Chilling winds blow through thrilling Wuthering Heights

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ABOVE: Leah Brotherhead is Catherine and Liam Tamne is Heathcliff in the West Coast premiere of Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. BELOW: (from left) Brotherhead is Catherine, Jordan Laviniere is the Leader of the Yorkshire Moors, Katy Ellis is Isabella Linton and Sam Archer is Edgar Linton. Photo by Kevin Berne.
Photos by Kevin Berne.



Judging from Kate Bush’s thrilling song “Wuthering Heights,” my only reference to the Emily Brontë book of the same name, I thought the subject matter at hand was a ghostly love story. “Heathcliff, it’s me. I’m Cathy. I’ve come home. I’m so cold. Let me in your window.” I could just imagine the lovelorn ghost tapping on the window in the West Yorkshire moors and shivered those good tragic romance shivers.

When I finally got around to reading the 1847 novel (which was much later than it should have been), I discovered that there was a ghostly romance aspect to the book, but it was much darker, creepier and more violent than I had imagined. Revenge, cruelty and madness pervade the story. The cycles of abuse and racism that Brontë describes feel, sadly, very 21st century.

There have been many adaptations of Wuthering Heights – movies, series, literary take-offs – and now we have the West Coast premiere of a new stage version from the mind of the brilliant Emma Rice, whose previous work as a writer/director in the Bay Area includes Brief Encounter at American Conservatory Theater and The Wild Bride at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Rice’s theater tends to be incredibly dynamic and raw – exuberant, striking and beautiful.

Her Wuthering Heights, now at Berkeley Rep after runs in London and New York, is all of the above. This is not a romantic take on this story, although there are several love stories. Rather, Rice concentrates on bigger issues like the oft-repeated refrain, “Be careful what you seed,” meaning the hatred and violence you perpetrate now will have repercussions for years to come in the form of death, division and more violence, among other awful things.

Watching this three-hour epic, I was struck over and over again by how this story and Romeo and Juliet are really about breaking that cycle.

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It all starts with what seems an act of kindness when Mr. Earnshaw (Lloyd Gorman rescues a boy (of unknown origin, but darker and more foreign than people in the North of England) from the streets of Liverpool and brings him home to meet his children, Catherine (Leah Brotherhead) and Hindley (Tama Phethean). The Earnshaw children have different reactions to the newly christened Heathcliff (Liam Tamne), their new sibling. Catherine immediately adores him (and he, her), but Hindley resents his father’s new son and embarks on what wil be years of abuse and degradation.

There’s a wildness to the personalities of these moor-dwelling folk, and when more proper society intrudes (as it does with the Linton family), it tends to feel silly and out of place. These moors are distinctive in many ways, and Rice actually brings them to life in the form of a Greek chorus headed by the dynamic Jordan Laviniere. There’s also a giant screen at the back of the Roda Theatre stage that exists to show us the Yorkshire skies, most often brooding and stormy, with flocks of silhouetted birds often fluttering by (set by Vicki Mortimer, video design by Simon Baker).

Rice’s storytelling is rough and tumble in the best way. Houses are represented by windows and doors on wheels. Piles of chairs represent various furnishings, and books on the ends of sticks are birds. It all feels very contemporary and period at the same time, which is difficult to do. When a punk-fueled Catherine grabs a microphone to offer a song of rage before being forced to reject Heathcliff and marry someone else, it feels exactly right.

The three-member on-stage band, often augmented by members of the cast (like the cello-playing doctor, and the many songs (most folk-y and tender) add an element of energy and life that help counter just how bleak this story is.

Rice’s troupe tackles the story with gusto, and it’s quite amusing how often they acknowledge just how confusing the characters can be because there are so many repeated names from generation to generation. Rice calls Catherine, Heathcliff and Hareton (the son of Hindley, played by the same actor) forces of Chaos, Revenge and Hope, and the actors Brotherhead, Tamne and Phethean are all phenomenal as they embody and enliven those messy human elements.

There’s not exactly a happy ending here, but there is a glimmer of hope. It’s well earned and powerful – the kind of thrill that only superb live theater can create and make feel 100% real.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Wise Children’s Wuthering Heights, adapted and directed by Emma Rice from Emily Brontë’s novel, continues through Jan. 1 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Running Time: Three hours (including intermission). Tickets are $19.50-$124. Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org

On thin ice with Disney’s stage Frozen

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ABOVE: Caroline Bowman (left) is Elsa and Lauren Nicole Chapman is Anna with the company of the North American tour of Disney’s Frozen at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. BELOW: Collin Baja is Sven the reindeer and Jeremy Davis is Olaf the snowman. Photos by Matthew Murphy. © Disney


Frozen on stage is a disappointment. Here you have the No. 1 animated film of all time (according to Disney) with one of the most beloved and omnipresent songs from a movie (animated or otherwise) in decades, and it comes from a multimedia entertainment company that has a history of translating its properties to the Broadway musical stage.

