TheatreWorks’ shining Desert Cities

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Brooke (Kate Turnbull, center) returns to Palm Springs to celebrate Christmas with her parents Lyman (James Sutorius, left) and Polly (Kandis Chappell, right) in TheatreWorks’ production of Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz. Photo by Tracy Martin

I sort of fell in love with Jon Robin Baitz more than 20 years when I saw his The Substance of Fire at the Magic Theatre. He was an astoundingly intelligent playwright crafting dramas that felt of another time and from a writer well beyond his years.

Baitz has continued to turn out compelling dramas over the decades, but it was his stint in Hollywood that seemed to really recharge his theatrical battery. After a not-so-great experience in the world of network television, Baitz wrote what might be his best play yet, Other Desert Cities, which receives its local premiere from TheatreWorks.

I reviewed the play for the Palo Alto Weekly, an excerpt of which follows.

From the play’s first moments, thanks largely to the incredible set, the audience is completely drawn into the Wyeth household drama, and once Baitz’s crackling dialogue begins, resistance is futile. This is a classically well-made play about the theater of family: how each member chooses and plays a role, some more forcefully than others. There are no gimmicks as the drama unfolds over a couple of fraught December days. Whether this is a family breaking apart or ultimately pulling together isn’t revealed until the last moments of the two-hour play.

Expertly directed by Richard Seer, this cast performs with such precision it’s hard to imagine anyone better in the roles. Chappell dominates the stage as the powerhouse Polly, a bright woman so devoid of compassion (yet not of love) for her children it’s almost shocking to hear some of the things that come out of her mouth. She’s brutal but she’s also funny, which makes her irresistible.

Read the full review here.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed playwright Jon Robin Baitz and Other Desert Cities leading lady Kandis Chappell for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Other Desert Cities continues through Sept. 15 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$73. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

Earnest delights at Stanford Summer Theater

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Stanford undergrads Austin Caldwell as Algernon (right) and David Raymond as Jack are part of director Lynne Soffer’s crack cast in Stanford Summer Theater’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Below: Courtney Walsh steals the show as Lady Bracknell. Photos courtesy of Stanford Summer Theater.

How nice to report that Stanford Summer Theater launches its 15th anniversary season with a crackling good production of Oscar Wilde’s masterwork, The Importance of Being Earnest directed by Lynne Soffer.

I reviewed the show for the Palo Alto Weekly. Here are a few excerpts.

Perhaps Soffer’s great accomplishment here is casting actors with mostly crackling good chemistry. Of course there are the two central romantic couples, but where the chemistry really energizes the play is between friends Algernon and Jack and rivals/besties Gwendolen and Cecily.

Stanford undergrads Austin Caldwell as Algernon and David Raymond as Jack bring a robust energy to their scenes, and each fairly drips with British upper-class privilege. If they’re a few years too young to be completely believable as men in their late 20s, it hardly matters when they’re able to wring laughs from exchanges like this:

Jack: You don’t think there is any chance of Gwendolen becoming like her mother in about 150 years, do you, Algy?

Algernon: All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.

It’s a perfect set-up and delivery, but then Wilde takes it one level further, as Jack becomes an even more perfect straight man, positioning Algernon for the proverbial slam dunk.

Jack: Is that clever?

Algernon: It is perfectly phrased! And quite as true as any observation in civilized life should be.

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Played by Courtney Walsh, this Lady Bracknell is a tower — literally, as this is a tall actor made taller by costumer Connie Strayer’s divine hats — of societal propriety. With her booming voice and ever-arching eyebrows, she is not only a scene stealer but also a play stealer, and all without chewing the scenery as some Lady Bracknells are prone to do.

You could forgive her for taking bites of the scenery because the designs by Erik Flatmo are, in a word, delicious. “Earnest” is very much a period piece (which is why TheatreWorks’ updating of it to the ’60s fizzled), and Flatmo goes all out to create sumptuous settings for Algernon’s London townhouse, drowning in rich fabrics and bachelor excess, and the light, airy gardens and manor house of Jack’s Hertfordshire estate (the lovely lighting is by Michael Ramsaur).

Read the full review here.

Stanford Summer Theater’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde continues through Aug. 11 at the Pigott Theater, Memorial Auditorium, 551 Serra Mall, Stanford. Tickets are $15-$25. Call 650-725-5838 or visit

Look! You can see Jersey Boys from The Mountaintop

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The finale of Jersey Boys features a full-cast performance headed by the Four Seasons played by (from left) Miles Jacoby, Nick Cosgrove, John Gardiner and Michael Lomenda. The Tony Award-winning musical runs at the Curran Theatre through April 28 as part of the SHN season. Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Two reviews in print this week for two wildly different shows. First up is the return of Jersey Boys to the Curran Theatre, where the first national tour of the Tony Award-winning show kicked off in 2006.

