Wednesday, February 14, 2018

'Sweeney Todd' retains power at San Jose Stage

Noel Anthony as Sweeney Todd and Allison F. Rich as Mrs. Lovett (Photo by Dave Lepori)

Proof that Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” is the work of a genius lies with San Jose Stage Company’s production.

Winner of eight Tony Awards, this 1979 tale of a wronged barber’s revenge has seen on stages from Broadway to community theaters. Both the San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Symphony have presented it.

Although the show is traditionally set in Victorian London, this production appears to be in the late ‘20s or early ‘30s, judging by Abra Berman’s costumes. Director Kenneth Kelleher uses only 10 actors.

Although many productions have used a more expansive, two-level stage, scenic and lighting designer Michael Palumbo (sound by Steve Schoenbeck) compresses the action into the venue’s small, one-level space. It works because of his design and Kelleher’s ingenious staging.

While the book by Hugh Wheeler has intrinsic interest, Sondheim’s music and clever lyrics carry the show – provided they have actors who can handle them.

This production has them, starting with Noel Anthony as the haunted Sweeney Todd, who returns to London after being sent to an Australian prison by a crooked judge with designs on Sweeney’s wife.

He’s balanced by Allison F. Rich as Mrs. Lovett, who runs a shop making “The Worst Pies in London.” She becomes Sweeney’s accomplice and would-be sweetheart. It’s a mainly comical role illustrated in songs like “By the Sea.”

Sam Faustine takes on the vocally challenging role of Anthony Hope, the sailor who has befriended Sweeney. By coincidence, he sees Sweeney’s daughter, immediately falls in love with her and sings the show’s most beautiful song, “Johanna,” in a sweet, light tenor.

Johanna, the object of his affection, is played by Monique Hafen. Her voice becomes too shrill in her coloratura “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.”

Supporting roles are all excellent, starting with Keith Pinto as Tobias Ragg, the disabled boy who becomes Mrs. Lovett’s assistant when her pie shop starts to thrive, thanks to grisly contributions by Sweeney.

Christopher Vettel plays Judge Turpin, who has adopted Johanna. He’s impressive in the often omitted “Mea Culpa,” in which he flagellates himself over his lust for her.

His smarmy henchman, The Beadle, is played by Branden Noel Thomas, while the Beggar Woman is played by Jill Miller. Both do well.

Seated on the side are four musicians, including musical director Katie Coleman on keyboard.

Kelleher has made a few minor omissions, but none subtract from the power of this show.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Sweeney Todd” will continue through March 18 at San Jose Stage Company, 490 S. First St., San Jose. For tickets and information, call (408) 283-7142 or visit

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Relationship evolves over 5 decades in "Reel to Reel"

"Reel to Reel" features, from left, Will Marchetti as Walter 2, Andrew Pastides as Walter 1, Zoë Winters as Maggie 2 and Carla Spindt as Maggie 1. (Photo by Julie Haber)

Maintaining a relationship over many decades often depends on the little things.

That’s one theme of “Reel to Reel,” written and directed by John Kolvenbach and receiving its world premiere at Magic Theatre.

The relationship is between Maggie and Walter, who spend 55 years and three months together. They’re seen mainly when they meet at age 27 and start living together, again at age 42 when they get married, and yet again when they’re both 82 in 2050.

The 82-year-olds are portrayed by Carla Spindt as Maggie 2 and Will Marchetti as Walter 2. Their younger selves are played by Zoë Winters as Maggie 1 and Andrew Pastides as Walter 1.

Maggie has been fascinated by sound nearly all of her life and has recorded hours and hours of it. She painstakingly splices the results into slices of life that she uses in a performance. Walter apparently is a filmmaker, but perhaps not a serious one.

Walter 1 is a nerd who’s dismayed when the bold Maggie 1 marches into his apartment, his bed and his life on the night they first met at a party.

Walter 2 and Maggie 2 have mellowed into a comfortable existence in which each seems content with the other and their small moments.

The couple’s evolution is illustrated in scenes that switch in time, often overlapping.
In addition, the actors portray other characters, such as Walter 1’s friend Betty (Winters) and Maggie 1’s parents (Spindt and Marchetti). They provide an array of sound effects.

Although the actors deliver most of their lines from memory, they sometimes refer to scripts on music stands on either side of the stage. The impression is that this world premiere is in flux, as if last-minute changes are being made.

However, the use of scripts doesn’t distract from the intrinsic interest of the concept and of the action, which Kolvenbach orchestrates well for the most part. The one exception is Winters, who often seems too strident as Maggie 1.  

On the other hand, Pastides as Walter 1 and Spindt and Marchetti as the elder couple all do well. Longtime Bay Area theatergoers may recall that Spindt and Marchetti have often acted together, many times as couples.

Other production values complement the show with the set and projections by Erik Flatmo, costumes by Meg Neville and lighting by Wen-Ling Liao.

Running about 85 minutes with no intermission, “Reel to Reel” will continue through Feb. 25 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., Building D, San Francisco. For tickets and information, call (415) 441-8822 or visit

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Slum lord gets rich on backs of poor in 'Widowers' Houses'

Watched by Trench (Dan Hoyle), Blanche (Megan Trout) pours as Cokane (Michael Gene Sullivan) and Sartorius (Warren David Keith, right)) chat in Germany. (Photo by David Allen)
On the surface, the four main characters of George Bernard Shaw’s “Widowers’ Houses” seem like well- mannered members of the English gentry in the late 19th century.

