Grand adventure awaits at Berkeley Rep’s Treasure Island

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Steven Epp (center) is Long John Silver in Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic Treasure Island, a co-production of Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company. Below: Matt DeCaro (left) is Squire Trelawney, John Babbo (center) is Jim Hawkins and Alex Moggridge is Dr. Livesey. Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Mary Zimmerman’s work is consistently thrilling. Since I first saw Journey to the West at Zellerbach Playhouse, I have looked forward to seeing whatever Zimmerman makes next. Luckily, her relationship with Berkeley Reperoty Theatre is such that she keeps coming back and back, always with something intriguing and, quite often, magnificent. Her swimming pool-set Metamorphoses in 1999 (also performed at Zellerbach Playhouse) remains one of my favorite nights in a theater ever.

Zimmerman’s latest offering at Berkeley Rep is a zesty staging of Treasure Island, and it’s a blast. One opening-night patron complained afterward that only boys can like this story, and while I doubt that’s true, I appreciated her one-sentence review: “Too much seamen.”

But that boy’s sense of adventure feeling that burns so brightly in Robert Louis Stevenson’s book is alive and well on stage in the Peet’s Theatre. The score (by Andre Pluess) is gorgeous, with that lively/melancholy contrast that makes seafaring music so distinct, and Zimmerman’s staging, so full of conflict and danger and sailing activity, is a constant delight.

I reviewed the show for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a peek into the Treasure chest:

We’re there in the Admiral Benbow Inn when the truly terrifying Billy Bones (Christopher Donahue) disrupts the lives of young Jim Hawkins (the extraordinary John Babbo) and his mother (Kasey Foster). We’re in the room when the treasure map is unfolded and a plot is hatched to secure a ship and fetch it.
And, most dazzlingly, we’re on the deck of the Hispaniola when Jim and the crew (of mostly pirates just itching to mutiny) head out to sea. The entire set by Todd Rosenthal, with its ropes and riggings, begins to swing. The musicians play, the crew sings, and the look on Jim’s face captures the excitement of anyone whoever loved this book and dreamed about making such an impossible voyage. In one scene, Zimmerman has powerfully captured the joy and danger and fantasy of the Stevenson’s novel.

Read the full review here.

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[bonus interview]
I talked to Treasure Island adaptor/director Mary Zimmerman for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of Treasure Island continues an extended run through June 19 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$87 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

This Lion is king at ACT

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Benjamin Scheuer’s autobiographical solo musical, The Lion, has been a hit around the world and makes its San Francisco debut at ACT’s Strand Theater through May 1. Photos by Matthew Murphy

If Benjamin Scheuer were simply a musical act, I’d happily go see him in concert and buy his albums. his voice can go from sweet to gravelly, aggressive to tender, rollicking to romantic even within the space of a single song, and the same can be said for his guitar playing. He puts himself out there in his music, and in addition to being aurally pleasing, his music is also deeply satisfying.

But Scheuer is more than a concert act. He’s also a playwright and actor. So his version of a concert is the one-man autobiographical musical The Lion now at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater. His combination of monologue and songs is irresistibly wonderful, and my only complaint about the show is that, at 70 minutes, it’s too short. At the end I felt greedy and wanted more, more, more. I’ll just have to wait for his new album, Songs from The Lion, to be released June 3.

I reviewed the production for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s an excerpt:

With a vocal range that starts with James Taylor, detours into Dave Matthews and occasionally diverges into Marcus Mumford (and perhaps some of the Sons), Scheuer performs Tin Pan Alley, blues, folk and rock convincingly.
Even more, his writing is as masterful as his singing and playing. Two songs late in the show, one in which he imagines his mother receiving a call from her late husband and another in which Scheuer writes a postcard to the dad he never got to make up with, deal with the push and pull of grief and healing in ways that simple dialogue could not.
“The Lion” comes across as an effortless evening of song and story — that’s its polished surface. But in reality, it’s a rare and nearly perfect piece of solo autobiographical musical theater — that’s its triumph.

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Read the full review here.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Benjamin Scheuer for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

[bonus video]
Here’s the official music video for Scheuer’s “Weather the Storm,” a song from The Lion.

