Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Suspense reigns in 'Murder on the Orient Express'



Countess Andrenyi (April Culver) meets Detective Hercule Poirot (Michael Champlin) on the platform of the Orient Express. (Photo by Christian Pizzirani)


When a passenger is found stabbed to death in his bed on the legendary Orient Express train from Istanbul to Western Europe in 1934, Hercule Poirot must use his keen detective skills to find the guilty person.

Because no one had entered or exited the train since it left Istanbul, the list of suspects is confined to its passengers and staff in Ken Ludwig’s stage adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.”

And because the train is stuck in the snow with no connection to the outside world, it’s up to Poirot to find the murderer.

In Palo Alto Players’ production, astutely directed by Katie O’Bryon Champlin, her husband, Michael Champlin, plays Poirot with sharp timing.

The rest of the cast also is noteworthy, especially Zachary Vaughn-Munck as Monsieur Bouc, the train company’s owner. Bay Area favorite Linda Piccone as Princess Dragomiroff brings her understated comedic skills to the character.

As Poirot finds one clue after another, each seeming to implicate another suspect, the suspense grows.

Multi-tasking Kevin Davies, who designed movable sets to facilitate quick scene changes, also served as prop designer, technical director and master carpenter. Effective lighting is by Edward Hunter.

Because Palo Alto Players’ usual home, the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto, is being outfitted with new seats and other improvements, this show is being presented in Woodside High’s Performing Arts Center.

Its acoustics are less than ideal, distorting the dialogue, making it hard to understand even though it can be heard in Jeff Grafton’s sound design.

The characters’ accents also interfere with catching all of the dialogue. Nevertheless, the staging and acting clarify most of the plot so that the surprise ending comes through.

Running about two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission, “Murder on the Orient Express” will continue through June 30 at the Woodside High venue, 199 Churchill Ave., Woodside, where there’s ample parking just west of the Woodside Road-Alameda de las Pulgas intersection.

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




Wednesday, June 19, 2024

TheatreWorks premieres Sondheim revue, "Being Alive"


The actors (from left) Anne Tolpegin, Sleiman Alahmadieh, Solona Husband, Noel Anthony, Nick Nakashima, and Melissa WolfKlain) embrace new possibilities. (Kevin Berne photo)

The late composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim was an incomparable genius of the American musical theatrer.

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley honors him with the world premiere of a homegrown revue, “Being Alive: A Sondheim Celebration.”

Conceived and directed by the company’s retired founder-artistic director Robert Kelley, in collaboration with musical director William Liberatore, it focuses on love and romantic relationships in all their ups, downs and permutations in Sondheim’s complex music, rhythms and lyrics.

In this revue, three women and three men portray actors rehearsing a musical.

“Being Alive” delves into some of the songs from Sondheim’s treasure chest of great musicals. Some are well known, others not so much. TheatreWorks has staged 20 of his works, some more than once. Kelley directed most of them.

As Kelley wrote in his director’s notes, the licensing agent for Sondheim’s works had strict rules:

The songs could come from only 15 of his works with no more than three from any one show and only three more songs from the five previous Sondheim revues, and they had to have been cut from other works. That left a choice of a mere 334 songs, Kelley wrote.

Hence some viewers might be disappointed that a favorite isn’t included, but the show still has some memorable tunes such as “Children Will Listen” from “Into the Woods,” “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music” and more.

The six performers all sing and act well as they portray relationships in various stages. They’re loosely paired by ages with Sleiman Alahmadieh and Solana Husband as 20-somethings, Nick Nakashima and Melissa WolfKlain as 30-somethings, and Noel Anthony and Anne Tolpegin as the 40-somethings.

Fumiko Bielefeldt’s costume design puts them in street clothes for the first act’s run-through and their performance costumes for the dress rehearsal of the second act.

Although associate director Alex Perez’s choreography is perhaps secondary, it nevertheless suits the mood and adds interest to each song.

With appropriate lighting by Pamila Z. Gray, Wilson Chin’s scenic design features a few set pieces and a background of the backs of flats stamped with the names of the Sondheim shows for which they supposedly were used. The sound design is by Cliff Caruthers.

Running about two hours with an intermission, “Being Alive” is both interesting and entertaining. It will continue through June 30 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.



Wednesday, April 17, 2024

'Tiger Style' explores parent-adult child encounters


Francis Jue (left), Will Dao and Jeremy Kahn have an office encounter. (Kevin Berne photo)

After their lives seem stymied, two high-achieving Chinese American siblings blame their parents in Mike Lew’s “Tiger Style!” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

Jennifer (Jenny Nguyen Nelson) is an oncologist whose loser live-in boyfriend (Jeremy Kahn) has just moved out.

