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.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson : San Francisco Playhouse : A Capsule Review

San Francisco Playhouse opens its milestone tenth season with a bang, sporting a new, more spacious venue and a timely production that can only be described as a masterpiece in post-modern cynicism.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a darkly satiric shot between the eyes of our nation’s history and political system. And, for better or worse, it’s also an unmistakable exercise in American self-loathing.

Ensemble with Jackson (Ashkon Davaran) pushing him to run for office.
Librettist Alex Timbers and composer Michael Friedman’s musical is not only a merciless indictment of our political tradition and institutions, however. It’s also a slap in the face and antithesis of virtually every convention held dear during musical theatre's "golden age." In that sense it’s a sneering rejection of an important part of our culture, too.

It’s probably not a stretch that Rodgers and Hammerstein would turn over in their graves if they knew what had become of the genre they helped create. Pop sentimentality and memorable melodies have been supplanted with grunge angst and dissonant harmonics, featuring such ironic lyrics as:

         A wise woman once wrote that illness is not metaphor.
               So why do I feel sick when I look at you?
               There is this illness in me and I need to get it out, so when I bleed
               It's not blood, it's a metaphor for love.”

Michael Barrett Austin∗, El Beh, Ashkon Davaron, Angel Burgess, Lucas Hatton Celebrate Presidential Victory

Andrew Jackson is parodied as a president with a guitar wielding, tight-jeaned brand of celebrity populism that’s indistinguishable from a rock icon. The work suggests that his deluded sense of entitlement and genocidal tendencies are emblematic of the country’s character, and that the public adoration he garners is both hollow and fickle. It’s hard to imagine a more hopeless and depressing depiction of the American zeitgeist.

That being said, however, the high-energy cast is anything but enervating and does not succumb to the downbeat message. 

Ensemble with Jackson (Ashkon Davaran) pushing him to run for office.
Ashkon Davaran is mesmerizing as the charismatic Commander-in-Chief, adopting the narcissistic persona with a frenetic abandon. It’s a genuine star making turn, and his convincing vocalizations only serve to elevate his remarkable performance.

El Beh sings solo “10 Little Indians”
Each member of the remaining young cast embrace their multiple roles with equal vigor, with the impressive and versatile ensemblist and cello-player El Beh (“Ten Little Indians”) among the many standouts.

Except for some occasional sound issues, all elements of this otherwise fine-tuned show are first-rate. John Tracy’s direction is brisk and his staging is ingenious – complemented by the tight handiwork of musical director Jonathan Fadner and the lighting of Kurt Landisman. And the company has finally found a home at the Walter Kasper Teufel, Jr. Auditorium (in the Kensington Park Hotel) that will undoubtedly better suit its oeuvre.

One would be remiss, however, without acknowledging the magnificent contribution of maestro designer Nina Ball. As the play lays bare the American psyche, so does the symbolism of her (capitol) domed, girdered steel framework and oval-shaped, E pluribus unum sealed set. It is an outstanding example of inspired, thematic design. Brava!

Presidents Van Buren, Calhoun, Clay and Monroe conspire to keep Jackson out of Presidency (William Elsman, Michael Barrett Austin, Safiya Fredericks, Lucas Hatton

The show runs through November 24th. (90 minutes with no intermission.)

~Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Updated: 10/16/2012 08:20:00 AM PDT

Friday, September 21, 2012

Anything Goes : South Bay Musical Theatre : A Capsule Review

It’s no wonder that Cole Porter’s Anything Goes has had several revivals since its Broadway debut in 1934 – it’s a veritable showcase for brilliant, American pop standards. And its book is a classic example of the early days of musical comedy theatre, with an unmistakable satirical subtext if one wants to look beneath the otherwise clever farce.

The story is much too convoluted to explain, but it involves the madcap antics of a potpourri of passengers (and stowaways) aboard the luxury ocean liner "SS American" that's bound for England. It features the usual stereotypical characters and absurd plot elements, including fun disguises, mistaken identities, unexpected plot twists and a happy, matrimonial ending for any and all matched pairs so inclined. And this South Bay Musical Theatre presentation, under the deft hand of director/choreographer Afton Bolz, does it all with considerable charm and aplomb.

