Gaggles of gays ruffle feathers in La Cage

Curt Denham (left) is Georges and Ray Mendonca is Albin in Broadway by the Bay’s La Cage aux Folles. Below: Denham performs with Les Cagelles. Photos by Mark Kitaoka

The irony surrounding Friday’s opening-night for La Cage aux Folles at San Mateo’s Broadway by the Bay was sweet. Audience members showing up for this glitzy gay musical fairy tale were not able to park in the parking lot of the San Mateo Performing Arts Center (aka San Mateo High School) because there was a football game going on.

That’s right: it was the classic collision of quarterbacks and drag queens.

And I think the drag queens won – at least they were more entertaining.

I’m happy to tell you that this production, ably directed by Marc Jacobs and energetically choreographed by Robyn Tribuzi, is a solid La Cage. Leads Curt Denham as Georges, the master of ceremonies, and Ray Mendonca as Albin, the star drag queen known as Zaza, bring abundant talent and savoir faire, which keeps this large production rolling right along.

But what really delights me is the show itself. Jerry Herman, as I’ve said before, is a national treasure. He’s king of the old-fashioned, well-built show tune. Because his songs are catchy and hummable and, for the most part, as happy as can be, he’s not taken all that seriously as a composer. He’s old school, like Irving Berlin, and while Sondheim shows will be revered and revived for centuries, high schools and community theaters will be performing Herman shows as long as there’s a staircase for Dolly to descend.

Herman’s big three, Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage, are three of the most tuneful shows in the last half century, and it’s extraordinary that Dolly and La Cage are separated by nearly 20 years. Dolly was de rigueur in the early ’60s, in fact that old-fashioned kind of musical was having its last hurrah as Hair waited panting in the wings. By 1983, La Cage must have seemed positively prehistoric. Except that it was less a throwback and more a reminder of just how delightful a solid-gold musical comedy could be.

Also in the early ’80s, as the blight of the AIDS epidemic began its devastating reign, the notion of a splashy Broadway musical about two men – one of them a drag queen – happily married and raising a son was a novelty (and an offensive one to some). Twenty-seven years later, the world has changed enough, at least in California, the most recent battle ground for same-sex marriage, that the central gay love story has moved beyond quaint. It’s now just another marriage, and the conservative politicos who set the farcical plot in motion are completely recognizable types and not all that different from the conservatives of today. And they’re just as un-funny as they were in the early ’80s.

La Cage 1

Harvey Fierstein’s book marries classic farce and romance. The fact that his central lovebirds are two men seems less important than the quality of the romance. When Georges sings “Song on the Sand” to Albin, it’s a swoon-y moment for anyone who’s ever been so in love they’re not afraid to be corny or sentimental about it.

As sweetly sentimental as the show is, there’s a surprisingly dark element to it, and that comes in the form of son Jean-Michel’s behavior toward Albin, his step-father (or step-mother depending on the mode of dress). When Jean-Michel becomes engaged to the daughter of a right-wing nut who wants to shutter every drag club on the Riviera, the son would rather shame Albin into leaving the family home for a night than risk the shame of his father-in-law-to-be’s disapproval. Jean-Michel is outrageously mean to a man he supposedly loves, and the intensity of that bad behavior seems somewhat out of step with the frothy, spangly nature of the show. Of course that bad behavior leads to the show’s greatest moment: when Albin, deeply wounded by his step-son’s betrayal, affirms his self-worth in the spectacular anthem “I Am What I Am” – one of the great Act 1 enders of all time.

But if Albin were really able to connect with his dignity, as he seems to do in the song, would he really then allow himself to be trained in the ways of masculine behavior in the number “Masculinity”? I’m not convinced of that, but then again, I don’t need to be because the song ends up being so fun.

Any lapses in logic can be forgiven in a show that offers a life-affirming, live-in-the-moment show stopper like “The Best of Times.” Sure the song is repetitive and could have used another verse (or two), but it chokes me up every time. The first time I saw La Cage in London, some 25 years ago, I remember the effect of that number and experiencing for the first time the musical theater feel-good high – the high that made me a lifelong show tune fan.

I had that same feeling watching Broadway by the Bay’s La Cage, and it made me grateful all over again for musical theater – and especially for Jerry Herman.


Broadway by the Bay’s La Cage aux Folles continues through Oct. 6 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware Ave., San Mateo. Tickets are $20-$48. Call 650 579-5565 or visit

Broadway by the Bay’s musical man

As someone who has loved musicals since his formative years, Jim Gardia is certainly in the right business. And to think, he could have ended up as a swim coach.

In college, Gardia, who was a competitive swimmer, was seriously considering a career as a swim coach.

Jim Gardia

“But theater pulled me harder,” he says.

