Merry murderous mayhem in musical Gentleman’s Guide

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The national touring company of the Tony Award-winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder includes (from left) Lesley McKinnell as Miss Barley, Kevin Massey as Monty Navarro and John Rapson as Asquith D’Ysquith, Jr. Below: Rapson as Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith (center in red jacket) surrounded by the cast. Photos by Joan Marcus

You really do root for the murderer in the delightful A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder. That may seem an insensitive scene in these brutal, terrifying days we’re living in, but the reality is that this musical comedy (based on a novel by Roy Horniman, which in turn inspired the wonderful 1949 movie Kind Hearts and Coronets) is all about karma. What you put into the world comes back to you. In this case, it’s about horrible people coming to horrible ends and a seemingly good guy whose kindness and suffering are rewarded until he goes too far and will end up seeing the cycle of retribution coming back to him.

If that sounds heavy, don’t worry. It isn’t. Not in the least. Gentleman’s Guide is 2 1/2 hours of wicked joy. It’s a beautifully crafted piece of musical theater, from set design (Alexander Dodge to lighting (Philip S. Rosenberg) to costumes (Linda Cho), with spotless direction by Darko Tresnnjak of a sterling cast.

It’s easy to see why the show won four Tony Awards including the coveted Best Musical – it’s got a smart book by Robert L. Freedman, a bright, tuneful score by Steven Lutvak and lyrics by both writers that propel the story and generate laughs. There’s nothing about it that doesn’t work. it feels at once like a throwback to bawdy British music hall music and comedy circa 1900 mixed with Gilbert and Sullivan meet Sondheim cleverness with some modern comic sensibility thrown in to keep it fresh.

The entire ensemble is wonderful, but in many ways, this is a two-man show. Kevin Massey is entirely appealing as Montague Navarro, a sweet, humble member of the lower class who learns that his bloodline is anything but impoverished. He is a D’Ysquith, and he happens to be ninth in line to be the Earl of Highhurst. After being harshly rebuffed by the family he has only recently discovered, Monty hatches a plan to murder each D’Ysquith standing between him and his earldom.

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Mostly Monty facilitates deaths rather than causes them. Sometimes he just happens to be there when a member of the cursed family kicks it. But he does participate in the mayhem, and his ascent is not without its darker moments.

Happily all the D’Ysquiths who will soon encounter that bucket and kick it are played by the marvelous John Rapson. A quick-change artist of highest degree, Rapson is hilarious as the toothy Rev. Lord Ezekial D’Ysquith, whose fondness for booze and the top of the bell tower lead to an inevitable fall from grace, and his turn as hammy actress Lady Salomé D’Ysquith Pumphrey, is fast but so very memorable. Rapson and Massey have terrific chemistry (there’s even a kind D’Ysquith, Lord Asquith D’Ysquith Sr.), but the stage positively roars to life with Rapson as the boorish Lord Adalbert D’Ysquith, whose sparring with his equally boorish wife, Lady Eugenia (played by the marvelous Kristen Mengelkoch) is a comic highlight of an already very funny show.

Lutvak and Freedman’s score is so precisely perfect for this story that I didn’t fully get it until I actually saw the show. Having previously listened to the Broadway cast album I appreciated its humor and sophistication but found it hard to discern stand-alone appeal. Now I know why. The songs are the motor of the show and are so character and plot specific that divorced from the show itself, they don’t have their full charge. It’s exciting to hear musical theater songs that astutely crafted.

Massey and Rapson get strong support from their cast, especially Kristen Beth Williams as Sibella, Monty’s one true love who can’t abide his poverty and so marries for money, and Adrienne Eller as Phoeobe D’Ysquith, a distant cousin of Monty’s who ends up as a viable love interest.

It’s astonishing how murdery and feel-good Gentleman’s Guide manages to be. It’s tricky tone is masterfully handled, and if there’s room for a sequel (spoiler alert: there is), I’ll be first in line.

[bonus interview]
I talked to A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder creators Steven Lutvak and Robert Freedman and tour stars John Rapson and Kevin Massey for a feature on the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here. Read the sidebar about the inspirational movie Kind Hearts and Coronets here.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder continues through Dec. 27 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$212 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Odysseo: full gallop gorgeous

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Toward the end of Odysseo, the new horse-and-human extravaganza from the creators of Cavalia, the massive stage is flooded with water to create a lake. Photo by François Bergeron. Below: Odysseo includes many examples of “liberty,” a trainer commanding horses with only vocal commands and body language. Photo by Lynne Glazer

If Bojack Horseman and Mr. Ed count, I can say I’m a horse person. I fell off the back of a running stallion as a child while visiting relatives on a farm in Idaho (that horse really wanted to get back to the stable), and I know people who love horses beyond all measure. But when it comes right down to it, I’m not a horse guy.

