Tuesday, August 14, 2018

'Saturday Night Fever' recalls disco era

Tony Manero (Nick Bernardi, in white) leads the dancing in 'Saturday Night Fever." (Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin photo)

Broadway By the Bay pays tribute to the disco era with “Saturday Night Fever.”

This stage adaptation of the popular 1977 film starring John Travolta is set in Brooklyn in the 1970s, when disco was all the rage.

The central character is Tony Manero (Nick Bernardi), an aimless 19-year-old paint-store clerk who’s happiest when he’s dancing at the 2001 Odyssey night club.

The show features Bee Gees songs like “Stayin’ Alive,” “More Than a Woman” and “Night Fever,” all performed well by the large cast of principals and chorus.

It also features lots of well executed dancing choreographed by Nicole Helfer.

Despite the production’s strengths of singing, dancing and acting, it can’t overcome the shortcomings of the plot, which is trite and episodic.

It also has some faint echoes of “West Side Story” with the disdain shown by Tony’s Italian buddies and his father (Joe Hudelson) toward minorities like Puerto Ricans.

The show is directed by Joshua Marx aided by music director Alicia Jeffrey, set designer Kelly James Tighe, lighting designer Aaron Spivey, costume designer Tammy Berlin and sound designer Zak Stamps.

Running about two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission, “Saturday Night  Fever” will continue through Aug. 26 at the Fox Theater, 2215 Broadway St., Redwood City.

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

Monday, August 13, 2018

New works take the stage at TheatreWorks

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is showcasing potential hits in the making at its 17th annual New Works Festival.
Continuing through Aug. 19 with top Bay Area actors, it features staged readings of four musicals and plays plus other events.
A highlight is Paul Gordon’s musical adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” which opened to a nearly full house Aug. 11.
Directed by Robert Kelley and accompanied by musical director William Liberatore on piano, the actors read from scripts on a bare bones stage.
Festival director Giovanna Sardelli said this crew had assembled only five days earlier, yet it went smoothly.
Also on tap are two plays, “They Promised Her the Moon” by Laurel Ollstein and “Born in East Berlin” by Rogelio Martinez; another musical, “Once Upon a Rhyme” by Ronvé O’Daniel; and other events.
Everything takes place at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. For tickets and details, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Shakespeare, Gunpowder Plot inspire 'Equivocation'

Shagspeare (Max Tachis, left) reacts to Sir Robert Cecil (Brad Satterwhite).

Sometimes lying is morally better than telling the truth.

That’s one premise of Bill Cain’s “Equivocation,” presented by Dragon Theatre in Redwood City.

This premise is postulated by a Jesuit priest, Father Henry Garnet. He’s accused of being in on the Gunpowder Plot, a 1605 conspiracy by several Catholics to amass about 36 barrels of gunpowder under Parliament and to set it off when King James I and others are there.

They hope to take over England, where the king has criminalized Catholicism, but the plot was foiled.

Cain fictionalizes this historical event by making it about a play that Shakespeare didn’t write.

One of the king’s devious men, Sir Robert Cecil (Brad Satterwhite), commissions playwright William Shagspeare, or Shag (Max Tachis), to write a play about the conspiracy.

Shag and his actor colleagues take the advance money, but they think Cecil’s outline is unworkable because it’s pure fiction.

Nevertheless, Shag questions several conspirators and gains some unexpected insights, especially from Father Garnet (Paul Stout).

Judith (Alika U. Spencer-Koknar) picks up after her father, William Shagspeare (Max Tachis).
These insights allow him to come to terms with his grief over his son’s death and to make amends to his neglected daughter, Judith (Alika U. Spencer-Koknar).

Tachis and Spencer-Koknar are the only actors who play just one character. 

The others -- Satterwhite, Stout, Paul Rosenfield and Michael Welland –- play all of the other characters, easily making speedy transitions.
Shakespeare buffs will enjoy references to his plays as well as scenes from “King Lear” and “Macbeth.”

Although Shag couldn’t write a play about the Gunpowder Plot, he and his colleagues stage the Scottish play (“Macbeth), correctly reasoning that it would please King James I (Rosenfield), who was Scottish.

Director Jenny Hollingworth allows some unnecessary yelling, especially by Rosenfield as Thomas Wintour in the “King Lear” scene, but he’s better as the king.

Except for the yelling, the actors, especially Tachis and Satterwhite, do a good job with this intricate play.

The simple set is by Seafus R. Chatmon-Smith, with lighting by Sean Kramer, costumes by Kathleen Qiu and sound by Jonathan Covey.

Running about two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission, “Equivocation” will continue through Aug. 19 at Dragon Theatre, 2120 Broadway St., Redwood City.

For tickets and information, call (650) 493-2006, Ext. 2, or visit www.dragonproductions.net.  

