Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Hilarity reigns in 'The Man Who Came to Dinner'

Mr. and Mrs. Stanley (Todd L. Summers and Jennifer Ellington) complain to their rude, wheelchair-using guest, Sheridan Whiteside. (Photo by Joyce Goldschmid)

Sheridan Whiteside is “The Man Who Came to Dinner” and stayed and stayed, causing major disruptions and leading to laughs galore.

Palo Alto Players is staging a humorous production of this nutty 1939 comedy by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.

It’s set in the small town of Mesalia, Ohio, shortly before Christmas in the late ’30s. Sheridan (James Shelby) was to attend a dinner party at the home of Mr. and Mrs. 
Ernest Stanley (Todd L. Summers and Jennifer Ellington). Just as he was going in, however, he slipped on some ice and broke his hip.

Consequently, he’s confined to a wheelchair in the Stanley home, which he has taken over. He constantly insults his hosts as well as his doctor (Tim Farrell) and nurse (Roneet Aliza Rahamim).

Only some household help, his stream of guests and his longtime secretary, Maggie Cutler (Kristen Lo), escape his vicious tongue.

When Maggie falls in love with a local newspaper reporter, Bert Jefferson (Paul Dunlap), and seems likely to leave her boss, he tries to thwart the romance. He summons his friend and notorious vamp, Lorraine Sheldon (Athena Rink), to town to woo Bert away from Maggie.

Whiteside is reportedly based on Alexander Woollcott, a famous theater critic who had his own radio show. In the play, Whiteside is on a first-name basis with Hollywood and Broadway stars as well as world leaders.

Directed by PAP artistic director Patrick Klein, the large cast includes several actors connected to Palo Alto schools, mainly Gunn High, where Shelby is the theater director and teacher.

The acting is uneven, but several performances stand out, including Shelby’s as Whiteside and Lo’s as Maggie. 
Also noteworthy are Brian Flegel as actor Beverly Carolton and Chris Mahle as Banjo, another actor friend. Banjo, who seems based on a Marx brother, has a hilarious scene in which he pretends to fight off an attack by Lorraine’s fur stole.

Complementing the production are the set by Nikolaj Sorensen, lighting by Isaiah Leeper, costumes by Mary Cravens and sound by Danielle Kisner.

Running about two hours and 45 minutes with two intermissions, “The Man Who Came to Dinner’’ will continue through July 1 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit www.paplayers.org.

Monday, June 18, 2018

ACT premieres 'A Walk on the Moon'

Guests at the Catskills bungalow colony watch as Neil Armstrong walks on the moon. 

American Conservatory Theater is encapsulating a major turning point in U.S. history with its world premiere of “A Walk on the Moon.”

This musical is set during the summer of 1969. That’s when man first walked on the moon, Woodstock signaled a cultural sea change, Vietnam War resistance was intensifying and feminism was rising.

All of these events affect a 30-something Jewish woman and her family as they spend the summer with other families at a bungalow colony in New York’s Catskill Mountains.

On weekends, Pearl (Katie Brayben); her rebellious teenage daughter, Alison (Brigid O’Brien); her 8-year-old son, Danny (Elijah Cooper); her mother-in-law, Lillian (Kerry O’Malley); and the other women are joined by their menfolk, including Pearl’s husband, Marty, (Jonah Platt), a TV repairman.

Pearl (Katie Brayben) meets Walker (Zak Resnick), the Blouse Man.
Pearl’s world turns upside-down when she meets the handsome Blouse Man, Walker (Zak Resnick), a hippie who’s one of the traveling vendors who visit the colony with their wares.

The attraction between him and Pearl is almost immediate, leading to an affair.

Ross (Nick Sacks) plays and sings for Alison (Brigid O'Brien).
In the meantime, Alison meets the sweet, guitar-playing Ross (Nick Sacks) and soon has her first boyfriend.

Separately, the two couples sneak off to the concerts at Woodstock, precipitating a family crisis.

The book for this musical is by Pamela Gray, who also wrote the book for a film of the same name.

