Sunday, May 12, 2019

Nonstop hits and fun in 'Mamma Mia!' at Hillbarn Theatre

Tanya (Christine Capsuto-Shulman, left), Donna (Merrill Peiffer) and Rosie (Jacquie McCarley) sing "Dancing Queen."

When it comes to exhilarating fun, it’s hard to beat Hillbarn Theatre’s production of “Mamma Mia!”

This musical, with its well known, toe-tapping songs by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA fame, just keeps bubbling along.

With Dan Demers’ sure-handed direction and a likeable, energetic cast, everything adds up to pure enjoyment.

It even has an interesting book by Catherine Johnson.

It starts when 20-year-old Sophie Sheridan (Sofia Costantini) is about to be married to Sky (Matt Ono) in 1999 and wants her dad to walk her down the aisle. There’s a problem: She doesn’t know who he is.

Her single mom, Donna (Merrill Peiffer), who owns a taverna on a Greek island, won’t talk about him. However, by reading Donna’s diary from about the time she would have been conceived, Sophie discovers three candidates for her dad.

Dad candidates Bill (Lawrence Long, left) Sam (Randy Allen) and Harry (Brandon Savage) arrive on the island.
Assuming she’ll know him right away, she invites the three to the island, unbeknownst to Donna. When Bill Austin (Lawrence Long), Sam Carmichael (Randy Allen) and Harry Bright (Brandon Savage) arrive, she’s furious.

In the meantime, she has invited two longtime friends, Tanya (Christine Capsuto-Shulman) and Rosie (Jacquie McCarley), to the island, too. The three of them were once a disco girls group.

Thus the stage is set for one hit tune after another: “Money, Money, Money,” “Thank You for the Music,” “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” “One of Us,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” the title song and more.

Another hit is “Dancing Queen,” sung by Donna, Tanya and Rosie as they reprise their disco act. This scene also displays the talents of costume designer Y. Sharon Peng, who has created an array of outfits for the show plus the hair, makeup and props.

Then there’s the creative choreography by Zoë Swenson-Graham. Just one example is “Lay All Your Love on Me,” in which the younger men dance in wet suits and flippers.

Although everyone in the cast is commendable, Capsuto-Shulman as the oft-married, sexy, flirtatious Tanya is an audience favorite. When the company came out dancing for the curtain call on opening night, the short wrap skirt to her glittery costume fell off, so she blithely picked it up and tossed it into the audience.

Matt Ono is Sky; Sofia Costantini is Sophie.
Costantini as Sophie not only sings well but has an expressive face that registers her character’s emotions without a need to speak.

Kudos also go to Paulino Deleal for the functional set, to Grant Huberty for the sound design and to Rick Reynolds for musical direction. The musical accompaniment is recorded.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Mamma Mia!” will continue at Hillbarn Theater, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City, through May 26.

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

Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography





Saturday, May 4, 2019

Main characters approach 'The Good Book' from opposite perspectives

Wayne Wilcox (left), Elijah Alexander, Shannon Tyo and Denmo Ibrahim appear as characters from centuries ago.


“The Good Book” examines the Bible from two characters’ very different perspectives while taking them through difficult journeys of belief.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre is staging the West Coast premiere of this ever-fascinating drama by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson.

Annette O'Toole plays the scholarly Miriam.
One of the main characters is Miriam (Annette O’Toole), an atheist and biblical scholar. She calls the Bible “the most powerful and dangerous book in America today.” 

To her it isn’t the word of God but a collection of stories created by many people, handed down through the ages and translated from many languages.

Keith Nobbs plays the struggling Connor.

The other is Connor (Keith Nobbs), a Catholic who calls himself a Biblehead and who wants to become a priest, at least when he’s a young boy.

He first is seen as an 8-year-old who commits his innermost thoughts to his new tape recorder. As he enters his teens and 20s, however, he struggles with his faith and his sexual identity.

Miriam must confront some of her ideas when a young journalist, played by Shannon Tyo, wants to write a New Yorker article about her. Going through Miriam’s files, the writer finds her girlhood diary and asks about her mother, who died when Miriam was about 9.

Miriam also must deal with her longtime lover, played by Elijah Alexander, a Middle Easterner whom she seldom sees because he’s an archeologist who goes on months-long digs overseas.

