2011 in the rearview mirror: the best of Bay Area stages


Let’s just get right to it. 2011 was another year full of fantastic local theater (and some nice imports). Somehow, most of our theater companies has managed thus far to weather the bruising economy. May the new year find audiences clamoring for more great theater. (Click on the play titles to see my original reviews.)

1. How to Write a New Book for the Bible by Bill Cain
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Directed by Kent Nicholson

Only a few days ago I was telling someone about this play – my favorite new play of 2011 and the most moving theatrical experience I’ve had in a long time – and it happened again. I got choked up. That happens every time I try to describe Cain’s deeply beautiful ode to his family and to the spirituality that family creates (or maybe that’s vice-versa). Nicholson’s production, from the excellent actors to the simple, elegant design, let the play emerge in all its glory.

2. Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
American Conservatory Theater

Directed by Jonathan Moscone

Because I interviewed Norris for the San Francisco Chronicle, I wasn’t allowed, at the playwright’s request, to review the production. Well, to heck with you Mr. Pulitzer Prize-winning Norris. This was a genius production. A great play (with some wobbly bits in the second act) that found a humane director and a cast that dipped into the darkness and sadness under the laughs (Rene Augesen in particular). How do we talk about race in this country? We don’t. We just get uncomfortable with it. This is drama that positively crackles – you can’t take your eyes off the stage and find there are moments when you’re actually holding your breath.

3. Bellwether by Steve Yockey
Marin Theatre Company
Directed by Ryan Rilette

Horror is hard in a theater, but Yockey came close to scaring the pants off his audience in this chilling, utterly compelling world-premiere drama about children disappearing from a suburban neighborhood. And the paranormal aspects weren’t even the scariest things – it was the humans being disgustingly human to each other in times of stress that really worked the nerves.

4. The Lily’s Revenge by Taylor Mac
Magic Theatre
Directed by Meredith McDonough, Marissa Wolf, Erika Chong Shuch, Erin Gilley, Jessica Holt and Jessica Heidt

The sheer scope, ambition and feel-good communal aspect of this massive undertaking makes it one of the year’s most disarming experiences. The charms of Mac, who also starred as Lily, cannot be underestimated. Kudos to the Magic for staging what amounted to the best theatrical open house in many a season.

5. The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
California Shakespeare Theater
Directed by Shana Cooper

I debated which Cal Shakes show I should include on this – it was down to Moscone’s Candida, which featured a luminous Julie Ecclesin the title role. But I opted for this high-octane production of a really difficult play. Leads Erica Sullivan and Slate Holmgren brought not only humor to this thorny comedy but also a depth of emotion I hadn’t ever experienced with this play. Director Cooper worked wonders with this Shrew, making it feel new and relevant.

6.The Companion Piece by Beth Wilmurt
Z Space @ Theatre Artaud
Directed by Mark Jackson

The combination of Wilmurt and Jackson is irresistible (Shameless plug! Read my San Francisco Chronicle interview with Jackson and Wilmurt here). Always has been and probably will be as long as they want to keep creating theater together. This vaudevillian spin featured laughs and songs and the most exquisite dance involving wheeled staircases you can imagine. That dance was easily one of the most beautiful things on a Bay Area stage this year.

7. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by Lauren Gunderson
Crowded Fire Theater Company
Directed by Desdemona Chiang

Fresh and funny, Gunderson’s spitfire of a play introduced us to a playwright we need to be hearing from on a regular basis.

8. Phaedra by Adam Bock
Shotgun Players
Directed by Rose Riordan

Every time Bock comes back to the Bay Area he shows us yet another facet of his extraordinary talent. This spin on a classic allowed Shotgun to wow us with an eye-popping set and a central performance by Catherine Castellanos that echoed for months afterward.

