Odds are in favor of SF Playhouse’s 77%

The cast of Rinne Groff’s 77%, part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series for new play development: (from left) Arwen Anderson, Karen Grassle, Patrick Russell. Below: Russell’s Eric shares a drink and some bonding with his mother-in-law, Frankie (Grassle). Photos by Fei Cai

The title of Rinne Groff’s new play 77% may seem cold and statistical, but it’s actually wonderfully charming. You have to see the play to get it, but here’s something to know: if you can achieve that percentage with a romantic partner of some kind, you’re doing a really good job.

A play about marriage, among other things, 77% receives its world premiere as part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series for new plays. It’s a remarkable play, in part, because it seems so unremarkable. The set-up smacks of sitcom fodder: he’s a stay-at-home dad/children’s book illustrator, she’s a high-powered businesswoman who travels a lot for work and her mom is currently living with them and helping with the kids. She’s always dreamed of having three children, but to add one more kid to their brood will require the assistance of medical science and the wonders of in-vitro fertilization.

On an extremely simple set – a few chairs, a table on wheels and an abstract backdrop that looks like a sailboat’s sail – this fast-paced comedy/drama plays out in 80 minutes but still manages to feel substantial.

Credit Groff’s sharp script, which cuts through a whole lot of layers to get to the good stuff in a hurry, and director Marissa Wolf’s stellar work with a crack trio of actors for managing a tricky blend of speed and naturalism. The rhythms are from real life, but there’s a theatrical push to the short scenes that infuses them with an irresistible electrical charge.


This is apparent in the first scene, as Eric (Patrick Russell) and Melissa (Arwen Anderson) are taking a drive in their new minivan. Melissa has returned from a work trip, and the following day, they resume their IVF treatments in hopes of a third child. Melissa is driving, and it’s clear that though these spouses are thoroughly and deeply connected, there’s all kinds of tension. Part of that is from her being the breadwinner. Eric is sensitive about the way Melissa talks about his work or about his daily life with the kids. In Groff’s deft hands, this scene is less about a challenged macho ego and much more about how people – especially those in what would be considered non-traditional roles – connect to their self-worth.

Anderson and Russell are so natural in their roles, it’s easy to go on this ride with them. They scuffle, they laugh, they sext (hilariously and not without a frisson of super sexiness). Life is difficult for them, but tension and conflict is part of the landscape and not the deal breaker it tends to be in less sophisticated work.

Adding to the mix of complication is Karen Grassle as Frankie, Melissa’s mom. She’s staying with her daughter’s family while her husband is on a solo sailing trip (he’s delivering a sloop, and much is made of the word “sloop”). There’s a fair percentage (not 77%) of the play that is about a strained mother-daughter relationship without that ever seeming to be at the fore. Both mother and daughter sit in heavy judgement of each other, but on a slightly drunken evening when Eric and Frankie bond, we find out a whole lot more about who Frankie is (and, by the way, who Eric is), and it’s fantastic. We sense a through line from mother to daughter and even to father, who is only ever acknowledged as a faint image on a FaceTime call.

SF Playhouse’s Sandbox Series, as it did last year with Aaron Loeb’s, Ideation, which made its way to the company’s main stage this season (read my review here) takes a simple approach to new work. Hand the work to skilled directors and actors and let the script shine through a straightforward, no-frills production. Sometimes that’s the best possible way to experience a play. With a play as smart, funny and incisive as 77%, it’s not hard to imagine many more productions of the play in the near future. Odds are 100 percent hit.

Rinne Groff’s 77% continues through Nov. 22 at the Tides Theater, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco, a presentation of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series. Tickets are $20. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Building a `Little House’ on Broadway?

Melissa Gilbert stars as Ma in the Guthrie Theatre’s world-premiere musical adaptation of Little House on the Prairie. Photo by Michal Daniel

First a series of beloved, ever-popular books, then a long-running TV series that eventually outgrew the books and created a world of its own.

And now a…musical! Of course Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books would eventually become a musical. What doesn’t?

The big news about the musical, which is having its world premiere at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theatre, is that Melissa Gilbert, who played Laura on the TV show, stars in the musical as Ma, the role originally played by Karen Grassle (now a Bay Area resident).

The show, still in previews (it opens Friday, Aug. 15), has already been extended due to popular demand. The show now runs through Oct. 19.

And now news comes down that the show is going to head out on a 40-city tour. Will one of those 40 cities be in the Bay Area? Stay tuned. Producer Ben Sprecher told Playbill.com that the tour will launch in the fall of 2009.

Could this mean that producers want to build a Little House on Broadway? With all the girls visiting New York flocking to the American Girl store/show, it seems as likely as a hard prairie winter.

Little House on the Prairie is directed by opera director Francesca Zambello, who recently made her Broadway debut with Disney’s The Little Mermaid (does she only direct musicals with the word “little” in the title?). The book is by Tony-winner Rachel Sheinkin (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), lyrics by Donna DiNovelli and music by Rachel Portman (best known for her movie scores such (Emma, Chocolat and The Cider House Rules).

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has some fun Little House stories and trivia games that are worth a look for fans. Click here.

