Wednesday, March 15, 2023

'Fannie' tells of one woman's quest for voting rights

Greta Oglesby plays Fannie Lou Hamer. (Kevin Berne photo)


“Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, should be a must-see for students.

This one-woman play, written by Cheryl L. West and featuring Greta Oglesby, details Hamer’s brave efforts to secure voting rights for Black people in the 1960s.

She was 44, a Mississippi sharecropper with only a sixth grade education and the youngest of 20 children, when she attended a meeting of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and became a tireless advocate for voting rights.

Her activism led to her and her husband being forced to leave their plantation home, thus losing their home, jobs and possessions. She received death threats. Nevertheless she persisted.

In one harrowing scene, she describes being arrested and thrown into a cell with five Black men who were ordered to beat her or risk severe punishment themselves.

Her story is interspersed with songs like “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Shall Not Be Moved” that have the audience singing and clapping along with her. She’s accompanied by a three-man band seated upstage. Music director is Morgan Stevenson.

Directed by Tim Bond, TheatreWorks artistic director, Oglesby’s performance is a tour-de-force of brilliant acting and singing.

Projections by Miko S. Simmons illustrate the events and people who also were devoted to the cause with photos from that time. Viewers who are old enough to remember that turbulent period in history will surely recognize them.

Andrea Bechert’s scenic design includes pro-voting rights signs adorning the theater’s walls. Costumes by Lydia Tanji, lighting by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz and sound by Gregory Robinson add to the enjoyment.

The reason why this play is so important for students to see is that it has such relevance to events today, when some political leaders are trying to suppress voting rights, especially by people of color. TheatreWorks recognizes this and has scheduled a student matinee for 11 a.m. March 30.

Running about 70 minutes without intermission, “Fannie” will continue through April 2 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information, call (877) 662-8978 or visit





Monday, March 13, 2023

'Perfect Arrangement' at Hillbarn resonates today


Norma (Leslie Waggoner, left), Millie (Amanda Farbstein), Jim (Alex Rodriguez) and Bob (Brad Satterwhite) discuss their dilemma. (Photo by Tracy Martin)

Although Topher Payne’s “Perfect Arrangement,” being staged by Hillbarn Theatre and Conservatory, is set in the very early ’50s, it resonates today.

Back then, officialdom focused on rooting out Communists in government and other areas and then extended its reach to homosexuals who could be blackmailed into revealing government secrets.

Today the focus is on “wokeness” and “don’t say gay,” especially in schools.

Inspired by a true story, “Perfect Arrangement” features two gay couples, one male, one female, who enter legal but sham marriages to hide their true leanings. They live in adjoining apartments with a walk-in closet connecting them.

One of the men, Bob Martindale (Brad Satterwhite), is a State Department official tasked with identifying and removing employees deemed security risks.

Norma Baxter (Leslie Waggoner), the wife of his partner, high school teacher Jim Baxter (Alex Rodriguez), is Bob’s secretary. Millie Martindale (Amanda Farbstein) is Bob’s wife and Norma’s partner.

Bob manages his job well until his boss, Theodore Sunderson (John Mannion), orders him to go after gays, too, leading to an ethical and moral dilemma for the couples.

With the appearance of Barbara Grant (Tanya Marie), a State Department employee who had been living overseas, the couples’ arrangement starts to unravel.

As pressures mount and pretenses become more difficult to maintain, the four spouses must decide whether to stay in the closet or come out and face the certain fallout in hopes of paving the way toward acceptance of themselves and others.

All of this makes for serious subject matter, but the play is billed as a comedy. Yes, it has some inherently amusing moments but director Tyler Christie has the excellent cast overplaying the comedy. Toning it down would be beneficial.

This is especially true in the early scene with the two couples plus Bob’s boss and his high society wife, Kitty Sunderson (Erica Wyman). The three women squeal like overexcited teenagers at a rock concert. Thus it’s a relief when the two couples are  alone.

This production benefits from its design elements, such as the stylish costumes by Bethany Deal.

The comfortable living room set, with its symbolic walk-in closet, is by D’Angelo Reyes. It’s supposedly occupied by the Martindales, but it’s actually the women’s home. The men live next door.

Sound by Jules Indelecato and lighting by Aya Matsutomo enhance the production.

Running about two hours with an intermission, “Perfect Arrangement” will continue through March 26 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City. For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Foothill stages terrific 'Into the Woods'


Kama Belloni (left) as Jack's mother,  Ryan Liu as Jack and Mateo Urquidez handling Milky White. (David Allen photo)

Combine Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack of beanstalk fame and Rapunzel with some other characters and you get the 1987 Tony-winning musical “Into the Woods” with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine, being given a terrific production by Foothill Music Theatre.

