Sunday, December 3, 2023

Hillbarn stages musical theater classic, 'The Sound of Music'

Sophia Alawi is an ebullient Maria. (Photo by Mark Kitaoka)

Because of its memorable music, a plot based on a true story and themes of the power of music and resilience, “The Sound of Music” remains a classic of American musical theater.

Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory’s production does full justice to all of those qualities.

Set in a mountainous area of Austria in 1938, the book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse features a would-be nun, Maria Rainer (Sophia Alawi), whom the Mother Abbess (Sarah Jebian) says isn’t quite ready  for the convent life. Instead she sends Maria to the home of retired navy Captain Georg von Trapp (Jared Lee), a widower whose seven children need a governess.

There she finds a home where the children are treated like martinets with no opportunity for fun or play. Maria changes all that, mainly with music, teaching the children to sing through “Do-Re-Mi.”

Her outspokenness and the results she achieves with the children soon soften Captain von Trapp’s heart and blossom into love.

Their happiness is clouded by the Nazi incursion into Austria and an order for the captain to command a German ship. He’s greatly troubled because his loyalties lie entirely with Austria, but he fears the consequences if he doesn’t obey the order.

An opportunity to escape arises when his friend Max (Brad Satterwhite) arranges for the family to sing at an important music festival.  Singing “So Long, Farewell,” the family exits the stage one or two at a time and takes refuge in the abbey. They then decide to escape to the safety of Switzerland by crossing over Maria’s beloved mountains.

Directed by Dennis Lickteig, known to Gilbert and Sullivan fans for his work with Lamplighters in San Francisco, the cast is topnotch.

Chief among the standouts is Alawi’s ebullient Maria with her crystal clear soprano voice and captivating stage presence.

Another outstanding singer is Jebian as the wise, kindly Mother Abbess. Everyone else is good, too, especially the likable youngsters, making for full enjoyment of the music by Richard Rodgers with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.

And what music it is with such hummers as the title song along with “My Favorite Things,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” “Edelweiss” and more.

Jayne Zaban adds some nice choreographic touches, most notably in the dancing by telegram delivery boy Rolf (Nicki Weppner) and Liesl von Trapp (Chloe Fong) in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.”

On the keyboard, Debra Lambert directs eight musicians in offstage. The serviceable set is by Hunter Jameson with sound by Joshua Price, lighting by Sarina Renteria and costumes by Stephanie Dittbern.

Running more than two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, “The Sound of Music” will continue through Dec. 17 at Hillbarn Theatre. 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

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

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Palo Alto Players stages movie classic, 'The Wizard of Oz'


They’re off to see the Wizard (from left):  Michael D. Reed as the Cowardly Lion, Noelle Wilder as the Scarecrow, Lauren D’Ambrosio as a crow, Ian Catindig as the Tinman and Libby Einav (alternating with Penelope DaSilva) as Dorothy Gale.   (Scott Lasky photo)

A movie that remains vivid in my memory is “The Wizard of Oz” starring Judy Garland.

Palo Alto Players’ stage production of L. Frank Baum’s classic story, as adapted by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company, aims to create such memories in new generations while recalling them for the older crowd.

Directed and choreographed by Stacey Reed, the PAP cast of two dozen kids and adults does justice to the adventures of young Dorothy Gale (Penelope DaSilva, double-cast with Libby Einav) after a tornado swoops her from her Kansas home to the Emerald City of Oz.

While she’s on a quest just to get home, she meets three characters who have their own needs that they hope the wizard can provide.

The Scarecrow (Noelle Wilder) wants a brain. The Tinman (Ian Catindig) wants a heart, and the Cowardly Lion (Michael D. Reed) wants courage.

Together they overcome various perils, thanks in part to Glinda the Good Witch of the North (Jessica Ellithorpe), who grants their wishes. Their archenemy is the Wicked Witch of the West (Barbara Heninger).

When they finally see the wizard (ChloĆ« Angst), it’s a big letdown.

But Dorothy, with her beloved dog Toto, finds her way back by clicking the magic ruby red slippers and repeating “There’s no place like home” three times.

Thus she wakes up in a wagon in her yard surrounded by familiar faces. It was all a dream brought on by the tornado. Her companions in Oz were actually people in her home life.

Although the reviewed Nov. 5 production had a shaky start, it soon picked up steam, thanks to a talented cast. Among the standouts is Heninger, who does double duty as the Wicked Witch of the West as well as Miss Gulch, the cantankerous neighbor who wants to take Toto away from Dorothy.

Wilder as the Scarecrow and farmhand Hunk is a deaf performer who signs and mouths their lines and songs while outstanding singer Lauren D’Ambrosio, costumed as a crow, speaks and sings them. The limber-limbed Wilder also is such a talented dancer and actor that the deafness becomes secondary.

