Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Berkeley Rep premieres a blockbuster, 'Paradise Square'

The cast of "Paradise Square." (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Berkeley Repertory Theatre has a blockbuster with its world premiere of “Paradise Square, A New Musical.”

Set in New York City’s squalid Five Points neighborhood during the Civil War in 1863, it captures a moment in U.S. history when Irish immigrants who had fled the potato famine and freeborn and freed black slaves mixed congenially.

Most of the action takes place in the Paradise Square saloon owned by a black woman, the no-nonsense Annabelle “Nelly” Freeman (Christina Sajous). She is assisted by an Irish woman, Annie O’Brien (Madeline Trumble), who is married to a black preacher, the Rev. Samuel E. Cornish (Daren A. Herbert).

Joining them are Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively), Annie’s nephew just arrived from Ireland; and William Henry Lane (Sidney Dupont), an escaped slave from Tennessee.

The final principal is destitute, alcoholic composer Stephen Foster (Jacob Fishel), who has abandoned his wife and daughter and becomes pianist at the saloon.

“Paradise Square” composers Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan, with lyricist Nathan Tysen, based the show’s music on Foster’s songs, many of them re-imagined for more modern tastes.

Howland serves as the show’s musical director, while Kirwan conceived the idea for the show.

The book by Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Kirwan shows how the dance contests so common in Five Points saloons evolved into tap dance and vaudeville.

The fragile rapport between the two groups is shaken when black men replace striking dock workers, most of them Irish.

It then shatters when a Union Army draft is instituted for men, even immigrants, but not blacks. However, a man could avoid the draft by paying $300, a princely sum for poor people but not the wealthy.

Hence, the impoverished Irish became resentful of their black friends, who weren’t subject to the draft, and even more resentful of the wealthy. The widespread riots that broke out became the worst in U.S. history, according to the Berkeley Rep program.

William (Sidney Dupont, left) and Owen (A.J. Shively) rehearse for the dance contest. Watching are Stephen Foster (Jacob Fishel), at piano; Samuel (Daren A. Herbert); and Annie (Madeline Trumble). (Photo by Kevin Berne)
This history unfolds musically with thrilling dances choreographed by Bill T. Jones, with assistance from Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus.

Some of those dances are set to “Camptown Races,” “Oh, Susanna” and “Ring, Ring the Banjo.” The latter features an athletic dance contest between Shively’s Owen and Dupont’s William.

Under the direction of Moisés Kaufman, the acting is outstanding.

Christina Sajous plays saloon owner Nelly Freeman. (Photo by Alessandra Mello)
There’s also some powerhouse singing, especially by Sajous as Nelly, who brings the house down several times.

Yet the finale is a nicely low-key “Beautiful Dreamer” as various characters tell what happened in the months and years thereafter.

With 32 cast members and an eight-piece band, this is “the biggest show in the history of Berkeley Rep,” artistic director Tony Taccone says in the program.

Kudos also go to Allen Moyer, whose multi-level set design seamlessly facilitates scene changes. Also noteworthy are the lighting by Donald Holder, costumes by Toni-Leslie James and sound by Jon Weston.

Taken together, all of these elements add up to a highly memorable, entertaining theatrical experience that has all the earmarks of a Broadway hit.

Running about two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, “Paradise Square” will continue an extra week through Feb. 24 in Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. For tickets and information, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Photos courtesy of Berkeley Rep

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Adolescent angst propels thought-provoking 'Dear Evan Hansen'

Ben Levi Ross stars in 'Dear Evan Hansen.' Curran theater photo

Misunderstanding leads to a web of lies with mixed results in the touring production of “Dear Evan Hansen,” presented by the Curran theater in San Francisco.

Winner of six Tony Awards in 2017, including Best Musical, the misunderstanding starts with a letter that high school senior Evan Hansen (Ben Levi Ross) writes to himself. He was advised to do so by the therapist he’s been seeing because he’s socially awkward and has virtually no friends.

A bullying classmate, Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith), finds it and refuses to return it. Another classmate describes Connor as looking like a school shooter.

A few days later, Connor kills himself. Evan’s letter in his pocket is seen as a sign of friendship between them.

Connor’s parents, Larry (Aaron Lazar) and Cynthia (Christiane Noll), ask him to join them at dinner with their daughter, Zoe (Maggie McKenna), the junior on whom the shy Evan has a crush.

His web of lies makes the Murphy family feel good about Connor, believing he wasn’t the total loner they had thought him to be.

Next thing you know, Evan has to deliver a eulogy for Connor that goes viral. 

Classmate Alana Beck (Phoebe Koyabe) buys into the story and wants to set up a memorial fund to restore an abandoned apple orchard that Connor supposedly loved.

