Kristina Wong sews up the pandemic for us in Sweatshop Overlord

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(Above and Below) Kristina Wong’s award–winning solo show, Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord, at ACT’s Strand Theater through May 5, tells the story of the pandemic through her experience of building a community to make masks. Photos by Kevin Berne

If you have to re-live the horrors of the pandemic, there’s no better companion to do it with than Kristina Wong, the author and star of the dynamic, dazzling and deeply moving solo show Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord, now at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater.

On a stage filled with giant pin cushion tomatoes, parcels made out of cloth and other warped fairy tale representations of Wong’s Los Angeles Korea Town apartment, we are taken back to March 2020, when the world changed. Wong begins the show before she begins the show with a little prologue to ease us into the right frame of mind. She jokingly offers a trigger warning because she’s going to talk about the pandemic, death, racism, “the last president” and other horrific things. Of course she gets a laugh, but she knows what she’s doing (she has, after all, been performing this show since 2021). This show really is a trigger, and it all comes flooding back.

It’s a fascinating aspect of good storytelling that by focusing in on very specific details of a very specific story, you also open the window onto a much larger narrative. In this case, the specifics involve Wong, a busy performance artist, whose calendar and livelihood have suddenly evaporated with California’s shelter-in-place orders. Fairly quickly, she takes the Hello, Kitty sewing machine on which she used to make props and costumes for her shows and begins sewing masks for the likes of firefighters and healthcare workers whose employers can’t provide enough PPE (just hearing the acronym for “personal protective equipment” again made me shrink into my chair).

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Through word of mouth and social media, Wong soon has more orders than she can fulfill, so she harnesses the power of Facebook to create a network of sewers, which she calls Auntie Sewing Squad (A.S.S.), and she is lovingly dubbed the “sweatshop overlord.” The sewers are mostly women, many of Asian descent and all wanting to contribute and feel useful in what often felt like a hopeless and overwhelming time.

In a time of rampant government failure on so many fronts, these Aunties created a community that not only provided essential products for people who needed them most, but also found ways to care for and sustain each other through illness, death, fear and relentless stress.

Wong is such an vigorous, personable storyteller that her humor keeps the 100-minute show bouncing along while the emotional weight of it builds steadily under all the bright colors and abundant laughs. Credit also has to go to director Chay Yew for helping create a show that is as moving as it is funny.

Wong takes us through all of it, including the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement; the horrifying rise of violence directed at Asian communities; the eruption of anti-maskers and the obliteration of any hope that this international crisis would bring humanity together; and then the election and the January 6 riots. All the while, we re-experience this through the lens of Wong and her Aunties staying strong, productive and loving (at least of one another).

It’s a lot to be sure, but while we shudder once again through the worst of humanity, Wong keeps a light on the best of us – when we’re together and actively (and respectfully and generously) engaged in community, in action and in hope.

We’re going to be parsing the last four years in lots of ways for many years to come because it still doesn’t all make sense, and it’s too big to fully comprehend. That’s why Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord is more than just a wonderful solo show by a gifted writer/performer. It’s also a vital chapter of an epic story we’re still writing.

Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord continues through May 5 at ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Run time: 100 minutes. Tickets are $25-$130 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Big, scary ideas amid laughs in ACT’s Big Data

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ABOVE: Jomar Tagatac (left) is Max and BD Wong is M in the world premiere of Kate Attwell’s Big Data, now at American Conservatory Theater’s Toni Rembe Theater through March 10. BELOW: (from left) Gabriel Brown is Sam, Rosie Hallett is Lucy and Michael Phillis is Timmy. Photos by Kevin Berne

For the first act of Kate Attwell’s world premiere Big Data at American Conservatory Theater’s Toni Rembe Theater, we are in a slick, stylized vision of modern life, and though it’s pretty, it isn’t pretty (if you know what I mean).

The back wall of the stage (scenic design by Tanya Orellana and projections by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson) looks like a smart phone on its side. Sometimes the giant screen is filled with live video of what’s happening on (or under) the stage. Other times, it’s a hallucinatory montage of birds and code and the chaos of lfie in motion.

In this sleek, antiseptic world, we meet two couples, both of whom are visited by a curious character who becomes more and more familiar, even if we never really know who he is. Max (Jomar Tagatac) and Lucy (Rosie Hallett) are in different places in their lives but are both facing down dissatisfaction and frustration. An erstwhile journalist, he stays home and berates himself for being a loser, while she, a successful ophthalmologist, wants more than confines of her current clinic situation.