My review is for the San Francisco Chronicle, and here’s a sample:

The structure of the biographical musical, created by book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice along with director Des McAnuff, is what makes the difference between a ferociously fun musical theater blast with emotional heft and a show that easily could have been a run-of-the-mill drama depicting hardscrabble beginnings, raging success and the dark side of fame.
Who really cared about Valli and the Four Seasons before “Jersey Boys” stormed Broadway in 2005 and kicked off its national tour a year later at the Curran? Their songs were fun, but their petty-crime origins in Jersey, their struggle to find a group identity and then their incredible string of pop hits in the ’60s were all largely forgotten.
Then Brickman, Elice and McAnuff devised a way to make everybody care.

Read the full review here.

On last thing. My original review had a final paragraph that got lopped off. The nice thing about having my own website is that I can lop it right back on:

Maybe the best thing of all is that the show itself, now the final chapter in the Four Seasons legacy, is the real happy ending musical theater audiences crave.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Adrian Roberts) laughs with Lorraine Motel maid Camae (Simone Missick) in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, a TheatreWorks production at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Heading south, TheatreWorks presents the local premiere of Katori Hall’s award-winning drama The Mountaintop, a fantasia on the last night in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The production, at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, is top notch and features two strong performances. The script, ultimately, is flawed, but the intent is noble.

Here’s a bit of the review:

The Martin Luther King Jr. we meet in Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” isn’t orating magnificently on a theme of civil rights for all. Rather, he’s hollering after someone about a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes. Once alone in his Lorraine Motel room in Memphis, Hall’s King is further deconstructed as just an ordinary man. He takes his shoes off and his feet stink — he calls it “marching feet.” Then we hear him going to the bathroom just off stage (he washes his hands after).

Thus begins the demystification process of Hall’s play, an award-winner in London three years ago and a 2011 New York star vehicle for Samuel L. Jackson (making his Broadway debut) and Angela Bassett. Now Hall’s piece of re-imagined history is spreading out across the land.

In its local premiere at the Lucie Stern Theatre courtesy of TheatreWorks, “The Mountaintop” appears to be part of a campaign to pull the Rev. King off his pedestal. The play roots around in his humanity a bit, then returns him to the pantheon of great Americans with a renewed sense of appreciation and respect for what this man, who was mortal after all, was able to accomplish.

Read the full review here.

Lopez family aims high in TheatreWorks’ Somewhere

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The cast of TheatreWorks’ Somewhere includes, from left, Eddie Gutierrez as Francisco, Priscilla Lopez as Inez, Michael Rosen as Alejandro, Leo Ash Evens as Jamie and Michelle Cabinian as Rebecca. Photo by Tracy Martin

In my interview with Priscilla Lopez (see below for the link), the original Diana Morales in the landmark production of A Chorus Line, she calls Somewhere, the play written by her nephew Matthew Lopez now at TheatreWorks, a “dance-ical,” meaning not a play exactly, not a musical exactly but a drama infused with dance. That’s a great way to describe the show, which features a number of dance sequences.

I reviewed Somewhere for the Palo Alto Weekly. Here’s an excerpt:

If you could distill American drama down to two themes, they might be family and dreams, especially if dreams can also encompass delusions. Lopez’s play, which had its premiere last fall at San Diego’s Old Globe and has been seriously revised for its bow in Mountain View, is all about a family of dreamers.

“We force the world to look like our dreams,” the starry-eyed mother tells her disillusioned son. “We do not force our dreams to look like the world.”

That’s the truth. How else to account for just how happy the Candelarias are when the reality of their situation could make for a depressing evening of theater.

Read the complete review here.

[bonus interview]
I had the pleasure of interviewing Tony Award-winner Priscilla Lopez for a story in the San Francisco Chornicle. Read the story here.

Matthew Lopez’s Somewhere continues through FEb 10 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$73. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

Living history and meeting cute

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Matt R. Harrington and Kimiye Corwin play two historical re-enactors whose private lives become entwined in Carly Mensch’s Now Circa Then, a TheatreWorks prodution at the Lucie Stern Theatre. Photo by Tracy Martin

In the eighth grade, my class took a field trip from Reno to San Francisco — possibly the most exciting trip any 13-year-old has ever taken. One of our activities was a trip to Alcatraz, where we were given a guided tour by an actual ranger (this was before the audio tour conquered the island). As we toured The Rock, my life’s goals were falling in place before me. I would be come a National Park ranger, and I would be stationed on Alcatraz. But my tours were going to be better than your average point here, point there, rattle off facts kind of tour. My tours would give visitors a real sense of what it was like to be isolated so close to civilization. I would act out all the parts, from Bird Man to warden to cafeteria hash slinger.

