Enchanting Starcatcher has all the right star stuff

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The company of Peter and the Starcatcher opens Act 2 with a rousing number involving Neverland mermaids. The Tony Award-winning play continues through Dec. 1 at the Curran Theatre as part of the SHN season. Below: Peter (Joey deBettencourt) takes a leap of faith into a golden lagoon. Photos by Jenny Anderson

Is it the fantasy of flying? The lure of perpetual youth? The constant yearning for home? Whatever the reason, the interest in the Peter Pan story seems, if anything, even more persistent than when J.M. Barrie introduced it in the early 1900s both in book form and as a play. His story of the flying boy who will never mature beyond the cusp of manhood touched some kind of universal nerve that has resonated through a century’s worth of adaptations, reinterpretations and flights of fancy.

The most recent big-ticket re-telling comes from playwright Rick Elice, half of the team (with Marshall Brickman behind the musical juggernaut known as Jersey Boys), who has adapted the Peter Pan prequel Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Berry and Ridley Pearson for the stage.

Working with directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, Elice conceives the tale as a piece of stripped-down theatrical storytelling short on the kind of manufactured spectacle and special effects we’ve come to expect from Tony Award-winning Broadway shows (this one has five such statues) and long on crackling good humor, rough-edged intelligence and heart.

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The touring production of Peter and the Starcatcher now at the Curran Theatre as part of the SHN season, is as delightful as the version I saw on Broadway. Because this is serious storytelling, with the company of actors playing many roles with very few costume alterations, it takes a minute to shake off the constraints of the usual theatergoing, you know, where the show itself does all the work and you just sit there. Peter demands a little something of its audience and offers rewards for participation.

The marvelous designers Donyale Werle (sets) and Paloma Young, with assists from Jeff Croiter’s lights and Darron L. West’s sound, give us just what we need to tease our imaginations into believing we’re seeing a “period” piece with one foot in 1880s London and the high seas and the other grounded in a modern sensibility. I’ve heard the description “steam punk” for the design (especially the costumes), and I get the punk part, just not the steam. They’re great, raggedy costumes that suggest more than outright describe. For instance, a distinguished government man in his great coat has medals on his chest, but if you really look, they’re actually keys dangling there.

That sense of re-use infuses the production with a playful, resourceful sense of childhood: serious play with drama, outcomes and reality mixed into the fantasy and imagination. You see it in the Victorian proscenium decorated with garden implements and kitchenware. You see it in the mermaids that open Act 2, with their tails made of fans and bras made of teapots and vegetable steamers. And you see it in an extraordinary piece of rope that becomes a door, a ship’s deck and many other things over the course of the play.

The 12-member company tells the story and acts the story, which takes a little getting used to, but once the rhythms are established, the story takes off, especially in Act 2, which offers one thrill after another (especially if you know your Pan lore and care about why the crocodile ticks, how Capt. Hook lost his hand, why Peter can fly and where the heck Tinkerbell came from).

There’s one clever delight after another as we see two ships headed for the island country of Rundoon. One carries a treasure belonging to Queen Victoria (God save her), and the other has been overtaken by pirates. Also tucked into one of the ships are a valiant daughter, Molly (Megan Stern), trying to help her noble father (Ian Michael Stuart) and ditch her governess, Mrs. Bumbrake (Benjamin Schrader). Once Molly does shake the old battle axe, she discovers three wayward orphans who are being sent to the King of Rundoon, who will feed them to his snakes. They are Prentiss (Carl Howell), the ineffective leader, Ted (Edward Tournier), the pork-obsessed dreamer, and the nameless, grown-up-hating boy (Joey deBettencourt who will be Peter.

Leading the charge of the pirate brigade is Black Stache (John Sanders), a word-mangling bumbler with a hint of menace. His moustache is about 90 percent Groucho, and so is Sanders’ goofily over-the-top performance.

The entire company seems to be having a ball, and their enthusiasm and commitment to the storytelling is the only special effects necessary to take us to Neverland and back.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Peter and the Starcatcher’s Tony Award-winning costume and set designers, Paloma Young and Donyale Werle for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Peter and the Starcatcher continues through Dec. 1 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$160 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

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.

Roger Rees ramps up What You Will

“I’m so old people will say, `Is he still alive?'”