Enter M, an enigmatic character played with great charm and a hint of enigmatic menace by BD Wong. Max meets him first and, after some hesitation that approaches alarm, becomes quite enamored of this oddball in a plaid suit (costumes by Lydia Tanji) who seems to know so much about Max, offering comfort, insight, distraction and the hope of something better in his life.

Later, after an odd interview between M and Lucy about a possible new job, it becomes clearer what M represents when he asks familiar security questions like “name of first pet” and “name of street you grew up on.”

For all his cleverness and charisma, M is the embodiment of why the Internet has taken over the world. He’s the companion, the disguise, the algorithm that eavesdrops on our conversations (written and spoken) and makes just the right ad pop up in our feeds. He’s ubiquitous surveillance and reassurance, connector and consumer of time, numbing brain killer and thrilling dopamine pusher.

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M also finds his way into the life of Lucy’s brother, Sam (Gabriel Brown), and Sam’s husband, Timmy (Michael Phillis). At first, he’s an app that connects the couple to an interested third, and that whole interaction opens up a whole passel of relationship/communication issues that are being mostly ignored because their lives are so filled with work and busy-ness.

There’s no question as to M’s motives of capitalistic exploitation of technology for world domination (after all, life is meaningless if you can’t scale up or take advantage of every juicy cyber morsel of user data). He begins the play with a prologue about pigeons and behavioral modification based on torture and reward to get them to do exactly what you want. Even before we know fully what the play will be, we know we are the addled pigeons.

Playwright Atwell and director Pam MacKinnon take the play in an entirely different direction in Act 2 when the action shifts to the remote country home of Sam and Lucy’s parents. Gone are the screens and clean surfaces of Act 1, replaced with a comfortable Craftsman-style home filled with many years of love and life. Didi (Julia McNeal) and Joe (Harold Surratt) are going through something significant, and they gather their children (and their partners) to share what’s going on. They, too, are responding to the omnipresence of technology abuse in every corpuscle of modern life, but their way of taking a stand and saying as forceful a NO as they can comes as quite a shock to their family.

At 2 ½ hours long, Big Data is never less than compelling (which is saying something for our dwindling, screen-size attention spans), even when it feels hectoring. We’re all complicit in all the issues addressed in the play, and we all likely know that our technology habits are not good for us, not good for relationships, not good for civilization. Attwell is too smart to be preachy – she opts for humor and heart and gets a huge assist from this wonderful cast.

It’s hard to imagine anyone more appealingly effective as the downfall of mankind than Wong is as M. Maybe he’s a savior, maybe he’s just committed to doing a good job, but he’s sweet and sly and full of irresistible magnetism.

The rest of the cast are more recognizable in their human foibles, and though they are familiar, Attwell is careful to give them quirks and complications and endearing traits that make us care about their lives. When things get really complicated, we’re right there with them trying to make sense of what could be utter craziness or absolute sanity.

If the ending isn’t quite the coalescence you might hope for, there’s no shortage of thought-provoking issues, ideas and performances here. Big Data uploads enough to keep our heads spinning for days.

Kate Attwell’s Big Data continues through March 10 at ACT’s Toni Rembe Theater, 145 Geary St., San Francisco. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$130 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Moonwalking over biography in MJ

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ABOVE: Roman Banks as ‘MJ’ and the cast of the MJ First National Tour, part of the BroadwaySF season at the Orpheum Theatre through Feb. 25. BELOW: Jaylen Lyndon Hunter (center left) is Little Marlon and Ethan Joseph (center right) is Little Michael. Photos by Matthew Murphy

The first two numbers of Act 2 are my dream Michael Jackson musical. The rest of MJ, now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, is a classy, well-pedigreed but still boilerplate biographical jukebox musical.

When Act 2 begins, the thrilling Roman Banks – tasked with being as remarkable a singer and dancer as Michael Jackson and rising admirably to the challenge – is alone on stage with a suitcase. He pulls out a sparkly jacket, then a single, sparkly glove. Then a fedora. That instantly recognizable bass kicks in, and he re-creates Jackson’s nuclear blast of “Billie Jean” on 1983’s Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever TV special. Now that was a moonwalk to remember.