Glenna Murillo, who can truly belt-out a tune like no one else, makes for a convincing Reno Sweeney, the earthy nightclub singer and part-time evangelist, whose affections for the uninterested Billy Crocker (Stephane Alwyan) are inexplicably redirected towards the upper crust British buffoon Evelyn Oakley (Adrien Gleason).

Sweeney is a role that Ethel Merman made famous in the original ‘30s production, and the impressive Ms. Murrillo fills her shoes quite nicely - her first act finale rendition of “Anything Goes” is a certified show-stopper.

Stephane Alwyn’s portrayal, both in terms of acting and singing, is a spot-on evocation of the style and essence of a debonair leading man of the period. His mid-Atlantic elocution is impeccable, resisting any temptation to resort to lazy caricature. It’s obviously a product of much preparation and personal affinity for the part. Bravo!

Overall, the vocalizations are quite good, with an unexpectedly resonant and dynamic vocal performance of “The Gypsy in Me” by Mr. Gleason, which is sung in duet with Ms. Murillo and sweetly choreographed by Ms. Bolz.

And local stage veteran Dave Leon’s inebriated, Lockjaw personification of affluent “Yale Man” Eli Whitney, is undoubtedly the comic standout for the evening. I hasten to add, however, that he’s given stiff competition for that honor by both Shawn Bender and Kayvon Kordestani-Thompson, as New York gangster "Moonface" Martin and his moll, Erma, respectively.

It’s a genuine good time at the theatre.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Doubt, A Parable : Coastal Repertory Theatre : Capsule Review

Quite frankly, John Patrick Shanley, playwright of the Pulitzer and Tony-award winning Doubt: A Parable, provides in the program prefatory notes a cogent and revelatory analysis of the main themes of his own one act play that surpasses anything that a critic can offer. 

With all the high-mindedness evident in his preface, however, one could lose sight of the fact that his work is one entertaining yarn, with the numerous intense verbal exchanges bearing more than a passing resemblance to a classic courtroom drama.

And the assured direction of this Coastal Repertory Theatre production by the preternaturally talented Martin Rojas Dietrich doesn’t fail to exploit that essential aspect. He stages many scenes in a set conceived ostensibly as a school principal’s office (but in effect serving as a courtroom), with actors seated and reciting their lines while facing the audience - as if placed on a witness stand testifying before a jury.

But this taut, engrossing mystery does not confine itself to the cerebral, with more inspirational and personal interludes taking place in the remaining two sections of the artfully imagined triptych scenic design (designer Bob Mitton). Each set is thematically inspired, featuring a divine church pulpit with iconic, stain glassed windows, and a human-centric, life-affirming garden.

Michael Lederman, artistic director of the company, is simply superb as Father Flynn, the benevolent parish priest and teacher suspected of having an inappropriate relationship with a young student. His eloquent, exalted sermons are delivered to perfection.
Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Nancy Martin), the stern, conservative and distrusting Catholic school principal, is the antithesis of Father Flynn and is on a mission to destroy him.

Ms. Martin is frightfully (and frighteningly) good, evincing an unblinking, zealous certitude without an ounce of compassion. She’s totally convincing in a role that personifies both judge and prosecutor. It’s certainly no coincidence that she’s dressed in a black habit that could be mistaken for a judicial robe (costumer Sue Joswiak).

Kateri Rose is so marvelous that one can’t help but wonder if she’s a casting coup or an extraordinarily gifted actress. She simultaneously oozes an endearing naïveté, affecting warmth and an inner strength as the young Sister James - her doe-eyed and startled expressions are priceless. It’s hard to imagine a better portrayal.

Alexaendrai Bond as Mrs. Muller, the mother of the boy in question, completes the small cast. Her single scene is short and exposes the play's weaker development of its racial theme, but her compelling performance brings credibility to what is otherwise an unbelievable character.

Coastal Rep has certainly ended its season on a high-note. Bravo!

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Pearl Fishers : Opera San Jose : A Capsule Review

George Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers (1863) is an earlier work in the Parisian composer’s relatively short career that, despite its own merit, will undoubtedly remain forever in the shadow of his phenomenally popular final masterpiece, Carmen.