9.Lady Grey (in ever lower light) by Will Eno
Cutting Ball Theatre
Directed by Rob Melrose

I can’t get enough Will Eno. Whether he’s the Brecht of our generation or an absurdist spin on Thornton Wilder, I find him completely original and funny in ways that are heartbreaking. This trilogy of plays from Cutting Ball was uber-theatrical and highly enjoyable. As was Eno’s brilliant Middletown, which I saw at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company directed by Les Waters (Berkeley Rep’s soon-to-be-former associate artistic director who’s heading to Kentucky to head the Actors Theatre of Louisville).

10. Strike Up the Band by George S. Kaufman (book) and George and Ira Gershwin (score)
42nd Street Moon
Directed by Zack Thomas Wilde

42nd Street Moon shows have delighted me for years, but I can’t remember having this much fun at the Eureka in a long, long time. The laughs were big and genuine, and the score was sublime. The whole package was so appealing it’s a shame the production couldn’t move to another venue and keep the band marching on.


The Wild Bride by Emma Rice and Kneehigh
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Directed by Emma Rice

This extraordinary show would have been at the top of my Top 10 list had it originated in this region or even in this country first. But as it’s a British import by a genius theater company, it can be content to live in the honorable mention category. The really good news is that Berkeley Rep has extended the show through Jan. 22. Start your new year right and go see this amazing piece of theater.

Of Dice and Men by Cameron McNary
Impact Theatre
Directed by Melissa Hillman

Nerds are people, too. This sharp, savvy and very funny show takes a very specific world – Dungeons and Dragons gamers – and makes it instantly recognizable because it’s so very human.

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Aurora Theatre Company
Directed by Mark Jackson

The physicality of this production is what lingers in memory, specifically Alexander Crowther’s transformation into a spider-like creature crawling over the wonderfully askew set. Director Jackson does wondrous things with actors and stages.

Spring Awakening by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik
San Jose Repertory Theatre

Directed by Rick Lombardo

This is not an easy musical to pull off, not only because the original Broadway production was so fresh and distinct. It’s tricky material performed by young material who have to act and rock convincingly. Lombardo’s production didn’t erase memories of the original, but it staked its own claim, and the young cast was bursting with talent.

A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee
Aurora Theatre Company
Directed by Tom Ross

Being so close to Albee’s drama in the intimate Aurora proved to be an electrifying experience as we began to feel the tension, the fear and the barely concealed sneers of the upper middle class. Kimberly King’s central performance was wondrous.


Nicest unscripted moment: Hugh Jackman ripping his pants and changing into new ones in full view of the audience on opening night of Hugh Jackman in Performance at the Curran Theatre. He’s a boxer brief guy. And a true showman.

Biggest disappointment: Kevin Spacey hamming it up so uncontrollably in the Bridge Project’s fitfully interesting Richard III. Spacey is a fascinating stage presence, but he’s so predictably Kevin Spacey. His Richard III offered no surprises and, sadly, no depth. If Richard was really the kind of guy who would do Groucho Marx impressions, he probably wouldn’t be the Richard III Shakespeare wrote.

Second biggest disappointment: ACT’s Tales of the City musical. Upon reflection, it just seems all wrong. Good idea to turn Armistead Maupin’s books into a musical. But the creative team was simply too reverent, too outside the time and place.

Telling Tales and making them sing

Extended through July 31!
“Mouse”-keteers: Friends from 28 Barbary Lane include (from left) Patrick Lane as Brian Hawkins, Betsy Wolfe as Mary Ann Singleton, Wesley Taylor as Michael “Mouse” Tolliver and Josh Breckenridge as Dr. Jon Fielding in ACT’s world-premiere musical Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. Below: Mary Birdsong is Mona Ramsey and Taylor’s Mouse strikes a disco pose. Photos by Kevin Berne

There’s a beautiful line of dialogue that perfectly encapsulates the denouement of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, a tricky new musical having its world premiere at American Conservatory Theater. Toward the end of the nearly three-hour show, one character comforts another with: “Mystery solved. Mystery loved.”