Also involved with the fund is what may be Evan’s only friend, the skeptical, wise-cracking Jared Kleinman (Jared Goldsmith). Jared makes up emails that Evan and Connor supposedly exchanged. They, too, go viral.

Except for Evan, everybody’s happy, including his harried single mother, Heidi (Jessica Phillips), who works or goes to school most nights.

Eventually the truth comes out, leading to important bonding.

Much of the story unfolds in the music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and the book by Steven Levenson.

Directed by Michael Greif, the acting is excellent, especially by Ross as Evan. He stutters, he stammers, he folds within himself with anxiety. It’s all he can do to greet others, let along hold a conversation.

All of the songs are sung well, but many of Evan’s solos are belted out, leading to a sameness. Moreover, the sound design by Nevin Steinberg is so loud that many lyrics are distorted. Music director Austin Cook leads the seven-member orchestra from the keyboard. Choreography is by Danny Mefford.

The set by David Korins is relatively simple and fluid, augmented by the social media images in Peter Nigrini’s projections. Character-specific costumes are by Emily Rebholz with lighting by Japhy Weideman.

The opening night audience was dominated by young people who were taking selfies in the lobby and aisles when they weren’t absorbed in their devices. However, when the show started, they responded enthusiastically.

Although the use of social media and the focus on a teenage as the main character hold special appeal to the younger generation, people of all ages can relate to the human dilemmas experienced by all the characters, especially the parents. It’s a thought-provoking, thoroughly entertaining show.

Running about two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, “Dear Evan Hansen” will continue at the Curran, 445 Geary St., San Francisco, through Dec. 30.

For tickets and information, call (415) 358-1220 or visit https://sfcurran.com/contact.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Highly entertaining, 'Tuck Everlasting' poses intriguing question

Winnie (Natalie Schroeder) meets Jesse Tuck (Eddie Grey).

What if you could live forever without aging? Would you jump at the chance?

Not so fast, say the never-aging Tuck family members in “Tuck Everlasting,” the musical presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

An 11-year-old girl, Winnie Foster (Natalie Schroeder, alternating with Katie Maupin), learns the secret of the family’s longevity and has that choice in her New Hampshire hometown in 1893.

However, her new friend, 17-year-old Jesse Tuck (Eddie Grey), advises her to wait six years until she’s his age. She waits and makes the right decision.

The book by Claudia Shear and Tim Federle is based on Natalie Babbitt’s popular children’s novel of the same name.

Tuneful music by Chris Miller with lyrics by Nathan Tysen makes this intriguing premise even more enjoyable.

Add in direction by artistic director Robert Kelley and a dynamic cast, and it’s a great way to celebrate the holidays and the inevitable cycle of life.

It begins with a brief scene in 1808 when the Tucks – Jesse, mom Mae (Kristine Reese), dad Angus (Jonathan Rhys Williams) and older son Miles (Travis Leland) – happen to drink from a spring at the base of a huge tree.

When they realize what has happened to them, they try to avoid other people and arousing their curiosity.

Winnie sneaks out of her house where her mother, Betsy (Teressa Foss), and grandmother, Nana (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone), are still mourning the death of her father a year ago.

After she encounters Jesse, she’s forced to his home, but her stubbornness and defiance earn Angus’ admiration. He allows them to sneak off and go to the fair that’s passing through town.

One of the carneys, the scheming Man in the Yellow Suit (Michael Gene Sullivan), finds out about the spring’s magic water. He wants to bottle and sell it, but he needs to know where the spring is.

In the meantime, Winnie’s worried mother asks Constable Joe (Colin Thomson) and
Colin Thomson (bottom) and  David Crane.
his bumbling new assistant, Hugo (David Crane), to look for her.

Of course she does return home.

This is a show filled with memorable scenes, such as the carnival’s arrival through the audience (“Join the Parade”).

The best and most moving scenes come last. No words are spoken as the actors enact the passage of time with weddings, births and deaths during a reprise of “The Wheel (of Life).”

Leading the opening night cast was the dynamic, poised Schroeder as Winnie. Not only does she act and sing well, she dances, too. She’s a triple threat.

Without singling anyone else out, suffice it to say that everyone else in this outstanding cast is praiseworthy, too.

This production is enhanced by Alex Perez’s choreography, Joe Ragey’s set, Pamila Z. Gray’s lighting, Fumiko Bielefeldt’s costumes and Jeff Mockus’s sound. The excellent orchestra is led by musical director William Liberatore from the piano.

Both entertaining and thought-provoking, this holiday treat is suitable for both adults and youngsters. It’s not to be missed.