For six years he worked with Los Angeles’ acclaimed Reprise Theatre Company, both as managing director and as producing director. Last year, he left his native L.A. to come north. He is now the executive director of San Mateo’s Broadway by the Bay, replacing Greg Phillips, who left early last year to serve as executive director of Oregon’s Portland Center Stage.

A musical theater performer since childhood, Gardia is someone who has the musical in his bones. While with Reprise, he got to work on some great shows with some great talent. Here’s a sampling: Sunday in the Park with George with Kelli O’Hara and Manoel Felciano directed by Jason Alexander, Follies with Patty Duke, Vikki Carr, Harry Groener and Donna McKechnie, Anything Goes with Rachel York and Brent Barrett, City of Angels with Stephen Bogardus and Vicki Lewis and Zorba with Marc Kudisch and Judy Kaye.

As Gardia says, he didn’t leave Los Angeles or Reprise out of any kind of dissatisfaction. “I had been wanting to move to the Bay Area for years,” he says. “I saw an opportunity with Broadway by the Bay. Jason Alexander is running Reprise, so I left it in good hands.”

A high-level community theater, Broadway by the Bay opens its 44th season this week with the Gershwin musical Crazy for You. With nearly 7,000 season subscribers and more than 6,000 single show ticket sales per production, BBB is the biggest theater on the Peninsula and has a reputation for big, splashy musicals with giant casts and strong production values.

Coming into such an established organization, Gardia, now a resident of Half Moon Bay, says he doesn’t have any plans to change the Broadway by the Bay vision. “What they do thrills me. This format works. I’m here to help make change if it’s needed, but I don’t see the need. We can buff up here and there, but nothing’s broken.”

Nothing in the company may be broken, but there is something big that has gone bust: the economy. Opening a new season in the midst of a recession is something that weighs on every performing arts company at this moment, especially after having seen American Musical Theatre of San Jose cease operation last year.

“Of course the recession is something we have to prepare for,” Gardia says. “We’ve cut our budget, gone line by line and cut where we could. I do not like cutting anything that goes on stage because that’s what we do. Everyone on the board has cut back where they can.”

Ticket prices have gone up, according to Gardia, by “a couple dollars.” But, he adds, you can still see a BBB show for $20 at the lowest level and under $50 at the highest.

“One of our goals is to keep these shows affordable,” Gardia says. “We want this to be for everyone, especially during these times. With this kind of musical entertainment, you can walk into the theater and get carried away for a couple of hours. That’s essential to our psyche. Our job continues to be bringing entertainment to the masses.”

>Also coming this season, whose theme is “The best is yet to come”: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I (July 16-Aug. 2), The Full Monty (Sept. 17-Oct. 4) and the composer showcase, Broadway Up Close and Personal: A Tribute to Cy Coleman (Nov. 5-8).

Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein are familiar names at BBB. But the work of composer David Yazbeck, the man behind The Full Monty, is not. Also new to the BBB stage is the notion of male strippers.

“Full Monty is a little riskier kind of show for us,” Gardia says. “But think about the storyline: unemployed steel workers in Buffalo trying to figure out how they can raise money. It says a lot about the world right now, and every time I’ve seen the show, the audience leaves with huge smiles on their faces.”

This will be the third year that BBB has offered the composer showcase after previous outings honor Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Schwartz. Gardia says subscribers weren’t sure about the composer showcase at first but have warmed to it.

“I think people definitely see it as a highlight of the season now,” Gardia says. The Cy Coleman tribute will feature Coleman collaborator David Zippel and ASCAP’s Michael A. Kirker joined by Broadway performers Lillias White and Jason Graae.

“One of the things we hope to do with the composer showcase is expand it into a master class of some kind for our Youth Theatre and Musical Theatre conservatories,” Gardia says.

Broadway by the Bay’s Crazy for You runs April 2-19 at the San Mateo Center for Performing Arts, 600 Delaware Ave., San Mateo. Tickets are $17-$48. Call 650-579-5565 or visit for information

Review: `Stephen Schwartz and Friends’

Out of the ruins and rubble
Out of the smoke
Out of our night of struggle
Can we see a ray of hope?
One pale thin ray reaching for the day

We can build a beautiful city
Yes, we can; Yes, we can …

Friday night at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz diverged from his set list after opening his show, Stephen Schwartz and Friends, with the sweet “Chanson” from his 1976 show The Baker’s Wife.

Sitting at the grand piano, the diminutive Schwartz, 60, warned the sound and lighting crew that he was going rogue. Inspired by the election of Barack Obama and heartened by watching the president-elect’s first press conference that afternoon, he shuffled aside the song “Reluctant Pilgrim” so he could sing “Beautiful City,” a paean to hope from his 1973 hit Godspell.

