Saturday, December 9, 2017

Set's the best thing about 'Santaland Diaries'

Max Tachis as an elf in David Sedaris's "The Santaland Diaries." (Kevin Berne photo)
Filing into the theater, the audience sees a delicious set that holds great promise for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of “The Santaland Diaries.”

Designer Christopher Fitzer’s confection is a virtual throne of candy canes and gingerbread beneath a sign declaring “Welcome to Santaland.” Behind it is an array of Christmas trees with little white lights.

It’s all quite inviting. In fact, a sign in the lobby says that because of new union rules regarding copyrights, audience members may take photos before and after the show, and quite a few did at the opening. No photography or recording is allowed during the show.

This one-man show, written by David Sedaris and adapted by Joe Mantello, details his experiences as a 33-year-old would-be actor who becomes a cynical Santa’s elf at Macy’s in New York City in the early ‘90s. TheatreWorks promotes it for mature audiences because it’s definitely not kiddie fare.

It features Max Tachis, whose takes the elf name Crumpet. Before being hired, however, he undergoes a lengthy interview process, even urine testing. Once he passes that hurdle, he goes through extensive training.

Finally, he dons his costume and joins the army of elves at stations along the way to Santaland and the bearded man in red himself.

Each day there are new trials and tribulations, many of them involving not the kids but their pushy parents. Each day is more exhausting than the one before.

At one point, Tachis expertly manipulates a handheld puppet (designed by Mark Stys) to tell his story.

All of this could be quite amusing. Indeed, many in the opening night audience found many places to laugh.

On the other hand, it seems that, under the direction of Jeffrey Lo, Tachis is trying too hard for laughs as he paces the stage. It also seems odd that his character is constantly swigging some kind of alcohol without explaining or showing its effects.

The show comes closest to the holiday spirit near the end when the Santa on duty Christmas Eve makes every child and parent feel attractive and special. However, that warm feeling is quickly dissipated by Crumpet’s encounter with a crabby supervisor.

Completing the design team are Jill C. Bowers for costumes, Mia Kumamoto for lighting and Howard Ho for sound.

This production marks TheatreWorks’ first foray to Foothill College’s Lohman Theatre, a comfortable venue for a one-man show.

Running about 75 minutes with no intermission, “The Santaland Diaries” will continue through Dec. 23 at the college, 12345 S. El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills. For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.





Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Family ties triumph in 'Watch on the Rhine'

Caitlin O'Connell (top) is Fanny, Sarah Agnew is Sara Muller and Elijah Alexander is her husband, Kurt. (Photo by Kevin Berne)


Lillian Hellman finished writing “Watch on the Rhine” in early 1941, shortly after Germany had invaded Poland and shortly before the United States entered World War II.

It’s rarely produced, but it’s come to Berkeley Repertory Theatre as what Managing Director Susan Medak calls “utterly of its time even as it has something meaningful to say about our current moment in time.”

The action is set late May 1940 in the home of Fanny Farrelly (Caitlin O’Connell), a wealthy widow who lives near Washington, D.C., and her middle-aged son, David (Hugh Kennedy), an attorney.

She’s nervously awaiting the arrival of her daughter, Sara Muller (Sarah Agnew), whom she hasn’t seen during the 20 years that she has lived in Germany with her German husband, Kurt (Elijah Alexander). Nor has Fanny seen their three children.

She has two Romanian houseguests, the impoverished Count Teck De Brancovis (Jonathan Walker) and his American wife, Marthe (Kate Guentzel) a friend of the Farrellys. Marthe has never loved him, but she has fallen in love with David.

Kurt is an anti-fascist activist, while Teck is a German conspirator. Clashes are inevitable. In the end, family ties prevail.

In this co-production with the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis, director Lisa Peterson carefully orchestrates the action as the characters undergo transformations. Perhaps the most dramatic change occurs with Fanny. She starts sarcastic and autocratic but becomes empathic and loyal to family despite the risks.

The impressive living room set is by Neil Patel with lighting by Alexander V. Nichols and period costumes by Raquel Barreto. The sound and music are by Paul James Prendergast. Aaron Preusse is the fight director.

