Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Singer saves self, church in 'Sister Act'

Deloris (Leslie Ivy-Louthaman, left) leads the chorus of nuns in a joyful, upbeat song.

A woman fleeing her married, murderous lover saves not only herself but also the church where she takes refuge in the musical comedy “Sister Act,” presented by Broadway By the Bay.

Deloris Van Cartier (Leslie Ivy-Louthaman) inadvertently sees her boyfriend, nightclub owner Curtis Jackson (Montel Anthony Nord), shoot and kill one of his henchmen.

Deloris (Leslie Ivy-Louthaman) goes to Eddie (David Blackburn) for help.
She goes to a police officer friend from high school, Eddie Souther (David Blackburn), who takes her to a nearby Catholic church. He persuades its leaders, including Mother Superior (Heather Orth), to disguise her as one of its nuns, calling her Sister Mary Clarence.

It’s culture shock for this black disco singer to blend in with a group of white nuns, but they accept her. She’s asked to attend their choir practice and is appalled to hear how bad they are.

Before long she transforms them into a harmonious, swinging, singing group that proves popular with the congregation, which had been dwindling along with its finances. Thus both attendance and donations grow enough to save the church from being closed and sold to two antique dealers.

Soon the choir gains media attention in Philadelphia, allowing Curtis and his buddies to track her down.

Directed by Erica Wyman-Abrahamson, the acting is terrific from the leads through the ensemble.

Mother Superior (Heather Orth, right) mistakenly confesses to Deloris (Leslie Ivy-Louthaman).
There also are some terrific singers, especially Ivy-Louthaman as Deloris and Orth as Mother Superior. Both are powerhouses who bring down the house several times, such as in their duet “Here Within These Walls.”

Music and vocal director Nicolas Perez leads 11 other orchestra members from the keyboard. The choreography is by Riette Burdick.

The right-on ’70s costumes are by Bethany Deal with sets by Mark Mendelson, lighting by Michael Oesch, and sound by Jon Hayward and Gino Vellandi.

The story might seem familiar because “Sister Act” was a popular movie starring Whoopi Goldberg. This stage version features music by Alan Menken with lyrics by Glenn Slater and a book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner.

It’s all quite humorous and entertaining.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Sister Act” will continue through Aug. 25 at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway St., Redwood City.

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

Photos by Mark Kitaoka, Mark & Tracy Photography

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Superb acting in 'Anna Considers Mars' at Stanford

Anna (Melissa Ortiz, left) shows Shelly (Katie Rubin) and Malcolm (Christian Haines) one of the species (Aaron Wilton) she hopes to preserve with the help of their funding. 

Ever since she was a kid, Anna Aguirre (Melissa Ortiz) has wanted to go to Mars.

She gets her chance in Ruben Grijalva’s “Anna Considers Mars,” presented by Stanford Repertory Theater.

However, she has obligations on Earth, mainly her mother, Renata (Wilma Bonet), who has lung cancer and expects Anna to take care of her.

Anna also has founded the Center for the Preservation of Noncharismatic Species, endangered but ugly, disgusting creatures that nevertheless are important links in the food chain.

In the meantime, she yearns to be one of the people being sent to Mars to colonize it and preserve the human species as global warming destroys more and more habitable land.

Going there also would continue her relationship with Malcolm Phillips (Christian Haines), whom she meets when trying to raise money for the center.

Directed by Susi Damilano, the six-person cast in this futuristic, absurdist comedy-drama is superb. Besides Ortiz, Bonet and Haines, the only other actor playing one role is Søren Oliver. He appears as formally attired Carson, Anna’s virtual assistant.

The other two actors, Katie Rubin and Aaron Wilton, play a variety of roles.
Rubin plays Shelly Lawrence, a strait-laced corporate funder who has already been to Mars. She also shows up as the weird, dowdy, religious Dorothy from Minnesota. She excels in both contrasting roles as well as several others.

Wilton appears as the grotesque creatures that Anna seeks to preserve; as Darryl, her ex-husband; as Ishmael, an apish, near-naked fellow; as a greedy doctor; and as others. Like Rubin, he’s terrific all around.

Renata (Wilma Bonet, foreground) and Darryl (Aaron Wilton) watch as Malcolm (Christian Haines) and Anna (Melissa Ortiz) await liftoff to Mars.
As Renata, Anna’s mother, Bonet is wonderfully amusing and manipulative. In some ways, she’s symbolic of what’s happening to Earth. She knows that smoking has caused her illness and continuing to smoke would hasten her death, yet she can’t resists cigarettes.