In those two short lines we get what Tales of the City, whether in novel, miniseries or musical form, is all about: acceptance and love. It’s interesting to note that in the musical, this line is spoken not sung. That’s telling. But more on that in a minute.

Turning Armistead Maupin’s beloved Tales, which first saw life in 1976 as a novel serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle, is a no brainer. It’s amazing it’s taken this long for Mrs. Madrigal, Mona, Mouse and Mary Ann to start singing.

It took librettist Jeff Whitty of Avenue Q fame to get the ball seriously rolling, and then he teamed up with director Jason Moore, choreographer Larry Keigwin and composers Jake Shears and John Garden of pop-glam-rock group Scissor Sisters.

Of course the show had to begin life in San Francisco, and like the city that both inspires and hosts it, this Tales of the City has its ups and downs.

The actors bringing life to these familiar characters are uniformly solid, from the leads right down to the quirky character parts (drag queens, leather daddies, A-gays, hippies, etc.). They all have their musical chops. They’re all appealing and adorable, but what’s even better is that they’re all good actors.

The biggest strength of the show at this point is Whitty’s libretto. He has distilled Tales of the City and parts of its sequel, More Tales of the City into a streamlined show that retains a surprising amount of detail and an abundance of humor. The show is, like the books, overstuffed, and that’s as it should be. In fact, it could be even quirkier and weirder and grittier and raunchier. And sweeter.


Act 1 is slow going, as far as plot and character are concerned, but in Act 2, especially with the arrival of Diane J. Findlay as Mother Mucca, the gears are turning nicely. We get humor, melodrama and genuine emotion in equal measure, and that’s the key to this show.

Moore’s direction is mechanical and slick. In many ways, Douglas W. Schmidt’s scaffolding set directs the show more than Moore does. But sleek and slick doesn’t make this show work. Sure, the actors are hustled on and off efficiently, and we get speedy set changes, but the overall effect is cold when it should be warm. Beaver Bauer’s wonderful costumes – all rich patterns laced with humor and a groovy ‘70s vibe — go a long way toward warming up the look of the stage, but costumes can only do so much in the shadow of giant venetian blinds.

For this show to make its mark beyond San Francisco – clearly everybody involved is training sights on Broadway at some point – it can’t be the slickest or fanciest show around, but it does have be the gold standard for heart and humor.

In Act 2, when Wesley Taylor as Michael “Mouse” Tolliver sings a coming-out letter to his mother, the artifice breaks and reality comes peeking in. For the first time in the show, the music is absolutely necessary to the storytelling, and when the song is reprised during a key moment near the show’s end, the effect resonates powerfully.

The rest of Shears and Garden’s score ranges from catchy and enjoyable to outright awful (“Where Beauty Lies” is cringe-inducing). Their musical palette in Act 2 is far more interesting than Act 1. We get a raunchy show-stopper performed by Winnemucca whores (“Ride ‘em Hard”), a too-brief Halloween parade (“Richard Nixon”), a Scissor Sister-sounding disco diversion (“Defending My Life”), a defining character moment for DeDe Halcyon-Day (the invaluable Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone singing “Plus One”), and a Joplin-esque moment for Mona (the compelling Mary Birdsong singing “Seeds and Stems”), the aforementioned coming-out letter “Dear Mama” and “Paper Faces,” a bold ensemble number that, alas, conjures up visions of “Masquerade” from The Phantom of the Opera.

The only real disappointment in Act 2 (other than “Where Beauty Lies”) is that the show-ending song, “No Apologies,” doesn’t quite have the emotional heft it needs.

Judy KayeIn Act 1, the warm and wonderful Judy Kaye (seen at right, photo by Kevin Berne) as pot-smoking den mother Anna Madrigal, closes the act with a beautifully sung spotlight ballad called “The Next Time You See Me” that has to do with secrets and identity. The big notes are all there, and Kaye mines the song for all it’s worth, but there’s just not much there. The lyrics tangle in the melody, and the emotion is diluted, which seems unfair to the hardworking Kaye.

