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.


Saturday, September 10, 2022

Meet the stage mother from hell in ‘Gypsy’ at Hillbarn

Chris Reber (left) as Herbie, Stephanie Prentice as Rose and Makena Reynolds as Louise sing "Together Wherever We Go." (Mark and Tracy Photography)

 In “Gypsy,” the 1959 Broadway musical being staged by Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory to open its 82nd season, the central character, Momma Rose, is the stage mother from hell, the quintessential helicopter parent.

Full of unfulfilled dreams, she focuses her energies on getting her daughters, June and Louise, into show biz via vaudeville in the 1920s and ’30s. Even though neither girl shows much talent in the skits that Rose devises, she forces them into auditions, forgoing school and other necessities like money. 

Confronted with the inevitable departure of the girls and others, Rose is briefly dismayed but soldiers on, as evidenced in her final number, “Rose’s Turn.”

 In Hillbarn’s production, Stephanie Prentice as Rose assumes the heavy mantle once borne by such luminaries as Ethel Merman and Bette Midler. She has their ability to belt out a song, but not always their pitch perfection

As directed and choreographed by Lee Ann Payne, this production is largely successful despite some missteps.

The daughters, Melissa Momboisse as June and Makena Reynolds as Louise, seem mostly one-dimensional despite some good acting.

Others in the 24-member cast, including six children, are praiseworthy, as is Chris Reber as Herbie, the girls’ long-suffering agent who falls in love with Rose. He wants to marry her, but she keeps putting him off.

John Mannion ably fills a variety of minor roles, including Rose’s father and hard-bitten theater owners.

The scene when the girls wind up in a burlesque venue, the strippers – Lisa Appleyard as Tessie Tura, Deborah Rosengaus as Electra and Jill Collister as Mazeppa – needs to be more naughty to match their costumes by Y. Sharon Peng, who also designed the show’s hair and wigs.

Payne’s choreography adds to the show, especially in “All I Need Is the Girl,” the dance scene by Tulsa (Tommy Consunji), witnessed and then joined by Louise.

Musical director Rick Reynolds conducts the 13-member offstage orchestra from the piano. Despite being too loud and sometimes off-key (like some of the singing), the orchestra is adequate.

The memorable music is by Jule Styne with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Arthur Laurents wrote the book, which was inspired by the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque star that Louise became. Her sister, June, became actress June Havoc.

Some of the best-known songs are “Let Me Entertain You,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Small World. 

The set by producer Randy O’Hara, the company’s artistic director, tends toward the drab in keeping with the characters’ environments. However, footlights that border the stage area pose a tripping hazard for the audience. In fact, someone at the opening stepped on one, damaging it.

Because “Gypsy” is such an ambitious undertaking, it might be too big for this smallish venue. Or maybe the unprecedented heat wave that preceded opening night sapped some energy.

Running almost three hours with one intermission, “Gypsy” will continue through Sept. 25 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

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


Tuesday, August 30, 2022

'School of Rock' opens Palo Alto Players season

Jomar Martinez as Dewey (center) and his students display their talents. (Kate Hart Photography)

Palo Alto Players’ 92nd season is off to a rousing start with “School of Rock.”

This musical features a talented cast of 15 youngsters and 16 adults. The youngsters, mainly preteens, portray students in a pricey private school. Most of the adults, some playing multiple roles, play the kids’ parents and teachers.

The major exception is Jomar Martinez as Dewey Finn, a loser and aspiring rock musician, who becomes the kids’ substitute teacher by deception. He doesn’t know anything about the subjects he’s supposed to teach, but he soon fills the classroom with rock music.

Some of the kids play instruments, and others are pegged as backup singers. As they evolve into a large rock band, the kids start to blossom. For example, Tomika (Sadie Vaughn), is so shy that she can barely mumble her name, let alone say what’s bothering her. Dewey manages to bring her out of her shell, and she becomes an integral part of the group.

In another memorable scene, “If Only You Would Listen,” several students try to get their parents to really hear what they’re saying but get nowhere. Later, however, the parents hear and see the band and begin to regard the kids in a different light.

Of course there’s reckoning when Dewey’s subterfuge is discovered, but there’s a happy ending.

In a subplot, Dewey becomes unexpectedly enamored of the principal, Rosalie Mullins (Amy Kohmescher).

Based on a movie by Mike White, this stage version features a book by Julian Fellowes and lyrics by Glenn Slater. Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote most of the new music. One delightful exception is the virtuoso Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” well sung by Kohmescher.

As Dewey, Martinez is high energy, almost manic at times, often in the first act, but his antics lead to laughter, too.

Ably directed by Doug Santana, the entire cast is praiseworthy, especially the kids. They obviously have rehearsed long and hard, as evidenced in the choreography by Joey Dippel. Daniel Lloyd Pias serves as vocal director, while Amie Jan and Lane Sanders are co-music directors. Jan conducts the band.