But I love to look at horses, especially horses in motion. Whether in a Western or on the Disneyland carousel, the equine form is a beautiful thing. The notion to combine that beauty with the artistry and acrobatics of Cirque du Soleil was an inspired one, and while the resulting show, Cavlia offered abundant delights, I still found myself a little numbed by the horses walking sideways and lying down – impressive things to horse people who know how difficult it is to master such skills, but dull for the likes of me who would rather see the beasts running really fast.

Well Cavalia creatore Normand Latourelle must have felt the same way. He has taken his original formula and, as they say, plussed it. His new horse and human show, Odysseo is big. No, it’s epic. I reviewed the San Francisco debut of the show for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s a sample:

“Odysseo,” for all its technical marvels, and there are many from the massive projection screen at the rear of the stage to the acrobatic gear that flies effortlessly in and out, comes down to the beauty of the animals. Some 40 horses appear in the show – in one scene alone the stage is filled with 32 horses – and they are beyond spectacular.
All the high-tech wonders can’t begin to compare to the primal beauty of the horses, and that seems to be the point.

Read the full review here.

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I also talked to Latourelle and other members of the Odysseo team for a feature in the Chronicle.

“In ‘Cavalia’ I tried to give the horses enough room to move,” Latourelle says. “I learned I could do better for them.”
For “Odysseo,” the idea was to create the kind of space you could only find in a place like Las Vegas but somehow take it on tour. So Latourelle and his creative team found a way to make the enormous big top work and remove the center columns that hampered views in “Cavalia.”
“A lot of what people loved about the first show was seeing the horses running free and the great relationship between horse and man,” Latourelle says. “It is the same with ‘Odysseo,’ but I wanted to push the limit of what could be done with horses. At one point in this show, we have 40 horses running free next to people, which is a fantastic, beautiful image. There are no whips, no reins. We call it liberty.”

Read the full story here.

Odysseo continues an extended run through Jan. 10 at AT&T Park, 1051 Third St., San Francisco. Tickets are $44.50-$264.50. Call 866-999-8111 or visit

If/Then? No/Thanks.

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Idina Menzel (center) and members of the original Broadway cast perform Tom Kitt and Briany Yorkey’s If/Then at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season. Below: Menzel as Elizabeth and James Snyder as Josh work through a timeline. Photos by Joan Marcus

If/Then is not a musical I like much. I saw it on Broadway because I was enthusiastic about creators Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey after their powerhouse effort on Next to Normal (a show that I had problems with but admired). My reaction – meh – was very much the same when I saw If/Then in its touring incarnation featuring much of the original cast, including star Idina Menzel.

There are some pretty melodies, good songs and affecting moments in the show, primarily courtesy of an excellent cast working hard to make something of this rather mushy tale. The choreography is ridiculous and constantly calls attention to itself in this contemporary tale of real-life, grown-up relationships and the choices we make. Imagine the TV show “thirtysomething” mashed up with the Ernest Flatt Dancers from “The Carol Burnett Show” and you’ll get an idea of what the show actually looks like. Watching the touring production at the Orpheum Theatre, part of the SHN season, I couldn’t help think that Kitt and Yorkey were attempting to do what Stephen Sondheim and George Furth were doing in Company and that is use music to slice open the complex emotions of being a functioning adult in society, making relationships with friends, lovers, family while trying to realize your true self. During the seemingly endless number that ends Act 1, “Surprise,” about two birthday parties (everything in the show is in twos thanks to its Sliding Doors parallel lives gimmick), the edgy, surprising brilliance of Company kept flashing through my brain while I processed the wholly uninvolving scene before me. There’s a lot of earnestness here but not much depth or entertainment value.

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The songs simply pour forth in a similar-sounding stream for nearly three hours. A lot of it is appealing but without much emotional heft. Characters seem to be much the same before, during and after the song, so there really doesn’t seem to be much point to their bursting into song.

The couple exceptions involve anything sung by LaChanze, who will make anything she sings seem deep, important and transformative. Alas, she doesn’t have much to sing, and when her character does get a big number, “What Would You Do,” primarily in duet with her girlfriend, it gets pretty shrieky (echoing Menzel’s lesbian duet in Rent, “Take Me Or Leave Me,” a much more engaging number).

