Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Scarred woman takes a journey of hope in 'Violet'


Violet (Kaylee Miltersen in pink dress and white sweater on right) and others travel via Greyhound bus. (Photo by David Allen)

In “Violet,” a musical presented by Foothill Music Theatre, the title character is a young woman who has a terrible scar on her face.

People gasp and recoil when they see her, so she’s scarred inside, too.

Believing that a televangelist in Tulsa can remove her scar, she takes a bus from her home in rural North Carolina in 1964. During the trip, two soldiers who are on their way to Fort Smith in Arkansas befriend her.

Undeterred by their skepticism, she arrives at the preacher’s church only to be rudely rebuffed.

However, because of her friendship with the soldiers, she’s able to face the world and her life with greater self-confidence.

In this production, directed by Milissa Carey, Violet is played by Kaylee Miltersen, who doesn’t seem to have grasped how to undertake the character’s emotional journey. Sure, she’s angry, but her pouty expression doesn’t change much.

(It should be noted that no special makeup is used to show a scar. It’s up to the audience to know she has it, and that is accomplished.)

Her younger self is played alternately by Sheridan Stewart and Sofia Oberg, who fulfilled the role with assurance in the reviewed performance.

The soldiers are Monty (Brad Satterwhite), a pleasant but womanizing white corporal, and Flick (Thomas Times), a Black sergeant who’s still feeling the sting of prejudice against his race. Therefore, Flick has greater empathy for Violet and comes to care for her. Both actors excel in their roles.

Violet’s father is played by Ray D’Ambrosio. He’s dead in the 1964 scenes, but is seen in flashbacks. A well-meaning widower, he does the best he can as a parent, but he’s the one who caused the accident that scarred her when she was 13. During her emotional transformation, she learns to forgive him.

Most others in the likable 16-member cast play multiple roles. Chief among them is James Schott, whose roles include the Bible-thumping preacher who leads the raucous revival service seen by Violet.

Based on a true story, “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, the lyrics and book for this show are by Brian Crawley.

Jeanine Tesori’s music is a mix of country, rock and religious styles. Two highlights are “Let It Sing,” well sung by Flick, and “I’m on My Way,” sung at the revival.

The simple set by Yusuke Soi, who seats the five-member band upstage. An overhead sign shows the names of towns where the bus stops.

Amanda Ku is the music director, and Debra Lambert is the vocal director. Choreography is by Stacey Reed with costumes by Y. Sharon Peng, lighting by Lily McLeod and sound by Andrew Heller.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “Violet” will continue through Aug. 7 in Foothill College’s Lohman Theatre, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills.

For tickets and information, call (650) 949-7360 or visit https://foothill.edu/theatre/productions/violet.html.


Tuesday, July 19, 2022

TheatreWorks premieres 'Nan and the Lower Body'


Chrisopher Daftsios (left), Lisa Ramirez, Elissa Beth Stebbins and Jeffrey Brian Adams in "Nan and the Lower Body." (Photo by Alessandra Mello)

Dr. George Papanicolaou, aka Dr. Pap, developed the Pap smear, which can easily detect cervical cancer, thus saving untold numbers of women from this disease, which can be fatal if not treated.

Playwright Jessica Dickey focuses on him in her “Nan and the Lower Body,” being given its world premiere by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

Nan is Nan Day, the playwright’s grandmother, a cytologist who briefly worked with Dr. Pap in his lab at Cornell University in upstate New York in 1952.

As the play opens, Dr. Pap (Christopher Daftsios) is lecturing before a closed curtain. Speaking with a heavy Greek accent, he’s difficult to understand.

He also comes across as bombastic and arrogant, characteristics that continue throughout much of the play. Nevertheless in his lecture and at other times he shows respect and reverence for women.

His new assistant, Nan (Elissa Beth Stebbins), shares his views, but she’s more subdued. However, she later reveals more complexities and exhibits some troublesome mobility issues.

Dr. Pap is married to Mache (Lisa Ramirez), who also speaks with a Greek accent. Her character isn’t as fully developed as the other three are.

Nan’s husband is Ted (Jeffrey Brian Adams), a minister who says he wants women to enjoy equal rights with men. However, he later accepts a new job at another parish without consulting with Nan yet expecting her to move with him.

Although the play’s theme is important and timely, especially since the overturning of Roe v. Wade and limitations on women’s health choices, it’s talky and often slow. That’s due in part to the play itself and to director Giovanna Sardelli.

