Wednesday, November 7, 2018

'Aida' takes the stage in Redwood City

 Amneris (Caitlin McGinty, left), sings with  Aida (Raquel Nicole Jeté) and Radames (Shaun Leslie Thomas).
Presented by Broadway By the Bay, the stage musical “Elton John + Tim Rice’s Aida” was inspired by Verdi’s operatic masterpiece of the same name.

In this case, though, John’s music, with lyrics by Rice, is mostly rock with some echoes of gospel.

Set in Egypt, it tells of the Nubian princess, Aida (Raquel Nicole Jeté), captured by Radames (Shaun Leslie Thomas), an Egyptian general.

He and his troops take her and her countrymen to Egypt to be slaves. The Egyptians don’t know she’s a princess.

Her spirit and her refusal to be intimidated lead him to spare her from the death that the others might face and to give her to his fiancée of nine years, Princess Amneris (Caitlin McGinty).

Despite the difference in their stations, their mutual attraction grows stronger. Soon circumstances demand that she must choose between him and her father. Tragedy ensues.

An interesting aspect of the book by Linda Wolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang is Amneris’s transformation from vanity (“My Strongest Suit”) to compassion (“I Know the Truth”).

The stately McGinty is terrific and believable in this role. She’s also the show’s best singer.

This is not to slight the singing or the regal bearing of Jeté as Aida. Thomas as Radames also does well.

Directed by Jasen Jeffrey, supporting characters are well played, especially by Montel Anthony Nord as Mereb, Radames’ Nubian slave, and Benjamin Ball as Zoser, Radames’ father.

The outstanding choreography, expertly danced by the 10-member ensemble, is by Nicole Helfer. Music director Alicia Jeffrey conducts the orchestra from the keyboard.

The colorful costumes are by Merissa Mann with the set by Mark Mendelson and lighting by Michael Oesch. Overly loud sound by Zak Stamps distorts lyrics.

Otherwise, it’s an enjoyable, well done production.

Running about two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, it will continue through Nov. 18 at the Fox Theater, 2215 Broadway St., Redwood City.

For tickets and information, call (650) 579-5565 or visit www.broadwaybythebay.org.

Photo by Mark & Tracy Photography



'All the Way' with LBJ in his first year

President Lyndon B. Johnson (Michael Monagle, center) signs the Civil Rights Act on June 19,1964. 
Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way” goes back 55 years to what happened after that awful day, Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.

This docudrama, presented by Palo Alto Players, relates what his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, did in the year between becoming what he called “an accidental president” and seeking election in his own right in 1964.

Played by Michael Monagle, the folksy but wily Texan’s first goal was to see the landmark Civil Rights Act enacted. After succeeding in that endeavor, he then sought the Democratic nomination and election. The play’s title comes from his election slogan, “All the way with LBJ.”

Getting the Civil Rights Act through Congress was an enormous task, given the staunch opposition by Southern Democrats.

It once included a voting rights provision, but he was forced to compromise by dropping it and sticking with just equal rights to employment and public accommodations.

This compromise didn’t sit well with black leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (Fred Pitts), the fiery Stokely Carmichael (William Bryant Jr.) and others. They agreed, though, after Johnson promised he would push for voting rights after the election. The amended bill passed in June 1964.

There were more obstacles along the way, but Johnson managed to succeed.
He did so through flattery, threats, promises and demands for loyalty from his backers as well as those who stood in his way.

The play ends with his landslide victory over Sen. Barry Goldwater.

It has a hint of the Vietnam War to come when Defense Secretary Robert McNamara reports a possible North Vietnamese attack against Navy ships in the Gulf of Tonkin and requests a military response.

It only touches on Johnson’s planned War on Poverty, a signature accomplishment after his election.

All of this history plays out in a fascinating way for those who lived through those times. It has some painfully familiar parallels to what’s happening today with demonization of immigrants, attempts at voter suppression in the South and some presidential tactics that have less noble goals than Johnson’s.


Sen. Hubert Humphrey (Tom Gough, left) talks with President Johnson (Michael Monagle).

Directed by Peter Allas, many in the 19-member cast play multiple roles. Some of the more memorable characters are Sen. Hubert Humphrey (Tom Gough), who became Johnson’s vice president; Walter Jenkins (Kevin Copps), Johnson’s valued aide who was disgraced after a sexual encounter with a man; and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Andrew Harris), who was himself outed later; among many others.