While the play is absorbing in its own right, it’s far more than a period piece. As Artistic Director Tony Taccone says in his program notes, it “is a testament to (Hellman’s) nuanced grasp of psychology and her understanding of American politics.”

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission and a short pause, “Watch on the Rhine” will continue through Jan. 14 in Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. For tickets and information, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.


Monday, December 4, 2017

TheatreWorks takes great trip 'Around the World in 80 Days'



Parsi (Michael Gene Sullivan, center) and his elephant give a lift to (from left) Phileas Fogg (Jason Kuykendall), Passepartout (Tristan Cunningham), and Sir Francis (Ron Campbell). (Photo by Kevin Berne)
Versatile acting is on full display in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of “Around the World in 80 Days.”

Directed by Robert Kelley, four of the cast’s five actors play an array of characters of varied ages, sexes and nationalities as Phileas Fogg (Jason Kuykendall) undertakes his epic journey in 1872.

In Mark Brown’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s’ novel, the journey starts with a bet at Fogg’s club in London. Newly opened links make the 80-day feasible, figures the cool, math-minded Fogg. He’s joined by his French valet, Passepartout (Tristan Cunningham).

They’re shadowed by Detective Fix (Michael Gene Sullivan), who believes that the free-spending Fogg is the notorious gentleman bank robber. In India, Fogg and Passepartout rescue a woman, Aouda (Ajna Jai), from execution by fire. She then joins them.

Beset by travails, they travel by boat, train, elephant and even sail-driven snow sledge (but not the hot air balloon seen in the film) on their way to a happy ending for all concerned.

Cunningham, Sullivan and Jai play many other characters, but the most roles go to Ron Campbell, a master of accents and quick changes.

These changes by him and his colleagues are aided by B. Modern’s attractive, often ingenious costumes. Campbell has the one drawing the biggest laughs when, portraying an official welcoming the travelers to Liverpool, England, he resembles John Lennon from the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album cover.

Adding to the fun are the inventive sets (the elephant is a work of whimsy in itself) by Joe Ragey, complemented by Steven B. Mannshardt’s lighting and Cliff Caruthers’ sound.

Although the overall acting is impressive, one drawback is that some accents are hard to understand. Projection could be better at times, too.

Otherwise, this is a great way to get into the holiday spirit.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “Around the World in 80 Days”  will continue through Dec. 31 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.


'Annie' retains power to charm

Annemarie Martin as Miss Hannigan sings "Little Girls." (Mark and Tracy Photography)
Whether it’s your first or your umpteenth go-round, Hillbarn Theatre’s production of “Annie” is sure to please.

The kids are cute, the adults dynamic and the dogs adorable.

Based on the long running “Little Orphan Annie” cartoon and adapted by Thomas Meehan, “Annie” is the story of 11-year-old Annie (Emily Mannion), whose parents left her at a New York City orphanage in 1922 when she was an infant.

Overseeing the orphanage is the child-hating, tippling Miss Hannigan (Annemarie Martin).

By chance, billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Ric Iverson) decides he wants an orphan to stay in his mansion for two weeks over Christmas. He’s all bluster at first, but Annie softens him and wins his heart.

From the plaintive “Maybe” to the upbeat “Tomorrow,” the music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Martin Charnin are memorable.

Some favorites includes “It’s a Hard-knock Life,” performed by the orphan girls as they scrub the floor; “Little Girls,” in which Miss Hannigan expresses her hate for the kids; “Easy Street,” sung by Miss Hannigan, her ne’er-do-well brother, Rooster (David Blackburn), and his floozy girlfriend, Lily St. Regis (Sarah Thermond) and “N.Y.C.,” sung by Warbucks, Annie and Grace Farrell (Sarah Armstrong), his secretary.

The latter song features the newly arrived Star-to-Be (Catherine Rieflin). Some trivia: Martin played that role in a 1999 production in San Jose, and Iverson was in the ensemble.