Sardelli, who’s TheatreWorks’ artistic associate and director of new works, knew the play well because it was part of the company’s New Works Festival in 2019. It was in its developmental stage then, but it still needs some refinement now.

On the other hand, Nina Ball’s scenic design deserves special note. When the curtain opens after Dr. Pap’s lecture, it reveals his lab in great detail.

Later, when the action shifts to a dinner for the Days at Dr. Pap’s home, the lab set splits in half and a comfortably furnished living/dining room moves downstage. The routine is reversed when the action returns to the lab.

Other designers are Cathleen Edwards for costumes, Pamila Z. Gray for lighting and Jane Shaw for sound.

Running about an hour and 35 minutes with no intermission, “Nan and the Lower Body” will continue through Aug. 7 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information call (877) 662-8978 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

9/11's aftermath inspires 'Come From Away'


The cast of "Come From Away" breaks out in song. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)


 Our world changed forever on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked commercial airliners and crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing thousands.

“Come From Away,” a 2015 musical, looks at just one of the repercussions of that day.

U.S. and Canadian airspace was immediately closed, forcing 38 transatlantic passenger planes to land at Gander International Airport in Gander, Newfoundland. Thus Gander’s fewer than 10,000 residents suddenly had to serve the needs of  about 7,000 flyers for up to six days

With a book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the musical focuses on 12 townspeople and 12 passengers – all portrayed by the cast of six women and six men -- who must adapt to the situation.

It opens with the townspeople starting an ordinary day as the news begins to trickle in. Soon they learn that the planes and their passengers are coming.

They immediately muster all available resources and welcome the visitors to their  island community.

Despite their initial wariness and the uncertainty, the hosts and visitors warm to one another. By the time the planes are again allowed to fly, friendships and a romance have blossomed, but another relationship has ended under the strain.

Moreover, the townspeople enjoy improved relationships thanks to their interaction with people of various nationalities, races and religions.

Although the residents refused any payment for their hospitality, the passengers donated thousands of dollars to the community.

The residents and passengers even had a 10-year reunion. As the mayor (Kevin Carolan) put it: “Tonight we honor what was lost, but we also commemorate what we found.”

Directed by Christopher Ashley, the multi-talented cast of this national touring company presented by Broadway San Jose creates believable characters based on actual people.

The result is a heartwarming, uplifting salute to humanity with some added humor and sadness, especially for Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas), whose firefighter son died at the World Trade Center.

Because the show is distilled into some 90 minutes without intermission, much of the information is delivered so quickly that it’s difficult to absorb everything.

However, the essential spirit comes through, leaving the audience cheering and clapping as the seven-member band, including music director/conductor Cameron Moncur, plays a rousing tune after the cast’s final bows.

As a touring production, the show opened July 12 and will run only through July 17 at San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts, 255 S. Almaden Blvd. For tickets and information, call (408) 792-4111 or visit www.broadwaysanjose.com.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Palo Alto Players updates 'Twelfth Night' to the '20s

Olivia (Kristen Kaye Lo, left) hears from Feste (Caitlin Gjerdrum). (Kate Hart Photography)

Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” seems to tempt theater directors into trying different concepts, many of which have been seen in the Bay Area over the decades.

The latest comes from Roneet Aliza Rahamim at Palo Alto Players. Using an adaptation by Max Tachis, this one is set at Coney Island in the 1920s.

For the most part, it works, especially since the plot, characters and Shakespeare’s glorious language are preserved.

Still, one difference is immediately apparent before the curtain rises. A small band and a jazz singer, played by Caitlin Gjerdrum, performs period songs. Other songs are heard throughout the play, but sometimes they come during dialogue and obscure the lines.

The curtain rises, and Gjerdrum then becomes Feste, the fool.

The action focuses on Viola (Emily Scott), who is washed ashore after a shipwreck. For self-preservation in this unknown land, she disguises herself as a boy called Cesario and offers her services as a page to Duke Orsino (Christopher Mahle). She’s immediately attracted to him.

Orsino pines for Olivia (Kristen Kaye Lo), a countess who wants nothing to do with him because she’s still mourning for some family members’ deaths.

Therefore, Orsino dispatches Cesario to her to plead his suit. Instead, Olivia is attracted to Cesario.