When Disney adapts one of its own, the results can vary wildly, with the better results at one end (The Lion King, Aladdin, Peter and the Starcatcher, which is play with music) and the disasters at the other (Tarzan, The Little Mermaid), and a bunch of pleasant enough work filling the middle (Mary Poppins, Newsies, Aida). On that scale Frozen is not a disaster, but it’s barely entertaining and feels like a missed opportunity.

Director Michael Grandage’s production feels like it wants very much to be a Disney Wicked, with two strong women at the center of a story and the requisite bad guys and love story relegated to the periphery. But this show, which features sisters instead of frenemies, doesn’t do world building nearly as efficiently or effectively as Wicked, and the score, by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez has a few high points from the movie (“Let It Go,” of course, “Love Is an Open Door” and “In Summer”) and a whole lot of filler.

The set and costume design by Christopher Oram copies the movie slavishly, and the translation from animation to three dimensions lacks imagination in the way the story does. It’s all so literal and without charm. When Elsa finally unleashes her powers in “Let It Go” and builds an ice palace, there’s a spiffy instant costume change, but the palace itself is something akin to a Swarovski-sponsored Christmas display at Nordstrom. The rest feels very theme park fake with heavy reliance on projections (by Finn Ross trying hard to turn live action back into animation) and icy lighting (by Natasha Katz).

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Performances are fine, but there’s not a lot demanded of the actors in terms of complication or subtlety. Voices all have that singing competition belt, and leads Caroline Bowman as Elsa and Lauren Nicole Chapman as Anna do their best to forge a sisterly bond and bridge the tonal gap in Jennifer Lee’s lazy book that shifts quickly from dramatic and dull to contemporary cartoon goofy.

What charm there is in this plodding production comes from Jeremy Davis as the fully visible puppeteer behind Olaf, the magically conjured snowman who likes warm hugs. Designed by Michael Curry (who provided similar services for The Lion King), the puppet has more personality that almost anyone on stage except Sven the reindeer, rendered as a fully costumed character and performed beautifully by Collin Baja and Dan Plehal alternating in the physically demanding role.

Of the humans, the brightest spark on the iceberg comes from Dominic Dorset as Kristoff, whose best song is still the sweetly silly “Reindeer(s) are Better Than People” from the movie, though he does his best with the heavy handed ballad “What Do You Know About Love?”

Even though the creative team has apparently tried to deepen the original story and correct the fact that the movie simply stops being a musical about halfway through, the results are so middling, there can’t be another reason for the show’s existence other than a money grab. There’s not a lot here for adults or musical theater enthusiasts, and for the target audience of kids, there will be moments of delight separated by too many turgid stretches.

There’s only one bit of appropriate advice here, and you probably know what that is. If you’re going to Frozen with an expectation of high-level Disney entertainment, do the opposite of hang on to it.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Disney’s Frozen continues through Dec. 30 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $50.50-$294.50 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit sfbroadway.com.

Irresistible Temptations abound in Ain’t Too Proud

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ABOVE: The cast of the National Touring Company of Ain’t Too Proud includes (from left) Harrell Holmes Jr., Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Jalen Harris, Marcus Paul James and James T. Lane BELOW: Ain’t Too Proud tells the story of the Temptations’ rise to pop music glory. PHOTO CREDIT: EMILIO MADRID


A little more than five years ago, a new musical about a legendary musical group had its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations hit a few more cities before it landed on Broadway, where it ran from February 2019 to January of this year (with a Covid shutdown amid the blur of what we were told was 2020). Now the show is on the road again and back in the Bay Area, this time at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season.

[Read my review of the Berkeley Rep production here.]

It’s interesting to revisit a new show and see how it has evolved on its journey to Broadway. Ain’t Too Proud is definitely a stronger show than it was five years ago, although it’s hard to imagine a better cast than that original one (not to take anything away from the touring cast, which is terrific). The book by Dominique Morisseau is tighter and more focused, and the (Tony Award-winning) choreography by Sergio Trujillo is about as fun as it could possibly be as the Temps swoop and slide and do the splits in perfect gentlemanly boy band fashion.