Benjamin Scheuer’s The Lion continues through May 1 at ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. . Tickets are $25-$55. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Anne Boleyn seems to be heading in right direction

Extended through May 15
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Charles Shaw Robinson (far left) is Cardinal Wolsey, David Ari (center) is Thomas Cromwell, Liz Sklar is Anne Boleyn and Ryan Tasker (far right) is Simpkin in the West Coast premiere of Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn at Marin Theatre Company, running through May 8 in Mill Valley. Below: Anne and King Henry VIII (Craig Marker) begin a seven-year courtship leading to their complicated marriage. Photo by Kevin Berne

The relationship between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – adulterous, adventurous and tragic (for Anne) – has long captivated the public imagination. Their story has been told on the page, on the stage and on screens large and small. There’s been a shift in thinking about Anne, not as a vixen, home wrecker or overzealous climber but as a smart cookie who was more of a power player behind Henry’s throne than we might have thought.

One such exploration can now bee seen on stage at Marin Theatre Company in Anne Boleyn, a 2010 play by Howard Brenton.

I reviewed the production for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a slice:

There seem to be two reasons motivating this drama, the bulk of which was also depicted in the novel, TV series and stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall.” The first is to serve as a sort of reclamation project for Henry VIII’s second and most famous wife, proving she was a feisty, intelligent person who had a profound effect on English history. The second is to remind the “demons of the future,” as Anne calls us, that ruling power and religion make for a dangerous and disastrous combination.
In this contentious election season, when candidates claim that God (and, apparently, discrimination) is on their side, Brenton’s play, set in the early 16th and 17th centuries, strikes some powerful, resonant notes. One frustrated character, late in the play, laments that what we do in the name of God is usually the same thing we would do in our own self-interest.

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Read the full review here.

Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn continues an extended run through May 15 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are$10-$58. Call 415-388-5208 or visit

Catching up with Colette & Cyrano

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Lorri Holt stars in and co-wrote Colette Uncesnored, the story of the infamous French novelist’s life as a writer, a woman, a pioneer for social change and a lover. The solo show runs through May 14 at The Marsh San Francisco. Photo by David Allen Below: Le Bret (Michael Gene Sullivan, left) warns Cyrano (J. Anthony Crane) in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of Cyrano, running through May 1 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Kevin Berne

So many shows, so little time!

Herewith, a petite voyage to France, first to check in with the writer Colette and then to catch up with the swashbuckling Cyrano de Bergerac. I reviewed both Colette Uncensored at The Marsh, a solo show starring and co-written by Lorri Holt (with Zack Rogow, and Cyrano, a new adaptation of Rostand’s tale at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Here is a bit of the Colette Uncensored review:

There’s a definite “ooh la la” factor to Colette’s story, and Holt can flirt with and tease an audience like a true Parisian. But this is less a gossipy tale and more an evolutionary one. Colette thrived in the Belle Epoque period in which the bohemians sought freedom in all its forms (and suffered all the consequences).
At a certain point in her life, she delights that her reputation as a writer has overtaken her reputation as a scandal magnet, and by the time Paris is overtaken by the Nazis, we’ve seen her as a naive young wife, a successful actress, a journalist and a successful novelist. Through it all, she keeps coming back to a central question: “Is pleasure the same thing as happiness?”

Read the full review here.

Lorri Holt and Zack Rogow’s Colette Uncensored continues through May 14 at The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$100. Call 415-282-3055 or visit

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And here is a peek a the Cyrano review:

There’s a robust charm to director Robert Kelley’s production in the first act, when Cyrano is surrounded by a noisy crowd of soldiers, actors, friends and antagonists. The second act, however, loses steam in a major way as the lively comedy and masterful swordplay (fight direction by Jonathan Rider) gives way to less exciting romance, a detour into battle and then a 15-year time jump into outright tragedy.
At nearly three hours, this “Cyrano” is at least 20 minutes too long and has a much easier time bearing the laughs and action of the first act than it does the increasingly sad drama of the second.

Read the full review here.

Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano, adapted by Michael Hollinger and Aaron Posner, continues in a TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$80. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

Sean Hayes is devilish/divine in Act of God

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Sean Hayes is a vessel for the almighty in An Act of God, David Javerbaum’s darkly comic play at SHN’s Golden Gate Theater. Below: Hayes takes a selfie with archangels played by James Gleason and David Josefsberg. Photos by Jim Cox

Like parochial school for fans of The Daily Show, the play An Act of God is a curious theatrical experience. All the ingredients are there: bells and whistles set, sharply funny script, charming star. But in the end, as in the beginning, it’s more lite than enlightening. Maybe it’s too much to ask that a snarky comedy about a grumpy god holding forth before an audience of heathen Americans have some spiritual heft to it, but the script comes close several times but ends up wishing it were a ditzy musical.

Written by former Daily Show writer David Javerbaum, this God had a nice run on Broadway last year starring Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory), and now this left coast version stars Sean Hayes, whose success in Los Angeles and now San Francisco has encouraged producers to take the show, and Hayes, back to Broadway.

It’s interesting that in both productions, God has been played by an out gay man, but to be clear about the play’s conceit, the actor isn’t really playing God. He’s playing an actor chosen by God to be a channel for the almighty’s message after years of being incommunicado.

The most interesting thing about An Act of God is that it reveals God to be, well, an act. God is all powerful, mighty and omniscient, but he’s also angry, imperfect, guilty, regretful, spiteful and full of flaws reminiscent of those in his human creations. “Faith is a sausage best not seen made,” he says. This is not a likable God, nor is he trying to be. He’s grown weary of the Ten Commandments as his greatest contribution to Western civilization, so he spends 75 minutes revealing 10 new commandments (technically there are a few holdovers from the original).

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He’s assisted by two archangels, Gabriel (James Gleason, who reads from a Gutenberg Bible and Michael (David Josefsberg), who takes (fake) questions from the audience and asks his own provocative questions like why God allowed the Holocaust and 9/11 to happen and why he lets children – or anyone – die of cancer. God’s responses to those questions are evasive. At one point he punishes Michael by making one of his wings fall off (the audience awwwwwws in sympathetic union).

If you know Hayes from his years as Jack (Just Jack! and jazz hands) on Will and Grace, you’re familiar with his sharp comic timing and seemingly effortless way with a laugh line. He’s a real pro, and he sells this material well. He also handles the darker transitions well, as when God discusses why he made Abraham, one of his all-time favorite humans, almost kill his beloved son Isaac or when he talks about his son Jesus and all that messy business involving dying for our sins.

There’s an edge to the comedy here, and director Joe Mantello resists anything warm, cuddly or reassuring in this divine chat session. Hayes could be sweeter if he wanted to be, but the play calls for something harder and more thorny. It’s surprising, then, that the evening devolves into an only somewhat ironic musical number about believing in ourselves. It’s all very “Up with People,” but it doesn’t obscure the fact that God’s true message here is one of ambivalence. He moves in mysterious ways for sure, even to himself.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Sean Hayes for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

David Javerbaum’s An Act of God continues through April 17 at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., S.F. Tickets are $45-$150 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Slick moves and a cornered Baby in live Dirty Dancing

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Christopher Tierney is Johnny and Gillian Abbott is Baby in the North American tour of Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage, running through March 20 at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season. Below: Tierney’s Johnny dances with Jenny Winton as Penny. Photos by Matthew Murphy

Oh, help. Someone put Baby in a corner and she can’t get out! The corner is actually the stage of the Golden Gate Theatre, where, as part of the SHN season, she is appearing in Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage, a reasonably entertaining show that feels less like a national touring production and more like a slick, overly faithful film re-creation you might find in a theme park where the loyal fans come to pay homage and wallow in nostalgia.

The 1987 movie was a surprise hit, spawning a mega-hit soundtrack, award-winning songs and a rabid following on the then-booming business of home video. Stars Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey found their biggest, most enduring hit in the period romance (an argument could be made for Swayze in Ghost or Roadhouse) set in a Catskills resort in the summer of 1963. When a movie hits it that big and music is such a key factor in its success, the transition from screen to stage seems inevitable.