Directed by Virginia Musante, the large cast includes a versatile ensemble of adults who play such varied roles as Warbucks’ staff and the residents of a Hooverville, the Depression equivalent of a homeless encampment.

Some of them also play members of President Franklin Roosevelt’s (Gary Pugh-Newman) Cabinet.

Performances by all of the principals are outstanding, with special accolades to the poise of young Mannion as Annie and the comic timing of Martin as Miss Hannigan.

Opening night had a few technical glitches, but none were serious. However, there were times when music director Matthew Jon Mattei’s orchestra overpowered the actors, especially during dialogue.

Costumes, hair and makeup are by choreographer Gennine Harrington with lighting by Don Coluzzi. The set and sound design are uncredited in the program.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Annie” is enjoyable holiday entertainment from start to finish for all but the very young.

It will continue at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City, through Dec. 17. For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org. 




Thursday, November 30, 2017

Stage benefits with 'Shakespeare in Love'



Adam Magill is Shakespeare and Megan Trout is his beloved Viola. (Photo by Kevin Berne)
Imagine history’s greatest playwright with writer’s block. How does he surmount it? Through love, of course.

That’s the premise of “Shakespeare in Love,” the movie-turned-play now at Marin Theatre Company.

As the play opens in London in 1593, Will Shakespeare (Adam Magill) is trying to write a pirate-themed play called “Romeo and Ethel.” He also has financial troubles, as do some theater owners.

Thanks to his friend and fellow playwright Christopher “Kit” Marlowe (Kenny Toll), Ethel becomes Juliet and the pirates disappear. Also helping in the process is a stage-struck noblewoman, Viola de Lesseps (Megan Trout), who disguises herself as a young man so that she can audition for the role of Romeo.

She takes that tack because women weren’t allowed on stage in Elizabethan England. Instead boys played women’s roles.

Will is quite taken with the young man and eventually discovers the ruse. They fall in love, and circumstances lead to her playing Juliet rather than Romeo.

However, there are complications. First, Viola’s father orders her to marry Wessex (Thomas Gorrebeeck), whom she doesn’t love. Second, Will is already married to Anne Hathaway in Stratford.Lee Hall’s adaptation of the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard calls for dozens of characters. MTC director Jasson Minadakis whittles his cast down to 13 actors plus one scene-stealing dog.

Hence, most of the actors play multiple roles, and most of them are Bay Area favorites. 
Chief among them is Stacy Ross, who is seen as Viola’s supportive nurse and Queen Elizabeth I, among others. Everyone else is noteworthy, too.

One interesting aspect of this production is that all of the actors sing and play musical instruments, adding to the enjoyment. Jennifer Reason is music director. There’s also dancing to choreography by Liz Tenuto. Snippets from other Shakespeare plays are 
fun, too.

The simple set is by Kat Conley with lighting by Kurt Landisman, sound by Sara Huddleston and period costumes by Katherine Nowacki.

At opening night on Nov. 28, the first act hadn’t quite come together, but the second act was much more cohesive, especially in the “Romeo and Juliet” scenes.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “Shakespeare in Love” will continue through Dec. 17 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. For tickets and information, call (415) 388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Emotions run high in 'Fool for Love' in San Jose



Allison F. Rich as May confronts Rob August as Eddie while Joshua Marx as Martin checks outside and Randall King as The Old Man watches. (Photo by Dave Lepori)

Obsession, jealousy and family secrets all figure into the tumultuous relationship in Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love,” presented by San Jose Stage Company.

It’s set in a seedy motel on the edge of the Mojave Desert where May (Allison F. Rich) is trying to start a new life. However, there’s a complication when her former lover, the dirty and dangerous Eddie (Rob August), has found her and wants to take her back to Wyoming to live in his trailer on a ranch.

May is torn, angrily ordering Eddie to leave, then beseeching him to stay when he starts to go. Fueled by tequila, their confrontations are sometimes erotic, sometimes violent.

She’s jealous of his relationship with another woman, whom she calls the Countess (not seen), while he can’t stand the idea that she has a date that night with a local man, Martin (Joshua Marx).