Likewise, most people realize what climate change is doing to Earth, yet they continue to pursue the activities and substances that cause it.

The production is enhanced by Brooke Jennings’ character-specific costumes. Also contributing are the lighting by Brittany Mellerson, sound by Ian Walker and scenic design consultation by Sarah Phykitt.

 “Anna Considers Mars” was commissioned by Planet Earth Arts and co-produced by PlayGround, both based in the Bay Area. It comes directly to Stanford Rep after its premiere at Potrero Stage in San Francisco with the same director and professional cast. Stanford Rep is presenting it as part of its annual summer festival, whose theme this year is The Environment & Social Justice.

Running about two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission, it will continue only through Aug. 11 at the Nitery Theater, Old Union, 514 Lasuen Mall, Building 590, Stanford.

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

Photos by Mellophoto.com 

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Cinderella tale gets new twists at Foothill Music Theatre

Prince Topher (Edward Clark) slays a dragon with a slingshot after slaying a giant.

There are new takes on the old fairy tale of Cinderella as transformed into a musical by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.

Presented by Foothill Music Theatre and called “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella,” this one features a new book by Douglas Carter Beane, who revised and updated Hammerstein’s original.

It’s designed to give the story more relevance while retaining its magical elements.
FMT’s production does just that with some ingenious stagecraft along with some fine performances.

Christina Lea plays the title character, here called Ella, who’s little more than a servant to her self-centered stepmother, Madame (Jasmine Johnson) and stepsisters, Gabrielle (Melissa Gialdini) and Charlotte (Gwyneth Forrester).

Despite their disregard, Ella is a kind person, as evidenced by giving water to the prince, Topher (Edward Clark), and money to the beggar woman known as Crazy Marie (Angela Ceseña).

Soon to become king, Topher is urged by his evil adviser, Sebastian (Vic Prosak), to throw a ball and choose a bride from the eligible women there.

Charlotte (Gwyneth Forrester, left) Gabrielle (Melissa Gialdini) and Madame (Jasmine Johnson) are ready for the ball. 
Ella’s family is all aflutter with preparations for the party, and Ella is left behind. She wishes she could go, for she had been smitten by the prince.

Marie (Angela  Ceseña) is Ella's (Christina Lea) fairy godmother.
Transformed into her fairy godmother, Marie grants her wish, adorning her in a lovely gown and glass slippers and transforming a pumpkin into a fine carriage drawn by four man-sized mice.

The one caveat is that Ella must leave by midnight because everything will return to its original form then.

All goes well at the ball, but she runs off at midnight, thus causing the prince to order a search for her.

In one of the new twists, he can’t find her, so he decides to try one more time by giving a banquet. Again the fairy godmother comes through, but this time Ella  loses a glass slipper as she flees at midnight.

The slipper fits and the prince finds his bride-to-be.
Of course the prince eventually finds and marries her, but not before getting out from under Sebastian’s influence.

Instead he’s moved by Ella and Jean-Michel (Jomar Martinez), a new character in the traditional story. Jean-Michel is a rebel who decries the cruel treatment of his fellow townspeople. The prince vows to improve their lot.

There are some other new twists, such as a budding romance between Jean-Michel and Ella’s stepsister Gabrielle. Gabrielle also correctly surmises that the mystery woman at the ball was Ella and becomes her ally.

Directed by Foothill’s Milissa Carey, the acting overall is fine, especially by the women. Jasmine Johnson as Madame deserves special mention for her strong stage presence as well as her good singing.

Lea as Ella and Ceseña as Marie also sing well under the musical direction of Daniel Feyer. Everyone else is at least adequate although Clark as the prince has some pitch problems.

The choreography is by Lee Ann Payne with an effective set by Kuo-Hao Lo, sound by Andrew Heller and lighting by Michael Ramsaur (some lighting cues were missed on opening night).

Special credit goes to Lisa Rozman, who designed the colorful costumes, especially those that so quickly transform Ella and Marie.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” will continue through Aug. 4 in Foothill College’s Smithwick Theatre, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills.

For tickets and information, call (650) 949-7360 or visit www.foothill.edu/theatre.
Photos by David Allen

Monday, July 15, 2019

Ironic but positive outcomes in 'The Language Archive'

Much to the dismay of George (Jomar Tagatac) and Emma (Adrienne Kaori Walters), both standing, Resten (Francis Jue) and his wife, Alta (Emily Kuroda), refuse to talk to each other in any language.

The opening of TheatreWorks’ Silicon Valley’s 50th season on July13 was bookended by standing ovations.

The first was for founder and artistic director Robert Kelley, while the second was for Julia Cho’s “The Language Archive.”

TheatreWorks recently was honored with the 2019 Regional Theatre Tony Award, accepted by Kelley and others.

Kelley, who has directed more than 175 TheatreWorks productions, plans to retire at the end of this season. Thus the ovation saluted him for all of his achievements as he came out for his usual pre-curtain speech.

In the play, George (Jomar Tagatac) is a linguist who has mastered many languages and who seeks to preserve languages that could go extinct.

Mary (Elena Wright) tells George (Jomar Tagatac) she's had it and is leaving. 
For all his linguistic skills, however, George can’t communicate his feelings, especially with his wife, Mary (Elena Wright), who leaves him.

In the meantime, George brings to his lab an elderly couple, Resten (Francis Jue) and Alta (Emily Kuroda), who apparently come from a remote Eurasian area.

Rather than speaking their native tongue for him, though, they bicker so much in English that soon they aren’t speaking to each other. They have some of the play’s funniest scenes.

George is assisted by Emma (Adrienne Kaori Walters), who has secretly loved him for a long time, but she won’t tell him because he’s married.

Various encounters for the three main characters have positive but ironic outcomes.

For example, George couldn’t tell Mary how he felt. However when Emma tells him she’s leaving, he tells her how important she is to him and his work and how he can’t get along without her. For her, that’s enough.

Mary (Elena Wright) meets a depressed old man (Francis Jue) at a train station.
Mary talks an old man (Jue) out of jumping in front of a rushing train, thus giving him the gift of life. He in turn gives her the gift of a livelihood.

Resten and Alta, faced with his imminent death, choose to return home but not before reconciling. They also tell George that they will become intertwining trees after they die. It’s a moving moment.

Director Jeffrey Lo skillfully guides the characters through their emotional journeys. His one misstep comes when Emma goes to a German woman (Kuroda) to learn Esperanto, an international language, to please George. As emphasis, the teacher often slams her pointer on a table, but this noisy gimmick soon becomes annoying.

Overall, though, the acting by all five cast members is outstanding, leading to an enjoyable, rewarding experience and earning the ovation.

Andrea Bechert’s monochromatic set facilitates scene changes, but squares that change color between scenes don’t add much.

More effective are Sinan Refik Zafar’s sound, Mike Palumbo’s lighting and Noah Marin’s costumes.

Running about two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission, “The Language Archive” will continue through Aug. 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 Alessandra Mello

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Brilliant work by all in Cal Shakes' 'The Good Person of Szechwan'

Francesca Fernandez McKenzie (center) as Shen Te disguises herself as her male cousin, Shui Ta, who gets tough with characters played by Margo Hall (left) and Lily Tung Crystal. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

The central character in German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 “The Good Person of Szechwan” faces an apparently unsolvable dilemma: After the gods reward her for her goodness, others take advantage of her, thus negating her good intentions.

California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Eric Ting helms his company’s production using Tony Kushner’s adaptation.

In it, the kind-hearted Shen Te (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) disguises herself as her tough-minded male cousin, Shui Ta, to ward off the spongers.

One of them is Yang Sun (Armando McClain), who’s about to hang himself because he doesn’t have the money to pay for a promised job as an air mail pilot in Peking.

She not only gives him some money but also falls in love with him. However, in her male guise, she learns that he was mainly interested in her for the money and the sex.

Under Ting’s direction, McKenzie is the undisputed star of this production, but everyone in the 12-member cast works as a true ensemble. Most actors assume several roles, both male and female, yet every character is clearly etched.

For example, Anthony Fusco, Victor Talmadge, Phil Wong and Margo Hall all show their versatility. Lance Gardner plays Shen Te’s friend Wang, the Water-Seller, who opens the show, leads the gods to her, delivers the epilogue and takes part in other scenes.

Adding immeasurably to enjoyment of this production is Brendan Aanes’ sound design, which often punctuates various lines and actions.

Ulises Alcala’s costumes are a mix of traditional and contemporary, while the set by Michael Locher and lighting by Jiyoun Chang also augment the action.

Some movements, especially by McKenzie’s Shui Ta, are stylized thanks to movement choreographer Natalie Greene.

At times one or more characters will break into songs written by music director Min Kahng.

All of this is part of the Brechtian aim of trying to distance the audience, of showing that this is merely a play.

Nevertheless, the acting and direction are so brilliant that it’s almost impossible not to be swept up by what’s unfolding on the stage.

Running about three hours with one intermission, “The Good Person of Szechwan” will continue through July 28 at the scenic Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way (off Hwy. 24), Orinda.

For tickets and information, call (510) 548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Didion's journey of grief portrayed in 'The Year of Magical Thinking'

Stacy Ross portrays Joan Didion. (Photo by David Allen)

Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,” presented by Aurora Theatre Company, deals with the writer’s profound grief after the deaths of her husband and their daughter within less than two years of each other.

Sensitively directed by Nancy Carlin, this one-woman play features Stacy Ross as Didion, who speaks in the first person.

Didion describes the day in late December 2003 when her husband and frequent collaborator, John Gregory Dunne, suffered a fatal heart attack while she was preparing dinner in their New York City home.

At the same time, their recently married adopted daughter, Quintana, was in a coma in a nearby hospital after suffering pneumonia that developed into septic shock.

She recovered enough to leave the hospital and speak at her father’s delayed funeral, but she suffered a brain injury in 2004 and died in 2005 of acute pancreatitis.

“Magical thinking,” as Didion interpreted it, meant that if she could maintain control and do things the right way, such as avoiding streets that she and John had driven, his death might be averted and he would return.

She gave away most of his clothes but kept his shoes, thinking he would need them when he came back.

She felt this self-delusional thinking would keep her from falling into the vortex of reality and perhaps going insane.

Over time, however, she began to come to grips with her grief and prepared to confront reality.

It’s a brilliant performance by Ross, who takes the audience through Didion’s difficult emotional journey.

To keep it from becoming merely a monologue, Carlin has Ross moving along the several playing levels on Kent Dorsey’s monochromatic set. Occasionally she goes upstage to sit and read something.

Kurt Landisman’s lighting is generally effective, but sometimes has Ross moving through a shadow on one side. The atmospheric sound by Cliff Caruthers is mostly unobtrusive. Ross’s simple costume is by Valera Coble.

Running about 90 minutes without intermission, “The Year of Magical Thinking” is entirely absorbing and fascinating.

It will continue through July 21 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. 

For tickets and information, call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Oregon Shakespeare Festival in full swing

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland is staging eight plays in its three theaters with three more opening later in the season.

The outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre is showcasing Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “All’s Well That Ends Well” along with ”Alice in Wonderland,” adapted from the popular children’s story.

If necessary, they will move to the nearby indoor Mountain Avenue Theater July 13-29 because of the possibility of wildfire smoke. 

“From July 30-Sept. 8, … OSF is only selling enough advance tickets to fill the Mountain Avenue venue, which may also be used for some added matinees, if needed,” according to the Seattle Times.

Last year unhealthful air quality from smoke caused the cancellation of more than 20 outdoor performances and a loss of nearly $2 million.

The indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre is offering Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” the musical “Hairspray” and Octavio Solis’s “Mother Road.” Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” begins July 4.

The smaller, indoor Thomas Theatre is featuring Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” and "Between Two Knees” by the 1491s. “La Comedia of Errors,” an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” begins June 29, followed by Christina Anderson’s “How to Catch Creation” on July 23.

This is artistic director Bill Rauch’s final season after 12 years. He will take a similar post with the Perelman Center in New York City. His successor, Nataki Garrett, will begin her duties in August. Rauch has already planned next season.

Over the years he has made a concerted effort to make OSF more inclusive.
This season reflects that commitment with not only the plays but also the company with its mix of racial, ethnic, gender identities and disabilities.

The season runs through Oct. 27. For complete information and tickets call (800) 219-8161 or visit www.osfashland.org. Note that some casting changes during the season.

Following are capsule reviews of the productions seen during a recent visit.