Trujillo and director Des McAnuff also served as choreographer and director on another theatrical boyband biography: Jersey Boys. It’s interesting to see the similarities in the stories of two enterprising musical groups from humble beginnings begin their climb up the pop charts to superstardom and the inevitable drama of ego clashes, addictions, family turmoil and tragedies. There’s nothing new in either story when it comes to the depiction of fame. The climb is more interesting than the descent, and it’s amazing that so much good pop music came out of so much personal and professional chaos.

Jersey Boys is the better constructed show, with its careful balance of character, plot and jukebox musical nostalgia. But Ain’t Too Proud has much better music, though the production itself is overly slick with its many-layered video projections and the increasingly impersonal rush through the Temps’ history from solid quintet to fractured, battle-scarred Motown money-making machine with a revolving door of members.

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Given that the Temptations’ song catalogue is so rich with treasure, it can be frustrating when a song keeps getting interrupted for plot, and that happens a lot here. The song “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” for instance, is stretched about as far as it can be across years of exposition involving death and family strife.

But when tunes like “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” or “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” have room to land, they really land. The onstage band headed by Jonathan “Smitti” Smith, recreates that famous Motown sound with thrilling accuracy,

The cast, headed by Marcus Paul James as band founder Otis Williams (on whose book the show is based and who serves as one of the show’s executive producers), and he’s a solid guide through these “life and times.” The showcase singing (and dramatic fireworks) belong, as they did in life, to David Ruffin, played by Elijah Ahmad Lewis, and Eddie Kendricks, played by Jalen Harris. Both performers have electrifying moments, and the show definitely loses its oomph when their troubles – with Williams, with life, with substances, with health – begin pulling them in and out of the band.

But even as the story loses steam, the music keeps the energy level high and the entertainment value strong. Ain’t Too Proud may not have much new to say about the cost of fame and success, but it celebrates a legacy of great music that will keep the Temptations in the pantheon of our greatest music makers.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations continues through Dec. 4 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes. Tickets are $56-$256. Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com.

Bill Irwin clowns around with Beckett

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Bill Irwin dives into the work of a favorite writer in On Beckett, part of the American Conservatory Theater at the Toni Rembe Theater. Photo by Craig Schwartz


About five years ago, the great Bill Irwin brought his solo show On Beckett to The Strand Theater as part of the American Conservatory Theater season. I described this journey into the work of Samuel Beckett as a lecture demonstration, but “you’d have to rank it among the best imaginable lecture demonstrations.” I still stand behind that review (read it here), but now that Irwin has brought the show back – to ACT’s big stage, the Toni Rembe Theater, this time – I feel like it’s even more enjoyable as a one-man play. It simply bursts with joy, and Irwin is really good at joy.

The show is ostensibly Irwin talking about why he loves Beckett and his draw-you-in, push-you-away energy that makes him so fascinating and so confounding. Irwin spends the better part of 90 minutes explaining why Beckett’s work is inexplicable. Being the superb actor he is, his discussion includes generous helpings of performance – from Texts for Nothing, The Unnamable, Watt, and, most delicious of all, Waiting for Godot (how you pronounce that depends on where you fall on what Irwin calls a “great culture divide”).

As enjoyable as it is to see Irwin inhabit Beckett, the evening’s greatest pleasure is Irwin himself. This is a show about loving art. Irwin loves Beckett and has devoted a good portion of his creative energy to going deeper and deeper into the work. Irwin also loves clowning because, in addition to being a fine actor, he is a clown to his bones, and this show gives him a glorious showcase to share his intellect (along with his high-wattage charm) and his black bowler, baggy trousers and red nose.

Irwin is well aware that Beckett is not to everybody’s taste, so, as creator, director and performer of this piece, he explicates the Beckett oeuvre just enough to make the show feel smarty pants before he puts on an even bigger pair of baggy pants (“industrial!”) and does another clown routine that makes you fully question that he was born in 1950, the same year Beckett published Texts for Nothing.

The section on Godot is especially good because Irwin has so much to say about the play and about the myriad choices actors and directors have to make when producing it. It would be an absolute shame if Irwin doesn’t direct a production one day.