During Act 1, Alexander, Tyo, Lance Gardner, Denmo Ibrahim and Wayne Wilcox appear as a variety of characters like Miriam’s college students, Connor’s family and friends, and both known and unknown historical figures.

As the act ends, Miriam has been in a serious car accident and Connor is ready to shoot himself.

Act 2 finds Connor about to be released from a mental hospital and Miriam in a state of unconsciousness that takes her to important places in her life.

Eventually the two meet, and their fates become known.

This is an epic play that goes far deeper than the principal plot. It’s informative for those who don’t know much about the origin of the Bible and it’s absorbing as Connor and Miriam go through their lives. It’s also quite entertaining because of its many other characters.

Finally, it’s an impressive display of virtuoso acting by everyone, especially O’Toole as Miriam and Nobbs as Connor, thanks to their talent and to the astute direction by co-author Peterson.

The action takes place on a sparsely furnished stage with just a few folding metal chairs and tables, augmented by lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols’ projections; Lydia Tanji’s costumes, many suited to quick changes; and sound by Charles Coes and Mark Bennett. Bennett also wrote the music that’s so effectively used in the play.

Although the play is long, about two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission, it seems to go by quickly.

“The Good Book” will continue through June 9 in Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley.

For tickets and information, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Photos by Alessandra Mello




Thursday, May 2, 2019

It's hard to keep score in Marin's 'Jazz'

Joe (Michael Gene Sullivan, third from left) and Violet (C. Kelly Wright) celebrate their wedding.

“Jazz” at Marin Theatre Company opens confusingly with a funeral, but what is the significance of the deceased and why is she mourned?

The answers become clear much later in Nambi E. Kelley’s adaption of Toni Morrison’s book of the same name.

In the meantime, it isn’t easy to follow the action because it shifts from 1926 to memories of times past without much warning.

Eventually what evolves is a love triangle involving Violet (C. Kelly Wright); her husband, Joe (Michael Gene Sullivan); and Dorcas (Dezi Solèy), the young woman with whom he has an affair.

Alice (Margo Hall, right) and Violet (C. Kelly Wright) share a laugh.
Others in the eight-person, all-black cast include Bay Area favorite Margo Hall, mainly as Alice, an older, wiser woman; and lithe Paige Mayes as the mythical Golden Gray and the parrot that Joe gives Violet.

Also involved in the story is the migration of Southern blacks to Harlem, where they enjoyed greater freedom from oppression.

Directed by Awoye Timpo, everyone in the cast, including Lisa Lacy, Tiffany Tenille and Dane Troy, does well with creating characters.

Although the title might imply lots of music, the orchestral (recorded) and vocal score by Marcus Shelby is used sparingly but effectively.

Thanks to choreographer Joanne Haigood, there also is some impressive dancing, especially by the athletic Mayes and Troy.

The costumes are by Karen Perry with lighting by Jeff Rowlings and sound by Gregory Robinson.

Despite some confusing moments, this production of “Jazz” holds one’s attention. 

Running about 100 minutes without intermission, it will continue through May 19 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

Monday, April 29, 2019

Everything in 'Flower Drum Song' adds up to a hit

Marah Sotelo as Linda Low (center) and the ensemble dazzle in "Fan Tan Fannie."

If ever a production number itself is worth the price of admission, it’s “Fan Tan Fannie” in Palo Alto Players’ production of “Flower Drum Song.”

The precision fan snaps and dancing by the ensemble and Marah Sotelo as Linda Low are nothing short of spectacular.

There’s so much more, though, in this musical by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.

Start with their memorable songs, like “A Hundred Million Miracles,” “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” “You Are Beautiful,” “Grant Avenue,” “Love, Look Away” and more.

Add in David Henry Hwang’s updated adaptation of the original book by Hammerstein and Joseph Fields. This newer version focuses on the struggles of Chinese immigrants as they try to adapt to American life in 1949 and 1950.

Moreover, the all-Asian and Asian American cast is terrific in all aspects under Lily Tung Crystal’s direction and imaginative staging.
Y. Sharon Peng’s sometimes elaborate costumes and Ting-Na Wang’s set create a visual spectacle augmented by Pamila Gray’s lighting and Brandie Larkin’s sound.

Much credit also goes to choreographer Alex Hsu, along with consultants in dialects, culture, Chinese opera and Chinese dance. Music director Amanda Ku leads the basically fine orchestra except for a few sour notes.

