Monday, April 29, 2019

Everything in 'Flower Drum Song' adds up to a hit

Marah Sotelo as Linda Low (center) and the ensemble dazzle in "Fan Tan Fannie."

If ever a production number itself is worth the price of admission, it’s “Fan Tan Fannie” in Palo Alto Players’ production of “Flower Drum Song.”

The precision fan snaps and dancing by the ensemble and Marah Sotelo as Linda Low are nothing short of spectacular.

There’s so much more, though, in this musical by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II.

Start with their memorable songs, like “A Hundred Million Miracles,” “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” “You Are Beautiful,” “Grant Avenue,” “Love, Look Away” and more.

Add in David Henry Hwang’s updated adaptation of the original book by Hammerstein and Joseph Fields. This newer version focuses on the struggles of Chinese immigrants as they try to adapt to American life in 1949 and 1950.

Moreover, the all-Asian and Asian American cast is terrific in all aspects under Lily Tung Crystal’s direction and imaginative staging.
Y. Sharon Peng’s sometimes elaborate costumes and Ting-Na Wang’s set create a visual spectacle augmented by Pamila Gray’s lighting and Brandie Larkin’s sound.

Much credit also goes to choreographer Alex Hsu, along with consultants in dialects, culture, Chinese opera and Chinese dance. Music director Amanda Ku leads the basically fine orchestra except for a few sour notes.

Thus you have just the right blend of ingredients for a hit show.

Emily Song plays Mei-Li.
The characters are multi-dimensional, too, starting with sweet-voiced Emily Song as Mei-Li, the heroine. After her father is seized by Chinese communists, she joins others taking the arduous boat trip to San Francisco and a hoped-for new life.

She finds a Chinatown club whose owner, Wang (Bryan Pangilinan), tries to make a living performing traditional Chinese opera with his son, Ta (Jomar Martinez.) Wang hires her to dance with him when she shows she’s much more accomplished than Ta.

Wang clings to the old ways, but Ta wants to appeal to more modern American tastes with the popular nightclub format offered once a week at Wang’s club.  

Wang does come around and takes center stage in the Act 2 opening, “Chop Suey.” He emerges from a giant Chinese takeout carton while the women sport fortune cookie hats and the men wield giant chopsticks.

Wang (Bryan Pangilinan in white) and the ensembe serve up "Chop Suey" to open Act 2.
In the midst of all this spectacle, there’s romance though it’s sometimes rocky. Mei-Li grows fonder of Ta, who pursues Linda, who isn’t interested. Wang and the brassy Madame Liang (Melinda Meeng), a talent agent hired by Linda, become attracted to each other.

Every principal character seems perfectly suited for his or her role. Besides those already mentioned, Joey Alvarado plays the wise, kindly Uncle Chin, and Bryan Munar is the fussy costumer, Harvard.

John Paul Kilecdi-Li portrays Chao, who made the journey with Mei-Li and is attracted to her. After working in a fortune cookie factory that’s a virtual sweatshop, however, he and other disillusioned immigrants return to China.

There’s more, but all turns out well in this highly entertaining show.

In the curtain call, each performer says where he or she was born. Most of them are from Asian countries.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Flower Drum Song” will continue through May 12 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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

Photos by Joyce Goldschmid

Friday, April 26, 2019

Versatile actors contribute to success of ACT's 'Vanity Fair'

The cast of "Vanity Fair" (from left) Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan, Maribel Martinez, Rebekah Brockman, Adam Magill, Anthony Michael Lopez and Vincent Randazzo sings during the opening scene.

American Conservatory Theater’s production of “Vanity Fair” is a constant source of fascination, admiration and often amusement thanks to Kate Hamill’s adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray's sprawling mid-19th century novel.

Directed by Jessica Stone in a co-production with Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, it uses seven actors to portray dozens of characters.

The only actors with one role are Rebekah Brockman as Becky Sharp and Maribel Martinez as her friend, Amelia Sedley.

Set in London starting in 1814, this production is framed as a show at the Strand Musick Hall, where the Manager (Dan Hiatt) is the emcee and narrator.

Becky comes from a middle class family with little money while Amelia comes from a wealthy family. Becky is determined to ascend the social ladder, starting by marrying a rich man.

Dan Hiatt as Matilda Crawley, Rebekah Brockman as Becky Sharp. 
Eventually she does marry such a man, Rawdon (Adam Magill), a captain in the English army. She also finds favor with his maiden aunt, Matilda Crawley (Hiatt at his most humorous).