In Act 1, we get a Hair reject called “Atlantis” and a comedy number performed by the A-gays (“Homosexual Convalescent Center”) that’s fun but feels like it was funnier in The Producers. We finally start to get a sense of the characters’ affinity for one another in “Mary Ann,” but that comes too near the end of the act.

And now a complaint about the arrangements (credited to Carmel Dean and Stephen Oremus): too many of the songs sound like theme songs from ‘80s TV shows. Music director Cian McCarthy’s seven-piece band feels keyboard heavy, which is fine for the upbeat numbers but sounds thin on the ballads.

As it stands now, there’s more heart and heft in the Tales book than in the score. Generally speaking, the scenes are more effective in conveying the sense of friendship and family than the songs, and that makes for an off-balance show. Enjoyable and entertaining, but off-balance.

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City has only just started its journey. San Francisco audiences will eat up every little reference, from the Savoy Tivoli to the EndUp to Perry’s. But for Tales to truly find its audience, it needs to connect more powerfully to its musical heart.

[bonus interviews]
What do Elton John and Stephen Sondheim have to do with the creation of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City? Read my feature on the musical’s creative team in Theatre Bay Area magazine. Read the feature here.


Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City continues an extended run through July 24 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$127. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org for information.

Tweeting, posting and singing with Betty Buckley

Betty Buckley

Onstage and online, Broadway legend Betty Buckley is electrifying.

If you’ve ever seen her perform on Broadway – perhaps in the original cast of Cats or as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard — or in concert halls large or small, you know just how electrifying she can be. Very few singer/actors connect to material the way she does.

But Buckley, at age 63, has embraced social media in a big way. On the advice of her brother, Norman, a television director, she got hooked up. Now she Tweets daily (@BettyBuckley) and posts on Facebook with regularity to her nearly 5,000 friends. To find a name for her latest concert, she asked her online followers for suggestions. The winner would receive two tickets to the show.

Buckley brings that show, called For the Love of Broadway, to the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko May 3 through 8.

On the phone from her ranch in Texas, Buckley says the new show’s title is but one of the advantages to being, as they say, wired.

“I had to learn how not to be so fixated by it,” she says. “When I was in San Francisco about a year ago, doing shows at Yoshi’s, all these Twitter and Facebook fans came, which was really a blast. It’s nice when people like my work and support. It’s nice to be in touch with them to see how they feel.”

The new show, which features music direction by John McDaniel, includes songs Buckley has loved but never had the opportunity to perform. She sometimes refers to them as “my shower songs – songs I sing in the shower but never really knew all the words to.”

Audiences members can expect songs from Avenue Q, South Pacific, The Pajama Game and Nine among others. That should please the show-music fans, of which Buckley has thousands.

But Buckley, a Texas native, has eclectic taste in music and is as likely to sing a country tune as a show tune. Her last album, Bootlegs: Boardmixes from the Road, featured eight live tracks including a new song from Michael McDonald, some country tunes and Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” a sneak preview of her forthcoming album, Ghostlight.

The new album is produced by T-Bone Burnett, the Grammy- and Oscar-winner behind such albums as the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand. Buckley and Burnett have known each other since high school in Fort Worth. Their mothers were friends, and at age 19, Buckley recorded her first album in Burnett’s recording studio (that album has since been re-mastered and released as Betty Buckley 1967).

Buckley recently heard the final remixes for the album, which should be out in November. “It’s the most wonderful recording I’ve ever done,” she says. “T-Bone is a genius. Some of the songs from For the Love of Broadway were cornerstones of that recording, but they’re done very differently than I do them in the cabaret setting. T-Bone calls the songs ‘my airs.’ He says, ‘I’m so in love with this recording of your beautiful airs.’ I’m so thrilled I can’t even tell you. This album is probably the truest to who I am than anything I’ve done.”