Adding much of the comedy to this tale of misplaced love are the antics of characters like Feste along with the drunken Sir Toby Belch, Olivia’s uncle; and his sidekick, Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

On opening night the latter two were played by understudies: Troy Johnson as Sir Toby and Sam Putney as Sir Andrew. Although they carried scripts, both did an excellent job.

Two other characters from Olivia’s household are her attendant, Maria (Gay Penter Richard), and the steward, the dour Malvolio (James Shelby), who secretly loves Olivia.

Maria, Feste, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are responsible for the gulling scene in which Maria writes a letter supposedly from Olivia in which she says she loves Malvolio and wants him to wear yellow stockings, be cross-gartered and smile, an alien action for him.

Mistaken identities with more comic implications arise when Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian (Brian Flegel), arrives.    

This being a romantic comedy, everything works out as it should.

Most of the cast and the director have connections to Gunn High School in Palo Alto as alumni or teachers.

For the most part, they do a commendable job. The only weak link is Mahle, who doesn’t have the strong stage presence needed for Duke Orsino.

Among the standouts, besides the two understudies, are Scott as Viola, Lo as Olivia, Richard as Maria and Gjerdrum as Feste.

Rahamim, the director, is aided by a strong production team: Todd L. Summers, music director; Scott Ludwig, scenic designer; Brooke Jennings, costume designer; Brian Hemmen, lighting designer; and BetterLed Productions, sound designer.

The opening was delayed by a week, but the show still will close June 26. It runs just over two and a half hours with an intermission at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

A recorded performance also will be streamed on demand June 23-26.

For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit www.paplayers.org.












Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Issues in 'Ragtime' still plague the nation


The versatile cast of "Ragtime." (Kevin Berne Photo)

After a two-year COVID-caused delay, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of “Ragtime” has finally come to fruition.

It’s well worth the wait. Using only 15 actors rather than the 36 he used in the electrifying 2002 production, the company’s retired founder-artistic director Robert Kelley has helmed a more intimate version of this epic musical.

With music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and book by Terrence McNally, based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, it stresses the strains of racism, anti-immigrant bias, sexism, anti-Semitism and corporate exploitation that still plague the nation, more than a century after the events in “Ragtime.”

Starting in 1908 and continuing through 1913, these events focus on three groups of people: the white upper class of New Rochelle, N.Y.; eastern European immigrants fleeing oppression and living in squalid New York City tenements; and Southern Black Americans who settled in Harlem and brought their ragtime music with them.

The New Rochelle family includes Mother (Christine Dwyer), her Younger Brother (Sean Okuniewicz), Father (Noel Anthony), their Little Boy (Joshua Parecki in the reviewed performance), and Grandfather (Colin Thomson).

The immigrants are the Latvian Jewish widower Tateh (Leo Ash Evans) and his daughter, the Little Girl (Ruth Keith in the reviewed performance).

The Blacks include pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Nkrumah Gatling) and his girlfriend, Sarah (Iris Beaumier).

Most cast members portray several characters.

The story begins when Mother discovers a newborn Black baby in the garden. Soon the mother, Sarah, is discovered. Over Father’s objections, Mother allows Sarah and the baby to live in their attic.

Devastated that Sarah has disappeared, Coalhouse eventually finds her and visits every Sunday trying to persuade her to see him.

She finally agrees after hearing him play a familiar tune.

Other events involving all of the characters ensue, but everything is easy to follow.

Some of the more notable people seen include J.P. Morgan (Anthony), Henry Ford (Thomson), Booker T. Washington (Michael Gene Sullivan), Harry Houdini (Keith Pinto), Emma Goldman (Suzanne Grodner) and Evelyn “the girl on the swing” Nesbit (Melissa WolfKlain).

Everyone in the cast is versatile and talented, blending well musically, but Dwyer as Mother and Gatling as Coalhouse deliver standout musical and dramatic performances.

Overseeing Flaherty’s ear-pleasing tunes is pianist/musical director William Liberatore with a seven-member orchestra.

The lively choreography is by associate director Gerry McIntyre.

The simple, flexible set is by Wilson Chin with lighting by Pamila Z. Gray, sound by Jeff Mockus and period costumes by B. Modern.

Running about two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, “Ragtime” will continue through June 26 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

For tickets and information, call (877) 662-8978 or visit www.theatreworks.org.



Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Board game's switch to stage anything but boring


One of many bodies hits the floor in Hillbarn's "Clue." (Mark and Tracy Photography)

Thunder, lightning and the sound of barking dogs precede the arrival of six dinner guests in “Clue: On Stage,” presented by Hillbarn Theatre.

Sandy Rustin’s stage adaptation is based on the 1985 screenplay by Jonathan Lynn, who was inspired by the board game.

The guests don’t know each other, nor do they know who their host is or why they’re locked in that gloomy New England mansion.

What they do have in common is that they all live or work in Washington, D.C., in 1954 during the red scare.

Miss Scarlet (Maria Marquis) is a high-class madam. Mrs. Peacock (J. Conrad Frank in drag) is married to a senator.

Mrs. White (Hayley Lovgren) has probably murdered a string of husbands. Col. Mustard (Mohamed Ismail) works in the Pentagon.

Professor Plum (Jay Thulien) is a psychologist who has lost his license. Mr. Green (Steve Allhoff) is a gay Republican.

Also part of the scenario is Yvette (Jocelyn Pickett), the French maid.

It soon turns out that each guest is being blackmailed by their host, Mr. Boddy (Jesse Cortez). Each is given a weapon and told to kill the butler, Wadsworth (Miyaka Pical Cochrane). Otherwise, they’ll have to pay double.

Before the evening is over, several people die, and Mr. Boddy’s real identity is revealed.

In trying to discover the killer or killers as well as the evidence that Mr. Boddy has against them, the guests search the mansion’s maze of rooms and endure the occasional power outage.

All of this occurs amid one comic moment after another with puns galore.

Dan Demers, Hillbarn’s former artistic director, oversees the mayhem. For the most part the actors in his ensemble cast capture their characters’ strong emotions without overdoing it. The result is lots of laughs.

Eric Olson’s set, Sophia Craven’s lighting and Sheraj Ragoobeer’s sound help to create the mysterious mood, while Pamela Lampkin’s costumes are well suited for each character.

Running just under 90 minutes with no intermission, “Clue” will continue through June 19 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411, Ext. 2, or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.








Thursday, June 2, 2022

'Beehive' goes on musical journey through the '60s

Arielle Crosby (center) portrays Tina Turner with  Constance Jewell Lopez (left) and Erica Richardson.


The 1960s were an era of profound change in the United States, especially after the relatively serene Eisenhower years.

Some of these changes are musically captured in “Beehive,” a jukebox musical created by Larry Gallagher and presented by Center REPertory Company.

The story is loosely woven around six multi-talented women who take the audience on a chronological journey from when Wanda (Erica Richardson) was in ninth grade through her early years after college.

Elizabeth Curtis as Janis Joplin.

Musically the journey progresses from girl groups of the early ’60s through Woodstock in 1969 and artists like the Shirelles, Aretha Franklin (portrayed by Constance Jewell Lopez) and Tina Turner (a show-stopping performance by Arielle Crosby), the Supremes and Janis Joplin (another show-stopping performance, this one by Elizabeth Curtis).

Some of the highlights include “It’s My Party,” “My Boyfriend’s Back,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “One Fine Day.”

Others include “You Don’t Own Me,” “Proud Mary” and “Me and Bobby McGee.”

Seminal events included the assassinations of President John Kennedy, Sen. Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Then there were Vietnam, peace marches and dances like the twist, mashed potato and frug, and, of course, the Beatles.

Styles changed from full-skirted dresses to miniskirts, big hair, go-go boots, tie-dye shirts and bell bottoms.

All of this is encapsulated by the ensemble cast. Besides Richardson, Lopez, Crosby and Curtis, the cast features Monique Hafen Adams and Ashley Cowl.

They’re skillfully directed and choreographed by Dawn Monique Williams.

The flexible set, with the band seated on an upstage platform, is by Kelly James Tighe with lighting by Sim Carpenter. Period costumes are by Loran Watkins. The over-amplified sound is by Lyle Barrere. Musical direction is by Eryn Allen.

One drawback to enjoying this production is that no printed programs are available with artist credits and song lists. There’s a code to scan with a smart phone, but those without smart phones are out of luck. This is a disservice to the artists and the audience.

Otherwise, it’s a high-energy, highly enjoyable trip down memory lane for those of a certain age and an eye-opener for the younger set.

Running about 90 minutes without intermission, “Beehive” will continue through June 26 at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek.

For tickets and information call (925) 943-7469 or visit www.CenterRep.org.

Photos by Kevin Berne