Thursday, January 31, 2019

Hilarity, intrigue in 'Communicating Doors'

Charles Shaw Robinson as Reece tries to get Sharon Rietkerk as Poopay to witness his confession.

A woman trying to hide in what she believes to be a storage closet suddenly finds herself back in the same room 20 years earlier.

That’s one of the many surprises in Alan Ayckbourn’s “Communicating Doors,” presented by Center Repertory Company.

The woman, Phoebe, who goes by Poopay (Sharon Rietkerk), has been summoned to a London hotel suite occupied by the wealthy Reece (Charles Shaw Robinson) in 2023. A leather-clad dominatrix, she calls herself a specialist sexual consultant.

The doddering, dying Reece doesn’t want her professional services. Instead he wants her to sign as a witness to his handwritten confession of his misdeeds over the years.

Among them are that he was responsible for his two wives’ deaths at the hands of the villainous Julian (Robert Sicular), his business partner and friend.

Threatened by Julian, she hides in the closet, and the time travels begin. When she emerges 20 years earlier in 2003, she meets Ruella (Julie Eccles), Reece’s second wife.

Julie Eccles appears as Ruella.
Although naturally skeptical, Ruella begins to see validity in Phoebe’s warning that her life is in danger.

They decide Phoebe must go back yet another 20 years to warn Reece’s first wife, Jessica (Brittany Danielle), who’s honeymooning with him in the same suite in 1983.

Hilarity and intrigue ensue as the three scheme to alter their situations.

Compounding the humor is the hotel’s well-meaning but none too bright security man, Harold (Mark Anderson Phillips).

Artistic director Michael Butler guides his multi-talented cast through this combination of mystery, sci-fi and farce. Each actor has impeccable comic timing.

Perhaps this production is a time warp for Butler, too. He played Harold to his wife-to-be Timothy Near’s Ruella at the now defunct San Jose Repertory Theatre in 1999.

The tastefully elegant set is by Richard Olmsted with lighting by Kurt Landisman, costumes by Maggie Moran and sound by Cliff Caruthers.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Communicating Doors” will continue through Feb. 23 at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek.

For tickets and information, call (925) 943-7469 or visit

Photos by Kevin Berne

Monday, January 28, 2019

Bloody good fun in Hillbarn's 'Sweeney Todd'

Heather Orth is Mrs. Lovett and Keith Pinto is Sweeney Todd.

Hillbarn Theatre has successfully and enjoyably met the challenges of Stephen Sondheim’s bloody good classic, “Sweeney Todd.”

Subtitled “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” Hugh Wheeler’s book tells the tale of a wrongly convicted man who escapes from an Australian penal colony and returns to London to find his wife. When he hears how she was treated by a lascivious judge, who then adopted their daughter, he vows revenge.

Sondheim’s soaring music and his often clever lyrics aren’t easy to master, but Hillbarn has done so thanks to a topnotch cast of singer-actors.

They’re led by Keith Pinto as the haunted Sweeney. He’s aided by his comic foil, Heather Orth as Mrs. Lovett. She’s his former landlady and the maker of “The Worst Pies in London.”

She gives him the razors he had left behind so that he can ply his trade as a barber in the room above her pie shop.

Because the foppish, fraudulent Pirelli (Jesse Cortez) has recognized him from his past and wants to blackmail him, Sweeney slits his throat. Mrs. Lovett resourcefully decides what to do with the body when she notes that it’s hard to get meat.

This leads to one of the funniest, cleverest songs in the show, “A Little Priest,” sung by Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett as they gleefully ponder the possibilities that various professions provide her pies.

Jaron Vesely is Anthony Hope and Jennifer Mitchell is Johanna.
Two other major characters are Anthony Hope (Jaron Vesely), the sailor who befriended Sweeney on the voyage to London; and Johanna (Jennifer Mitchell), the now adult daughter of Sweeney and his wife.

They have some of the show’s more beautiful songs, such as “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” sung by Mitchell in a flawless coloratura; and “Johanna,” sung by Anthony.

Completing the stellar cast of principals are Ross Briscoe as the sweet, naïve Toby, who becomes Mrs. Lovett’s assistant; Juliet Green as the crazed Beggar Woman; Samuel Nachison as the officious Beadle; and Chris Vettel as the villainous Judge Turpin.

The ensemble is outstanding in both singing and acting.

By the end of the show, not many characters have survived, but the audience has been treated to a musical theater masterwork.