And the other exceptions are the big solos for Menzel, which, strangely, come four songs apart in the second act. “You Learn to Live Without” is the best character song in the show, a moment when Menzel’s bifurcated character, has a real moment of connection. The other, “Always Starting Over,” is the mega-belt number tailor made for Menzel to please her Wicked and Frozen fans. The song is a showy showstopper customized to showcase Menzel’s incredibly dynamic voice. It’s a classic 11 o’clock number and sets up the ending perfectly, an ending that is almost touching save for the fact that it has taken too much work parsing the two stories (in one Menzel is Liz, the other Beth, one with glasses, one without) and the mild confusion results in mild emotion at the end.

Menzel’s male costars have to wrangle some middling material. Anthony Rapp as an old college flame who has veered more toward the male end of the relationship spectrum, has one decent song, “You Don’t Need to Love Me” and one awful one, “Best Worst Mistake.” James Snyder as the Army doctor whom Liz/Beth meets by chance in Central Park, has a sweet song, “You Never Know,” and one that tries so hard to be sweet it’s just maudlin, “Hey Kid” (a Maltby-Shire rehash that was on the corny side the first time around).

What saves the show is Menzel’s star power. Neither of the Liz/Beth parallels is particularly interesting, but she brings humor, charisma and, of course, that voice, to the party, and that’s where the crackle to If/Then (which really seems like it wanted to be called What If?, like the lackluster opening number) begins and ends in this or any other timeline.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Idina Menzel about her work on If/The for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

If/Then continues through Dec. 6 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $50-$212. Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Arctic Requiem celebrates work, spirit of local hero

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The cast of BootStrap Theater Foundation’s world-premiere play Arctic Requiem: The Story of Luke Cole and Kivalina includes (from left) Gendell Hernández as Raven and Cathleen Riddley, Michael Torres, Lynne Soffer and Lawrence Radecker as villagers. The production, about the first climate change refugees in the United States, runs through Nov 15 at Z Below Theater. Below: Damon K. Sperber (left) plays the late San Francisco environmental lawyer Luke Cole and Hernández is Raven. Photos by Vicky Victoria

A very personal play, BootStrap Theater Foundation’s Arctic Requiem: The Story of Luke Cole and Kivalina is both educational and emotional. You’ll learn more about Native Alaskan Inupiat people than you ever knew, and you’ll come to care about and feel the tragic loss of Luke Cole the San Francisco environmental lawyer whose good work in the world was ended by a tragic auto accident in Uganda in 2009.

I reviewed Arctic Requiem’s world premiere at Z Below for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s an excerpt.

There’s definitely a conventional story here about the do-gooder lawyer from the San Francisco nonprofit (the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment) and how he went to Alaska and helped a Native Alaskan Inupiat village fight against water pollution from the world’s largest zinc mine. But the show’s creators, Sharmon J. Hilfinger, who wrote the script, and Joan McMillen, who composed the music, opt for something more interesting and much more theatrical.
Woven through the straightforward account of how Cole worked to gain the trust of the villagers and fought passionately for the survival of their way of life is a more spiritual account of the Inupiat way of life that is heightened by powerfully emotional music played by McMillen on piano and Helen Newby on cello.

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Read the full review here.

Sharmon J. Hilfinger and Joan McMillen’s Arctic Requiem: The Story of Luke Cole and Kivalina continues through Nov. 15 at Z Below Theater, 470 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$45. Call 866-811-4111 or visit

Charm and romance bubble up in Berkeley Rep’s Amélie

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Samantha Barks is Amélie with the cast of Amélie, A New Musical, a world premiere based on the French film of the same name. Below: Barks’ Amélie inches ever nearer to a romance with Nino, played by Adam Chanler-Berat. Photos courtesy of

In this age of illusory connection, a story of isolation told through music seems more necessary than ever. Connection with the world and people in it is a central theme of Amélie, the whimsical 2001 film, and it’s even more pronounced in the world-premiere musical version of the story now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre.

The whimsy has been turned down (not altogether), but the charm and romance have increased in this tuneful adaptation with a book by playwright Craig Lucas and a delightful score by Daniel Messé (of the band Hem) and lyrics by Messé and Nathan Tysen. Told in a fleet, occasionally bumpy 100 minutes, this Amélie boasts an appealing ensemble under the direction of Pam MacKinnon, making her musical directorial debut, and romantic leads who leaven the charm with the pulse of real life.