Another outstanding singer is the imposing Reed as the Cowardly Lion. His “If I Were King of the Forest” displays his operatic bass voice. He does double duty as designer of the fearsome tornado projections.

The orchestral music is recorded while Rachel Michelberg serves as music and vocal director of the music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg.

The colorful costumes are by Jenny Garcia. The set and props are by Kevin Davies with lighting by Edward Hunter and sound by Sheraj Ragoobeer.

The two-and-a-half hour running time might be a bit much for the very youngest viewers, many of whom squirmed and talked aloud. (PAP advises that no children under 3 will be admitted.) Still, the show is a good introduction to quality, live theater and an enjoyable experience.

“The Wizard of Oz” continues through Nov. 19 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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



Thursday, October 12, 2023

Playwright explores mysterious disappearance in ‘Mrs. Christie’

Jennifer Le Blanc (left) is Agatha Christie with Elissa Beth Stebbins as  Charlotte. (Kevin Berne photo)

        Acclaimed mystery writer Agatha Christie became the center of her own, still unsolved, mystery in 1926. That’s when she disappeared for 11 days and never said why or where she went or what she did during that time.
        Playwright Heidi Armbruster theorizes what might have happened in the intriguing “Mrs. Christie,” being staged by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.    
        The action shifts between the past and present as Christie fan Lucy (Nicole Javier) tries to figure out what happened by seeking a missing notebook  from the author’s papers. 
        Her rival in the search is William (Max Tachis, who doubles as Christie’s publisher, Collins). She’s aided by an older woman, Jane (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone). 
        In the past scenes, Christie (Jennifer Le Blanc) frets over the affair that her husband, Archie (Aldo Billingslea), is having with the much younger Nancy Neele (Kina Kantor). Christie’s secretary, Charlotte (Elissa Beth Stebbins), tends to her needs and listens.
        The play posits that Christie disappears by checking into a hotel under a false name. She seems to lose all track of time despite efforts by the maid, Mary (Stebbins).
        She’s also confronted by Le Detective (William Thomas Hodgson), a stand-in for her fictional sleuth Poirot.
        As past and present characters meet in her home, a possible murder gives Le Detective a chance to show his prowess.
        The action is easy to follow because of artistic director Giovanna Sardelli’s direction and a talented cast that clearly defines each character. The only drawback is that sometimes the dialogue is hard to understand because of the English accents.
        The flexible set is by Christopher Fitzer with lighting by Wen-Ling Liao and sound by James Ard. Cathleen Edwards designed the handsome period costumes.    
        Running about two hours with an intermission, “Mrs. Christie” will continue through Oct. 29 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.
        For tickets and information, call (877) 662-8978 or visit


Monday, October 9, 2023

Hillbarn opens 83rd season with 'Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery'

Michael Champlin (left) is John Watson, Alicia M.P. Nelson is Actor 3, and George Psarras is Sherlock Holmes. (Tracy Martin photo)


Five talented actors take Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory audiences on a fun-filled romp through Ken Ludwig's "Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery."

Two men play Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. John Watson. Two other men and a woman, called Actors 1, 2 and 3, play three dozen or so male and female characters.

The cast is so small because in Ludwig’s interpretation, a theater company was supposed to travel to the Theatre Royal of Barnhill-on-Foster in Hampshire, England, in 1892. However, all but five of them missed the train, and all but a few trunks of costumes arrived, Watson (Michael Champlin) explains.In true show biz tradition, though, the intrepid troupe makes do with what it has. 

    Sir Henry Baskerville, a Texan who has inherited his title and a tidy fortune, has asked Holmes (George Psarras) and Watson to his newly inherited estate in the desolate moors to investigate the mysterious death of the previous heir.

Moreover, Sir Henry has received an unsigned note warning him not to go to the estate, which is supposedly stalked by a huge, vicious dog.

Holmes and Watson soon encounter several characters, some of them quite strange. After a series of adventures and close calls, they unravel the mystery.

As Actor 1, Ted Zoldan’s characters include an attorney and an eccentric butterfly chaser. Actor 2, Darrien Cabreana, is seen mostly as Sir Henry. Actor 3, Alicia M.P. Nelson, plays several female characters, but like her colleagues, she cross-dresses. Each character is clearly defined, thanks to Leslie Martinson’s astute direction of this versatile cast. 

Costumes designed by Nolan Miranda aid quick character changes with minimal additions or deletions, but one can only imagine how busy the stage crew is behind the scenes. Lighting and projections are by Spenser Matubang. Cindy Ng designed the props, which also aid in character definition, Kevin Davies designed the functional set. Jeff Mockus’s sound design features snatches from classics like “Pictures at an Exhibition” and operas like “Tosca” and “Falstaff.”

Running about two hours with an intermission, “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” has opened Hillbarn’s 83rd season, which has a new artistic director, Steve Muterspaugh.

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