The show is skillfully directed by Joshua Marx. However, because of Hillbarn’s relatively small stage, he relies too much on the aisles for some scenes.

Musical director Rick Reynolds directs the fine orchestra, but it sometimes overpowers the singers.

One aspect of the show that differs from most other productions hereabouts is that it’s set in 1785. The Broadway production was set in the mid-19th century.
According to artistic director Dan Demers, the original story, which was a serialized penny dreadful in the mid-19th century, was set in the late 18th century.

Hence the costumes by Yichuan Sharon Peng are inspired by that time period. They’re especially elaborate for Pirelli and The Beadle.

The relatively simple but workable set is by Ting Na Wang with lighting by Pamila Z. Gray and sound by Brandie Larkin.

Although this is a first-rate production, Demers wisely stresses in his program notes that it’s not recommended for youngsters under 16.

Running just under three hours with one intermission, “Sweeney Todd” will continue through Feb. 10 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

For tickets and information call (650) 349-6411 or visit

Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Timeliness adds to pleasures of 'Frost/Nixon'

David Frost (Jeremy Webb, left) interviews ex-President Richard M. Nixon (Allen McCullough). (Photo by Kevin Berne)

When former President Richard M. Nixon agreed to a series of TV interviews by British TV celebrity David Frost in 1977, each man had his own motives.

Playwright Peter Morgan delves into those motives in his timely “Frost/Nixon,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

In the wake of the investigation into the Watergate scandal, Nixon (Allen McCullough) resigned on Aug. 9, 1974, rather than be impeached. He then returned to his home in San Clemente.

Although reluctant at first, he was hoping the interviews would give him a chance to polish his image and stress the accomplishments of his presidency.

For his part, Frost (Jeremy Webb) was hoping to revive his flagging career and show himself to be more than some lightweight entertainer.

The play takes place between 1974 and 1977 and in several major cities.
Each man had his own entourage. Nixon’s was led by his chief of staff, Col. “Jack” Brennan (Craig Marker).

Frost enlisted reporters Robert Zelnick (Stephen Muterspaugh) and James Reston Jr. (Kenny Toll), along with his producer, John Birt (Adam Shonkwiler).

From their point of view, the first interviews didn’t go well. Frost’s questions tended to be soft. Even when he tried to dig deeper into Nixon’s role in Watergate and thereafter, Nixon easily fended him off with long, self-serving responses that didn’t answer the questions.

Finally, though, Reston dug deeper into the written records and discovered irrefutable evidence of Nixon’s wrongdoing.

When confronted with the evidence, Nixon finally came clean and apologized to assuage his guilty conscience.

All of this unwinds under the brilliant direction of Leslie Martinson, who guides her talented cast through impeccable performances.

The set and visuals by scenic and media designer David Lee Cuthbert add greatly to the enjoyment, along with the authentic costumes by Cathleen Edwards, lighting by 
Steven B. Mannshardt and sound by Gregory Robinson.

What makes this 2006 play even more enjoyable is its relevance to today’s politics and the controversies surrounding President Trump. One line by Nixon seems to have gone directly into the Trump playbook: “When the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal.”

Running about an absorbing hour and 40 minutes with no intermission, “Frost/Nixon” will continue through Feb. 10 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

For tickets and information, call (650) 463-1960 or visit

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Palo Alto Players stages 'Shakespeare in Love'

Drew Benjamin Jones is Will Shakespeare and April Culver is Viola de Lesseps. (Photo by Joyce Goldschmid)

Fans of the Bard will have fun with the allusions to his plays and sonnets in “Shakespeare in Love,” presented by Palo Alto Players.

The screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, is liberally sprinkled with those snippets.

It starts as Will Shakespeare (Drew Benjamin Jones) is struggling with writer’s block in London in 1593 as he tries to write the sonnet beginning “Shall I compare thee to a.” 
His friend Marlowe (Brad Satterwhite) supplies the end of the line with “summer’s 

But it’s more than just the sonnet. Will also is trying to write a play called “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter” while trying to cast the role of Romeo. He’s also being hounded by producers demanding a script and by people to whom he owes money.

He finds his Romeo, but the actor is a woman, Viola de Lesseps (April Culver), disguised as a man called Thomas Kent. She can’t play Juliet because women were barred from the stage. Thomas/Viola becomes his muse for “Romeo and Juliet” and, when her true identity is revealed, his lover.

However, her wealthy father (Todd Wright) wants her to marry Wessex (Jeff Clarke). Wessex just wants her dowry to support his tobacco farm in Virginia. He plans to take her there immediately after the wedding.