The music and lyrics by Paul Scott Goodman, with additional lyrics by Gray, capture the ’60s rock sound. For example, “World Without Men,” sung by Pearl, Lillian and three other wives, evokes girl groups. “Hey Mr. President,” sung by Ross, brings to mind folk music by the likes of Bob Dylan.

Besides the psychedelic experience at Woodstock, a central event is the moon walk by Neil Armstrong on July 21, 1969. Like others around the world, everyone at the colony celebrates while glued to the communal TV set.

Scenic designer Donyale Werle has captured the ambiance of the woodsy setting. She’s aided by Tal Yarden’s projections of news footage as well as a changing sky.

Costumes by Linda Cho, lighting by Robert Wierzel, sound by Leon Rothenberg and choreography by Josh Prince are effective.

The production is skillfully directed by Sheryl Kaller, who elicits outstanding performances from the entire cast. The singing is outstanding, too, aided by music director Greg Kenna and vocal designer Annmarie Milazzo.

Although some may find the show schmaltzy, it’s still thoroughly enjoyable. And its creators undoubtedly will tweak it before it goes to other stages.

Running and two and a half hours with one intermission, “A Walk on the Moon” will continue through July 1 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco.

For tickets and information, call (415) 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Photos by Alessandra Mello






Thursday, June 14, 2018

Oregon Shakespeare Festival playing on three stages

Rich girl (Pilar) Esperanza America, left and poor girl Victoria (Ella Saldana North) meet, unaware of the family secret they share in "Destiny of Desire" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. (Photo by Jenny Graham)
After opening four plays in February, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is in full swing with a total of 10 plays slated through late October in three theaters.

Running in the indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre are “Destiny of Desire,” “Othello,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Oklahoma!” “Snow in Midsummer” by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig begins Aug. 2.

Also indoors in the Thomas Theatre are “Henry V” and “Manahatta.” “The Way the Mountain Moved” by Idris Goodwin begins July 10.

The outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre features two by Shakespeare – “Romeo and Juliet” and “Love’s Labor’s Lost’’ – along with “The Book of Will” by Lauren Gunderson.

No matter which shows patrons choose, they can depend on several givens.

One is outstanding design elements, including sets and costumes. Another is a deep, versatile acting corps of longtime favorites and talented newcomers who can play one type of character in one play and an entirely different type in another.

Also good to know is that the shows start right on time, unlike many other theaters.

The theaters are near restaurants, shops and beautiful Lithia Park. Ample lodging choices are available.

For detailed schedule and ticket information, www.osfashland.org or call (800) 219-8161.

Here’s a rundown of six plays, starting with the four in the Bowmer:

“DESTINY OF DESIRE” – Playwright Karen Zacarías was inspired by the telenovela form so popular in Latin America with an added dash of Shakespearean elements.

One such element propels the action when two girls are switched at birth. A sickly one, born to rich parents, is exchanged with the healthy one born to poor parents without their knowledge.

Eighteen years later, the girls’ fates are entwined as numerous revelations show they’re more closely related than initially indicated.

Directed by José Luis Valenzuela, the all-Latin American cast is uniformly excellent, but two standouts are Vilma Silva as the unscrupulous rich mother and Catherine Castellanos as a nun who’s a nurse at the hospital.

Romance, villainy and plot twists are enhanced by singing and dancing. This is one of the best shows seen during a recent visit, but it closes July 12.

Laurey (Royer Bockus, left) delights in the imaginary surrey guided by Curly (Tatiana Wechsler, in white shirt) and created by Will Parker (Jordan Barbour, checked shirt, left), Ado Andy (Jonathan Luke Stevens, checked shirt, right) and the company of "Oklahoma!" (Photo by Jenny Graham)
“OKLAHOMA!” – OSF artistic director Bill Rauch directs this classic musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, but gives it a new twist: same-sex couples.

Thus Laurey and Curly are played by two women, Royer Bockus and Tatiana Wechsler, respectively, while Ado Annie, here called Ado Andy (Jonathan Luke Stevens) is paired with Jordan Barbour as Will Parker.