Observing it all from the sidelines while he does his own drinking is The Old Man (Randall King). He’s embedded in both May’s and Eddie’s imaginations as he sometimes talks to them and relates stories about them.

Their true story comes to light when Eddie relates it to Martin while May is out of the room.

Directed by Kenneth Kelleher, this production lacks some of the emotional power seen in Magic Theatre’s revival of the play earlier this year. The play had premiered in 1983 at the San Francisco company while Shepard was its playwright in residence.

The problem here is that August gives a somewhat one-dimensional, mostly domineering performance as Eddie, and both he and Rich as May shout too much in the first scene.

Otherwise, both King as the grizzled Old Man and Marx as the decent but naïve Martin serve the play well.

The set and lighting are by Michael Palumbo with costumes by Ashley Garlick and sound by Steve Shoenbeck.

Running about an hour with no intermission, “Fool for Love” moves at a good clip without losing the plot’s thread.

It will continue at San Jose Stage Company, 490 S. First St., San Jose, through Dec. 17. For tickets and information, call (408) 283-7142 or visit www.thestage.org.



Thursday, November 16, 2017

'Beautiful' parades Carole King hits

James Clow as Don with  Jacob Heimer as Barry, Sarah Bockel as Carole and Sarah Goeke as Cynthia. (Matthew Murphy)

“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” focuses on the early life and career of the popular singer-songwriter.
It began at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco in 2013 and opened on Broadway in 2014, followed by a national tour in 2015. It has landed in San Jose, where it’s playing to enthusiastic audiences.
King is best remembered for not only the songs she wrote and sang herself but for those she wrote for others.
The show opens in Brooklyn in 1958, when Carole (Sarah Bockel) was 16 and sold her first song, “It Might As Well Rain Until September,” to Don Kirshner (James Clow), who became her publisher and mentor for many years until she moved to Los Angeles.
Much of the book by Douglas McGrath focuses on her relationship with Gerry Goffin (Matt Faucher), who became her lyricist and husband. Their marriage broke up because of his infidelity and mental instability.
Also featured are another songwriting pair, Cynthia Weil (Aashley Morgan in most performances), and Barry Mann (Jacob Heimer), who became good friends with Carole and Gerry. 
With 25 songs, the show is a parade of ’60s and ’70s hits by King and Goffin and by Weil and Mann.
The ensemble dances to "Loco-Motion." (Matthew Murphy)
Just a few include “Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof,” “The Loco-motion,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” “It’s Too Late,” “You’ve Got a Friend,” “Natural Woman” and “Beautiful.”
They’re performed by the creators as well as the Drifters, the Shirelles the Righteous Brothers and others. All are in fine voice, and most are precisely choreographed by Josh Prince.
Directed by Marc Bruni, the show features outstanding performances by everyone. Besides the principals, another bright spot is Carole’s mother, Genie Klein, played with great comic timing by Suzanne Grodner.
Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” is a musical and visual feast.

It continues at San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 S. Almaden Blvd., San Jose, for an all-too-short run that ends Nov. 19. For tickets and information, call (800) 982-2787 or visit www.ticketmaster.com

Monday, November 13, 2017

Boxer in "The Royale' breaks race barrier, but at what cost?

Atim Udoffia as Nina warns Calvin M. Thompson as her brother, Jay Jackson. (Photo by David Allen)
Early in the 20th century, a black boxer became the heavyweight champion by defeating a white man.

Presented by Aurora Theatre Company, “The Royale” is based on that black boxer, Jack Johnson. Here, though, playwright Marco Ramirez names him Jay Jackson (Calvin M. Thompson).

The action begins with Jay fighting a boxer named Fish (Satchel André). They’re not hitting each other, though. They don’t even face each other.

Instead, their moves are co-choreographed by director Darryl V. Jones and boxing coach Joe Orrach. Three people seated upstage stamp their feet and slap their knees to replicate the fight’s rhythms.

Those people are Jay’s trainer, Wynton (Donald E. Lacy Jr.); his sister, Nina, (Atim Udoffia); and his white manager, Max (Tim Kniffin).

Although Fish loses, Jay is so impressed that he asks him to become his sparring partner.