[bonus video: Betty Buckley performs “Meadowlark”]

If you listen to Buckley singing “He Plays the Violin” from 1776, which she recorded in 1969, and then listen to the live recordings from Bootlegs you hear the same singer but a very different voice.

“My voice is definitely different than when I was younger,” Buckley says. “I kinda like it. It’s richer and has more dark colors than when I was younger. As a kid I had this clarion mezzo-soprano voice. But I had some wonderful voice teachers – Paul Gavert, Joan Lader – who have helped me quite a lot. Paul really taught me to sing with a long line, with one vowel becoming the next vowel, how one thought becomes the next thought. It’s a brilliant way to approach singing. I’m so grateful I was able to learn from him. That’s how I could sing “Memory” night after night in Cats.”

As a singer’s voice changes over time, Buckley says, she is certain of one thing: a singer will always have a voice if she takes care of herself. “The voice follows who you are,” she says. “The instrument of my voice has deepened, gotten richer over time because I’ve grown as a person, changed as a person.”

Buckley has been teaching voice herself for nearly 40 years, but she credits Gavert with having a vision of her that was greater than she could have for herself.

“He was able to impart that vision to me and hold it in space with me in this long process until I could step into the potential he felt I had,” Buckley explains. “It took quite a while. That was such a gift to me when I look back. It’s so deeply touching that he would do that. I’ve always felt it was my responsibility to pass that on. I’m grateful to have an innate gift, but everything good I’ve learned to do I’ve learned from other people.”

Buckley had participated in a workshop performance of the new musical Tales of the City, which will be running at American Conservatory Theater shortly after her run at the Rrazz Room. She was rumored to be cast in the role of Mrs. Madrigal in the world-premiere production, but that didn’t work out.

This fall she’ll be back on the New York cabaret scene with a new show. Who knows? She may even ask her online followers to come up with another title. If she does, get to thinking: she says she’ll likely be doing men’s songs from Broadway shows.


Betty Buckley’s For the Love of Broadway runs May 3-8 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$55 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 800-380-3095 or visit www.therrazzroom.com.

K-K-K-Katie Holmes on Broadway, `Tales’ in tune

Yes, Katie Holmes, late of Dawson’s Creek, she of the couch-jumping husband, the ever-changing cute hairdos and the impossibly adorable Suri parentage, is being rumored to be heading to Broadway for a revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons starring John Lithgow and Dianne Weist. Ms. Holmes must have had a conversation with Jennifer Garner, who had such a winning run on Broadway recently in Cyrano. And Holmes’ husband, Tom Cruise, must have had a man-to-man chat with Garner’s husband, Ben Affleck, about what it’s like to be a stay-at-home dad in paparazzi-infested New York.

Variety says the 29-year-old Holmes is in negotiation for the 1947 show, which would mark her Broadway debut. The stage run would also give Ms. Holmes a little much-needed acting cred. Her most recent big-screen turn, opposite Diane Keaton and Queen Latifah in Mad Money didn’t exactly generate Oscar buzz.

In other news of the Great White Way (via Barbaray Lane in San Francisco), the long-rumored musical version of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City looks like it’s finally rolling toward completion. It was long rumored that pop wunderkind Rufus Wainwright was going to turn Maupin’s beloved Baghdad by the Bay book into a musical, but now he’s off writing an opera for the MET.

So now it’s up to Jeff Whitty (Tony Award-winning book writerfor Avenue Q) and Scissor Sisters members Jason Sellards (aka Jake Shears, composer/lyricist) and John Garden (composer) to bring characters Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, Anna Madrigal, Mary Anne Singleton to the Broadway stage.

Jason Moore, who helmed Avenue Q and the upcoming Shrek musical, is slated to direct.

Seems a natural that a Tales musical would have its pre-Broadway run in — where else? — San Francisco. No word yet on such practical things as production dates.