Sunday, July 23, 2017

Foothill Music Theatre works magic with 'Shrek The Musical'

Shrek (Andrew Ross) confronts Lord Farquaad in "Shrek The Musical" (Photo by David Allen)

Foothill Music Theatre’s production of “Shrek The Musical” has a lot to like.
In this fanciful tale, based on the 2001 DreamWorks animated film, the ogre is the good guy, a donkey talks, a dragon sings, a princess finds true love, and fairy tale characters unite against their oppressor.
FMT delivers the goods with imaginative costumes by Julie Engelbrecht, lively choreography by Riette Burdick (with a tap number by Deb Leamy) and solid musical accompaniment by music director-keyboardist Rick Reynolds and 12 other instrumentalists.
In this story from a book by William Steig, Shrek the ogre (Andrew Ross) finds his comfortable solitude interrupted by fairy tale characters. They have been banished from Duloc, their homeland, by the evil, height-challenged Lord Farquaad (Joey McDaniel).
To get rid of them, Shrek agrees to confront Farquaad. As he travels toward Duloc, he’s joined by the garrulous Donkey (Nick Kenrick).
When they get to Duloc, Farquaad promises to deed Shrek’s swamp homeland to him if Shrek rescues Princess Fiona (Jocelyn Pickett), whom Farquaad wants to marry so that he can become king.
However, she’s imprisoned in a tower guarded by Dragon and molten lava.
Here’s where some theatrical magic appears. Dragon is a long puppet maneuvered from beneath by four people and sweetly voiced by Jennifer Martinelli.
Though she’s in the pit, it sounds as if she’s actually inside the puppet, thanks to Andrew Heller’s sound design. Dragon’s threat is erased when she and Donkey become chummy.
After that, Fiona is rescued. She and Shrek are attracted to each other, but a misunderstanding brings her perilously close to a big mistake until Donkey discovers and reveals her secret. Happy ending.
Among the principals the standouts are Ross as the low-key, likeable Shrek; McDaniel as the hilarious, strutting Farquaad; and Pickett as the complicated Princess Fiona.
On the other hand, director Milissa Carey allows Kenrick’s Donkey to be too annoying and animated and some of the fairy tale characters too shrill. There’s also a juvenile scene involving prolonged belches and flatulence.
Back on the plus side, Carey does a good job of helping all in the large cast to embody their characters. Also among the pluses are David Lindsay-Abaire’s book and lyrics along with Jeanine Tesori’s ear-pleasing music, augmented by Neil Diamond’s familiar “I’m a Believer” at the end.
The flexible set is by Lynn Grant with lighting by Michael Ramsaur.
Running just over two and a half hours with an intermission, “Shrek The Musical” offers a mix of pluses and minuses, but most of the opening night audience, which had many young people, seemed to enjoy it.
And as Carey notes in the program, the show “is a story of being different, learning to be proud of you as you are … (and) a celebration of our diversity.”
It will continue through Aug. 6 in the Smithwick Theatre at Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills. For tickets and information, call (650) 949-7360 or visit


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

TheatreWorks has a winner with 'The Four Immigrants'