After a rocky opening number that describes how we’re all leaving trails of breadcrumbs for others to follow all the while tracking the flight of a fly, the show kicks into gear with the story of a bright, spirited little girl named Amélie (Savvy Crawford in a dynamic performance), whose distant, over-cautious parents (Alison Cimmet and John Hickok) mistake her joie de vivre and lively heartbeat as illness. So they decide to minimize her connection with the world by home schooling her.

This isolation has a debilitating effect no the child that will affect her as an adult, but it does allow her to bond with an unlikely pet – a goldfish named Fluffy – and inspires a number that provides the first indication that Amélie will march to its own musical beat. The silly puppetry and vivacious choreography (by Sam Pinkleton) strike just the right notes of comedy and whimsy, even in the face of sudden tragedy.

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When Amélie grows up and becomes the wonderful British actor Samantha Barks, we see her as an intensely shy young woman show somehow found the wherewithal to move away from home and start a life for herself in the Montmartre district of Paris, where she’s a waitress in the Café des 2 Moulins.

Of the assorted characters in Amélie’s life, the one that makes the biggest impression is the Man of Glass, an elderly artist named Dufayel (Tony Sheldon) show studio Amélie can spy on from her apartment (she has been an inveterate spier and skulker since childhood). Each year, Dufayel, whose brittle bones mean everything around him must be padded, copies the same Renoir painting and gets everything right except the woman in the center who is looking at the artist.

Dufayel becomes a sort of Jiminy Cricket character in Amélie’s life as she begins making broader overtures in the world, meddling in people’s lives in the name of anonymous good deeds.

Partly inspired by the death of Princess Diana, Amélie begins following various breadcrumb trails and slowly finds a place for herself in the world, which includes a hesitant romance with an offbeat young man named Nino (the wonderful Adam Chanler-Berat), who compiles people’s rejected photo booth photos.

Amélie is the kind of musical that has the audacity not only to care about the beating of the human heart but to depict that beating with hearts and flashes of light. There’s a little sappiness around the edges here, but the sweetness is earned and intercut with enough humor and theatricality to keep it grounded.

The score by Messé and Tysen provides abundant pleasure, although a strange comic number that spins Elton John’s performance of “Candle in the Wind” at Diana’s funeral into a sort of gospel nightmare for Amélie begins in good humor and verges toward the offensive.

One of the stand-out numbers is performed by three of Amélie’s chums at the café – Carla Duren as Gina, Maria-Christina Oliveras as Suzanne and Alyse Alan Louis as Georgette – as they make sure that Nino’s intentions toward their friend are honorable.

One problem with the show is that you really need to have seen the movie to fully get it. Lyrics and plot points go by in a hurry, and without any familiarity, it’s kind of a blur, especially when we’re expected to know the finer points of Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, which is explained in a number that involves projections and diagrams but is still confusing. It has something to do with never getting anywhere because you have to get halfway first, and it must reflect Amélie’s difficulty breaking out of her constrained world. But it definitely adds to the confusion.

The central romance, however charmingly portrayed, also comes across as contrived, especially when the lovers’ ultimate connection keeps getting delayed and avoided to the point of wanting to call the whole thing off. By the time they get to their tender duet it’s not quite clear why they should be together other than its having been decreed by the script and the strictures of romantic comedy.

Amélie falls somewhere between tradition and innovation, folk and pop, delightful and frustrating. As new musicals go, it’s got the kind of vibrant, heartfelt spirit that Amélie’s parents would mistake for a disorder, but it’s a lovely show that, with more creative tinkering, should go on to have a long, charming life.

[bonus interviews]
I interviewed much of the creative team behind Amélie, A New Musical for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Amélie, A New Musical continues an extended run through Oct. 18 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Cal Shakes scares up big laughs in vivacious Vep

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Danny Scheie (left above, right below) is Lady Enid Hillcrest and Liam Vincent is Jane Twisden in California Shakespeare Theater’s The Mystery of Irma Vep, the final production directed by now former Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone. Photos by Kevin Berne

How appropriate to go (high) camping under the stars in the Orinda hills with the California Shakespeare Theater. One doesn’t think of Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep as a play for the great outdoors, but now-former Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone and his dynamic actor duo make a strong case for Ludlam being funny anywhere.

As swan songs go, Moscone picked a doozy, if only because he leaves them laughing. As Moscone exits the building for San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, he can be proud of an extraordinary 16 years with Cal Shakes during which he helped transform the company into one of the Bay Area’s finest, most inclusive and most ambitious. It has been a serious decade and a half, and his delightful dance with Irma seems all the more celebratory for it.

