Classic

Like Oz, River City is a city that exists only in our collective imagination. Nonetheless, it’s not an overstatement to say that its existence is embedded so deeply in the subconscious of the baby boomer generation that it has attained the status of myth. As such, it serves an essential purpose by defining and validating just who and what we are as a culture. To put it simply, this wonderful musical with its lovely, unforgettable tunes is as American as the proverbial apple pie.

Preston, Jones and Howard, cast in the classic movie adaptation, set the standard for their respective characters, and they have yet to be surpassed. Nevertheless, this version comes astonishingly close to reaching that high bar. The exceedingly talented White, Winslow and DeHart are simply marvelous to behold, performing true to the heart and spirit of their characters without resorting to some ersatz imitation of the original template. And their success can be attributed in no small measure to the uniformly strong and delightful supporting performances and the visionary direction of C. Michael Traw. Outstanding!

It’s a first class production in virtually every aspect: from the elaborate choreography and costuming, to the creative set, audio and lighting design-it’s definitely a winner. Notwithstanding some audio mixing problems, and the irony of a slightly out of tune, yet more than adequate, live orchestra, the presentation was virtually flawless. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that with a little more burnish we’re talkin’ the Curran in San Francisco, even Broadway, folks!

At the risk of sounding like a latter-day Professor Harold Hill, please do yourself a favor ladies and gentleman and run, not walk, to the theatre and treat yourself to this exceptionally entertaining slice of Americana before it ends its short run. Egads!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Scrambled Eggs : Northside Theatre Company : Farce Highlighted by Wonderful Acting

It’s a life presented from a decidedly feminine persective, filled with a series of seamless anecdotes of which both genders can readily relate.

This is a genuinely funny comedy made all the more successful by Leslie Hardy Lloyd's prodigious command of the central character's perpetual recitation of the watershed, albeit mostly comedic, moments of her life.

Equally praiseworthy are the two remaining cast members of this tiny ensemble, Jerry Lloyd and Ambera DeLash, each performing various supporting roles with a deft comic aplomb.

Skilled execution of the simple yet creative lighting and sound design enhance the ambient effect of this modest but professionally staged production.

The theatre was undeservedly full of mostly empty seats on a Friday night. This lack of support for the phenomenal talent on display at our smaller local theatre companies is unacceptable South Bay!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Reasons to be Pretty : San Jose Stage Company : Cast Challenged by Material

LaBute’s gift for creating dialogue with pitch-perfect realism and authenticity puts Mamet to shame. Conversations are composed with a deceptively mundane naturalism that could cause one to overlook the keen observations being made.

The total impact of what is really being said is largely dependent upon the ability of the actor to deliver the full resonance of the words. That being said, not all of the cast members are up to the task.

Stephanie, who’s introduced spewing a flood of profane invective, must possess a complexity and vulnerability to engender any sympathy, let alone empathy. Despite her best efforts, Ms. Verady never quite succeeds in playing the right note.

The remaining three players are more successfully portrayed, particularly by Robert Brewer, who brings a depth to Greg, the central character, who at first glance could easily be mistaken as ordinary.

Will Springhorn Jr., as Greg’s friend Kent, provides the requisite testosterone filled charisma as a philandering jock, but his macho bravado would benefit from just a bit less intensity.

Allison F. Rich, on the other hand, shines as Kent’s wife as she deftly traverses a challenging range of emotions with a wonderfully magnetic subtlety. She’s quite good.

Notwithstanding the uneven performances, this provocative play manages to be both acerbic and sentimental. I wholeheartedly endorse spending two hours of your time supporting local theatre at its best!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Sweeney Todd : Sunnyvale Community Players : Enthusiastic Cast Highlight Production

Minimalist but effective production, with a hard working cast with varying degrees of vocal and acting talent. It's bolstered by some genuinely creative staging and the good fortune of being accompanied by a live orchestra.

The lead is competently portrayed by the gigantic Walter M. Mayes. His sheer physical stature lends the part a unique gravitas which his performance would be lacking otherwise.

On the otherhand, Ruth E. Stein's Mrs. Lovett is polished to a bright lustre, both in singing prowess and comic-timing.

The remaining cast members carry their weight, with honorable mention to Jordan Pajarillo, who's superb vocal interpretation and earnest characterization of young Tobias almost steals the show.

Enjoyment of the overall experience was tempered only by some annoying audio problems and poor execution by the lighting crew.

Disappointingly, the theatre was undeservedly half full on a Saturday night. Please support your local repertory companies, South Bay!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Shopping: The Musical : Bobrow Productions : Outstanding Original Revue

A wonderful ensemble cast, featuring a series of clever, comical musical vignettes on the topic of shopping. Not a musical in the strictest sense, but a contemporary revue without any discernible storyline, but an underlying theme which is universal.

Most of the sketches hit their targets successfully and are often laugh-out-loud funny. The only flaw I could observe was the lack of electronic amplification which proved to be a disservice to some of the performers during the choral numbers. Perhaps one or two members of the cast could temper the volume just a tad? Otherwise, the tiny "theatre" and minimalist production requires little in the way of fancy props or equipment.

Oh, and the hard-working and talented piano accompanist, Ms. Dwyer, is stunningly beautiful to the point of distraction!

A great evening out for those who do not require the window dressing of the larger, high-priced venues. Have fun!


Saturday, August 7, 2010

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof : Actors Theatre of SF : Cast Challenged by Brilliant Classic

A riveting southern gothic play that must be seen in the intimate venue offered by the Actors Theatre. Produced on a shoestring budget without any attempt at creative staging, it's the power of the words that buoy this production to great heights. It's definitely a classic for good reason!

The acting talent is admittedly uneven, but everyone gives it their all, with Christian Phillips' gravitas laden Big Daddy a stand-out.

The two leads can best be described as adequate. Ms. Welch's skill is readily apparent, and she successfully imbues her difficult character with intelligence, depth and a palpable ambivalence. Unfortunately, she fails to deliver the requisite sultry, simmering sexuality of Maggie the Cat. And although baritone-voiced Mr. Russell appears well cast for the role, he fails to find his bearings and portrays the laconic Brick as nigh inscrutable.

But, notwithstanding its evident shortcomings, the overall experience is compelling, poignant and highly satisfying . I strongly recommend it for anyone who appreciates great theatre!