That’s a shame, however, because its many inspired duets and haunting arias are vivid illustrations of Bizet's genius that should not be overlooked. Moreover, its economical narrative style, incorporating all of the classic, romanticized themes of forbidden passion, unrequited love, betrayal and death, provide a highly accessible and entertaining introduction to grand opera - in the French tradition.

The story, set in a fishing village in ancient Ceylon, begins with two close friends, hunter Nadir (lyric tenor Alexander Boyer) and village leader Zurga (baritone Evan Brummel), taking an eternal oath not to allow their obsessive desire for a beautiful priestess, Leila (soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez), come to fruition and destroy their friendship.

Nadir and Zurga’s poetic duet, “Au fond du temple saint,” is the work’s most renowned piece and is a recurring melody. It highlights Boyer’s warm, mellifluous timbre and Brummel’s pure, robust resonance, each complementing the other to full musical and dramatic effect.

Of course, things go awry and Nadir quickly succumbs to Leila’s ethereal beauty, thereby placing the emotionally devastated Zurga in the onerous position of deciding the errant couple's fate. And, indeed, it all comes to a fatal, melodramatic conclusion. But the specific choices made by Zurga in the final moments are not only surprising but quite moving in their nobility and selflessness. Brummel's impressive acting acumen in no small measure adds to the scene's visceral impact.

The young and exotically good-looking Ms. Lopez makes for a convincing Leila, and her siren voice is truly enchanting. She never falters, displaying a striking vocal control and magnificent dynamic range throughout, matched only by a luminescent smile and a fiery persona that comes to life in the third act in her successive numbers with Brummel. Brava!

The production overall is professionally staged (Richard Harrell) and somewhat modest in scope, with little or no set transitions (Charlie Smith). Since events transpire very quickly, there’s no opportunity for any costume changes (Elizabeth Poindexter). But the second act does employ some spectacular sound and lighting design (Pamila Gray), and the final sequence features some strong dancing and choreography (Lise La Cour). And Opera San Jose veteran Anthony Quartuccio conducts the orchestra with appropriate vigor and finesse.

It's an impressive debut for the company's 29th season which, incidentally, is located at one of the most intimate and audience-friendly venues for opera in the world - San Jose's palatial California Theatre.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Collapse : Renegade Theatre Experiment : A Capsule Review

Admittedly, the infamous I-35W bridge collapse in Minnesota in 2007, as both the thematic and scenic backdrop of this superb play, is a perfect metaphor for the “Great Recession.”

One wonders, however,  if a story – and a comedy, no less – about the profound psychic toll paid during a period of unprecedented economic failure can offer any important insight before the cataclysm itself has even reached a true bottom, i.e., the bridge is still falling. After all, it's the distance of time away from the event that serves to sharpen perspective.

On the other hand, there's a danger that time can also blunt the memory and dull the pain of our collective agony. Perhaps more than anything, it's the immediacy and raw appeal of Allison Moore’s Collapse that gives the material such emotional resonance and undeniable power. It’s hard not to instantly recognize in oneself or others the behavior of each character as they struggle to find support and cope with the anguish of an unrelenting free fall.

But what makes this Renegade Theatre Experiment production a success is the marvelous cast, anchored by a compelling performance by the luminous Alika Ululani Spencer (Hannah), whose complex and achingly funny portrayal is a case study in desperate vulnerability. Brava!

Sara Luna  (Susan) is simply wonderful, displaying an effortless comedic sensibility as Hannah’s free-spirited younger sister. Sean C. Murphy (Ted) evinces a convincing southern charm as the duplicitous sex addict who seduces Hannah.

And David Scott, who plays Hannah’s “post-traumatic stress disorder” suffering husband, is solid throughout and provides a rare gravitas and sensitivity to the poignant final scene he shares with Ms. Spencer that attempts to make sense and understand the meaning of what has befallen them.

It’s an opportunity for superior live theatre that’s not to be missed.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Ragtime : Hillbarn Theatre : A Capsule Review

Any show that attempts to chronicle and celebrate the cultural renaissance and social upheaval that characterized the beginning of the last century is by definition ambitious.