Little did I know that I was fantasizing about something that already existed — a world of living history, people who reenact great moments from the past for the benefit of paying visitors. I never quite got around to fufilling this particular life goal, but I came close recently.

In honor of the play Now Circa Then, a romantic comedy by Carly Mensch (a writer on Showtime’s Weeds), I wrote a story for the San Francisco Chronicle about several local tour guides who don costumes to help visitors slip into a historical time warp.

Read the feature here.

I also went to see Now Circa Then and reviewed it for the Palo Alto Weekly. It’s a sweet, funny and entertaining show, but I ultimately found it disappointing because it happily paddled in shallow waters when it could have been just as enchanting — and much more moving — had it ventured into depths that are only hinted at.

Read the review here.


TheatreWorks’ Now Circa Then continues through April 1 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $19-$69. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

TheatreWorks’ Pitmen paints poignant arts ed picture

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The titular painters in TheatreWorks’ The Pitmen Painters are (from left) James Carpenter, Nicholas Pelczar, Patrick Jones, Jackson Davis (sitting) and Dan Hiatt as they respond to seeing the work of Vincent VanGogh for the first time. Photo by Tracy Martin

Seeing some of the Bay Area’s best actors collected on one stage is a pleasure in and of itself. But Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters has other things to recommend it like its unapologetic championing of the arts as an essential part of being a fully formed human being.

Bringing this true story to life are James Carpenter, Dan Hiatt, Jackson Davis, Nicholas Pelczar and, in perhaps the most revealing performance, Patrick Jones. They’re all wonderful actors, and to see them interacting and playing off of one another is worth the ticket price alone.

I reviewed the production for the Palo Alto Weekly. You can read the review by clicking here.

Here’s the gist of the review:

To Hall’s credit, he keeps the focus on the art teacher and the miner-artists and everything their success meant in terms of class, creativity and the artistic potential in every person if given the opportunity to express it. There’s no forced romance, no artificial drama, no Hollywood flourishes. But there’s still a lingering feeling that, despite the inspiring real-life story, what we have in “The Pitmen Painters” is less a play than it is a well-argued, well-intentioned plea for more arts and more arts education.


Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters continues through Feb. 12 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$69. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

Making a musical Garden grow

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A well-tended garden: The cast of TheatreWorks’ The Secret Garden at the Lucie Stern Theatre. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

The Secret Garden will always hold a special place in my heart. It was the first show I ever saw on Broadway. And because I was there with friends who had friends in high places, we got to go backstage afterward. On my first day in New York, just after my first Broadway show, I got to stand center stage of the St. James Theatre and stare out into the empty theater. Amazing experience.

We got to go backstage, where I met Alison Fraser and, almost by accident, Rebecca Luker. Also go to see Mandy Patinkin pitch a fit because he didn’t want to meet people, dammit, between shows. That was interesting.

I’m thinking about The Secret Garden because I just saw TheatreWorks‘ second production of the show, this time at the intimate Lucie Stern Theatre. The Lucy Simon/Marsha Norman score is still absolutely gorgeous, and the story, based on the Frances Hodgson Burnett book, is still quite moving. I didn’t love everything about this Robert Kelley-directed production, but I loved seeing it again.

Read my review of The Secret Garden for the Palo Alto Weekly here.

Three years ago, when Lamplighters were producing The Secret Garden, I got to interview composer Lucy Simon. Read the interview here.

Answering the question about why she puts herself through the rigors of musical theater creation, she answered:

“I can’t but do it,” she says. “I have to write. I have to sing. I have to make something. Whether it is ever heard or not, well…, maybe The Secret Garden will be the one everyone will know, and people will ask, `Whatever happened to Lucy Simon?’ But that’s OK. Secret Garden has gone out into the world very nicely. It’s my love child and is precious to me. I feel it was a gift given to us that we now give back to the world.”

The Secret Garden, a TheatreWorks production, continues through Dec. 31 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $19-$72. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

Singing the blues in TheatreWorks’ bumpy Clementine

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Jack Koenig (left) is Jaffy, Laiona Michelle is his wife, Clementine, and Matt Jones is their son, Reggie, in the world premiere of Clementine in the Lower 9, an adaptation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon at TheatreWorks in Mountain View. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

In this week’s edition of the Palo Alto Weekly I reviewed the world premiere of Clementine in the Lower 9 at TheatreWorks.

You can read the review here

Here are some excerpts:

If you didn’t know about this world-premiere play’s Greek roots, it could seem a strangely formal tale set amid the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Why, for instance, would a young junkie named Cassy, supposedly gifted with prophecy, be possessed by the god Apollo? And why would a highly intelligent woman celebrate the return of her husband by lighting candles all over the roof of her badly flood-damaged home in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, thus turning it into an incredible fire hazard?