Although the acting isn’t as polished as in the 2012 world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, this production is still well done and highly fascinating.

It’s facilitated by the sets and projections by Randy Wong-Westbrooke, costumes by R. Dutch Fritz, lighting by Rick Amerson and sound by James Goode.

Running about two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, “All the Way” will continue through Nov. 18 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


Friday, October 26, 2018

'Dancing Lessons' become life-changing for sufferers

Sharon Rietkerk as Senga tries to teach Craig Marker as Ever how to fast dance. (Photo by www.mellophoto.com)

Two suffering people find help in unexpected ways in Mark St. Germain’s humorous and touching “Dancing Lessons,” presented by Center Repertory Company.

This two-person romantic comedy features Sharon Rietkerk as Senga Quinn, a talented professional dancer who has a possibly career-ending knee injury; and Craig Marker as Ever Montgomery, a brilliant geosciences professor whose autism means, among other things, that he can’t stand to be touched.

However, he knows he must overcome this phobia because he’s the honoree at an awards dinner dance.

He and Senga hadn’t met, but they live in the same New York City apartment building. Thanks to its super, he knows she’s an injured dancer.

As the play opens, she’s on her couch with her right leg encased in a brace while she pops pills and washes them down with scotch. At first she won’t let him in when he knocks on her door, but he persists. He offers her more than $2,000 for an hour teaching him to dance.

His attempts at a fast dance are awkward but gradually improve. The lesson progresses to shaking hands. Later it goes beyond that.

During the lessons, which take place over several days, they learn more about each other and themselves, their strengths and weaknesses.

Other scenes show Ever characteristically shifting his weight while lecturing about the perils of global warming because of human actions. A pivotal moment comes when a student asks if people can change.

One lesson that both Ever and Senga learn is that change takes courage. That means they have to recognize their problems and try to overcome them.

Director Joy Carlin has fine-tuned this outstanding production and elicited believably human performances from both actors. She and they also mine the script’s ample humor along with facts about autism and global warming.

A video of Rietkerk’s Senga in a captivating dance (choreographed by Jennifer Perry) showcases her great talent.

Design elements enhance the production with set and lighting by Kent Dorsey, costumes by Brooke Jennings, and sound and projections by Teddy Hulsker.

Running about 90 minutes without intermission, “Dancing Lessons” will continue through Nov. 17 at the Lesher Center for the Performing Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek.

For tickets and information, call (925) 943-7469 or visit www.centerrep.org.  

Friday, October 19, 2018

Pain follows tragedy in 'The Resting Place'

James Carpenter as Mitch challenges daughter Annie (Martha Brigham, right) as Angela (Emilie Talbot, second fron left) and Macy (Emily Radosevich) listen. (Photo by Jennifer Reiley)

A family’s pain is raw and visceral in Ashlin Halfnight’s “The Resting Place,” being given its world premiere by Magic Theatre.

Mitch (James Carpenter) and Angela (Emilie Talbot) have been joined in Detroit by their adult daughters, Annie (Martha Brigham), who works for an environmental group in San Francisco, and Macy (Emily Radosevich), who works on political campaigns in New York City.

Their reunion is not happy. Travis, oldest of the siblings, has just committed suicide. 
He was a gay man, teacher and longtime pedophile who victimized local boys.

Annie wants him to have a funeral and burial in the family plot in the Catholic cemetery next to his beloved paternal grandfather. The rest of the family, concerned about the angry uprising over his actions, wants to cremate him and quietly scatter his ashes.

As the play continues, the issues go much deeper, leading to angry shouting matches, blame and feelings of guilt on top of profound grief. Nevertheless, familial love is palpable.

Also involved are Travis’s former partner, Liam (Wiley Naman Strasser), and one of Travis’s victims, Charles (Andrew LeBuhn), now a recent high school graduate.

The final scene is especially wrenching as Annie delivers an eloquent eulogy and reveals her own reason for feeling guilty.

Sensitively directed by Jessica Holt, the six actors carefully navigate the play’s ups and downs.

Carpenter’s Mitch is the voice of reason as conflicts arise, but he has moments of extreme emotion. Talbot’s Angela drinks too much, but she, too, can be both reasonable and highly upset.

The sisters, Brigham as Annie and Radosevich as Macy, sometimes clash, especially when Macy calls the take-charge Annie self-righteous.