This is a criminally short run for On Beckett, which is not only a thoroughly entertaining and edifying experience but also the only show in town that will point you toward the almost equally rewarding beckittns, a genius pairing of kitten photos and Beckett quotes.

https://beckittns.tumblr.com/
Courtesy of beckittns

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bill Irwin’s On Beckett continues through Oct 23 at American Conservatory Theater’s Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time: 90 minutes. Tickets are $25-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Alanis and her Jagged Little musical

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Above: Lauren Chanel (center) and the company of the North American Tour of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre. BELOW: Heidi Blickenstaff (left), Allison Sheppard (center) and Jena VanElslander. Photos by Matthew Murphy for Murphy Made


I was 28 when Alanis Morissette’s album Jagged Little Pill came out, and while I bought it and both liked and admired it, a deeper love never formed. I say that in preparation for saying that the musical inspired by the album, which is now having a tour stop at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, is not for me.

The show arrives with a pedigree that includes a revered director (Diane Paulus), an Academy Award-winning book writer (Diablo Cody) and, of course, the songs from that album that Morissette created with Glen Ballard (and to be fair, there are two new songs written just for the show alongside songs from several other Morissette albums). If you love the songs from the album and/or the Morissette oeuvre in general, you may enjoy the show more than I did.

Even with the theatrical-rock orchestrations by Tom Kitt for an 11-piece band, there’s a sameness to the sound of the songs, whether loud or quiet, and that is not very exciting, even though the show’s aim seems to be to energize Cody’s dissection of suburban darkness with a rock sensibility both in the music and in the aggressive choreography (by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui).

My problem with the show, in the absence of a score that grabs me emotionally, is that its “the suburbs are really poisonous pits of secrets and cruelty” vibe feels like a rehash of Next to Normal meets Dear Evan Hansen with an abiding wish to be American Idiot.

I like musicals that are about the real lives of real people, but this Pill, for its abundant
issues like opioid addiction, sexual assault, #MeToo, social media shaming, cisgender ignorance (of basically everything, including transgender or bisexual people), it all ends up being very politely wrapped up and presented with a nice little bow on top. The last number, set to “You Learn,” feels like a throwback to 1970s after-school specials.

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My dream of a “toxic suburbs” show would not have a single couch on stage, nor would there be any realistic representations of perfect houses. We know what the suburbs look and feel like down to our bones. While we blow up the idea of the suburbs, let’s also blow up the way we think we have to convey the suburbs.

Jagged Little Pill comes close to being truly original and electrifying twice, and both instances involve the secretly drug-addicted mom character, Mary Jane, played by the extraordinary Heidi Blickenstaff. The first takes us into her mental state as she gets her family ready for the day, chats with the local busybodies at the pharmacy and then covertly buys drugs in an alley. Throughout the song, “Smiling” (one of the new ones), she moves backward through her day in a steady stream of regret, pain and wishful thinking.

The other comes at Mary Jane’s breaking point, when past trauma and current addiction fold in on themselves in the from of a dance trio (set to “Uninvited”) with Allison Sheppard (as Bella) and the remarkable dancer Jena VanElslander, who is sort of Mary Jane’s dark mirror self. It’s a dazzling moment of character, narrative, song and choreography fusing into one.

More than any other person in the capable cast, Blickenstaff can veer between the biting humor and the soulful depths. Her voice pierces and soars in ways that transcend the songs – she is really something special. So, too, is Jade McLeod as Jo, an evolving teenager whose passion and intelligence burn bright. McLeod’s vocal performance comes closest to Morrissette herself, but without being a mimic makes the songs “Hand in My Pocket” and especially “You Oughta Know” ferociously powerful.

Jagged Little Pill needs more moments/performances like these to make the show feel less like carefully considered ideas about turning a beloved album into a show and more like the explosive American tragedy it seems, at heart, to want to be.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill continues through Nov. 6 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including one intermission). Tickets are $66.50-$157.50 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.org.

Brian Copeland zeroes in on single parenting in Grandma & Me

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ABOVE: The Marsh presents Brian Copeland’s Grandma & Me: An Ode to Single Parents, the new solo show by the award-winning playwright and performer. Photo by Marcus L. Jackson Photography BELOW: Copeland and his grandmother, Lena Mae Arbee. Photo by Sherry Kamhi


You’d think that after the gargantuan success of his previous solo show, Not a Genuine Black Man (the longest-running solo show in San Francisco history), and his very personal The Waiting Period, that Brian Copeland might not have more life story to mine.

That would be an incorrect assumption.

The ever-appealing Copeland has a new biographical solo show running at The Marsh San Francisco. Grandma & Me: An Ode to Single Parents runs parallel tracks in Copeland’s life, both about the pressures of single parenting. The first is from Copeland’s childhood. His mother died when he was 15, leaving him and his four younger sisters (the youngest was a year old) in the care of their grandmother, who had been like a co-parent with his mother after his father’s departure when Copeland was young.

