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.