After touring the country, winning fight after fight and bragging about his abilities, Jay wants to take on the recently retired champ. While the champ returns to form, their bout is highly touted, creating a national buzz.

On the eve of the fight, Jay is confident, even cocky, until Nina shows up. She describes some of the abuses that blacks, even his young nephews, have already suffered at the hands of whites because of him.

She warns that if he wins, violence will erupt in that Jim Crow era. Thus he’s torn between his desire to win and his fears about the aftermath if he does.

Although the first scene seems prolonged, the rest of the play moves right along. 

Director Jones has elicited layered performances by all five actors.

In one mesmerizing scene, Wynton, the trainer, describes fighting five other blacks when everyone was blindfolded. The last one standing picked up the coins tossed by white spectators in the venue called the Royale, hence the play’s title.

The simple set is by Richard Olmsted with lighting by Kurt Landisman, sound by James Ard and costumes by Courtney Flores.

Running a taut 90 minutes with no intermission, “The Royale” will continue through Dec. 3 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. For tickets and information, call (510) 843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.




Wednesday, November 8, 2017

'It Can't Happen Here' is eerily timely

Doremus Jessup  (Vic Prosak) talks with his friend Lorinda (Carla Befera). (Photo by David Allen)


As if the current political climate weren’t worrisome enough for many people, Foothill Theatre Arts presents “It Can’t Happen Here.”

It chronicles the rise of a populist presidential candidate who promises better times, wins the office and then oversees the country’s rapid demise into fascism and cruel repression.

Sinclair Lewis wrote his prescient novel in 1935 when rabble-rousing Huey Long was running for president (he was assassinated before being nominated) against Franklin Roosevelt and Hitler’s Nazi regime was rising in Europe.

Tony Taccone, artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and Bennett S. Cohen created their new version early last year, and it premiered at Berkeley Rep later that year.

Thomas Times plays Buzz Windrip, the charismatic candidate. His stump speech sounds like a revival meeting. Times is black, thus negating racial aspects, but it’s unlikely that a black man would win the presidency in the 1930s. However, Times does such a good job that it’s easy to suspend disbelief.

As Windrip gains traction, Doremus Jessup (Vic Prosak), a liberal newspaper editor in a small Vermont town, abhors what he’s doing but tries to understand his appeal. Jessup’s strongest supporter is Lorinda (Carla Befera), an innkeeper who’s also his girlfriend, even though he’s married.

The plot focuses on Jessup as his situation grows worse and worse.

Skillfully directed by Bruce McLeod, the large cast is a mix of students and community members, the latter led by Prosak and Befera, who provide solid grounding to the action.

Some other noteworthy performers are Alexis Standridge as Sissy, Jessup’s loyal daughter; and Seton Chiang, who does double duty as Bishop Prang, the evangelical churchman who endorses Windrip, and as Effingham Swan, the menacing militiaman who grills Jessup after his capture.

Design elements enhance the production with sets and projections by Lynn Grant, lighting by Dan Wadleigh, costumes by Chiara Cola and sound by Max Stanylov.

Running about two hours with one intermission, this scary play nevertheless ends on an updated, hopeful note with the actors on their smartphones texting this message: “Make America human again.” It’s worth seeing.

“It Can’t Happen Here” continues through Nov. 19 in the Lohman Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills. For tickets and information, call (650) 949-7360 or visit www.foothill.edu/theatre/.


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Fly away with Palo Alto Players' 'Peter Pan'


Peter (Corrie Farbstein, left) tells Wendy (Brittney Mignano) about Neverland. (Photo by Joyce Goldschmid)
Palo Alto Players is staging the perennially popular “Peter Pan,” the enchanting story of an orphan boy who can fly but who doesn’t want to grow up. 

In J.M. Barrie’s play, turned into a musical by lyricist Carolyn Leigh and composer Morris Charlap, Peter (Corrie Farbstein) lives in Neverland. He and his effervescent fairy sidekick, Tinker Bell, visit the Darling children in London to retrieve his shadow.

