Thursday, December 7, 2023

Quirky characters face challenges in 'Spelling Bee'


Blake Kevin Dwyer of San Mateo plays hippie-reared Leaf Coneybear. (Kevin Berne photo)

Middle school, once known as junior high, is often a time of angst and anxiety. Just ask the six finalists in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”

Each of the three boys and three girls (played by adult actors) has his or her concerns and, in the case of this musical comedy presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, some quirks, which they display as they try to spell words that most people have never heard of.

The proceedings are overseen by Rona Lisa Peretti (Molly Bell), a Realtor, along with vice principal Douglas Panch (Christopher Reber), who gives out the words and, if requested, their definitions and use in a sentence.

When they misspell a word, Mitch Mahoney (Anthone Jackson), who’s fulfilling part of his community service requirements, gives them a juice box and escorts them off the stage. (In previous productions, he also gave out hugs.)

They’re joined by four good sport audience members. At first these volunteers get easy words like “cow” and “Google,” but soon the words get obscure, leading to an exit.

Although Meredith McDonough’s direction is sometimes too fast-paced, the show is well served by talented actors who create likable characters. McDonough was director of TheatreWorks’ New Works Festival from 2009 to 2013. She was called in late in the process after the original director, James Monroe Iglehart, had to back out because “Spamalot,” in which he was performing, was moving to Broadway.

Iglehart played Mitch Mahoney in the Post Street Theatre production in San Francisco in 2006. He also has appeared in a number of TheatreWorks shows. He’s credited as creative producer for this show.

Bell is another “Spelling Bee” veteran, having played a finalist in the San Jose Repertory Theatre production in 2009. Although everyone in the cast acts and sings well, she’s a standout.

The show has an interesting book by Rachel Sheinkin and ear-pleasing music and lyrics by William Finn. William Liberatore serves as music director.

“Spelling Bee” isn’t a holiday show per se, but the set by Andrea Bechert evokes the season with colorful gift boxes, large candles and a reindeer wearing sunglasses arrayed around the stage. Lighting is by Steven B. Mannshardt with sound by Jeff Mockus, choreography by Lee Ann Payne and costumes by Courtney Flores-Kerrigan.

TheatreWorks is celebrating a successful fund-raising drive, “Save TheatreWorks Now” that ended Nov. 30. It called for $3 million to make sure the company could produce the rest of its season. Instead it raked in $4 million from more than 700 donors.

Running about an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” will continue through Dec. 24 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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


Sunday, December 3, 2023

Hillbarn stages musical theater classic, 'The Sound of Music'

Sophia Alawi is an ebullient Maria. (Photo by Mark Kitaoka)

Because of its memorable music, a plot based on a true story and themes of the power of music and resilience, “The Sound of Music” remains a classic of American musical theater.

Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory’s production does full justice to all of those qualities.

Set in a mountainous area of Austria in 1938, the book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse features a would-be nun, Maria Rainer (Sophia Alawi), whom the Mother Abbess (Sarah Jebian) says isn’t quite ready  for the convent life. Instead she sends Maria to the home of retired navy Captain Georg von Trapp (Jared Lee), a widower whose seven children need a governess.

There she finds a home where the children are treated like martinets with no opportunity for fun or play. Maria changes all that, mainly with music, teaching the children to sing through “Do-Re-Mi.”

Her outspokenness and the results she achieves with the children soon soften Captain von Trapp’s heart and blossom into love.

Their happiness is clouded by the Nazi incursion into Austria and an order for the captain to command a German ship. He’s greatly troubled because his loyalties lie entirely with Austria, but he fears the consequences if he doesn’t obey the order.

An opportunity to escape arises when his friend Max (Brad Satterwhite) arranges for the family to sing at an important music festival.  Singing “So Long, Farewell,” the family exits the stage one or two at a time and takes refuge in the abbey. They then decide to escape to the safety of Switzerland by crossing over Maria’s beloved mountains.

Directed by Dennis Lickteig, known to Gilbert and Sullivan fans for his work with Lamplighters in San Francisco, the cast is topnotch.

Chief among the standouts is Alawi’s ebullient Maria with her crystal clear soprano voice and captivating stage presence.

Another outstanding singer is Jebian as the wise, kindly Mother Abbess. Everyone else is good, too, especially the likable youngsters, making for full enjoyment of the music by Richard Rodgers with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.