Some other casting is gender-fluid, but it all works because of the performers’ energy and talent.

Thus they do ample justice to the show’s memorable songs, such as “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “People Will Say We’re in Love,” the title song and many more.

Despite the unconventional casting, the show has been a hit and is worth seeing.

“SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” – Kate Hamill bases this play on the Jane Austen novel.

Left with limited means after their father’s death, the three Dashwood sisters and their mother move into a cottage owned by a relative.

Efforts to find husbands for the two older daughters, Elinor (Nancy Rodriguez) and Marianne (Emily Ota), run into obstacles, but eventually they’re happily paired.

Although most of the actors are suitably restrained, director Hana S. Sharif allows some to go over the top. The chief offender is the usually reliable K.T. Vogt as mother-in-law to another relative.

Nevertheless, Jane Austen fans will find much to like.

 “OTHELLO” – Although Othello, the Moor, is the title character, this Shakespeare play could more aptly be called “Iago” after the villain who plots Othello’s downfall.

In this production, also directed by Rauch, Danforth Comins is a masterful, manipulative Iago. He leads Othello (Chris Butler) into believing that his wife, 
Desdemona (Alejandra Escalante), is unfaithful and killing her. His machinations lead to other deaths, too.

While Comins’ Iago depends on artifice and subtlety, Butler’s Othello too often lapses into bluster and rage, reaching emotional peaks too soon.

Tribal leader (Steven Flores, second from left) and Mother (Sheila Tousey) think they're signing an agreement for their tribe to trade with the Dutch indefinitely, but Jakob (Danforth Comins, left) and Peter Minuit (Jeffrey King) have other intentions. (Photo by Jenny Graham)
“MANAHATTA” – Perhaps the most fascinating play of the six seen is this world premiere by Mary Kathryn Nagle in the Thomas Theatre.

Director Laurie Woolery and seven actors seamlessly switch the action from Native American land called Manahatta in the 17th century to today’s Manhattan and a small Oklahoma town.

The play shows how Dutch West India Company traders defrauded the Indians of their land. It compares them with investment bankers who foreclosed on homeowners with risky mortgages, causing the economic collapse in 2008.

The mortgage crisis becomes personal for Jane (Tanis Parenteau), an Indian woman working for an investment company in Manhattan. Her mother in Oklahoma has defaulted on her mortgage after the payments became too high. Urged by a church official, she had taken it out without understanding its terms.

“HENRY V’ – Several actors from last year’s “Henry IV” appear here. Chief among them is Daniel José Molina, who played Prince Hal last year and now plays the recently crowned king of England.

Shedding his wayward ways, he has become a strong leader who confronts traitors while leading his troops into battle against the French.

Molina generally does well with the challenging role. He’s ably backed by 11 actors who play multiple roles.

However, director Rosa Joshi overdoes some of the battle scenes and inexplicably has the actors opening the play by rotating the central set piece of stacked boxes.






Wednesday, June 13, 2018

'Finks' relates scary period of Red Scare

Donna Vivino is Natalie and Jim Stanek is Mickey in "Finks." (Photo by Kevin Berne)

“Finks,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, is set in the early 1950s during the Red Scare, one of the more shameful periods in American history.

Playwright Joe Gilford writes from a personal perspective because his parents were caught up in it. He fictionalizes their experience as theatrical people who faced blacklisting – that is, no chance to work in the industry – if they didn’t reveal the names of others supposedly affiliated with the Communist Party. They might face imprisonment for contempt of Congress.

The House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, would call people to testify. If they didn’t cooperate, their careers would be ruined. If they did cooperate, their colleagues called them finks and shunned them.

In the play, Gilford calls his father Mickey Dobbs (Jim Stanek), a comic actor who reluctantly joined an activist theatrical group led by actor Natalie Meltzer (Donna Vivino), to whom he was attracted and later married.

The story is related in events involving them, their friends and the HUAC hearings chaired by Rep. Francis Walter (Robert Sicular). Walter’s name isn’t changed, nor is that of other characters such as Lee J. Cobb, Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg.