Before we can even catch our breath from that, the show takes us into Michael’s creative process as he imagines dancing with some of his most inspirational heroes: Fred Astaire, Bob Fosse and the Nicholas Brothers. As the music morphs into “Smooth Criminal,” it’s another thrilling moment in a show that has a few others but not enough because it gets bogged down by biography and by the uneasy weight of Jackson’s legacy.

With a book by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage, MJ at least tries to have it all ways: please the Jackson estate, deliver Jackson’s hits complete with dazzling choreography (by director Christopher Wheeldon) and attempt some honesty around Jackson’s issues like painkiller addiction, abuse at the hands of his bully of a father and vague references to his legal troubles involving the sexual abuse of minors.

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But the creators don’t wanna be startin’ that something, so their focus is Jackson as a brilliant, troubled artist putting the finishing touches on his 1992-93 Dangerous world tour, which would ultimately be seen by more than 3 1/2 million people. Nottage uses the gimmick of having an MTV reporter and cameraman in the rehearsal room as a way to tease biographical details from Jackson and launch flashbacks into the Jackson 5 era and then into the Off the Wall and Thriller periods. At Wednesday’s opening-night performance, Young Michael was played by the charismatic Bane Griffith. And the middle-period Michael was played by Jacob Kai, also impressive.

If the show were only songs and dances depicting different periods of Jackson’s life, that would be more than sufficient to convey his artistry without having to delve into the man’s troubled life. Wheeldon’s Tony-winning choreography is always exciting and executed beautifully by the nimble ensemble. The Michaels, especially Banks as the primary Michael, evoke Jackson in ways that truly are thrilling. Ironically, the “Thriller” number tries to layer on too much psychological turmoil and ends up draining much of the original’s fun.

The production values for this touring production are notably sharp and appealing. Though Derek McLane’s set is basically a Los Angeles rehearsal hall, Natasha Katz’s lighting and especially Peter Nigrini’s projections lend dimension and dazzle that add to the energy rather than detract from it (as projections so often do). The physical set and lights feel directly related to the projections in ways that give the stage depth and provide innumerable ways to let the stage itself be a visual feast for the dancing.

And really, it’s the dancing that separates MJ from the jukebox musical pack. The most unabashed fun is, not surprisingly, the curtain call, which is devoid of biography and full of all the reasons people still thrill to Jackson’s talent in spite of everything that can make such affection feel like a conflict.

MJ continues through Feb. 25 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco, as part of the BroadwaySF season. Running time is 2 1/2 hours (including intermission). Tickets start at $65. Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Cult of Love casts a spell at Berkeley Rep

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ABOVE: The cast of Leslye Headland’s Cult of Love includes (from left) Lucas Near-Verbrugghe as Mark Dahl, Dan Hiatt as William “Bill” Dahl, Vero Maynez as Loren Montgomery, and Luisa Sermol as Virginia “Ginny” Dahl. The show continues through March 3 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. BELOW: Sermol as Ginny and Near-Verbrugghe as Mark. Photos by Kevin Berne

Can we just agree that the phrase “dysfunctional family” is redundant? Dysfunction is part of every family in one way or another, so when we say “family,” we mean a complicated set of relationships knit together with love, resentment, injury, abiding affection and mystery (among a whole smörgåsbord of other items).

Playwright Leslye Headland, probably best known for her film (Bachelorette, Sleeping with Other People) and TV (Russian Doll, the upcoming Star Wars: The Acolyte), goes right for the family jugular in Cult of Love, now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre. This is like the frozen orange juice concentrate of family plays, and let’s just say there’s very little added water in this metaphorical pitcher.

This is the last part in Headland’s Seven Deadly Plays series, and it’s a fun sin for families: pride. At 100 intermissionless minutes, Cult of Love is equal parts dark comedy, withering drama and musical feast. With a boisterous play like this – 10 characters in a smallish Connecticut house for Christmas Eve – you know that for every big laugh (and there are many) there’s going to be something equally as painful later on (check).

Working with director Trip Cullman, Headland really piles on the issues for the Dahl family. Dad (Dan Hiatt) may be slipping into dementia, or maybe his constant stream of “I love you” and “I’m proud of you” is his way of trying to broker peace among the sibling combatants. Mom (Luisa Sermol) is heavy into denial about pretty much everything, but one family tradition she can get behind is the giant punchbowl full of Manhattans she brings out before the much delayed lamb dinner (and in the Dahl family, because tradition is everything, we pronounce the “b” in lamb because it’s…fun?).

