Alex Edelman has crafted a stand-up comedy/one-man play hybrid in the hilarious Just for Us at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre Oct. 26 and 28. Photos by Matthew Murphy Alex Edelman is hilarious. And incisive. And just the performer we need right now.
His solo show Just for Us, hot off of its Broadway run, is especially of the moment in its exploration of anti-Semitism, online vitriol and the great American divide. His short run at the Curran Theatre courtesy of BroadwaySF kicks off his tour (next to Los Angeles and then his hometown, Boston), and I couldn’t imagine a more relevant show for this fraught moment in history.
On one level, it’s absolutely enjoyable to watch a skilled performer tell a fascinating story that is both hilarious and cognizant of all the dark and dreary forces at work in our world. There’s nothing wrong with frivolous laughter – bring it on! – but Edelman is such a canny performer that he seems to be shambling through a loose stand-up act when in fact he and director Adam Brace have constructed and finely calibrated a penetrating look into hatred on a colossal scale. This is powerful theater masquerading as a stand-up act.
The central premise is that Edelman did two things you’re not supposed to do: 1) he looked at the comments and 2) he responded to a troll. It happened on the dying platform formerly known as Twitter, and a nasty exchange with an anti-Semite led Edelman to the borough of Queens for a meeting of White Nationalists, where, for a little while, he passed for “white” (the gorgons at the meeting do not consider Semites to be the right kind of white).
For 90 minutes, the high-octane Edelman takes us into the details of that night. Is he really attracted to one of the women there, imagining a rom-com only Mel Brooks could dream of? Are there really jigsaw puzzles that take three months to complete? But he also frequently veers off into his Jewish Orthodox upbringing and tales of a young David Yosef Shimon ben Elazer Reuven Halevi Alexander Edelman navigating yeshiva, his relationship with Judaism and, to great comic effect, an Edelman family attempt at Christmas.
There’s something incredibly satisfying about laughing so robustly at something that is actually awful. It’s like Edelman is playing with electricity on stage and sending bolts out into the audience. Some tickle, some sting. There we all are just laughing away at Edelman’s foibles, and then suddenly one of the meeting’s attendees asks Edelman, “What’s your name,” but it’s not a friendly inquiry. It’s a first level of vetting, and the audience goes stone cold silent.
There’s a fair amount of that guffaw/gulp dynamic in Just for Us, but there’s also comfort in the fact that humor (and bold storytellers like Edelman) can bring us together with a galvanizing force. Together, we can look into the face of the worst of us with a little empathy, a little hope among the ruins and, mercifully, more big laughs than I’ve had in a very long time.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Alex Edelman’s Just for Us continues a short run through Oct. 28 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time is 90 minutes (no intermission). Tickets start at $46. Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com.
Anthony Rapp explores his life and work, his triumphs and his tragedies, in the solo show Without You at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre. Photos by Russ Rowland
In the blockbuster musical Rent, Anthony Rapp originated the role of Mark Cohen, a filmmaker who uses his camera as a sort of shield to protect himself from the pain and drama that seems to overwhelm the world he’s documenting. As Rapp points out in his deeply moving musical solo show Without You, now at the Curran Theatre courtesy of BroadwaySF, when he was involved in the first off-Broadway production of Rent at the New York Theatre Workshop, like Mark, he started documenting the process through his own camera – a detail that didn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated by Rent creator Jonathan Larson.
In Without You, Rapp further cements his role as a documentarian by taking us through those incredible, tumultuous early days of Rent, from a first workshop to that off-Broadway production and, most notably, to that fateful night of the final dress rehearsal when Larson, only 35, died suddenly. It’s a tragic tale, told often, but its emotional impact only seems to grow. Rapp relates a funny incident that happened at a party when a friend met Larson, who told him (probably half-jokingly, half not) that he was the “future of musical theater.” And in many ways, he was. He just wasn’t here to enjoy it or take it another step further.
Rapp was in his mid-20s when Rent changed his life – changed the lives of all the original cast members – and he recounts that time with the measured temperament of the 50-ish seasoned veteran he is, but he captures that youthful joy and then sudden grief with dazzling power.
The tremendous loss of Larson and the subsequent mega-success of his show create a highly emotional journey and give Rapp the opportunity to sing a number of songs from Rent accompanied by a five-piece band.
As if that weren’t emotional enough, Rapp’s exploration of loss and grief extends to his own family. Concurrently with his ever-intensifying Rent experience, Rapp’s mother was dealing with cancer and its various treatments, hospitalizations and life intrusions. He flies home to Joliet, Ill., when he’s able, and (happily), his mom is able to fly to New York for the Broadway opening of Rent. Her section of the story involves original songs, including one called “Wild Bill,” which is the name she gave the first round of cancer, and the wrenching “Visits to You,” a tense, tear-jerking musing on whether a visit will turn out to be the last.
From where we were sitting at Thursday’s opening-night performance, the sound mix in the Curran leaned far too heavily on the band and not nearly enough on Rapp, but in spite of that balance, Rapp’s performance kept the audience, well, rapt.
So much of the show, both the Larson side and the mom side, are about the weight of grief and the ways we can choose to move into it and, if we’re lucky, through it. That weight never goes away, which is probably why Rapp’s story from nearly 30 years ago still feels so potent and powerful. To borrow words from Rent, we seem to need a constant reminder that
There’s only us, There’s only this
Forget regret, or life is yours to miss
No other road, no other way
No day but today
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Anthony Rapp’s Without You continues through Sunday, Oct. 22 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time: 95 minutes (no intermission). Tickets start at $49 (prices are subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com.