This is the third time Moscone has directed Ludlam’s 1984 love letter to low horror and high camp, and it’s the second time we’ve seen Danny Scheie in the role after his turn with the Aurora Theatre Company in 1997, which was re-mounted by the Magic. And the thing about Irma is that it never gets old. There’s a zany energy that’s simultaneously sending up, deconstructing and lavishing love on the ye olde penny dreadful take on gothic horror. Two actors play all the parts, with the gimmick (and the quick costume changes) part of the ongoing joke. Scheie’s partner in this mayhem is Liam Vincent, another Bay Area stalwart whose chemistry with Scheie is immeasurable. There’s one scene in which Edgar and Enid say each other’s names over and over again until it’s clear there’s a sexual roundelay going on, and it’s deeply hilarious.

Werewolves, vampires, mummies, flickering lights and thunder claps are part of the general recipe here as the estate of Lord Edgar Hillcrest (Vincent) welcomes a new lady of the manor in Lady Enid (Scheie). There’s still a portrait over the fireplace of Lord Edgar’s first, now late, wife, Lady Irma, and before the show is over, that portrait will run with blood and come to frightening (in theory) life. There’s a Scottish groundskeeper, Nicodemus (Scheie), and a Teutonic maid named Jane (Vincent) as well as various demons and monsters, and it’s all quite deliciously predictable.

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Scheie’s flouncy Lady Enid, who has (horrors!) spent time on the stage, is, at one end of the spectrum, like Dame Maggie Smith in “Downton Abbey” – but younger – and, at the other end, like Dame Maggie Smith in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Vincent’s Jane conjures memories of Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein, and his Lord Edgar is movie star handsome and statuary stolid. As Nicodemus, he with the wooden leg and yen for the milkmaid, Scheie sports an accent that is ripe and rangy and always good for a laugh.

Set designer Douglas Schmidt wisely blocks off much of the gorgeous view behind the stage to focus attention on the stately English manor directed with skulls and a howler monkey and some fabulous footlights made out of the comedy and tragedy masks. Lighting designer Alex Nichols and sound designer Cliff Caruthers get an exercise in thunder and lightning effects, and they were ably assisted last Wednesday night by actual strong breezes and rustling tree leaves.

The creative team member whose work proves invaluable is costumer Katherine Roth, who has to hurry her actors in and out of English formalwear and monster getups. Her creations are marvelous, and there’s an especially enjoyable moment in the long transition from scenes in an Egyptian tomb (involving a Cher sparkle wig and the song “It’s Raining Men”) back to the manse known as Mandacrest. Vincent’s Lord Edgar sings a kicky version of Sinatra’s “Witchcraft” while the backstage crew slowly transforms him into Jane the maid. It’s a gust of fresh theatrical air to liven up an already lively meta-theatrical enterprise.

In just about everything he’s in, Scheie exhibits an inexhaustible energy, and that is certainly the case here, but Vincent matches him volt for volt, but Scheie still launches more vocal fireworks than any comic actor I’ve ever seen. Irma Vep offers a great, scene-chewing showcase for him, although it’s nice to see Vincent getting a well-deserved leading man moment of his own.

The Mystery of Irma Vep is a little on the long side, two-plus hours, but the actors and the backstage crew (who get to take a bow with the actors) keep the evening lively, and the big laughs just keep rolling and rolling on into the night. For fans of Moscone’s, that makes for a pretty sweet swan song.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Moscone and many of his admirers for a pair of stories in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the main feature here and the sidebar on Moscone’s favorite Cal Shakes moments here.

Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep continues through Sept. 6 at California Shakespeare Theater’s Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $20-$72. Call 510-548-9666 or visit Free shuttle to and from the theater from Orinda BART.

A toast to Champagne and her wily Poon

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The marvelous cast of Champagne White and The Temple of Poon includes, from left, James Arthur as Sergio, Matthew Martin as Pixie Pardonne Moi, D’Arcy Drollinger as Champagne White, Nancy French as Debbie, Steven LeMay as Mandy and Adam Roy as Jack Hammer. Below: Hammer and Champagne at the scene of the crime: it’s a frame job, I tell ya! Photos by Gareth Gooch

Just when it seems all the colorful characters are fleeing San Francisco, along comes an Oasis of (fake) tits and glitter. Yes, Oasis, the new South of Market nightclub, has defied the real estate odds and become a haven for performers of all stripes, including impresario D’Arcy Drollinger, a co-owner of the club along with drag legend Heklina and several other partners.

Drollinger has to be one of the most interesting people working in Bay Area theater. He plied his trade in San Francisco for a while before moving to New York, but now he’s back, making theater like a madman and taking full advantage of the fact that he has his very own stage.