Opening with the classic lines, “Once upon a time,” the show has each major character saying, “I wish.” While those wishes come true in the first act, which is mostly bright with some chuckles along the way, the second act turns darker. There’s very little happily ever after.

Foothill director Milissa Carey skillfully guides the 20-member cast, a mix of students and community members. Each performer creates a believable character and blends into the ensemble. Because every performer does so well, it’s difficult to single anyone out.

The story is introduced by the affable narrator (Michael Paul Hirsch, who also plays the mysterious man).

Soon we meet Cinderella (Sam Mills), who wishes to go to the festival. Then there’s Little Red Riding Hood (Mai Abe), who buys bread from the Baker (James Schott) and the Baker’s Wife (Alicia Teeter) before going into the woods to visit her grandmother.

The not-too-bright Jack (Ryan Liu) has a pet cow, Milky White (manipulated by Mateo Urquidez), but she gives no milk. Therefore, his mother (Kama Belloni) wants to sell her.

The baker and his wife want a child, but they learn from the witch (Caitlin Gjerdrum) that she has put a spell on his house, rendering him childless because his father made a mess of her garden.

In order to break the spell, they must go into the woods to find four items in three days. In their quest, they encounter the other fairy tale characters.

This show features Sondheim’s memorable music as well as his fast-paced, witty lyrics. For example, Jack’s mother sings that Milky White’s “withers wither with her,” and the witch names all the vegetables, such as rutabaga and arugula, that the baker’s father ruined.

In addition to Carey’s direction and the talented cast, this production benefits from Yusuke Soi’s set design, which easily flows from one setting to the next despite the small stage.

Also noteworthy are the costumes by Sharon Peng, choreography by Kayvon Kordestani, sound by Andy Heller and lighting by Pamila Gray. Music director Michael Horsley leads the nine-member orchestra, seated upstage, from the keyboard.

Despite its fairy tale themes and because of the events of the second act, this show isn’t suitable for youngsters.

Running about two hours and 40 minutes with an intermission, “Into the Woods” will continue through March 19 in the Lohman Theatre at Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills. For tickets and information, call (650) 949-7360 or visit







Thursday, February 2, 2023

Jewish history, traditions explored in 'In Every Generation'


Three generations celebrate Passover in 2019. (Kevin Berne photo)

What does it mean to be Jewish and how have Jews managed to survive and maintain their traditions?

In the 2022 “In Every Generation,” presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, playwright Ali Viterbi explores these questions and others over the years of a multi-generational family’s Passover dinners.

Before the show opens, significant events in Jewish history, going back to 1416 BCE, are displayed as supertitles on the proscenium.

It then starts in 2019 in Los Angeles as Valeria Levi (Cindy Goldfield) hosts a Seder in her modern apartment for her parents, Paola (Luisa Sermol) and Davide  Levi (Michael Champlin), and daughters, Yael Levi-Katz (Olivia Nicole Hoffman) and Devorah Levi-Katz (Sarah Lo).

Paola and Davide, who uses a wheelchair because of ALS, are Italian immigrants. Devorah is Chinese and adopted. Family dynamics are evident as rituals are observed and traditional foods eaten.

Action then goes back to 1954, when Paola and Davide are Italian newlyweds who have escaped the Holocaust and have moved to a modest apartment in Los Angeles.

It then fast-forwards to 2050. Devorah, now a gay rabbi, and Yael, a doctor, are celebrating with their mother, Valeria.

Like her father in the first scene, she uses a wheelchair and can’t speak, but modern technology enables her to project her thoughts onto a tablet. Therefore, when her daughters squabble, she implores them to stop.

By this time, anti-Semitic events throughout the country have left the family super-cautious.

The setting segues to the Exodus in the Sinai Desert in 1416 BCE. The five family members express hopes of “next year in Jerusalem” after the Jews’ ordeal in Egypt.

Director Michael Barakiva has assembled an outstanding ensemble cast with each of the five actors creating believable characters at different ages.

Nina Ball’s set, with lighting by Kurt Landisman, defines changing times and circumstances.

Costumes are by Suzanne Chesney with sound by Sharath Patel.

Running about two hours with an intermission, this interesting, informative play will continue through Feb. 12 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

For tickets and information, call (877) 662-8978 or visit







Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Motives examined in 'Assassinations' at Hillbarn


Sara Jane Moore (Hayley Lovgren, left) and Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Brigitte Losey) share a joint. (Photo by Tracy Martin)

Although “Assassins,” with its music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman, seems like an unlikely topic for a musical, this 1991 creation examines motives leading to assassinations and attempted assassinations of presidents and relates them to current events.

Presented by Hillbarn Theatre and Conservatory, it features 17 actors in lead and supporting roles.

The emcee, called the Balladeer or Proprietor (Keith Pinto), introduces the assassins. The first is 27-year-old actor John Wilkes Booth (Andre Amarotico), who killed Abraham Lincoln in 1865.

Others include Charles Guiteau (Ted Zoldan), 40. who killed James Garfield in 1881; Leon Czolgosz (Benjamin Ball), 28, who killed William McKinley in 1901;  and Giuseppe Zangara (Jesse Cortez), 33, who tried to kill President-elect Franklin Roosevelt in 1933.

Lee Harvey Oswald (Julio Chavez), 24, killed John F. Kennedy in 1963. Samuel Byck (Andrew Cope), 44, planned to kill Richard Nixon by crashing a hijacked plane into the White House in 1974 but was killed during the hijack attempt.

Two women, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Brigitte Losey), 27, and Sara Jane Moore (Hayley Lovgren), 45, separately tried to kill Gerald Ford in 1975. Also unsuccessful was John Hinckley (Nick Kenrick), 26, who tried to kill Ronald Reagan in 1981.

All nine of these people had traits in common, according to Joshua Marx in his director’s notes. They felt different, inferior and destined. They wanted recognition, and they felt that they were justified “to use violence to realize your American right to be happy,” Marx wrote.

In short, they were mentally unbalanced.

Sondheim and Weidman have several characters interacting over the years. Booth, for example, urges some to act on their impulses.

In “Unworthy of Your Love,” Fromme sings of her love for mass murderer Charles Manson, and Hinckley says he wants to impress actor Jody Foster with his love.

“Gun Song” talks about how easy it is to shoot a gun. Guns are a crucial prop in the show, but the program says that all of them “are replicas that were procured from, checked and rendered inoperable by a weapons specialist.” They’re locked up between performances.

Perhaps the most telling and timely song is “Something Just Broke,” sung by the ensemble. This follows the scene when Oswald shot Kennedy and says that things won’t be the same.

In his director’s notes, Marx alludes to events that have taken place since “Assassins” was written. They include Jan. 6 and mass shootings.

All of the songs showcase Sondheim’s musical and lyrical genius, and all of them are performed well.

The actors are uniformly excellent singers and performers. Some, including Pinto, also dance well (choreography by assistant director Leslie Waggoner).

The multi-level set, with its collection of old TVs, radios and other items, is by scenic and props designer Christopher Fitzer.

Sound is by Jules Indelicato, lighting by John Bernard and costumes, wigs and makeup by Y. Sharon Peng. Jad Bernardo is the music director.

“Assassins” is thought-provoking, absorbing and entertaining for mature audiences.

Running about 105 minutes with no intermission, “Assassins” will continue through Feb. 12 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

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


Thursday, January 26, 2023

Laughter abounds in 'The Play That Goes Wrong'

Guests at Haversham Manor drink a toast to their departed host. (Photo by Scott Lasky)


It takes great skill and talent to stage a play that’s supposed to be as glitch-ridden as “The Play That Goes Wrong” by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields.

Luckily, Palo Alto Players’ cast and crew have an abundance of both in this 2012 play within a play. Six of the eight actors are double-cast, playing roles in the inner  play, “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” which is supposedly presented by an English company, the Cornley Drama Society.”

Its convoluted plot involves the murder of Charles Haversham (Drew Benjamin Jones on opening night, alternating with Christopher Mahle), the night of the party celebrating his engagement to Sandra (Michelle Skinner).

The suspects are everyone there that evening, including his brother, Cecil (Braden Taylor), and the butler, Perkins (Brandon Silberstein). Inspector Carter (Brad Satterwhite) is looking into the case as complications arise.

Along the way, everything that could possibly go wrong does. The Cornley actor playing Charles can’t get comfortable on the chaise. Decorative items fall off the wall. A stretcher tears apart. Even the upstairs library collapses.

Sandra disappears, forcing Annie (Jen Maggio, alternating with Damaris Divito), a reluctant, then preening stage hand to fill in for her. Cornley actors flub their lines.

The action evolves into hilarious farce, leaving the plot somewhat irrelevant and requiring the actors to be ever more acrobatic and agile. Small wonder some strenuous roles are double-cast.

Director Katie O’Bryon Champlin guides the cast through all this mayhem with spot-on timing. Great credit goes to scenic designers Patrick Klein and Kevin Davies for building a set fraught with danger while keeping the actors safe.

The fight and fall consultant is Dexter Fidler. Costumes are by Jenny Garcia, lighting by Carsten Koester and sound by Jeff Grafton. Others were crucial in  creating this show.

Plot is secondary to the visual and aural delights in this hilarious play with its talented cast and crew.

Running about two hours with an intermission, “The Play That Goes Wrong” will continue through Feb. 5 at the Lucie Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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