ABOVE: Stephanie J. Block and Sebastian Arcelus, a real-life married couple, are the Baker’s Wife and the Baker in the national touring company of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods. BELOW: David Patrick Kelly (left) is the Mysterious Man, Kennedy Kanagawa (center) is the puppeteer for Milky White the cow and Cole Thompson is Jack (of the beanstalk fame). Photos by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade
By all accounts, last year’s New York City Center Encores! production of Into the Woods, the beloved fairytale mash-up by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, was a special kind of magic. Director Lear deBessonet stripped away all the fairytale frippery and let the actors and Sondheim’s glorious score shine through. Even when the show transferred to Broadway and cast members started to rotate in and out, it seems the magic just couldn’t be dampened. Surely, when the production began its national tour, it would be rather less luminous version of itself.
Based on what is on stage at the Curran Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, this Into the Woods is destined to be the version that makes musical theater audiences react like they’re at a Taylor Swift concert. At least that was the case at Tuesday’s opening-night performance. From the instant the curtain rose swiftly up to reveal a large slice of the cast, the audience roared its approval, and that roar only increased over the next few hours.
Everything about this Woods is so confident, clear and crisp that you merely need to exhale and be swept up in the swift moving joys of great actors, beautiful voices and a score that continually reveals treasures no matter how many times you’ve heard it. In short, this production – which is full of performers who also did this on Broadway – really is as delightful and as heart-expanding as we’ve heard it is.
At the center of the story is the Baker’s Wife and the Baker’s Wife’s Husband (aka The Baker) played by real-life marrieds Stephanie J. Block and Sebastian Arcelus, and they exemplify so much of why this production works so beautifully. They carefully tread the line between cartoonish and realistic. They get big laughs when they need to and just as easily trigger the tears. They are as warm and charming as they can be, but they’re also precise and magnificent when it comes to the music and the lyrics. They are simultaneously theatrical and relatable – we get that they’re storybook characters on a quest to kill the curse that has rendered them childless, but we also care about them.
Block’s full-body delight at her dalliance with a prince in the woods (“Any Moment” performed with the sterling Gavin Creel, who provokes full-body delight in the entire theater) is palpable, so it’s no surprise that her “Moments in the Woods,” which follows, is an emotionally complex (adultery is fun! or is it?), joyfully vigorous showstopper.
The way this show works its magic is also evident in Milky White, the cow belonging to and best friend of Jack (Cole Thompson, who will later tangle with giants at the top of the beanstalk. Sure, it’s a puppet (designed by James Ortiz) operated by a skilled puppeteer, but that doesn’t begin to convey how much emotion surrounds this cow with the sad, sparkly eyes. Kennedy Kanagawa masterfully manipulates the decrepit bovine, but his physical dexterity and expressive face complete the equation in ways that continually surprise and captivate. It’s a simple idea with a huge payoff.
Every detail has been attended to here, and the 16-piece orchestra (in full view on stage) conducted by John Bell ensures that Sondheim’s music is the life blood of the show. Lyrics are so clear that no whiff of enchantment, cynicism, despair, grief or arrogance goes unnoticed, and Bell keeps the show moving swiftly – not too fast but just fast enough that the fairytale glee of the first act lingers long enough to undergird the reality that intrudes in Act 2 (when the body count begins to rival a Shakespearean tragedy). With the orchestra on stage, this could come across as a staged concert, but it doesn’t. David Rockwell’s simple set – a few set pieces and just enough large birch tree trunks to convey a forest – relies on the sharp lighting by Tyler Micoleau and the simple costumes (by Andrea Hood) to add color and tone.
There is no shortage of standout moments and performances, but Creel as Cinderella’s Prince and his compatriot Jason Forbach as Rapunzel’s Prince, mine every last laugh out of their duet, “Agony” and its woefully domesticated reprise. David Patrick Kelly is a robust narrator and actually makes sense of the Mysterious Man, who is so moving on “No More,” a duet with the Baker. Katy Geraghty is the embodiment of innocence and experience wrestling under a blood-red cape as a tart Little Red Ridinghood. Diane Phelan‘s soprano soars on Cinderella’s “On the Steps of the Palace,” and Felicia Curry, filling in for Montego Glover as the Witch on Tuesday, electrifies on “Stay With Me” and the impossibly moving “Children Will Listen.”
Sophisticated and silly, sublime and deeply moving, Into the Woods – especially thisInto the Woods – is the fairytale we most need to experience in all its musical theater glory.
The chances look small,
The choices look grim,
But everything you learn there
Will help when you return there.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods continues a brief run through June 25 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $90-$299. Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com
ABOVE: Anthony Norman (left) is Evan Hansen in the 2022-23 North American tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Also in the cast are (from left) John Hemphill as Larry Murphy, Lili Thomas as Cynthia Murphy and Alaina Anderson as Zoe Murphy. BELOW: Norman’s Evan attempts connection with his single mom played by Coleen Sexton. Photos by Evan Zimmerman for Murphymade
The movie version of Dear Evan Hansen broke more than its protagonist’s arm. It shattered its source material – a Tony Award-winning musical – into a million awful little pieces. The movie made the cardinal mistake of taking something that can be extraordinary in the theater and making it seem absolutely absurd when earnest characters started to sing in their living room or their classroom, and the audience response was to wince or, even worse, to laugh.