The other track involves Copeland and his own three kids (elementary and middle school age) and how he became a single parent when he and his wife divorced in 2001. Suddenly, he found a whole new awareness of what it cost his grandmother – emotionally, physically, financially – to raise five children by herself.

The best parts of this nearly two-hour show are when Copeland, working again with director David Ford, really digs deep into the heavy, unrelenting and often thankless responsibility of single parenting. Copeland admits that as a 15-year-old, he was an asshole and treated his grandmother shabbily, just as his oldest child follows suit in his teen years, but younger and older Brian come to a deep appreciation of everything Lena Mae Arbee, who grew up in Jim Crow Alabama, did for him and his sisters.

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That’s what’s moving about this show, and something that Copeland does really well is express his gratitude for not only his grandmother and mother but also for the people in his own life who proved pivotal in his own (eventually) successful transition to single parenthood (many of them were in attendance at the show’s Saturday opening night performance).

There’s also a sitcom smoothness to this show that keeps it from being as emotionally rewarding as it might be. Copeland, who has also worked as a stand-up comic, leans heavily into dad joke territory, and his foot-stomping, tantrum-throwing teenage re-creations grow wearying (just as they do in real life). In a way, Copeland is giving us too much information. He’s so eager to tell the two big stories of his childhood and his adulthood that the light he’s shining is so bright it washes out the people and the relationships. His audience is more capable than he realizes of making connections and sitting with the heavier elements of his story.

There are moments when Grandma & Me verges on the sentimental or sappy, but Copeland and director Ford mostly skirt them, and in the end this is a show that overflows with love. Every parent should be so lucky to have a child who pays such beautiful tribute as Copeland does for his grandmother.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Brian Copeland’s Grandma & Me: An Ode to Single Parents continues an extended run through Nov. 19 at The Marsh San Francisco, 1062 Valencia St., San Francisco. Tickets are on a sliding scale $25-$35 or $50 and $100 reserved. Running time: about 2 hours (with a 10-minute intermission). Call 415-282-3044 or visit themarsh.org.

Climb aboard ACT’s dazzling Passengers

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ABOVE: Andrew Sumner and Beto Freitas in Passengers , from The 7 Fingers, at American Conservatory Theater’s newly christened Toni Rembe Theater, through Oct. 9. BELOW: Santiago Rivera (center) and the ensemble. Photo credit: Kevin Berne


Going along for the ride in Passengers, the season opener for American Conservatory Theater, is one of the most thrilling experiences of the year.

This shouldn’t be surprising given that the show, a glorious blend of dance, theater and circus, comes from the ever-inspiring troupe The 7 Fingers and is directed ,written and choreographed by one of that group’s founders, Shana Carroll.

For the few weeks while Passengers is running on the stage of ACT’s newly re-christened Toni Rembe Theater (named for an extraordinary patron of the Bay Area arts), we have the great honor of having two 7 Fingers shows in town. The other is the long-running Dear San Francisco at Club Fugazi. And what these two shows have in common is the marvelous, entertaining and often thrilling showcase of the human body in motion. There is poetry and drama and humor and sexiness in that movement, and a whole lot more. There are circus acts you may recognize, but there’s always a theatrical spin, a novel approach and/or a delicious charge to the choreography that gives it all a unique charm.

Passengers is all about train travel. In the opening moments, the troupe of nine begins breathing together as if in a meditation class. Then those breaths turn into the rhythmic sound of a train rolling down the tracks, and there’s no looking back.

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We are in stations, on bridges, in tunnels, inside the passenger cars exploring relationships among lovers, friends and strangers. The (mostly) pre-recorded musical score by Colin Gagné and the stunning visual designs by Johnny Ranger on Ana Cappelluto’s set conjure cinematic impressions of travel, with even the shadows of Éric Champoux’s lighting design adding to the beauty of the performances.

Once this whole enterprise gets moving, there is no let-up in the onslaught of gorgeous stage pictures. Just the movement and the detail in Carroll’s choreography is enough to keep your eyes finding fascinating places to land. But then there are the acts themselves, performed with such panache and gobsmacking skill. You’ve seen people juggle, walk the tightrope and swing on a trapeze before. But never quite like this.

Gravity is defied on ribbons and poles, and the finale, a sort of trapeze act that only involves human bodies and no actual trapeze, is filled with such power and grace that you may forget to breathe.

Rarely do you experience such high art that provides such thorough entertainment. There’s no pretension here – just the aim of creating something beautiful and amazing and even occasionally emotional. There’s spoken word, some live singing and some live ukulele playing. It doesn’t have the cold machine feel of some other modern circuses – this is warm and human and exciting.