Her brother, Albert (Will Dao), is a software engineer who has been passed over for a promotion that goes to an incompetent white man (Kahn). When he complains to his Chinese American boss (Francis Jue), he’s fired.

Jennifer and Albert blame their first-generation parents (Jue and Emily Kuroda) for tiger parenting, pushing them too hard to do well in school and other activities but leaving them unprepared for adult life.

When their parents refuse to accept that responsibility, saying they only wanted what was best for their children, Jennifer and Albert decide to go to China on what they call an Asian freedom tour. Things don’t turn out as they had hoped.

Although the play is billed as a satire, it makes some cogent points about racial stereotyping.

In this production’s talented, versatile ensemble cast, Jue stands out in his varied roles, especially as the boss and father, when his centeredness comes to the fore.

However, director Jeffrey Lo allows some over-acting, especially when Dao’s Albert is angry or overwrought.

Above Arnel Sancianco’s set is a sign for Ranch 99 Market for no readily apparent reason if one doesn’t know that this grocery store chain caters to Asian Americans. Scene changes involve set pieces that slide in and out with labels like home, work, family and others.

Costumes are by Becky Bodurtha with lighting by Kurt Landisman and sound by Howard Ho, who serves as language consultant.

Running about 2 ½ hours with an intermission, “Tiger Style!” will continue through April 28 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.


Thursday, March 28, 2024

They love each other for naught


Kaylee Miltersen is Girl and Jake Gale is Guy. (Tracy Martin photo)

“Once” is the story of love between a man and woman that probably cannot be.

In the case of this musical presented by Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory, the man, called Guy (Jake Gale), is busker-vacuum cleaner repair man in Ireland in 2011. The woman, called Girl (Kaylee Miltersen), is Czech. Both have musical aspiration.

Both also have lost their loves. His girlfriend has moved to New York City. Her husband, unknown to Guy, has moved on without her and their young daughter. Guy wants to abandon music, but Girl, recognizing his talent, encourages him to continue.

As their story unfolds, they and the other adults in the cast play instruments, sing and dance onstage. Characters who aren’t part of a scene sit on the sidelines and often join in the music.

Even before the show begins, the high-energy cast entertains the audience with lively songs and dances. At intermission, audience members can buy a drink at a bar set up on the left side of the stage.

Because the characters speak with either an Irish or Czech accent, they’re sometimes hard to understand, but the underlying message comes through.

Artistic director Stephen Muterspaugh directs the multi-talented actors as they create very human characters. However, his blocking sometimes has a piano or actor’s back blocking the view from far-left seats.

Francesca Cipponeri is credited with the energetic choreography. The musical director is Amie Jan with vocal direction by Joseph Murphy. The scenic design is by Christopher Fitzer with lighting by Pamila Gray, costumes by Lisa Claybaugh and sound by Jeff Mockus.

“Once” is a somewhat unusual musical, but on the whole it’s quite entertaining. It has a book by Enda Walsh with music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Mark√©ta Irglov√°.

Running about two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission, it will continue through April 7 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

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





Thursday, March 14, 2024

More than bees are threatened in 'Queen'


Mike Ryan (left), Uma Paranjpe and Kjerstine Rose Anderson are featured in 'Queen.' (Kevin Berne photo)

Friendship and ethics are both challenged in Madhuri Shekar’s “Queen,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

Ariel (Kjerstine Rose Anderson), an ecology researcher and single mother, and Sanam (Uma Paranjpe), an applied mathematician from India, are UC Santa Cruz Ph.D. students who have been studying bee colony collapse for several years.

In bee colony collapse, the worker bees abandon the queen and disappear. Therefore, they no longer pollinate the food crops that the world needs. Continued unabated, it could lead to mass starvation.

The two women, who have developed a close working relationship and friendship, believe that agricultural pesticides have caused the problem.

They’re close to publishing their findings in the prestigious journal Nature when Sanam finds additional data that don’t agree with their previous numbers.

Their supervising professor, Philip (Mike Ryan), wants them to publish anyway, as does Ariel, but Sanam doesn’t. It’s an ethical dilemma that threatens the women’s friendship.

In the meantime, Sanam has had a dinner date with Arvind (Deven Kolluri), an Indian American financier, as a prelude to an arranged marriage.

At first, he bores her by bragging about a poker game in which he uses his skill with numbers. However, that skill interests her, so she asks him to help her find any flaw in her new numbers for the bee research.