At the time of the movie’s release (fall of 2021) there was a lot of unnecessary gnashing about how original Broadway star (and Tony winner) Ben Platt was too old (27 at the time) to convincingly play a 17-year-old. Platt was hardly the problem. His Herculean stage performance was fairly effectively modulated for the screen. But it’s the very notion of this story on a screen that was the problem.
On stage, Dear Evan Hansen takes place in a dark, impressionist version of modern society. Suburban households and schools are rendered with just a few pieces of furniture on David Korins’ set, while seemingly gazillions of screens, mostly flashing, streaming and scrolling info from our social media wasteland, fills much of the rest of the space. It’s visually overwhelming (as it should be), and it never lets us forget that the stakes in this drama are rooted, triggered and magnified by the omnipresent internet.
When this dazzling stage version of our warped world was hemmed in by the conventions of a movie screen depicting real-life locations, it became just another “window” much like the one Evan sings about in the showstopping “Waving Through a Window” – another screen on which we’re on one side and the rest of the world feels like it’s on the other.
The only way to truly feel the impact of this story about living a delusional life is to experience it on stage. The Broadway production closed last September, but the national tour, now in its fifth year, is going – at least until July, when it will close up shop. Bay Area audiences first saw the tour at the Curran Theatre late in 2018 (read my review here), and now, a little more than four years later and in the wake of the movie, that same tour, with an entirely different cast, is back as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Orpheum Theatre.
The good news is that the tour is still in fine shape. The physical production (which, in addition to Korins’ incredibly efficient set, includes lights by Japhy Weideman, projections by Peter Nigrini and sound by Nevin Steinberg) delivers all the necessary bells and whistles to keep the show speeding along through its nearly three hours. And the cast of eight is spot on, with shouts out to Micaela Lamas as Alana, a teenager whose desperation for acceptance provides a powerful mirror for Evan’s, and to understudy Gillian Jackson Han filling in for Alaina Anderson as Zoe Murphy, the sister of a teen who takes his own life, who becomes caught in the intricate web of Evan’s lies. As Evan’s mom, the superb Coleen Sexton brings equal amounts of hurt, rage and insecurity to the role, and her “So Big/So Small,” a song to comfort Evan and reassure him of her love, is like a small, exquisite musical all on its own.
In the title role, Anthony Norman is an excellent actor if a less excellent singer, although he delivers on all the dramatic high points of his character, an anxiety-ridden, mentally unstable 17-year-old who cannot stop himself from falling into lie after lie when his dreams of being what he considers “normal” begin to materialize around him. The son of a divorced, hardworking mom and an all but invisible father in a different state, Evan’s failure to clarify a misunderstanding leads him to experience what it might be like to have a stable home with a mom who cooks and dotes; a father who is present and supportive; peers at school who actually talk to him; and the affection of a girl he has adored from afar for years.
The score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul reveals something more with every listen. “Waving Through a Window,” Evan’s cri de coeur, remains chilling, especially in the frenetic way director Michael Grief stages it, and the faux-inspirational rush of the Act 1 closer, “You Will Be Found” is fascinating. A social media viral sensation happens before our eyes, and though the song hits all the right notes and words about creating a supportive, connected community, it’s all based on a huge lie, and all that online hubbub feels like hollow platitudes that could just as easily turn into bone-crushing stones (which they do in Act 2). That said, I could do without ever hearing “To Break in a Glove” ever again – its purpose to create a surrogate father moment for Evan is clear and potent, but the song, unlike most of the rest of the score, does not bear repeated listenings.
I also wish the show had a more powerfully musical ending. People gripe that Evan isn’t punished enough for his lies and his fraud, but I’m not one of them. What Evan does is wrong, most certainly, but he’s primarily acting out of a need to help other people and in turn helps himself to a life he never thought he could have. His breaking point comes when one final lie turns out to be wholly self-serving (a clever, powerfully desperate moment in the book by Steven Levenson). And then, in the emotional aftermath, we skip ahead in time and end with a reprise of “For Forever” rather than “You Will Be Found.” Both songs have finally found some semblance of truth in Evan’s acceptance of himself and his need for help. Still, it’s “You Will Be Found” that feels more relevant and ultimately more hopeful than “For Forever.”
At some point, Dear Evan Hansen with its focus on social media damage, the precarious state of teen mental health and its characters who work so hard to delude themselves, may feel dated. Sadly, that day when “we could be all right for forever” seems very far away.
FOR MORE INFORMATION Dear Evan Hansen continues through Feb. 19 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $66.50-$256.50 (subject to change). Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes. Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com.
ABOVE: Harry Potter (John Skelley,left), Hermione Granger (Lily Mojekwu, center), and Ron Weasley (Steve O’Connell) are up to some new tricks in the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Curran Theater. BELOW: Dementors descend to terrorize both characters and audience. Photos: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade
Amid clanking bottles of butter beer, confetti canons and celebratory words from the mayor, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the live theater component of the Potter Empire, has officially reopened at San Francisco’s Curran Theater.
Already a hit in London, New York and elsewhere around the world, Cursed opened late in 2019 and then was shuttered by the pandemic. During that time, creators J.K. Rowling (the author of the seven Potter novels), playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany decided to downsize their show. What was originally a five-plus-hour two-play experience has now become a 3 1/2-hour single play.
I saw and loved the original two-part production in December 2019 (oh, those sweet, unmasked days of yore) – read my review here – but wondered if the experience wouldn’t benefit from being shorter. Turns out, it is more potent in one sitting.