That’s Roger Rees exaggerating people’s response to his arrival in San Francisco with his one-man show What You Will, an evening of Shakespeare, stories about Shakespeare and about performing Shakespeare, that begins performances today (July 18) at the American Conservatory Theater.

The Welsh-born Rees, 64, is one of those extraordinary actors who can seemingly do anything. He won a Tony Award in 1982 for his work in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s production of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, a gargantuan, two-part undertaking in which Rees played the leading role. He’s also familiar from his many TV appearances – Robin Colcord on “Cheers,” Lord John Marbury on “The West Wing” and more recently, Dr. Colin Marlow, the surgeon who patted Cristina Yang’s ass on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Rees also co-wrote, with his partner, Rick Elice (co-writer of Jersey Boys) a hit comedy thriller called Double, Double (which ran for a year in London’s West End with Rees starring opposite Jane Lapotaire), and he ran the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts for three years.

As previously stated, the man can do just about anything.

Rees was last in San Francisco as the director of Bebe Neuwirth’s
Kurt Weill revue, Here Lies Jenny, three years ago. His only other experience with the Bay Area prior to that was as a vacationer in Sonoma and as an actor playing the villain in Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, which filmed in Point Reyes.

Rees developed What You Will with Beth Emerson at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C., and performed it there and at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. He calls the show “an evening of juxtaposed material” and says the show is “changing as I do it.”

The show includes some great Shakespeare soliloquies (male and female) and stories of Rees’ onstage experiences and even includes “appearances” by Noel coward, James Thurber, Charles Dickens and Stevie Wonder.

“I do soliloquies and relate stories and offer commentary about characters and acting,” Rees says. “It seems to have a nice shape of an evening. It’s really about the humanity you need to bring to bear when performing Shakespeare.”

Before putting this show together, Rees recalls doing similar patchwork evenings in England, when, on days off, he and Judi Dench and her husband, Michael Williams, would perform a similar kind of show.

“We’d drive up to some stately home and perform,” Rees recalls. “In the end, we had so many of these party pieces – 26 of them – that we created the show 26 Characters in Search of an Author. We assigned each letter of the alphabet to a favorite piece.”

After performing in Hamlet with Virginia McKenna (whom Rees describes as “a great English actress”), Rees and McKenna continued exploring mother and son relationships with a show called, appropriately, Sons and Mothers.

With What You Will, Rees is hoping to get the show solidly on its feet then tour extensively. “I’m thinking of this as something we can take around the English-speaking world spreading the word of Shakespeare,” he says.

While he was running the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Rees wasn’t on stage a whole lot, though he was on the Tony nominating committee last year and saw everything. “I’ll do it again this year,” he says. “I love being an audience. It was a fascinating and wonderful experience. That’s the thing about theater – there’s something for everybody, and it’s different every time.”

That’s part of the reason he loves being an actor on stage – because it’s different every time.

“You get to do the whole thing again the next night,” he says. “I love telling stories in a room to other people. Film scripts get smaller and smaller, and once you get the scene right, you never do it again. Theater is scary because things go wrong and you always wish you were better. Doors get stuck and guns don’t end up where they should be. It’s a perilous thing that is supposed to be serious. Nothing could be more stupid than an actor without a prop.”

Though afraid of the old axiom that an actor’s legs are the first to go, Rees says he’s standing sturdily these days, and he’s delighted to be returning to San Francisco.

“Audiences there have a real sense of occasion,” he says. “They have a great knack for going to the theater in sensible and clever ways.”

Roger Rees’ What You Will runs July 18 through Aug. 9 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $29-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org for information.




Creepy and kooky: An Addams Family musical!

Variety reports that Andrew Lippa’s musical version of The Addams Family is moving full steam ahead.

In a closed reading in August, Gomez will be played by Nathan Lane (not often you think of Lane in a role once inhabited — onscreen — by Raul Julia) and Morticia will be played by Bebe Neuwirth. How perfect is that? From Lilith Crane to Velma Kelly to Morticia Addams. Seems logical to me.

The book is by the Jersey Boys boys Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, and direction and design comes from Improbable Theatre founders Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch (Shockheaded Peter, which Bay Area audiences saw at American Conservatory Theater).

Variety says the show is aiming for the 2009-10 season.

Here’s that catchy “Addams Family” TV theme:

Live from Las Vegas! `Jersey Boys’

Opened May 3 at the Palazzo Las Vegas

OK, so technically we’re not “live” in Las Vegas anymore (6:05 a.m. flight from LV to SFO – ouch). But given that it feels like I’m still at the opening-night party of Jersey Boys at the Venetian (next door to the Palazzo, where the show actually resides), I feel as live as is humanly possible.

