Monday, November 18, 2019

'Bull in a China Shop' honors pioneering woman educator

Mary (Stacy Ross, left) articulates her vision for Mount Holyoke to her lover, Jeannette (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong).

When Mary Woolley became president of Mount Holyoke College in 1901, it was a women’s seminary designed to train women to become wives and homemakers.

Her efforts to change that emphasis to education for the wider world are chronicled in Bryna Turner’s “Bull in a China Shop,” presented by Aurora Theatre Company.

As portrayed by Stacy Ross, Mary declares, “I’m interested in revolution,” early in the play. However, she had to weigh her ideals against the need to keep the school financially viable by not upsetting big donors and alumnae too much.

Moreover, she had a committed relationship with a former student, Jeannette Marks (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), whom she named to a teaching post in the English department.

Hence, she had to navigate the inevitable differences that arise during what was to become a romance that lasted for more than 45 years until her death in 1947.

Dean Welsh (Mia Tagano, right) with Mary.
Standing in the way of her efforts was her nemesis, Dean Welsh (Mia Tagano), who often was the bearer of bad news about the loss of donors.

At first Jeannette lived in faculty housing, which she hated, but Mary promised that eventually they would live together in the president’s house, which took years to fund and construct.

In the meantime, Jeannette got a room in the home of another faculty member, Felicity (Rebecca Schweitzer), who was aware of and sympathetic to the relationship.

Besides living arrangements, an early source of conflict between Mary and Jeannette was the suffrage movement. Both Jeannette and Felicity were strong  supporters of the cause, but Mary was hesitant, afraid of moving too far too fast.

Eventually she joined the cause and became such an avid supporter that she spent six months with an official delegation to China to promote women’s rights there.

During her absence, Jeannette had a fling with a star-struck student, Pearl (Jasmine Milan Williams), but she assured both Pearl and Mary that she had never stopped loving Mary.

Playwright Turner, a Mount Holyoke graduate, bases much of the play on the eloquent letters between Mary and Jeannette.

Even though the script is laced with contemporary profanities, it nevertheless compactly conveys the arc of Mary’s professional and personal life over several decades.

The one scene that goes astray comes when Pearl tosses rocks at Jeannette’s window and launches into a diatribe about feeling betrayed. It goes on too long.

On the whole, though, this is a fascinating look at a brave woman who was willing to defy convention in order to advance her deeply held convictions.

Directed by Dawn Monique Williams, the acting is fine, but Ross as Mary and Mbele-Mbong as Jeannette deserve special mention.

Costumes by Ulises Alcala chronicle changes in fashion over the years. The simple but effective set is by Nina Ball with lighting by Kurt Landisman and sound by Lana Palmer.

Running about 85 minutes without intermission, “Bull in a China Shop” will continue through Dec. 8 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley.

For tickets and information, call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Photos by David Allen

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Palo Alto Players stages musical version of 'A Christmas Story'

Ralphie (Joshua Parecki) can't believe his aunt sent him these pink bunny PJ's for Christmas. With him are, from left, Randy (Antonio Elias), Mother (Gwyneth Price Panos) and The Old Man (Michael Rhone).

Palo Alto Players is staging a musical version of a perennial favorite holiday film, “A Christmas Story.”

It chronicles the strategies that 9-year-old Ralphie Parker (Joshua Parecki) employs in hopes of getting a longed-for Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas in Hohman, Ind., in 1940. Every time adults learn of his wish, though, they intone, “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.”

 Along the way, he has other adventures involving the rest of his family, his schoolmates and his teacher.

The Old Man and Ralphie admire the major award.
One of the most hilarious scenes comes as his father, known as The Old Man (Michael Rhone), enters a contest and wins “A Major Award.” It’s a lamp, but not just any lamp. It’s the leg of a woman in high heels with a light bulb and lampshade on top.

He’s enormously proud of it, but Mother (Gwyneth Price Panos) is appalled. After she breaks it accidentally on purpose, she declares it to be “the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Then there’s Ralphie’s younger brother, Randy (Antonio Elias), who refuses to eat like a normal person. Instead Mother gets him to eat by asking, “How does the little piggy eat?” With that, he lowers his head and gobbles his food with his tongue and mouth.

There are several other memorable scenes. Among them are the time Ralphie’s friend Flick (Neal Sampson) responds to a dare and winds up with his tongue frozen to the flagpole at school.

Then, among others, there are Ralphie’s visit to a curmudgeonly Santa Claus (Joey McDaniel), the outcome of his helping The Old Man fix a flat tire and of course the pink bunny PJs from Aunt Clara, who thinks Ralphie is a 4-year-old girl.

Much of the story is told by Jean Shepherd, the Narrator (Shawn Bender), as it is in the film, which is based on Shepherd’s book, “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.”