Daniel T. Parker (center) plays Edna Turnblad, mother of Tracy Turnblad (Katy Geraghty, second from right).
“Hairspray: The Broadway Musical” – This story of a Baltimore teenager who wants to dance on a popular TV show goes beyond a girl’s dream. The book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan also tells of her efforts to integrate the show when segregation is still rampant. Blacks were allowed only on “Negro Day.”

The heroine is Tracy Turnblad (Katy Geraghty), a short but plus-size girl who can dance up a storm. Her rival, who’s already on the show, is the snide Amber Von Tussle (Leanne A. Smith), daughter of its producer, Velma Von Tussle (Kate Mulligan).

Also in the mix are Link Larkin (Jonathan Luke Stevens), claimed by Amber and idolized by Tracy; Penny Pingleton (Jenna Bainbridge), Tracy’s best friend; and Seaweed J. Stubbs (Christian Bufford), the black youth who becomes Penny and Tracy’s friend.

Then there are Tracy’s loving, supportive parents: her mother, Edna (Daniel T. Parker in the traditional drag role), and her sweet father, Wilbur (David Kelly).

The music by Marc Shaiman, with lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, features mostly upbeat songs like “Good Morning Baltimore” and “You Can’t Stop the Beat.”

This winning production is directed by Christopher Liam Moore with music direction by Gregg Coffin and choreography by Jaclyn Miller.

Rosalind (Jessica Ko), disguised as a man, gets Orlando (Román Zaragoza), to pretend he's wooing Rosalind.
“As You Like It” – Directed by Rosa Joshi, this is another winning production featuring Jessica Ko as Rosalind, who disguises herself as a man when retreating to the Forest of Arden to escape the wrath of her uncle, the usurping Duke Frederick (Kevin Kenerly).

She’s joined by her cousin, Celia (Nancy Rodriguez). Also retreating to the Forest of Arden is Orlando de Boys (Román Zaragoza), who’s despised by his elder brother, Oliver (Shaun Taylor-Corbett).

Rosalind and Orlando had fallen in love at first sight at court. Therefore, in the forest, Rosalind, in her male guise, has Orlando pretend that she’s Rosalind and woo her.

As if the play itself doesn’t do enough gender-bending, the casting does too with transgender Rachel Crowl as Duke Senior, the banished duke in the forest and Rosalind’s mother. Will Wilhelm plays Aubrey (Audrey in the original), a nonbinary goatherd.

It’s all quite enchanting from start to finish.

Tony Sancho (left) is Martin Jodes while Mark Murphey is his dying relative, William Joad.
“Mother Road” –This noteworthy world premiere by Octavio Solis can be seen as a sequel to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”

It features Mark Murphey as the dying William Joad, cousin of the late Tom Joad. He’s searching for the family’s only other descendant to inherit his farm in Oklahoma.

He finds that descendant in California, but to his surprise, he’s a Mexican American, Martin Jodes (Tony Sancho).

On their drive back to Oklahoma, they pick up Martin’s friend Mo (Amy Lizardo), an upbeat lesbian who will be the farm’s forewoman; and James (Cedric Lamar), a black man.

Among their experiences, they encounter a motel clerk (Armando Durán), who at first refuses to accommodate them, citing the deportation of his people in the past. 

(According to the OSF publication “Illuminations,” between 500,000 and 2 million Mexicans, the majority of them U.S. citizens, were deported between 1929 and 1936 by President Herbert Hoover, who blamed them for the Great Depression.)

This production is brilliantly directed by Rauch and features an outstanding cast.

“Between Two Knees” – The premise of this world premiere by the five-member 1491s is commendable.

It recalls the slaughter of Lakota Indians by American troops at Wounded Knee, S.D., in 1890 and the American Indian Movement uprising there in 1973.

It features a mostly Native American cast as it follows a family through several generations.

However, its power is diluted because of its silly humor and a too-long opening monologue by Larry (Justin Gauthier). It would be more effective were it more straightforward.

It’s directed by Eric Ting, artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda.

“Alice in Wonderland” – Sara Bruner directs this adaptation by Eva Le Gallienne and Florida Friebus from Lewis Carroll’s story and his “Through the Looking-Glass.”

Perhaps the best thing about it is the whimsical costumes by Helen Q. Huang.

Otherwise, it’s a waste of acting talent as it speeds through a mostly confusing, chaotic story.

To its credit, however, youngsters seemed to enjoy it.

Photos by Jenny Graham