But Dirty Dancing screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein took her time adapting the property. When a stage version finally opened in Australia in 2004, it wasn’t a traditional adaptation. Rather than having main characters Baby and Johnny sing songs to each other, they dance to recordings on the radio or on the record player or to the live band playing on the bandstand. Several cast members sing, but not so much in character – more like guest vocalists. That’s a smart way to do it, keeping the focus on the dancing, which is by far the highlight of the live experience.

A touring production of Dirty Dancing has pulled into the Golden Gate, and the bumping and grinding and leaping and twirling of the dancing ensemble is lovely. Michele Lynch is the choreographer (with original choreography by Kate Champion, and it’s always exciting to see the dancers doing their thing, especially the lithe, long-legged ladies, who really put on a show.

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Adapted by Bergstein and directed by James Powell, this Dirty Dancing is pretty much the version you’ve seen on TV for the last 29 years. Relying much too heavily on video screens and projections – they must figure we’re so used to seeing this on a screen we might revolt if too much of the stage version is actually three-dimensional – the world of Kellerman’s Mountain House resort is conjured as a hotbed of guest-employee lust, with much of the heat generated by dance instructor Johnny Castle (a charismatic, Swayze-channeling Christopher Tierney).

Baby and her family – doctor dad, housewife mom, little sis – arrive for three weeks toward the end of summer, and wouldn’t you know, Baby and Johnny are thrust together when the young renegade who plans on changing the world gets involved in an employee drama involving a jerky guy, a jilted girl and a back-alley abortion. For reasons too pulpy to go into, Baby and Johnny must rehearse for a dance performance at neighboring resort The Sheldrake. This entails a long montage of dance training, and to be faithful to the movie, this requires balancing on a log in the forest and practicing lifts in a lake. This is accomplished through projections on a scrim, and it’s wonderfully ridiculous.

As Baby, Rachel Boone, in her J. Grey wig, has some fire, and she dances nicely. But she, like all the actors, are hobbled by a dopey script – at least I’m going to assume that’s why the schmaltzy acting – SCHMACTING! – is so egregious. The 2 1/2-hour show feels like something akin to a 1950s soap opera mashed up with a telenovela. That’s fun in a cheesy sort of way, but not for an entire evening.

Musically, the evening is loud, but the vocals are strong, especially those from Adrienne Walker. Her duet with Doug Carpenter on the show’s finale, “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” is what the audience has been waiting for all night. It’s the most famous song (an Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe winner) underscoring the most famous moment: Johnny lifting Baby over his head in a perfect lift symbolizing their true love and her ascent into empowered womanhood.

The eight-piece band is a lot of fun as it shifts from mambos to cha-chas to waltzes and then effortlessly works in the hit songs (“Hungry Eyes,” “She’s Like the Wind”) without calling too much attention to the fact that they have never sounded like pop songs from the early ’60s.

This show really is for the fans, who are, apparently, multitudinous. Everything they love is there, from the terrible talent show to Baby and Johnny crawling around like cats in heat to Mickey and Sylvia’s recording of “Love Is Strange.” What isn’t there is a fully realized stage adaptation that feels truly alive rather than dutifully performed by rote.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Dirty Dancing creator Eleanor Bergstein and stage star Christopher Tierney for a trivia-filled feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Eleanor Bergstein’s Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage continues through March 20 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$212. Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Quiet beauty, deep feeling in Berkeley Rep’s Aubergine

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Sab Shimono (in bed) is Ray’s father and Tim Kang is Ray in the world premiere of Julia Cho’s Aubergine at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s newly renovated Peet’s Theatre. Below: Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (seated) is Lucien, a caregiver helping Kang’s Ray with his ailing father. Photos courtesy of

Setting aside taxes for the moment, there are two certainties in life: we will eat food (and perhaps have a complicated relationship with food) and we will die (and perhaps have a complicated relationship with death). Food and death. Elemental.

In Julia Cho’s Aubergine, now receiving its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s newly renovated and renamed Peet’s Theatre (formerly the Thrust Stage), those elements – food and death – are being addressed with the utmost compassion, grace and quiet dignity. The play is sad, funny, insightful and deeply moving. It’s a beautiful piece of writing that has become a powerful theatrical experience directed with a strong, sensitive hand by Tony Taccone and performed by a cast that seems to fully appreciate the play’s quiet impact.