Shepherd grew up in Hammond, Ind., but calls it Hohman. Named after an early settler, it was first called Hohmanville but soon became known as Hammond after another early settler. Other names such as Cleveland Street, where the Parker family lives, and Warren G. Harding School, attended by Ralphie and friends, are real.

Shepherd changed the name of Goldblatt’s, the department store with the Christmas window display and Santa, to Higbee’s. (Full disclosure: I grew up in Hammond.)

Music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, with a book by Joseph Robinette, work quite well in this adaptation of the film.

PAP’s artistic team of director and choreographer Janie Scott, music director Amanda Ku, scenic designer Patrick Klein (the company’s artistic director), costume designer Naomi Arnst and lighting designer Rick Amerson combine to make this a highly enjoyable production.

The only artistic drawback is Brandie Larkin’s too loud sound design. Even after an adjustment during the first act of the Nov. 10 matinee, it was still too loud, especially for the youngsters’ piping voices.

It's "Ralphie to the Rescue!" as he fantasizes the brave deeds he can do with a Red Ryder BB gun.
Scott has come up with some show-stopping choreography, especially in “Ralphie to the Rescue!” when he imagines using his Red Ryder BB gun to foil an assortment of villains.

Besides the principals already named, another standout in the large cast is Juliet Green as Miss Shields, Ralphie’s teacher.

In short, it’s great, family-focused fun.

Running just under two and a half hours with one intermission, “A Christmas Story, The Musical” will continue through Nov. 24 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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

Photos by Joyce Goldschmid






Monday, November 11, 2019

Magic is missing in BBB's 'Into the Woods'

The cast of Broadway By the Bay's "Into the Woods."

The woods are a magical place in composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”
Unfortunately, some of that magic is missing in Broadway By the Bay’s uneven production.
In this show, Sondheim and book writer James Lapine blend several fairy tale characters into a story of wishes.
Thus Cinderella (Jennifer Mitchell), Little Red Ridinghood (Jenni Chapman), Jack of beanstalk fame (Kamren Mahaney), Rapunzel (ChloĆ« Angst) and even a few brief allusions to Snow White (Amanda Plant) and Sleeping Beauty (Gabby Wylie-Chaney) all are included. 
Then the creators added the new tale of a childless baker (Sam Faustine) and his wife (Juliana Lustenader) along with a witch (Jen Brooks).
The characters all have wishes that take them “Into the Woods” for fulfillment.
During the first act, their wishes are granted, and they seem destined for a happy “Ever After.”
During the second act, however, they face a new challenge: The giant (voice of Jennifer Martinelli) that made its way to earth via Jack’s beanstalk is wreaking havoc in search of the lad, Jack, who slew her husband.
They also face another challenge: reality, the realization that getting what you wish for isn’t necessarily the path to happiness.
Selfishness and betrayal intervene. Some people die, leaving their loved ones behind, but somehow the survivors find the courage to keep on going because they realize “No One Is Alone.”
Despite its fairy tale basis, this is a show that’s more suited for adults and teenagers, not young children.
Cinderella (Jennifer Mitchell, left) and the Baker's Wife (Juliana Lustenader).
On the plus side in BBB’s production is the singing, especially by Chapman as Little Red Ridinghood, Mitchell as Cinderella, Melissa Costa as Jack’s mother and John Melis as Cinderella’s prince and the wolf.
Some other roles are marred by stray pitches and less than perfect articulation of the fast-paced, witty lyrics.
The acting is mostly good except for David Blackburn in drag as Cinderella’s stepmother. It’s a good idea, but his interpretation is too campy, sometimes distracting as he flips his wig when the focus should be on other characters.
Director Jasen Jeffrey should have done more to rein in such excesses.
Jeffrey and set designer Kelly James Tighe also could have done more to enhance the magic. There’s no attempt to show the beanstalk, and the woods are mostly a suggestion. Scene transitions are less than fluid, interrupting the story’s flow and making it less effective.
It’s likely that some audience members who aren’t familiar with the show might not always realize what’s happening.
Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Into the Woods” will continue through Nov. 24 at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway St., Redwood City.
For tickets and information, call (650) 579-5565 or visit www.broadwaybythebay.org.

Photos by Tracy Martin, Mark & Tracy Photography








Friday, October 18, 2019

Little known history chronicled in 'The Chinese Lady'



Atung (Will Dao) assists Afong (Rinabeth Apostol).
Little is known about Afong Moy, who became the first Chinese woman to enter the United States.

Playwright Lloyd Suh elaborated on what is known to create “The Chinese Lady,” presented by the Magic Theatre.

The Carne brothers, who were in the trading business, brought 14-year-old Afong to New York City in 1834 to promote their effort to sell Chinese goods.

In the play, Afong (Rinabeth Apostol) is first seen seated after her translator, Atung (Will Dao), raises the gorgeous Chinese-patterned curtain surrounding a raised platform in Peale’s Museum.

