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.



Thursday, April 4, 2019

Center Rep stages provocative 'Diary of Anne Frank'

This is where the eight people spent more than two years in hiding.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett is the true and ultimately tragic story of how eight Jews hid from the Nazis during World War II only to be betrayed and captured.

Center REPertory Company is presenting the adaptation by Wendy Kesselman.
Born in Germany, Anne Frank moved to Amsterdam, Holland, with her family to escape the Nazis when she was 4, but the Germans took over Holland in 1940.

When Anne’s older sister, Margot, was ordered to a Nazi work camp in July 1942, the family hid in the upstairs annex of the factory where Anne’s father worked.

They and four other people remained there until August 1944 when they were betrayed, arrested by the Gestapo and later sent to prison camps, where everyone except Anne’s father died.

In this production, Anne (Monique Hafen Adams) is 13 when she, Margot (Maya Michal Sherer) and their parents, Otto (Victor Talmadge) and Edith (Marcia Pizzo), flee to the annex.

They are joined by Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan (Michael Butler and Domenique Lozano) and their 18-year-old son, Peter (Kevin Singer). Later joining them is a dentist, Mr. Dussel (Michael Patrick Gaffney).

In her optimistic way, Anne is exuberant at first and quite the pest, but they all soon get a dose of reality when Mr. Kraler (Paul Plain), a trusted friend who worked in the factory, gave them the rules.

They had to remain absolutely silent between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. when workers were downstairs. That meant removing their shoes, not talking and not using the only bathroom.

Besides Mr. Kraler, their only other connection to the outside world was Miep Gies (Alison Quin), who brought them what little she could.

Thus eight people lived in cramped quarters (set by Nina Ball, lighting by Kurt Landisman) with meager food and almost constant fear of being discovered.
During their Hanukkah celebration, for example, Anne gave everyone a gift, but their 
fear was aroused when they heard a noise downstairs. Much to their relief, it came from a thief who fled.

Although they tried to make the best of their situation, frustration and tempers inevitably erupted.

Anne (Monique Hafen Adams) writes in her diary.
Through it all, Anne wrote in her diary, revealing a hopeful, maturing girl with dreams and ambitions as her friendship with Peter blossomed.

Everyone’s hopes soared with the Allied invasion of Europe in June 1944. They envisioned being free soon.

Thus it was a terrible irony that they were rousted two months later and died before the camps were liberated in April 1945.

Besides the set and lighting, the production is complemented by Jessie Amoroso’s 
costumes and Teddy Hulsker’s sound and projections.

Timothy Near directs this excellent ensemble cast with sensitivity and an eye toward helping the audience understand how these eight people lived.

During intermission, for example, they remain on stage, going about their ways of passing the time.

Nevertheless, it's difficult to imagine how one might endure such hardships, and it’s impossible to fathom the depraved inhumanity of the Nazis and their attempt to annihilate all Jews and other people they deemed undesirable.

Hence when the cast takes its curtain call, the applause is warm but subdued. 

Afterward, the house manager remarked that it was unusual to see people so quiet as they left.

That’s a tribute to the power of the play and this thought-provoking production.

Running about two hours with intermission, “The Diary of Anne Frank” will continue through April 28 in the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek.

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

Photos by www.mellophoto.com




Monday, March 18, 2019

'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat' deserves standing O

Joseph ((Matt Ono) delights in his multi-colored coat.

Broadway By the Bay’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” blends all of its elements into a dream production.

An early collaboration between composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and book writer-lyricist Tim Rice, it went through several iterations over several years, the latest in 1974.

BBB’s production is anchored by Chelsey Ristaino as the Narrator, who begins telling the biblical story to 11 children.

Joseph (Matt Ono), who had 11 brothers, was the favorite son of Jacob (Chris Fernandez). After Jacob gave Joseph the multi-colored coat, his jealous brothers sold him to some passing Egyptians, assuming he wouldn’t survive.

Joseph wound up in prison in Egypt, but when word of his ability to interpret dreams reached the ruler, Potiphar (Nathan Temby), he soon became his second-in-command.

Knowing that seven years of great harvests would be followed by seven lean years, Joseph made sure the Egyptians had enough stored to survive.

In the meantime, Joseph’s family wasn’t so lucky. Therefore, the starving men went to Egypt in hopes of finding food.