The new, condensed version re-opened Feb. 24 amid much hoopla re-directing attention to San Francisco’s beleaguered Union Square area and theater district, and the show is in sterling condition. Everything that was wonderful about the original is still here and strong – it’s just swifter and a little more dense. The best news is that all those incredible displays of theatrical magic are still dazzling and thrilling and chilling and mesmerizing. The soul-sucking dementors, for instance, are as horrifying as they are beautiful, and if you’ve ever wondered what it might actually feel like to slip through the cracks of time, hold tight. The effect, incorporating projections, sound and (probably) actual magic, is stunning.
But it’s not all mind-boggling effects bringing things like floo powder, wand battles and magic spells to life. Thorne’s script (based on an original story by Rowling, Tiffany and Thorne) wastes no time in getting us up to speed on Harry Potter’s life 19 years after the action of the final novel. Harry (John Skelley) and Ginny Weasley (Angela Reed) have two boys, James (William Bednar-Carter) and Albus Severus (Benjamin Papac), at Hogwarts. Harry, who remains the most famous and beloved of wizards, works at the Ministry of Magic, and his legacy weighs heavily on his younger son.
Albus is a loner and does not enjoy his time at Hogwarts. Save for his friendship with Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger), son of Draco (Lucas Hall), it’s all kind of a teen-angsty nightmare but with flying broomsticks. Being the son of “the boy who lived” involves a whole lot of pressure to live up to the Potter name, and Albus feels he’s nowhere near up to that task. It doesn’t help that Harry and Albus do not get along, thus setting the stage (literally) for a play that is primarily about fathers and sons.
What the play does exceptionally well is mine the Potter mythology for insider delights and for hefty emotional connections. Beloved characters from the books pop up here and there, and though there’s plenty to enjoy for the Potter novice, it’s a much richer experience if you know why the audience collectively sighs when a certain someone whom we haven’t seen for a very long time, steps onto the stage.
Though Cursed Child is not a musical, it has the highly choreographed and fluid feel of a musical. Credit movement director Steven Hoggett for creating that flow – and all that robe swirling – and for designing one of the show’s most beautiful moments: a duet for rolling staircases that evokes the Escher-like Hogwarts architecture.
There is an emotional heart to this story amid all the fiery spectacle, and the actors are fully committed to the drama (or, in the case of Steve O’Connell’s Ron Weasley, the snide comedy). Skelley’s Harry is kind of a jerk for much of the play – a man pressured by his past and his celebrity status and his bureaucratic job – and there’s one intensely emotional scene in particular that serves as a reminder of just how much trauma Harry has been through in his nearly 40 years. I wish Hermione (the wonderful Lily Mojekwu) had more to do. Maybe the next stage epic – and there should be one – will focus on her and her daughter, Rose (Folami Williams).
The emotional core of the show belongs to Papac and Steiger as Albus and Scorpius, unlikely friends and even unlikelier heroes. Both actors manage to be believable, ultimately lovable teens whose father issues bond them and then compel them to behave rashly before doing some serious growing up.
The mix of wizarding razzmatazz and genuine emotion will be familiar to fans of the books (and the movies), but everything in the theater (effects AND emotions) feels at a higher volume and intensity. And that’s a glorious – you might even say genuinely magical – feeling. In this wacko world, it’s almost a relief to to escape into a theatrical epic for 3 1/2 hours and experience the satisfying thrill of magic empowering good vanquish bad.
FOR MORE INFORMATION Harry Potter and the Cursed Child continues through Sept. 4 at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $59-$199 (subject to change). Visit harrypottertheplay.com for information.
Covid information: All ticketholders 16 years of age and older who are eligible must present proof of full vaccination with booster. All patrons, regardless of age, are required to wear masks inside the theater at all times when not actively eating or drinking. For more information, click here.
With productions in London and New York, the two-part epic Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has opened in San Francisco at the Curran Theatre. The story, focusing on the next generation of magical offspring, was created with J.K. Rowling, playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany. Photos by Matthew Murphy
Harry Potter, known as “the boy who lived,” has continuously found life on the pages of seven best-selling novels, on the screen in eight blockbuster films, in theme parks both in Florida and California and now on stage in an epic two-part, five-plus-hour play that has to be seen to be believed.
With successful productions of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child running in London and New York, the wizard’s theatrical reach has extended to the Curran Theater in San Francisco, where it will undoubtedly run for years to come. Otherwise, why would theater management have gone to the trouble of decking out the building with Harry Potter-themed carpeting?
The smartest thing Potter author J.K. Rowling did when considering an adaptation of her characters to the stage was to connect with director John Tiffany, whose work in shows like Once and Black Watch was incredibly dazzling without being overwhelming because he never loses sight of human scale and emotion within the spectacle.
Rowling, along with Tiffany and playwright Jack Thorne provide the eighth chapter of the Potter saga by jumping ahead 19 years after the action of the final Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. So the story is really about the next generation of young wizards – and how they’ve either been encouraged or messed up by the previous generation. In other words, it’s about the inexorable passage of time. But because this is a magical world, there’s no guarantee that time will move in anything resembling a linear fashion.
So with a story about parents and children, or fathers and sons to be more specific, Rowling, Thorne and Tiffany pull out all the stops in the creation of an absolutely dazzling, exhilarating, gob-smacking theatrical experience. The less you know about it the better, but know that in addition to Harry, Hermione and Ron, you’ll see a number of characters from the Potter-verse, some beloved, some not so much. It helps to have some knowledge of Potter lore – if you know who Voldemort is (or was), you’re doing pretty well – although this new story is specific enough and provides enough exposition to sustain interest for those who don’t know a horcrux from a Hufflepuff.
