Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Motives examined in 'Assassinations' at Hillbarn


Sara Jane Moore (Hayley Lovgren, left) and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Brigitte Losey) share a joint. (Photo by Tracy Martin)

Although “Assassins,” with its music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman, seems like an unlikely topic for a musical, this 1991 creation examines motives leading to assassinations and attempted assassinations of presidents and relates them to current events.

Presented by Hillbarn Theatre and Conservatory, it features 17 actors in lead and supporting roles.

The emcee, called the Balladeer or Proprietor (Keith Pinto), introduces the assassins. The first is 27-year-old actor John Wilkes Booth (Andre Amarotico), who killed Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

Others include Charles Guiteau (Ted Zoldan), 40. who killed James Garfield in 1881; Leon Czolgosz (Benjamin Ball), 28, who killed William McKinley in 1901;  and Giuseppe Zangara (Jesse Cortez), 33, who tried to kill President-elect Franklin Roosevelt in 1933.

Lee Harvey Oswald (Julio Chavez), 24, killed John F. Kennedy in 1963. Samuel Byck (Andrew Cope), 44, planned to kill Richard Nixon by crashing a hijacked plane into the White House in 1974 but was killed during the hijack attempt.

Two women, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Brigitte Losey), 27, and Sara Jane Moore (Hayley Lovgren), 45, separately tried to kill Gerald Ford in 1975. Also unsuccessful was John Hinckley (Nick Kenrick), 26, who tried to kill Ronald Reagan in 1981.

All nine of these people had traits in common, according to Joshua Marx in his director’s notes. They felt different, inferior and destined. They wanted recognition, and they felt that they were justified “to use violence to realize your American right to be happy,” Marx wrote.

In short, they were mentally unbalanced.

Sondheim and Weidman have several characters interacting over the years. Booth, for example, urges some to act on their impulses.

In “Unworthy of Your Love,” Fromme sings of her love for mass murderer Charles Manson, and Hinckley says he wants to impress actor Jody Foster with his love.

“Gun Song” talks about how easy it is to shoot a gun. Guns are a crucial prop in the show, but the program says that all of them “are replicas that were procured from, checked and rendered inoperable by a weapons specialist.” They’re locked up between performances.

Perhaps the most telling and timely song is “Something Just Broke,” sung by the ensemble. This follows the scene when Oswald shot Kennedy and says that things won’t be the same.

In his director’s notes, Marx alludes to events that have taken place since “Assassins” was written. They include Jan. 6 and mass shootings.

All of the songs showcase Sondheim’s musical and lyrical genius, and all of them are performed well.

The actors are uniformly excellent singers and performers. Some, including Pinto, also dance well (choreography by assistant director Leslie Waggoner).

The multi-level set, with its collection of old TVs, radios and other items, is by scenic and props designer Christopher Fitzer.

Sound is by Jules Indelicato, lighting by John Bernard and costumes, wigs and makeup by Y. Sharon Peng. Jad Bernardo is the music director.

“Assassins” is thought-provoking, absorbing and entertaining for mature audiences.

Running about 105 minutes with no intermission, “Assassins” will continue through Feb. 12 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

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


Thursday, January 26, 2023

Laughter abounds in 'The Play That Goes Wrong'

Guests at Haversham Manor drink a toast to their departed host. (Photo by Scott Lasky)


It takes great skill and talent to stage a play that’s supposed to be as glitch-ridden as “The Play That Goes Wrong” by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields.

Luckily, Palo Alto Players’ cast and crew have an abundance of both in this 2012 play within a play. Six of the eight actors are double-cast, playing roles in the inner  play, “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” which is supposedly presented by an English company, the Cornley Drama Society.”

Its convoluted plot involves the murder of Charles Haversham (Drew Benjamin Jones on opening night, alternating with Christopher Mahle), the night of the party celebrating his engagement to Sandra (Michelle Skinner).

The suspects are everyone there that evening, including his brother, Cecil (Braden Taylor), and the butler, Perkins (Brandon Silberstein). Inspector Carter (Brad Satterwhite) is looking into the case as complications arise.

Along the way, everything that could possibly go wrong does. The Cornley actor playing Charles can’t get comfortable on the chaise. Decorative items fall off the wall. A stretcher tears apart. Even the upstairs library collapses.

Sandra disappears, forcing Annie (Jen Maggio, alternating with Damaris Divito), a reluctant, then preening stage hand to fill in for her. Cornley actors flub their lines.

The action evolves into hilarious farce, leaving the plot somewhat irrelevant and requiring the actors to be ever more acrobatic and agile. Small wonder some strenuous roles are double-cast.

Director Katie O’Bryon Champlin guides the cast through all this mayhem with spot-on timing. Great credit goes to scenic designers Patrick Klein and Kevin Davies for building a set fraught with danger while keeping the actors safe.

The fight and fall consultant is Dexter Fidler. Costumes are by Jenny Garcia, lighting by Carsten Koester and sound by Jeff Grafton. Others were crucial in  creating this show.

Plot is secondary to the visual and aural delights in this hilarious play with its talented cast and crew.

Running about two hours with an intermission, “The Play That Goes Wrong” will continue through Feb. 5 at the Lucie Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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



Thursday, December 8, 2022


Buddy (Dave J. Abrams in green) dances in Santa’s workshop. (Mark and Tracy Photography)

Hard hearts melt in ‘Elf the Musical’ at Hillbarn

Kicking off the holiday season, Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory is staging “Elf the Musical,” an adaptation of the popular film.

It’s the story of Buddy (Dave J. Abrams) who was an infant in an orphanage when he crawled into Santa’s toy bag. Santa (Russ Bohard) didn’t realize he was there until he returned to the North Pole. He and Mrs. Claus (Lisa Appleyard) decided to raise him as one of their elves.

When Buddy became an adult, he learned that he was human, not an elf. Not only that, his father, Walter (Brandon Savage), lived in New York City and worked in the Empire State Building.

Despite knowing nothing about New York, Buddy found his way there, showed up at Walter’s office and insisted he was Walter’s son. Walter thought he was crazy and had him tossed out.

Over time, though, the hard-hearted Walter not only acknowledged that Buddy was his son but became imbued with the true Christmas spirit.

In the meantime, Buddy had won over Walter’s wife, Emily (Jessica Coker), and his 12-year-old son, Michael (Josh Parecki ). He also had fallen in love with the skeptical Jovie (Allison J. Parker), who worked in a department store.

Hillbarn artistic director Randy O’Hara directs the energetic diverse cast, eliciting fine performances from all the principals except Abrams as Buddy. He’s too loud and childish, eagerly embracing everyone he meets.

On the other hand, he’s a terrific dancer in the many scenes that feature Jeanne Batacan-Harper’s choreography.

Among the standouts in this fine cast are Savage as Walter, Jessica Coker as his wife and Parecki as his son. Also noteworthy are Bohard as Santa and Nadiyah Hollis as Walter’s boss and other characters. Other actors also play multiple roles.

The show features bouncy music by Matthew Sklar with lyrics by Chad Beguelin and a book by Thomas Meehan and Bob Martin.

Joe Murphy serves as musical director. The flexible set is by Matt Owens with lighting by Pamila Gary and over-miked sound by Sheraj Ragoobeer. The colorful, imaginative costumes are by Pam Lampkin.

Running just over two and a half hours with an intermission and suitable for all ages, “Elf” will continue through Dec. 18 at Hillbarn’s venue, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City. For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.


TheatreWorks moves 'Little Shop of Horrors’ to Chinatown

Seymour (Phil Wong) contends with Audry II. (Kevin Berne photo)

Director Jeffrey Lo moves TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors” from New York City’s skid row to an alley in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The change in venue doesn’t make much difference except for Christopher Fitzer’s set and a mostly Asian American cast.

Otherwise Alan Menken’s music and Howard Ashman’s book and lyrics are still entertaining. They tell the story of Seymour (Phil Wong), a nerdy employee of a rundown flower shop and his strange and interesting plant that changes life for everyone.

The other employee in the flower shop owned by Mr. Mushkin (Lawrence-Michael C. Arias) is Audrey (Sumi Yu ), whom Seymour secretly loves so much that he names the plant Audrey II. However, she already has a boyfriend, Orin (Nick Nakashima), a sadistic, abusive dentist who rides a motorcycle and is addicted to nitrous oxide, or laughing gas.

Serving as a kind of Greek chorus is a trio of Black women: Naima Alakham as Crystal, dance captain Alia Hodge as Chiffon and Lucca Troutman as Ronette.

Although the plant leads to improved business and fame for Seymour, it’s decidedly fickle. As it droops, Seymour implores it “Grow for Me.” He then discovers that human blood makes it grow – and grow. Thus, it claims human victims leading up to the tragic ending.

The three Black women provide highlights in songs like the title number, “Da-Doo” and “Dentist!” sung with Orin.

Audrey, who has low self–esteem, sings the plaintive “Somewhere That’s Green” to describe  her ideal suburban home in a place like Levittown, the name given to several low cost, cookie cutter suburbs in places like Pennsylvania, New York and elsewhere. After she and Seymour finally get together, he tells her he wants to take her to a fancy restaurant like Howard Johnson’s.

Brandon Leland plays a derelict before becoming the manipulator of Audrey II. Katrina Lauren McGraw supplies her voice and her demand, “Feed Me (Git It).”

As directed by Lo, the show features noteworthy acting by the entire cast. It also has lively choreography by William Thomas Hodgson to go with sound by Jeff Mockus and lighting by Wen-Ling Liao. Fumiko Bielefeldt designed the character-specific costumes.

Although “Little Shop of Horrors” is unconventional holiday fare, it’s nevertheless entertaining.

Running about two hours, it now continues through Dec. 31 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets and information are available by visiting www.theatreworks.org or calling (877) 662-8978.









Tuesday, November 8, 2022

'Beauty and the Beast' a hit for all ages at Palo Alto Players


Belle (Sam Mills) with her father, Maurice (Michael Johnson). (Scott Lasky photo)

Palo Alto Players’ production of “Beauty and the Beast” has everything needed for an enjoyable musical theater experience, thanks to noteworthy acting, singing, dancing, an absorbing fairy tale story and more.

The Nov. 6 matinee added a the-show-must-go-on twist when Arturo Montes, the understudy for Michael D. Reed in the lead role of the Beast, learned just that morning that Reed was ailing and couldn’t perform.

Hence Montes stepped in, and if one hadn’t been told he’s the understudy, one never wouldn’t have noticed. He filled the role admirably with no discernable missteps. He fully deserved the standing ovation he received at the curtain call, as did the entire cast.

The play is based on a 1991 Disney animated film with a book by Linda Woolverton, music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice.

Its back story is told as a fairy tale read aloud as the book pages are projected onto an upstage screen.

A handsome but vapid prince refused an old woman’s appeal for help. In turn, she placed a spell on him, changing him into a beast and transforming his household staff. The spell could be lifted only when he found someone to love who would love him in return.

In the nearby village, Belle (Sam Mills) is regarded as strange because she is her own person who likes to read. Moreover, her father, Maurice (Michael Johnson), an aspiring inventor, is called eccentric.

The villain in this piece is the handsome but vain, self-centered Gaston (Frankie Mulcahy), joined by his foolish henchman, Lefou (John Ramirez-Ortiz). Every woman in town except Belle swoons over him, so he decides he’s going to marry her.

Belle and the Beast meet after her father stumbles into the Beast’s castle and is held prisoner.

Much of the whimsy in this work comes from costumes (from Children’s Musical Theater San Jose) for the household staff. Mrs. Potts (Juliet Green) is part teapot. Lumiere (Arjun Sheth) is becoming a candelabra. Cogsworth (Ben Chau-Chiu) is becoming a clock. Similar changes affect others.

Adroitly director by PAP artistic director Patrick Klein, this production features some exciting choreography by Stacey Reed. It’s evident in such songs as “Gaston” and especially “ Be Our Guest” with its dancing dinnerware.

Daniel Hughes serves as musical and vocal director and conductor. The fluid set is by Scott Ludwig with lighting by Abby May. Angela Yeung’s sound design can be too loud, distorting lyrics.

Everyone in the 24-member cast sings and dances well, and most of them act well. In short, this is a must-see show suitable for all but the very youngest viewer, as evidenced by the large number of youngsters at the matinee.

Running about two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission, “Beauty and the Beast” will continue through Nov. 20 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

San Jose Stage presents 'Sex With Strangers'


Ethan (Matthew Kropshot) and Olivia (Allison F. Rich) share a bottle of wine. (Photo by Dave Lepori)

Two strangers meet at an inn in Michigan during a blizzard. After some talk about mutual interests, they’re not exactly strangers any more in Laura Eason’s “Sex With Strangers,” presented by San Jose Stage Company.