He convinces the oldest, Wendy (Brittney Mignano), to fly with him to Neverland. They’re joined by her brothers, John (Amay Goel) and Michael (Billy Hutton). They really do fly. (Flying effects are by ZFX Inc.)

In Neverland they meet the Lost Boys and experience hair-raising adventures, most of them initiated by Peter’s nemesis, Captain Hook (John Bisceglie), and his band of pirates. Also playing a prominent role are the Warriors, led by Tiger Lily (Catrina Contini).

Directed and choreographed by Janie Scott, the show is full of wonders and imagination. For example, Neverland, not the usual tropical island, is what PAP artistic director Patrick Klein and set designer calls “an alternative, Neo-Victorian world of spare parts and steam-powered ingenuity.”

The show also is filled with fine performances, led by Farbstein as Peter, who sings, dances and acts well.  Also notable is the diminutive Mignano, an adult who’s convincing as Wendy.

Scott’s choreography also is imaginative, especially in “Ugh-A-Wugg,” performed by Peter, the Darlings, the Lost Boys, Tiger Lily and the Warriors.

There’s much for kids to like, especially Nana (Eddie Standifer III), the Darling children’s nurse; and the crocodile that swallowed an alarm clock.

Music director is Lauren Bevilacqua, but the orchestral accompaniment is recorded. 

Costumes are by April Bonasera with lighting by Carolyn A. Foot.

Incidentally, Farbstein is the sister of Amanda Farbstein, who has the female lead in Broadway By the Bay’s “Singin’ in the Rain.” Their parents, Michael and Candy, were BBB mainstays for many years.

Running about two and a half hours with an intermission, “Peter Pan” will continue through Nov. 19 at Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit www.paplayers.org.






Monday, November 6, 2017

Broadway By the Bay is 'Singin' in the Rain'

The company ends the show with the title song, "Singin' in the Rain." (Photo by Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin)
“Singin’ in the Rain,” one of the great movie musicals, was adapted for the stage in 1985 and is being presented by Broadway By the Bay.

The story by Betty Comden and Adolph Green is set in Hollywood just as silent movies are being nudged out by the talkies, starting with Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer.”

Two stars of the silents are Don Lockwood (Ryan Blanning) and Lina Lamont (Jen Brooks). They’re linked romantically by fan magazines and by Lina, but not Don, who’s vastly smarter than she.

When their studio decides to turn their next film into a musical, there’s one big problem: Lina has a screechy voice and can’t sing a note. Unbeknownst to her, it’s decided that Don’s new romantic interest, Kathy Selden (Amanda Farbstein), will dub Lina’s voice and lines.

When Lina discovers the ruse, she raises a huge stink, but of course the entire truth comes out, and there’s the inevitable happy ending.

Director Alex Perez has assembled a mostly stellar cast of actor-singer-dancers led by Farbstein as Kathy and Randy O’Hara as Don’s sidekick, Cosmo. Their talents and those of the ensemble shine in number after number inventively choreographed by Robyn Tribuzi.

Of course there’s the memorable finale to Act 1 when Don ignores a downpour to sing the title song and swing on a lamp post, just as Gene Kelly did in the 1952 film. Blanning displays his dance talents here and elsewhere, but he has such a wide vibrato that he often strays from pitch.

Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed have become classics with the likes of the title song as well as “You Stepped Out of a Dream,” “You Were Meant for Me” and others. Musical director Joe Murphy and his orchestra accompany them.

An interesting aspect of this production is the subtle effort to link early advances in film technology with Silicon Valley. Therefore, some of Don and Lina’s scenes were filmed in a Beaux Arts mansion in Atherton that’s the former home of Leon Douglass.

In his program notes, director Perez says, that Douglass was “a pioneer of sound and an innovator in the early days of motion pictures.” He and Thomas Edison co-invented the Gramophone and Victrola. He also helped to advance colorization.

Kudos to costume designer Leandra Watson and set designer Kelly James Tighe. Lighting is by Michael Ramsaur and sound by Jon Hayward.

Overall, it’s an enjoyable production that runs about two and a half hours with one intermission.