Could this story have been told in a four-hour show? Probably, but there’s something very satisfying about settling in for the long haul, and the protracted length allows for more dazzling special effects and tricks and mind-boggling theatricality than you can possibly imagine. Tiffany’s whole design team has done remarkable work here, but to my mind, the two stars are Jamie Harrison, credited with illusions and magic, and lighting designer Neil Austin, whose razor-sharp works allows those illusions to work in such beguiling ways. Of course, Christine Jones’ set and Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are part of the trickery as well, but also a huge part of the beauty. This is a stunning show in every way from beginning to end – it’s almost like you can’t watch it hard enough for fear of missing something. There are images in these plays that are among the most strikingly beautiful I have ever seen in a theater.
The less said about the plot the better because there’s so much joy of discovery and surprise in this tale of acceptance and honesty (it’s not exactly The Iceman Cometh, but it’s got some emotional heft). Tiffany’s cast is reliably sturdy to deliver the laughs and the deeper emotional moments, and that very Rowling-esque sense of story propulsion is felt throughout, especially when the larger group bonds together to fight a common enemy. The friendship between Albus Severus Potter (played by Benjamin Papac) and Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger is especially potent, and both actors bring a welcome angsty teen edginess to their performances.
The interesting thing about Cursed Child as the eighth Potter story is that it feels organic and heartfelt in a way the Fantastic Beast prequel movies have not. Those feel like a money grab overloaded with CGI effects. These plays are filled with storytelling, right-before-your-eyes magic and good, old-fashioned theatrical dazzle. These plays are proof that there is real magic in the world, and it resides – perhaps not surprisingly – in the realm of live theater.
FOR MORE INFORMATION Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne; based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany. Tickets on sale through June 20, 2019. $59-$289. Curran Theater, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. harrypotteronstage.com
The cast of The Jungle at the Curran includes (from left) Jonathan Nyati as Mohammed, Ammar Haj Ahmad as Safi, Dominic Rowan as Derek and Tommy Letts as Sam. Below: John Pfumojena as Okot. Photos by Little Fang
You may enter The Jungle at the beautiful Curran theater in downtown San Francisco, but you exit in an entirely different place – mentally and emotionally speaking, that is.
The idea of immersive theater tends to bring on expectations of fun and intrigue with promises of leaving present circumstances behind and allowing yourself to be somewhere else (possibly someone else or in some other time) for just a little while. But The Jungle is different. Written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, the play is based on their experience as volunteers and theater-makers at the Calais refugee encampment that came to be known as The Jungle in its nearly two years of existence in 2015 and 2016. At its height, more than 8,000 refugees from many nations – Syria, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Sudan to name a few – were living in what came to resemble a small city. All of them were there in the hope of reaching the UK, that not-so-distant land just across the English Channel, where, on a clear day, you could see the White Cliffs of Dover.
To be immersed in such a camp, as we are in this intense theater experience, is a complicated thing. On a theatrical level, everything is top notch. Directors Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin skillfully orchestrate chaos, danger, horror and community building in a way that makes it feel real while still guiding us through character development and plot. The Curran has been completely transformed from its usual majesty into a plywood “café” where most of the audience members are sitting at small tables (the same tables that the actors use as their stage). Set designer Miriam Buether pays such attention to detail it’s almost alarming to re-emerge into the world of the Curran and San Francisco at intermission.
The cast, which includes people who actually spent time as refugees at the real Jungle, brings absolute intensity and commitment to making this realistic environment feel fully inhabited by real people, many of them desperate, scared and angry. We get a cross-sampling of refugees and their stories along with a handful of British volunteers who are trying to bring order to the chaos. There’s a lot of shouting, a lot of noise and mayhem as many things happen at once throughout the play’s two acts and nearly two hours.
Theatrically, we’re in good hands (and that includes work by lighting designer Jon Clark, sound designer Paul Arditti and costume designer Catherine Kodicek), and that means we’re thoroughly immersed in this world where thousands of people (a small representation of refugees in a similar plight around the world) are reduced to a commodity that must be dealt with, ignored, taken advantage of, or, at worst, eliminated. Because we’re in the same room with them, experiencing slices of their hardships and challenges, we see them as what they are: people. Not blurbs in the news. Not data. Not the enemy. People. With so much news and so many politicized headlines inundating us from every angle (and with so much of it being bad news), we become inured to the reality of what people – so many of them families – are actually going through day to day just to survive.
The Jungle accomplishes that absolutely necessary thing: it personalizes the stories, gives names to the faces and provides stories to the lives. In one of the play’s most wrenching monologues, a 17-year-old Sudanese boy, Okot (John Pfumojena) talks about the smugglers he paid to get him out of Darfour but ultimately used him as a pawn to try and extract more money out of his mother. They sent her photographs of her son under a giant cement slab, essentially telling her that without her additional money, he would be killed. She had no extra money, but somehow he survived, making it across the sea in the hold of a horrible boat and then to Calais, where, in a burst of radical hope, he shares his phone’s ringtone: Vera Lynne singing “The White Cliffs of Dover.”
Amid the noise and bustle of the staging, a sense of intimacy is created, and we experience a vital connection with humans in crisis. What to do about that is almost as complicated as the crisis itself. The British volunteers are sometimes seen as interfering or working in their own best interests (not to mention escaping their own lives) as they attempt to find themselves in their good works. But with the governments of France and the United Kingdom doing so little, there’s a huge void and even more enormous need.