And, for the most part, Terrence McNally’s Ragtime succeeds in depicting a turning point in our nation’s history with the type of authenticity and grand style the period deserves.

But that extraordinary ambition, in its earnest desire to do justice to its prodigious subject matter, is also what makes McNally’s book almost collapse under its own weight. There are simply too many stories, too many characters, and too many large themes addressed without a unifying plot line strong enough to make it all coalesce in a manner that adequately connects with its audience.

That shortcoming, however, does nothing to dampen the boundless creative acumen evident in this outstanding and lavish Hillbarn Theatre production.

Director Lee Foster, undaunted by the limited confines of a small thrust stage, has produced a triumphant musical experience that is both visionary in scope and a master class in imaginative theatrical staging. Bravo!

Ms. Foster’s vision is brought to fruition by a remarkably talented cast of fifty-three performers, featuring some of the finest vocalizations one is likely to hear in any venue, including the magnificent Annmarie Martin (Mother), Carmichael Blankenship (Coalhouse Walker), Leslie Ivy (Sarah), Steven Ennis (Younger Brother) and Erica Richardson (Sarah’s Friend).

And many of the design elements, including the uncompromising musical direction (Greg Sudmeier), the gorgeous art nouveau costuming (Carolann Towe), and splendid choreography (Jayne Zaban), are no less exemplary.

Honorable mention must be given to scene-stealing turns by ensemble member and dancer Gary Stanford, Jr., and young Jon Toussaint as Edgar (Little Boy).

One should not hesitate to make the trip to Foster City to see an auspicious season debut that offers the best that community theatre has to offer.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Triads : Post:Ballet : A Capsule Review

If one wants to experience something new and intriguing in the world of contemporary dance, one has to look no further than our own backyard to find artistic director and choreographer Robert Dekkers' brilliant Post:Ballet company based in San Francisco.

Dekkers' bold compositions incorporate not only innovative choreography, but also original music and multimedia content.

His Triads program, the company’s third home season presentation, showcases several world premiere pieces, including When in Doubt, a marvelous collaborative effort with composer Jacob Wolkenhauer, featuring very personal vocal and design contributions by the wonderful performers themselves.

Saturday night’s performance at the Herbst Theatre did not disappoint the enthusiastic crowd, with each sequence exploring a wide spectrum of themes, form and movement that were both inspired and a genuine delight to experience - even for the uninitiated.

I can’t recommend this young and exciting troupe more highly.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Sweeney Todd : Ray of Light Theatre : A Capsule Review

Stephen Sondheim’s wonderfully macabre Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has had a number of interesting interpretations of late, from the Tony Award-winning reimagining by John Doyle, to the cinematic offering by Tim Burton, with varying degrees of success.

Ray of Light Theatre’s magnificent current treatment eschews any fancy staging or overblown production values and adroitly places the emphasis upon strong acting and skilled vocalizations. The superb cast is certainly up to the task and -  for the most part - delivers on both counts, led by outstanding performances by Adam Scott Campbell (Sweeney Todd) and Miss Sheldra (Nellie Lovett), and scene-stealing supporting turns by Michelle Jasso (Beggar Woman) and J. Conrad Frank (Beadle).

Director Ben Randle cuts to the chase and utilizes what would appear -- at first blush -- to be the acoustic advantage of the smaller environs and opts not to electronically enhance the actors’ voices. It’s a reasonable choice and one worth making given the vicissitudes of sound design at this venue. Of course, it presupposes that all members of the company remember to adequately project.

Unfortunately, some of the performers do forget there’s a back row. Moreover, the lack of amplification has the unintended and unforeseen consequence of lessening the visceral impact of the musical numbers and some simply fall flat. It’s by no means a fatal flaw, and perhaps more vigorous singing can remedy the problem. But it did serve to undermine what was otherwise an exemplary presentation.

That solitary reservation, however, should not dissuade one from taking a trip soon to the Eureka Theater in San Francisco and experiencing this first-rate production.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Full Monty : Ray of Light Theatre : A Capsule Review

The Full Monty is a more thoughtful examination of how masculine self-worth is inextricably tied to economic self-sufficiency than one might expect from a musical with a titillating title that suggests something more frivolous than profound.

The reversal of roles that takes place, with the women in the lives of several of the male principals taking on a more dominant position, exposes the hubris and folly of traditional male thinking – and at first blush smacks somewhat of man-bashing.

But, as the story progresses, the male ability to adapt and overcome adversity through bonding and team effort is given the recognition it’s due – and even celebrated.

The male cast is exemplary in their ability to portray a believable working class sensibility, and their female counterparts are equally strong. Kudos to lead actor Joshua Fryvecind (as Jerry Lukowski), who imbues a blue-collar persona with a sympathetic core, and whose assured vocalizations are reminiscent of Don Henley.

Mr. Fryvecind is given strong support by the entire troupe, including C.J. Dion (Dave Bukatinsky), Helen Laroche (Georgia Bukatinksy), Leslie Waggoner (Pam Lukowski), and David Mister (Malcolm MacGregor). And scene-stealing, comedic turns by Cami Thompson (Jeanette Burmeister) and Wendell H. Wilson (“Horse”) serve the show well.

While the songs may be less than memorable, they are effective and enhanced by some exceptional singing, truly imaginative choreography by Mary Kalita (with the delightful “Michael Jordan’s Ball” scene among her many highlights), and by the invaluable contributions of musical director Ben Prince and his band of talented musicians.

Another solid entry from the talented folks at Ray of Light Theatre Company.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Chinese Objects : Susanna Leinonen Company : Simply Sublime

(I don't normally review dance, but a recent performance at the 2012 San Francisco International Arts Festival by a Finnish dance company left me utterly awestruck. I just had to share my personal thoughts!)

An exemplary performance of contemporary dance as the ultimate form of artistic expression through the perfect integration of sight, sound and motion. Its precise movements were executed with fluidity, grace and undeniable power. 

It transcends the mere physical and engulfs one into a visceral experience that reaches the sublime. It was as if time had been suspended for the entire seventeen minutes. It left me breathless. 

This is why I love the dance. Thank you to dancers Elina Hayrynen, Natasha Lommi, choreographer Susanna Leinonen, designers Kasperi Laine (sound) and Hanna Kayhko (lighting), and all who made this wonderful production possible!*

(*Here's a video snippet from a different performance from a year ago - it must be seen live in its entirety, however.)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play : City Lights Theatre Company : A Capsule Review

Thomas Edison’s practical application of electricity highlighted the end of the Victorian Period, and heralded the beginning of an era of relaxed social mores and feminine liberation. At least that’s the premise and backdrop of the curiously offbeat and sexually charged In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play.

Suffice it to say a pioneering inventor and scientist Dr. Givings, played more debonair than geeky by the talented Jeffrey Bracco, utilizes the new technology by employing experimental “devices” to provide a novel form of therapy to stimulate his depressed – and repressed – patients (see title of play).

His fixation on his work, however, is at the expense of his lonely wife who finds the traditional female role of devoted spouse and motherhood less than satisfying – and would love nothing more than to partake of the new treatment! Elissa Beth Stebbins (as Catherine Givings) evinces a comedic melancholy that is an uncanny display of acting skill.

The rest of the ensemble is equally polished and impressive, among them the beauteous and exceptionally versatile Sarah Moser (as enthusiastic patient Sabrina Daldry suffering from "hysteria"), who’s fresh on the heels of her magnificent turn as “Ophelia” in City Lights’ recent production of “Hamlet.” And company veteran Adam Magill also lights up the stage as the charismatic artiste Leo Irving.

The playwright’s awkward tone is deliberate and may at times shock you, but this production manages to infuse it all with a rare energy and comic aplomb. It’s highly recommended.*

(*a preview performance attended)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Million Plates Drive : Support the Arts in California!


Did you know that California ranks 49th in per capita funding for the arts? The only state with less funding is Kansas - and that's because they provide ZERO in public funds to support the arts.

California's annual state budget for the arts is a paltry five million dollars! That less than 14 cents per person!

But there is something you can do about it. Click this link to the "The Million Plates Drive" and order a specially designed "arts plate" (standard or personalized) for your vehicle through the DMV.

If one million plates are ordered, forty million dollars will be earmarked each year (via renewals) to support California's public arts fund - that's eight times the current amount (about one dollar per person).