Besides Mickey and Natalie, the main characters include artist Fred Lang (Gabriel Marin) and choreographer Bobby Gerard (Leo Ash Evens). Some actors play several roles.

Directed by Giovanna Sardelli, the play is well acted, but the script is episodic. Thus it feels jerky, especially in the first act. The second act is stronger because it focuses on the agonizing choice between career and betrayal of friends.

Design elements are effective with Andrea Bechert’s set, Cathleen Edwards’ costumes, Steven B. Mannshardt’s lighting and Jake Rodriguez’s sound. Choreography is by Dottie Lester-White.

Running slightly more than two hours with one intermission, “Finks” will continue through July 1 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.





Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Broadway By the Bay rocks away with 'Million Dollar Quartet'


From left: Nick Kenrick, Tarif Pappu, Michael Perrie Jr., Sammi Hildebrandt and Sam C. Jones.
 (Photo by Mark Kitaoka & Tracy Martin)
Rock ‘n’ roll history was made Dec. 4, 1956, in Memphis, Tenn., when four legends got together for a one-night-only jam session.

“Million Dollar Quartet,” presented by Broadway By the Bay, tells how Carl Perkins (Tarif Pappu), Johnny Cash (Michael Perrie Jr.), Jerry Lee Lewis (Nick Kenrick) and Elvis Presley (Sam C. Jones) belted out one hit after another.

Sam Phillips (Rich Matli), founder of Sun Records, was hoping to have them under contract to keep them away from rival Columbia Records.

The plot by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux is fairly thin, but it’s secondary to the music.

In a mere 95 minutes without intermission, the audience is treated to such hits as “Blue Suede Shoes,” written by Perkins but appropriated by Presley; “Memories Are Made of This,” “Down by the Riverside,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Hound Dog” and “See You Later Alligator.”

Although all four singers are terrific, Perrie stands out as Cash in “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Sixteen Tons,” “I Walk the Line” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”

Reprising his role from the Palo Alto Players production in September (as do Pappu as Perkins and Daniel Murguia on bass), Kenrick as Lewis is a terrific, athletic pianist. He showcases his skills in “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”

Sammi Hildebrandt as Dyanne, Elvis’ girlfriend, adds heat with “Fever” and “I Hear You Knocking.”

While Kenrick plays piano, the other three men play some mean guitar. They’re backed by Lane Sanders on drums and Murguia on bass.

Audience members who remember these hits will probably be tempted to sing or hum along. The younger set will undoubtedly be enthralled by the songs’ sheer energy and power. All will likely tap their toes to the infectious rhythms.

Director and music director Alicia Jeffrey keeps everything moving smoothly. She’s aided by Kelly James Tighe’s set, Aaron Spivey’s lighting, Karina Chavarin’s costumes and Jon Hayward’s sound.

“Million Dollar Quartet” will continue through June 24 at the Fox Theater, 2215 Broadway St., Redwood City.

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


Friday, June 1, 2018

Center Rep stages fun-filled 'Freaky Friday'

Olivia Jane Mell as daughter Ellie (left) and Lynda DiVito as mom Katherine have the battle that switches their bodies.

Upsets and insights ensue when a teenager and her mom inadvertently switch bodies in “Freaky Friday.”

Center Repertory Company is presenting the 2016 musical iteration of the story by Mary Rodgers and Disney Films. The result is lots of fun thanks to an outstanding production featuring a topnotch cast.

In this version (unlike the films), the widowed mom, Katherine Blake (Lynda DiVito), is a caterer who’s going to cater her own wedding the next day. It’s no surprise that she’s uptight. Her daughter, Ellie (Olivia Jane Mell), isn’t helping much.

When a prized hourglass splits in a tugging match between them, they suddenly find themselves occupying each other’s bodies but looking like their original selves.

Hence it’s left to Ellie to take Katherine’s place and try to keep things running at home. Katherine must go to Ellie’s high school and confront her friends, rivals and teachers.