The rhythms of Aubergine are different than those we might be used to in a more conventional tale of losing a parent and wrestling with our own mortality. Within the quiet spaces is a lot of introspection, which may seem unusual to audiences that want things spoken about more explicitly. But that’s part of what makes the play so rich and rewarding – there’s space for us to bring our experiences. Cho may be writing a very specific story about a Korean-American family, but she’s really writing about all of us. Commissioned by Berkeley Rep and developed through the Ground Floor: Berkley Rep’s Center for the Creation and Development of New Work, Aubergine skillfully fuses food, memory and mortality into a story about all children and all parents.

The child here is Ray (masterfully played by Tim Kang), a 38-year-old chef who has never quite grown up. When he wants to buy a $2,000 knife, he charges it on his father’s card without bothering to tell his father (played by Sab Shimono), who has lived his life frugally.

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Fights about money or the fact that Ray’s dad never cared about the food Ray cooked are moot now because Ray’s dad is now in hospice care, with a big hospital bed moved into his dining room, while Ray stands uncomfortably by, watching his dad slowly fade. There’s assistance from a hospice worker, Lucien (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), who doles out compassion along with sturdy doses of reality. At one point, Ray apologizes for not handling things well and says Lucien must think he’s stupid. “I don’t think of anyone as stupid,” he says “But it is strange to me how so few of you see it coming. There’s nothing for miles around, it is the only thing walking towards you and yet, you still can’t see it coming. You turn your heads away.”

Ray’s only friend, it seems, is Cornelia (Jennifer Lim), and even that is complicated. She’s a waitress at the restaurant where he was a chef. They began dating, but then Ray disappeared. She’s hurt and angry but willing to help. Ray speaks no Korean, but she does, so she has to reach out to the estranged brother of Ray’s father in Korea with the sad news of an impending death.

The cultural divide between generations adds fascinating texture to the relationships and is illuminated by stories of food, some of which are told entirely in Korean with English surtitles. Food, it seems, isn’t just what we eat. It’s who we are or who we choose to be.

Food is also magic. Listening to characters talk about transcendent food moments is thrilling, and people who provide those moments – a parent, a chef, a surprising source – have a gift that goes beyond simple description. Ray is one of those people, but he doesn’t quite know it, but coming to terms with his dad and where he is in his life will bring him closer to that realization.

Taccone’s production builds slowly, and the way scenes flow into one another through the simple (and astonishingly quiet) but strikingly beautiful set by Wilson Chin immerses us in the world completely. We go from hospital to home to diner, from present to past, from the U.S. to Korea with graceful efficiency. The same is true of Jiyoun Chang’s lights – there’s such intimacy and clarity in all the settings.

The superb cast also includes strong turns from Safiya Fredericks as a woman for whom food has come to mean some powerful things, and Joseph Steven Yang the uncle from Korea whose lack of English leads him to communicate with Ray in an entirely endearing form of pantomime.

Aubergine is a quietly stunning experience. It is as heartbreaking as it is life affirming, an exquisite meal prepared with superior skill and served with love.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright Julia Cho and director Tony Taccone about Aubergine for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Julia Cho’s Aubergine continues through March 20 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre. Tickets are $29 to $89 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Smart, creepy Nether wows at SF Playhouse

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Iris (Carmen Steele) marvels over the Victorian world that Papa (Warren David Keith) has created in Jennifer Haley’s The Nether at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Doyle (Louis Parnell, left) is questioned by Detective Morris (Ruibo Qian) about his dealings in the Nether, a futuristic version of the Internet where virtual reality is more than just a high-concept toy. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

There aren’t that many plays with the power to totally creep you out and entertain you mightily. Such is the power of Jennifer Haley’s The Nether at San Francisco Playhouse in a production that is stunning in all the right ways (director Bill English and set designer Nina Ball do yeomans work here).

The play is only 80 minutes, but it packs a mighty wallop. Here you have a play that is, ostensibly, about the rape and murder of children, but it’s not horrific. It’s nifty sci-fi trick is to set the action in the near future when virtual reality has become a big part of life. The Internet has evolved into something called the Nether, and, happy to say, there are still laws in the future, although how they govern (or don’t) the Nether and virtual reality is a big part of what the drama is about. So no actual children are harmed, but even in theory, seeing man holding an ax standing next to a little girl makes your skin crawl.

