Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Hillbarn has a hit with 'The Producers'


Ulla (Renee Deweese Moran) dances for Max (Edward Hightower, left) and Leo (James M. Jones).

When Mel Brooks wrote the book (with Thomas Meehan), music and lyrics for a musical about a musical that was supposed to be a flop but turned out to be a hit, he created his own hit with “The Producers.” The stage version is based on the 1968 film of the same name.

Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory is staging its own hit thanks go sharp direction and a talented cast and design team. All of these elements add up to laughter and enjoyment.

As the show opens, once-successful Broadway producer, the brash Max Bialystock (Edward Hightower) has just seen his latest show, “Funny Boy,” close after its opening night.

Shortly thereafter, a mousey accountant, Leo Bloom (James M. Jones), shows up to go over Max’s financial records. When he sees that $2,000 is still in the account, he comments that Max could make more money with a flop than a hit.

Max latches onto this comment and decides that he wants to produce a flop by finding the worst play, worst director, worst designers and worst actors for it. After some persuasion, Leo joins him as co-producer.

This leads them to “Springtime for Hitler,” a play by Hitler admirer Franz Liebkind (the versatile Keith Pinto), who forces them to meet several conditions before allowing them to produce it. These conditions include a silly dance and an oath swearing allegiance to Der Führer. Franz also keeps a collection of wing-flapping pigeons with Nazi insignia.

Once rights to the play are secured, Max and Leo prevail upon their worst director, Roger DeBris (John Mannion). He greets them wearing a glittering gown topped by a tall tiara. He looks like the Chrysler Building, one of the men says.

His sidekick is the tres gay Carmen Ghia (Jesse Cortez). His chosen designers also are quite gay. They decide that it’s important for the show’s success to “Keep It Gay.”

One other person who shows up in their orbit is a gorgeous blond Swedish woman, Ulla (Renee Deweese Moran), who celebrates her sexiness (“When You’ve Got It, Flaunt it”) and leaves both Leo and Max salivating.

Max then sets about raising money for the show via his usual route: romancing elderly women who like to play risqué games in return for giving him money.

Quite unexpectedly, “Springtime for Hitler” turns out to be a huge hit. The two producers’ financial manipulations lead to big trouble with the law, but of course there’s a happy ending.

Given the subject matter of “The Producers,” there’s a fine line between bawdy shtick and bad taste in the hilarious lines and situations. Director Erica Wyman-Abrahamson and her well-chosen actors stay on the right side of that line.

Recorded music provides instrumental accompaniment for the singing, which is overseen by music director Rick Reynolds.

Dancing is a huge part of the show’s enjoyment, thanks to choreography by Christopher Childers. Just one example is “Along Came Bialy,” in which several of Max’s women friends dance with their walkers.

Credit for the ingenious costumes goes to Y. Sharon Peng. Scenic designer Kevin Davies keeps the show moving along despite the numerous scene changes and Hillbarn’s smallish stage. The lighting is by Pamila Gray with sound by Sheraj Ragoobeer.

The 20-member cast is likable, performing the acting, singing and dancing with ease. Those in the ensemble create a variety of characters.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “The Producers” will continue through May 14 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

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

Photo by Tracy Martin










Tuesday, May 2, 2023

SpongeBob SquarePants takes to the stage as a musical

"The SpongeBob Musical" cast  takes its curtain call. (Scott Lasky photo)

“SpongeBob SquarePants,” the popular TV cartoon series created by Stephen Hillenburg, has taken to the stage as “The SpongeBob Musical” presented by Palo Alto Players.

This version, with its book by Kyle Jarrow and songs by several rock artists, finds Bikini Bottom and its underwater inhabitants threatened with annihilation by a volcanic eruption coming in about 48 hours.

SpongeBob SquarePants (Joe Galang) and his friends Sandy Cheeks (Solona Husband) and Patrick Star (Rocky James Concepcion) take it upon themselves to ascend the volcano and try to plug it up, thus preventing the eruption.

Attempting to thwart them are Sheldon Plankton (Nico Jaochico) and his wife, Karen the Computer (Kristy Aquino).

In the meantime, The Mayor (Alea Selburn) thinks she can solve the problem by forming committees to study it – otherwise known as bureaucracy.

Others in SpongeBob’s sphere are Squidward Q. Tentacles (Andrew Cope); Eugene Krabs (Zachary Vaughn-Munck) and his daughter, Pearl (Gillian Ortega); Larry the Lobster (Nicholas Hintzman); and others.

PAP artistic director Patrick Klein has directed this production and created its colorful, versatile set. Richard Hall is musical director with vocal direction by D. Asa Stern.

The imaginative, ingenious costumes are by Raissa Marchetti-Kozlov with lighting by Edward Hunter and sound by Jeff Grafton.

The energetic, athletic choreography is by Stacey Reed.

The 23-member cast is outstanding, offering fine singing, dancing and acting. Galang as the ever-optimistic SpongeBob is especially noteworthy.

This show likely has its greatest appeal for people who are familiar with the TV series. The April 30 matinee was well received by many in the audience, with many of them cheering after every scene and singing along with the cast at its curtain call. However, those who know little or nothing about the series might not be so enthusiastic.

Running about two and a half hours with an intermission, “The SpongeBob Musical” will continue through May 14 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit



Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Cross-border library site of 'A Distinct Society'


Manon (Carrie Paff) greets Shirin (Vaneh Assadourian) in the library. (Kevin Berne photo)

The border between Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, Quebec, runs right through the Haskell Free Library and Opera House. It’s marked with tape across the library floor.

This actual geographic anomaly is the setting for Kareem Fahmy’s “A Distinct Society,” being given its world premiere by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in association with Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City.

The play takes place in November 2017 after the Trump administration imposed the so-called Muslim ban, which at the time didn’t allow citizens of seven majority Muslim countries to enter the United States.

Therefore, the library became a place where families separated by the ban could see one another.

In the play, Peyman Gilani (James Rana), a 50-year-old Iranian cardiac surgeon has gone there to see his daughter, Shirin (Vaneh Assadourian), a medical student in the U.S., and to give her some food.

Food is against library rules, says librarian Manon Desjardins (Carrie Paff), a French Canadian known as a Québécoise.

Furthermore, Bruce Laird (Kenny Scott), a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer assigned to the area, tells Peyman that he has only five minutes to visit with his daughter before he must leave.

Declan Sheehan (Daniel Allitt), a teenager from Ireland who is forced to attend a French language school in Quebec, sees much of this because he hangs out at the library.

Part of the reason is that he’s an avid fan of its fantasy adventure comic books, which he calls graphic novels. Another part is that his classmates give him a hard time, and he has no friends.

In the meantime, Bruce flirts with Manon, who agrees to have dinner with him before she plays the title character in Bizet’s “Carmen” in the opera house upstairs. After the opera, they return to the library, where he persuades her to dance on a table, which Carmen does in the opera.

Complications arise as Bruce tries to enforce the tougher rules dictated by his supervisor.

During the course of the play, the characters reveal more about themselves and their family backgrounds.

For example, Manon talks about the 1995 referendum asking Quebec citizens if they wanted to secede from Canada and form a distinct society. It failed in the close vote. Her parents had opposite views that eventually ended their marriage.

This production is skillfully directed by Giovanna Sardelli, TheatreWorks artistic associate and director of New Works, who elicits fine performances from all five actors.

Paff, for example, is a Bay Area favorite who creates a nuanced character. However, the character’s French accent tends to distance viewers who must focus on each word rather than the overall meaning.

The other characters also are multi-faceted, quite human and believable.

Jo Winiarski’s detailed, inviting set is filled with book-lined shelves, a children’s corner, a comfortable sofa and that border tape on the floor.

Costumes by Dina El-Aziz, lighting by Pamila Z. Gray and sound by Elton Bradman enhance the production.

Running about an hour and 35 minutes with no intermission, “A Distinct Society” will continue through April 30 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

For tickets and more information, call (877) 662-8978 or visit



Wednesday, March 15, 2023

'Fannie' tells of one woman's quest for voting rights

Greta Oglesby plays Fannie Lou Hamer. (Kevin Berne photo)


“Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, should be a must-see for students.

This one-woman play, written by Cheryl L. West and featuring Greta Oglesby, details Hamer’s brave efforts to secure voting rights for Black people in the 1960s.