Lots of laughs follow. One of the funniest moments comes when Katherine, acting like her daughter, tries to read her young son, Fletcher (Tyler Patrick Hennessy), a bedtime story but must hold the book far away because she’s farsighted.

The hourglass has a twin, but Katherine sold it to an antique store that has closed. Therefore, as Ellie, she persuades her friends to go on a treasure hunt to find it in Chicago and undo the spell.

Although it’s a fairy tale, the updated book by Bridget Carpenter has some serious aspects to go with all the amusement. Mainly they stem from the lessons that mother and daughter learn and that improve their relationship.

The music by Tom Kitt, with lyrics by Brian Yorkey, is upbeat and fun. It’s enhanced by excellent singing plus the small pit orchestra led by musical director Daniel Feyer from the keyboard.

Also noteworthy is the well-executed choreography by Jennifer Perry.

Tyler Patrick Hennessy (left) is Fletcher and Dave J. Abrams is Adam.

Director Jeff Collister has assembled an energetic, likeable cast. Besides the two principals and the remarkably poised young Hennessy as Fletcher, some of the more notable main characters are Katherine’s fiancé, Mike Riley (Noel Anthony); and Ellie’s boyfriend, Adam (Dave J. Abrams).

Several ensemble members play multiple roles. An audience favorite is Katrina Lauren McGraw, especially as Ellie’s demanding gym teacher, but everyone else is worthy of applause, too.

Production elements complement the show, especially the colorful costumes by Victoria Livingston-Hall. The attractive, flexible set is by Kelly James Tighe with lighting by Kurt Landisman and sound by Jeff Mockus.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, family-friendly “Freaky Friday” will continue through June 30 at 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 Kevin Berne)




Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Dragon Theatre stages 'Three Days of Rain'

Walker (Tasi Alabastro, left) confronts Pip (Robert Sean Campbell) and Nan (Katie O'Bryon Champlin). (Scott Ragle photo)

“Three Days of Rain” gets its title from a cryptic entry in the journal of a deceased architect.

Presented by Dragon Theatre, Richard Greenberg’s drama starts with three people and the discovery of the journal. It then journeys back 35 years to reveal its origin.

In Act 1, siblings Walker (Tasi Alabastro) and Nan (Katie O’Bryon Champlin) meet in the now-rundown apartment that their late father had shared with his business partner. 
Joining them is the late partner’s son, Pip (Robert Sean Campbell).

Walker has just shown up after disappearing for 11 months, much to Nan’s chagrin. Now they’re planning to hear the reading of their father’s will.

Walker, who discovered the journal, assumes they’ll inherit their father’s wealth as well as the famed house that he and his partner designed for their grandparents. Walker wants Nan to give or sell him her share of the house.

Thus it comes as a huge surprise when their father leaves the house to Pip.

In Act 2, the same actors appear as their respective parents. Alabastro is Ned, the siblings’ father; Champlin is Lina, their mother; and Campbell is Theo, Pip’s father and Ned’s partner.

The “three days of rain’’ allusion in the journal proves to be pivotal in personal and professional relationships.

This production is the last directed by Dragon founder Meredith Hagedorn, who has decided to step down from her post as artistic director. It’s a tough challenge that she and the cast don’t always meet.

For one thing, the characters aren’t particularly likable most of the time, and they’re often in conflict.

Alabastro’s Walker is too hyper in Act 1, but he’s more successful as the shy, stuttering Ned in Act 2. Campbell’s Pip and Theo both become too angry too quickly. Champlin does well as both Nan and Lina.

Act 2 shows the accuracy and inaccuracy of assumptions in Act 1. It also reveals inherited character traits. This is especially true of Lina’s instability, which no doubt accounts for Walker’s erratic behavior.

Thus the play has its appeal because of the way it resolves personal and professional mysteries.

The apartment set, seen in both acts, is by Nathanael Card, who also did the lighting. Period costumes are by Jess McGovern with sound by Jonathan Covey.

Running about two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission, “Three Days of Rain” will continue through June 17 at Dragon Theatre, 2120 Broadway St., Redwood City.

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