And what music it is with such hummers as the title song along with “My Favorite Things,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” “Edelweiss” and more.

Jayne Zaban adds some nice choreographic touches, most notably in the dancing by telegram delivery boy Rolf (Nicki Weppner) and Liesl von Trapp (Chloe Fong) in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.”

On the keyboard, Debra Lambert directs eight musicians in offstage. The serviceable set is by Hunter Jameson with sound by Joshua Price, lighting by Sarina Renteria and costumes by Stephanie Dittbern.

Running more than two hours and 45 minutes with one intermission, “The Sound of Music” will continue through Dec. 17 at Hillbarn Theatre. 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411, Ext. 2, or visit

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Palo Alto Players stages movie classic, 'The Wizard of Oz'


They’re off to see the Wizard (from left):  Michael D. Reed as the Cowardly Lion, Noelle Wilder as the Scarecrow, Lauren D’Ambrosio as a crow, Ian Catindig as the Tinman and Libby Einav (alternating with Penelope DaSilva) as Dorothy Gale.   (Scott Lasky photo)

A movie that remains vivid in my memory is “The Wizard of Oz” starring Judy Garland.

Palo Alto Players’ stage production of L. Frank Baum’s classic story, as adapted by John Kane for the Royal Shakespeare Company, aims to create such memories in new generations while recalling them for the older crowd.

Directed and choreographed by Stacey Reed, the PAP cast of two dozen kids and adults does justice to the adventures of young Dorothy Gale (Penelope DaSilva, double-cast with Libby Einav) after a tornado swoops her from her Kansas home to the Emerald City of Oz.

While she’s on a quest just to get home, she meets three characters who have their own needs that they hope the wizard can provide.

The Scarecrow (Noelle Wilder) wants a brain. The Tinman (Ian Catindig) wants a heart, and the Cowardly Lion (Michael D. Reed) wants courage.

Together they overcome various perils, thanks in part to Glinda the Good Witch of the North (Jessica Ellithorpe), who grants their wishes. Their archenemy is the Wicked Witch of the West (Barbara Heninger).

When they finally see the wizard (Chloë Angst), it’s a big letdown.

But Dorothy, with her beloved dog Toto, finds her way back by clicking the magic ruby red slippers and repeating “There’s no place like home” three times.

Thus she wakes up in a wagon in her yard surrounded by familiar faces. It was all a dream brought on by the tornado. Her companions in Oz were actually people in her home life.

Although the reviewed Nov. 5 production had a shaky start, it soon picked up steam, thanks to a talented cast. Among the standouts is Heninger, who does double duty as the Wicked Witch of the West as well as Miss Gulch, the cantankerous neighbor who wants to take Toto away from Dorothy.

Wilder as the Scarecrow and farmhand Hunk is a deaf performer who signs and mouths their lines and songs while outstanding singer Lauren D’Ambrosio, costumed as a crow, speaks and sings them. The limber-limbed Wilder also is such a talented dancer and actor that the deafness becomes secondary.

Another outstanding singer is the imposing Reed as the Cowardly Lion. His “If I Were King of the Forest” displays his operatic bass voice. He does double duty as designer of the fearsome tornado projections.

The orchestral music is recorded while Rachel Michelberg serves as music and vocal director of the music and lyrics by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg.

The colorful costumes are by Jenny Garcia. The set and props are by Kevin Davies with lighting by Edward Hunter and sound by Sheraj Ragoobeer.

The two-and-a-half hour running time might be a bit much for the very youngest viewers, many of whom squirmed and talked aloud. (PAP advises that no children under 3 will be admitted.) Still, the show is a good introduction to quality, live theater and an enjoyable experience.

“The Wizard of Oz” continues through Nov. 19 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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



Thursday, October 12, 2023

Playwright explores mysterious disappearance in ‘Mrs. Christie’

Jennifer Le Blanc (left) is Agatha Christie with Elissa Beth Stebbins as  Charlotte. (Kevin Berne photo)

