Thursday, January 30, 2020

Hillbarn stages 'Little Shop of Horrors'

From left: Ronnette (Melinda Campero), Chiffon (Becky Alex) and Crystal (Kylie Abucay) sing. (Tracy Martin photo)

“Little Shop of Horrors” is far from great theater, but it’s usually great fun.
Directed by Tyler Christie, Hillbarn Theatre’s production isn’t always great fun, but it has its strengths. Chief among them are the three women who serve as a sassy Greek chorus.

Kylie Abucay as Crystal, Becky Alex as Chiffon and Melinda Campero as Ronnette are always fun to watch and hear as they sing, dance and comment throughout the show. Randy O’Hara did the choreography.

With a book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken, “Little Shop” is set in a rundown florist shop in Skid Row. Owned by Mr. Mushnik (Jesse Caldwell), it’s about to close down for lack of business.

Seymour (Phil Wong) holds Audrey
II. (Mark Kitaoka photo)
However, Audrey (Jocelyn Pickett), one of his two employees, says that the other employee, Seymour (Phil Wong), has a “strange and interesting plant.”

Mr. Mushnik places it in the front window, and sure enough, business starts to pick up, and Seymour gains a measure of fame.

There’s just one hitch. It seems that the plant, named Audrey II, has a finicky appetite, thriving only on human blood. At first a few pin pricks from Seymour are enough for it to grow. However, its appetite becomes more voracious, leading to some nefarious deeds.

Although the nerdy Seymour is enamored with Audrey, she’s in an abusive relationship with a sadistic dentist, Orin (Sam Nachison, who plays several other roles, too). She stays with him because she doesn’t think she deserves anyone better.

One of the unique aspects of this production, at least in comparison with the several others that have been seen around the Bay Area in recent years, is that Audrey II isn’t just a prop that grows and grows and that is voiced by a man who insists, “Feed me.”

Jad Bernardo portrays Audrey
II. (Mark Kitaoka photo)
Instead, the plant is seen as a man in high drag, Jad Bernardo. The device doesn’t always work, though, especially since the actor appears so soon in the production.

Some of the songs and lines are humorous, especially when they reflect the characters’ views of what constitutes something better for them. For example, when singing “Somewhere That’s Green,” Audrey longs for a nicer place to live, but “nothing fancy like Levittown.”

Later, Seymour says he’d like to take her to a fancy dinner at somewhere like Howard Johnson’s.

Design elements are mostly good, especially the costumes by Y. Sharon Peng, who also designed the hair and makeup.

The two-level, appropriately dingy set is by Kuo-Hao Lo, with lighting by Pamila Gray and sound by Brandie Larkin.

Music director is Joe Murphy, who plays drums in the five-person band.

Running about two hours with an intermission, “Little Shop of Horrors” will continue through Feb. 9 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

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

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Nora returns in 'A Doll's House, Part 2'

Torvald (Michael Champlin), after a scuffle with the town clerk, holds a book by Nora (Gabriella Grier).

Fifteen years ago, Nora Helmer slammed the door to her home in Norway, leaving behind her husband and children in Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.”

Now she has returned in Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” presented by Palo Alto Players.

Using a  pseudonym, Nora (Gabriella Grier) has become the successful writer of pro-feminist, anti-marriage books. She faces major legal problems because it has been learned that, contrary to her belief, her husband, Torvald (Michael Champlin), hasn’t divorced her.

However, Torvald, a banker, has allowed people to think that she has died. If he files for divorce, his misrepresentation would be exposed, ruining his career.

Katherine Hamilton is Emmy.
Nora enlists their young adult daughter, Emmy (Katherine Hamilton), to try to convince Torvald to grant the divorce, but Emmy doesn’t want to jeopardize her engagement and future happiness because of the scandal.

Anne Marie (Judith Miller), the family’s longtime maid, is caught in the middle of this web of dilemmas.

Although the acting by all four cast members is noteworthy, Jeffrey Lo’s direction and some design elements have missteps.

Lo overdramatizes the arrival of each character with piano music, a projection of the person’s name and red lighting. It’s all too gimmicky.

Moreover, shortly after Nora arrives and is greeted by Anne Marie, she reaches into her purse for an aluminum soda can, pops the top and takes a drink. If for some reason the actor needed to drink something, a pitcher of water with a glass wouldn’t be a jarring anachronism.

And in Hnath’s script, Anne Marie sometimes uses four-letter words that are out of keeping with the times and the character.

In addition to the red lights for the arrival of characters, Carolyn A. Guggemos’s lighting sometimes leaves characters in shadows even as they’re speaking.

Christopher Fitzer’s set features white walls with huge, garish blue flowers along with a few clear plastic chairs and table (more anachronisms).

On the other hand, Melissa Sanchez’s costumes for the Helmers are elegant, befitting the late 19th century. The sound is by Jeff Grafton.

