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.

 

         

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Scarred woman takes a journey of hope in 'Violet'

 

Violet (Kaylee Miltersen in pink dress and white sweater on right) and others travel via Greyhound bus. (Photo by David Allen)

In “Violet,” a musical presented by Foothill Music Theatre, the title character is a young woman who has a terrible scar on her face.

People gasp and recoil when they see her, so she’s scarred inside, too.

Believing that a televangelist in Tulsa can remove her scar, she takes a bus from her home in rural North Carolina in 1964. During the trip, two soldiers who are on their way to Fort Smith in Arkansas befriend her.

Undeterred by their skepticism, she arrives at the preacher’s church only to be rudely rebuffed.

However, because of her friendship with the soldiers, she’s able to face the world and her life with greater self-confidence.

In this production, directed by Milissa Carey, Violet is played by Kaylee Miltersen, who doesn’t seem to have grasped how to undertake the character’s emotional journey. Sure, she’s angry, but her pouty expression doesn’t change much.

(It should be noted that no special makeup is used to show a scar. It’s up to the audience to know she has it, and that is accomplished.)

Her younger self is played alternately by Sheridan Stewart and Sofia Oberg, who fulfilled the role with assurance in the reviewed performance.

The soldiers are Monty (Brad Satterwhite), a pleasant but womanizing white corporal, and Flick (Thomas Times), a Black sergeant who’s still feeling the sting of prejudice against his race. Therefore, Flick has greater empathy for Violet and comes to care for her. Both actors excel in their roles.

Violet’s father is played by Ray D’Ambrosio. He’s dead in the 1964 scenes, but is seen in flashbacks. A well-meaning widower, he does the best he can as a parent, but he’s the one who caused the accident that scarred her when she was 13. During her emotional transformation, she learns to forgive him.

Most others in the likable 16-member cast play multiple roles. Chief among them is James Schott, whose roles include the Bible-thumping preacher who leads the raucous revival service seen by Violet.

Based on a true story, “The Ugliest Pilgrim” by Doris Betts, the lyrics and book for this show are by Brian Crawley.

Jeanine Tesori’s music is a mix of country, rock and religious styles. Two highlights are “Let It Sing,” well sung by Flick, and “I’m on My Way,” sung at the revival.

The simple set by Yusuke Soi, who seats the five-member band upstage. An overhead sign shows the names of towns where the bus stops.

Amanda Ku is the music director, and Debra Lambert is the vocal director. Choreography is by Stacey Reed with costumes by Y. Sharon Peng, lighting by Lily McLeod and sound by Andrew Heller.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “Violet” will continue through Aug. 7 in Foothill College’s Lohman Theatre, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills.

For tickets and information, call (650) 949-7360 or visit https://foothill.edu/theatre/productions/violet.html.

 


Tuesday, July 19, 2022

TheatreWorks premieres 'Nan and the Lower Body'

 

Chrisopher Daftsios (left), Lisa Ramirez, Elissa Beth Stebbins and Jeffrey Brian Adams in "Nan and the Lower Body." (Photo by Alessandra Mello)

Dr. George Papanicolaou, aka Dr. Pap, developed the Pap smear, which can easily detect cervical cancer, thus saving untold numbers of women from this disease, which can be fatal if not treated.

Playwright Jessica Dickey focuses on him in her “Nan and the Lower Body,” being given its world premiere by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

Nan is Nan Day, the playwright’s grandmother, a cytologist who briefly worked with Dr. Pap in his lab at Cornell University in upstate New York in 1952.

As the play opens, Dr. Pap (Christopher Daftsios) is lecturing before a closed curtain. Speaking with a heavy Greek accent, he’s difficult to understand.

He also comes across as bombastic and arrogant, characteristics that continue throughout much of the play. Nevertheless in his lecture and at other times he shows respect and reverence for women.

His new assistant, Nan (Elissa Beth Stebbins), shares his views, but she’s more subdued. However, she later reveals more complexities and exhibits some troublesome mobility issues.

Dr. Pap is married to Mache (Lisa Ramirez), who also speaks with a Greek accent. Her character isn’t as fully developed as the other three are.

Nan’s husband is Ted (Jeffrey Brian Adams), a minister who says he wants women to enjoy equal rights with men. However, he later accepts a new job at another parish without consulting with Nan yet expecting her to move with him.

Although the play’s theme is important and timely, especially since the overturning of Roe v. Wade and limitations on women’s health choices, it’s talky and often slow. That’s due in part to the play itself and to director Giovanna Sardelli.

Sardelli, who’s TheatreWorks’ artistic associate and director of new works, knew the play well because it was part of the company’s New Works Festival in 2019. It was in its developmental stage then, but it still needs some refinement now.

On the other hand, Nina Ball’s scenic design deserves special note. When the curtain opens after Dr. Pap’s lecture, it reveals his lab in great detail.

Later, when the action shifts to a dinner for the Days at Dr. Pap’s home, the lab set splits in half and a comfortably furnished living/dining room moves downstage. The routine is reversed when the action returns to the lab.

Other designers are Cathleen Edwards for costumes, Pamila Z. Gray for lighting and Jane Shaw for sound.

Running about an hour and 35 minutes with no intermission, “Nan and the Lower Body” will continue through Aug. 7 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information call (877) 662-8978 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

9/11's aftermath inspires 'Come From Away'

 

The cast of "Come From Away" breaks out in song. (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

 

 Our world changed forever on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked commercial airliners and crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing thousands.

“Come From Away,” a 2015 musical, looks at just one of the repercussions of that day.

U.S. and Canadian airspace was immediately closed, forcing 38 transatlantic passenger planes to land at Gander International Airport in Gander, Newfoundland. Thus Gander’s fewer than 10,000 residents suddenly had to serve the needs of  about 7,000 flyers for up to six days

With a book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, the musical focuses on 12 townspeople and 12 passengers – all portrayed by the cast of six women and six men -- who must adapt to the situation.

It opens with the townspeople starting an ordinary day as the news begins to trickle in. Soon they learn that the planes and their passengers are coming.

They immediately muster all available resources and welcome the visitors to their  island community.

Despite their initial wariness and the uncertainty, the hosts and visitors warm to one another. By the time the planes are again allowed to fly, friendships and a romance have blossomed, but another relationship has ended under the strain.

Moreover, the townspeople enjoy improved relationships thanks to their interaction with people of various nationalities, races and religions.

Although the residents refused any payment for their hospitality, the passengers donated thousands of dollars to the community.

The residents and passengers even had a 10-year reunion. As the mayor (Kevin Carolan) put it: “Tonight we honor what was lost, but we also commemorate what we found.”

Directed by Christopher Ashley, the multi-talented cast of this national touring company presented by Broadway San Jose creates believable characters based on actual people.

The result is a heartwarming, uplifting salute to humanity with some added humor and sadness, especially for Hannah (Danielle K. Thomas), whose firefighter son died at the World Trade Center.

Because the show is distilled into some 90 minutes without intermission, much of the information is delivered so quickly that it’s difficult to absorb everything.

However, the essential spirit comes through, leaving the audience cheering and clapping as the seven-member band, including music director/conductor Cameron Moncur, plays a rousing tune after the cast’s final bows.

As a touring production, the show opened July 12 and will run only through July 17 at San Jose’s Center for the Performing Arts, 255 S. Almaden Blvd. For tickets and information, call (408) 792-4111 or visit www.broadwaysanjose.com.