The four grown Dahl children trudge through the snow for the one holiday when they’re all together. Of course they come bearing baggage of infinite variety. Mark (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) left the seminary to become a government lawyer and is now at a crossroads. He no longer considers himself a Christian. His wife, Rachel (Molly Bernard), converted to Christianity to marry him and gain the acceptance of the family. She’s bitter about a lot of things, including that, but her love for her husband, troubled as he may be, is never in doubt.

Diana (Kerstin Anderson) is expecting her second child with husband James (Christopher Lowell), a minister, and while their firstborn sleeps upstairs, they express God’s disapproval of sister Evie (Virginia Kull) and her wife, Pippa (Cass Buggé). They aren’t really gay, Diana, suggests, they’re just missing God from their hearts.

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It’s after 9pm, and everybody’s hungry, but mom won’t serve dinner until Johnny (Christopher Sears) arrives. He’s 10 years sober, but he still makes everyone nervous (except his mother, who doesn’t really accept that he was ever a heroin addict). When he does finally arrive, he’s accompanied by Loren (Vero Maynez), who is also in recovery and – too bad for the Dahls – is something of a shame-free truth teller.

Though the Dahls were a devoutly Christian family, the children have all traveled their own roads in and out of the church. Faith, prophecy and mental illness all get drawn into the religious discussions (and fights), where judgements, insults and intolerance (of all kinds) create a sort of hell storm set amid a cozy house over-decorated for Christmas (the set is by Arnulfo Maldonado and the lights are by Heather Gilbert).

Through it all, though, no matter how many times someone storms upstairs or stomps out of the house and says they’re not coming back, they still come back. The lure of the holiday, the promise of family as an ideal way to give and receive love, the need to reconcile past and present all create a sort of magnetic vortex that makes it almost impossible to escape, no matter how harsh and ugly things get.

And then there’s the music. Though not exactly the Von Trapps, there’s enough music here to need a music director and arranger (Jacinth Greywoode doing stellar work). The Dahls play piano, guitar, fiddle, melodica and any number of percussion instruments, and they love to sing holiday tunes, folk songs and even some more contemporary fare. The music on the piano is a volume called “The Family Songbook,” and as a family, they take music seriously – even the cranky or out-of-sorts family member can be coaxed to sing a line or two. It’s a meaningful source of connection, even amid the fracturing of relationships and the flames of explosions new and old. The music is a safe space.

Director Cullman and his cast achieve a believable level of hilarity and hatred, holiday and harassment as family members talk over, through and beyond one another. Each of us will likely identify strongly with one or another of these characters, and for me it was Rachel, Mark’s wife. She married into the Dahls but is still an outsider. She self-medicates and makes sure her wine glass is rarely empty. She’s not afraid to push back when things get spiky, and, in Bernard’s astute performance, she can be counted on for a good one-liner that’s usually something more than just a laugh.

The entire cast weaves a fascinating family web, but the play does get overwhelmed with so many issues: religion, mental illness, sexuality, addiction/recovery, childhood trauma, science denial and more religion. Pippa, the newest spouse in the family, feels the need to defend her wife but wonders, “How do you protect someone from their own family?” And later, Johnny admits that it took him years to “de-program” from his upbringing, not unlike a cult referenced in the title.

Headland eventually quiets things down enough to allow some sad, thoughtful and deep conversations to happen. Even after all the turmoil, she allows space for beauty and – if you’re feeling hopeful – love to settle in, however fleeting. It’s such a relief, though there’s no escaping the fact that even for the happiest of families (which this is most certainly not), there’s no such thing as a happy ending.

Leslye Headland’s Cult of Love continues through March 3 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Running time: 100 minutes (no intermission). Tickets are $22.50-$134 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Still crazy for Cirque’s Koozå

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ABOVE: The astonishing “Wheel of Death” act in Cirque du Soleil’s Koozå features Jimmy Ibarra Zapata and Angelo Lyezkysky Rodriguez. BELOW: Victor Levoshuk balances on a stack of chairs 23 feet high. Photos by Matt Beard & Bernard Letendre; costumes by Marie Chantale Vaillancourt. Cirque du Soleil 2022

Let’s be honest about Cirque du Soleil: sometimes the world’s most popular circus is captivating, enchanting and everything you want a modern (non-animal) circus to be. Other times, the experience can be flat, uninvolving and/or pretentious. Happily, one of their best shows in recent memory, Koozå (written and directed by David Shiner, who has roots in the Bay Area circus scene), is still running and is back under the big top at Oracle Park in San Francisco.