Thus you have just the right blend of ingredients for a hit show.

Emily Song plays Mei-Li.
The characters are multi-dimensional, too, starting with sweet-voiced Emily Song as Mei-Li, the heroine. After her father is seized by Chinese communists, she joins others taking the arduous boat trip to San Francisco and a hoped-for new life.

She finds a Chinatown club whose owner, Wang (Bryan Pangilinan), tries to make a living performing traditional Chinese opera with his son, Ta (Jomar Martinez.) Wang hires her to dance with him when she shows she’s much more accomplished than Ta.

Wang clings to the old ways, but Ta wants to appeal to more modern American tastes with the popular nightclub format offered once a week at Wang’s club.  

Wang does come around and takes center stage in the Act 2 opening, “Chop Suey.” He emerges from a giant Chinese takeout carton while the women sport fortune cookie hats and the men wield giant chopsticks.

Wang (Bryan Pangilinan in white) and the ensembe serve up "Chop Suey" to open Act 2.
In the midst of all this spectacle, there’s romance though it’s sometimes rocky. Mei-Li grows fonder of Ta, who pursues Linda, who isn’t interested. Wang and the brassy Madame Liang (Melinda Meeng), a talent agent hired by Linda, become attracted to each other.

Every principal character seems perfectly suited for his or her role. Besides those already mentioned, Joey Alvarado plays the wise, kindly Uncle Chin, and Bryan Munar is the fussy costumer, Harvard.

John Paul Kilecdi-Li portrays Chao, who made the journey with Mei-Li and is attracted to her. After working in a fortune cookie factory that’s a virtual sweatshop, however, he and other disillusioned immigrants return to China.

There’s more, but all turns out well in this highly entertaining show.

In the curtain call, each performer says where he or she was born. Most of them are from Asian countries.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Flower Drum Song” will continue through May 12 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, April 26, 2019

Versatile actors contribute to success of ACT's 'Vanity Fair'

The cast of "Vanity Fair" (from left) Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, Maribel Martinez, Rebekah Brockman, Adam Magill, Anthony Michael Lopez and Vincent Randazzo sings during the opening scene.

American Conservatory Theater’s production of “Vanity Fair” is a constant source of fascination, admiration and often amusement thanks to Kate Hamill’s adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's sprawling mid-19th century novel.

Directed by Jessica Stone in a co-production with Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, it uses seven actors to portray dozens of characters.

The only actors with one role are Rebekah Brockman as Becky Sharp and Maribel Martinez as her friend, Amelia Sedley.

Set in London starting in 1814, this production is framed as a show at the Strand Musick Hall, where the Manager (Dan Hiatt) is the emcee and narrator.

Becky comes from a middle class family with little money while Amelia comes from a wealthy family. Becky is determined to ascend the social ladder, starting by marrying a rich man.

Dan Hiatt as Matilda Crawley, Rebekah Brockman as Becky Sharp. 
Eventually she does marry such a man, Rawdon (Adam Magill), a captain in the English army. She also finds favor with his maiden aunt, Matilda Crawley (Hiatt at his most humorous).

In the meantime, Amelia marries another English soldier, George (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), while his fellow soldier, William Dobbin (Anthony Michael Lopez), falls in love with her, too.

Later, Amelia’s stockbroker father, Mr. Sedley (Magill), goes bankrupt when the market crashes because of jitters over the possibility of war with Napoleon and the French.

Over time, Amelia’s position improves while Becky’s sinks. Still, she’s a survivor.

There’s much more to the story than that, but the playwright, director and versatile cast keep everything clear.

Besides those already mentioned, the cast includes Vincent Randazzo.

Everyone is noteworthy, but Hiatt is especially outstanding in his multiple roles, both male and female.

Helping to keep the action fluid is Alexander Dodge’s ingenious set, with lighting by David Weiner. 
The sometimes quick-change period costumes are by Jennifer Moeller.

Choreography by Connor Gallagher and music by sound designer Jane Shaw add to the enjoyment, starting from the first scene, when the cast sings and dances.

As the opening night audience left the theater, there were many exclamations of approval and enjoyment.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Vanity Fair” will continue through May 12 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 Scott Suchman






Sunday, April 21, 2019

Aurora stages witty 'Importance of Being Earnest'

Lady Bracknell (Sharon Lockwood, center) confronts Miss Prism (Trish Mulholland, right) as others look on.

In Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” two young women separately vow that they must marry a man named Earnest.

In an effort to win their hands, two young men pretend they’re named Earnest. Of course their schemes backfire, but all works out well.

Presented by Aurora Theatre Company, Wilde’s satire of late 19th century manners is full of his signature bon mots. However, this production directed by incoming artistic director Josh Costello doesn’t always work as well.

This is especially true in the first scene in London, where Algernon Moncrieff (Patrick Kelly Jones) welcomes a visit by his friend, Jack Worthing (Mohammad Shehata), who’s in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax (Anna Ishida).

Jack has a manor house in the country, where he’s responsible for his ward, Cecily Cardew (Gianna DiGregorio Rivera). In order to go to London occasionally, he pretends he has a wastrel brother named Earnest there.

The conversation between the two men seems stilted and mannered, as if they were trying too hard to be witty and sophisticated.

Lady Bracknell (Sharon Lockwood) questions Jack (Mohammad Shehata).
Everything brightens, though, with the arrival of Algernon’s aunt, the formidable Lady Bracknell (Sharon Lockwood), and her daughter, Gwendolen. 

Lockwood's Lady Bracknell commands the stage with her imperious ways and her impeccable timing.

Jack, whom Gwendolen knows as Earnest, proposes to her, but Lady Bracknell forbids the engagement because Jack is an orphan.

In the meantime, Algernon is intrigued by Jack’s description of Cecily and is determined to meet her. He goes to Jack’s manor house in disguise, but the various deceptions are soon uncovered, leading to the play’s resolution.

In addition to any time with Lockwood, the second act has an amusing scene involving what amounts to a cat fight between the two young women, but they immediately make up when they discover what’s going on.

Another performance that stands out is Trish Mulholland as Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess. Michael Torres does double duty as Lane, Algernon’s discrete manservant, and as the Rev. Canon Chasuble, Miss Prism’s would-be suitor.

The handsome but spare and flexible set is by Nina Ball with lighting by Wen-Ling Liao. The elegant costumes are by Maggie Whitaker. Chris Houston serves as sound designer and composer.

Despite shortcomings by the two young men, the overall production is quite enjoyable thanks to Wilde’s wit and Lockwood’s performance.

Running about two and a half hours with two short intermissions, “The Importance of Being Earnest” will continue through May 12 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


Monday, April 8, 2019

Felder's one-man show tells of love for Paris, Debussy

Hershey Felder as Claude Debussy (Photo by Christopher Ash)

“Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story” actually is several love stories.

This one-man world premiere presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley tells of Felder’s love for the City of Light as well as his love for the music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918).

It’s not the first time this creator/performer has focused on a great composer. Some of his past shows, most of them seen at TheatreWorks, have featured the music of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Beethoven, Liszt and Chopin.

This time he takes a more personal approach, weaving some of his own family history into Debussy’s.

Felder’s mother, whom he cherished, loved Debussy’s music and always wanted to see Paris, but she couldn’t make it. Instead Felder first went there as a 19-year-old and took in the sights that Debussy loved so much.

Costumed as Debussy (design by Stacey Nezda), he mostly tells the story in Debussy’s voice, referring to Felder as “the boy” and relating Debussy’s own history. It starts with his early life, continues with his musical education and delves into his romantic liaisons.

This narrative is interspersed with frequent sessions at the grand piano, which sits center stage between two arching bridges on the handsome set designed by Felder.

There piano virtuoso Felder plays some of Debussy’s best-known works, such as “La Mer,” “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” and the dreamy finale, “Clair de lune,” Felder’s mother’s favorite. Some orchestral excerpts also are heard (sound design by Erik Carstensen).

He sees parallels between the final years of Debussy, who never quite recovered from an experimental colostomy, and his own mother, who underwent a double mastectomy.

He has Debussy telling how he defied musical conventions of the time, earning mostly pans from critics along with some praise.

Besides music, the greatest love of his life was his daughter, nicknamed Chouchou.

As the young Felder explores the streets and sights of Paris, projections by lighting designer Christopher Ash illustrate the narrative.

Directed by Trevor Hay, this show is both a visual and aural delight, treating the audience to an absorbing concert and story by the multi-talented Felder.

Running about an hour and a half with no intermission, “Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story” will continue through May 5 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.