Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Music puts bright new twist on 'Pride and Prejudice' at TheatreWorks

Mr. Darcy (Justin Mortelliti) and Elizabeth Bennet (Mary Mattison) converse while dancing.

Despite the limitations imposed by her social class and societal norms of the times, Elizabeth Bennet has an independent streak.

She makes that point early in Paul Gordon’s musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” when she sings “Headstrong.”

In its world premiere by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, “Pride and Prejudice” features Mary Mattison as Elizabeth, or Lizzie, the second-oldest of five daughters.

Because of English inheritance laws in the early 19th century, she will have no claim to her father’s home and land after his death. Therefore, her best hope for a secure future is to marry a wealthy man.

But not just any man. That’s why she rejects the proposal of the obnoxious, self-important Mr. Collins (Brian Herndon), a distant cousin and closest male heir.

The heart of the story, though, is her seesaw relationship with the aloof Mr. Darcy (Justin Mortelliti).

Jane Bennet (Sharon Rietkerk) and Mr. Bingley (Travis Leland) also enjoy the dance.
A subplot involves another seesaw relationship, this one between her older sister, Jane (Sharon Rietkerk), and the tongue-tied Mr. Bingley (Travis Leland).

Gordon, who wrote the show’s music, lyrics and book, does a good job of conveying the characters’ emotions and propelling the plot through his tuneful songs in a variety of musical styles. Music director William Liberatore conducts the singers and six-piece band.

Director Robert Kelley, the company’s artistic director, has perfectly cast the large ensemble.

Mrs. Bennet (Heather Orth, center) reads a letter from Jane to her other daughters, from left: Mary (Melissa WolfKlain), Lizzie (Mary Mattison), Kitty (Chanel Tilghman) and Lydia (Tara Kostmayer).
Besides the principals already named, some of the standouts are Heather Orth as Mrs. Bennet, Lizzie and Jane’s doting, dithering mother; and Christopher Vettel as their droll, patient father, Mr. Bennet.

Lucinda Hitchcock Cone has some brief but memorable scenes as she commands the stage as the rich, imperious Lady Catherine De Bourgh.

Lady Catherine De Bourgh (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone) demands "Her Ladyship's Praise."
The show also has numerous humorous moments, especially when Lizzie stands up to Lady De Bourgh late in the second act.

Joe Ragey’s bucolic set, with its scenic projections, immediately draws the audience into the action, which then flows seamlessly despite changes in locale.

Also establishing the time and place are Fumiko Bielefeldt’s costumes along with Pamila Z. Gray’s lighting, Brendan Aanes’ sound and Dottie Lester White’s choreography.

Even though it doesn’t have a holiday theme, “Pride and Prejudice” embodies the holiday spirit with its overall excellence.

TheatreWorks’ 70th world premiere in 50 years, this musical delight went through part of its development process during the company’s annual New Works Festival in 2018.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, it will continue through Jan. 4 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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

Photos by Kevin Berne

Dancing makes 'Newsies' fun at Hillbarn Theatre

The newsies declare a strike to protest higher costs. (Photo by Mark Kitaoka)

Based on an actual situation in New York City in 1899, “Newsies,” as staged by Hillbarn Theatre, is a vehicle for almost nonstop, terrific dancing.

That’s the strongest, most enjoyable aspect of this musical directed by Doug Greer and choreographed by Zoe Swenson-Graham. Most of the singing is good, too, as is the acting.

Featuring music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman, the book by Harvey Fierstein focuses on a strike by the boys and young men who sold the New York World newspaper on the street.

It came after they were told they had to pay 60 cents per 100 rather than 50 cents. This price increase meant less money for these poverty-stricken newsies, as they were called.

Hence, they went on strike. They were met with resistance by the authorities, but eventually they prevailed.

In this production, however, the plot line isn’t always easy to discern because the New York accents are sometimes hard to understand and because Grant Huberty’s sound design over-amplifies the actors and the recorded music.

Jack Kelly (Kamren Mahaney) meets Katherine Plumber (Melissa Momboisse). (Photo by Tracy Martin)
The central character and instigator of the strike is Jack Kelly (Kamren Mahaney), who winds up defying Joseph Pulitzer (Shaun Leslie Thomas), publisher of the New York World, and falling in love with Katherine Plumber (Melissa Momboisse), an aspiring reporter for the New York Sun.

