Sunday, May 12, 2019

Nonstop hits and fun in 'Mamma Mia!' at Hillbarn Theatre

Tanya (Christine Capsuto-Shulman, left), Donna (Merrill Peiffer) and Rosie (Jacquie McCarley) sing "Dancing Queen."

When it comes to exhilarating fun, it’s hard to beat Hillbarn Theatre’s production of “Mamma Mia!”

This musical, with its well known, toe-tapping songs by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA fame, just keeps bubbling along.

With Dan Demers’ sure-handed direction and a likeable, energetic cast, everything adds up to pure enjoyment.

It even has an interesting book by Catherine Johnson.

It starts when 20-year-old Sophie Sheridan (Sofia Costantini) is about to be married to Sky (Matt Ono) in 1999 and wants her dad to walk her down the aisle. There’s a problem: She doesn’t know who he is.

Her single mom, Donna (Merrill Peiffer), who owns a taverna on a Greek island, won’t talk about him. However, by reading Donna’s diary from about the time she would have been conceived, Sophie discovers three candidates for her dad.

Dad candidates Bill (Lawrence Long, left) Sam (Randy Allen) and Harry (Brandon Savage) arrive on the island.
Assuming she’ll know him right away, she invites the three to the island, unbeknownst to Donna. When Bill Austin (Lawrence Long), Sam Carmichael (Randy Allen) and Harry Bright (Brandon Savage) arrive, she’s furious.

In the meantime, she has invited two longtime friends, Tanya (Christine Capsuto-Shulman) and Rosie (Jacquie McCarley), to the island, too. The three of them were once a disco girls group.

Thus the stage is set for one hit tune after another: “Money, Money, Money,” “Thank You for the Music,” “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” “One of Us,” “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” the title song and more.

Another hit is “Dancing Queen,” sung by Donna, Tanya and Rosie as they reprise their disco act. This scene also displays the talents of costume designer Y. Sharon Peng, who has created an array of outfits for the show plus the hair, makeup and props.

Then there’s the creative choreography by Zoë Swenson-Graham. Just one example is “Lay All Your Love on Me,” in which the younger men dance in wet suits and flippers.

Although everyone in the cast is commendable, Capsuto-Shulman as the oft-married, sexy, flirtatious Tanya is an audience favorite. When the company came out dancing for the curtain call on opening night, the short wrap skirt to her glittery costume fell off, so she blithely picked it up and tossed it into the audience.

Matt Ono is Sky; Sofia Costantini is Sophie.
Costantini as Sophie not only sings well but has an expressive face that registers her character’s emotions without a need to speak.

Kudos also go to Paulino Deleal for the functional set, to Grant Huberty for the sound design and to Rick Reynolds for musical direction. The musical accompaniment is recorded.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “Mamma Mia!” will continue at Hillbarn Theater, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City, through May 26.

For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit www.hillbarntheatre.org.

Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography





Saturday, May 4, 2019

Main characters approach 'The Good Book' from opposite perspectives

Wayne Wilcox (left), Elijah Alexander, Shannon Tyo and Denmo Ibrahim appear as characters from centuries ago.


“The Good Book” examines the Bible from two characters’ very different perspectives while taking them through difficult journeys of belief.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre is staging the West Coast premiere of this ever-fascinating drama by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson.

Annette O'Toole plays the scholarly Miriam.
One of the main characters is Miriam (Annette O’Toole), an atheist and biblical scholar. She calls the Bible “the most powerful and dangerous book in America today.” 

To her it isn’t the word of God but a collection of stories created by many people, handed down through the ages and translated from many languages.

Keith Nobbs plays the struggling Connor.

The other is Connor (Keith Nobbs), a Catholic who calls himself a Biblehead and who wants to become a priest, at least when he’s a young boy.

He first is seen as an 8-year-old who commits his innermost thoughts to his new tape recorder. As he enters his teens and 20s, however, he struggles with his faith and his sexual identity.

Miriam must confront some of her ideas when a young journalist, played by Shannon Tyo, wants to write a New Yorker article about her. Going through Miriam’s files, the writer finds her girlhood diary and asks about her mother, who died when Miriam was about 9.

Miriam also must deal with her longtime lover, played by Elijah Alexander, a Middle Easterner whom she seldom sees because he’s an archeologist who goes on months-long digs overseas.

During Act 1, Alexander, Tyo, Lance Gardner, Denmo Ibrahim and Wayne Wilcox appear as a variety of characters like Miriam’s college students, Connor’s family and friends, and both known and unknown historical figures.

As the act ends, Miriam has been in a serious car accident and Connor is ready to shoot himself.

Act 2 finds Connor about to be released from a mental hospital and Miriam in a state of unconsciousness that takes her to important places in her life.

Eventually the two meet, and their fates become known.

This is an epic play that goes far deeper than the principal plot. It’s informative for those who don’t know much about the origin of the Bible and it’s absorbing as Connor and Miriam go through their lives. It’s also quite entertaining because of its many other characters.

Finally, it’s an impressive display of virtuoso acting by everyone, especially O’Toole as Miriam and Nobbs as Connor, thanks to their talent and to the astute direction by co-author Peterson.

The action takes place on a sparsely furnished stage with just a few folding metal chairs and tables, augmented by lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols’ projections; Lydia Tanji’s costumes, many suited to quick changes; and sound by Charles Coes and Mark Bennett. Bennett also wrote the music that’s so effectively used in the play.

Although the play is long, about two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission, it seems to go by quickly.

“The Good Book” will continue through June 9 in Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley.

For tickets and information, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Photos by Alessandra Mello




Thursday, May 2, 2019

It's hard to keep score in Marin's 'Jazz'

Joe (Michael Gene Sullivan, third from left) and Violet (C. Kelly Wright) celebrate their wedding.

“Jazz” at Marin Theatre Company opens confusingly with a funeral, but what is the significance of the deceased and why is she mourned?

The answers become clear much later in Nambi E. Kelley’s adaption of Toni Morrison’s book of the same name.

In the meantime, it isn’t easy to follow the action because it shifts from 1926 to memories of times past without much warning.

Eventually what evolves is a love triangle involving Violet (C. Kelly Wright); her husband, Joe (Michael Gene Sullivan); and Dorcas (Dezi Solèy), the young woman with whom he has an affair.

Alice (Margo Hall, right) and Violet (C. Kelly Wright) share a laugh.
Others in the eight-person, all-black cast include Bay Area favorite Margo Hall, mainly as Alice, an older, wiser woman; and lithe Paige Mayes as the mythical Golden Gray and the parrot that Joe gives Violet.

Also involved in the story is the migration of Southern blacks to Harlem, where they enjoyed greater freedom from oppression.

Directed by Awoye Timpo, everyone in the cast, including Lisa Lacy, Tiffany Tenille and Dane Troy, does well with creating characters.

Although the title might imply lots of music, the orchestral (recorded) and vocal score by Marcus Shelby is used sparingly but effectively.

Thanks to choreographer Joanne Haigood, there also is some impressive dancing, especially by the athletic Mayes and Troy.

The costumes are by Karen Perry with lighting by Jeff Rowlings and sound by Gregory Robinson.

Despite some confusing moments, this production of “Jazz” holds one’s attention. 

Running about 100 minutes without intermission, it will continue through May 19 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley.

For tickets and information, call (415) 388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Photos by Kevin Berne