Before Oasis beckoned, Drollinger was doing shows like Sex and the City Live (read my review here), Project: Lohan (derived from Lilo’s court transcripts, interviews and news reports) and Shit and Champagne, the tale of Champagne White, a stripper character with roots in ’70s blaxploitation movies, 1940s noir and vaudeville by way of the naughty Catskills.

Happily, Champagne is back for what will undoubtedly be a long line of adventures. This time out, she’s cutting an Indiana Jones-type figure in Champagne White and the Temple of Poon, but before she dons the fedora and slings a whip on her belt, she’ll be framed for murder and spend time behind bars in Lady Prison. She’ll also make the most of a glittering gold bikini, go full Lea DeLaria in prison and lead several chases through the streets of San Francisco – one on a skateboard, the other on a motorcycle. In other words, Champagne, with blond curls as big as her boobs, is bad ass. She’s got some stylish kung fu moves, but she doesn’t seem very able to defend herself from a prison gang or from the henchman of her nemesis, Pixie Pardonne Moi (the renamed, reconfigured villain from the first installment, Dixie Stampede).

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It’s delirious fun, with the charismatic Drollinger writing, directing and starring in two-plus hours of delicious drag delight. It’s no surprise that Drollinger can put together a crowd-pleasing show full of ribaldry and raunch. He’s a smart performer and a deft writer and director. You don’t have to know (or care) anything about theater to laugh at the ongoing jokes about a new perfume, Poussé: Scent of a Woman, or the easy joke about Champagne’s recent marriage to Mr. Juan Spitzer, which makes her Champagne White Juan Spitzer, which, naturally, becomes Champagne White Wine Spritzer.

But what’s really wonderful about Drollinger’s work here is that as a writer and director, he’s deftly combining vaudeville with commedia dell’arte imbued with a drag/camp sensibility that is exactly right for the tone of the show. As a performer, Drollinger is the master of the double take and the eye roll aside to the audience. He’s a superb vaudevillian, and he’s surrounded himself with performers who are equally as good, many of whom appeared alongside him in Shit and Champagne. Chief among them is the redoubtable Matthew Martin as the villainess concocting a perfume from harvested G-spots that turns out to be more of a huffable drug than a fragrance d’amour.

With a high kick that could slice open your forehead, Martin is equal parts Cyd Charisse, Joan Crawford and Keyser Söze. Outfitted in a Liza wig (circa mid-’80s) and stylish outfits (costumes by Tria), Martin’s performance is less a drag turn than a really juicy character part (and his brief appearance as a prison bitch is a hoot) performed by an actor who knows exactly what he’s doing.

The biggest surprise in the wonderful supporting cast is Adam Roy as Detective Jack Hammer and other assorted roles (including a very funny lady prison guard and a hilarious strip club owner). Roy is a deft comedian, a true clown who would seem to know his way around the commedia form – not that the audience should care about that beyond the fact that Roy has a precision and commitment to his roles that make him a key player in this well-crafted goofiness.

Steven LeMay is a sweet-natured drag clown of the highest order, especially in the role of Mandy, a fragrant inmate who captivates Champagne, especially with the aroma of pumpkin spice pot pourri emanating from her nethers. Of course her name inspires one of the show’s brightest, funniest moments, a fully choreographed (by Drollinger) number set to Barry Manilow’s “Mandy.”

James Arthur shines in multiple roles, especially as queeny Serge, Champagne’s BFF, and Nancy French as Debbie, the world’s most blasé stripper, gets laughs just from the look of disgust that crosses her face every time she has the arduous task of doing anything on stage.

It all adds up to a most enjoyable evening – rough around the edges, hit and miss with individual jokes to be sure – full of energy, low-brow humor and the effervescence you’d expect in an intoxicating Champagne cocktail.

[bonus interview]
I talked to D’Arcy Drollinger about Champagne White and the Temple of Poon for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

D’Arcy Drollinger’s Champagne White and the Temple of Poon continues through Sept. 12 at Oasis, 298 11th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$35. Call 415-795-3180 or visit

Delightful Matilda mostly avoids chokey

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The young ensemble of the national Broadway touring company of Matilda the Musical makes the song “When I Grow Up” really swing at the Orpheum Theatre. Below: Gabrielle Gutierrez plays the triumphant pint-sized super hero, Matilda. Photos by Joan Marcus

What is it about Roald Dahl that makes his books so ripe for adaptation? Probably the most famous book-to-screen-to-stage example from his canon is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which became a beloved movie musical in 1971 (with the title shifted to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). The 2005 remake by Tim Burton is much less beloved, and the splashy 2013 West End stage musical has been a big, long-running hit and will hit Broadway in the upcoming season.