Medda Larkin (Phaedra Tillery) is Jack's friend. (Photo by Tracy Martin)
He’s also a talented artist who has done scenic backdrops for a Bowery theater owned by his friend, Medda Larkin (Phaedra Tillery). She delights the audience with her saucy “That’s Rich.”

Other principals in this strong cast are Stephen Kanaski as Crutchie, the disabled newsie who’s Jack’s friend; James Jones as Davey, the well-spoken newcomer who becomes a newsie to help his parents after his injured father was fired; and Noah Itzkovitz as Les, Davey’s spunky younger brother.

Several actors in this 30-member cast play several characters. Most of the newsies are the highly athletic dancers.

Menken’s songs, several of which are reprised, are mostly lively. “Watch What Happens,” sung by Katherine and later reprised by her, Jack, Davey and Les, is highly reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim’s style with its fast-paced lyrics.

Costumes by Pam Lampkin, along with hair and makeup by Y. Sharon Peng, help to define class differences. The functional set is by Paulino Deleal. Jad Bernardo is the music director.

On the other hand, Matt Eisenmann’s lighting design sometimes projects lights directly at the audience.

Athletic dancing is a highlight of the show. (Photo by Tracy Martin)
But thanks to the outstanding dancing and excellent cast, “Newsies” is highly enjoyable.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, it will continue through Dec. 22 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

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





Thursday, November 21, 2019

Maternal love persists in ‘Mother of the Maid’

Isabelle Arc (Sherman Fracher, left) visits her daughter, Joan (Rosie Hallett), in the court of the Dauphin.

The story of Joan of Arc, who was called the Maid of Orleans, is fairly well known, but what about her family?

That’s the question playwright Jane Anderson addresses in “Mother of the Maid,” presented by Marin Theatre Company.

Set in France in 1429, the story begins in the family home in the village of Domrémy. Isabelle Arc (Sherman Fracher) talks about herself in the third person, describing a woman who can’t read or write and whose clothes are modest, to say the least.

She’s the mother of 14-year-old Joan (Rosie Hallett), who says she hears and sees  St. Catherine. Naturally Isabelle is skeptical, but Joan insists she’s telling the truth. She says St. Catherine is telling her to command the French army to oust the occupying English.

Joan’s father, the even more skeptical and unyielding Jacques (Scott Coopwood), beats her to get her to disavow her visions, but he doesn’t succeed.

However, she’s believed by her brother, Pierre (Brennan Pickman-Thoon), and the village priest, Father Gilbert (Robert Sicular).

Joan (Rosie Hallett, left) readies for battle as her parents, Isabelle (Sherman Fracher) and Jacques (Scott Coopwood), look on.
His vouching for her sends her to the court of the Dauphin, where she’s outfitted in armor and successfully leads the French army against the English, who have laid siege to the city of Orléans.

Later, the English capture her, try her, find her guilty of heresy and sentence her to death by burning at the stake.

Isabelle prays for Joan.
Much of this history is related through Isabelle, who follows Joan to the court and then to prison in Rouen, where Joan is kept in deplorable conditions.

Near the end of Act 1, Isabelle has walked 300 miles to see Joan at the court. Before she’s allowed to see her, though, she’s greeted by the elegant Lady of the Court (Liz Sklar).

Although she does her best to try to make Isabelle welcome and to capitalize on their shared bond of motherhood, she winds up offending her guest because the class differences between them are too great. It’s a fascinating scene.

Another memorable scene occurs near the end of Act 2 when the gruff, rough Jacques movingly describes the spectacle of Joan’s death.

Sensitively directed by MTC artistic director Jasson Minadakis, Fracher’s performance as Isabelle is gripping as her character experiences a range of sometimes wrenching emotions but never deviates from love for Joan.

Coopwood, Pickman-Thoon, Sklar and Sicular also are outstanding. Hallett as Joan is less successful, especially during much of the first act when Joan seems like a hysterical teenager. She’s better in the second act as she faces her fate.

Speaking on opening night, Minadakis said that a five-day power outage in October meant that the cast had to rehearse in the lobby during daylight hours because the rest of the theater was too dark.

Likewise, the artistic staff had to overcome obstacles in building the set and making other preparations.

These difficulties weren’t apparent in the finished product. Besides the polished acting, design elements complemented the production.

Credit goes to Sean Fanning for the set; Chris Lundahl, lighting; Sarah Smith, costumes; Sara Huddleston, sound, and their crews along with composer Chris Houston and vocalist-cellist Penina Biddle-Gottesman.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “Mother of the Maid” has been extended through Dec. 15 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, 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 (Chloë 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