In the meantime, Amelia marries another English soldier, George (Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan), while his fellow soldier, William Dobbin (Anthony Michael Lopez), falls in love with her, too.

Later, Amelia’s stockbroker father, Mr. Sedley (Magill), goes bankrupt when the market crashes because of jitters over the possibility of war with Napoleon and the French.

Over time, Amelia’s position improves while Becky’s sinks. Still, she’s a survivor.

There’s much more to the story than that, but the playwright, director and versatile cast keep everything clear.

Besides those already mentioned, the cast includes Vincent Randazzo.

Everyone is noteworthy, but Hiatt is especially outstanding in his multiple roles, both male and female.

Helping to keep the action fluid is Alexander Dodge’s ingenious set, with lighting by David Weiner. 
The sometimes quick-change period costumes are by Jennifer Moeller.

Choreography by Connor Gallagher and music by sound designer Jane Shaw add to the enjoyment, starting from the first scene, when the cast sings and dances.

As the opening night audience left the theater, there were many exclamations of approval and enjoyment.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Vanity Fair” will continue through May 12 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco.

For tickets and information, call (415) 749-2228 or visit

Photos by Scott Suchman

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Aurora stages witty 'Importance of Being Earnest'

Lady Bracknell (Sharon Lockwood, center) confronts Miss Prism (Trish Mulholland, right) as others look on.

In Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” two young women separately vow that they must marry a man named Earnest.

In an effort to win their hands, two young men pretend they’re named Earnest. Of course their schemes backfire, but all works out well.

Presented by Aurora Theatre Company, Wilde’s satire of late 19th century manners is full of his signature bon mots. However, this production directed by incoming artistic director Josh Costello doesn’t always work as well.

This is especially true in the first scene in London, where Algernon Moncrieff (Patrick Kelly Jones) welcomes a visit by his friend, Jack Worthing (Mohammad Shehata), who’s in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax (Anna Ishida).

Jack has a manor house in the country, where he’s responsible for his ward, Cecily Cardew (Gianna DiGregorio Rivera). In order to go to London occasionally, he pretends he has a wastrel brother named Earnest there.

The conversation between the two men seems stilted and mannered, as if they were trying too hard to be witty and sophisticated.

Lady Bracknell (Sharon Lockwood) questions Jack (Mohammad Shehata).
Everything brightens, though, with the arrival of Algernon’s aunt, the formidable Lady Bracknell (Sharon Lockwood), and her daughter, Gwendolen. 

Lockwood's Lady Bracknell commands the stage with her imperious ways and her impeccable timing.

Jack, whom Gwendolen knows as Earnest, proposes to her, but Lady Bracknell forbids the engagement because Jack is an orphan.

In the meantime, Algernon is intrigued by Jack’s description of Cecily and is determined to meet her. He goes to Jack’s manor house in disguise, but the various deceptions are soon uncovered, leading to the play’s resolution.

In addition to any time with Lockwood, the second act has an amusing scene involving what amounts to a cat fight between the two young women, but they immediately make up when they discover what’s going on.

Another performance that stands out is Trish Mulholland as Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess. Michael Torres does double duty as Lane, Algernon’s discrete manservant, and as the Rev. Canon Chasuble, Miss Prism’s would-be suitor.

The handsome but spare and flexible set is by Nina Ball with lighting by Wen-Ling Liao. The elegant costumes are by Maggie Whitaker. Chris Houston serves as sound designer and composer.

Despite shortcomings by the two young men, the overall production is quite enjoyable thanks to Wilde’s wit and Lockwood’s performance.

Running about two and a half hours with two short intermissions, “The Importance of Being Earnest” will continue through May 12 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley.

For tickets and information, call (510) 843-4822 or visit

Photos by David Allen

Monday, April 8, 2019

Felder's one-man show tells of love for Paris, Debussy

Hershey Felder as Claude Debussy (Photo by Christopher Ash)

“Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story” actually is several love stories.

This one-man world premiere presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley tells of Felder’s love for the City of Light as well as his love for the music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918).

It’s not the first time this creator/performer has focused on a great composer. Some of his past shows, most of them seen at TheatreWorks, have featured the music of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Beethoven, Liszt and Chopin.

This time he takes a more personal approach, weaving some of his own family history into Debussy’s.

Felder’s mother, whom he cherished, loved Debussy’s music and always wanted to see Paris, but she couldn’t make it. Instead Felder first went there as a 19-year-old and took in the sights that Debussy loved so much.