That's forty million dollars to support arts education and local arts programs for children, schools and communities - in every county across the entire state.

Buy an "arts plate" now!

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Producers : Hillbarn Theatre : A Capsule Review

Mel Brooks’ The Producers is a hilarious – albeit shameless and decidedly politically incorrect -  backstage send up that doesn’t miss an opportunity to exploit every comic stereotype imaginable. Unless you’re easily offended, however, one can’t fathom how anyone would take serious umbrage.

Perhaps the greatest compliment one can give Hillbarn Theatre’s production of the Tony Award-winning musical is that one forgets that it’s “community theatre.”
Inspired and spectacular design elements across-the-board serve to amplify the lunacy, enhanced by visionary staging, casting and direction by the inimitable Bill Starr (aided immeasurably by choreographer Gary Stanford, Jr.).

The entire company of players is uniformly strong, with the principle cast among the best comedic ensembles I’ve seen in years, including Dan Demers (Max Bialystock), Luke Chapman (Leo Bloom), Kate Paul (Ulla), Ron Lopez, Jr. (Franz Liebkind), Raymond J. Mendonca (Roger DeBris), and Greg Lynch (Carmen Ghia).

Although the thrust stage venue does not have a bad seat in the house, it does not provide the best configuration for this type of show. It did not, however, in any way diminish the enthusiasm of the opening night crowd who literally leapt out of their seats with an unbridled standing ovation.

Head on down to Foster City to catch this must-see performance before it’s too late.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Stop Assembly Bill AB 2540

I don't like to be overtly political on this blog, but this is too big to ignore.

Evidently California Democratic Assembly Member Mike Gatto of Los Angeles decided to sponsor a bill (AB 2540) requiring all live theatre venues (and many other small businesses) to pay state sales tax on ticket sales, etc. 
The amount of revenue this will generate would be de minimus but the effect would be devastating upon most theatre companies throughout the state who are already struggling to survive. 

Please contact your local Assembly member now and ask him/her to oppose AB 2540. It goes before the Committee for Revenue and Taxation on Monday, April 23, 2012. 

If you don't know what to say, here's a sample letter. It asks for an exemption for smaller venues (under 300 seats) and nonprofits. Please make any changes you see fit.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Buffaloe'd : San Jose Stage Company : A Capsule Review

A superior cast cannot save this poorly conceived – but well-intentioned – debut production regarding both the Filipino and African American experience in the Philippines in the wake of the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Despite the obvious attention to detail in all its design elements, the overly ambitious narrative structure, employing virtually every theatrical device imaginable, remains curiously remote and uninvolving despite some effective scenes scattered throughout.

Any emotional resonance is attributable to the truly remarkable ensemble, with strong, polished performances by the inimitable Clinton Derricks-Carroll, Amielynn Abellera, Adrian Roberts, David Arrow, Tim Hart, and Elizabeth Carter – plus superb dancing by Alexandria Diaz de Fato.

Undoubtedly its timely themes of recurring U.S. imperialism and the inherent hypocrisy underlying notions of “cultural superiority” was an intriguing concept, but its realization on stage leaves much to be desired. It’s an unfortunate misfire by the extremely talented and normally reliable folks at San Jose Stage Company.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Ute Lemper and the Vogler Quartet : San Francisco Performances : A Capsule Review

If the dynamic and preternaturally talented chanteuse Ute Lemper did not exist she would have to be invented. She has almost single-handedly kept the modern chanson alive as a musical art form and has made it palatable to American audiences by virtue of her megawatt charisma and undeniable sex appeal.

Her one-night stop in San Francisco as part of her North American tour promoting her marvelous "Paris Days, Berlin Nights" album was greeted with a well-deserved standing ovation at the historic Herbst Theatre. Only unimaginative lighting and minor audio gaffes detracted from what was otherwise an exemplary show.

Her vocal prowess is extraordinary, but it’s her consummate theatrical skill and passionate affinity for the music of such diverse composers as Kurt Weill, Astor Piazzolla and Jacques Brel that made her performance virtually operatic in scope and a wonder to behold. And yet, the lithe Ms. Lemper, wearing a stunning pleated halter gown, somehow managed to maintain the intimacy of a cabaret act one might see in a much smaller venue.