The issue of “home” and what that word actually means pervades this experience (calling it simply a play doesn’t quite suffice). Over the course of these three hours, we feel this slapped-together city begin to feel like a home of sorts, a place of refuge even if only temporarily before the bulldozers begin their insidious work. It’s easy to imagine that everyone who experiences The Jungle as a home to return to when this particular story ends. But we fully realize that this story never ends. It never really changes from decade to decade or, to take the long view, from century to century. Horrible things to happen to groups of people all over the world, and most of us feel powerless to do anything about it. The Jungle doesn’t provide any easy answers, but it does say this: remember that every single person you read about is just that: a person with a name and a history and the capacity for deep feeling and a need for everything we mean when we say “home.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s The Jungle continues through May 19 at the Curran, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$165. Call 415-358-1220 or visit https://sfcurran.com
The cast of the Dear Evan Hansen tour includes (from left) Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen, Aaron Lazar as Larry Murphy, Christiane Noll as Cynthia Murphy and Maggie McKenna as Zoe Murphy. Below: Ross’ Evan seeks connection in an isolating age in the Tony Award-winning musical at the Curran. Photos by Matthew Murphy. 2018.
It’s absolutely astonishing that a musical about pain – in itself a painful experience – can be so enjoyable. But Dear Evan Hansen is a deeply felt show that wrings tears but is so artfully crafted that its pain is also a pleasure.
This is also a show that managed, in the shadow of Hamilton a season before it, to become its own kind of phenomenon. Much of the credit went to original star Ben Platt, who originated the role of the title character, a high school senior whose discomfort in his own skin much less the world around him is palpable. There were also plaudits for composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul for songs that felt vital and contemporary yet still carried emotional weight within the trajectory of the plot. Songs like “Waving Through a Window” and “You Will Be Found” quickly took on life outside the musical, making Evan Hansen the show people wanted to see (after Hamilton, of course).
Producers wisely put the show on the road as quickly as possible, and the good news is the touring company now at the Curran is every bit as powerful and moving as the Broadway production. Platt’s shoes are awfully hard to fill, but Ben Levi Ross gives a remarkable performance as Evan – naturalistic enough to feel real but theatrical enough to make breaking into song feel like it makes total sense. Keeping that tricky balance is a distinguishing feature of director Michael Greif’s work throughout the show. This is an intimate musical – only eight characters – that is (as hard as it is to believe these days) not based on a book or a movie or a cartoon or meme. It’s an original story by book writer Steven Levenson about the power of the truth.
When a classmate commits suicide, Evan is mistakenly identified as a close friend of the deceased. What’s surprising is neither Evan nor his supposed friend, Connor Murphy, had any friends. Evan is almost pathologically shy and has trouble navigating even the smallest social interaction and Connor was a rebel who spent most of his time angry and high. Still, once the connection between the two boys is made, the misunderstanding quickly leads to lies of increasing size and significance. Evan finds himself caught in a difficult place where he doesn’t want to disappoint Connor’s family, who are so surprised and delighted Connor had a best friend, so he doesn’t correct their misapprehension. And once he’s embraced by the Murphy family, his miserable life as a lonely kid of an overworked single mom is suddenly brightened. Evan’s mom is loving and doing her absolute best juggling a son, a medical career and night school, but here in Mrs. Murphy, Evan finds a surrogate mom who is happy to cook for him and talk to him and not want to fix all of his, as he puts it, “broken parts.” And here’s a dad who, unlike Evan’s dad who bolted years ago and started another family, shows interest in him and actually acts like a dad.
To further complicate things, Evan has long harbored a crush on Connor’s little sister, Zoe, and now that he’s spending all this time in the Murphy house making up a friendship full of imaginary incidents, he can’t help but feel the complicated pull of his attraction.
As Evan and the Murphys grow closer, Evan’s fellow high school students rally around him as the flashpoint for all things Connor Murphy until Evan becomes a viral sensation promoting inclusion and kindness and the notion no person should ever feel so alone or forgotten that they take their own life.
Dear Evan Hansen is a musical built on discomfort. Evan’s physical presence telegraphs discomfort at practically every moment (something Levi does with such natural efficiency that it never feels affected), and once he begins what will become an avalanche of lies, the anxiety level only goes up and up. And yet the audience is fully with the show, especially with Evan, whose behavior is understandable even if you want to scream at him and prevent him from digging in deeper and deeper. By Act 2, when the Internet has blown Evan’s lies to terrifying proportions, the whole thing has to come crashing down. So it does, but not in a punitive way. More in an emotional, prepare-for-an-ugly-cry kind of way.
In the centerpiece role of Evan, Ross is both brittle and resilient. We see Evan struggle and crumble and find his way. Ross’s voice has the vulnerability and power that Platt’s does, which gives extraordinarily dynamic power to the score, especially in “Waving Through a Window” (with the window being Evan’s metaphorical isolation as well as the isolation behind the “window” of our ever-present screens), “For Forever” (his reverie about a fantasy friendship with Connor) and his breakdown aria, “Words Fail.”
The whole cast is superb, with Jessica Phillips as Evan’s mom really coming to life in Act 2 with a raging “Good for You” and a heartbreaking (truly) “So Big/So Small.” Aaron Lazar as Connor’s dad delivers a beautiful song/scene with Evan in “To Break in a Glove” that masterfully deals with a father’s grief and disappointment, and Christiane Noll as Connor’s mom is like an open wound of regret and delusion.