Photos by Dragon Theatre

Monday, July 30, 2018

Stanford stages double bill of Greek classics

Courtney Walsh, seen with the chorus, plays Hecuba for Stanford Repertory Theater. (Photo by Frank Chen)

Stanford Repertory Theater is marking its 20th summer festival with an ambitious undertaking by presenting two Greek classics of the fifth century, Euripides’ “Hecuba” and “Helen.”

Artistic director Rush Rehm, who also directs, translated and adapted them from the ancient Greek. The program credits Courtney Walsh, who plays both title roles, also as translator and adapter.

The results are somewhat mixed mainly because the level of acting is mixed. Walsh does well in both roles, but, like some of her colleagues, she sometimes over-acted.

Hence, “Hecuba” sometimes comes across as melodramatic.

However, its plot tends to be interesting because of the intrigue. Hecuba and other Trojan women are slaves after the Greeks conquered Troy and killed nearly all of the men in about 1184 B.C.

Hecuba has already lost her husband, King Priam, and some of her children. Now the Greeks want to sacrifice her daughter Polyxena (Lea Claire Zawada), to honor the slain Achilles.

After Polyxena goes willingly to her death, Hecuba learns that her youngest son, Polydorus (Shayan Hooshmand), has been killed by King Polymnestor of Thrace (Joe Estlack) in a grave violation of the laws of hospitality.

Hecuba and her women exact revenge by killing Polymnestor’s two young sons and blinding him.

As this play ends, Walsh transforms herself from the grieving old Hecuba to the glamorous Helen.

In “Helen,” it’s revealed that a phantom, not Helen, was sent to Troy, sparking war with the Greeks. In the meantime, she has taken refuge in Egypt, where she is reunited with her husband, Menelaus (Estlack).

She uses artifice to allow herself and Menelaus to escape from her host, King Theoclymenus (Doug Nolan), who wants to marry her.

Both plays include a chorus of women who sometimes dance (choreography by Aleta Hayes) and sing (music by sound designer Michael Keck) to propel the action.

The set and costumes by Connie Strayer are relatively simple, but they’re enhanced by Nima Deghani’s projections. Lighting is by Michael Ramsaur.

The production takes place in a black box theater that’s part of Roble Gym, which has been recently renovated for use by the performing arts. 

This courtyard is just outside the Roble StudioTheater. (Stanford photo)
It’s an inviting setting next to a rosemary-scented courtyard with a fountain.

After its Stanford run, the production will be presented Sept. 7-9 in Athens, Greece, featuring Walsh with a Greek cast.

Besides the two plays, SRT’s summer festival, dubbed Nevertheless They Persisted, includes a free Monday night film series, an all-day symposium, and an evening course, “Euripides Our Contemporary,” which began in late June.

Running about two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission, “Hecuba/Helen” continues through Aug. 19 in the Roble Studio Theater, 375 Santa Teresa, Stanford.

For tickets and information, call (650) 725-5838 or visit www.stanfordreptheater.com.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Foothill stages timeless 'The Sound of Music'

Maria (Jillian Bader) sets off for her job as a governess for the von Trapp children (Photo by David Allen)

Foothill Music Theatre is staging the timeless and timely “The Sound of Music” and doing a fine job.

Based on the von Trapp family singers, who made their way to the United States from Austria in 1938, the book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse tells a story of love, the pursuit of one’s dreams and the refusal to compromise one’s principles.

To most people, however, it’s a captivating show filled with memorable characters and even more memorable music, thanks to composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.

It’s hard to resist humming along to the title song and classics like “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and “Edelweiss.”

The central character is Maria Rainer (Jillian Bader), a would-be nun who loves to sing. Despite her eagerness for the religious life, the Mother Abbess (Rachel Michelberg) sends Maria to the home of retired navy Captain Georg von Trapp (Scott Solomon), a widower whose seven children need a governess.

She finds a household with lots of military precision and little fun. She soon changes all that, mainly through music and the belief that children should be children, not martinets.

Before long, she also softens Georg’s heart and helps him to see how much the children need a loving father. They’re eventually married, much to the children’s delight.

Their happiness is short-lived because fascist Germany is a growing threat. When local Nazis ask Georg to take command of a German ship, he has little choice even though he despises fascism.

However, a singing contest managed by his friend Max Detweiler (Aaron Hurley) offers a chance for the family to escape across the Alps to Switzerland.

The show is ably directed by Milissa Carey, who does especially well with the youngsters, who are double cast except for Madison Colgate as 16-year-old Liesl, the oldest. Choreography is by Brett and C.J. Blankenship.

Music director William Liberatore leads the excellent orchestra and some outstanding choral singing by the nuns and the von Trapp children.

As Maria, Bader combines charm and a likable stage presence with fine singing.
Acting is good throughout the cast, especially the other principals, including Elizabeth 
Claire Lawrence as Elsa Schraeder, Georg’s former fiancée.

Production values are high with a set by Kuo-Hao Lo, lighting by Michael Ramsaur, sound by Andrew Heller and costumes by Mae Matos and Lisa Rozman.