It continues through Nov. 19 at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway St., Redwood City. For tickets and information, call (650) FOX-7770 or visit www.broadwaybythebay.org.



Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Choreography, imaginative staging highlight 'Prince of Egypt'

After becoming pharaoh, Jason Gotay's Ramses confronts Diluckshan Jeyaratnam's Moses. (Kevin Berne photo)
“The Prince of Egypt,” the popular DreamWorks Animation musical film, has come to life thanks to a collaboration between TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and Denmark’s Fredericia Teater.

This world premiere features additional songs by Stephen Schwartz of “Wicked,” “Godspell” and “Rags” fame and is directed by his son, Scott Schwartz.

It tells the epic biblical story of Moses and the Hebrews’ escape from Egypt as related mostly in the book of Exodus.

This version focuses on events leading up to the flight, especially the more human story of the complex relationship between Moses (Diluckshan Jeyaratnam) and his adoptive brother, Ramses (Jason Gotay), who became Egypt’s pharaoh.

As young men, they’re carefree hell-raisers, but the passage of time gives them new insights and responsibility.

With the death of his father, Pharaoh Seti (the regal Tom Nelis), Ramses becomes pharaoh. In the meantime, Moses meets his real brother and sister, Aaron (David Crane) and Miriam (Julia Motyka), learns he’s Hebrew and marries Tzipporah (Brennyn Lark).

Ramses, too, is married to Nefertari (Jamila Sabares-Klemm), mainly for political reasons.

Moses is torn between loyalty to his adoptive family and the pull of his Hebrew roots, especially since the Hebrews are longtime slaves to the Egyptians.

Director Schwartz employs imaginative staging on Kevin Depinet’s spare set with its movable sandstone blocks and Shawn Sagady’s projections. Also figuring into the staging is Sean Cheesman’s creative choreography, a strength of this production.

Musical director William Liberatore conducts eight other musicians from the keyboard.

Many of the 28 performers are in the ensemble, playing various ethnic groups, dancing and forming scenic elements.

The cast is solid, especially the featured women. However, Jeyaratnam doesn’t have the stage presence needed for Moses.

Although this musical springs from an animated film popular with youngsters, its mature themes aren’t suitable for them.

It’s also quasi-operatic, with much of Philip LaZebnik’s book propelled by Stephen Schwartz’s music and lyrics, requiring better diction than heard from some of the singers.

Two of the more memorable songs are the introductory “Deliver Us,” sung by the ensemble and others, and “When You Believe,” sung by Miriam, Tzipporah and the Hebrews.

At two and a half hours with one intermission, the show is still a work in progress that sags in spots. Presumably that issue will be resolved over time and through subsequent productions in Denmark next year and elsewhere.

“The Prince of Egypt” will continue through Nov. 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.




Saturday, October 14, 2017

Ghost of dead rabbit haunts characters in Berkeley Rep premiere

First date doesn't work for Naomi (Marilee Talkington) and Clovis (Michael Goorjian). (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Disparate themes of grief, alcoholism, recovery and the importance of stories intertwine seamlessly in “Imaginary Comforts, or the Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit” by Daniel Handler of Lemony Snicket fame.

Receiving its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, this comedy-drama starts with mistaken assumptions between two people who meet on an online dating site.
Naomi (Marilee Talkington), a rabbi, agrees to have coffee with Clovis (Michael Goorjian), because he checked Jewish as his religion. However, he meant to check none, which was the box next to Jewish.

For his part, he was intrigued because he thought she had said she was a rabbit, not a rabbi. They don’t expect to meet again.

Naomi is hired to officiate at the funeral of a stranger, Dr. Marcus Gold (Julian López-Morillas), an addiction therapist seen in flashbacks.

His wife, Mrs. Gold (Sharon Lockwood), is grief-stricken. His adult daughter, Sarah (Susan Lynskey), is skeptical as the hapless Naomi tries unsuccessfully to learn enough about Dr. Gold to deliver the eulogy. Sarah is recently married to Michael (Cassidy Brown).