Others of Dahl’s stories have been turned into movies: James and the Giant Peach, The Witches and Fantastic Mr. Fox among others. Dahl’s rich imagination, edgy sensibility and ability to delight (and occasionally disgust) children without pandering to them makes his work ripe for adaptation. His 1998 novel Matilda became a movie in 1996, and an initial musical adaptation in 1990 went nowhere. But Matilda, it seems, was destined to be a musical. The Royal Shakespeare Company commissioned Australian actor-musiciain-comedian and Dahl fan Tim Minchin to compose the score and writer Dennis Kelly to adapt the book. The resulting musical, cleverly titled Matilda the Musical debuted in 2010, stormed the West End and Broadway (still running in both locations) and is now touring the U.S.

The greatest compliment you can pay to the musical is that it really feels like Dahl. It’s big and dark and bursting with grotesqueries, but it’s sweet at heart without being cloying. Minchin’s sharp, tuneful, highly enjoyable score is a major factor, and Kelly’s book hews closely to the novel but makes some smart tweaks along the way. Director Matthew Warchus wrangles the adorability of his child actors and lets them shine, especially amid the overplayed (and very funny) horrible adults like Miss Trunchbull, the meanest headmistress imaginable (she puts misbehaving children in mini-prison called “chokey”) and a former Olympic hammer-throwing champion.

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On tour, part of the SHN season at the Orpheum Theatre, Trunchbull is played by Bryce Ryness, who has the tremendous skill of underplaying and overplaying at the same time. It’s genius, and he gets laughs just from standing there in his Trunchbull drag (costumes are by Rob Howell, who also designed the set full of wooden letter blocks and tiles).

The trenchant thing about Matilda is that it’s a love story for two people who need each other but haven’t quite found each other or a way to be together. It’s not a romantic love story – more like a family of choice (as opposed to blood) in its nascent stage.

Our protagonist is precocious Matilda (played at Saturday’s performance by the unbelievably adorable Gabrielle Gutierrez, who alternates in the role with Mia Sinclair Jenness and Mabel Tyler), a 5-year-old with genius tendencies. She has taught herself to read and worked her way through Dickens. If she picks up a foreign novel, she teaches herself the language so she can appreciate the author’s work in her/his native language. A bright light in a dark world, Matilda has the misfortune of having been born to the Wormwoods. Mrs. Wormwood (Cassie Silva) is obsessed with appearance and ballroom dancing (her partner, Rudolpho, played by Jaquez Andre Sims is always good for a laugh). Her father, slimy used car salesman and all-around cheat (the marvelous clown Quinn Mattfeld), calls her “boy” because he so wanted a son he basically denies her very existence. Both Wormwoods are cretins who prefer “telly” and can’t understand why their child wastes time with books.

At school, Matilda fares no better under the tyrannical rule of Agnes Trunchbull, whose delight in torturing the students is as disturbing as it is entertaining (and occasionally hilarious). The only solace Matilda receives in the world comes from a kindly librarian (Ora Jones), whom Matilda regales with stories of daring do and tragic romance, and teacher Miss Honey (Jennifer Blood), whose pedagogical approach involves kindness and patience – the antithesis of the Trunchbull method.

Matilda really is a pint-sized super hero. She will liberate her fellow students, dispatch her family, make mincemeat of Trunchbull and make the world (or her world, anyway) safe for great books. At the height of her powers, she’ll even threaten to turn this story into Stephen King’s Carrie, but then she’ll find the home she deserves, all the while singing some catchy, zippy songs like “When I Grow Up,” “Naughty” and “Revolting Children.”

The only drawback to this touring production is a muddy sound design that, combined with some mushy British accents, renders only about 50 percent of the dialogue/lyrics understandable. The adults fare better than the children, but it’s a significant problem that’s only overcome by the strong acting, which puts the story over in spite of our inability to understand what’s being said or sung. That’s a shame because there’s a whole lot to enjoy here that’s not quite coming across.

[bonus interview]
I had a lively chat with Matilda composer Tim Minchin for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Matilda the Musical continues through Aug. 15 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$210 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Reveling in the rambling genius of Eddie Izzard

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British comedian Eddie Izzard’s Force Majeure comedy tour, which will encompass more than two dozen countires in more than two years, made three Bay Area stops: Santa Rosa, San Francisco and San Jose. Photos by Andy Hollingworth

Eddie Izzard was back in town this week with his Force Majeure tour. His San Francisco stop at the Golden Gate Theatre offered congratulations to audience members for being the smartest audiences in town (because they were there, naturally), and allowed fans the opportunity to offer depthless adoration to Izzard, the queenly king of the non-sequitur.