At 100 minutes, Passengers flies by, even though the show never feels rushed. It’s a testament to Carroll and The 7 Fingers that this is one journey you just don’t want to end.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Passengers by Shana Carroll and The 7 Fingers continues through Oct. 9. Length: 100 minutes. Tickets range from $25-$110 (subject to change). Toni Rembe Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Mockingbird can still soar in stage revision

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ABOVE: Richard Thomas (left) is Atticus Finch and Yaegel T. Welch is Tom Robinson in Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of the Harper Lee novel To Kill a Mockingbird at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. BELOW: (from left) Justin Mark is Jem Finch, Thomas is Atticus Finch, Melanie Moore is Scout Finch and Steven Lee Johnson is Dill Harris. Photos by Julieta Cervantes


It would be impossible – some might even call it a sin – to kill To Kill a Mockingbird. Like it or not, Harper Lee’s 1960 novel has become our American story – a novel we revere and teach to children, a movie we idolize, a work of art that we feel pushing us to do the right thing. The book has been banned, debated, cast off as white-savior hokum and generally accepted as a way we address the deeply complicated history of race in America as mainstream entertainment.

And being part of the mainstream, theater has not been left out of the Mockingbird nest. For the last 50 years or so, there had been a serviceable stage adaptation of the novel that was faithfully performed around the world (thank you for your service, Christopher Sergel). That version was essentially erased when Aaron Sorkin, of “The West Wing”/A Few Good Men/The Social Network fame, decided to get into the Mockingbird game with an all-new stage adaptation, which opened on Broadway in 2018.

That’s the version of To Kill a Mockingbird that is now on tour and making its Bay Area premiere at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. If you are already a fan of Sorkin’s work as either a writer or director, you know you’ll love his attempt to pull Lee’s novel into a post-George Floyd world where it seems every bigoted, violent, closed-minded townsperson from the story makes up nearly half of our American electorate and its halls of power.

If you’re a Mockingbird loyalist, you may not be as thrilled with Sorkin’s changes, especially the way he pulls Atticus Finch down off his pedestal and makes him more of a flesh-and-blood human being. He also makes Atticus more of the play’s focal point than his young daughter, Scout, who is the narrator of the novel. But if you know Sorkin, you know how much sense that makes. Sorkin loves a trial (see A Few Good Men and The Trial of the Chicago 7) – it is theater and religion rolled into one – and rather than leave the pivotal trial in Mockingbird to the end, he starts there and then cannily shifts back and forth through time as he ratchets up tension leading to the jury’s verdict.

There’s so much that’s just plain smart about Sorkin’s approach. He has streamlined the plot (for instance, there’s no Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’ sister) and tried to give the Black characters, like the Finch maid Calpurnia, more weight in the story. In fact, it’s Calpurnia who has some of the show’s most trenchant lines and makes the greatest effort to show Atticus that his optimism, respect and faith that there’s good in everyone could be blinding him to reality and actually causing damage.

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In this version, Atticus does not remain unruffled. He feels like he knows about his fellow townsfolk to know that they’ll ultimately do the right thing, and if you just imagine being in the skin of those with whom you disagree, you’ll be less prone to hate and more inclined to understanding and neighborly love. But then the catastrophic trial in which he’s involved as a defender grows more and more intense, and he can’t quite feel solid ground under his idealism.

That would be an interesting exploration in the 1930s, when the story takes place, in the 1960s, when Lee shared her story and now, when animosity and lies, especially around issues of race, divide the country as powerfully as they ever have.

Sorkin’s restructuring of the story works well for Atticus, and when he gives the character (played on tour by the superb Richard Thomas) doubt and anger and optimism, the mix is emotional and quite visceral. The element of the story that works less well on stage involves the children – Atticus’ kids, Scout (Melanie Moore) and Jem (Justin Mark), and their summer friend Dill (Steven Lee Johnson). Usually I have an aversion to adults playing children, but here, the performers are good enough to keep the cloying cuteness at bay. But their part of the story, especially as the show winds down with an act of violence and an act of courage, doesn’t have the same weight because the best parts of the show don’t really involve them. Still, it’s essential that Lee’s story involve the opening of a child’s eyes to the reality of the world – especially these children, who are living in segregated Alabama. And it’s vital that the kids infuse her story with the hope that children are going to be better and do better than their parents.