Running about two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission, “Tuck Everlasting” will continue through Dec. 30 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 

Hillbarn stages musical 'Christmas Carol'

Scrooge (Christopher Reber) sees the Ghose of Christmas Present (Jennifer Martinelli). (Mark and Tracy Photography)

Hillbarn Theatre is celebrating the holiday season with a musical version of Charles Dickens’ beloved “A Christmas Carol.”

With music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and book by Ahrens and Mike Ockrent, it’s set in London on Christmas Eve, 1843.

It’s the tale of a curmudgeonly old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Reber), who discovers that money is less important than love for humanity.

After his clerk, Bob Cratchit (James Ambler) is done for the day, Scrooge heads home from his loan (shark) office, spurning pleas for charity with his trademark “bah, humbug.”

Once in bed, he’s confronted by the ghost of his late partner, Jacob Marley (Randy O’Hara). Marley warns that the chains he carries could await Scrooge if he doesn’t change his ways. He adds that three more ghosts will visit that night.

The first, the sprightly Ghost of Christmas Past (Sammi Hildebrandt), shows him what he was like as a lonely boy and a much happier young man.

Next the more mature Ghost of Christmas Present (Jennifer Martinelli) takes him to the Cratchits’ home. Despite their poverty and worries about their youngest, Tiny Tim (Noah Itzkovitz), they’re a happy, loving family.

Finally, the looming Ghost of Christmas Future (three actors) shows what will happen if Scrooge doesn’t change. Lamenting his behavior, he becomes a generous benefactor to his clients and the Cratchits.

Directed by Hillbarn artistic director Dan Demers, the show moves well, aided by his flexible set. Choreography by Jayne Zaban increases the merriment, as do the costumes and wigs by Pamela Lampkin and the lighting by Carson Duper.

Although music director Rick Reynolds’ orchestra plays well, it’s too loud, often drowning out lyrics and getting no help from Ron Ho’s sound design.

Overall, the acting is fine, especially by Ambler as Bob Cratchit and Hildebrandt as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Many actors play several roles.

Singing is a mixed bag with the best coming from Hildebrandt, Ambler and the show’s youngsters.

The first notes of Menken’s score recall “The Phantom of the Opera,” while other songs seem derivative of Stephen Sondheim.

Nevertheless, the show’s message of kindness and charity comes through clearly and was well received by the nearly full house on opening night.

Running about two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission, “A Christmas Carol” will continue through Dec. 16 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

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

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Unusual path to improvement in 'Between Riverside and Crazy'

Circumstances for a bitter ex-cop in dire straits improve through legal as well as nonconventional ways in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Between Riverside and Crazy,” presented by San Jose Stage Company.

He’s Walter “Pops” Washington (L. Peter Callender), who’s about to lose his rent-controlled apartment on New York City’s Riverside Drive because he’s violating his lease.

He was forced to retire from the NYPD eight years ago after being shot six times by a fellow officer. Instead of accepting the department’s settlement offer, he engaged an attorney to fight it. Since then, his wife has died.

Still, he has opened his apartment to three people he calls guests. One is his son, Junior (Rondrell McCormick), an ex-con who still deals in stolen merchandise.

Another is Junior’s sexy, pleasant but dense girlfriend, Lulu (Tiffany Tenille). Finally there’s another ex-con and recovering alcoholic-drug addict, Oswaldo (Juan Amador).

They all live there rent-free and call their benefactor Dad. They all urge him to accept the settlement.

Also urging him to accept are his former partner, Detective Audrey O’Connor (Allison F. Rich), and her fiancé, the pompous Lt. Caro (George Psarras).

The real turning point, however, arrives via the Church Lady (Damaris Divito), whose visit ends with a highly unusual seduction.

The outcome leads to reconciliation between Walter and Junior and a new life for Walter.

Well directed by Jeffrey Lo, the strong cast is led by the ever-reliable Callender, whose Walter can be both acerbic and humorous. The others also are outstanding.

The set by Christopher Fitzer reflects Walter’s sad situation with a lighted Christmas tree even though it’s several months later.

Costumes by Ashley Garlick, lighting by Michael Johnson and sound by Steve Schoenbeck complement the production.

With its expletives and adult situations, this is not for children. Because the company’s theater is so intimate, it’s also more intense than the noteworthy production by American Conservatory Theater in 2015. Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile for adults.

Running about two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission, “Between Riverside and Crazy” will continue through Dec. 16 at San Jose Stage Company, 490 S. First St., San Jose.

For tickets and information, call (408) 283-7142 or visit www.thestage.org.