The expertly chosen, inspirational song, which echoes Obama’s rally cry of “Yes we can!” was slightly out of Schwartz’s range, but when the spirit moves you, notes hardly matter.

In the 90-minute Schwartz showcase, which closes out Broadway by the Bay’s 43rd season (and continues with shows at 2 and 8 p.m. today, Saturday, Nov. 8, and at 1:30 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9), the veteran composer shared the spotlight with three dynamically different singers: Tony-winner Debbie Gravitte, cabaret and Broadway vet Liz Callaway, and award-winning cabaret crooner Scott Coulter.

With Schwartz at the piano, each of the singers had a defining moment. For Gravitte, it was playing the waitress Dolores from Schwartz’s adaptation of the recently departed Studs Terkel’s Working, who elevates the level of service in “It’s an Art.”

For Callaway, there were two great moments: in the sadly sweet “Lion Tamer” (from 1974’s The Magic Show) and her bravura version of “Meadowlark” from The Baker’s Wife, which is a song she has been singing for years and sings just about better than anybody else. She also joined forces with Coulter on the “love medley” with Callaway taking the lead on “As Long As You’re Mine” from Wicked and Coulter on “In Whatever Time We Have” from Children of Eden.

For Coulter, who’s more of a pop/soul singer than a Broadway belter, the best number was the achingly romantic “So Close” from last year’s Disney film Enchanted (lyrics by Schwartz, music by Alan Menken). But Coulter also soared on the medley of “Just Around the Riverbend,” another Menken-Schwartz Disney collaboration, this one from Pocahontas, with “Corner of the Sky” from the 1972 smash Pippin.

In addition to singing some heartfelt solos – “Forgiveness’ Embrace” from his 2002 album Uncharted Territories and “For Good,” the emotional finale of Wicked – Schwartz offered a master class in songwriting for musicals by taking us through the evolution of “The Wizard and I,” the young witch’s cris de coeur from Wicked.

The original song for Elphaba to declare her dreams and ambitions was called “Making Good,” and though he tried several versions of the song, it just wasn’t working. So, with help from book writer Winnie Holzman, input from his director son Scott Schwartz and with inspiration from A Chorus Line (give them what they want but make them wait so they’re more grateful), he eventually landed on the show-stopping belter that helped make Wicked such a phenomenal success.

In a giant medley of hits, Schwartz and his singing friends were able to knock out “Day by Day,” “Magic to Do” as well as his Oscar-winners, “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas and “When You Believe” from The Prince of Egypt.

Another hopeful song, “Someday” from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, ended the show, but Schwartz’s impromptu burst of light from earlier in the show was still ringing through the hall:

When your trust is all but shattered
When your faith is all but killed
You can give up, bitter and battered
Or you can slowly start to build

A beautiful city
Yes, we can; Yes, we can
We can build a beautiful city
Not a city of angels
But finally a city of man.

Click here to read an interview I did with Schwartz for Theatre Bay Area magazine.


Stephen Schwartz and Friends is at 2 and 8 p.m. today, Saturday, Nov. 8, and at 1:30 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware St., San Mateo. Tickets are $17-$45. Call 650-579-5565 or visit

Here’s the song “Beautiful City” from the 1973 movie version of Godspell (for which the song was written):

New seasons: TheatreFIRST, Broadway by the Bay

TheaterFIRST, under the new artistic direction of Dylan Russell, has announced its 15th anniversary season, which will run from January to June 2009 and will include a staged reading series and a Harold Pinter revival.

The season opens with a staged reading series from mid-January to mid-February. Plays and location still to be announced, but the readings will be at 2 p.m. Sundays.

The centerpiece of the season is Pinter’s Old Times featuring L. Peter Callender, a veteran Bay Area actor who last performed with TheatreFIRST in World Music. Old Times runs April 2 through May 3 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley.

Call 510-436-5085 or visit for information.

San Mateo’s Broadway by the Bay, under the leadership of artistic director Brooke Knight and executive director Jim Gardia, has also announced its new season — its 44th — which begins in April of 2009 and concludes the following November. Here’s how the season shakes down:
Crazy for You, a revamped Gershwin musical, runs April 2-19.
The King and I, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, dances July 16-Aug. 2
The Full Monty, a Broadway musical based on a spunky British film, disrobes Sept. 17-Oct. 4
Broadway Up Close and Personal: A Tribute to Cy Coleman, starring Jason Graae (right), runs Nov. 5-8

Performances are in the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware, San Mateo. Season subscriptions are $90-$152 until Nov. 16, when prices change to $100-$164. Single tickets also go on sale Nov. 16. Call 650-579-5565 or visit

Theater moments: Reflections on 2007

I’ve already offered up my Top 10 list of 2007’s best Bay Area theater (see it here).