There’s only good news for fans of Jersey Boys. The show has not been Vegas-ized. The creative team, headed by director Des McAnuff has been creative about making cuts and getting the show down to a brisk 2 hours and 10 minutes. The biggest cut is in the intermission, which here is called a “pause.” At the end of Act 1, after the reprise of “Walk Like a Man,” the audience is instructed via a projection that they have eight minutes do with what they please. Now, eight minutes is not a lot of time to run to the restroom or the bar (especially for slower-moving folks), so the wise people simply stand up, chat and watch the projections on the giant video screens (projections of a cross-country tour circa 1964, including footage of a trip across the Golden Gate Bridge and a glimpse of the Transamerica Pyramid-less San Francisco skyline).

Co-writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman have artfully trimmed their book here and there, but only purists (and there are plenty of them out there!) will notice. All the songs are there, albeit some of them have also been shortened (not detrimentally and none of the big Four Seasons numbers are noticeably shorter).

Act 1 does feel rushed at times, though audiences will likely appreciate getting through the early stages of the Four Seasons’ development so they can get to the meaty hits such as “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “December 1963 (Oh What a Night),” “My Eyes Adored You” and “Dawn (Go Away).” Act 2 feels more like it did at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco.

Speaking of the Curran, I must say the theater at the Palazzo, which seats 1,700, is quite nice, if unadorned. The sound system, which is what really counts, is phenomenal and is a great improvement over the Curran’s.

The cast, a blend of the casts we saw in San Francisco (but primarily comprised of the performers we saw last fall), is more than up to the high standards we Bay Area fans are used to. The sad news is that John Altieri, whose primary role is producer Bob Crewe, had to leave the cast for health reasons, and his role is now being played by John Salvatore, who’s terrific.

The Four Seasons have meshed nicely. Rick Faugno, who we first saw in the role of Joe Pesci with the first national tour, has really grown into the central role of Frankie Valli. His voice – already strong – has gotten even better and smoother, and dramatically, he’s spot on, especially in his scenes with Joyce Chittick as Frankie’s wife, Mary. Their “My Eyes Adored You” post-break-up scene packs a wallop.

Erich Bergen, also from the first national tour, has evolved as Bob Gaudio, the musical mastermind (with Crewe) of the Four Seasons sound. Bergen is a charmer and a fine singer. He’s also extremely tall, so to say his talent is giant seems fairly accurate.

Jeremy Kushnier, from the second San Francisco cast (the one that headed to Chicago), makes the somewhat despicable character of Tommy DeVito not only appealing but somewhat understandable. He’s not necessarily a bad guy. He sort of means well and just lets his ego do its dirty work. Kushnier’s performance is incisive, and his section as narrator (each of the Four Seasons takes a turn narrating) crackles with New Jersey wit.

Last but not least is the Bay Area’s own Jeff Leibow as Nick Massi, the “Ringo” of the Four Seasons as he says toward the end. Leibow was in the final San Francisco cast (rumored to be the Vegas cast, which turned out only partly to be true), and though he was strong then, he’s even better now. Nick’s mostly contained emotions register more now, and his explosion – geared mainly toward Tommy – is seismic.

The nine-piece band, headed by Keith Thompson, sounds sharp, and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is as smooth and sexy as ever.

Now that I’ve seen Jersey Boys five times (which is nothing compared to the real fans), I feel it’s necessary to mention the Jersey Girls every time. The three women in the show play all the women in the show, and they work really hard. The expert Chittick is joined by the multitalented Natalie Bradshaw and Julia Krohn in making sure the men don’t completely take over the show.

(above from left) Real life Jersey Boys meet Las Vegas Jersey Boys during the curtain call on opening night at the Palazzo: John Salvatore and Bob Crewe, Bob Gaudio and Erich Bergen, Frankie Valli and Rick Faugno, Jeremy Kushnier and Tommy DeVito and Jeff Leibow.

