Thursday, September 14, 2023

Talented, energetic cast enlivens 'Matilda the Musical'


Doug Santana as Miss Agatha Trunchbull harangues her students. (Photo by Scott Lasky)

A talented cast of 29 energetic adults and youngsters brings “Matilda the Musical” to the stage for Palo Alto Players.

Adapted from Roald Dahl’s popular story, the plot focuses on Matilda Wormwood (Sofia Zamora, who alternates with Araceli Grace), an exceptionally bright, imaginative little girl.

Even though her mother (Brigitte Losey) would rather be dancing than mothering, and her father (Randy Lee), a sleazy used car salesman, disparages her because she’s not a boy, she taught herself to read – and not just kids books but the classics.

She gets adult support from a librarian, Mrs. Phelps (Kayvon Kordestani), whom she entertains with elaborate stories, and from her teacher, Miss Honey (Madelyn Davis), who recognizes and encourages her intelligence.

The super villain of the play is Miss Agatha Trunchbull (Doug Santana), the cruel school principal.

Because of the youngsters’ treble voices and the cast’s use of English accents, the lyrics and some of the dialogue are hard to understand. Thus it’s not easy to follow the plot if one isn’t familiar with it, but the acting helps to convey the gist of the story.

Director Janie Scott and choreographer Whitney Janssen probably had their challenges in working with so many kids, but they have molded a precision, disciplined ensemble. Hence it’s great fun watching how well everyone does.

The adults are all noteworthy, especially Davis as the supportive Honey, Losey as the self-centered Mrs. Wormwood and Santana as Miss Trunchbull, who galumphs about the stage and seems to delight in making the students’ lives miserable. It’s a drag role but not campy.

Dahl’s book was adapted for the musical by Dennis Kelly. Tim Minchin supplied the music and lyrics with orchestrations and more music by Chris Nightingale.

The music is well executed by music director/adult vocal director Amanda Ku, who leads the pit orchestra from the keyboard. Pamela Serrano does a great job as the youth vocal director.

Kudos to costume designer Greet Jaspaert, especially Losey’s outfits. Set and props designer Kevin Davies aids smooth transitions between scenes. Lighting is by Pamila Z. Gray, sound by Jeff Grafton.

Those who aren’t familiar with the story would do well to look up a synopsis beforehand, but most of the adults and youngsters at the Sept. 10 matinee seemed to know the story and reacted enthusiastically.

Advance ticket sales were so brisk that Palo Alto Players added another Saturday matinee.

“Matilda the Musical” will continue through Sept. 24 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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





Wednesday, August 2, 2023

TheatreWorks to present 20th New Works Festival

"My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding," written by "Come From Away" duo Irene Sankoff and David Hein was presented in the 2017 New Works Festival.

Audiences for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley will have a chance to see what might become the next big hit when the company presents its 20th anniversary New Works Festival Aug. 11-20 in Palo Alto.

Some of the hits that have emerged from the festival have included Tony-winning “Memphis” as well as “Nan and the Lower Body,” “Jane Austen’s Emma” and others.

This year’s event will feature staged readings of one musical, three plays and some special events. In a staged reading, the actors use scripts with limited movement and no sets or costumes.

Dinner and a conversation with playwrights David Henry Hwang and Rajiv Joseph start the festivities at 8 p.m. Aug. 11. Admission is $325 for both events or $75 for the conversation only.

“Happy Pleasant Valley: A Senior Sex Scandal Murder Mystery Musical” by Min Kahng and directed by Jeffrey Lo, is the first new work, playing at 8 p.m. Aug. 12, 7 p.m. Aug. 16 and 8 p.m. Aug. 19. When a woman learns that her grandmother is about to be kicked out of her senior apartment, she springs into action. Grandma is in hot water because her active sex life seems to kill the men she sleeps with.

Coming up next is a dark comedy, “Nerve” by Minita Gandhi,” at 3 p.m. Aug. 13 and 3 p.m. Aug. 19. Described as a multigenerational journey that explores the legacy and the love of food, it will include dishes cooked on stage and served to the audience.

Food also is involved in “Madeleines” by Bess Welden at 8 p.m. Aug. 17 and 3 p.m. Aug. 20. Jewish sisters, whose mother has just died, grapple “with how to love each other through haunted pasts, shared grief and the solace of baking together.” Leslie Martinson directs.

Giovanna Sardelli, the festival’s longtime director who has just been named TheatreWorks artistic director, directs, “Low Expectations” by Michael Gaston, slated for 7 p.m. Aug. 15 and noon Aug. 19. Encouraged to write about his family, Gaston wrote a true monologue about relatives during the Civil War and later and a fictional short story set in Northern California. They’re combined into a play with music.

Besides the conversation with playwrights Joseph and Hwang, special events will include a performance by actor and transgender activist Shakina followed by an after party at 7 p.m. Aug. 18. Tickets are $150 for the show and party, $50 for the show only.

The festival will wrap up with a chance to meet and hear from the playwrights and composers at noon Aug. 20. Moderated by Lo, TheatreWorks casting director and literary manager, it will allow questions by the audience.