That’s all well and good, but there was way too much good stuff in 2007 to contain in a polite numbered list. What follows, in no apparent order, are some of the year’s most distinctive theater moments (mostly good, some not so much).

The shows in the Top 10 were really great shows, but so were these. This is my honorable mention roster:

American Suicide, Encore Theatre Company and Z Plays
Pillowman, Berkeley Repertory Theatre
The Birthday Party, Aurora Theatre Company
Pleasure & Pain, Magic Theatre’s Hot House ’07
After the War, American Conservatory Theater
Heartbreak House, Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Tings Dey Happen, Dan Hoyle and The Marsh
Annie Get Your Gun, Broadway by the Bay
Des Moines, Campo Santo, Intersection for the Arts
Richard III, California Shakespeare Theater

Favorite scene: Didn’t even have to think twice about this one. The dinner scene in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s adaptation of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Director Les Waters, working from Adele Edling Shank’s script, fashioned a multilayered scene that would have made Woolf herself proud. A boisterous family dinner, warmly illuminated by candles, allows us into the head of each of the diners without ever losing track of the dinner conversation. Extraordinary and beautiful — and vocally choreographed like a piece of complex music.

Greatest guilty pleasure: Legally Blonde, The Musical, had its pre-Broadway run early in 2007 at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre, and though it had its problems, it was a heck of a lot of fun. The best number was the lengthy “What You Want” in which sorority gal Elle Woods (Laura Bell Bundy) decides to apply to Harvard. In true musical fashion, the number sweeps through time and space, coursing through months of effort and from Southern California to the hallowed halls of Harvard. Jerry Mitchell’s choreography incorporates a frat party, the Harvard selection committee and a marching band.

Favorite image:The green girl in Berkeley Rep’s The Pillowman.

Favorite couple: Francis Jue as Mr. Oji and Delia MacDougall as Olga Mikhoels in Philip Kan Gotanda’s After the War at ACT. The sweetest romance was also the most surprising: a shy Japanese man and a recent Russian immigrant, neither of whom speaks much English.

Speaking of MacDougall: It was a good year for the actress (seen at right with the fur and tiara), who died memorably in Cal Shakes’ King Lear and ended 2007 with a superb, hip-swiveling, lip-pursing performance in Sex by Mae West at the Aurora.

Favorite tryout: Joan Rivers is more than a red carpet personality and an experiment in plastic surgery. An avowed theater lover, Rivers got down to some serious (and seriously funny) business in The Joan Rivers Theatre Project at the Magic. She combined stand-up with drama as she told an autobiographical tale of growing old in show business. The play was far from perfect, but she gets an A for effort.

Best ensemble: Behind every good show is a good ensemble, in front of and behind the scenes. But the one that comes to mind that, together, elevated the play was the fine crew in TheatreWorks’ Theophilus North (left) directed by Leslie Martinson.

Biggest disappointments: There were a few of them. I adore Kiki and Herb (Justin Bond and Kenny Melman), but their summer gig at ACT was in desperate need of a director. Berkeley Rep hosted Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Oliver Twist, and while it was good, it didn’t reach anything approaching the heights of David Edgar’s Nicholas Nickleby. I complained about this in the review, and I’ll complain about it again: In ACT’s The Rainmaker, when the rain falls at the end, the actors should get wet. That’s the whole point of the play. In this version, the rain fell from above, but the actors were behind it and only pretended — acted if you will — the wetness. Lame.

Most gratuitous nudity: Actors bare all emotionally _ it’s what they do. But this year saw some unnecessary flesh, most notably in ‘Bot at the Magic, Private Jokes, Public Places at the Aurora and Two Boys in Bed on a Cold Winter Night. Costumes are a good thing.

Favorite quote of the year: It was uttered by the food critic Anton Ego (and written by Brad Bird) in the brilliant Pixar/Disney movie Ratatouille. As a critic (or what’s left of one), the words really hit home. And they’re true.

Here’s a taste: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”

Happy New Year. May your stages in 2008 be full of the discovery of the new.

An Ahrens & Flaherty weekend

Broadway may have been pretty quiet last Saturday night (what with the stagehands strike and all), but the Broadway show tunes were ringing sweetly through the Bay Area.

More specifically the show tunes of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty were in the air on both sides of the Bay.

In Berkeley, the newly formed Berkeley Playhouse opened its inaugural production, Ahrens and Flaherty’s Seussical, the much-revised Broadway flop that attempted to find music in the stories of Dr. Seuss.

The Berkeley Playhouse goal is to create high-quality, professional theater that appeals to all ages, and artistic director Elizabeth McKoy and director Kimberly Dooley have succeeded mightily in meeting that goal.