'The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley' premieres in Marin

The Darcys, Fitzwilliam (David Everett
Moore) and Elizabeth (Melissa Ortiz), are the
holiday hosts at Pemberley.

“The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” takes places downstairs in the servants’ work area rather than the opulent main floor in late December 1815.

Presented by Marin Theatre Company, this world premiere play by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon can be seen as a second sequel to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”

Also presented by MTC, their first sequel, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” in 2016, took place upstairs at the same time but with a different focus.

The current play focuses on two relationships, one slowly blossoming, the other quickly failing.

The blossoming relationship is between two servants, Brian (August Browning), the footman; and Cassie (Neiry Rojo), the newly hired housemaid. He’s an inventor who makes a reading stand for her, while she’s an independent sort who wants to make her own way in the world.

On the other hand, the marriage between Lydia Wickham (Madeline Rouverol) and George Wickham (Kenny Toll) is in trouble.

Lydia tries to put on a happy front, but George is despised by her family, the Bennets. 
They include her sister, Elizabeth Darcy (Melissa Ortiz), and Elizabeth’s husband, the wealthy Fitzwilliam Darcy (David Everett Moore), owner of Pemberley.

In fact, George wasn’t invited to the holiday celebration, but one night he drunkenly arrives downstairs after suffering a beating in the local pub.

The turning point comes with an incriminating letter Cassie finds in George’s jacket before she washed it. The letter proves that George is a scoundrel and that he married Lydia only for her money.

Mrs. Reynolds (Jennie Brick) patches up George Wickham (Kenny Toll).
With all the goings-on downstairs as the Darcys and Lydia come there for refuge, the longtime housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds (Jennie Brick), is the glue that holds everything together. She also makes delicious biscuits (cookies).

Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, the entire cast is first-rate with everyone believable in reflecting how upper- and middle-class people spoke and acted at that time. There are many amusing moments, too.

The functional set is by Wilson Chin with lighting by Wen-Ling Liao and sound by Sharath Patel. The costumes, notably the elegant Regency Period dresses for Lydia and Elizabeth, are by Courtney Flores.

Performances were to have begun Nov. 15 but were delayed until after Thanksgiving because smoke from the Butte County fire permeated the theater, causing a health threat. To make up for those lost performances, the show has been extended seven days through Dec. 16. It’s great entertainment.

“The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” runs about two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission 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)

Sunday, November 18, 2018

WWII secrets revealed in 'Everything Is Illuminated'

Jonathan (Jeremy Kahn, right) shows an old photo to Alex  (Adam Burch) as Grandfather (Julian Lópex-Morillas) listens.
Hoping to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis during World War II, a young Jewish man travels from New York City to the Ukraine in “Everything Is Illuminated,” Simon Block’s adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel presented by Aurora Theatre Company.

When Jonathan (Jeremy Kahn) arrives in the late 1990s, he is met by his guide and translator Alex (Adam Burch). They are to be driven by Alex’s semi-blind, curmudgeonly Grandfather (Julian López-Morillas).

The only information Jonathan has is that his grandfather lived in a now obliterated shtetl and that the woman’s name was Augustine. He has a snapshot that he believes shows her.

He never finds her, but along the way he imagines his ancestry going back to the 18th century.

Alex, however, learns much more about Grandfather’s experiences during the war.

Lura Dolas as Woman with Adam Burch.
Act 1 moves slowly with some crude humor from Alex, and it doesn’t get very far except at the very end. That’s when the three men meet the old Woman (Lura Dolas). 
Dressed all in white with long white hair, she’s a ghostly figure.

As Act 2 begins, she’s reluctant to help them, but then she shows them her collected artifacts that were buried in the area. She also leads them to the site of the former Jewish village.

This act is highlighted by two moving monologues. In the first, the Woman tells the gruesome story of how her sisters were brutally killed by Nazi soldiers.
In the second, Grandfather finally tells Alex his painful secret from World War II.

Completing the cast is Marissa Keltie, playing several female characters.

Sensitively and imaginatively directed by Aurora artistic director Tom Ross, the cast is uniformly excellent.

Production values are high, too, with the set by Kate Boyd, lighting by Kurt Landisman, costumes by Callie Floor and sound by Matt Stines.

Ross points out in the program that Foer’s novel is based on an actual trip he took at age 20 after his sophomore year at Princeton.

Although his book about the trip apparently was a success, it doesn’t adapt well to the stage, at least not in Block’s interpretation. It also was a 2005 film that lost money.

Running about two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission, “Everything Is Illuminated” will continue through Dec. 9 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. For tickets and information, call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Photos by David Allen