Tuesday, September 17, 2019

5 stars for PA Players’ ‘Bright Star’

Elizabeth Santana as Alice Murphy starts the show with "If You Knew My Story."

Palo Alto Players’ production of “Bright Star” gets off to an exhilarating start when managing director Elizabeth Santana, playing Alice Murphy, the principal female character, belts out “If You Knew My Story.”
That story is revealed over two acts that shift between the 1920s and the 1940s in North Carolina.
This musical was created by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell with both contributing the music and story, while Martin did the book and Brickell the lyrics.
In the 1920s, Alice is a spirited, smart, book-loving teenager whose fundamentalist father (Michael Mendelsohn) disapproves of her behavior and interests. Nor does he want her to go to college.
Alice (Elizabeth Santana) and Jimmy (Frankie Mulcahy) begin their relationship.
She falls in love with Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Frankie Mulcahy). Like her, he loves to read and wants to go to college, but his domineering father, Mayor Dobbs (Todd Wright), wants him to stay home and take over the family business.
When she becomes pregnant, she’s sent away to give birth to a son. Much to her dismay, he’s torn from her arms by his two grandfathers and sent off for adoption.
In the intervening years, she goes to college and becomes editor of The Asheville Southern Journal. She never stops hoping she’ll learn who adopted her son.
Gary Giurbino (left) is Daddy Cane, Brad Satterwhite is Billy Cane.
She also meets Billy Cane (Brad Satterwhite), an aspiring writer recently returned from the Army after serving during World War II. He submits manuscripts to the brittle Alice, who rejects them at first but offers tips.
There’s much more to the intriguing story, but suffice it to say that all works out well, thanks to its inherent optimism and changes of heart.
This production is sensitively directed by PAP artistic director Patrick Klein, who also designed the set.
He has assembled a dynamite cast. Besides those already mentioned, actors deserving special mention include Michelle Skinner as Margo Crawford, Billy’s friend and bookstore owner; Nick Kenrick and Samantha Arden as Alice’s employees; and Juliet Green as Alice’s supportive mother.
Overseen by music director Daniel Hughes, a bluegrass band sits on an onstage porch. Much of the music is bluegrass and country, well sung by all. (Helping to set the tone, a bluegrass group plays in front of the theater before the show.)
Meredith Joelle Charlson’s choreography is well executed by the principals and ensemble.
The period costumes are by Patricia Tyler with lighting by Chris Lundahl and sound by Jeff Grafton.
Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Bright Star” will continue through Sept. 29 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit www.paplayers.org.
Photos by Scott Lasky

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Rundown school faces closure in 'Exit Strategy' at Aurora

Margo Hall as Pam confronts Michael J. Asberry as Arnold in the teachers lunchroom.
In a scenario that’s becoming all too familiar in underfunded school districts across the county, a crumbling high school in a rundown Chicago neighborhood is slated for closure and demolition immediately after the last day of the current school year.

That’s the premise of Ike Holter’s “Exit Strategy,” presented by Aurora Theatre Company.

In this fictional school, the teachers must buy their own supplies. Its only administrator, so it seems, is the vice principal, Ricky (Adam Niemann). Only 30 years old, he’s in over his head when dealing with the teachers.

They include the older, more experienced Pam (Margo Hall) and Arnold (Michael J. Asberry,) who’s also the union rep.

Closer to Ricky in age are Jania (Gabriella Fanuele), Sadie (Sam Jackson) and Luce (Ed Gonzalez Moreno), Ricky’s boyfriend.

They all seem resigned to the school’s fate until a savvy black senior, Donnie (Tre’Vonne Bell), galvanizes them and other students into action designed to resist the closure.

Although the situation is realistic, several factors undermine its effectiveness.

First is the play itself, in which some characters, such as Donnie, are stereotyped. Then there’s the direction by Aurora’s new artistic director, Josh Costello. He allows too much yelling and hyperactivity.

Gabriella Fanuele is Jania and Adam Niemann is Ricky.
This is especially true of Niemann’s Ricky, whose performance is often so high-pitched, even hysterical, that there’s no room for subtlety or introspection.

That’s in sharp contrast to the far more grounded characterizations by Hall as Pam and Asberry as Arnold. 

The flexible set is by Kate Boyd, with lighting by Stephanie Anne Johnson, sound by James Ard and costumes by Maggie Whitaker.

Running about an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, “Exit Strategy” will continue through Sept. 29 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St, Berkeley.

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

Photos by David Allen

Monday, September 2, 2019

It's delightful, it's de-lovely, it's 'Anything Goes' at Hillbarn

Jessica Maxey as Erma and the four sailors dance in "Buddie, Beware."
Hillbarn Theatre is staging a rousing “Anything Goes,” the evergreen musical with songs by Cole Porter.

Director Lee Ann Payne outdoes herself by also choreographing the show’s often spectacular choreography ranging from tap to ballet.

What really brings down the house is the title song. It features Caitlin McGinty as Reno Sweeney, the role made famous by Ethel Merman, along with the entire company to end Act 1.

Caitlin McGinty as Reno Sweeney, with her Angels, wears the second of several costumes in "Blow, Gabriel, Blow."
With her assured stage presence, McGinty also is a principal beneficiary of Yichuan Sharon Peng’s costumes, especially in “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” when she appears in a series of outfits, each more spectacular than the last.

Other women in the show have several costumes changes, too, courtesy of Peng, who also does the hair and makeup.

In the new book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, the story is lots of fun. It’s mostly set on a luxury ocean liner heading from New York City to England in 1934.

Dan Demers' Elisha J. Whitney, with Barbara Heninger as Evangeline Harcourt, is a die-hard Yale fan.
Among the passengers is the blustery Elisha J. Whitney (Hillbarn artistic director Dan Demers), a Wall Street banker and inveterate fan of his alma mater, Yale University. Before leaving, he orders his assistant, Billy Crocker (Nathaniel Rothrock), who’s staying behind, to unload all of his shares of a company that’s about to tank.

But Billy has his mind on another passenger, Hope Harcourt (Melissa Momboisse), whom he loves.

But she’s engaged to an oblivious but well-meaning, rich Englishman, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Michael Rhone). Among his quirks is trying to understand American idioms, but he gets them wrong, saying, for example, “step in it,” instead of “step on it.”

Others on the voyage include gangster Moonface Martin (Christopher Reber), Public Enemy No. 13, along with his gal pal Erma (Jessica Maxey).

Reno is accompanied by her four Angels, who often are paired with four sailors.

Billy manages to stow away, but he’s mistaken for another gangster and spends much of his time evading detection via a series of disguises.

Of course everything turns out for the best with Hope paired with Billy, Evelyn with Reno, and Elisha with Hope’s mother, Evangeline Harcourt (Barbara Heninger).

In addition to the costumes and dancing, the show has some great songs, well sung by everyone accompanied by recorded music.

Those songs put the various characters in the spotlight, with Reno and Billy featured in “You’re the Top,” Reno and Moonface in “Friendship,” Hope and Billy in “Easy to Love” and several more.

The talented Maxey as Erma shines in “Buddie, Beware,” accompanied by the sailors.

Besides Payne, Peng and the entire cast, those responsible for the success of this show include music director Ben Belew, scenic designer Kuo-Hao Lo, lighting designer Pamila Z. Gray and sound designer Brandie Larkin.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Anything Goes” will continue through Sept. 15 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

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

TheatreWorks stages hilarious 'The 39 Steps'

Cassidy Brown (left) and Ron Campbell play a Scottish innkeeper and his wife as Annie Abrams as Pamela and Lance Gardner as Richard Hannay sign in for a room.

What starts as a bored man’s night at the theater turns into a murder followed by a frantic chase that leads him from London to Scotland in 1935.

Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, this is the crux of the madcap “The 39 Steps,” Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation of a John Buchan novel and an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

In this version, four actors play dozens of characters, but only Lance Gardner as Richard Hannay, the theater-goer, plays just one role. Annie Abrams plays three of the principal women.

It’s up to Cassidy Brown and Ron Campbell to portray an array of other people of both sexes.

Cassidy Brown (left) and Ron Campbell are vaudeville players in the show seen by Richard.
While at the theater, Richard is joined by a mysterious woman, Annabella Schmidt (Abrams), who says she’s being chased by two men who want to kill her. At her request, she goes home with Richard but winds up with a knife in her back.

Before dying, though, she tells him that an enemy spy ring led by a man in Scotland is planning to steal state secrets, the 39 Steps, that could endanger England.

Suspected of killing her, Richard flees, pursued by a succession of bumbling cops. Once in Scotland, he meets Professor Jordan (Campbell), the sinister ringleader. It’s time to run again, this time handcuffed to Pamela (Abrams).

Eventually all is resolved and the repository of the 39 Steps discovered.

Although the plot itself is interesting, even more entertaining are the quick changes by Campbell and Brown, sometimes just by donning a different hat.

Another fun part of this play is the subtle references to other Hitchcock films, such as “Rear Window,” “Psycho,” “The Birds” and others. There’s also a trademark of Hitchcock films, a quick appearance by the director himself, this time in profile.

In her program notes, director Martinson says that the actors are portraying four members of a traveling theatrical troupe who arrive at the theater only to find that no one else is there, and the stage hasn’t been set up, but 500 people are in the audience to see the show.

They gamely go on, using whatever costumes, props and set pieces are handy.
While they’re supposedly improvising, these versatile actors actually are performing a tightly choreographed work that requires precision timing, stamina and physical flexibility.

The first act sometimes veers into slapstick, but the second works better, leading to a hilarious farce.

The actors’ performance also requires the designers’ careful work: Cathleen Edwards for costumes, David Lee Cuthbert for the set, Steven B. Mannshardt for lighting and Cliff Caruthers for sound.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “The 39 Steps” will continue through Sept. 15 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.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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