As has become the custom for a big opening night, the surviving Seasons show up for the curtain call and hug the actor who played them. The Vegas opening was no different. After the rousing closer of “Who Loves You,” Faugno introduced the surviving guys: Valli, Gaudio and DeVito as well as producer Crewe, who all took the stage. DeVito, who is dramatically banished to Las Vegas in the show, still lives in Sin City, and I had to wonder what it was like for him to sit through this show yet again and hear about what a slime bag crook he is – but now in his hometown. But then again, I have to wonder what it’s like for Valli and Gaudio, too, to relive those moments in their past over and over again. They’re probably inured to it now, but I can’t imagine what it’s like for Valli to have to repeatedly watch his stage self go through the death of his daughter Francine.

But at the curtain call in Vegas, it was all smiles. DeVito seemed as robust as ever, and I was only disappointed that Joe Pesci, who was also in the audience, didn’t get to go on stage and hug the actor (Jonathan Gerard Rodriguez) who played him.

As beautifully and as expertly as this show is put together, and with so many great songs and performances, Jersey Boys is mighty satisfying and sets a new standard for musical theater in Las Vegas.

For information about Jersey Boys at the Palazzo, visit http://www.jerseyboysinfo.com/vegas/.



The boys of `Jersey’

Earlier this month, I sat down with the stars of San Francisco’s Jersey Boys, the quartet driving audiences into a frenzy every night as Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. You can read the story here.

Here are some tidbits that didn’t make it into the newspaper. If this were a DVD, we’d be in the “special features” section right now.

The players are (pictured above from left) Deven May (Tommy DeVito), Michael Ingersoll (Nick Massi), Christopher Kale Jones (Frankie Valli) and Erich Bergen (Bob Gaudio), and we’re in a suite at the Hotel Diva, across Geary Street from the Curran Theatre, where Jersey Boys is running seemingly until it’s not running anymore.

A discussion about how audience members react with such personal connections to the Four Seasons music leads Bergen to say: “My dad listened to this music. His style was more Motown and doo-wop, but the Four Seasons were definitely in there, and I heard it growing up. That’s one of the reasons I was so excited to be doing this show rather than an old traditional book musical.”

May interjects: “Isn’t this a book musical? I don’t know…”

After some discussion, the actors determine that Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman’s book is indeed one of the key factors in their show’s success. The way the script incorporates Four Seasons songs into the framework of a tightly written play does make it a traditional, indeed, very well written, book musical.

Says Bergen: “OK. Write this: Erich Bergen is wrong. Three out of four seasons say Erich Bergen is wrong.”

Cue much laughter and more discussion about why Jersey Boys works so darn well. After much praise is heaped on director Des McAnuff and the creative team, Ingersoll theorizes that people are drawn in by the true story of these New Jersey guys and their rough lives, which involved prison stretches for Massi and DeVito. Later, after fame struck, life didn’t necessarily get any easier.

“One of the points of the show,” Ingersoll says, “is that in life, you never reach a point where everything’s good — no matter how much success, money or fame you have. There’s always another side to the coin. Think about us. We’re on the road, away from home for a year. I’m away from my wife for a year. She visits, and this is a dream job for me. The guys would say the same thing. Nothing could be better in that way. But the fact remains I’m not seeing my wife for such a long time. There’s a price to pay. It’s never just: I’ve arrived! Everything’s great! This show thrives on showing the reality of that.”

The reality of the show is so convincing, in fact, that when audience members hang around the Curran stage door for a post-show chat, fans call the actors by their character names.

“We walk out that door and we’re still Bob, Frankie, Tommy and Nick,” Bergen says. “They’ll say things like, `When you wrote that song…’ And I have to remind them I’m just an actor. But they don’t want you to be an actor. They want you to be the real thing.”

The huge success of Jersey Boys in New York and now in San Francisco means more productions are forthcoming — probably London and another touring production (that might actually tour to places other than San Francisco). There’s been talk of a movie, of course. And Bergen theorizes that in 10 years, every high school in the country will be doing Jersey Boys.

Says May: “If you take all the profanity out of the show for the high school version, it’ll be 45 minutes long!”

Jones chimes in: “I cannot wait to see a high school guy singing in Frankie Valli’s voice. I think it might be easier to reach those notes when you’re still in puberty.”

And finally, here’s a fact you need to know about each of these actors.
Jones is a Rubik’s Cube expert. He can solve the puzzle in under three minutes.
Ingersoll has a black belt in Tai Kwon Do and may do some teaching while he’s here.
May is a professional photographer.
Bergen produces a podcast called Green Room Radio.

For information about Jersey Boys, visit www.shnsf.com.