Speaking to spectators who paid 25 cents (10 cents for children) to see her, Afong introduces herself. She then describes how her feet were bound starting at age 4 and demonstrates walking.

Afong demonstrates the use of chopsticks.
Next come the use of chopsticks for eating and an explanation of tea’s importance in Chinese culture.

She concludes her appearance by saying how much she hopes “this may lead to greater understanding and goodwill between China and America, and between all the peoples of the world.”

Subsequent scenes show her at ages 16 and 17, the latter after a visit to Washington, D.C., where she met President Andrew Jackson, whom she calls Emperor Jackson. Atung translated, but not literally.

Scene 4 finds Atung alone in front of the closed curtain as he talks about, among other things, his dream that he is Afong’s lover. When he opens the curtain, it’s 1849, she’s 29 and wearing a new, more Americanized costume.

Next, in 1864, she’s 44. She says that P.T. Barnum has taken over and will replace her with a 14-year-old. She must go, but Atung will stay.

After that, Afong expresses regret that she didn’t do more to promote harmony and delivers a tour de force monologue covering the decades of mistreatment of Chinese people in the United States.

Finally, in 2019, she’s more optimistic, saying that if people “take the time to really look at each other … we might see … something true and real and wonderful.”

This play is almost endlessly fascinating thanks to Mina Morita’s sensitive direction of the two actors, who so skillfully create their characters.

The handsome set is by Jacquelyn Scott, while Abra Berman created the costumes, with special praise for Afong’s beautiful outfits.

Adding to the production are lighting by Wen-Ling Liao and sound by Sara Huddleston.

Running about 90 minutes without intermission, “The Chinese Lady” will continue through Nov. 3 at the Magic Theatre, third floor, Building D, Fort Mason, 2 Marina Blvd., San Francisco.

For tickets and information, call (415) 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.

Photos by Jennifer Reiley

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Hillbarn stages 'It's Only a Play'

Virginia (Luisa Sermol), Frank (Gary Schoenfeld, center) and James (Chris Reber) plan the next show.

Terrence McNally’s “It’s Only a Play” is billed as satire, but deep down it’s also a tribute to the eternal optimism of theater folks.

Presented by Hillbarn Theatre, it’s set in the master suite of a luxurious Manhattan townhouse where several people are awaiting the reviews after the opening of a play, “The Golden Egg.”



Playwright Peter (Ryan C. Cordero) gives a blessing to producer Julia (April Green).

Among them is the producer, Julia (April Green), their hostess. Also on hand are the playwright, Peter (Ryan C. Cordero); the kleptomaniac director, Frank (Gary Schoenfeld); and the drug-and alcohol-abusing star, Virginia (Luisa Sermol).

They’re joined by the playwright’s friend, James (Chris Reber). The male lead role was written for him, but he bowed out and went on to a successful TV series.

Also on hand are an acerbic critic, Ira (Jesse Caldwell); and an aspiring Broadway actor, Gus (Josiah Frampton), who’s checking coats for a party downstairs.

Early in the play, James is on a phone call in which he says the play is a total turkey, but otherwise he keeps his opinion to himself.

Later, it’s no surprise that James was right. Some of the reviews are downright scathing.

Nevertheless, by the end of the play, everyone wants to keep the show open and to start planning the next one.

Much more transpires before then, but most of it involves extreme overacting by everyone except Reber as James. He seems to be the only one who’s not too loud and excitable.

Hence, the show loses much of its satirical edge. Director Steve Muterspaugh must bear most of the responsibility for this flaw.

Nevertheless, the show has some amusing moments, especially when they involve the name-dropping of plays and celebrities. Gus, the coat checker, also produces some laughs when he hauls in coats belonging to the casts of shows like “The Lion King” and “Hamilton.”

Still, this is definitely a show for adults with its drug use, profane language and Gus’s bawdy, off-key rendition “Defying Gravity” from “Wicked.”

The applause-worthy set is by Kuo-Hao Lo. The costumes, hair and makeup are by Valerie Bradshaw, while Amber G. Watts did the lighting and James Goode did the sound.

Running about two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission, “It’s Only a Play” will continue through Oct. 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.

Photos by Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin

Monday, October 7, 2019

'Mark Twain's River of Song' celebrates the Mississippi



Versatile Dan Wheetman (left), Tony Marcus and Chic Street Man play a variety of instruments in the show.
The mighty Mississippi is celebrated in words and song in “Mark Twain’s River of Song,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

Created by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman, this musical revue combines original songs by Wheetman along with traditional songs. They’re interspersed with the words of Mark Twain (Dan Hiatt), who serves as a sort of emcee, plus oral histories from lumbermen, farmers, dock workers and slaves who all worked along the river.