        Acclaimed mystery writer Agatha Christie became the center of her own, still unsolved, mystery in 1926. That’s when she disappeared for 11 days and never said why or where she went or what she did during that time.
        Playwright Heidi Armbruster theorizes what might have happened in the intriguing “Mrs. Christie,” being staged by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.    
        The action shifts between the past and present as Christie fan Lucy (Nicole Javier) tries to figure out what happened by seeking a missing notebook  from the author’s papers. 
        Her rival in the search is William (Max Tachis, who doubles as Christie’s publisher, Collins). She’s aided by an older woman, Jane (Lucinda Hitchcock Cone). 
        In the past scenes, Christie (Jennifer Le Blanc) frets over the affair that her husband, Archie (Aldo Billingslea), is having with the much younger Nancy Neele (Kina Kantor). Christie’s secretary, Charlotte (Elissa Beth Stebbins), tends to her needs and listens.
        The play posits that Christie disappears by checking into a hotel under a false name. She seems to lose all track of time despite efforts by the maid, Mary (Stebbins).
        She’s also confronted by Le Detective (William Thomas Hodgson), a stand-in for her fictional sleuth Poirot.
        As past and present characters meet in her home, a possible murder gives Le Detective a chance to show his prowess.
        The action is easy to follow because of artistic director Giovanna Sardelli’s direction and a talented cast that clearly defines each character. The only drawback is that sometimes the dialogue is hard to understand because of the English accents.
        The flexible set is by Christopher Fitzer with lighting by Wen-Ling Liao and sound by James Ard. Cathleen Edwards designed the handsome period costumes.    
        Running about two hours with an intermission, “Mrs. Christie” will continue through Oct. 29 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.
        For tickets and information, call (877) 662-8978 or visit


Monday, October 9, 2023

Hillbarn opens 83rd season with 'Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery'

Michael Champlin (left) is John Watson, Alicia M.P. Nelson is Actor 3, and George Psarras is Sherlock Holmes. (Tracy Martin photo)


Five talented actors take Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory audiences on a fun-filled romp through Ken Ludwig's "Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery."

Two men play Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. John Watson. Two other men and a woman, called Actors 1, 2 and 3, play three dozen or so male and female characters.

The cast is so small because in Ludwig’s interpretation, a theater company was supposed to travel to the Theatre Royal of Barnhill-on-Foster in Hampshire, England, in 1892. However, all but five of them missed the train, and all but a few trunks of costumes arrived, Watson (Michael Champlin) explains.In true show biz tradition, though, the intrepid troupe makes do with what it has. 

    Sir Henry Baskerville, a Texan who has inherited his title and a tidy fortune, has asked Holmes (George Psarras) and Watson to his newly inherited estate in the desolate moors to investigate the mysterious death of the previous heir.

Moreover, Sir Henry has received an unsigned note warning him not to go to the estate, which is supposedly stalked by a huge, vicious dog.

Holmes and Watson soon encounter several characters, some of them quite strange. After a series of adventures and close calls, they unravel the mystery.

As Actor 1, Ted Zoldan’s characters include an attorney and an eccentric butterfly chaser. Actor 2, Darrien Cabreana, is seen mostly as Sir Henry. Actor 3, Alicia M.P. Nelson, plays several female characters, but like her colleagues, she cross-dresses. Each character is clearly defined, thanks to Leslie Martinson’s astute direction of this versatile cast. 

Costumes designed by Nolan Miranda aid quick character changes with minimal additions or deletions, but one can only imagine how busy the stage crew is behind the scenes. Lighting and projections are by Spenser Matubang. Cindy Ng designed the props, which also aid in character definition, Kevin Davies designed the functional set. Jeff Mockus’s sound design features snatches from classics like “Pictures at an Exhibition” and operas like “Tosca” and “Falstaff.”

Running about two hours with an intermission, “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” has opened Hillbarn’s 83rd season, which has a new artistic director, Steve Muterspaugh.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Talented, energetic cast enlivens 'Matilda the Musical'


Doug Santana as Miss Agatha Trunchbull harangues her students. (Photo by Scott Lasky)

A talented cast of 29 energetic adults and youngsters brings “Matilda the Musical” to the stage for Palo Alto Players.

Adapted from Roald Dahl’s popular story, the plot focuses on Matilda Wormwood (Sofia Zamora, who alternates with Araceli Grace), an exceptionally bright, imaginative little girl.

Even though her mother (Brigitte Losey) would rather be dancing than mothering, and her father (Randy Lee), a sleazy used car salesman, disparages her because she’s not a boy, she taught herself to read – and not just kids books but the classics.

She gets adult support from a librarian, Mrs. Phelps (Kayvon Kordestani), whom she entertains with elaborate stories, and from her teacher, Miss Honey (Madelyn Davis), who recognizes and encourages her intelligence.