She was 44, a Mississippi sharecropper with only a sixth grade education and the youngest of 20 children, when she attended a meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and became a tireless advocate for voting rights.

Her activism led to her and her husband being forced to leave their plantation home, thus losing their home, jobs and possessions. She received death threats. Nevertheless she persisted.

In one harrowing scene, she describes being arrested and thrown into a cell with five Black men who were ordered to beat her or risk severe punishment themselves.

Her story is interspersed with songs like “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” that have the audience singing and clapping along with her. She’s accompanied by a three-man band seated upstage. Music director is Morgan Stevenson.

Directed by Tim Bond, TheatreWorks artistic director, Oglesby’s performance is a tour-de-force of brilliant acting and singing.

Projections by Miko S. Simmons illustrate the events and people who also were devoted to the cause with photos from that time. Viewers who are old enough to remember that turbulent period in history will surely recognize them.

Andrea Bechert’s scenic design includes pro-voting rights signs adorning the theater’s walls. Costumes by Lydia Tanji, lighting by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz and sound by Gregory Robinson add to the enjoyment.

The reason why this play is so important for students to see is that it has such relevance to events today, when some political leaders are trying to suppress voting rights, especially by people of color. TheatreWorks recognizes this and has scheduled a student matinee for 11 a.m. March 30.

Running about 70 minutes without intermission, “Fannie” will continue through April 2 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information, call (877) 662-8978 or visit





Monday, March 13, 2023

'Perfect Arrangement' at Hillbarn resonates today


Norma (Leslie Waggoner, left), Millie (Amanda Farbstein), Jim (Alex Rodriguez) and Bob (Brad Satterwhite) discuss their dilemma. (Photo by Tracy Martin)

Although Topher Payne’s “Perfect Arrangement,” being staged by Hillbarn Theatre and Conservatory, is set in the very early ’50s, it resonates today.

Back then, officialdom focused on rooting out Communists in government and other areas and then extended its reach to homosexuals who could be blackmailed into revealing government secrets.

Today the focus is on “wokeness” and “don’t say gay,” especially in schools.

Inspired by a true story, “Perfect Arrangement” features two gay couples, one male, one female, who enter legal but sham marriages to hide their true leanings. They live in adjoining apartments with a walk-in closet connecting them.

One of the men, Bob Martindale (Brad Satterwhite), is a State Department official tasked with identifying and removing employees deemed security risks.

Norma Baxter (Leslie Waggoner), the wife of his partner, high school teacher Jim Baxter (Alex Rodriguez), is Bob’s secretary. Millie Martindale (Amanda Farbstein) is Bob’s wife and Norma’s partner.

Bob manages his job well until his boss, Theodore Sunderson (John Mannion), orders him to go after gays, too, leading to an ethical and moral dilemma for the couples.

With the appearance of Barbara Grant (Tanya Marie), a State Department employee who had been living overseas, the couples’ arrangement starts to unravel.

As pressures mount and pretenses become more difficult to maintain, the four spouses must decide whether to stay in the closet or come out and face the certain fallout in hopes of paving the way toward acceptance of themselves and others.

All of this makes for serious subject matter, but the play is billed as a comedy. Yes, it has some inherently amusing moments but director Tyler Christie has the excellent cast overplaying the comedy. Toning it down would be beneficial.

This is especially true in the early scene with the two couples plus Bob’s boss and his high society wife, Kitty Sunderson (Erica Wyman). The three women squeal like overexcited teenagers at a rock concert. Thus it’s a relief when the two couples are  alone.

This production benefits from its design elements, such as the stylish costumes by Bethany Deal.

The comfortable living room set, with its symbolic walk-in closet, is by D’Angelo Reyes. It’s supposedly occupied by the Martindales, but it’s actually the women’s home. The men live next door.

Sound by Jules Indelecato and lighting by Aya Matsutomo enhance the production.

Running about two hours with an intermission, “Perfect Arrangement” will continue through March 26 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City. For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Foothill stages terrific 'Into the Woods'


Kama Belloni (left) as Jack's mother,  Ryan Liu as Jack and Mateo Urquidez handling Milky White. (David Allen photo)

Combine Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack of beanstalk fame and Rapunzel with some other characters and you get the 1987 Tony-winning musical “Into the Woods” with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine, being given a terrific production by Foothill Music Theatre.