That all still comes across in director Bartlett Sher’s fluid, beautifully textured production, but it’s just not as powerful. The racial inequality, the stupid power of mob rule and the failure of the judicial system are vivid and gut wrenching here. But it seems that in the more realistic world of this Mockingbird, optimism and hope will suffer the law of diminishing returns.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird continues through Oct. 9 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco as part of the BroadwaySF season. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $56-$256. Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com.

ripple makes waves at Berkeley Rep

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ABOVE: The cast of Berkeley Rep’s world-premiere play the ripple, the wave that carried me home includes (left to right) Christiana Clark as Janice, Brianna Buckley as Gayle, Ronald L. Conner as Edwin and Aneisa J. Hicks as Helen. The play is produced in association with Goodman Theatre. BELOW: Clark’s Janice takes us back to her childhood in Kansas and life with her activist parents. Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre


In her moving new drama the ripple, the wave that carried me home, playwright Christina Anderson gives us what we want – or, more accurately, what we need – in a family play. She takes us into a very specific time and place, creates distinct personalities, raises a variety of colossal issues and then makes us feel like we’re inside that family in ways that relate to our own family situation.

When that dramatic click happens – when a play begins operating specifically and universally – you know you’re in good theatrical hands.

A world-premiere collaboration between Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, the ripple unfolds on the stage of Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre in what looks like an abandoned public swimming pool. There’s no water in the tank, and chairs are tipped on their side. But there’s still a light on in the awards window.

Much of the story we’re about to hear has to do with swimming and how something so healthy, recreational and fun could turn into a sadly typical American tale of racism, oppression, violence and horror.

By any measure, Janice (Christiana Clark) is a successful adult. It’s 1992, and she’s a department director at a small Ohio university and has a supportive husband and two kids. As the narrator of this story, her story, Janice easily admits that she has compartmentalized her life. Her past and her family all belong in Beacon, Kansas, where she grew up. But a string of insistent messages on her answering machine (oh, the vestiges of 1992) from Young Chipper Ambitious Black Woman calling from Beacon threaten to pull her from one compartment of her life into another, and she resists.

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This is when Janice’s story expands. We meet her parents, Edwin (Ronald L. Conner) and Helen (Aneisa J. Hicks) as young people in the late 1950s. She gives free swimming lessons at Brookside, one of three public swimming pools in Beacon but the only one that allows Black people. He gets bussed in from another neighborhood to enjoy the pool, and their lives entwine.

As tragedy rocks the town, Edwin and Helen become activists and begin a years-long battle against the deeply embedded racism of their hometown. Their daughter is born into this fight, and as a teenager, she finds herself embarrassed by her crusading parents (especially her dad) and embarrassed by her very blackness. By the early 1970s we can feel her compartmentalizing begin as she longs to escape to someplace easier and more peaceful.

But things happen both within the family and without that have a profound impact on how Janice will choose to live her life and deal with her parents. When those calls start coming from her hometown, she realizes she can’t just keep being the polite daughter from a distance. Her straight-talking Aunt Gayle (Brianna Buckley, who also plays Young Chipper Ambitious Black Woman) is, in many ways, the ripple that creates the wave that brings Janice home, both physically and metaphorically.

Headed by the warm and eminently relatable Clark as Janice, this strong cast finds humor and drama in equal measure. The family connections feel strong and complex even while the outside world delivers nonstop horror. We see how women labor and suffer in the shadow of men who claim to be focused on issues of equality. We see repeatedly how virulent racism manifests in the lives of this Black family in the Midwest. “Are you new to America?” several characters ask? “Let me show you around.”

Director Jackson Gay unfolds the story at a natural pace, as the swimming pool set by Todd Rosenthal becomes family homes in Kansas and Ohio, a car being pursued by a police car and a fugue state somewhere between nostalgia and trauma.

A generous and empathetic writer, Anderson imbues her characters with depth and complication. Perhaps most importantly she allows for triumph amid the tragedy and for growth and understanding amid hostilities and resentments. Within this ripple turned to wave, she even leaves us swimming in the possibility of joy.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christina Anderson’s the ripple, the wave that carried me home continues through Oct. 16 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $24-$100. Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Yes it can-can can! Moulin Rouge! The Musical spins into SF

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ABOVE: The cast of the North American Tour of Moulin Rouge! The Musical, now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. BELOW: Courtney Reed as Satine and Conor Ryan as Christian the doomed lovers. Photos by Matthew Murphy for Murphymade


Way back in the early 2000s, I liked the soundtrack of Moulin Rouge much more than I liked Baz Luhrmann’s movie, which left me kind of cold and disappointed that all those mishmashed pop songs I loved on the soundtrack were put to use in a mostly uninteresting La Bohème ripoff movie that primarily coasted on the considerable appeal of Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman.