The super villain of the play is Miss Agatha Trunchbull (Doug Santana), the cruel school principal.

Because of the youngsters’ treble voices and the cast’s use of English accents, the lyrics and some of the dialogue are hard to understand. Thus it’s not easy to follow the plot if one isn’t familiar with it, but the acting helps to convey the gist of the story.

Director Janie Scott and choreographer Whitney Janssen probably had their challenges in working with so many kids, but they have molded a precision, disciplined ensemble. Hence it’s great fun watching how well everyone does.

The adults are all noteworthy, especially Davis as the supportive Honey, Losey as the self-centered Mrs. Wormwood and Santana as Miss Trunchbull, who galumphs about the stage and seems to delight in making the students’ lives miserable. It’s a drag role but not campy.

Dahl’s book was adapted for the musical by Dennis Kelly. Tim Minchin supplied the music and lyrics with orchestrations and more music by Chris Nightingale.

The music is well executed by music director/adult vocal director Amanda Ku, who leads the pit orchestra from the keyboard. Pamela Serrano does a great job as the youth vocal director.

Kudos to costume designer Greet Jaspaert, especially Losey’s outfits. Set and props designer Kevin Davies aids smooth transitions between scenes. Lighting is by Pamila Z. Gray, sound by Jeff Grafton.

Those who aren’t familiar with the story would do well to look up a synopsis beforehand, but most of the adults and youngsters at the Sept. 10 matinee seemed to know the story and reacted enthusiastically.

Advance ticket sales were so brisk that Palo Alto Players added another Saturday matinee.

“Matilda the Musical” will continue through Sept. 24 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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





Wednesday, August 2, 2023

TheatreWorks to present 20th New Works Festival

"My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding," written by "Come From Away" duo Irene Sankoff and David Hein was presented in the 2017 New Works Festival.

Audiences for TheatreWorks Silicon Valley will have a chance to see what might become the next big hit when the company presents its 20th anniversary New Works Festival Aug. 11-20 in Palo Alto.

Some of the hits that have emerged from the festival have included Tony-winning “Memphis” as well as “Nan and the Lower Body,” “Jane Austen’s Emma” and others.

This year’s event will feature staged readings of one musical, three plays and some special events. In a staged reading, the actors use scripts with limited movement and no sets or costumes.

Dinner and a conversation with playwrights David Henry Hwang and Rajiv Joseph start the festivities at 8 p.m. Aug. 11. Admission is $325 for both events or $75 for the conversation only.

“Happy Pleasant Valley: A Senior Sex Scandal Murder Mystery Musical” by Min Kahng and directed by Jeffrey Lo, is the first new work, playing at 8 p.m. Aug. 12, 7 p.m. Aug. 16 and 8 p.m. Aug. 19. When a woman learns that her grandmother is about to be kicked out of her senior apartment, she springs into action. Grandma is in hot water because her active sex life seems to kill the men she sleeps with.

Coming up next is a dark comedy, “Nerve” by Minita Gandhi,” at 3 p.m. Aug. 13 and 3 p.m. Aug. 19. Described as a multigenerational journey that explores the legacy and the love of food, it will include dishes cooked on stage and served to the audience.

Food also is involved in “Madeleines” by Bess Welden at 8 p.m. Aug. 17 and 3 p.m. Aug. 20. Jewish sisters, whose mother has just died, grapple “with how to love each other through haunted pasts, shared grief and the solace of baking together.” Leslie Martinson directs.

Giovanna Sardelli, the festival’s longtime director who has just been named TheatreWorks artistic director, directs, “Low Expectations” by Michael Gaston, slated for 7 p.m. Aug. 15 and noon Aug. 19. Encouraged to write about his family, Gaston wrote a true monologue about relatives during the Civil War and later and a fictional short story set in Northern California. They’re combined into a play with music.

Besides the conversation with playwrights Joseph and Hwang, special events will include a performance by actor and transgender activist Shakina followed by an after party at 7 p.m. Aug. 18. Tickets are $150 for the show and party, $50 for the show only.

The festival will wrap up with a chance to meet and hear from the playwrights and composers at noon Aug. 20. Moderated by Lo, TheatreWorks casting director and literary manager, it will allow questions by the audience.

Season passes for the staged readings and the latter are $60 ($55 for Season 53 subscribers). Tickets for it and the individual readings are $20. There are no assigned seats.