These passages are quite effective, describing these people’s relationship with the river.  The slaves’ words are most interesting because they describe the lives of several slaves and recount their efforts to escape to the north and freedom via the river.

Dan Hiatt personifies Mark Twain.
There’s not much of a story, although Twain does talk about his boyhood in Hannibal, Mo., on the banks of the river and his desire to become a river boat pilot. He ran away at age 14, got a river boat job and eventually did become a pilot before embarking on his literary career.

This six-person version of the play is a revision from a three-person show that premiered earlier this year. At times it feels like a work in progress, especially in the first act. Also indicative of a work in progress is that the order of songs performed doesn’t always match the program.

Jim (Rondrell McCormick, left) and Huck (Valisia LeKae ) guide their raft down the river.
The second act is more interesting, especially when it features long passages from Twain’s masterpiece, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” It’s set on a raft where Huck (Valisia LeKae) and Jim (Rondrell McCormick), an escaped slave, are making their way along the river.

The songs are performed well on a variety of instruments by LeKae, McCormick, composer Wheetman, Tony Marcus and Chic Street Man. Hiatt is engaging as Twain.

Besides serving as composer and performer, Wheetman is the show’s musical director, while co-creator Myler is the director.

Adding great interest to the show is the large map of the country before the Civil War plus the projected period photographs that create ambience for each scene. David Lee Cuthbert is responsible for these media designs along with the set.

Also contributing to the show are costumes by Jill C. Bowers, lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt and sound by Jeff Mockus.

Overall, the show is competently performed.

Running under an hour and 40 minutes with one intermission, “Mark Twain’s River of Song” will continue through Oct. 27 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Photos by Kevin Berne
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Thursday, October 3, 2019

Little known history comes to light in 'Sovereignty' in Marin

Sarah Ridge Polson (Elizabeth Frances) observes the signing of the Treaty of New Echota by her ancestors and others  played by (from left) Adam Magill, Kholan Studi, Scott Coopwood, Andrew Roa, and Robert I. Mesa.

A young attorney’s efforts to restore rights to her Cherokee Nation become personal in “Sovereignty.”

Presented by Marin Theatre Company, this play by Mary Kathryn Nagle is both a powerful drama and a look at American history usually ignored in schools and history books.

Although not autobiographical per se, it’s based on Nagle’s family history from the 1820s and ’30s to the present. Her principal character, Sarah Ridge Polson (Elizabeth Frances), is descended from Major Ridge (Andrew Roa) and his son, John Ridge (Robert I. Mesa).

The playbill, a treasure trove of historical information, helps to clarify their roles and the events that followed.

Major and John Ridge were the 19th century leaders of efforts to enforce the Cherokee Nation’s rights of sovereignty in Georgia. Those rights included a law that made the rape of a woman on Cherokee lands a crime that the Cherokee Nation could prosecute no matter what the assailant’s citizenship or race was.

That right was upheld in an 1832 Supreme Court decision that President Andrew Jackson (Craig Marker) and the Georgia governor refused to enforce. The upshot was that John Ridge and others, over the objections of John Ross (Jake Waid), signed a treaty agreeing to allow Cherokees to move to Oklahoma, where they would have their own land.

Those who refused to leave were forced to do so, resulting in the infamous “Trail of Tears.”

Sarah confers with her new boss, Jim Ross (Jake Waid).
In the play’s present scenes, Sarah is hired by the Cherokee Nation Attorney General’s Office, headed by Jim Ross (Waid). She doesn’t reveal her middle name, Ridge, because there’s still bad blood between the Ridges and the Rosses.

She has recently become engaged to a federal police officer, Ben O’Connor (Marker). While Ben was drinking with a buddy at an Indian casino in Oklahoma, a Cherokee Nation cop, Watie Polson (Kholan Studi), Sarah’s brother, was assaulted by a drunk (Scott Coopwood).

However, because of a Supreme Court decision in 1978, neither Ben nor Watie had authority to arrest the man because he was a non-Cherokee on Cherokee land.

Sarah and Jim, her boss, work on an appeal to the Supreme Court seeking to give Indian nations the right to prosecute anyone who assaults women, children or law enforcement officers or who commits other sexual crimes on Indian land.

Ben, jealous of the time Sarah is spending with Jim, beats her up in a drunken rage.

Under the outstanding direction of MTC artistic director Jasson Minadakis, the action seamlessly shifts between past and present. Moreover, he has chosen an outstanding cast that includes several Native Americans. Except for Frances as Sarah, most of the actors play several roles.

Facilitating smooth transitions is the design team of Annie Smart, set; E.B. Brooks, costumes; Danny Osburn, lighting; and sound, Sara Huddleston. Brenda Toineeta Pipestem served as cultural consultant.

Running just over two hours with one intermission, “Sovereignty” will continue through Oct. 20 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley.

For tickets and information, call (415) 388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Photos by Kevin Berne