I reviewed The Nether for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a peek:

Haley has crafted a piece of theatrical science fiction that works astonishingly well straddling two realities. Theater itself is already a kind of virtual reality, so it’s the perfect place for Haley’s futuristic tale of a world where trees barely exist anymore and more and more people (called “shades”) are living their lives inside a more evolved Internet known as “the nether,” where lifelike communities are formed and imaginations (and morals and laws) are unbound.
This is a tricky, provocative 80-minute drama that could outrage audiences except that it’s so intelligently crafted that fascination trumps shock in this story of authorities going after the creators of a virtual world in which adults, adhering to Victorian dress and custom, interact with children who are then sexually abused and murdered (only to be regenerated by the program in a never-ending cycle).
As sick as that sounds, keep in mind that none of it’s real — it’s consensual role playing among adults who pay to be there (or, in the case of the “children,” adults who are employed by the virtual reality creators).

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You can read the review in its entirety here.

Jennifer Haley’s The Nether continues through March 5 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Pops is tops in ACT’s Satchmo

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John Douglas Thompson is Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong in Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf, running at ACT’s Geary Theater through Feb. 7. Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

John Douglas Thompson is tall and handsome, which is to say, he looks nothing like Louis Armstrong. But so deft is Thompson’s performance as the legendary trumpeter in Terry Teachout’s captivating Satchmo at the Waldorf that audiences could almost swear they were in the company of the late, great man himself.

Thompson doesn’t really do that much to conform to our idea of the jolly Armstrong. He hunches over and walks with a limp and gives his voice a little of that “sawmill” quality (as Armstrong describes it in the play) that helped make Armstrong such a beloved singer as well as instrumentalist. Somehow, the illusion is complete. Through body language, intonation and sheer force of warmth and personality, Louis Armstrong lives (and please, as per Mr. Armstrong, it’s Lew-is, not Loo-ee).

This is the first play from Teachout, the longtime theater critic at the Wall Street Journal, and it’s already taken on quite a life since its 2011. Thompson has been in multiple productions of the drama, so it’s no wonder audiences have flocked – this actor puts on a show well worth seeing. The play offers him a sturdy vehicle in which to make a clear case for Armstrong as something more, something deeper, than the amiable, grinning personality most of his audience knew from TV and radio whose jokes and songs began to overshadow his considerable jazz chops.

The Armstrong we meet here is not long for this world. He’s nearly 70 and enjoying a cozy gig at the Waldorf Hotel. He will die shortly thereafter in his Queens home, but on this night, after a show, he’s in a talkative mood, which is a good thing because there are a lot of people who want to hear what he has to say about his storied career, which began in boys’ home marching band (after a wild youth in New Orleans), his attitude toward performing (he swears he just wants to make people happy) and what other people think of him (Miles Davis can take a giant leap).

Satchmo at The Waldorf

The man who comes across in this intimate setting is foul-mouthed (in rather a delightful way) and sincere, proud of his accomplishments and bitter about how he was treated by his longtime manager, Joe Glaser (a mobbed-up Jewish guy whose fortune was made on Armstrong’s back) and by his fellow musicians, most notably Davis (whom Thompson also plays, briefly, in a withering portrait) and Dizzy Gillespie, who made an unkind remark in a Time magazine story that featured Armstrong on its cover.

Playwright Teachout clearly knows his subject deeply – he should, having written a critically acclaimed 2009 biography (Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong) – and clearly he loves his subject deeply. This is a compassionate portrayal of a mine many, like Davis (though perhaps not as harshly), passed of as a sweaty, smiley artifact of days gone by. There’s a whole lot about race in this story, and it’s good to be reminded about what it was like for African-American entertainers to do their jobs in the decades leading up to the Civil Rights Movement. Armstrong reminds us that he broke certain barriers at swanky hotels and even shared billing with Bing Crosby in a movie (Pennies from Heaven, 1936), though Crosby never invited Armstrong to his home in all their years of friendship.