Performed in the Ashby Stage, Seussical features a fantastic cast of professionals, non-professionals, adults and kids – which is a wonderful thing to see.

The show blends pieces of “Horton Hears a Who,” “The Cat in the Hat,’’ “Horton Hatches the Egg,’’ “McElligot’s Pool,’’ “The One Feathre Tail of Miss Gertrude McFuzz,’’ “The Butter Battle Book’’ and “Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!’’ to name a few. And the mish-mash nature of the musical might have seemed scattershot in a big, slick, overly produced Broadway show. But within the confines of the Ashby Stage, it all seems pretty agreeable and often quite charming.

The heart of the show is Horton the Elephant, played by Brian Herndon, whose loyalty to the invisible Whos and to the egg he’s trying to hatch is very nearly heartbreaking. Herndon is terrific, as is Gail Wilson as Jojo (alternating in the role with Madeleine Roberts), the little boy who thinks extraordinary thinks (Jojo’s “It’s Possible” is a show highlight).

Another pillar of the large cast is Rebecca Pingree as Gertrude, the bird with two distinguishing features: her one-feather tail and her giant crush on Horton.

Dooley’s vibrant production isn’t cutesy or twee – it’s energetic and straightforward and utterly delightful. Her choreography is lively but not too involved, and on the technical side of things, Lisa Lutkenhouse’s costumes are enchanting (especially the polka dots for the Whos).

Music director Tal Ariel (also the keyboards maestro) and his three-piece band perform the Ahrens-Flaherty score beautifully, giving it some welcome urban edge.

The overall solidity of the production, which blends the charm and enthusiasm of community theater with the dependability and strength of professional theater makes Seussical a promising debut from Berkeley Playhouse and bodes well for future family-friendly productions.

(Seussical continues through Dec. 2. Visit for information.)

Over at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center Ahrens and Flaherty themselves were singing songs from Seussical (“Green Eggs and Ham” and “It’s Possible”), along with songs culled from their nearly 25 years of writing musicals together.

Ahrens & Flaherty: Words & Music, a special presentation of Broadway by the Bay was a short-run revue featuring the composers playing (Flaherty), talking (mostly Ahrens) and singing (again, mostly Ahrens) along with some tremendous vocal assists from their friends Marin Mazzie and Jason Daniely – the “golden couple of Broadway.”

Mazzie, taking a break from being the Lady of the Lake in Spamalot, and Daniely, taking a break from Curtains, brought some Broadway razzle dazzle and two gorgeous – and I do mean gorgeous – voices to the stage.

Picking highlights from the 90-minute show, which always felt real and unforced (unlike so many revues), is difficult. Of course Mazzie singing two of her songs from Ragtime, “Goodbye My Love” and “Back to Before,” was electrifying. She has a set of pipes that elicit the chills and tears and thrills that great show tunes should elicit.

Daniely’s “Streets of Dublin” from A Man of No Importance was equally exciting, and the composers were rather adorable on “The Show Biz,” a number cut from Ragtime.

The only show not represented in the revue is Dessa Rose, but that’s a minor complaint in the face of such gorgeous songs as “Once Upon a December” and “Journey to the Past,” both from the animated film Anastasia, or the sexy “Mama Will Provide” from Once on This Island.

Flaherty’s bravura performance of the title song from Ragtime brought down the house, and though the evening had its share of lovely surprises – cute comedy numbers from Lucky Stiff, the first Ahrens and Flaherty show, and intriguing tastes (“Opposite You,” “I Was Here”) of The Glorious Ones, the latest Ahrens and Flaherty musical, which opened last week – the best of all was from a show that isn’t even finished yet.

The song is “Silent,” and it’s from a work in progress called Legacy based on photographs Ahrens’s father took of New York. The song is inspired by a willow tree in Central Park, and it ends up being about aging and being present and part of a beautiful world. In a word, it’s spectacular. Mazzie sang it while sitting on the piano bench next to Flaherty, and it couldn’t have been more moving. This is a song that will get to people for decades.

But that’s the thing about Ahrens and Flaherty, something that became even more apparent over the course of Words & Music: these are songwriters who challenge themselves to write new and different things each time out, and succeed because they do it with such tremendous heart, integrity and intelligence. Sure isn’t enough of that on Broadway.

Visit the official Ahrens & Flaherty Web site at

Stephen Flaherty sings!

Sometimes you do everything you can do to be an organized person. Then the universe has other plans.

Take, for instance, Stephen Flaherty, the composer behind such Broadway musicals as Ragtime, Once on This Island and Seussical the Musical.

He and his writing partner, Lynn Ahrens, made plans about two years ago to create and appear in a short-run revue of their work for San Mateo’s Broadway by the Bay. Executive director Greg Phillips had the great idea to bring the composers out west, and he proposed dates far in the future: Nov. 8 through 11, 2007.