Naomi similarly has no luck learning about Dr. Gold from his best friend and bookkeeper, Jack (Jarion Monroe). The funeral is a fiasco.

As for the ghost of the dead rabbit, it’s part of a bedtime story that Dr. Gold used to tell Sarah.

It also shows up in a playlet that Clovis, a recovering alcoholic, is developing with the help of the character called Ghost (the always irrepressible Danny Scheie). Various relationships develop.

The cast is uniformly fine, but the talents of Lockwood as Mrs. Gold and Brown as Michael are wasted because their characters aren’t developed. Mrs. Gold merely sobs with virtually no lines.

The same holds true for Michael, Sarah’s husband. He does little more than stand around although he does have one telling, nearly silent scene.

Director Tony Taccone keeps the action flowing smoothly with help from the turntable in Todd Rosenthal’s set. It’s complemented by Nick Solyom’s lighting and Jake Rodriguez’s sound. The character-specific costumes are by Meg Neville.

Though the show needs fine-tuning, it’s entertaining and absorbing.


Running about 90 minutes with no intermission, “Imaginary Comforts, or the Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit” will continue through Nov. 19 in Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Hillbarn stages laugh-filled 'Foreigner'

Charlie (Damien Seperi, left) gets an English lesson from Ellard (Ross Neuenfeldt). (Mark and Tracy Photography) 
Wrapped inside the laughter of Larry Shue’s “The Foreigner” at Hillbarn Theatre is an unsettling reminder of the bigotry that’s come to the fore recently.

But it doesn’t come until the second act. Before that, we see an English Army demolitions expert, Sgt. “Froggy” LeSueur (Gary Gerber), who is in Georgia to train U.S. troops.

Taking some time off, he visits a longtime friend, Betty Meeks (Laurie Strawn), who owns an old but comfy hunting lodge. With him is his friend Charlie Baker (Damien Seperi), who has been under stress.

Froggy thinks Charlie would benefit from the change of scene, but Charlie is so painfully shy that he dreads having to converse with others at the lodge.

Therefore, before returning to his post, Froggy tells Betty that Charlie is a foreigner who speaks no English. The upshot is that Charlie overhears intimate conversations between people who assume he doesn’t understand them.

Others at the lodge are the Rev. Dave Marshall Lee (Matt Waters); Catherine Simms (Lauren Rhodes), his soon-to-be wealthy fiancée; and Ellard Simms (Ross Neuenfeldt), her not-too-bright brother.

Everyone except Dave is fascinated by Charlie. Ellard takes it upon himself to teach Charlie English (with a rural Georgia drawl) in a hilarious scene at breakfast.

The obvious villain is Owen Musser (Robert Fairless), the loutish redneck property inspector who threatens to condemn the lodge. Behind that threat is a plan for Dave and Catherine to buy it at a reduced price and convert it to a Christian facility. Unknown to Catherine, though, Owen and Dave have a more sinister motive.

That motive becomes clear in the second act when Owen and his Ku Klux Klan buddies arrive to threaten the lodge’s occupants. They spew hateful words about non-white or foreign people and espouse the goal of a white Christian America. Thanks mainly to Charlie and Ellard, though, the dastards are repelled.

Along the way, Charlie overcomes his shyness and decides to stay, becoming a part of a friendly circle with Betty, Catherine and Ellard, who also undergo positive changes.

Because of the Klan angle, several theater companies around the country have canceled plans to produce this work. Hillbarn opted otherwise.

“In light of recent events around our nation, we believe our role as art makers is to not be silent or complicit,” Hillbarn artistic director Dan Demers said in his program notes. “It is hugely important that we celebrate not only our similarities but also our differences.”

This production is directed by Brian Herndon, who carefully balances the comedy and drama. He’s working with an excellent group of actors, all of whom seem perfectly suited to their roles.

Design elements enhance the production, especially the rustic but cozy looking set by Gary Keith Wong with lighting by John Bernard, sound by John DiLoreto and costumes, hair and makeup by Valerie Nishiguchi Bradshaw.

In short, everything adds up to a most enjoyable production.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “The Foreigner” will continue through Oct. 22 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City. For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.