Maggie McKenna as Zoe, Connor’s sister (who is not a Connor fan) and Evan’s love interest, is astonishingly natural as a young person who thinks she has things figured out and is mostly dismayed that she really doesn’t. Her love duet with Ross, “Only Us,” has a beautiful simplicity to it, like something two young people who are just finding each other, might actually express.
And the other teenagers – Marrick Smith as Connor, whose death does not prevent him from being an active character; Jared Goldsmith as Evan’s reluctant, ever-acerbic friend Jared; and Phoebe Koyabe as Alana, an ambitious senior unafraid of creating opportunities for herself – are equally as effective, with Goldsmith contributing the bulk of the show’s welcome comic relief.
They say the truth shall set you free, and that’s true. But what they don’t say is how hard it can be to even get close to the truth. There’s the crux of Dear Evan Hansen right there. Evan can twitch and dodge and apologize and be uncomfortable all he wants, but he can’t face the ultimate truth about himself and just how in need of help he really is. And his mom and the Murphys are just as reluctant, in their own ways, to acknowledge what they most need to acknowledge. This is such a beautiful, painful and deeply human show – our flaws and our salvation, the pain and the beauty, are so intricately intertwined, it’s hard to tell one from another.
Ben Levi Ross performs “Waving Through a Window” from Dear Evan Hansen
FOR MORE INFORMATION Dear Evan Hansen continues through Dec. 30 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $99-$325. Call or visit sfcurran.com. DAILY DIGITAL LOTTERY: Lucky Seat hosts a digital ticket lottery for a limited number of $25 tickets available per performance. Visit luckyseat.com/dearevanhansen until 9 a.m. the day before the performance you’d like to see and follow prompts to enter the lottery.
Set and costume designer Machine Dazzle (left) and writer/singer/deity Taylor Mac perform in Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce at the Curran through December 1. Below: Mac deconstructs the patriarchy of spirituality in the unconventional holiday show. Photos by Little Fang Photography
Is it greedy, in this season of generosity, to feel like two hours of Taylor Mac is about four hours short of the minimum time one wants to spend with this extraordinary human being?
The last time Mac was at the Curran, it was with A 24-Decade History of Popular Music in easily digestible six-hour chunks. Those shows were mind-blowing – the kind of immersive, genre-busting, challenging, cosmic experiences that make you re-think just about everything, from what live theater can be to what your purpose is on this planet.
Now Mac is back with a two-hour show called Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce, and while two hours is far better than no hours, by the time the show ended, I felt like we were just getting warmed up and ready to do some real work in tearing down “patriarchy as spirituality,” as Mac puts it. This is like no holiday show you’ve ever seen – a Radical Faerie Realness Ritual Sacrifice that involves music and drag and gloriously theatrical excess and full-blown political revolt. Look for eggnog, Rudolph and Hallmark movies elsewhere.
We do get a Christmas tree (worn as a costume by Machine Dazzle, who designed the set as well as all the outrageously wonderful costumes) as well as an angel (Gabriel, who strips down to skin glitter on stage before ascending and getting his wings) and a nativity complete with camels, a beer-swilling Baby Jesus and three Wise People who may have caused a stir amid the denizens of Bethlehem.
But holiday traditions are more exploded than celebrated here, and it feels so good. If “The Black Angel’s Death Song” by Velvet Underground is your idea of a stirring holiday carol, you’re in luck. That’s how Mac opens the show (accompanied by musical director Matt Ray at the piano and magnificent eight-piece orchestra complete with brass and strings), and it’s our first blast of the Mac voice, that muscular tone that can belt and swoon and hammer and caress. Later on Mac will blend “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (another Velvet Underground tune) with “The Little Drummer Boy,” and then turn “O, Holy Night” into a de-constructed, re-constructed audience sing-along that just may revise how you hear all those classic holiday chestnuts.
Mac’s triptych tirade against capitalism includes William Roy’s “Bargain Day” and Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” capped off with the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” complete with an elder choir singing on the mezzanine.
It’s all in service of Mac’s effort to bring the margins into the center, to re-frame how we look at tradition and why so many parts of the population – queer, gender fluid, female, senior – are kept from the heart of the celebration. Mac also aims to pay tribute to Mother Flawless Sabrina, whose image presides over the increasingly crowded stage (filled with elves and Dandy Minions and a Santa who will ask before touching). A spiritual mother figure to Mac, Mother Flawless is quoted as saying things like, “Reality is a mass hunch” and “Normal is a setting on the dryer” – aphorisms that feel like shiny adornments on this bounteous holiday package.
My favorite musical moment in the show is one that highlights something Mac is especially skilled at: building a sense of community among audience and performers. The song is The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” and anyone who knows the lyrics (or anyone who doesn’t) is invited to join the party on the stage, where Bushmill’s and Jameson’s are served in little paper cups. It’s a party you don’t want to see ending anytime soon.
Mac commands the stage like no one else. The Machine Dazzle outfits help a lot. The first ensemble includes boars’ heads with apples in their mouths as epaulets and a skirt of elf arms and hands tangled with reindeer antlers. The second is a Nutcracker fantasy in pink with a skirt that doubles as a carousel. Mac doesn’t need all the flash to hold an audience in thrall, but the grand drag is magnificent. It frames a performance brimming with intelligence, ferocity and theatrical charm.
That’s why, at the end of two hours, it’s so hard to say goodbye to Mac. Once you’re on the Holiday Sauce you’re well on your way to a case of Macaholism that will last well into the new year.