Running about 90 minutes without intermission, “A Doll’s House, Part 2” will continue through Feb. 2 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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

Photos by Joyce Goldschmid

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

'The Pianist of Willesden Lane' illustrates the power of music

Pianist Mona Golabek tells the story of her mother, also a pianist. (Photo courtesy of Hershey Felder Presents)

In an engrossing blend of great music and sometimes harrowing narration presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, concert pianist Mona Golabek relates the story of a young woman’s journey through the perils of World War II in “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.”

That woman was Lisa Jura, Golabek’s mother. Her story begins when Lisa was a 14-year-old, aspiring Jewish pianist in Vienna in 1938 as Nazi terrorism against Jews accelerated.

Her father managed to get her a ticket for the Kindertransport, which English people organized to take thousands of children from cities controlled by the Third Reich to the safety of homes in England.

After several places in England, Lisa wound up at the Willesden Lane hostel in London along with about two dozen other children. She worked in a sewing factory making military uniforms and entertained people at the hostel with her piano playing.

She didn’t know what had happened to her parents and two younger sisters in Vienna.

She survived the German bombing of London, including a direct hit on the hostel.

She eventually received a scholarship to London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music and worked as a pianist entertaining soldiers on leave at a swank hotel, where she met her future husband.

While relating her mother’s story, Golabek intersperses it by playing piano works by such greats as Beethoven, Bach, Debussy, Chopin and others.

The story is unified by Jura’s love of Grieg’s challenging Piano Concerto in A minor. The first movement opens the story, the second comes in the middle and the third provides the dramatic climax.

Lee Cohen and Hershey Felder, the pianist whose one-man re-creations of composers like Bernstein, Chopin, Beethoven and others have been huge hits at TheatreWorks and elsewhere, adapted this work from Cohen and Golabek’s book, “The Children of Willesden Lane.”

Felder directs. Along with Trevor Hay, he also designed the set. Framed in gilt, it features a grand piano in front of four gilded picture frames where various photos and scenes are projected.

One of the most moving is newsreel footage of Nazi soldiers herding Jews toward the trains that would take them to concentration camps and likely death. The projections are by Andrew Wilder and Greg Sowizdrzal.

Lighting is by Jason Bieber, sound by Erik Carstensen. Golabek’s simple black dress is by Jaclyn Maduff.

The play has been seen throughout the country, including a well-received production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2013.

Running about 90 minutes without intermission, it’s a truly memorable theatrical experience about the soul-lifting power of music as well as a cautionary tale about tyranny.

Ticket demand has been so great that TheatreWorks extended it one week, through Feb. 16, even before its Jan. 18 opening 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, January 16, 2020

Bay Area premiere of Heather Raffo's 'Noura'

From left: Yazen (Valentino Herrera), Tareq (Mattico David), Noura (Denmo Ibrahim), Maryam (Maya Nazzal) and Rafa'a (Abraham Makany) sit down for their Christmas dinner.

The title character in Heather Raffo’s “Noura,” being given its Bay Area premiere by the Marin Theatre Company, is an Iraqi Christian who left the violence in her home country and has been in New York City for eight years.

It’s Christmas Eve. Noura (Denmo Ibrahim); Tareq (Mattico David), her husband of 20 years; and Yazen (Valentino Herrera), their grade school-age son; are celebrating the arrival of their American passports and preparing for a traditional Iraqi Christmas dinner.

When they were in Mosul, Noura was an architect and Tareq was a surgeon. Once in the United States, they could no longer practice their professions. Instead, Noura teaches in an inner city middle school, and Tareq works in a hospital emergency room. He had a job in a Subway shop when they first arrived.

At the dinner, they’re joined by Rafa’a (Abraham Makany), a Muslim who has been their friend ever since their days in Iraq.

The other guest is Maryam (Maya Nazzal). Noura and Tareq haven’t met her, but they have supported her ever since she was an orphan at a convent in Iraq, through college in the United States and now as she’s about to start a career in thermodynamics.

Tareq and Noura in a happier moment.
Her arrival sets off some unexpected reactions, especially from Tareq, leading to a major emotional crisis for him and Noura.

Throughout the play, Noura is haunted by memories of Iraq, especially the violence and the loss of friends and family wrought by ISIS. She continues to try to recover from those losses.

Thus she symbolizes the difficulties that many Iraqis and other people face after escaping from horrible circumstances. Rafa’a suggests that she’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

As the play reaches its ambiguous conclusion, the revelations pile up in almost melodramatic fashion.

At times the threads of Raffo’s plot are hard to follow, a problem heightened by the difficulty of understanding some of the accents.

Nevertheless, this production directed by Kate Bergstrom, in association with Golden Thread Productions, benefits from solid performances by all five cast members.

The barebones set, featuring a Christmas tree, dining table and little else, is by Adam Rigg with lighting by Kate Boyd. The costumes are by Anna Oliver with sound by Nihan Yesil.

Running about an hour and 40 minutes with no intermission, “Noura” will continue through Feb. 9 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley.

For tickets and information, call (415) 388-5208 or visit

Photos by Kevin Berne