With the outstanding support of the Vogler Quartet and virtuoso musician and arranger Stefan Malzew, this is a must-see show for anyone open to a special and genuinely memorable experience. Bravo!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

High : Kathleen Turner : SHN (Shorenstein Hays Nederlander) : A Capsule Review

Although the second act doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of the first, this production is buoyed by some fine acting and an unflinching honesty that’s sometimes difficult to watch.

As the play unfolds and secrets are revealed, it becomes readily apparent that each character is desperately seeking forgiveness for their respective transgressions.

Because the play steadfastly avoids trite solutions, the denouement is perhaps not as emotionally satisfying as one might like. But it is certainly plausible and remains true to the uncompromising vision of the narrative.

The story is set in an ostensibly religious context, yet Kathleen Turner's redoubtable stage presence and convincing streetwise sensibility transcends any piety in her character’s passion quest for personal redemption. Arguably no actor can evince a tough vulnerability better than Ms. Turner.

It’s a challenging, edifying piece that is certain to provoke animated conversation. Highly recommended!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Green Whales : Renegade Theatre Experiment : Capsule Review

Two very different sisters, mourning the recent death of their mother, are forced to take stock of themselves and attempt to find meaning through their relationships with the less-than-perfect men in their lives.

Despite the provocative themes explored — pedophilia among them — ultimately this is an insightful (or inciting) and darkly humorous examination of the how the human heart’s need to find a human connection can manifest itself in ways that are not always the most edifying.
And yet, despite the foolhardy behavior on display, one can’t help coming away with the impression that the playwright believes that the willingness to risk it all for love has its own rewards – making it all worthwhile.

Gloria McDonald and Sara Luna lead a superb cast of four that capture just the right tone of comic desperation without ever lapsing into annoying caricature. It’s another edgy, daring play from Renegade Theatre Experiment that’s not easily forgotten. Recommended.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Art : Northside Theatre Company : Capsule Review

This wonderful production of Yasmina Reza’s perceptive, Tony Award-winning post-modern comedy on the nature of friendship is beautifully realized by all concerned.

Director Angie Higgins’ smart, brisk staging is given full effect by the pitch-perfect timing of the estimable trio of talented actors who exemplify masculine heterogeneity and bonding among the bourgeoisie. (John Rutski, Tom Shamrell, and Christian Pizzirani)

The monochromatic, alabaster set design (Richard T. Orlando) provides a contrasting  (and very fitting) backdrop that successfully underscores the emotional, albeit often hilarious, pyrotechnics that ensue.

Northside’s production of Art is a sly, inspired piece of accessible entertainment that never succumbs to the weight of its own profundity. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Higher : American Conservatory Theater : Review

Note to my dear readers: Due to my demanding schedule of late, I will be unable to write comprehensive reviews regarding the various productions I have the good fortune to attend throughout the bay area. I intend to publish short, capsule reviews for the time being. I'll return to full reviews if and when time permits. Thank you for your support and understanding. -Gregory M. Alonzo.

Some good acting to be seen, but for the most part this is something of a disappointment. 

An unsympathetic and unlikeable protagonist - Michael (Andrew Polk) does not help matters, but his relationship with his son was more compelling than the love "triangle" - largely due to the contributions of Ben Kahre (Isaac). 

Overall, one felt the actors were still grasping at credible characterizations and were not entirely in sync.  Worthwhile, but not something for the ages.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Aphrodisiac : City Lights Theater Company : Review

Note to my dear readers: Due to my demanding schedule of late, I will be unable to write comprehensive reviews regarding the various productions I have the good fortune to attend throughout the bay area. I intend to publish short, capsule reviews for the time being. I'll return to full reviews if and when time permits. Thank you for your support and understanding. -Gregory M. Alonzo.

An interesting take on the seductive power of political life in our nation’s capital, told from the point of view of the adult children of a philandering congressman suspected in the disappearance of a young intern.

Competently acted, with an outstanding performance by Amanda Folena as a sympathetic Monica Lewinsky. 

Mixing fact and fiction, its unusual and not altogether successful narrative structure prevents this from being anywhere near as funny or poignant as it should have been.