For information about Little House, visit the Guthrie’s site here.

Review: `Cabaret’

Continues through Sept. 20 at SF Playhouse

Lauren English dons a brunette bob wig as Sally Bowles singing the title song in the SF Playhouse production of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. Photos by Zabrina Tipton

Intimate theater puts new spin on an old musical chum

Bay Area audiences have had plenty of opportunities to come to the Cabaret.

The Kander and Ebb musical has been done at TheatreWorks, Shotgun Players and Best of Broadway (the touring version of the 1997 Broadway revival, once with Joely Fisher in the lead, once with Andrea McArdle), to name a few.

Now SF Playhouse is whisking audiences back to Berlin circa 1930 and into the sleazy confines of the Kit Kat Klub. And I do mean confines. SF Playhouse set designer Kim A. Tolman has turned the small theater into a facsimile of an actual cabaret dive. The first two rows of seats have been replaced with small cabaret tables, and the Kit Kat Girls from the show serve drinks before the show actually begins.

There’s as much stage as there is audience, so this is an immersive experience to say the least. Director Bill English turns the show into a musical play. It’s a small cast for a musical (13 people), and most of the cast members serve time the orchestra. For instance, Tania Johnson, who plays Fraulein Kost, is a mad woman on the accordion – she actually makes it sexy in sort of a raunchy-dirty sort of way.

And Brian Yates Sharber(below with the Kit Kat Girls), who gives the role of the Emcee a rather enigmatic spin, wails on a sassy red clarinet. The most actively musical cast member is Will Springhorn Jr., who plays Nazi Ernst Ludwig and then dashes back to the cramped orchestra pit to play various saxophones.

The multiple duties yield strong results. The band (which includes Martin Rojas-Dietrich on piano, and who also plays club owner Max, and drummer Alex Szotak, who looks all of 14, and Kristopher Hauck on trombone) sounds appropriately rag tag and debauched. It sounds like they’re playing music, but their minds are on something much more deviant.

English has chosen to produce a version of Cabaret that isn’t quite the original and definitely isn’t the revival, which includes the songs (“Maybe This Time,” “Mein Herr”) from the movie. This version is closer to the 1987 revival. “The Telephone Song” is gone, as are “Why Should I Care” and “Meeskite,” but a song for the Emcee, “I Don’t Care Much,” is in. Unlike the original production, Cliff is presented as a bisexual (an invention from the movie), and like the revival, the number “Two Ladies” is performed by the Emcee and one actual lady and one chorus boy dressed as a lady. Lewdness follows.

With less focus on Sally Bowles and Clifford Bradshaw, the musical becomes more about senior citizen lovers Fraulein Schneider (Karen Grassle) and Herr Schultz (Louis Parnell), and that’s a good thing. Their love story is far more affected by the rise of the Nazis than is Cliff and Sally’s. The older folks get the good character songs as well – “So What,” “It’ Couldn’t Please Me More,” “Married,” “What Would You Do” – and Grassle, who, in her gray wig, is unrecognizable from her “Little House on the Prairie” days, and Parnell perform them effectively with more attention paid to acting than singing.

Daniel Krueger as Cliff smiles through almost every line in Act 1, which is somewhat disconcerting, but he finds more depth in Act 2. Lauren English as Sally Bowles is anything but Liza Minnelli-esque, and that’s such a relief. Her Sally is a much more original, more affecting creation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her performance of the title song, which eschews the razzle-dazzle bombast and goes for something more tender and more appropriately dramatic.

Barbara Bernardo’s choreography manages to make the most of a somewhat limited performance space – the Kit Kat Klub and Fraulein Schneider’s boarding house are essentially the same place – and is able to keep zinging the audience with pelvic thrusts and the like.

Fans of Cabaret should definitely check out English’s version. He borrows the best bits from productions past but manages to create his own distinct feel that feels organic to the piece itself, which is a blur of show biz dazzle, decadent debauchery, honest feeling, fascistic fear mongering and some really great songs.

Cabaret continues through Sept. 20 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40 regular, $55 for cabaret seating. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org for information. Note: English leaves the role of Sally Bowles Aug. 23 and is replaced by Kate Del Castillo beginning Aug. 27.

Dog Bytes: `Follies,’ `Blood Mirage,’ Aurora Borealis

As ever, so many interesting things going on in Bay Area theater:

– The Oakland East Bay Symphony is gearing up for a glittery concert production of Follies, May 16 and 18 at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. The cast includes Val Diamond (Beach Blanket Babylon), Sharon McNight, Rita Moreno, Clark Sterling and the Berkeley Broadway Singers (among others). You won’t want to miss that (visit www.oebs.org for info). But before then, there’s going to be a “Forum on themes of Follies from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, May 3 at the Veteran’s Memorial Building, 200 Grand Avenue, Oakland. Admission is free, and it’s sponsored by the OEBS and Stagebridge and the City of Oakland Life Enrichment Programs. The keynote speaker is Ted Chapin, author of Everything was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies (a fantastic book and must reading for anyone who cares about musical theater) and the president and executive director of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization. Panelists include Lucha Corpi, Bill Bell, Bonnie Bell, Glen Pearson and Barbara Oliver. John Kendall Bailey serves as moderator, and there will be performances and live music.