Extra kudos go to the entire cast for maintaining composure at the first Sunday matinee, when the audience was filled with children, some very young. Hence there were distractions like crying, leaving for the bathroom, talking and fidgeting.

Although seeing a great show like this could benefit children, parents should make sure they know how to behave.

Running about two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, “The Sound of 
Music” will continue through Aug. 5 in Foothill College’s Smithwick Theatre, Interstate 280 and El Monte Road Los Altos Hills.

For tickets and information, including parking restrictions, call (650) 949-7360 or visit www.foothill.edu/theatre.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Brave man defies internment in 'Hold These Truths'

Joel de la Fuente plays Gordon Hirabayashi in 'Hold These Truths.' (Kevin Berne photo)

Gordon Hirabayashi was a young man who ardently believed in the U.S. Constitution.

The consequences of that belief are dramatized in Jeanne Sakata’s “Hold These Truths,” based on a true story and presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

Gordon, a second-generation Japanese American, or Nisei, was a student at the University of Washington in Seattle in December 1941 when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, thus pulling the United States into World War II.

Shortly thereafter, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the executive order that led to a curfew and then internment for all people of Japanese descent on the West Coast. The rationale was that they were a security threat.

Although his family, friends and thousands of others obeyed the orders, Gordon defied the curfew, refused internment and was prosecuted for both. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld his conviction.

His internment conviction was invalidated by a federal district court judge in 1986.
According to the Los Angeles Times, “the judge, Donald S. Voorhees, found that the government withheld from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943 critical information that might have led the high court to strike down the legal underpinnings of the relocation program, or at least drastically reduce the numbers of citizens of Japanese descent rounded up from their West Coast homes and interned out of a so-called military necessity.”

Gordon was only one of three Japanese Americans to refuse internment. Besides his belief in the Constitution, he was a Quaker who held pacifist beliefs.

Joel de la Fuente gives a tour de force performance as Gordon in this one-man play. He tells Gordon’s story in the first person but gives voice to the many other people in his life.

Director Lisa Rothe skillfully guides de la Fuente through the story’s ups and downs.

She’s aided by designers Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams for the set, Margaret Weedon for the costume, Cat Tate Starmer for the lighting and Daniel Kluger for the sound.

The result is a gripping drama that tells a powerful story leavened by some humorous moments.

Although this story comes from a shameful period in U.S. history, it has relevance to today’s news stories about travel bans and detainment of people crossing the border illegally.

Running 90 minutes without intermission, “Hold These Truths” will continue through Aug. 5 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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

The website includes parking information because much of the parking lot is closed for construction.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Lowdown on high finance in 'Dry Powder'

Jenny (Emily Jeanne Brown) states her case to Rick (Aldo Billingslea) as Seth (Jeremy Kahn) listens skeptically.

The cutthroat nature of private equity investing comes to the fore in “Dry Powder,” presented by Aurora Theatre Company.

The term “dry powder” refers to a firm’s liquidity available for investments.

In this drama by Sarah Burgess, Rick (Aldo Billingslea), founder and president of a private equity firm in New York City, wants to invest its cash on hand. Seth (Jeremy Kahn), a co-founding director, believes he has found a luggage company that would make a great investment.

Jenny (Emily Jeanne Brown), the other co-founding director, doesn’t agree, saying Seth’s idea wouldn’t work as presented.

Rather than retaining all of the employees and keeping production in Sacramento, as Seth proposes, she would keep only a few top people there and move production overseas where costs are cheaper. Most employees would lose their jobs.

The luggage company’s CEO, Jeff (Kevin Kemp), wants to continue as is or he won’t agree to the acquisition.

Jenny and Seth argue as they state their case, each trying to sway Rick, who has the final say.

Rick is already under intense criticism because he threw a lavish engagement party, complete with an elephant, on the very day that he oversaw mass layoffs at a newly acquired company.

Director Jennifer King keeps the action taut and allows each actor to create a strong character.

Billingslea, already an imposing presence, is blunt and imperious as Rick, demanding obedience by his colleagues. On the other hand, neither Kahn as Seth nor Brown as Jenny is reluctant to speak up.

Jenny (Emily Jeanne Brown) and Seth (Jeremy Kahn) wait uncomfortably.
Moreover, they don’t like each other, often bickering and exchanging insults until Rick intervenes.

While Rick, Seth and Jenny are complex characters whose motives aren’t always pure, Jeff comes across as more determined to do the right thing until presented with an offer he can’t refuse.

Burgess doesn’t paint a pretty picture of high finance, but it seems realistic. In one scene that got laughs from the audience, Rick says he plans to build a school in Bali. 

He wants an impressive building with his name on it (like Trump Tower?).
Tanya Orellana’s streamlined set works well, complemented by Kurt Landisman’s lighting and by James Ard’s sound and music.

The New York characters wear tailored business attire by costume designer Victoria Livingston-Hall, while California-based Jeff is more casual.

An absorbing drama, “Dry Powder” runs about 95 minutes without intermission. It will continue through July 22 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)