Not all is as it seems, though, as is soon revealed in the production presented by Aurora Theatre Company.

Sartorius (Warren David Keith), a widower, and his adult daughter, Blanche (Megan Trout), meet William Cokane (Michael Gene Sullivan) and his young friend Dr. Harry Trench (Dan Hoyle) during a trip to Germany in August 1890. They get along so well that Sartorius invites Cokane and Trench to visit the next month. He doesn’t know that Blanche and Trench have become attracted to each other.

During the September visit, Trench tells Sartorius that he wants to marry Blanche. At Sartorius’s stipulation, Trench writes to his relatives to get their blessing.

A complication arises with the arrival of the raggedy Lickcheese (Howard Swain), who oversees Sartorius’s properties and collects the rent. It becomes clear that Sartorius is a slum lord. He fires Lickcheese for spending too much for safety-related repairs.

He says that the tenants will ruin them within a few days. Later he says, “When people are very poor, you cannot help them.”

When Trench discovers the source of Sartorius’s wealth, he tells Blanche that they must live only on his income of 700 pounds a year and not take any of her father’s money. He doesn’t tell her why. She breaks off with him. He then learns that his income is tainted, too.

Five months later, Lickcheese returns arrayed in fine clothing (costumes by Callie Floor). Trench and Cokane are there, too. Lickcheese has a shady business proposition for Sartorius, who’s in no position to refuse. Trench must decide whether to take part and whether to reconcile with Blanche.

As astutely directed by Joy Carlin, the five main characters are well defined. Sullivan’s Cokane is a peace-maker when decorum is broken. Keith’s Sartorius is a snob.

Trout’s Blanche comes across as pretty but bratty. However, Aurora artistic director Tom Ross cites program notes from the company’s 1997 of the play. They say that Blanche “displays both the selfish cruelty of the upper classes and the passions compressed, perverted and rendered monstrous by the pressures of her disguise as a Victorian Lady.”

As Trench, however, Hoyle’s grimaces become distracting. On the other hand, Swain is a comic delight as Lickcheese. Also adding some comic notes is Sarah Mitchell in minor roles as the waiter in Germany and Sartorius’s maid.

Carlin’s direction goes awry only when she allows an angry Blanche to attack the maid and throw her on the floor.

On the other hand, projected photos of destitute people in London’s slums (scenic and lighting design by Kent Dorsey) between Acts 2 and 3 help to show just how callous Sartorius was.

But such destitution isn’t limited to that time and place. After the play ends, projected photos show today’s homeless people looking wretched on downtown streets or living in shabby tent cities. Graphs illustrate the dramatic rise of apartment rents in the Bay Area.

Even though this is Shaw’s first play and lacks the polish of his later masterworks, it’s still worth seeing, especially in this production.

Running about two and a half hours with two short intermissions, “The Widowers’ Houses”   has been extended through March 4. For tickets and information, call (510) 843-4822 or visit

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Workers face uncertainty in 'Skeleton Crew'

Reggie (Lance Gardner, right) warns Dez (Christian Thompson) as Faye (Margo Hall) watches. (Photo by Kevin Berne)
As playwright Dominique Morisseau tells it in “Skeleton Crew,” uncertainty hangs over the lives of four black employees of Detroit’s last auto stamping plant in 2008.

Marin Theatre Company is presenting the Bay Area premiere of this Obie-winning drama as a co-production with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

All of the action takes place in the plant’s break room where the pregnant and unmarried Shanita (Tristan Cunningham), supervisor Reggie (Lance Gardner), union representative Faye (Margo Hall) and edgy Dez (Christian Thompson) have various conversations and confrontations.

Each has a concern. Shanita wants to be able to care for her child. Reggie wants to support his wife and children and pay his mortgage. He’s also torn between supporting the workers and appeasing management.

Faye, a 29-year worker, wants to reach the 30-year mark so that she can collect her full pension and keep her health benefits. Dez wants to open his own business.

Faye is often the voice of reason, but she’s forced to keep secrets. She and Reggie have ties that go way back and that are gradually revealed. Shanita plays by the rules and tries to fend off Dez’s flirting, but the chemistry develops. Dez appears to be dangerous and possibly devious.

The characters are sometimes difficult to understand. This is mainly true of Thompson as Dez, especially in his fast-talking initial scenes.

Director Jade King Carroll orchestrates the conversations and confrontations well. She’s aided in the effort by fine performances by Hall as Faye, Cunningham as Shanita and Gardner as Reggie. Thompson has a tougher task as Dez because the character isn’t always likable.

Since this is a co-production, Ed Haynes’ set was built in TheatreWorks’ scene shop on the Peninsula and trucked to Mill Valley, said TheatreWorks artistic director Robert Kelley, who was at opening night with others from his company.

The lighting is by Steve Mannshardt, costumes by Callie Floor, sound by Karin Graybash and projections by Mike Post.

Running about two hours with one intermission, “Skeleton Crew” will continue through Feb. 18 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. For tickets and information, call (415) 388-5208 or visit

The entire production, including set, costumes and cast, will move to the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, for TheatreWorks’ presentation running March 7-April 1. For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit