Saturday, August 2, 2014

Pride and Prejudice : Shady Shakespeare Theatre Company : A Capsule Review

                                                                            *** out of 4 stars

A modest, but nonetheless entertaining production of the timeless, early 19th century story of English manners and morals by Jane Austen. 

This recent stage adaptation of the classic novel pares down the narrative to its essentials and moves briskly under Angie Higgins' nimble hand. I hasten to add, however, that none of the wit, romance or social themes have been lost in the process.

The cast is uniformly good, buoyed by winning, smart performances by Jenna Stich as the redoubtable Elizabeth Bennet, and Jarrod Pirtle as the laconic aristocrat Mr. Darcy. They're given ample support by all concerned, highlighted by disarming, scene-stealing turns by Larry Barrott and Beverly Griffith as Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, respectively. 

Performed at the inviting, albeit somewhat rustic, setting of the Sanborn County Park amphitheatre, this is a fun evening at the theatre that deserves both your time and attention!

Stage Adaptation of the Jane Austen novel by Joseph Hanreddy & J.R. Sullivan
Two Acts, with one 15 min. intermission
Directed by Angie Higgins
Thru August 31st, 2014
Sanborn County Park, Saratoga
Arrive at least 30 mins.early for parking ($6.00); seating pads & a flashlight are strongly recommended!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

'Marry Me a Little' : TheatreWorks : A Capsule Review

It's a smartly staged and performed musical revue, featuring melodious vocals, with Sondheim's trademark dark humor and pathos successfully downplaying any sentimentality.

The chemistry between Sharon Reitkerk ("Her") and  A. J. Shively ("Him") is unmistakable, eclipsed only by their undeniable talent and charisma. 

A wonderful production!

Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Conceived and Developed by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene
One Act: 75 mins. with no intermission
Musical Director: William Liberatore
Directed by Robert Kelly
Thru June 29, 2014
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts

Friday, February 1, 2013

Promises, Promises : South Bay Musical Theatre : A Capsule Review

Promises, Promises, the new show at the South Bay Musical Theatre in Saratoga, features an impressive pedigree. With words and music by ‘60s pop icons Hal David and Burt Bacharach, and a book by the prolific Neil Simon – adapted from an Oscar-winning movie by Billy Wilder, no less – how can this musical comedy go wrong? Well, the fact is it went quite right when it debuted in 1968 on Broadway where it became a long-running commercial hit. And this fine community theatre production does not diminish that impressive legacy.

The story is ostensibly a light send-up, but the playwright does retain some of the trademark Wilder bittersweet wistfulness throughout, particularly in the second act. Depicting a pre-feminist era when sexual harassment was almost considered acceptable masculine behavior, the story is certainly an eye-opener in terms of the way women were treated 45 years ago.

Our protagonist, Chuck Baxter (Michael Rhone), is a young, fledgling accountant with a very large insurance company, climbing the corporate ladder by lending out his Manhattan apartment as “tryst central” for a coterie of adulterous, middle-aged executives.

As is de rigueur for the male dominated business office culture of the period, Chuck is on the make, and he has his eye on a waitress in the company cafeteria, Fran Kubelik (Cindy Powell). Unlike the others, however, he’s single and his intentions are strictly honorable.

Unfortunately, Fran is also in the crosshairs of his married, philandering boss, J.D. Sheldrake (a convincingly caddish Damian Marhefka). Of course, complications ensue as we root for Chuck and Fran to get together.

Michael Rhone is the real deal. A winning, ubiquitous presence on the Bay Area stage, he can read a line with uncanny nuance and comic timing; is equally proficient at both song and dance; and can conjure up priceless facial expressions without appearing cloy or affected. He was born to play this role, and he does so with just the right balance of irony and pathos. Bravo!

He’s given ample support by the large cast, including Ms. Powell in a splendid duet of the perennial favorite “I’ll never fall in love again”; Breigh Zack Finnerty as the inebriated and flirtatious bar patron Marge MacDougal; and Bob Visini as the kibitzing next-door neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss.

And the choreography by Lee Ann Payne, when not utilizing the entire talented ensemble to spectacular effect, is most affecting in the smaller numbers, including a finely tuned scene between Rhone and Marhefka (“It’s our little secret”).

While the denouement is perhaps not totally convincing, the play under Walter M. Mayes’ solid direction is, for the most part, quite entertaining. And the deft musical direction by Dan Singletary, who conducts an impressively large orchestra for a venue the size of the Civic Theatre (with a requisite strong horn section doing justice to the brilliant Bacharach compositions), seals the deal.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Reckless : San Jose Stage Company : A Capsule Review

Craig Lucas’ aptly named Reckless is a satiric fantasy set in the holiday season that is not quite in keeping with the merry tradition of the genre. But in its own special way this comic odyssey, which is as dark as it is hilarious, is as wonderful and indelible as anything Frank Capra could have imagined.

The intricate story features a resilient, albeit pollyannaish, protagonist Rachel Fitzsimmons (Halsey Varady), coping with a life depicted as a succession of 28 fanciful episodes. At first they appear haphazard, even surreal, but as the story unfolds the thematic underpinnings reveal themselves as both wisely deliberate and firmly grounded in reality.

The play starts with a euphoric Rachel, at home on Christmas Eve, reminiscing about her childhood memories of the festive occasion. But things go south very quickly, as her husband Tom (an affecting Will Springhorn Jr.) warns her that he’s placed a contract out on her life and that a hitman will be breaking in to kill her at any moment.  She narrowly slips away through their bedroom window, thus embarking on an unexpected and amazing journey into self-discovery.

Every principal character in the play is not exactly whom they appear to be; each one has adopted a persona in an attempt to flee a past that the playwright posits is simply inescapable. Mr. Lucas suggests that we are all inextricably tied to and affected by that which has preceded us. Moreover, he asserts that to find “meaning” in it all is a futile undertaking, and that all one can do is to come to terms with what has happened and move forward as best one can. And then, perhaps, the choices one makes will lead to a better existence or even redemption – or maybe not.
Halsey Varady, Michael Navarra and Katie O'Bryon
Rachel’s method for dealing with the cards she's dealt is to constantly verbalize her thoughts and observations and  to place a positive spin on all that befalls her - tantamount to a stream of consciousness monologue. Her denial and self-delusion may be disconcerting and even annoying at times, but it is an effective way of dissociating herself from the pain and loneliness that envelops her. Unfortunately, this coping strategy also serves to separate herself from her own identity.

Halsey Varady’s portrayal of the beleaguered heroine is a genuine tour de force, executing the voluminous lines with a manic intensity that would be exhausting to watch if not for her natural charm and technical virtuosity. Her timing is impeccable, made all the more difficult by the sign language she’s required to employ during many of her scenes. And despite the emotional distance required of the role, Ms. Varady somehow manages to convey an innocence and melancholy that draws one in. Brava!

The supporting cast are required to play multiple roles, and each member does an excellent job in striking the right chord between realism and the absurd. Of particular note are the versatile Dena Martinez as the many diverse therapeutic "doctors" who Rachel encounters along the way, and the superbly talented Michael Navarra and Katie O'Bryon as the couple who take her in early on.

And Kenneth Kelleher directs it all seamlessly and at a brisk pace, staging the many transitions with the clever use of props, whimsical costumes by Jean Cardinale, exquisite sound design by John Koss, and the creative lighting of the inimitable Michael Palumbo.

Don’t miss this latest, memorable entry by San Jose Stage Company that’s head and shoulders above the usual holiday fare.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Die Fledermaus : Opera San Jose : A Capsule Review

Johann Strauss, Jr.’s operetta, Die Fledermaus, is a Viennese comedy with roots in German farce and French vaudeville of the late 1800s. And indeed, from the opening bar of the Waltz King’s brilliant, melodic overture – conducted under the masterful baton of musical director David Rohrbaugh – the promise that fun times are about to ensue is clearly at hand. Thankfully, this wonderful production by Opera San Jose does not disappoint.

Although the plot involves infidelity, duplicity and revenge, it’s a frothy romp that waltzes its way onto your funny bone and doesn’t let go until the last bottle of bubbly is uncorked. Moreover, its many pleasures are made all the more accessible by the smart decision to recite the spoken dialogue in English – peppered with a few not too subtle modern references.

Gabriel von Eisenstein (tenor James Callon) is a banker’s assistant who’s about to serve a brief stint in jail for engaging in questionable derivative trading – sound familiar? But before he’s able to turn himself in, he’s invited by his friend, Dr. Falke (an impressive baritone Zachary Altman), to a fantasy ball hosted by an 18-year-old playboy, Prince Orlofsky (mezzo-soprano Nicole Birkland in a “breeches role”). Falke assures the reticent Gabriel that his friendship with the warden will ensure his safe surrender the following morning.