Both of those elements — Cassandra and the lighting of a welcome beacon — are from the Greek but seem odd here.

It seems almost law that any story set in New Orleans has to include jazz music, and that law is effectively adhered to here. At first the music, composed by Justin Ellington, sets the scene and allows Brawner to sing some bluesy tunes. As the play progresses, the music becomes essential to the story. Especially important is a five-finger piano exercise that becomes a haunting refrain, allowing us to forget the battle between ancient and modern and connecting us to the heart of a family in trouble.


Dan Dietz’s Clementine in the Lower 9, a TheatreWorks production, continues through Oct. 30 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$69. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

TheatreWorks’ slam-dunkin’ Donuts

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A gallery of Bay Area greats. The cast of TheatreWorks’ Superior Donuts includes (from left) Howard Swain, Søren Oliver, Julia Brothers and Joan Mankin. Below: Lance Gardener as Franco Wicks. Photos by Tracy Martin


I reviewed TheatreWorksSuperior Donuts for the Palo Alto Weekly (read the review here), and the official review will be out on Friday (Oct. 15). I loved the show and appreciated Letts’ ability to create a conventionally well-made play that, unlike a donut, isn’t all empty calories and sticky sweetness.

What I didn’t have space for in the review was proper praise of the entirely local cast.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Leslie Martinson, director of Superior Donuts, should bring together such good actors. Martinson is also the company’s casting director and has been with TheatreWorks for 26 years. Some directors say that casting is more than 50 percent of directing, and that’s probably true for Martinson, though she’s clearly a solid director (I loved her Theophilus North three years ago).

Howard Swain stars as donut shop owner Arthur Przybyszewski, an aging hippie who can’t really be bothered by life, which he describes as “a derailment.” He runs his shabby donut shop and doesn’t much care that the new Starbucks across the street is killing his business. For him, the business has been dead for years. Swain conveys Arthur’s detachment while making us care about him. Arthur has made some rough decisions in his life, and his troubled relationship with his now-dead father complicate his emotional life as well as his relationships with his own fractured family.

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You can see and feel Arthur start to liven up with the arrival of Franco Wicks, an enthusiastic 21-year-old played by Lance Gardner. If Swain is the soul of the play, Gardner is its spark. He bounces around the set like a dancer interpreting his own original score, and he’s a joy to watch. Gardner and Swain play off of each other expertly, with natural and naturally comic rhythms that go a long way toward making Letts’ play seem more profound than it might actually be.

This is a star-making performance for Gardner, who more than holds his own opposite a seasoned pro like Swain.

There is much about Letts’ play that is conventional, like the gangster Luther Flynn played by the always-reliable Gabriel Marin. Though he’s a typical big-city goon, Luther claims he has empathy, and all that empathy has given him an ulcer. Marin takes a stock character and makes it more believable. The same is true for Joan Mankin as the sort of bag lady /neighborhood drunk known as Lady Boyle. You just know Lady is going to spout crazy wisdom at some point, and sure enough, here it comes. But Mankin gives Lady a little edge. She’s not always nice, nor is she always safely sane.

Julia Brothers is Randy, a beat cop with a thing for Arthur, and her courtship – if you can even call it that – with Arthur is adorably awkward. What could be the play’s most conspicuously sappy subplot becomes its most endearing. And Michael J. Asberry as Randy’s partner reveals himself to be a “Star Trek” geek and a truly committed police officer.

As Max, the Russian proprietor of the DVD shop next door, Søren Oliver gets to play bumbling immigrant, no-nonsense businessman, neighborhood tough and sloppy drunk – and it’s all mightily entertaining.

Superior Donuts was Letts’ encore after winning the Pulitzer Prize for the considerably darker and thornier August: Osage County. His attempt to interject a slice of hope into the landscape of American drama didn’t fare very well on Broadway. I think the play fits much more comfortably on the regional stage, where plays don’t have to shake the foundations of the theatrical establishment to be noticed. TheatreWorks, a company unafraid of compassion and sentiment, is the perfect home for this play.


The TheatreWorks production of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts continues through October 31 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$67. Call 650 463-1960 or visit for information.

A night at the opera with funny Freischütz

Opera’s not really my bag, but I had a fantastic time reviewing West Bay Opera’s Der Freischütz for the Palo Alto Weekly.

The short run ended today (Sunday, Feb. 28), but the review lives on forever. Read it here and please enjoy this photo from the production. Eric Coyne is Kuno, the head forester, and those are the masked townspeople behind him. (Photo by Otak Jump).