Opening with the classic lines, “Once upon a time,” the show has each major character saying, “I wish.” While those wishes come true in the first act, which is mostly bright with some chuckles along the way, the second act turns darker. There’s very little happily ever after.

Foothill director Milissa Carey skillfully guides the 20-member cast, a mix of students and community members. Each performer creates a believable character and blends into the ensemble. Because every performer does so well, it’s difficult to single anyone out.

The story is introduced by the affable narrator (Michael Paul Hirsch, who also plays the mysterious man).

Soon we meet Cinderella (Sam Mills), who wishes to go to the festival. Then there’s Little Red Riding Hood (Mai Abe), who buys bread from the Baker (James Schott) and the Baker’s Wife (Alicia Teeter) before going into the woods to visit her grandmother.

The not-too-bright Jack (Ryan Liu) has a pet cow, Milky White (manipulated by Mateo Urquidez), but she gives no milk. Therefore, his mother (Kama Belloni) wants to sell her.

The baker and his wife want a child, but they learn from the witch (Caitlin Gjerdrum) that she has put a spell on his house, rendering him childless because his father made a mess of her garden.

In order to break the spell, they must go into the woods to find four items in three days. In their quest, they encounter the other fairy tale characters.

This show features Sondheim’s memorable music as well as his fast-paced, witty lyrics. For example, Jack’s mother sings that Milky White’s “withers wither with her,” and the witch names all the vegetables, such as rutabaga and arugula, that the baker’s father ruined.

In addition to Carey’s direction and the talented cast, this production benefits from Yusuke Soi’s set design, which easily flows from one setting to the next despite the small stage.

Also noteworthy are the costumes by Sharon Peng, choreography by Kayvon Kordestani, sound by Andy Heller and lighting by Pamila Gray. Music director Michael Horsley leads the nine-member orchestra, seated upstage, from the keyboard.

Despite its fairy tale themes and because of the events of the second act, this show isn’t suitable for youngsters.

Running about two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission, “Into the Woods” will continue through March 19 in the Lohman Theatre at Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills. For tickets and information, call (650) 949-7360 or visit







Thursday, February 2, 2023

Jewish history, traditions explored in 'In Every Generation'


Three generations celebrate Passover in 2019. (Kevin Berne photo)

What does it mean to be Jewish and how have Jews managed to survive and maintain their traditions?

In the 2022 “In Every Generation,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, playwright Ali Viterbi explores these questions and others over the years of a multi-generational family’s Passover dinners.

Before the show opens, significant events in Jewish history, going back to 1416 BCE, are displayed as supertitles on the proscenium.

It then starts in 2019 in Los Angeles as Valeria Levi (Cindy Goldfield) hosts a Seder in her modern apartment for her parents, Paola (Luisa Sermol) and Davide  Levi (Michael Champlin), and daughters, Yael Levi-Katz (Olivia Nicole Hoffman) and Devorah Levi-Katz (Sarah Lo).

Paola and Davide, who uses a wheelchair because of ALS, are Italian immigrants. Devorah is Chinese and adopted. Family dynamics are evident as rituals are observed and traditional foods eaten.

Action then goes back to 1954, when Paola and Davide are Italian newlyweds who have escaped the Holocaust and have moved to a modest apartment in Los Angeles.

It then fast-forwards to 2050. Devorah, now a gay rabbi, and Yael, a doctor, are celebrating with their mother, Valeria.

Like her father in the first scene, she uses a wheelchair and can’t speak, but modern technology enables her to project her thoughts onto a tablet. Therefore, when her daughters squabble, she implores them to stop.

By this time, anti-Semitic events throughout the country have left the family super-cautious.

The setting segues to the Exodus in the Sinai Desert in 1416 BCE. The five family members express hopes of “next year in Jerusalem” after the Jews’ ordeal in Egypt.

Director Michael Barakiva has assembled an outstanding ensemble cast with each of the five actors creating believable characters at different ages.

Nina Ball’s set, with lighting by Kurt Landisman, defines changing times and circumstances.

Costumes are by Suzanne Chesney with sound by Sharath Patel.

Running about two hours with an intermission, this interesting, informative play will continue through Feb. 12 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

For tickets and information, call (877) 662-8978 or visit