This intriguing play, with its cast of skilled actors, is directed by Miriam A. Laube, known to many Bay Area theatergoers for her years as an actor and director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

In keeping with the bee theme, the set by Nina Ball features honeycomb panels, while the sound design by James Ard often buzzes. The costumes are by Lisa Claybaugh, the lighting by Kent Dorsey.

“Queen” runs about an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, through March 31.

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



Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Foothill stages fun, upbeat 'Legally Blonde"

The Greek chorus encourages Elle (Rachelle Schaum, second from left) to study for Harvard Law. (Photo by Misty McDowell)

It’s easy to like Foothill Music Theatre’s production of “Legally Blonde: The Musical.”

It has an energetic, likeable cast of students and community members who are fully invested in their characters, thanks to direction by Milissa Carey and choreography by Stacey Reed.

The feel-good plot by Heather Hach features Elle (Rachelle Schaum), who goes from frivolous sorority girl to legal maven, thanks to some good friends and her own intuition.

As it begins, Elle and her UCLA sorority sisters expect that she will become engaged to her boyfriend, the full-of-himself Warner (Jason Mooney). Instead, he breaks up with her because he thinks she isn’t serious enough as he pursues his plans to attend Harvard Law School and go on to a political career.

Still in love with him, Elle studies hard and gets into Harvard Law School, too. That’s where she encounters a taskmaster, Professor Callahan (Hank Lawson), as well as Warner’s new girlfriend and fellow student, Vivienne (Grace Margaret Craig).

She also makes friends, notably another student, Emmett (Andrew Cope), and hair salon owner Paulette (Sarah Bylsma).

After proving herself in court, she winds up being valedictorian of her class.

Music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin are mostly upbeat pop tunes that are sung well. Music director Michael Horsley conducts five other musicians from a keyboard behind an onstage scrim.

Yusuke Soi's simple set is lighted by Pamila Gray with sound by Dan Holland. The many colorful costumes are by Y. Sharon Peng.

Two other characters of note are Bruiser (Pippa), Elle’s six-pound Chihuahua mix, and an unnamed chocolate-colored pup. Pippa is on loan from Pets in Need and available for adoption after the show closes.

The one drawback to this production is that the women’s chorus, serving as the sorority sisters and a Greek chorus, is too squealy, especially in the opening number, “Omigod You Guys.”

Otherwise it’s a well done show that runs about two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.

It will continue through March 17 at Foothill College’s Lohman Theatre, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills.

For tickets and information, call (650) 949-7360 or visit www.foothill.edu/theatre.




Thursday, February 15, 2024

Hillbarn stages award-winning 'Rent'

Dedrick Weathersby plays Collins in Hillbarn's "Rent." (Tracy Martin photo)


    “Rent” made a big splash on Broadway in 1996, going on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for Best Musical.

It was seen in San Francisco in 1999, and now it’s at Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory.

            Jonathan Larson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, loosely based it on Puccini’s beloved opera, “La Boheme.”

It’s set in the Lower East Side of New York City starting on Christmas Eve in 1989. That’s where Roger (Brandon Leland), a rock guitarist, and Mark (Edward Im), an aspiring filmmaker, share a bare bones apartment.

They can’t afford to pay the rent, and AIDS has cast a pall over them and the entire country.

Their friends include Collins (Dedrick Weathersby), a gay professor; Angel (Jesse Cortez), a drag queen with AIDS; Joanne (Solona Husband) and her partner, Maureen, (Danielle Mendoza); and Mimi (May Ramos), an exotic dancer and drug addict.

Several people in the 14-member cast play multiple roles as the action continues through the year to the following Christmas Eve.

Despite all the accolades it has accumulated over the years, “Rent” can be hard to follow because the plot is somewhat convoluted. Moreover, much of the action is propelled through song, but the lyrics can be difficult to understand because Sheraj Ragoobeer over-amplifies Jeff Mockus’ sound design.

Nevertheless, people who aren’t familiar with the show will be able to get a semblance of what’s happening thanks to a well-chosen, talented, energetic cast and astute direction by Reed Flores.

Musically it’s enjoyable because the actors sing well. Musical director Diana Lee conducts the small, on-stage instrumental ensemble from the keyboard. Dancing also is enjoyable thanks to Gabe Igtanloc’s choreography.

Costumes by Nolan Miranda help to define the characters and era. The set and projections by Hillbarn artistic director Steve Muterspaugh, with lighting by Pamila Gray, do the same.

“Rent” will continue at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City, through Feb. 25. For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.