Season passes for the staged readings and the latter are $60 ($55 for Season 53 subscribers). Tickets for it and the individual readings are $20. There are no assigned seats.

All events will take place at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and more information call (650) 463-1960 or visit


Tuesday, June 20, 2023

'Puffs' relates seven years at school of magic


Their classmates challenge (from right) Megan (Michelle Skinner) and Wayne (Will Livingston). 
Photo by Scott Lasky

Matt Cox’s “Puffs,” subtitled “or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic,” is being staged by Palo Alto Players.

Inspired by the enormously popular Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, it takes place at the same time that Harry is attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in England. However, it’s not Harry’s story. Rather it’s the story of other students, called Puffs.

It features an ensemble cast of 14 mostly young adults. It revolves around three of the students: Wayne (Will Livingston) and his friends Oliver (Nicholas Athari) and Megan (Michelle Skinner). Another major character is the Narrator (Tiffany Nwogu).

During their seven years together, they encounter numerous challenges and dangers.

Harry Potter fans probably will recognize many of the characters and events mentioned. Those who aren’t at familiar with the series might find themselves wondering what’s going on despite a talented, likable cast.

Director Kristin Walter doesn’t help because she allows too much shouting and jumping around. Group hugs get to be old hat.

These factors probably contributed to the reason why several people left during intermission of the reviewed June 18 matinee.

On the other hand, many in the audience seemed to enjoy it, often laughing throughout the performance and cheering loudly at the end.

The purposely gloomy set is by Kevin Davies with lighting by Edward Hunter, sound design by the playwright and costumes by Jenny Garcia. Brian Metolius composed the background music.

According to a PAP statement, the show “is not authorized, sanctioned or endorsed by J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros. or any person or company associated with the Harry Potter books, films or play.”

Running about two and a half hours with an intermission, “Puffs” will continue through July 2 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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


Thursday, June 15, 2023

'Steel Magnolias' blossoms at TheatreWorks

Shelby (Jasmine Milan Williams, center) shows pictures of her baby to (from left) Annelle (Alexandra Lee), Clairee (Marcia Pizzo), Ouiser (Nancy Carlin) and Truvy (Lisa Strum). Kevin Berne photo

“Steel Magnolias,” playwright Robert Harling’s loving portrait of women in a small Louisiana town, is being staged by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

Harling didn’t intend to write a play. He just wanted to write something for his nephew to know more about Harling’s sister, the boy’s mother.

Afflicted with diabetes, she defied medical advice by having a baby and thereby overtaxing her body. Her kidneys failed.

She went on dialysis until she received a kidney transplant from her mother, but it failed. She died when the boy was 2 years old.

Taking on a life of their own, Harling’s recollections evolved into a play set in a beauty shop. Every Saturday morning six women gather there to get their hair done, exchange recipes and talk, mostly about themselves and their families.

Covering about 2 ½ years, the play shows how these women cope and get on with their lives.

Earlier productions, including the one that TheatreWorks staged at the Burgess Theater in Menlo Park in 1991, have featured an all-white cast. However, director Elizabeth Carter has selected a multi-racial cast of white, Black and Asian women.

Their ethnicity doesn’t matter. Their warm camaraderie and caring do.

The shop is wedged between the patio and garage at the home of Truvy (Lisa Strum), the owner.

Her regular customers include M’Lynn (Dawn L. Troupe); her daughter, Shelby (Jasmine Milan Williams); and two neighbors, Clairee (Marcia Pizzo) and Ouiser (Nancy Carlin).

In addition, Truvy has just hired Annelle (Alexandra Lee), a young newcomer to the town.

As the play opens, Shelby and M’Lynn are having their hair done for Shelby’s wedding that afternoon. Clairee, widow of the town’s recently deceased mayor, and the eccentric, curmudgeonly Ouiser arrive for their appointments.

In a later scene, Shelby announces that she’s pregnant, much to her mother’s dismay. When the baby arrives, it’s three months premature but survives.

In the meantime, Clairee has found new interests, including travel, theater and a male friend. She also has bought the local radio station. Ouiser, too, has started seeing an old boyfriend.

As the play proceeds, it becomes more serious, but it’s offset by the friendly banter, warmth and humor throughout the action.

Harling has a keen ear for Southern speech and hilarious comments. For example, Shelby loves pink and has used it for everything in her wedding, including the church. Her mother says the church looks like it has been sprayed with Pepto-Bismol.

Although the action opens in 1986, some moments are familiar today. For example, a local fundamentalist preacher objects to calling the town’s high school sports teams the Devils because it encourages Satanism.

Carter does a superb job of directing this ensemble cast while each actor creates a believable, very human character.

Adding to the play’s enjoyment is the detailed set by Andrea Bechert with lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt, costumes by Dana Rebecca Woods and sound by Christopher Sauceda.

The production’s only drawback is that some of the Southern accents are difficult to understand.

Otherwise, this is a highly entertaining play that captures the importance of friendship in women’s lives.

Running about 2 ½ hours with one intermission, it will continue through July 2 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

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







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