I first reviewed Koozå in November 2007, about six months after its premiere, and everything I loved about the show then is still very much part of the experience. (Read my review here) The Act 2 showstopper, “The Wheel of Death,” is still among the most thrilling acrobatic performances I’ve ever seen. Jimmy Ibarra Zapata and Angelo Lyezkysky Rodriguez ride a giant, suspended contraption that spins like a propeller and has a stationary ring at either end that the acrobats flip inside of and on top of in the most alarming ways.

Another highlight comes in Act 2 with Victor Levoshuk’s balancing act on an ever-growing stack of chairs. He reaches a height of 23 feet, and though he’s tethered for safety, his display of strength and grace is remarkable.


Director/writer Shiner’s greatest accomplishment with Koozå is how light and charming it feels. The clowns are (mostly) not obnoxious, and at Wednesday’s opening night show, the audience interaction with a game guy named Tim was stellar and quite funny. The live music (by Jean-François Côté) has an epic, cinematic sweep (and a kick-ass horn section) but also isn’t afraid to get funky. It’s especially satisfying that drummer Eden Bahar gets a moment in the spotlight after his stunning work during the “Wheel of Death” routine.

The costumes by Marie Chantale Vaillancourt have the usual bedazzled leotard look, but she gets to have a lot of fun with the “Skeleton Dance” dance number that feels like a mash-up of the Day of the Dead and an old Vegas showgirl revue.

Other enjoyable acts in Koozå include a trio of contortionists (Sunderiya Jargalsaikhan, Ninjin Altankhuyag, Sender Enkhtur) who seem to defy ordinary rules of human biology (like having internal organs or bones); a highwire act that really gets exciting when they pull out the little bicycles; and a hipster hoopster (Aruna Bataa) who could make a case for glittery hula-hoops as couture.

One note about San Francisco’s busy Mission Bay. If you think it’s going to be easy to park down there, think again. Give yourself plenty of time and make a plan (like take Muni or ride share). It seems like new buildings pop up in what used to be parking lots every day. And double check to see if there’s a Warriors game at the Chase Center (like there was on Wednesday night). On such nights, traffic and parking can be their own San Francisco version of the “Wheel of Death.”

Cirque du Soleil’s Koozå continues through March 17 under the big top at Oracle Park in San Francisco. Tickets start at $39. Running time is just over two hours (including a 25-minute intermission). Visit The show moves to San Jose April 18-May 26.

Mamma Mia! returns: How can we resist you?

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ABOVE: Christine Sherrill (center, top) is Donna Sheridan with the company of Mamma Mia! 25th Anniversary Tour at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season through Dec. 10. BELOW: Grant Reynolds (front) is Sky, the groom, with members of the company. Photos by Joan Marcus

When Mamma Mia!, the jukebox musical recycling the hits of ABBA, had its U.S. premiere in November of 2000, I was there in the audience at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, singing along and admiring the way director Phyllida Lloyd and book writer Catherine Johnson shoehorned beloved pop hits into a manufactured plot. There’s a wedding on a little Greek island and the bride, raised by a single mom, is determined to figure out which of her mother’s three old flames is her father. So the mom’s money woes erupts into “Money, Money, Money” and a wedding kerfuffle ends in “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.” A bachelorette bash continues the repetitive song title theme with “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” and an older woman rebuffs a young man’s advances with “Does Your Mother Know.”

It was all good fun, and nearly 25 years later, it still is. The 25th anniversary touring production is rolling through San Francisco, this time at the Golden Gate Theatre, as part of the BroadwaySF season. This is probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve seen the show, and I will say the returns are definitely diminishing. The most bothersome aspect of this production is its sound design and music direction. If the show can’t be good, it can certainly be LOUD, or at least that seems to be the theory in play here. And the six-piece band honestly comes across as a pretty talented high school ABBA tribute band. All those meticulous production details that made ABBA songs some of the most immaculately constructed pop songs of all time are blurred and buried in washes of electric keyboard programming that barely feels live.

Disney’s The Lion King (also in town for the holiday season) actually has a lot in common with Mamma Mia!. Both have been around for a quarter of a century and both are still going strong around the globe. Both have earned billions at the box office (King’s $8 billion to Mamma’s $4 billion). And each has its distinctive appeal. Disney offers puppets, masks and gorgeous spectacle. And Mamma Mia! has those glorious, spirit-lifting pop songs. But in this tour, some of the voices, the orchestra and the volume are not doing those songs any favors.