I reviewed Force Majeure for the San Francisco Chronicle.

You don’t go to an Izzard show for jokes you get to re-tell at work the next day. An Izzard ramble can begin with Oliver Cromwell, jog over to humanity going backward (“Take note, Tea Party,” Izzard said. “Here we are marching backward for Jesus.”), dive into the Emperor Constantine streamlining the pantheon of gods and end with Buddha, enjoying a delicious Indian meal and telling his followers that every time a gong sounds, a Buddhist angel gets its wings. We know this, he says, from the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life This Time Around.”

Read the full review here.

I also interviewed Izzard prior to his arrival in the Bay Area. Here’s a taste.

If Izzard is sounding like an optimist, there’s a reason. In five years, he’s going to do his part in making the world a better place by going into politics. He remains resolute in his decision to run for mayor of London or become a member of Parliament in 2020.
“I’m inspired by Sen. Al Franken,” Izzard says, referring to the comedian turned Democratic senator from Minnesota. “He initially won by something like 312 votes and six years later by 200,000 votes. He’s a workhorse, not a show horse. He has been good for his state, good for his country.”
In the most recent British election, Izzard campaigned in 62 constituencies for the Labour Party, but the election did not go his way. “It’s not good to be on the wrong side of that,” he says. “But you have to learn from whatever happens, however people vote. I know I’m trying to do a good job on my end.”

Read the full interview here.
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Eddie Izzard’s Force Majeure continues through June 20 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $61-$94, subject to change. Call 888-746-1799 or visit Monday-Tuesday, June 22-23 at the California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $47.50-$69. Call 800-745-3000 or visit

Fractured tales confound in ACT’s Love and Information

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Cindy Goldfield (left) and Dominique Salerno star in Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, a collection of 57 scenes that challenge audiences to consider the fateful, intimate dance between the virtual and the real, and the ways we filter data in the Information Age. Below:Joel Bernard, Salerno and Christina Liang in a short scene of love, information or both. Photos by Kevin Berne

Confounding and captivating in equal measure, American Conservatory Theater’s debut production in the newly renovated Strand Theater certainly lives up to its title. Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information sounds like a generic title for just about anything in our short-attention-span world, on or off line, and that seems to be part of the point.

More like a curated collection of scenes and short films than an actual play, Love and Information breaks down into 57 scenes (like Heinz, 57 varieties) for a total running time about about 100 minutes. There are 12 actors deftly assaying hundreds of characters (or sketches of characters, really), and the whole thing is slickly, fluidly directed by Casey Stangl.

Some scenes are more memorable than others – a man attempting to share mnemonic games with a woman is delightfully surreal (“the hedgehog is in the microwave”); a brother and sister redefine their relationship in a shocking way; a text battle between wife and philandering husband takes place under the surface of polite dinner conversation; a young woman describes to a friend what it’s like growing up unable to feel any pain at all; a grandmother attempts to teach a grandchild about fear; a man who experiments on chick brains regales a date with tales of decapitation and brain slicing. And the list does go on.

About half the scenes feel like they’re part of a bigger, more interesting play. The other half feels like filler.

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It’s all very proficiently done, and Stangl, working with scenic designer Robert Brill, lighting designer Lap Chi Chu and projection designer Micah J. Stieglitz show off the Strand beautifully. The sound, the sight lines, the vibrancy of the room itself – it’s all thrilling and makes for an ideal second ACT stage.

What I didn’t get from the play was satisfaction. There isn’t much connective tissue here, and that seems to be part of the point. We’re fragmented, we’re chaotic, we’re filtered. Technology has increased our options for communications but has done the quality of communication no favors. That comes through here, but what I missed (after hitting the wall at about the one-hour mark) is that moment when it all comes together, when the fragments coalesce into something bigger and more meaningful. And though the end incorporates an appealing slice of Electric Light Orchestra, I never felt the whole became more than the sum of its attractive, often intriguing parts.

Maybe that’s what Churchill is after here: there is no sum game anymore. It’s all just parts. Maybe so. But as long as those parts keep coming on the stage of the Strand, I’m happy. San Francisco’s newest theater should be its most active and alive for many years to come.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Love and Information director Casey Stengl about her work on the play for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information continues through Aug. 9 at ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 415-749-2228 or visit