Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Shameful event in history inspires musical, 'Allegiance'


Japanese Americans wait for a train headed for a relocation camp. (Scott Lasky photo)

Presented by Palo Alto Players, “Allegiance” is a musical based on one of the most shameful events in American history: the relocation of people of Japanese descent during World War II.

With music and lyrics by Jay Kuo and a book by Kuo, Marc Acito and Lorenzo Thione, it was inspired by the childhood experiences of actor George Takei (Lt.  Sulu on “Star Trek”).

It focuses on a Salinas farm family, the Kimuras, who have only a few days to sell the farm and assemble for transport to the bleak Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming after the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941.

The family includes Sammy (Jomar Martinez) and his older sister, Kei (Marah Sotelo), along with their father, Tatsuo (Bryan Pangilinan), and grandfather, Kaito (Ron Munekawa).

Sammy wants to enlist in the military to prove his patriotism, but is rejected. Later he meets the camp nurse, Hannah Campbell (Corinna Laskin), and falls in love with her.

In the meantime, Kei and Frankie Suzuki (Christopher J. Sotelo) have fallen in love, too.

After Japanese men are allowed to enlist in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Sammy signs up and serves with distinction, but Frankie resists the subsequent draft with Kei’s support. Sammy bitterly rejects them both.

Other characters, both good and not-so-good, are involved.

The show opens and closes in 2001 when Sammy (played by Munekawa as an older man) attends Kei’s funeral and finds he has a chance to forgive and to forge new family ties.

Thoughtfully directed by Vinh G. Nguyen, the mostly Asian, 20-member ensemble cast is excellent with standout performances by Martinez as Sammy, Laskin as Hannah, Marah Sotelo as Kei and Christopher J. Sotelo as Frankie. (The Sotelos are husband and wife.)

At the keyboard, music director Benjamin Belew oversees the talented singers and the six-person orchestra.

Nicole Tung has choreographed the lively dancing, including the jitterbug at a camp dance.

The minimal but effective set is by Skip Epperson with lighting by Edward Hunter.  Sometimes the lyrics are hard to discern in the sound design by Brandie Larkin.

The costumes, hair and makeup are by Y. Sharon Peng.

Running about two hours and 40 minutes with intermission, “Allegiance” is interesting and entertaining despite some slow spots. In some ways, it might work better as a drama rather than a musical, but some songs allow characters to express their inner thoughts.

It will continue through May 8 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Recorded performances will be available for streaming-on-demand May 5 to 8.

For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit www.paplayers.org.





Monday, April 25, 2022

Humor, insight in 'I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change'

Jack O'Reilly and Samantha Rose Cardenas imagine they're "A Stud and a Babe."

“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” takes a humorous yet insightful look at how relationships change from first date to 30 years of marriage.

Presented by Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory and adroitly directed by Erica Abrahamson, this musical comedy features four talented actors who portray dozens of characters of varying types and ages in more than 20 scenes, each a self-contained vignette.

Because the characters’ names change from scene to scene, the actors are simply labeled Man #1 (Jack O’Reilly), Man #2 (Keith Pinto), Woman #1 (Samantha Rose Cardenas) and Woman #2 (Hayley Lovegren).

With music by Jimmy Roberts and book and lyrics by Joe DiPietro, the show opens with “Cantata for a First Date” as the four characters get dressed for the date.

The actual date takes place during “Not Tonight, I’m Busy, Busy, Busy” as Pinto and Lovegren decide that a first date is too awkward, so they pretend it’s the second and then the third, when they must decide on sex.

One of the more amusing scenes is “A Stud and a Babe,” in which O’Reilly’s character is actually a nerd and his date, Cardendas, is a frump.

Hayley Lovegren laments that she's "Always a Bridesmaid."

Later, in “Always a Bridesmaid," Lovegren laments that not only is she not getting married, she has to wear ugly dresses.

The way that parenthood changes people is seen in “The Baby Song,” as a married gay couple, Pinto and O’Reilly, who have a new baby, evolve from interesting adults to baby talkers who totally bore a good friend, Cardenas.

Other scenes show a contentious family road trip, two oldsters meeting at a funeral and more.

Each one is funny because it seems so real and because the four actors are so versatile.

Guided by musical director Matthew Mattei, each one also sings well, accompanied by Jon Mattei on a white grand piano and Paula Filseth on violin.

The scenes are divided by quick blackouts when the stage crew, Eric Olson and Adria Olson, moves minimal set pieces (set by Matt Owens with sound and lighting by Ron Ho) in and out, giving the actors time for quick costume changes.

Credit goes to costume designer Ashley Garlick for outfits that are appropriate for the characters.

Suitable for an adult audience only, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” runs a fast-moving two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.

It will continue through May 8 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City. For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411, Ext. 2, or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.

Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography


Wednesday, April 13, 2022

TheatreWorks stages August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean"


Aunt Ester (Greta Oglesby) cleanses the soul of Citizen Barlow (Edward Ewell). (Kevin Berne photo) 

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is staging August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” the first part of his 10-play chronicle of the 20th century Black experience.

This one takes place in 1904 in the home of Aunt Ester Tyler in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where most of the cycle takes place.

Even though slavery was abolished 41 years earlier, Jim Crow laws still oppress Black people, especially in the South. Oppression also is rampant in the mill where many of the Hill District’s Black residents work.

Aunt Ester (Greta Oglesby) is the 285-year-old spiritual adviser to the Black community.

Residing with her are her gatekeeper, Eli (Jerome Preston Bates), and her housekeeper, Black Mary (Porscha Shaw).

Soon to join them is Citizen Barlow (Edward Ewell), a troubled young man recently from Alabama who wants Aunt Ester to wash his soul.

Among their frequent visitors and friends are Solly Two Kings (Kim Sullivan), a former slave who was part of the Underground Railroad, which guided slaves to freedom in Canada; and a white traveling peddler, Rutherford Selig (Dan Hiatt).

Black Mary’s brother, Caesar Wilks (Rodney Hicks), stops by occasionally, but he’s not welcome. The play’s villain, he’s a rigid, by-the-book police officer who looks for any excuse to arrest someone.

This 2003 play is ably directed by Tim Bond, who took over as artistic director two years ago, just as the coronavirus pandemic disrupted everything.

Thus this is his first chance to direct at TheatreWorks, and he has chosen a topnotch cast and artistic team.

Like most of Wilson’s plays, this one is talky, especially in the first act, which moves slowly as it sets the stage for what’s to come. It’s not always easy to follow because the characters’ accents can be hard to understand at times.

On the other hand, the second act is riveting, highlighted by Citizen Barlow’s spiritual journey to the City of Bones. It’s meant to cleanse his soul and to evoke the history of a people who suffered greatly, starting with their terrible voyages from Africa.

This ritualistic scene, presided over by Aunt Ester and aided by Eli, Black Mary and Solly, is mesmerizing with its music and movement reminiscent of a Black church service.

The cast has no weak links, but the standout clearly is Oglesby as Aunt Ester, who’s convincing as the ancient and wise dispenser of relief for troubled souls.

Bond previously directed an impressive production of “Gem of the Ocean” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Ore., in 2007, also with Oglesby in the lead.

The set is by William Bloodgood with costumes by Lydia Tanji, dramatic lighting by Lonnie Rafael Alcarez, and music and musical direction by Michael Keck.

Running about two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission, “Gem of the Ocean” will continue through May 1 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. 



Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Family disintegrates in Pulitzer-winning "August: Osage County"


The cast features (foreground, from left) Carley Herlihy, Allison F. Rich, (back row, from left) L. Duarte, Michael Ray Wisely and Terrance Smith. (Dave Lepori photo) 

If there were a contest for most dysfunctional American family, the one in Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” would win.

Presented by San Jose Stage Company, the play itself is a winner, having garnered the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama and five Tony Awards, including best play.

Baring the family’s secrets, the play goes on a grueling journey through addiction, suicide, incest and infidelity, among others. It’s definitely for adults only.

It’s set in the Weston home outside a small town in Oklahoma. As it opens, Beverly Weston (Randall King), a retired teacher and poet, is engaged in a long, drunken monologue about T.S. Eliot.

His audience is Johnna Monevata (L. Duarte), an American Indian woman he is hiring as a housekeeper.

His wife, Violet (Judith Miller), then stumbles in. Suffering from mouth cancer but continuing to smoke, she’s addicted to the prescription drugs she has hidden throughout the house.

In the next scene, Beverly is missing, and some family members have assembled to try to find him.