Most of the story is sung, but it’s clear and accessible thanks to excellent diction all around.

The music varies in style from disco to rock (Manuel Caneri as Pharaoh impersonating Elvis Presley in “Song of the King”) to country western (“One More Angel in Heaven”) to calypso.

Although it comes from early in Lloyd Webber’s career, one can hear strains of what’s to come, such as “Evita,” “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.”

Chelsey Ristaino as the Narrator, with Matt Ono as Joseph, anchors the show.
All of the principals do well, especially Ristaino as the Narrator. She has a crystal clear voice and a strong stage presence.

The men’s, women’s and children’s choruses are outstanding, thanks to music director Alicia Jeffrey and vocal director Daniel Lloyd Pias.

Director Stephanie Renee Maysonave keeps everyone involved, maintains the right pace and inserts some amusing stage business.

Adding to the enjoyment is the inventive choreography of Christina Lazo. Costumes by Bethany Deal are spectacular, as is the lighting by Eric Johnson.

The fluid set is by Kuo-Hao Lo with an effective sound design by Zak Stamps.

During intermission of the March 17 matinee, a 6½ -year-old girl was so inspired by the show that she was dancing on a landing to the balcony while her mother waited for the restroom.

Yes, it’s that kind of show, one that deserves its prolonged standing ovation.

Running about two hours with an intermission, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” will continue through March 31 at the Fox Theater, 2215 Broadway St., Redwood City.

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

Photos by Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin



Sunday, March 17, 2019

Basketball inspires 'The Great Leap'

Manford (Tim Liu) tries to convince Connie (Ruibo Qian) to allow him to go to China.

Playwright Lauren Yee draws from family and Chinese history in “The Great Leap,” presented by American Conservatory Theater.

Her father, Peter, played basketball in San Francisco’s Chinatown and was recruited to an amateur team that played a professional team in Taiwan in 1977.

The fictionalized plot takes place in China and San Francisco.

At first the University of San Francisco basketball coach, Saul (Arye Gross), is in China in 1971 to teach the Chinese how to play American style basketball. His translator is Wen Chang (BD Wong), who becomes the Chinese coach.

Seventeen years later, Saul’s USF team is slated to go to China to play a team there. A 17-year-old high school point guard, Manford (Tim Liu), whose late mother was a Chinese immigrant, badgers Saul to join the team. Reluctant at first, Saul relents.

In the meantime, Manford’s older cousin, Connie (Ruibo Qian), also is reluctant to let Manford go, especially since he’s so close to graduating and since there’s political unrest in China.

Once in China, Manford meets Wen Chang, who is his father, and gets swept in the Tiananmen Square uprising.

As directed by Lisa Peterson, the four actors do well with what they have to work with in this not always involving story.

Saul (Arye Gross, right) confronts Wen Chang (BD Wong).
The most interesting character is Wen Chang. He knows that in order to survive under brutal Chinese regimes, he must be insignificant. Wong does so by holding his arms close to his side and moving as little as possible.

The most unlikable character is Saul, the foul-mouthed coach who spews streams of obscenities.

Liu embodies Manford’s pesky teenage irrepressibility along with his basketball skills. Qian as Connie shows an almost motherly concern for him.

Robert Brill has designed the spare yet effective set, augmented by Hana S. Kim’s projections and Yi Zhao’s lighting. The costumes are by Meg Neville, the sound by Jake Rodriguez.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “The Great Leap” will continue through March 31 at the 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


Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Much music, little story in 'Marie and Rosetta'

Rosetta (Michelle E. Jordan, left) and Marie (Marissa Rudd) harmonize. (Kevin Berne photo)

“Marie and Rosetta,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, is deep in music but rather shallow in story.

George Brant’s play with music is based on the true story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer from the mid-20th century who influenced legends like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, among others. She has been called the “Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

This 2016 play is set in the showroom of a Mississippi funeral home in 1946. Rosetta (Michelle E. Jordan) and her entourage are staying there because black people didn’t have much choice in the segregated South.

Rosetta has discovered Marie Knight (Marissa Rudd), a singer/pianist whom she’s considering as a musical partner.

The plot focuses on their contrasting styles. Although both are religious, Rosetta is far more liberal, considering her music to be praise enough for the lord.