That’s why I was fully prepared not to enjoy the 10-time Tony Award-winning stage adaptation, now known as Moulin Rouge! The Musical. I never saw it on Broadway (where it is still running), but I did catch the tour, which has landed at the Orpheum Theatre for the next two months as part of the BroadwaySF season.

How wrong I was. I loved Moulin Rouge! The Musical, mostly because the music I so revered in the movie has become the heart of the stage show. The idea behind this adaptation, directed by Alex Timbers, written by John Logan and (this is so important) musically supervised by Justin Levine is simple: more, more more. One stage picture is more lavish the next; there’s more melodrama and fire in the performances from the leads to the ensemble; and there are many, many more songs – 75 songs to be exact, crammed into this 2 1/2-hour show, mostly in medley form. And they run the gamut from The Rolling Stones to Dolly Parton and Edith Piaf to David Bowie.

This show revels in the joy, the corniness and the deep attachments that are embedded in pop music. To sit with an audience that audibly reacts to a song’s opening lyrics as if to say, as one, “Oh, I love this song!” Or that murmured chuckle of recognition when an unlikely character starts sliding into a Rhianna song or some newfound friends find themselves Rick-rolled in a charming medley that starts with Rodgers and Hammerstein, morphs briefly into the theme from “Dawson’s Creek” (aka “I Don’t Want to Wait by Paula Cole) and then makes way for The Police.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical loves, reveres and occasionally derides pop music. The melodrama of the plot (still a consumptive slice of La Bohème) is merely a canvas on which to create a sound collage that exalts, among many others, Adele, Lady Gaga, Labelle and, most reverently, Elton John.

As Noël Coward put it in Private Lives, “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,” and here’s a whole, splashy, gaudy, gorgeous show to prove him right.

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Director Timbers, with repeated jolts of energy from choreographer Sonya Tayeh and her dancers, is like his onstage bohemians. He revels in the pure poppy pleasures of music, which makes this feel less like a traditional musical and more like a party where you’re trying to piece together a story with songs you love and loathe (and songs you love to loathe, a fascinating and abundant category). The ultimate aim is to have fun and get carried away – willingly manipulated, some might say – by the nostalgic associations that carbonate so much of the music in our lives.

This is all accomplished by a marvelous cast headed by Austin Durant as Harold Zidler, the owner of and onstage host at the infamous Moulin Rouge awash in the red lights of Paris’ Montmartre district. His star, or as he keeps putting it, his sparkling diamond, is Satine, played by Courtney Reed, whose singing is superior to her acting (the preferred order of things here), and his goal is to keep his struggling club afloat. To do that, he needs Satine to charm Duke Money Bags (actually the Duke of Monroth, played by the delectably sharp David Harris). But wouldn’t you know that poor old Satine, just about to succumb to consumption (even though she can still hit those amazing power notes in her songs), falls in love. The unlikely object of her affection is the penniless American composer Christian, just arrived in Paris, who immediately falls under the spell of newfound friends Toulouse-Lautrec (André Ward) and the robust Argentine Santiago (Gabe Martìnez.

This is really Christian’s story, and Conor Ryan’s performance makes for a dazzling centerpiece. His voice makes you understand why the worldly Satine would fall for such a naïf, and his hair flips make you see how she might go weak in the knees for someone who can’t help her financially. Sinewy and sexy, this Christian has so much charm you actually feel for him when he gets his heart broken and goes on a green-hued absinthe bender.

This frenzied show doesn’t have the cheap, scaled-down feel of many touring productions. Rather, the dazzling atomic-powered Valentine sets by Derek McLane and giddy costumes by Catherine Zuber feel like rich and lush elements in a fantasy world where people express themselves almost exclusively in pop songs and athletic dance.

When all the elements come together, as in the deliriously dreamy close of Act 1 with an elephant-sized love song medley, the result is pure musical theater heaven. Or when, after the inevitably sad ending, the cast heads into a mega-mix curtain call that involves audience sing-along, confetti and even a little Offenbach.

The key to a jukebox musical’s success is tapping into what people love about the chosen music in the first place and giving it a new spin. With its fun-loving attitude, party vibe and all-around gorgeousness, Moulin Rouge! The Musical is the most sumptuous Broadway jukebox yet.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Moulin Rouge! The Musical continues through Nov. 6 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $61-$256. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.broadwaysf.com.