– The Eugene O’Neill Foundation, Tao House (the wonderful national park on the grounds of the Danville home O’Neill shared with his wife Carlotta around the time he was writing, among others, Long Day’s Journey Into Night — if you’ve never been to this park, you owe it to yourself to make a visit and take a tour) is launching the 2008 Playwrights Theatre series. Opening the series is a new work by San Francisco writer/director/actor Jeffrey Hartgraves: Blood Mirage, the story of three adult sisters called together by their aging mother to attend a funeral and experience some shocking revelations. Blood Mirage is at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 4 in the Old Barn at Tao House. Also on the May 4 bill is Revelations, a series of scenes from O’Neill plays in which women are the principal characters. Local actor Karen Grassle (of “Little House on the Prairie” fame) is featured.
O’Neill’s Welded is at 3 p.m. Sunday, May 18. The play was written in 1922-23 and concerns a successful playwright and his wife, each seeking comfort in another relationship (he with a prostitute, she with a family friend). O’Neill wrote about the play: “I feel that I’m getting back as far as it is possible in modern times to get back, to the religious in the theater. The only way we can get religion back is through an exultation over the truth, through an exultant acceptance of life.”
Tickets are $25 (price includes transportation from Danville to Tao House — there’s no parking in the park). Call 925-820-1818 or visit www.eugeneoneill.org for information.

– Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company holds its annual fundraiser, Aurora Borealis, on Monday, May 5 at The Pavilion at Scott’s Seafood Restaurant in Oakland’s Jack London Square. Tickets (from $216 to $316) include cocktails, a three-course dinner and live entertainment by Maureen McVerry and Billy Philadelphia (co-stars in the Aurora’s recent musical romp Sex). The live auction includes a December holiday trip to Puerto Vallarta, lunch with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik, a week in New York, a private cabaret night with Philadelphia and his singer wife Meg Mackay. Funds raised at the event support mainstage productions, education programs and the Global Age Project new works program.
Call 510-843-4042 ext. 378 or visit www.auroratheatre.org for information.

Little stage on the prairie

I was in the lobby at SF Playhouse for an opening a couple weeks ago, and while milling through the crowd, I heard a voice that zinged me straight back to childhood.

There I was, 8 years old, glued to the television while Ma, Pa, Mary and Laura (aka Half-Pint) attempted to make a life for themselves in a little house on the prairie.

The voice in the lobby belonged to Karen Grassle (pronounced Grass-lee), who played Ma for eight seasons on the NBC TV version of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie’’ books.

It turns out Grassle, though famous for her TV work, is a theater person and a Bay Area native.
We’ve seen her on stage a few times – in California Shakespeare Theater’s Hamlet during artistic director Jonathan Moscone’s debut season, and in SF Playhouse’s The Ride Down Mt. Morgan.

About three years ago, Grassle, 66, returned to the Bay Area for good.

She was actually born at Albany Hospital, but her family moved south to Ventura, and she wasn’t back in the Bay Area until after high school when she enrolled in the English Department at UC Berkeley.

During her college years, she was an apprentice at the Actors Workshop in San Francisco, and then did her post-graduate work at the London Academy of Music and Drama.

“Theater was just one of those things that was in my blood,’’ Grassle says. “Not being a practical thing to do, I tried to ignore it. My parents certainly tried to ignore it. Eventually I had to surrender. This was my calling.’’

Grassle has done a fair bit of traveling in pursuit of stage work. From London she landed in Memphis, Tenn., then headed to New York, where her big Broadway break, The Gingham Dog, earned her a Tony nomination.

After “Little House’’ ran its course, Grassle took time off to raise a family, but she kept a foot in the theater world. Eventually she moved to New Mexico to start a theater company there (“It was too hard trying to do everything.’’), then she landed in Louisville, Ky., where she worked for Jon Jory at the Actors Theatre.

In the last four years she has done Driving Miss Daisy four times, and now she’s making her TheatreWorks debut in Kathleen Clark’s romantic comedy Southern Comforts.

Directed by Bay Area veteran Joy Carlin, “Comforts’’ is a “December-Decmeber’’ romance about a Southern widow and a Yankee widower (the Bay Area’s Edward Sarafian) who get what they least expected — a second chance at love.

“My character is Amanda Cross, a former librarian from Tennessee,’’ Grassle explains. “She was widowed quite young and was a single mom for years. With any character you play, you find all the places in yourself that can touch the places in her. With Amanda, that’s being a single mom, loving books and wanting to share your happiness. That’s a longing I share with her.’’

And working with Joy Carlin?

“Oh, Joy is a joy,’’ Grassle says. “It’s like having a master class in comedy with her. Because she’s an actor, too, she’s extremely patient and sensitive with our process. She doesn’t lay all the pressure on you like some directors do. Besides, I just love her. I’m delighted I know her.’’

Southern Comforts continues through March 30 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $20-$56. Call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org for information.