Well, that day has arrived, and wouldn’t you know it? Ahrens and Flaherty opened a new musical at New York’s Lincoln Center only three nights ago. The Glorious Ones, about an itinerant Italian acting troupe, received some lovely reviews, and though they could be forgiven for canceling because of calendar clashes, Ahrens and Flaherty were on a plane Wednesday with the plan of spending today in technical rehearsals and opening tonight.

Ahrens & Flaherty: Words & Music runs through Sunday at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center and features the composers discussing their work as well as Broadway performers (and husband-and-wife duo) Marin Mazzie (taking a break from Spamalot) and Jason Daniely (taking a break from Curtains) offering their golden pipes to sing the duo’s songs. Flaherty will also be the evening’s accompanist.

On the phone from his New York home before heading west, Flaherty, 47, says he remembers early in his career when he would accompany singers.

“Since we’ve been rehearsing the show, I kind of forgot how much work it is to play for singers — you have to work your whole body. It’s fun and challenging,” he says.

The biggest challenge of all, though, has been deciding what to perform in the 90-minute show. In addition to the Ahrens-Flaherty hits, there have also been the non-hits with glorious scores: A Man of No Importance and Dessa Rose chief among them.

“Of course there are so many songs we’ve written that we love,” Flaherty says. “We’re the parents of those songs, and though we don’t want to play favorites, you’ve got 90 minutes. You have to make difficult choices.”

Flaherty says all the shows will be represented, including the new one, which features what he describes as “my most European score yet — it’s very romantic and lyrical with elements of down-and-dirty, rough-hewn humor.”

Because this is the first time he and Ahrens have done anything like this, Flaherty says the song list may change throughout the five performances.

One song that may pop up is “Something Beautiful” from a work-in-progress called Legacy. Another new one, “Anything I Got,” may also pop up in San Mateo before it lands in a revival of the duo’s My Favorite Year.

That’s what you get from a duo that has been working together for nearly 25 years and shows no signs of slowing down: a mix of old and new.

“This has been really emotional,” Flaherty says. “I met Lynn in the first month I moved to New York, and at the time, I was writing both music and lyrics. But then within six months of meeting Lynn, we were writing together.”

Poring over their songbook, Flaherty says each song is a distinct representation of who he and Ahrens were at the time.

“I look at a song from one of our first projects, Lucky Stiff, and think it just sounds like 1988,” Flaherty says. “Then I hear some of the `Ragtime’ songs and think about how we had to write four songs as an audition for the producer. That was our big break. I knew we could write that score, and that audition process was terrific and led us in a whole different direction.”

The follow-up to Ragtime was Seussical, a musical mash-up of Dr. Seuss stories. Flaherty says the sweet, family friendly show was a direct reaction to the serious tone of Ragtime.

“In Ragtime, our leading man got shot and killed every night,” he says. “We wanted to return to our silly roots.”

A Man of No Importance, which is set in Dublin, is also something of a reaction to Ragtime.

“I had a running joke while working on Ragtime that every time I wrote a song for an Irish character, the song got cut,” Flaherty says. “I started thinking maybe I should do something Irish-themed.”

Of course the Broadway stars will be singing — you can pretty much bet Mazzie will reprise the stirring “Back to Before,” which she introduced in Ragtime — but the composers will also be chiming in.

“Lynn will sing more than I will — she sings better than I do,” Flaherty says. “The whole point of the evening is to feel casual. It’s not a concert so much as a show about writing songs. It’s really about what it would be like if you were in my or Lynn’s living room while we’re creating songs.”

Ahrens & Flaherty: Words & Music is at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday (Nov. 8 & 9); 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 10); 2 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 11) at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware St., San Mateo. Tickets are $17-$42. Call 650-579-5565 or visit

Review: `Annie Get Your Gun’

Opened Sept. 22, 2007 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center

Broadway by the Bay hits musical target with Annie Get Your Gun

There’s simply no business like Irving Berlin’s show business: grit, glitter, grins and some of the best, most buoyant musical theater tunes ever to hit a stage.

Perhaps Berlin’s best overall package is Annie Get Your Gun, which opened in 1946 and has been kicking up its Wild West heels in one form or another ever since.

San Mateo’s Broadway by the Bay has polished up and loaded Berlin’s Gun with a tremendously appealing cast and a bright, shiny production that defies anyone not to enjoy it from cowboy-hatted top to cowboy-booted bottom.

Annie opened during the weekend at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, and director Alex Perez offers the show at its colorful, tuneful best.

This is not Ethel Merman’s Annie, which is to say this is the revised version that Bernadette Peters brought to Broadway in 1999. Herbert and Dorothy Fields’ somewhat dusty book has been revamped by Peter Stone, who turns the production into a version of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, complete with big-top tent and strings of carnival lights.

The Native-American element — not to mention Chief Sitting Bull’s song “I’m an Indian Too’’ — were deemed politically incorrect, so the new version gives us a bigoted character who eventually learns an important lesson about calling the Indians “savages.’’

Stone’s changes also help streamline the show and keep it moving at a contemporary pace. The changes also keep Berlin’s score in the center ring where it should be.

Musical director Mark Hanson and his 14-piece orchestra do right by Berlin’s infectious melodies, though at Sunday’s matinee, the trumpet got a little lovesick during Annie’s “They Say It’s Wonderful.’’

How do you resist a show that begins with all guns blazing through “There’s No Business Like Show Business’’? Fact is, you don’t.

You climb aboard this warhorse, and whether sharp shooter Frank Butler (David Sattler) ends up with back-country hick Annie Oakley (Virginia Wilcox), who happens to be a sharper shot than the big-headed Butler, hardly matters — as long as everyone keeps singing.

Sattler’s gorgeous voice soars through “Show Business’’ and shines in his big numbers, “The Girl That I Marry’’ and “My Defenses Are Down.’’

Wilcox is a marvelous comic actress and terrific character singer. She’s especially effective in the mood-lifting “I Got the Sun in the Morning’’ and in that joyful ode to ignorance and sex, “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly.’’ She also warbles beautifully through the lilting “Moonshine Lullaby,’’ on which she is joined by Abbey Teitelbaum, Lindsay Light and Gabe Hoffman as her younger siblings as well as by the harmonizing trio of Deedra Wong and twins Khail and Nik Duggan.

Unfortunately, Wilcox rushes through the score’s most gorgeous ballad, “Lost In His Arms’’ but makes up for it on spirited duets with Sattler, “An Old Fashioned Wedding’’ and a very funny “Anything You Can Do.’’

Frank and Annie do most of the singing in this nearly three-hour show, but young lovebirds Tommy (Shaun Repetto) and Winnie (Dominique Bonino) get an Act 2 number, “Who Do You Love, I Hope,’’ that’s really just an excuse to show off Jayne Zaban’s high-stepping, yee-haw-heavy choreography. If Repetto’s high kicks get any higher, NASA may need to get involved.

John Duggan provides some dignified comic relief as Chief Sitting Bull, and Cameron Weston as company manager Charlie Davenport and John Musgrave as Buffalo Bill are fine straight men amid the musical merriment. Amy Nielson has the tough job of playing the bigoted Dolly Tate, but she manages some laughs.

If you hear people talking about Broadway by the Bay’s Annie Get Your Gun, and they say it’s wonderful. Darn tootin’, they’re right.

For information on Annie Get Your Gun, visit

Duggan gets his gun

Parents get dragged into the darndest things by their kids.

Aw, c’mon, Dad, you know you want to do it. C’mon, Mom, it’s really fun!

For John Duggan (above, center), it didn’t take too much arm-twisting for his twin sons, Mikhail and NikolaiKhail and Nik to their friends — to pull him back into the world of theater.

Though he had been involved in theater in his younger years as a performer and a director, Duggan began concentrating more on his career in video-game graphics, especially when the twins came along 15 years ago.

That’s when Duggan and his family moved to Redwood City so he could design games for the likes of Sega, Sony and Disney.

When the twins were about 7, Duggan got them interested in theater by introducing them to San Carlos Children’s Theatre, and they loved it — so much that they have agents and are seeking commercial work.

“Now they’re into musical theater and are taking dance and voice,” Duggan says. “That’s when they started browbeating me about auditioning.”

Khail and Nik were intent on getting cast in Broadway by the Bay’s Annie Get Your Gun, and their dad decided he’d give it a shot as well.

On Saturday, when Annie officially opens in San Mateo, you’ll find the Duggan twins in the ensemble as roustabouts and circus folk, and you’ll find John Duggan as Chief Sitting Bull, the Sioux warrior.

“The funny thing is that I’m half Japanese, half Irish-American,” Duggan says. “I was taught you always do your research, so I read up on Sitting Bull. He was bowlegged and short. He became a medicine man because he couldn’t move as fast as the other warriors. He was the strategic one. Learning that was helpful, but I don’t think the audience would care to see me doing my impersonation of a bowlegged person.”

Annie Get Your Gun, with a glorious score by Irving Berlin, was inspired by real-life people Annie Oakley, Frank Butler and Sitting Bull, and was originally written for Ethel Merman in 1946. By the time it was revived on Broadway in 1999 for Bernadette Peters, Sitting Bull’s song, “I’m an Indian Too,” had been cut for being outdated in its attitude toward Indians.