PAP artistic director Patrick Klein designed the sets, which smoothly segue from one scene to the next. Costumes are by Noreen Styliadis, lighting by Edward Hunter and sound by Anthony Sutton.

All of these elements, especially the cast, deserve their enthusiastic audience response.

Running about two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission, “The School of Rock” will continue through Sept. 11 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. For tickets call (650) 329-0891 or visit www.paplayers.org.





Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Audience favorite brings Chopin show to TheatreWorks


Hershey Felder in his Chopin persona. (Photo by Hershey Felder Presents)

Hershey Felder has become an audience favorite in the Bay Area and elsewhere for his one-man shows based on famous composers like Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin.

Now he has brought another one-man show, “Hershey Felder: Chopin in Paris,” to TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

In this show he becomes the composer-pianist teaching a piano class in Paris (with the audience as his students).

Along the way, he reveals much of Fryderyk Chopin’s history and performs some of his most famous piano works.

Felder bases his show on meticulous historical research and offers fascinating insights into both the man and his music.

Although Chopin was Polish by birth, he spent most of his adult life in Paris, with some sojourns to other major European cities. Still, he never forgot his Polish roots and always loved his native country.

This show takes place in Paris during the afternoon of March 4, 1848, the year before his death at the age of 39.

After an introduction, he goes to the grand piano that dominates his salon and plays his first composition, written when he was just 7 years old. He later says that he first became fascinated with the family piano when he was just 2.

In another segment, he bewails the Russian occupation of Poland and the suffering of his people – not unlike what’s happening in Ukraine today, but he makes no note of that.

He also goes into depth about his eight-year relationship with writer Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, better known as the cigar-smoking George Sand, whom Chopin called Madam.

During a Q and A with his students (the audience), he cites Bach and Mozart as two of his major musical influences.

Toward the end of the show, he talks of what Sand called his melancholy, a trait evidenced in several scenes where he imagines terrible things happening to his family and others.

This show apparently is a revision of an earlier Felder show, “Monsieur Chopin,” seen at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2014.

Felder is an accomplished musician and story-teller, resulting in a fascinating, enjoyable theatrical work.

Directed by Joel Zwick, the show features the book and set by Felder with lighting by Erik S. Barry (too much red in some scenes).

Running about two hours, including the Q and A’s, but no intermission, “Hershey Felder: Chopin in Paris” will continue through Sept. 11 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, August 17, 2022

Local priest's story told in 'The Four Gifts'

Amanda Farbstein as one of the Joes. (Mark and Tracy Photography)


Father Joe Bradley has turned his autobiography, “The Four Gifts,” into a play of the same name being staged by Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory.

With editing by Antonia Ehlers and script supervision by Dan Demers, former Hillbarn artistic director, the play concerns a man who overcame a crisis of faith, substance abuse and major heart issues to become a Catholic priest serving at  Serra High School and St. Gregory’s Catholic Church in San Mateo.

Joe had wanted to become a priest from the time he was a teenager in the early ’70s, but his father encouraged him to experience the real world to be sure the priesthood was for him.

He got a ground crew job at San Francisco International Airport, where he began indulging in alcohol and drugs, especially after his father’s death.

Eventually he did become a priest, but he developed heart trouble and had to have a pacemaker and defibrillator implanted at UCSF.

(He could have gone to Stanford Medical Center, but refused because he was still angry at the way the Stanford band had made fun of Notre Dame during halftime of a football game.)

When his defibrillator went haywire, subjecting him to great pain, he wound up getting a successful heart transplant. In all, he spent a year in the hospital.

The medical scenes don’t place doctors in a very good light. Yes, they’re knowledgeable and effective, but the bedside manner of most of them leaves something to be desired.

For example, the doctor played by Amanda Farbstein is brusque and cold, not giving Joe much chance to respond or showing concern for him as a person.

His story is related by a cast of four women and six men who play multiple roles, including Joe. Each time another actor takes over the role, he or she receives a necklace with a cross from the previous Joe.

This gambit is fairly easy to follow but seems unnecessary. The story itself is interesting and would be better served if each character were played by the  same person.

Although the play doesn’t specifically enumerate the four gifts, Good Reads, an online site, lists them as faith, sobriety, a new heart and a fulfilling ministry.

Directed by Cara Phipps, the cast is quite good in varied roles. Among the standouts is Farbstein. Besides a doctor, she’s one of the Joes and a co-worker at the airport. Also noteworthy is Cody Wittlinger, who plays the first young Joe.

Patrick W. Lord has designed the simple set and the projections shown on three transparent panels upstage.

Costumes are by Pam Lampkin with lighting by Ron Ho. James Goode’s sound design features musical snatches from the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor and others from the ’70s.

Running about 90 minutes without intermission, “The Four Gifts” will continue through Aug. 21 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

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