Ethan (Matthew Kropschot) is a presumptuous 28-year-old author-blogger. Olivia (Allison F. Rich) is a 39-year-old teacher and a published but not well known author.

He says he admires her writing and wants to connect her with his agent, who could have her next book published as an ebook. She’s not interested. She wants a real book that she can hold in her hands.

He also tells her about his blog and his books, “Sex With Strangers” and “Sex With Strangers 2.”

Those books chronicle his escapades after a bet with his buddies that he could bed a different woman every week for a year. After reading it, Olivia is disgusted at his utter disregard for women.

These conversations are interrupted by sudden rounds of passion (offstage during ear-splitting rock music in Steve Schoenbeck’s sound design).

Act 2 takes place in Olivia’s Chicago apartment just after Ethan returns from a trip to New York. There’s more talk and more sex, but eventually he leaves and she apparently stays, but both of them have changed for the better.

Director Johnny Moreno paces the play well, avoiding the pitfalls that might come with only two characters. He also happens to have two gifted actors with Kropschot and especially Rich, a San Jose Stage favorite.

The set and lighting are by Maurice Vercoutere with costumes by Jean Cardinale.

Running about two hours with an intermission, “Sex With Strangers” will continue through Oct. 30 at San Jose Stage Company, 490 S. First St., San Jose.

For tickets and information, call (408) 283-7142 or go to boxoffice@thestage.com.

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Hillbarn stages prize-winning study of racism, "Clybourne Park"


Featured in Act 2 are (from left) Mary Lou Torre, Steve Allhoff, Caitlin Gjerdrum, Ron Chapman and Anju Hyppolite. (Photo by Mark and Tracy Photography)

Racism permeates both acts of “Clybourne Park” by Bruce Norris, presented by Hillbarn Theatre.

In both acts, the sale of a home in the fictional Clybourne Park neighborhood of Chicago is at issue.

Set in 1959, the first act is regarded as a successor to Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” which ends with a Black family’s decision to move into a white neighborhood.

In “Clybourne Park,” the home is owned by a white couple, Russ (Ron Dritz) and Bev (Mary Lou Torre). They don’t know that they have sold it to a Black family until a friend, Karl (Scott Reardon), joined by his deaf wife, Betsy (Caitlin Gjerdrum), tells them.

Karl tries to dissuade them, hinting around at first, then becoming more direct. He’s backed by another friend, Jim (Steve Allhoff), a minister.

Most of this is silently witnessed by the couple’s maid, Francine (Anju Hyppolite), and her husband, Albert (Ron Chapman).

Still mourning the tragic death of his and Bev’s son, a Korean War vet, Russ is undeterred in his determination to sell the house and impolitely tells the visitors to leave.

Act 2 takes place 50 years later in 2009. By then the house is a fixer-upper in what has become a Black neighborhood.

A white couple, Steve (Reardon) and Lindsey (Gjerdrum), want to tear it down and build a much larger one. These plans are opposed by a neighborhood group led by Lena (Hyppolite) and Kevin (Chapman). They say the big new house would alter the neighborhood’s charm. In essence, they fear gentrification.

The two sides, each represented by an attorney (Torre and Allhoff), meet at the house to try to resolve their differences. A contractor (Dritz) occasionally barges in.

Although laced with humor, Act 1 contains some crude language, but Act 2 goes further with tasteless, offensive jokes. Hence, this play is recommended for mature audiences only.

Directed by Phaedra Tillery-Boughton, the seven actors do an outstanding job of creating characters with distinctive ways of speaking, acting and reacting that can be natural, likable or annoying, depending on the circumstances.

Eric Olson’s set makes a more modest transition between the two acts than the transition seen in other local productions, which depicted the house totally trashed in Act 2.

The theater lobby has some small posters with l959 prices such as 25 cents a gallon for gas and $3,000 for a Pontiac.

Lighting by Ed Hunter and sound by Jules Indelicato are both effective. Costumes by consultant Pam Lampkin and wig and hair styles by Jenny Maupin accurately depict the changes over five decades.

Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Best Play Award, this thought-provoking play shows that despite changes in outward appearances, racism and class differences are still with us.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Clybourne Park” will continue through Oct. 30 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

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