“That’s OK,” Duggan says. “My singing voice is pretty good but not as broad as it used to be. My voice teacher says I used to be a high tenor. Now I’m a `guy getting older’ tenor. I’ve lost a lot of the higher notes. I still sing in the opening and other ensemble numbers.”

In some productions, Sitting Bull is played nobly. In others, he’s a more comic character. Director Alex Perez saw Larry Storch, of “F Troop” fame, play the part on Broadway, and that’s the direction he wants Duggan to go.

“I’m playing it for laughs,” Duggan says. “I’m trying to stay true to the character while channeling Larry Storch. Our job is to get the audience members out of their seats laughing.”
Duggan says the best part of this whole “Annie” experience, in addition to returning to the stage after more than 20 years away, is being onstage with his sons.

“I looked at them and realized that in three years they graduate, go off to college and start their own lives. I want to grab as much time with them as I can now.”

“Annie Get Your Gun” continues through Oct. 7 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware St., San Mateo. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays (plus 2 p.m. Sept. 29). Tickets are $17 to $42. Call 650-579-5565 or visit

First a tea cup, then stardom

Remember the name James Zongus. You just might be able to say you knew him when.

Though only 12 years old, James, a Foster City resident, has been performing for nearly a decade, and his story is strikingly familiar if you know the song “I Can Do That” from A Chorus Line.

Like the kid in the song, James would follow his two older sisters to dance class, and at age 3, he all but demanded to share the stage with his sisters in The Nutcracker.

“I was at a rehearsal and said, `I want to be in the show!’ So they cast me in a little part,” James recalls. “I got to walk across the stage and do a little bit of dancing. After that I just kept on going.”

James played Oliver in Oliver! with the Bay Area Educational Theatre Company in San Mateo, and last year he was one of the king’s children in the The King and I at American Musical Theatre of San Jose.

When Bowditch Middle School, where James will be in the eighth grade come September, joined with two other schools to produce Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, James played the role of Chip, the tea cup son of Mrs. Potts, the tea pot.

Like Olivier returning to the role of Hamlet, James will once again essay Chip, only this time for Broadway by the Bay.

For his audition, he found a song he thought would be good for Beauty and the Beast, what with its singing and dancing flatware and furniture.

“I sang `Hey, Look Me Over’ because the song has the words `rose’ and `spoon’ and `fork’ in it,” James explains. “It went really well. They laughed.”

In this production, which opens Saturday at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, James, like all the Chips before him, appears to be a tea cup-encased head on a rolling cart. There’s a bit of stage magic involved in Chip’s appearance, but James won’t give away the secret.

When asked if it’s a comfortable way to perform, he will say this: “It’s not comfortable. No way.”

But he’s enjoying working on the show and with Tracy Chiappone, who plays his mother.

“She’s very nice and easy to work with and gives me good advice,” James says.

James’ real mom, Joanne Zongus, says having a performer in the family requires the support of the entire family for both logistical and emotional reasons.

“We told him we’d make the commitment if he was willing to make the commitment and keep his grades up between a 3.5 and 3.8 and keep himself healthy and keep his commitment to his family,” Joanne says. “He’s done really well. I don’t know where he gets it. Neither his father nor I can be in front of a group of people. We’re very proud of him.”

So far, acting is just James’ hobby. Part of his agreement with his parents is that he make sure he’s a well-rounded person.

“In school, James does sports like basketball and golf,” Joanne says. “He serves on the altar for church. It’s a mind-body-soul kind of thing. We feel it’s important that all parts of you are well-rounded.”

James says theater isn’t all that cool in middle school, but in high school, especially if he gets his wish and ends up, like his twin older sisters, at theater-friendly San Mateo High School, the cool factor may improve.

“I feel like in high school, theater will be just something I like to do and no one will judge me for it,” James says.

From there, James has an interesting plan.

“I know it’s really hard to get to Broadway,” he says. “So I’ll get a good college education and then a really steady job — I like construction and architecture; I love to build stuff — then I’ll retire early and do shows at least twice a year.”

James’ practical attitude toward show business was shaped, in part, by his experience doing The King and I at AMTSJ.

Says James’ mom: “Doing that show, I think it dawned on him what it meant to perform professionally. There were a lot of New York actors there who had left their families behind, and … it can be kind of hard.”

James says the hardest part of that show was balancing rehearsal, performance, school work and the commute from Foster City to San Jose.

“I barely made it through,” James says. “But when I’d get to the theater, it was so much fun, and the sets were so intricate and everything that I forgot about everything else and had a wonderful experience.”

Broadway by the Bay’s Beauty and the Beast continues through July 29 at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware St., San Mateo. Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; plus 2 p.m. July 21 and 28. Tickets are $17 to $42. Call (650) 579-5565 or visit