 Frank (Phil Wong), Henry (James Seol), Charlie (Hansel Tan) and Fred (Sean Fenton) arrive in San Francisco . (Photo by Kevin Berne)
    “The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga” is making a good impression in its world premiere presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.
    Created by Min Kahng, who wrote the book, music and lyrics, it tells the story of four young men who emigrated from Japan to San Francisco in 1904 with big dreams. TheatreWorks artistic director Robert Kelley calls it a companion piece to “Rags,” the musical about Jewish immigrants in New York at about the same time.
   Kahng says he was inspired to write the musical after finding a copy of “The Four Immigrants Manga,” a comic book by Japanese-born artist Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama, who studied in San Francisco. Manga is a Japanese cartoon style from the late 19th century.
    The four immigrants in the musical are Charlie (Hansel Tan), a perennial optimist; Fred (Sean Fenton), who wants to be a farmer; Frank (Phil Wong), who’s not too bright but who wants to own a shoe store; and Henry (James Seol), an artist presumably based on the comic book’s creator.
    All other characters in this all-Asian, multi-talented cast are played by four women: Rinabeth Apostol, Kerry K. Carnahan, Catherine Gloria and Lindsay Hirata.
    The show covers two decades with such events as the 1906 earthquake and fire, the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition and World War I.
    Along the way, the men experience surprises, success and disappointment. The biggest obstacle they face is prejudice and discriminatory laws such as a 1913 measure that didn’t allow Asians to own property and another that barred them from citizenship.
    In 1924, the year that the musical ends, the federal Immigration Act barred entry by people from a wide range of Middle Eastern and Asiatic countries. It was even more far-reaching than current attempts to keep out people from six mostly Muslim countries.
    However, the show focuses less on politics than on the men’s stories, told through tuneful music in a variety of styles, such as vaudeville and ragtime.
    Well-executed, terrific choreography by Dottie Lester-White greatly adds to the show’s pleasure.
It’s also enhanced by Noah Marin’s costumes, Andrew Boyce’s fluid sets, Steven B. Mannshardt’s lighting and Jeff Mockus’ sound.
    Opening night on July 15 was delayed 15 minutes because of computer glitches, affecting some of the projections created by Katherine Freer. Their absence wasn’t apparent, and the show moved smoothly.
    The show is well directed by Leslie Martinson, the company’s associate artistic director and casting director. Orchestrator and musical director William Liberatore conducts the five-member orchestra from the piano.
    Running more than two hours with one intermission, “The Four Immigrants” is a rewarding, winning theatrical creation that no doubt will find its way to other stages throughout the country.
     It will continue through Aug. 6 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit

Monday, July 10, 2017

Cal Shakes stages 'Glass Menagerie'

Amanda (Karen Aldridge) and Jim (Rafael Jordan) raise a toast as Laura (Phoebe Fico) sits by. (Photo by Kevin Berne)
California Shakespeare Theater is staging its first Tennessee Williams play, his quasi-autobiographical “The Glass Menagerie.”

The action takes place in a St. Louis tenement apartment during the Depression. Amanda Wingfield (Karen Aldridge) lives with her adult children, Tom (Sean San José) and Laura (Phoebe Fico). Her husband, their father, abandoned them long ago, leaving only a picture of himself and some old phonograph records.

In this memory play, the characters are decent yet flawed.

The complex Amanda chatters on about being a Southern belle with gentlemen callers. She thinks that if Laura had some gentlemen callers, all would be well. This wish has no grounding in reality.

On the other hand, she’s deeply concerned about her children and their welfare, especially given their financial straits.

Tom is the family’s sole support, working at a warehouse job he hates. He wants to leave, but he stays out of a sense of responsibility for his mother and sister.
Painfully shy and disabled, Laura plays those old records on a Victrola and cherishes her miniature glass animals – hence the play’s title.

The play’s big event is the arrival of a gentleman caller, Jim (Rafael Jordan), who works with Tom.

Amanda is all aflutter, hoping he could be the one for Laura.

At first Laura is dismayed, but she blossoms during a conversation with the affable Jim, on whom she had a crush in high school, only to be terribly disappointed.

As directed by Lisa Portes, the acting is a mixed bag. She makes San José’s Tom  too manic, especially during his opening monologue. He paces around the stage, and later, as he moves scenery, he runs. It’s overdone.

On the other hand, Aldridge’s Amanda is almost always on the mark as she repeats her stories and badgers her children. She can be over the top when she’s upset, but for good reason.

Fico, making her professional acting debut, is well cast as Laura. She uses crutches and delivers her lines as if it were hard to express herself, as is true of Laura.

Jordan is likable as Jim, the gentleman caller. He can be a braggart, but he’s unfailingly polite and sincerely interested in Laura as a person.

The set is by Annie Smart with lighting by Xavier Pierce, costumes by Raquel Barreto and sound by Brendan Aanes.

This production runs about two hours without the usual intermission, sending some people to the restrooms.

“The Glass Menagerie” will continue through July 30 at Cal Shakes’ outdoor Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way (off Hwy. 24), Orinda. For tickets and information, call (510) 548-9666 or visit