In reality this invitation is part of an elaborate scheme by Falke to seek revenge for being the victim of a practical joke in which Gabriel had left him drunk and humiliated in a public square dressed as a bat (aka fledermaus). The plan is to expose the philandering Gabriel for the true scoundrel that he is.

Rosalinde, (soprano Melody King), Gabriel’s wife, sees her husband’s imminent departure as a chance to rekindle a romance with Alfred (a melodious and hilarious tenor Michael Dailey), a former suitor and opera singer who serenades her at every opportunity. Things go awry very quickly, however, and in a case of mistaken identity the hapless Alfred ends up serving Gabriel’s prison sentence!

Of course, ultimately everyone (except poor Alfred) ends up at the prince’s party under disguise, including Adele (soprano Jillian Boye), Gabriel’s spirited chambermaid.

Lyric tenor Mr. Callon handles both the acting and singing chores with equal aplomb, displaying a refined tone and an affable comedic sense. His "watch duet" with Ms. King – “My eyes will soon be dim” – is nicely conceived and executed, and he comes alive vocally in the final terzett with Ms. King and Mr. Dailey (“A strange adventure”).

Unfortunately, one is obliged to add that Mr. Callon’s duet with Mr. Altman (“Come with me to the souper") was virtually drowned out by the vibrant orchestra on opening night.

Ms. King’s performance is fine if not somewhat subdued throughout, and her vocalizations noticeably falter during the closing passages of the beautiful csardas aria “Sounds from home.” She does find her stride, however, in Act 3 (in the aforementioned “A strange adventure”).

The vivacious Ms. Boye is a sheer delight and just about steals the show, displaying impeccable comic timing and a crystalline voice. Her high notes are clear and open, and she performs the demanding coloratura phrasings of  “My lord marquis” (“The Laughing Song”) with confidence and considerable panache. Brava!
  Cast A: Soprano Jillian Boye as Adele
The remaining cast is uniformly good, including bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala (“Frank”), and Kelly Houston in a non-singing role (“Frosch”).

Marc Jacobs directs all elements with consummate skill, employing props as exorbitant as a large Faberge egg, and taking full advantage of his superb set and costume designers (Charlie Smith and Cathleen Edwards, respectively) and utilizing the talented, ebullient chorus (under chorus master Andrew Whitfield) to full effect.

Mr. Jacobs’ attention to detail, however, is perhaps best exemplified during the quieter moments of the lovely opening sequence of the third act that feature some excellent acting technique by Mr. Musik-Ayala. Bravi!

And one must not forget the spectacular and clever choreography provided by Robyn Tribuzi – particularly in the final scenes of Act 2 ("Unter Donner und Blitz”; “Ha, what joy, what a night of delight”) that include an elaborate “falling dominoes” number – performed with the invaluable assistance of her dancers and the entire ensemble.

This is another rousing entry in Opera San Jose’s far too short 29th anniversary season.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson : San Francisco Playhouse : A Capsule Review

San Francisco Playhouse opens its milestone tenth season with a bang, sporting a new, more spacious venue and a timely production that can only be described as a masterpiece in post-modern cynicism.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is a darkly satiric shot between the eyes of our nation’s history and political system. And, for better or worse, it’s also an unmistakable exercise in American self-loathing.

Ensemble with Jackson (Ashkon Davaran) pushing him to run for office.
Librettist Alex Timbers and composer Michael Friedman’s musical is not only a merciless indictment of our political tradition and institutions, however. It’s also a slap in the face and antithesis of virtually every convention held dear during musical theatre's "golden age." In that sense it’s a sneering rejection of an important part of our culture, too.

It’s probably not a stretch that Rodgers and Hammerstein would turn over in their graves if they knew what had become of the genre they helped create. Pop sentimentality and memorable melodies have been supplanted with grunge angst and dissonant harmonics, featuring such ironic lyrics as:

         A wise woman once wrote that illness is not metaphor.
               So why do I feel sick when I look at you?
               There is this illness in me and I need to get it out, so when I bleed
               It's not blood, it's a metaphor for love.”