All events will take place at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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


Tuesday, June 20, 2023

'Puffs' relates seven years at school of magic


Their classmates challenge (from right) Megan (Michelle Skinner) and Wayne (Will Livingston). 
Photo by Scott Lasky

Matt Cox’s “Puffs,” subtitled “or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic,” is being staged by Palo Alto Players.

Inspired by the enormously popular Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, it takes place at the same time that Harry is attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in England. However, it’s not Harry’s story. Rather it’s the story of other students, called Puffs.

It features an ensemble cast of 14 mostly young adults. It revolves around three of the students: Wayne (Will Livingston) and his friends Oliver (Nicholas Athari) and Megan (Michelle Skinner). Another major character is the Narrator (Tiffany Nwogu).

During their seven years together, they encounter numerous challenges and dangers.

Harry Potter fans probably will recognize many of the characters and events mentioned. Those who aren’t at familiar with the series might find themselves wondering what’s going on despite a talented, likable cast.

Director Kristin Walter doesn’t help because she allows too much shouting and jumping around. Group hugs get to be old hat.

These factors probably contributed to the reason why several people left during intermission of the reviewed June 18 matinee.

On the other hand, many in the audience seemed to enjoy it, often laughing throughout the performance and cheering loudly at the end.

The purposely gloomy set is by Kevin Davies with lighting by Edward Hunter, sound design by the playwright and costumes by Jenny Garcia. Brian Metolius composed the background music.

According to a PAP statement, the show “is not authorized, sanctioned or endorsed by J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros. or any person or company associated with the Harry Potter books, films or play.”

Running about two and a half hours with an intermission, “Puffs” will continue through July 2 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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


Thursday, June 15, 2023

'Steel Magnolias' blossoms at TheatreWorks

Shelby (Jasmine Milan Williams, center) shows pictures of her baby to (from left) Annelle (Alexandra Lee), Clairee (Marcia Pizzo), Ouiser (Nancy Carlin) and Truvy (Lisa Strum). Kevin Berne photo

“Steel Magnolias,” playwright Robert Harling’s loving portrait of women in a small Louisiana town, is being staged by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

Harling didn’t intend to write a play. He just wanted to write something for his nephew to know more about Harling’s sister, the boy’s mother.

Afflicted with diabetes, she defied medical advice by having a baby and thereby overtaxing her body. Her kidneys failed.

She went on dialysis until she received a kidney transplant from her mother, but it failed. She died when the boy was 2 years old.

Taking on a life of their own, Harling’s recollections evolved into a play set in a beauty shop. Every Saturday morning six women gather there to get their hair done, exchange recipes and talk, mostly about themselves and their families.

Covering about 2 ½ years, the play shows how these women cope and get on with their lives.

Earlier productions, including the one that TheatreWorks staged at the Burgess Theater in Menlo Park in 1991, have featured an all-white cast. However, director Elizabeth Carter has selected a multi-racial cast of white, Black and Asian women.

Their ethnicity doesn’t matter. Their warm camaraderie and caring do.

The shop is wedged between the patio and garage at the home of Truvy (Lisa Strum), the owner.

Her regular customers include M’Lynn (Dawn L. Troupe); her daughter, Shelby (Jasmine Milan Williams); and two neighbors, Clairee (Marcia Pizzo) and Ouiser (Nancy Carlin).

In addition, Truvy has just hired Annelle (Alexandra Lee), a young newcomer to the town.

As the play opens, Shelby and M’Lynn are having their hair done for Shelby’s wedding that afternoon. Clairee, widow of the town’s recently deceased mayor, and the eccentric, curmudgeonly Ouiser arrive for their appointments.

In a later scene, Shelby announces that she’s pregnant, much to her mother’s dismay. When the baby arrives, it’s three months premature but survives.

In the meantime, Clairee has found new interests, including travel, theater and a male friend. She also has bought the local radio station. Ouiser, too, has started seeing an old boyfriend.

As the play proceeds, it becomes more serious, but it’s offset by the friendly banter, warmth and humor throughout the action.

Harling has a keen ear for Southern speech and hilarious comments. For example, Shelby loves pink and has used it for everything in her wedding, including the church. Her mother says the church looks like it has been sprayed with Pepto-Bismol.