Once his body is discovered in a nearby lake, presumably because he committed suicide, the rest of the family arrives.

They include Mattie Fae Aiken (Marie Shell), Violet’s sister, and her husband,  Charles Aiken (Tim Kniffin); and their son, Little Charles (Matthew Kropschot).

The Westons’ eldest daughter, Barbara Fordham (Allison F. Rich), is there with her husband, Bill (Michael Ray Wisely), and their 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Carley Herlihy). Barbara and Bill have separated because he’s having an affair with one of his students, but they’re trying to pretend everything is OK.

Another Weston daughter, Karen (Tanya Marie), is an airhead joined by her sleazy fiancé, Steve (Joshua Hollister).

Both Barbara and Karen have moved out of Oklahoma, but their unmarried sister, 44-year-old Ivy (Elena Wright), has stuck around.

As the play continues, the family disintegrates step by step. Secrets and old grievances are revealed, but there are a few humorous moments.

Completing the cast is Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Terrance Smith), who delivers the news about Beverly.

Miller delivers a tour de force performance as Violet rails against those who would try to control her. And while she may seem addled, she has known about some secrets for years.

Even though Beverly has the opening scene only, King is noteworthy.

Rich also is outstanding as Barbara tries to keep everything together, but over time she becomes more like her mother. The transformation is subtle, often conveyed through facial expressions or body language.

In the end, everyone has left except Johnna, who tries to comfort the confused and self-pitying Violet with the penultimate words from Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”: “This is the way the world ends.” Left unsaid are the final words: “Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Director Kenneth Kelleher lets a few diatribes go over the top, but overall the entire cast is terrific. Johnny Moreno choreographed the fight scenes.

The costumes by Madeline Berger and lighting by Maurice Vercoutere complement the production. Steve Schoenbeck’s sound design leaves some lines difficult to hear, especially in some early scenes.

Running about two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, “August: Osage County” will continue through April 24 at San Jose Stage Company, 490 S. First St., San Jose.

For tickets and information, visit https://thestage.org/tickets or call (408) 283-7142.



Thursday, March 17, 2022

TheatreWorks triumphs with 'Sense and Sensibility' as musical

Sharon Rietkerk (left), Antoinette Comer  and Lucinda Hitchcock Cone. (Kevin Berne photo)

Two sisters left bereft by the death of their father in 1815 must fend for themselves in the musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in its regional premiere.

With book, music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, this adaptation often allows the characters to sing their private thoughts and emotions.

But one character who has no problem being open with her emotions is Marianne,  (Antoinette Comer), the younger of the Dashwood sisters and the “sensibility” of the title.

Her sister, Elinor (Sharon Rietkerk), is more reserved and proper, the “sense.”

After their brother, John (Nick Nakashima), and his greedy wife, Fanny (Melissa WolfKlain), leave the sisters with no home or money, a cousin, Lord Middleton (Colin Thomson), and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone), kindly offer them the use of a cottage in the country.

There they meet Edward Ferrars (Darrell Morris Jr.), who takes an immediate liking to Elinor, but he’s too shy and tongue-tied to let her know.

For her part, Marianne falls hard (literally) for the dashing Mr. Willoughby (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka), while a neighbor, Colonel Brandon (Noel Anthony), is smitten by her, too.

As the story unfolds, misunderstandings arise and secrets are revealed, but somehow everything turns out for the best.

This production marks another triumph for its director, Robert Kelley, TheatreWorks’ recently retired founder and artistic director.

It starts with the superb cast anchored by the stately, dignified stage presence of Rietkerk as Elinor.

Comer as Marianne is more open and impulsive, yet the loving bond between the sisters in unshakeable.

The three principal men – Morris as Edward, Anthony as Colonel Brandon and Herdlicka as Willoughby – are well suited to their differing roles.

Comic relief comes from Thomson as Lord Middleton and Cone as Mrs. Jennings, who’s both good-hearted and gossipy. When they made their first entrance, I fully expected them to break into “Master of the House” from “Les Miserables.”

Everyone in the cast sings and blends well, accompanied by the four-member orchestra that includes musical director William Liberatore on piano.

Augmented by a few set pieces, Joe Ragey’s scenic design relies primarily on period landscape paintings projected in a gilded oval frame.

When it comes to design elements, though, Fumiko Bielefeldt’s elegant costumes are the clear stars.

Lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt and sound by Jeff Mockus complement the effects.

Running about two and a half hours with an intermission, this not-to-be-missed  “Sense and Sensibility” continues through April 3 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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

The show also will be video streamed with details to be announced.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Fats Wallers' music comes to Hillbarn with 'Ain't Misbehavin'


From left:  Majesty Scott, Katrina Lauren McGraw, Phaedra Tillery-Boughton, Dave J. Abrams and Anthone Jackson in 'Ain't Misbehavin.' (Mark and Tracy Photography)

Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory is staging a lively, high-energy production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” subtitled “The Fats Waller Musical Show.”

In this revue conceived by Richard Maltby Jr. and Murray Horwitz, three women and two men sing some of Waller’s best known songs of the ’30 and ’40s. They include both songs he wrote and songs he performed and made famous.

The action takes place in an after-hours Harlem gin joint with the six-member band  on a small platform. Six round tables with two seats are arrayed around the performing space.

Audience members are invited to sit at two of them while the others are used by the cast. At the first matinee, two youngsters sat at one table and seemed entirely taken by the show.

The show opens with the company performing the title song plus “Lookin’ Good but Feelin’ Bad.”

Thereafter each performer is featured. Anthone Jackson as Ken, joined by Katrina Lauren McGraw as Nell, sings a suggestive “Honeysuckle Rose.” Phaedra Tillery-Boughton as Armelia sings another suggestive song, “Squeeze Me.”

Dave J. Abrams as AndrĂ© is a terrific dancer, especially in “How Ya Baby” with Majesty Scott as Charlaine.

The likable performers, under the musical direction of Jasmine Butler, sing and blend well.

Some of the best known songs in Act 2 are “Mean to Me,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” and “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.”

(Full disclosure: I wasn’t able to stay for Act 2 because of an unexpected schedule conflict.)

“Ain’t Misbehavin’” was a Broadway hit, winning the Tony and New York Drama Critics Circle awards as best musical of 1978, along with a 1979 Grammy for original cast album. It first came to San Francisco in 1979 and has been seen there and at several Bay Area venues ever since.

Small wonder that it’s so popular. It’s filled with timeless music that can be enjoyed by all ages.

The entertaining Hillbarn production is directed by Kevin Smith-Kirkwood, who also serves as choreographer. The set is by Matt Owens with costumes by Jasmine Williams, lighting by Pamila Gray and sound by Angela Yeung.

Running just under two hours with one intermission, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” will continue through March 27 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

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


Thursday, February 10, 2022

'Men on Boats' tells true story with no men, no boats

The cast of Palo Alto Players' production of 'Men on Boats' (Photo by Scott Lasky)

 “Men on Boats” by Jaclyn Backhaus is based on the true story of the first known white men to chart the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869.

Presented by Palo Alto Players and, as stipulated by the playwright, it has no men and no boats. Instead it has 10 female and nonbinary actors.

Authorized by President Grant, the expedition was led by the one-armed John Wesley Powell (the stalwart Mary Melnick), who chronicled the expedition in his journal. The play incorporates passages from that journal.

Starting in four boats, the team was an assortment of men from varied backgrounds.

Several had specific tasks. For example, William Dunn (Melissa Jones) was Powell’s second in command, Hall (Jaime Wolf) was the mapmaker, and Hawkins (Katie O’Bryon Champlin) was the cook.

The most enigmatic but fascinating crew member was Old Shady (Maria Mikheyenko). She also composed and arranged the songs that she and the cast sing at various points.

Their perilous journey took these adventurers through dangerous rapids and waterfalls. Along the way, boats capsized and supplies were lost

.By the time they had reached the end of the canyon, four of the men had left and the rest had nothing more to eat than one apple that wasn’t mealy.

Directed by Lee Ann Payne who also serves as music curator, the cast is energetic, but the play itself is somewhat repetitious,

Moreover, the actors try too hard to be masculine, and they often shout, making their lines difficult to understand.

The rugged sandstone set is by Heather Kenyon with effective lighting by Edward Hunter and sound by James Goode. The period costumes are by Y. Sharon Peng.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “Men on Boats” will continue at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, through Feb. 20. Streaming on demand is scheduled for Feb. 17-20.

For tickets and more information, including COVID policies, call (650) 329-0891 or visit www.paplayers.org.