As directed by Lee Ann Payne, this first non-professional production of the play is a mixed bag. The first act is tough going because it’s not always clear which of the lesser characters is which and because the acting is uneven.

The second act goes more smoothly because the plot is more straightforward and the actors more settled, or at least they were at opening night.

Besides Jones as Will, Satterwhite as Marlowe and Culver as Viola, some of the stronger performances come from Doll Piccotto as the imperious Queen Elizabeth I, Melinda Marks as Viola’s nurse and David Blackburn as Henslowe, owner of the Rose Theatre.

Although it’s not a musical, the show includes music by Paddy Cunneen, directed by Lauren Bevilacqua.

The period costumes are by Patricia Tyler with the flexible set by Scott Ludwig, lighting by Edward Hunter and sound by Jeff Grafton.

Running about two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission, “Shakespeare in Love” will continue through Feb. 3 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Berkeley Rep premieres a blockbuster, 'Paradise Square'

The cast of "Paradise Square." (Photo by Kevin Berne)

Berkeley Repertory Theatre has a blockbuster with its world premiere of “Paradise Square, A New Musical.”

Set in New York City’s squalid Five Points neighborhood during the Civil War in 1863, it captures a moment in U.S. history when Irish immigrants who had fled the potato famine and freeborn and freed black slaves mixed congenially.

Most of the action takes place in the Paradise Square saloon owned by a black woman, the no-nonsense Annabelle “Nelly” Freeman (Christina Sajous). She is assisted by an Irish woman, Annie O’Brien (Madeline Trumble), who is married to a black preacher, the Rev. Samuel E. Cornish (Daren A. Herbert).

Joining them are Owen Duignan (A.J. Shively), Annie’s nephew just arrived from Ireland; and William Henry Lane (Sidney Dupont), an escaped slave from Tennessee.

The final principal is destitute, alcoholic composer Stephen Foster (Jacob Fishel), who has abandoned his wife and daughter and becomes pianist at the saloon.

“Paradise Square” composers Jason Howland and Larry Kirwan, with lyricist Nathan Tysen, based the show’s music on Foster’s songs, many of them re-imagined for more modern tastes.

Howland serves as the show’s musical director, while Kirwan conceived the idea for the show.

The book by Marcus Gardley, Craig Lucas and Kirwan shows how the dance contests so common in Five Points saloons evolved into tap dance and vaudeville.

The fragile rapport between the two groups is shaken when black men replace striking dock workers, most of them Irish.

It then shatters when a Union Army draft is instituted for men, even immigrants, but not blacks. However, a man could avoid the draft by paying $300, a princely sum for poor people but not the wealthy.

Hence, the impoverished Irish became resentful of their black friends, who weren’t subject to the draft, and even more resentful of the wealthy. The widespread riots that broke out became the worst in U.S. history, according to the Berkeley Rep program.

William (Sidney Dupont, left) and Owen (A.J. Shively) rehearse for the dance contest. Watching are Stephen Foster (Jacob Fishel), at piano; Samuel (Daren A. Herbert); and Annie (Madeline Trumble). (Photo by Kevin Berne)
This history unfolds musically with thrilling dances choreographed by Bill T. Jones, with assistance from Garrett Coleman and Jason Oremus.

Some of those dances are set to “Camptown Races,” “Oh, Susanna” and “Ring, Ring the Banjo.” The latter features an athletic dance contest between Shively’s Owen and Dupont’s William.

Under the direction of Moisés Kaufman, the acting is outstanding.

Christina Sajous plays saloon owner Nelly Freeman. (Photo by Alessandra Mello)
There’s also some powerhouse singing, especially by Sajous as Nelly, who brings the house down several times.

Yet the finale is a nicely low-key “Beautiful Dreamer” as various characters tell what happened in the months and years thereafter.

With 32 cast members and an eight-piece band, this is “the biggest show in the history of Berkeley Rep,” artistic director Tony Taccone says in the program.

Kudos also go to Allen Moyer, whose multi-level set design seamlessly facilitates scene changes. Also noteworthy are the lighting by Donald Holder, costumes by Toni-Leslie James and sound by Jon Weston.

Taken together, all of these elements add up to a highly memorable, entertaining theatrical experience that has all the earmarks of a Broadway hit.

Running about two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, “Paradise Square” will continue an extra week through Feb. 24 in Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. For tickets and information, call (510) 647-2949 or visit

Photos courtesy of Berkeley Rep