Although the action opens in 1986, some moments are familiar today. For example, a local fundamentalist preacher objects to calling the town’s high school sports teams the Devils because it encourages Satanism.

Carter does a superb job of directing this ensemble cast while each actor creates a believable, very human character.

Adding to the play’s enjoyment is the detailed set by Andrea Bechert with lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt, costumes by Dana Rebecca Woods and sound by Christopher Sauceda.

The production’s only drawback is that some of the Southern accents are difficult to understand.

Otherwise, this is a highly entertaining play that captures the importance of friendship in women’s lives.

Running about 2 ½ hours with one intermission, it will continue through July 2 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

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







Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Hillbarn has a hit with 'The Producers'


Ulla (Renee Deweese Moran) dances for Max (Edward Hightower, left) and Leo (James M. Jones).

When Mel Brooks wrote the book (with Thomas Meehan), music and lyrics for a musical about a musical that was supposed to be a flop but turned out to be a hit, he created his own hit with “The Producers.” The stage version is based on the 1968 film of the same name.

Hillbarn Theatre & Conservatory is staging its own hit thanks go sharp direction and a talented cast and design team. All of these elements add up to laughter and enjoyment.

As the show opens, once-successful Broadway producer, the brash Max Bialystock (Edward Hightower) has just seen his latest show, “Funny Boy,” close after its opening night.

Shortly thereafter, a mousey accountant, Leo Bloom (James M. Jones), shows up to go over Max’s financial records. When he sees that $2,000 is still in the account, he comments that Max could make more money with a flop than a hit.

Max latches onto this comment and decides that he wants to produce a flop by finding the worst play, worst director, worst designers and worst actors for it. After some persuasion, Leo joins him as co-producer.

This leads them to “Springtime for Hitler,” a play by Hitler admirer Franz Liebkind (the versatile Keith Pinto), who forces them to meet several conditions before allowing them to produce it. These conditions include a silly dance and an oath swearing allegiance to Der Führer. Franz also keeps a collection of wing-flapping pigeons with Nazi insignia.

Once rights to the play are secured, Max and Leo prevail upon their worst director, Roger DeBris (John Mannion). He greets them wearing a glittering gown topped by a tall tiara. He looks like the Chrysler Building, one of the men says.

His sidekick is the tres gay Carmen Ghia (Jesse Cortez). His chosen designers also are quite gay. They decide that it’s important for the show’s success to “Keep It Gay.”

One other person who shows up in their orbit is a gorgeous blond Swedish woman, Ulla (Renee Deweese Moran), who celebrates her sexiness (“When You’ve Got It, Flaunt it”) and leaves both Leo and Max salivating.

Max then sets about raising money for the show via his usual route: romancing elderly women who like to play risqué games in return for giving him money.

Quite unexpectedly, “Springtime for Hitler” turns out to be a huge hit. The two producers’ financial manipulations lead to big trouble with the law, but of course there’s a happy ending.

Given the subject matter of “The Producers,” there’s a fine line between bawdy shtick and bad taste in the hilarious lines and situations. Director Erica Wyman-Abrahamson and her well-chosen actors stay on the right side of that line.

Recorded music provides instrumental accompaniment for the singing, which is overseen by music director Rick Reynolds.

Dancing is a huge part of the show’s enjoyment, thanks to choreography by Christopher Childers. Just one example is “Along Came Bialy,” in which several of Max’s women friends dance with their walkers.

Credit for the ingenious costumes goes to Y. Sharon Peng. Scenic designer Kevin Davies keeps the show moving along despite the numerous scene changes and Hillbarn’s smallish stage. The lighting is by Pamila Gray with sound by Sheraj Ragoobeer.

The 20-member cast is likable, performing the acting, singing and dancing with ease. Those in the ensemble create a variety of characters.

Running about two and a half hours with one intermission, “The Producers” will continue through May 14 at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City.

For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411, Ext. 2, or visit

Photo by Tracy Martin










Tuesday, May 2, 2023

SpongeBob SquarePants takes to the stage as a musical

"The SpongeBob Musical" cast  takes its curtain call. (Scott Lasky photo)

“SpongeBob SquarePants,” the popular TV cartoon series created by Stephen Hillenburg, has taken to the stage as “The SpongeBob Musical” presented by Palo Alto Players.

This version, with its book by Kyle Jarrow and songs by several rock artists, finds Bikini Bottom and its underwater inhabitants threatened with annihilation by a volcanic eruption coming in about 48 hours.

SpongeBob SquarePants (Joe Galang) and his friends Sandy Cheeks (Solona Husband) and Patrick Star (Rocky James Concepcion) take it upon themselves to ascend the volcano and try to plug it up, thus preventing the eruption.

Attempting to thwart them are Sheldon Plankton (Nico Jaochico) and his wife, Karen the Computer (Kristy Aquino).

In the meantime, The Mayor (Alea Selburn) thinks she can solve the problem by forming committees to study it – otherwise known as bureaucracy.

Others in SpongeBob’s sphere are Squidward Q. Tentacles (Andrew Cope); Eugene Krabs (Zachary Vaughn-Munck) and his daughter, Pearl (Gillian Ortega); Larry the Lobster (Nicholas Hintzman); and others.

PAP artistic director Patrick Klein has directed this production and created its colorful, versatile set. Richard Hall is musical director with vocal direction by D. Asa Stern.

The imaginative, ingenious costumes are by Raissa Marchetti-Kozlov with lighting by Edward Hunter and sound by Jeff Grafton.

The energetic, athletic choreography is by Stacey Reed.

The 23-member cast is outstanding, offering fine singing, dancing and acting. Galang as the ever-optimistic SpongeBob is especially noteworthy.

This show likely has its greatest appeal for people who are familiar with the TV series. The April 30 matinee was well received by many in the audience, with many of them cheering after every scene and singing along with the cast at its curtain call. However, those who know little or nothing about the series might not be so enthusiastic.

Running about two and a half hours with an intermission, “The SpongeBob Musical” will continue through May 14 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

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



Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Cross-border library site of 'A Distinct Society'


Manon (Carrie Paff) greets Shirin (Vaneh Assadourian) in the library. (Kevin Berne photo)

The border between Derby Line, Vermont, and Stanstead, Quebec, runs right through the Haskell Free Library and Opera House. It’s marked with tape across the library floor.

This actual geographic anomaly is the setting for Kareem Fahmy’s “A Distinct Society,” being given its world premiere by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in association with Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City.

The play takes place in November 2017 after the Trump administration imposed the so-called Muslim ban, which at the time didn’t allow citizens of seven majority Muslim countries to enter the United States.

Therefore, the library became a place where families separated by the ban could see one another.

In the play, Peyman Gilani (James Rana), a 50-year-old Iranian cardiac surgeon has gone there to see his daughter, Shirin (Vaneh Assadourian), a medical student in the U.S., and to give her some food.

Food is against library rules, says librarian Manon Desjardins (Carrie Paff), a French Canadian known as a Québécoise.

Furthermore, Bruce Laird (Kenny Scott), a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer assigned to the area, tells Peyman that he has only five minutes to visit with his daughter before he must leave.

Declan Sheehan (Daniel Allitt), a teenager from Ireland who is forced to attend a French language school in Quebec, sees much of this because he hangs out at the library.

Part of the reason is that he’s an avid fan of its fantasy adventure comic books, which he calls graphic novels. Another part is that his classmates give him a hard time, and he has no friends.

In the meantime, Bruce flirts with Manon, who agrees to have dinner with him before she plays the title character in Bizet’s “Carmen” in the opera house upstairs. After the opera, they return to the library, where he persuades her to dance on a table, which Carmen does in the opera.

Complications arise as Bruce tries to enforce the tougher rules dictated by his supervisor.

During the course of the play, the characters reveal more about themselves and their family backgrounds.

For example, Manon talks about the 1995 referendum asking Quebec citizens if they wanted to secede from Canada and form a distinct society. It failed in the close vote. Her parents had opposite views that eventually ended their marriage.

This production is skillfully directed by Giovanna Sardelli, TheatreWorks artistic associate and director of New Works, who elicits fine performances from all five actors.

Paff, for example, is a Bay Area favorite who creates a nuanced character. However, the character’s French accent tends to distance viewers who must focus on each word rather than the overall meaning.

The other characters also are multi-faceted, quite human and believable.

Jo Winiarski’s detailed, inviting set is filled with book-lined shelves, a children’s corner, a comfortable sofa and that border tape on the floor.

Costumes by Dina El-Aziz, lighting by Pamila Z. Gray and sound by Elton Bradman enhance the production.

Running about an hour and 35 minutes with no intermission, “A Distinct Society” will continue through April 30 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

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



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