Both Strasser as Liam and LeBuhn as Charles are believable in their pain.

Design elements are outstanding with the set by Edward T. Morris, costumes by Shelby-Lio Feeney, lighting by Wen-Ling Liao and sound by Sara Huddleston.

According to artistic director Loretta Greco, the play “investigates what happens to those who are left behind in the wake of unimaginable tragedy.”

Despite the difficult subject matter, it’s a brilliant, absorbing, utterly human play that doesn’t skirt the issues. This profound work of art is worth seeing.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “The Resting Place” will continue through Nov. 4 at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., Building D, third floor, San Francisco.

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









Sunday, October 14, 2018

Hillbarn Theatre stages Frayn farce, 'Noises Off'


Luisa Sermol (left) is Dotty, Max Tachis is Garry and Michelle Skinner is Brooke. (Mark and Tracy Photography)
As things get worse in the play within a play of Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” Hillbarn Theatre’s production gets better.

This farce is set in England, where a third-rate theatrical troupe is rehearsing and then staging the world premiere of “Nothing On.”

As the action begins, Lloyd (David Crane), the director of “Nothing On,” is trying to get Dotty (Luisa Sermol), housekeeper for a country home, to go through a scene answering the phone and returning to the kitchen. She forgets the receiver, the sardines (which figure prominently in the play) and the newspaper.

Subsequent scenes involve the arrival of Garry (Max Tachis) and Brooke (Michelle Skinner), who are there for an affair. As they tour the house, its owners, played by Ross Neuenfeldt and Heather Orth, return unexpectedly.

Also involved in the action are the stage manager, Tim (David Blackburn); assistant stage manager, Poppy (Brigitte Losey); and another actor, the drunken Selsdon (Lawrence-Michael Arias).

During this act, most of the actual actors try too hard, blunting much of the humor.

In Act 2, after the set has rotated to back stage of “Nothing On,” the actors refine their timing, resulting in some frantically funny moments. By this time in the troupe’s tour, it’s a month after the rehearsal, and nerves are frayed.

Finally, in Act 3, after the set has rotated again to become the set for “Nothing On,” everything has unraveled. Nothing goes right, in part because of sabotage by some jealous actors, resulting in more laughs.

Directed by Jeffrey Lo, most of the actors do well, especially in the latter two acts. Sermol’s Dotty is aptly named, while Skinner’s Brooke is blithely dense. So too is Neunenfeldt as one of the home’s owners.

Orth as the other owner is the one who tries to keep everyone under control. Tachis is amazingly athletic as his Garry becomes the victim of most of the sabotage.

Losey and Blackburn as the harried stage managers also do well.

Christopher Fitzer’s two-level set not only rotates but also features multiple doors – a must for farce with its split-second exits and entrances.

The character-specific costumes are by Mae Heagerty-Matos with lighting by Meghan Souther and sound by Jon Covey.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission and a pause, “Noises Off” will continue through Oct. 28 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

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



Friday, October 12, 2018

'Sweat' shows human cost of lost jobs

Jessie (Sarah Nina Hayon, left), Tracey (Lise Bruneau) and Cynthia (Tonye Patano) are friends and co-workers.

It’s one thing to read or hear about the loss of blue collar jobs when a factory closes. It’s quite another to actually see how a closing can devastate lives.

That’s the lesson made clear in “Sweat,” the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama written by Lynn Nottage and presented by American Conservatory Theater.

Nottage switches the action between 2000 and 2008 in Reading, Pa., a once-thriving factory town. It opens in 2008 as a parole officer, Evan (Adrian Roberts), separately questions two young men, the white Jason (David Darrow) and the black Chris (Kadeem Ali Harris).

He asks what they plan to do now that they’re out of prison. Why they went to prison doesn’t become clear until much later in the play.

After that, most of the action takes place in 2000 in a bar managed by Stan (Rod Gnapp) and frequented by workers from a nearby factory.

Besides Jason and Chris, the regulars are Tracey (Lise Bruneau), Jason’s mother; and Cynthia (Tonye Patano), Chris’s mother; along with the women’s friend Jessie (Sarah Nina Hayon).

They’ve heard rumors that the plant’s new owners might close it and move to Mexico, but they believe their union will protect them.

However, when Cynthia is promoted into management and the owners want to negotiate a new contract with major concessions, her friends accuse her of betraying them. She counters that she’s doing everything she can to help them.

Tracey (Lise Bruneau) holds up
 the Spanish language flyer
 she got from Oscar (Jed Parsario).
A strike ensues. Oscar (Jed Parsario), Stan’s Hispanic helper in the bar, turns scab and crosses the picket line. Tensions reach a boiling point until the brawl that sent Chris and Jason to prison.

Subsequent scenes in 2008 show just how hard life has become for nearly everyone. Their fate was previewed in 2000 by Brucie (Chiké Johnson), Cynthia’s ex-husband. He became strung out on drugs after losing his job at another factory.

Directed by Loretta Greco, artistic director of Magic Theatre, the ensemble cast is terrific at building the tension, its climax and the aftermath. 

Stan (Rod Gnapp) pours another drink for Jessie (Sarah Nina Hayon).
Gnapp is especially effective as Stan, the bartender who offers sage advice, mostly keeps the peace and truly cares about his customers.

Greco is aided by Andrew Boyce’s set design augmented by Hana S. Kim’s projections. Costumes are by Ulises Alcala, sound by Jake Rodriguez and lighting by Allen Lee Hughes.

“Sweat” is painfully relevant to what’s happening today. Although it premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, before the 2016 presidential election, it shows how Donald Trump’s rhetoric and his “Make America Great Again” slogan could resonate so deeply among some voters.

It’s a powerful, theatrical work that is must viewing for those who seek insight into some Americans’ malaise.

Running about two and a half hours with an intermission, it will continue through Oct. 21 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco.

For tickets and information, call (415) 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Photos by Kevin Berne





Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Two generations grapple with sexuality in 'Fun Home'

Erin Kommor (left) as Medium Alison, Lila Gold as Small Alison and Moira Stone as Alison.

How a young woman comes to terms with her sexuality in the 1970s is the theme of the 2015 Tony-winning musical, “Fun Home.”

Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, this memory play also explores her complex relationship with her father, who, she eventually learned, was gay, too, but deeply closeted.

It shifts back in forth in time as the protagonist, Alison Bechdel (Moira Stone), a successful cartoonist, recalls her experiences as Small Alison (Lila Gold), about 10 years old; and Medium Alison (Erin Kommor), a college freshman.

Alison’s father, Bruce (James Lloyd Reynolds), was a high school English teacher, meticulous restorer of the funeral home where they lived (set by Andrea Bechert), and funeral director in Beech Creek, Pa.

She had an older brother, Christian (Jack Barrett), and a younger brother, John (Billy Hutton). They had fun together, but their father could be alternately kindly and demanding.


Joan (Ayelet Firstenberg, left)  and Medium Alison (Erin Kommor) meet in college.
Although there were hints that Alison could be gay – she hated wearing dresses as a youngster and was enthralled when she saw a butch UPS driver – it wasn’t until she was a freshman at Oberlin College that she came out to herself and had her first lover, Joan (Ayelet Firstenberg).

In the flashbacks, Bruce’s own sexuality becomes apparent when he initiates contacts with former students (all played by Michael Doppe). There also is the time he took his three young kids to New York City and left them alone for a few hours at night, apparently to go cruising.

His story ends tragically. Apparently unable to continue living a double life, he commits suicide by stepping in front of a truck.

Much of the story unfolds in music written by Jeanine Tesori with lyrics and the book by Lisa Kron, who adapted it from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name.
TheatreWorks artistic director Robert Kelley directs the excellent cast, eliciting strong performances all around. Kudos especially go to the three actors playing the Bechdel children.

Under the guidance of musical director William Liberatore, who conducts six instrumentalists from the keyboard, the singing is quite good. However, some of the lyrics aren’t always clear.

Small Alison (Lila Gold, foreground) imagines a favorite TV show coming to life in her living room with (from left) Ayelet Firstenberg, Michael Doppe and Erin Kommor.
Dottie Lester-White, associate director, choreographed numbers like “Come to the Fun Home,” the kids’ attempt at a funeral home commercial with a coffin as the centerpiece; and “Raincoat of Love,” the family disco number imagined by Small Alison as a favorite TV show.

The lighting is by Steven B. Mannshardt, costumes by B. Modern and sound by Cliff Caruthers.

This autobiographical show rings true and reveals just how much social attitudes have changed between Alison’s generation and her father’s. It’s well worth seeing.

Running about 100 minutes without intermission, “Fun Home” will continue through Oct. 28 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

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

Photos by Kevin Berne