The prudish Marie seems to see anything fun or rollicking as sinful. Hence, Rosetta does her best to convince Marie to let loose. The transformation doesn’t seem to take long.

Because Rudd’s Marie doesn’t always articulate clearly, it’s difficult to catch some of her lines and follow the story.

That’s not the case with Jordan’s Rosetta, who speaks her mind and lines clearly.

The real highlights in this show come from Jordan’s roof-raising singing, mostly of gospel songs like “This Train,” “Sit Down” and others. She has a powerhouse voice that’s irresistible.

On the other hand, Rudd’s voice has a sharp edge, especially on higher notes or at higher volumes. She’s at her best in the quiet “Peace in the Valley.”

Music director William Liberatore supplies Rosetta and Marie’s piano playing, while Schuyler McFadden provides Rosetta’s acoustic and electric guitar playing.

The program says that all songs in the show were originally recorded by Rosetta Tharpe, who’s heard as the audience arrives.

The show is directed by TheatreWorks artistic director Robert Kelley, who notes that it was presented as part of the company’s annual New Works Festival in 2015.

The handsome set, complete with coffins, is by Christopher Fitzer with lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt, sound by Cliff Caruthers and costumes by Jill C. Bowers.

Running about an hour and 40 minutes without intermission, “Marie and Rosetta” will continue through March 31 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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



Monday, March 11, 2019

Cross-gender casting in Hillbarn's 'Leading Ladies'

The wealthy Florence (Monica Cappuccini) welcomes Leo (Samantha Ricci, left) posing as Maxine and Jack (Adrienne Kaori Walters) posing as Stephanie, whom she believes to be her nieces.
In his notes for Hillbarn Theatre’s production of Ken Ludwig’s “Leading Ladies,” artistic director Dan Demers says he loves comedies and loves to laugh.

He and the show’s audiences are getting their fill in this silly yet skillfully crafted farce.

It starts when two down-on-their-luck English actors are performing scenes from Shakespeare for a Moose lodge in York, Pa., in 1958. Their act is a hilarious mish-mash of some of the Bard’s most famous lines.

When they learn that a wealthy woman in the area is looking for her sister’s two children to share her $3 million estate with their cousin, who lives with her, they assume that the heirs-to-be, Steve and Max, are men.

However, they’re women, Stephanie and Maxine. Eager to get the money anyway, they disguise themselves as women and show up at the aging dowager’s home.

Complications arise when there’s a mutual attraction between them and the niece and a roller-skating waitress – shades of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.”

But there’s more. Demers also says, “In conversations with Jim Knipple, our director, we decided to explore the idea of gender-blind casting, meaning we wanted to be open to the idea that two women could play the two leading men who then play women.”

Hence the two actors are played by Samantha Ricci as Leo Clark and by Adrienne Kaori Walters as Jack Gable. Leo, the instigator, becomes Maxine, while the reluctant Jack is Stephanie. 

Audrey (Justin Travis Buchs, right) has a word with Jack (Adrienne Kaori Walters).
In another twist, the roller-skating waitress, Audrey, is played by Justin Travis Buchs.

The other actors are cast by their gender. The two most grounded characters in this crew of zanies are Florence (Monica Cappuccini), the dowager, and Meg (Sarah Benjamin), her niece.

One of the play’s best sight gags involves Florence rushing around, trailing her IV stand behind her.

If there’s a villain, it’s Meg’s fiancé, Duncan (Peter Ray Juarez), a strait-laced minister who seems mainly interested in her potential wealth. When Jack and Leo show up in their female guise, he’s both jealous and suspicious.

Completing the cast are Scott Solomon as the inept physician, Doc, and Drew Reitz as Butch, his son and Audrey’s boyfriend.

The crew’s attempted staging of “Twelfth Night” on the eve of Duncan and Meg’s wedding is another hilarious scene.

Despite the complications, “all’s well that ends well,” with the right matching of couples.

It might be difficult at first to wrap one’s head around the cross-gender casting, but willing suspension of disbelief and the actors’ skill make it all work.

On top of that, many of the costumes by Raven Winter are laugh-worthy themselves.

Adding to the fun are the drawing room set by Nora Kelly, lighting by David Gotlieb and sound by James Goode.

Running about two hours and 30 minutes with an intermission, “Leading Ladies” will continue through March 24 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

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

 Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography