Thursday, February 15, 2024

Hillbarn stages award-winning 'Rent'

Dedrick Weathersby plays Collins in Hillbarn's "Rent." (Tracy Martin photo)


    “Rent” made a big splash on Broadway in 1996, going on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and a Tony Award for Best Musical.

It was seen in San Francisco in 1999, and now it’s at Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory.

            Jonathan Larson, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, loosely based it on Puccini’s beloved opera, “La Boheme.”

It’s set in the Lower East Side of New York City starting on Christmas Eve in 1989. That’s where Roger (Brandon Leland), a rock guitarist, and Mark (Edward Im), an aspiring filmmaker, share a bare bones apartment.

They can’t afford to pay the rent, and AIDS has cast a pall over them and the entire country.

Their friends include Collins (Dedrick Weathersby), a gay professor; Angel (Jesse Cortez), a drag queen with AIDS; Joanne (Solona Husband) and her partner, Maureen, (Danielle Mendoza); and Mimi (May Ramos), an exotic dancer and drug addict.

Several people in the 14-member cast play multiple roles as the action continues through the year to the following Christmas Eve.

Despite all the accolades it has accumulated over the years, “Rent” can be hard to follow because the plot is somewhat convoluted. Moreover, much of the action is propelled through song, but the lyrics can be difficult to understand because Sheraj Ragoobeer over-amplifies Jeff Mockus’ sound design.

Nevertheless, people who aren’t familiar with the show will be able to get a semblance of what’s happening thanks to a well-chosen, talented, energetic cast and astute direction by Reed Flores.

Musically it’s enjoyable because the actors sing well. Musical director Diana Lee conducts the small, on-stage instrumental ensemble from the keyboard. Dancing also is enjoyable thanks to Gabe Igtanloc’s choreography.

Costumes by Nolan Miranda help to define the characters and era. The set and projections by Hillbarn artistic director Steve Muterspaugh, with lighting by Pamila Gray, do the same.

“Rent” will continue at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City, through Feb. 25. For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit 


Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Playwright tells 'How I Learned What I Learned'


Steven Anthony Jones portrays playwright August Wilson. (Jenny Graham)


            August Wilson (1945-2005) was one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century.

He’s best known for his 10-play cycle chronicling the Black experience in each decade of the 20th century. However, in his autobiographical “How I Learned What I Learned,” co-conceived with Todd Kreidler, he harks back to his formative years in the mostly Black Hill District of Pittsburgh. Most of the plays in the cycle are set there, too.

Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, this one-man show is performed by Steven Anthony Jones. He embodies the young person who quit high school at 16 but haunted the library, immersing himself in books.

He takes us through Wilson’s first menial jobs and his struggle to pay his rent. He also talks of Wilson’s various romantic interests, starting in seventh grade and continuing through to his marriage. Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, serves as costume designer, dramaturg and creative consultant for this production.

Racism is a pervasive theme. In the opening scene, Jones as Wilson wears a black T-shirt reading “I am supposed to be white” on the front and slyly says it would suit Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

In another, he talks about the difficulty of cashing a check at a Los Angeles bank, where the teller told him she didn’t have any envelopes after finally giving him his cash. A few weeks later, he cashed a check and got an envelope from a different clerk with no hassle.

Wilson describes the numerous characters he befriended and speaks lovingly of his mother.

Nina Ball’s set (lit by Xavier Pierce) is dominated by a monolithic brick wall that serves as a screen for projections designed by sound designer Rasean Davonté Johnson.

This production is directed by former TheatreWorks artistic director Tim Bond, now in the same position at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

It runs about an hour and 45 minutes without intermission. Though it could benefit from careful pruning, it offers fascinating, often amusing insights into Wilson’s early life.

“How I Learned What I Learned” continues through Feb. 3 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts,” 500 Castro St. After that it will go on a Bay Area tour for a week.

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

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Palo Alto Players stage riveting 'Misery'


Paul  (Christopher Mahle) wakes up in Annie's (Maria Marquis) home. (Scott Lasky photo)

Misery is not only the name of a popular novelist’s heroine but is also the situation in which he finds himself in “Misery,” presented by Palo Alto Players.

In William Goldman’s stage adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, writer Paul Sheldon (Christopher Mahle) wakes up in the home of Annie Wilkes (Maria Marquis) after a horrendous car accident in snowy Colorado in 1987. Serious injuries have left him in great pain and unable to walk.

When Annie, who repeatedly calls herself his No. 1 fan, learns that her favorite character, Misery Chastain, has died in his next novel, she badgers him to write a sequel in which Misery has somehow survived.

Realizing that his fate lies in the hands of the increasingly unstable and menacing Annie, he starts to work on that sequel.

As her mental state continues to decline, violence ensues. For Paul it’s a life or death struggle.

The other character in the play is the sheriff, Buster (Zachary Vaughn-Munck), who stops by occasionally to see if Annie knows anything about Paul’s disappearance. She plays innocent.

Director Kimberly Ridgeway elicits the emotional nuances and calculations of the two principal characters. She also brings out the humor, which alleviates  some of the tension.

The plot has some unanswered questions, such as how Annie, a former nurse, has managed to obtain all of the medical supplies and devices that Paul needs. There are other holes, but revealing them would reveal some of the play’s devious twists.

Otherwise, all three actors fully inhabit their characters, making them believable in this unbelievable situation.

Complemented by Edward Hunter’s lighting, Gillian Ortega’s set design uses a turntable to revolve from the bedroom to the living room and the kitchen.

The sometimes ominous sound is by Samuel Fiedel with costumes by Greet Jaspaert. Dave Maier is the fight coordinator.

Because violence, obscenities and other factors give the play an R rating, Palo Alto Players says it’s not appropriate for anyone under 17. Others are likely to enjoy this riveting drama. 

Running about an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, “Misery” will continue through Feb. 4 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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



Thursday, December 7, 2023

Quirky characters face challenges in 'Spelling Bee'


Blake Kevin Dwyer of San Mateo plays hippie-reared Leaf Coneybear. (Kevin Berne photo)

Middle school, once known as junior high, is often a time of angst and anxiety. Just ask the six finalists in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

Each of the three boys and three girls (played by adult actors) has his or her concerns and, in the case of this musical comedy presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, some quirks, which they display as they try to spell words that most people have never heard of.

The proceedings are overseen by Rona Lisa Peretti (Molly Bell), a Realtor, along with vice principal Douglas Panch (Christopher Reber), who gives out the words and, if requested, their definitions and use in a sentence.

When they misspell a word, Mitch Mahoney (Anthone Jackson), who’s fulfilling part of his community service requirements, gives them a juice box and escorts them off the stage. (In previous productions, he also gave out hugs.)

They’re joined by four good sport audience members. At first these volunteers get easy words like “cow” and “Google,” but soon the words get obscure, leading to an exit.

Although Meredith McDonough’s direction is sometimes too fast-paced, the show is well served by talented actors who create likable characters. McDonough was director of TheatreWorks’ New Works Festival from 2009 to 2013. She was called in late in the process after the original director, James Monroe Iglehart, had to back out because “Spamalot,” in which he was performing, was moving to Broadway.

Iglehart played Mitch Mahoney in the Post Street Theatre production in San Francisco in 2006. He also has appeared in a number of TheatreWorks shows. He’s credited as creative producer for this show.

Bell is another “Spelling Bee” veteran, having played a finalist in the San Jose Repertory Theatre production in 2009. Although everyone in the cast acts and sings well, she’s a standout.

The show has an interesting book by Rachel Sheinkin and ear-pleasing music and lyrics by William Finn. William Liberatore serves as music director.

“Spelling Bee” isn’t a holiday show per se, but the set by Andrea Bechert evokes the season with colorful gift boxes, large candles and a reindeer wearing sunglasses arrayed around the stage. Lighting is by Steven B. Mannshardt with sound by Jeff Mockus, choreography by Lee Ann Payne and costumes by Courtney Flores-Kerrigan.

TheatreWorks is celebrating a successful fund-raising drive, “Save TheatreWorks Now” that ended Nov. 30. It called for $3 million to make sure the company could produce the rest of its season. Instead it raked in $4 million from more than 700 donors.

Running about an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will continue through Dec. 24 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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


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 (Chloë 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