Here’s Taylor Mac performing Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” in October 2018:
FOR MORE INFORMATION Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce continues through Dec. 1 at the Curran, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $29-$175. Call 415-358-1220 or visit sfcurran.com.
The cast of Jeanine Tesori and David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power includes (from left) Kristen Faith Oei, Raymond J. Lee (obscured), Austin Ku, Daniel May, Geena Quintos, Jon Hoche, Paul HeeSang Miller, Jaygee Macapugay, Billy Bustamante (obscured), Maria-Christina Oliveras and Kendyl Ito. Below: (from left) Maria-Christina Oliveras (obscured), Geena Quintos, Billy Bustamante, Conrad Ricamora, Jaygee Macapugay, Jon Hoche and Daniel May in the production directed by Leigh Silverman and choreographed by Sam Pinkleton on stage at the Curran Theatre. Photos by Craig Schwartz
Remarkable. Inspiring. Hilarious. Moving. There aren’t enough descriptive words to fully express just how wonderful and fascinating and exhilarating it is to experience Soft Power the new musical by David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori now at the Curran Theatre.
Forget Go-Go’s pop musicals (sorry Head Over Heels). Hit the road, lame movie-to-musical adaptations (looking at you, Walk on the Moon). This is what it’s like to be in the presence of musical theater with bracing originality, thrilling artistry, abundant intelligence (and humor) and expert execution. Watching Soft Power feels important – it’s tremendously entertaining and thought-provoking, but it also feels somehow bigger than the average show. This stage contains a larger conversation about the musical theater form itself, our evolution as truly compassionate humans and about the state of our nation. This is easily the most important musical since Hamilton.
Describing Soft Power is challenging primarily because it has so much going on, which is one of its many charms. There are three main ingredients here: The King and I, Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign and China’s quest for “soft power,” which is the notion of ideas, inventions and culture that change the way people think.
This is also described as “a play with a musical,” and that’s appropriate because the musical that eventually transpires is dependent on the short play that precedes it. Once that musical arrives, audience members find themselves in high-concept territory because you’re not just watching a musical. You’re watching, essentially, a reversal of The King and I from the 22nd century. No more is the white lady in the foreign country taming the barbarians and teaching the king how to govern his own people. In this case, the cast is primarily Asian playing blonde, gun-toting Americans who are tamed by the kind-hearted Chinese guy, who also happens to fall in love with Mrs. Clinton.
Questions of appropriation and representation – those catch phrases that we hear so much about these days – are not merely asked here, they are considered and corrected and satirized. This is not a show that debates issues. It embodies them. It makes fun of them, pummels them, satirizes them, eviscerates them.
This immersive 2 1/2-hour experience is filled with laughs and parody and homage, both in Tesori’s lush, gorgeous score, with its echoes of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Sondheim and so much more, as well as in Sam Pinkleton’s choreography with its pop-meets-de-Mille exuberance. Hwang’s book is sharp and pointed, but what’s so extraordinary about Soft Power is the way the show also works as musical storytelling. Just as one of the characters complains about the political incorrectness of The King and I she heaps praise upon that show’s beautiful score and emotional storytelling, or, as she describes it, the show’s “perfect delivery system.” You might not like aspects of King (like its caucasian perspective on Asian culture), but once the music starts, your heart surrenders. Something like that happens here. Tesori’s score, which is so wonderfully different from the superb work she created in shows like Caroline, or Change and Fun Home, bursts with life and humor and beauty. Hwang’s lyrics (with additional lyrics by Tesori) are direct and insightful.
Director Leigh Silverman manages the impossible here. She creates an emotional framework that allows Hwang and Tesori to careen all over the place while still creating characters and stories we care about. Just when it seems the musical will fully flip into full-on political buffoonery, we’re drawn back into human-scale emotion. And here’s another astonishing thing: everything here feels relevant, from the deconstruction of good ol’ American musical theater to the bashing of the television personality with all the bankruptcies who beat Hillary (he is referred to as the president or as “dear leader” but is never referred to by name). Silverman, Hwang and Tesori have taken our world – what feels like this exact moment – and turned it into art on a grand scale. How did they do that? When they get to the inspirational number at the end, it actually IS inspirational because it feels as if the actors are reaching down to your seat and offering you that little spark, that little push, that little reminder to keep going.
When Act 1 ends, and you’re thinking, “What in the world did I just see?” and then you consider this: “There’s no way Act 2 can continue on this tightrope. As with so many musicals, Act 2 will deflate the balloon.” But then Act 2 happens and it’s even better, and all those courageous leaps come together with emotional and intellectual pay-off.
Huge credit must go to the dynamic cast headed by Conrad Ricamora as our hero from China, Alyse Alan Louis as Hillary Clinton and former Bay Area stalwart Francis Jue as a playwright named David Henry Hwang. They are supported by an outstanding ensemble that can handle every tonal shift thrown at them and then some.
Set designer David Zinn, lighting designer Mark Barton and costume designer Anita Yavich bring clarity and humor to the stage as well and keenly differentiate between our real 21st world and the future musical world of the 22nd century. The flashy stage is often like the circus meets grand opera but with many, many, many more guns.
Soft Power (which can actually be defined by its title) makes it very clear that democracy may break your heart, but this brilliant show also has the very real power to restore your faith in art as reflection, renewal and, perhaps most importantly, revolution.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Jeanine Tesori and David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power continues through July 8 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $29-$175. Visit sfcurran.com for information.