Director Gordon Edelstein and Thompson work together like a finely tuned machine. There’s nary a misstep in the play’s 90 minutes. The dressing room set by Lee Savage is realistically appointed, and there are some visually arresting moments involving lighting shifts (design by Kevin Adams that help delineate character changes, although Thompson’s portraits of Glaser and Davis are so crisp, he could do them under a single light bulb and we’d get it.

In Thompson’s hands, Armstrong comes across as smart as well as affable and as edgy as he was sweet. He made certain choices in his career, some at the behest of his manager (whom he looked to as a kind of farther figure), and he was well aware what he was doing. WE also see an abundant sense of humor (not always gentle), and that’s especially rewarding. We also get the sense of a man deeply connected to his music and its beauty. He never plays the trumpet (though he does sing a tiny bit – one big hit and one a surprising choice), but he plays some recordings of his work (most notably “West End Blues), and hearing that horn is all the more moving for knowing the man behind it just a little bit better. You definitely wan to check in to the Waldorf and spend some time with this Satchmo.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright Terry Teachout and actor John Douglas Thompson about Satchmo for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Terry Teachout’s Satchmo at the Waldorf continues through Feb. 7 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St, San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$105. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Bright, shiny Christmas Story musical delights

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Christopher Swan as The Old Man (center) sings an ode to his leg lamp – a “major award” – in A Christmas Story: The Musical, playing as part of the SHN season at the Orpheum Theatre through Dec. 13. Below: Avital Asuleen is teacher Mrs. Shields and Evan Gray is Ralphie in a number called “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out.” Photos by Carol Rosegg

I remember seeing A Christmas Story in the movie theater in 1983 (I was in high school), and since then, I’ve probably seen it 50 times or so (in whole or in part) on TV. It helps that TBS has been known to show it in constant rotation for days. So I have affection for the movie and for Jean Shepherd the man who created it (and narrated the movie is wonderfully droll, comforting voice). I hadn’t realized that Shepherd’s stories of the Parker family, of which A Christmas Story is one, were sort of an industry unto themselves. First of all, there was a sequel to A Christmas Story called My Summer Story (also known by the title It Runs in the Family), but the only returning cast member was the woman who played the schoolteacher. The 1994 film, with Charles Grodin and Mary Steenburgen flopped pretty hard. There have also been TV movies about the Parkers courtesy of PBS’ “American Playhouse.” Among the titles are “The Phantom of the Open Hearth” (1976), “The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters” (1982) and “Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss” (1988).

A Christmas Story remains the most beloved Shepherd movie, so it’s no surprise that it has been adapted for the stage as a play (by Philip Grecian, which popped up at the now-extinct San Jose Repertory Theatre a few times) and now as a big old Broadway-style musical.

The musical, which began in earnest in 2010 (after a bumpy start in Missouri in 2009) in Seattle with a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and a book by Joseph Robineette. The show eventually made it to Broadway in 2012 and nabbed a couple Tony nominations. The musical finally landed in San Francisco as part of the SHN season, and I reviewed it for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a look.

If you want cute, talented kids combined with catchy tunes, abundant nostalgia and canine guest stars you can look beyond “Annie.” Now we have “A Christmas Story: The Musical” to fit that particular bill.
With a streamlined book by Joseph Robinette and a bright, tuneful score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, this “Story” seems tailor made for fans of the movie — a smart movie seeing as how that fan base comprises about 96 percent of the population. As holiday movie-to-stage adaptations go, it’s not as heartfelt or charming as Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” but it’s much better than “Elf” or Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

Read the full review here.
Christmas Story 3

I also talked to co-composer Justin Paul, who, with Benj Pasek, wrote the score of A Christmas Story: The Musical, for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a peek:

Co-composer Paul says that he and Pasek, who began working together as undergrads in the University of Michigan musical theater program, were somewhat naive when approached with the idea of writing songs for the stage adaptation.
“We didn’t really grasp the scope of this,” Paul says on the phone. “We were 25-year-olds, who didn’t know anything, saying, ‘Sure! Let’s give it a whirl!’ We weren’t intimidated by the movie’s relevance, resonance and ubiquity. We just dug in and wrote a big, traditional musical comedy.”

Read the full story here.

A Christmas Story: The Musical continues through Sunday, Dec. 13 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$160. Call 888-746-1799 or visit