Costumed as Debussy (design by Stacey Nezda), he mostly tells the story in Debussy’s voice, referring to Felder as “the boy” and relating Debussy’s own history. It starts with his early life, continues with his musical education and delves into his romantic liaisons.

This narrative is interspersed with frequent sessions at the grand piano, which sits center stage between two arching bridges on the handsome set designed by Felder.

There piano virtuoso Felder plays some of Debussy’s best-known works, such as “La Mer,” “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” and the dreamy finale, “Clair de lune,” Felder’s mother’s favorite. Some orchestral excerpts also are heard (sound design by Erik Carstensen).

He sees parallels between the final years of Debussy, who never quite recovered from an experimental colostomy, and his own mother, who underwent a double mastectomy.

He has Debussy telling how he defied musical conventions of the time, earning mostly pans from critics along with some praise.

Besides music, the greatest love of his life was his daughter, nicknamed Chouchou.

As the young Felder explores the streets and sights of Paris, projections by lighting designer Christopher Ash illustrate the narrative.

Directed by Trevor Hay, this show is both a visual and aural delight, treating the audience to an absorbing concert and story by the multi-talented Felder.

Running about an hour and a half with no intermission, “Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story” will continue through May 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

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Center Rep stages provocative 'Diary of Anne Frank'

This is where the eight people spent more than two years in hiding.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett is the true and ultimately tragic story of how eight Jews hid from the Nazis during World War II only to be betrayed and captured.

Center REPertory Company is presenting the adaptation by Wendy Kesselman.
Born in Germany, Anne Frank moved to Amsterdam, Holland, with her family to escape the Nazis when she was 4, but the Germans took over Holland in 1940.

When Anne’s older sister, Margot, was ordered to a Nazi work camp in July 1942, the family hid in the upstairs annex of the factory where Anne’s father worked.

They and four other people remained there until August 1944 when they were betrayed, arrested by the Gestapo and later sent to prison camps, where everyone except Anne’s father died.

In this production, Anne (Monique Hafen Adams) is 13 when she, Margot (Maya Michal Sherer) and their parents, Otto (Victor Talmadge) and Edith (Marcia Pizzo), flee to the annex.

They are joined by Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan (Michael Butler and Domenique Lozano) and their 18-year-old son, Peter (Kevin Singer). Later joining them is a dentist, Mr. Dussel (Michael Patrick Gaffney).

In her optimistic way, Anne is exuberant at first and quite the pest, but they all soon get a dose of reality when Mr. Kraler (Paul Plain), a trusted friend who worked in the factory, gave them the rules.

They had to remain absolutely silent between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. when workers were downstairs. That meant removing their shoes, not talking and not using the only bathroom.

Besides Mr. Kraler, their only other connection to the outside world was Miep Gies (Alison Quin), who brought them what little she could.

Thus eight people lived in cramped quarters (set by Nina Ball, lighting by Kurt Landisman) with meager food and almost constant fear of being discovered.
During their Hanukkah celebration, for example, Anne gave everyone a gift, but their 
fear was aroused when they heard a noise downstairs. Much to their relief, it came from a thief who fled.

Although they tried to make the best of their situation, frustration and tempers inevitably erupted.

Anne (Monique Hafen Adams) writes in her diary.
Through it all, Anne wrote in her diary, revealing a hopeful, maturing girl with dreams and ambitions as her friendship with Peter blossomed.

Everyone’s hopes soared with the Allied invasion of Europe in June 1944. They envisioned being free soon.

Thus it was a terrible irony that they were rousted two months later and died before the camps were liberated in April 1945.

Besides the set and lighting, the production is complemented by Jessie Amoroso’s 
costumes and Teddy Hulsker’s sound and projections.

Timothy Near directs this excellent ensemble cast with sensitivity and an eye toward helping the audience understand how these eight people lived.

During intermission, for example, they remain on stage, going about their ways of passing the time.

Nevertheless, it's difficult to imagine how one might endure such hardships, and it’s impossible to fathom the depraved inhumanity of the Nazis and their attempt to annihilate all Jews and other people they deemed undesirable.

Hence when the cast takes its curtain call, the applause is warm but subdued. 

Afterward, the house manager remarked that it was unusual to see people so quiet as they left.

That’s a tribute to the power of the play and this thought-provoking production.

Running about two hours with intermission, “The Diary of Anne Frank” will continue through April 28 in the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek.

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

Photos by