Michael Barrett Austin∗, El Beh, Ashkon Davaron, Angel Burgess, Lucas Hatton Celebrate Presidential Victory

Andrew Jackson is parodied as a president with a guitar wielding, tight-jeaned brand of celebrity populism that’s indistinguishable from a rock icon. The work suggests that his deluded sense of entitlement and genocidal tendencies are emblematic of the country’s character, and that the public adoration he garners is both hollow and fickle. It’s hard to imagine a more hopeless and depressing depiction of the American zeitgeist.

That being said, however, the high-energy cast is anything but enervating and does not succumb to the downbeat message. 

Ensemble with Jackson (Ashkon Davaran) pushing him to run for office.
Ashkon Davaran is mesmerizing as the charismatic Commander-in-Chief, adopting the narcissistic persona with a frenetic abandon. It’s a genuine star making turn, and his convincing vocalizations only serve to elevate his remarkable performance.

El Beh sings solo “10 Little Indians”
Each member of the remaining young cast embrace their multiple roles with equal vigor, with the impressive and versatile ensemblist and cello-player El Beh (“Ten Little Indians”) among the many standouts.

Except for some occasional sound issues, all elements of this otherwise fine-tuned show are first-rate. John Tracy’s direction is brisk and his staging is ingenious – complemented by the tight handiwork of musical director Jonathan Fadner and the lighting of Kurt Landisman. And the company has finally found a home at the Walter Kasper Teufel, Jr. Auditorium (in the Kensington Park Hotel) that will undoubtedly better suit its oeuvre.

One would be remiss, however, without acknowledging the magnificent contribution of maestro designer Nina Ball. As the play lays bare the American psyche, so does the symbolism of her (capitol) domed, girdered steel framework and oval-shaped, E pluribus unum sealed set. It is an outstanding example of inspired, thematic design. Brava!

Presidents Van Buren, Calhoun, Clay and Monroe conspire to keep Jackson out of Presidency (William Elsman, Michael Barrett Austin, Safiya Fredericks, Lucas Hatton

The show runs through November 24th. (90 minutes with no intermission.)

~Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Updated: 10/16/2012 08:20:00 AM PDT

Friday, September 21, 2012

Anything Goes : South Bay Musical Theatre : A Capsule Review

It’s no wonder that Cole Porter’s Anything Goes has had several revivals since its Broadway debut in 1934 – it’s a veritable showcase for brilliant, American pop standards. And its book is a classic example of the early days of musical comedy theatre, with an unmistakable satirical subtext if one wants to look beneath the otherwise clever farce.

The story is much too convoluted to explain, but it involves the madcap antics of a potpourri of passengers (and stowaways) aboard the luxury ocean liner "SS American" that's bound for England. It features the usual stereotypical characters and absurd plot elements, including fun disguises, mistaken identities, unexpected plot twists and a happy, matrimonial ending for any and all matched pairs so inclined. And this South Bay Musical Theatre presentation, under the deft hand of director/choreographer Afton Bolz, does it all with considerable charm and aplomb.

Glenna Murillo, who can truly belt-out a tune like no one else, makes for a convincing Reno Sweeney, the earthy nightclub singer and part-time evangelist, whose affections for the uninterested Billy Crocker (Stephane Alwyan) are inexplicably redirected towards the upper crust British buffoon Evelyn Oakley (Adrien Gleason).

Sweeney is a role that Ethel Merman made famous in the original ‘30s production, and the impressive Ms. Murrillo fills her shoes quite nicely - her first act finale rendition of “Anything Goes” is a certified show-stopper.

Stephane Alwyn’s portrayal, both in terms of acting and singing, is a spot-on evocation of the style and essence of a debonair leading man of the period. His mid-Atlantic elocution is impeccable, resisting any temptation to resort to lazy caricature. It’s obviously a product of much preparation and personal affinity for the part. Bravo!

Overall, the vocalizations are quite good, with an unexpectedly resonant and dynamic vocal performance of “The Gypsy in Me” by Mr. Gleason, which is sung in duet with Ms. Murillo and sweetly choreographed by Ms. Bolz.

And local stage veteran Dave Leon’s inebriated, Lockjaw personification of affluent “Yale Man” Eli Whitney, is undoubtedly the comic standout for the evening. I hasten to add, however, that he’s given stiff competition for that honor by both Shawn Bender and Kayvon Kordestani-Thompson, as New York gangster "Moonface" Martin and his moll, Erma, respectively.

It’s a genuine good time at the theatre.