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That said, the Mamma Mia! machine still motors on, with some aspects as enjoyable as ever. Act 1 still has most of the fun. Three women re-living their days of being glam-rock singers yields irresistible “Chiquitita” and “Dancing Queen” and a bachelor party in scuba gear is still a blast in “Lay All Your Love on Me.”

Of the voices on stage, my favorite belongs to Carly Sakolove, an old pal of the bride’s mom. She gets a lively solo in “Take a Chance on Me,” but she could sing the whole score, and I’d be happy. Her way with the comedy (such as it is) also has a nice punch. That’s also true of Jalynn Steele as another old friend – this one rich, oft-divorced and full of wisecracks.

Act 2 gets bogged down with ballads and plot, but that leaves the best for last. The curtain call, when all pretense of story are banished, becomes a ’70s flashback concert with shiny costumes, some reprises of songs from the show (“Dancing Queen,” “Mamma Mia”) and one that isn’t (“Waterloo”). Pure, unadulterated (and perhaps I mentioned about this production) loud ABBA music that we are invited to sing and dance to. After all, isn’t that what Sondheim and Rodgers and Hammerstein were aiming for when they kept reinventing musical theater?

Back in 2000, when I reviewed Mamma Mia! for the first time, I wrote: “The end result is an earnestly pleasing show that tries hard to be a real musical with a real plot but never extends much beyond a new way to hear old favorites.”

I stand by that, and I don’t think I need to see the show again – or at least not until it gets some dark, wonderful reimagining. Could be a long wait.

Mamma Mia! The 25th Anniversary Tour continues through Dec. 10 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $. Running time: . Call 888-746-1799 or visit
The show moves to the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts Dec. 12-17 as part of the Broadway San Jose season. Click for info.

Hot Coco spices up Golden Girls in 18th year

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ABOVE: The cast of The Golden Girls Live: The Christmas Episodes at the Victoria Theatre includes (from left) Coco Peru as Dorothy, Holotta Tymes as Sophia, D’Arcy Drollinger as Rose and Matthew Martin as Blanche. BELOW: Martin, Peru, Tymes and Drollinger catch up on their People reading. Photos by Gareth Gooch

This time of year you have your Christmas Carols and your Nutcrackers. Here in San Francisco we have those, but we also have our own traditions. Now in its 18th year, The Golden Girls Live: The Christmas Episodes is one of our homegrown best.

This year’s installment at the Victoria Theatre comes with a tinge of sadness. This is the first production without the late, great Heklina, one of the driving forces behind the show and also one its stars. She played Dorothy Zbornak, the role created in the original TV sereis by Bea Arthur. So who to fill those large (in every sense) shoes?

That’s where the good news comes in. Drag legend and comedy dynamo Miss Coco Peru is now playing Dorothy, and she is superb. It probably helps that Coco was friends with Heklina and Bea Arthur, but she brings her own deft comic timing and inimitable stage presence to the part and absolutely shines. Dry and droll and funny as hell, Coco is the golden gift we all need this holiday season.

Another highly enjoyable aspect of this holiday outing – two episodes from the long-running series, this year they are “From Here to the Pharmacy” from 1991 and “Goodbye Mr. Gordon” from 1992 – is the wildly different styles of the performers. D’Arcy Drollinger (San Francisco’s first drag laureate, thank you very much) directs and co-stars as Rose Nyland (the Betty White) part, and the acting style could best be described as shameless mugging – and it’s hilarious.

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Holotta Tymes is Sophia Petrillo, Dorothy’s mother, and Tymes is so spot-on in the re-creation of Estelle Getty’s indelible characterization that it’s almost like we’re seeing the real thing. And then there’s Matthew Martin, long one of San Francisco’s treasures, as Blanche Devereaux. He takes a little of original star Rue McClanahan and amps up the character with sexpot elements borrowed from every great movie star diva from the 1940s.

The star performers – the Girls, if you will – are experts at squeezing laughs from the sitcom script, but they also seem to be having a ball, laughing at each other and encouraging boisterous audience response. It also helps that the scripts themselves can be laugh-out-loud funny. Some of Dorothy’s lines, especially as delivered by the delectable Coco, are devastatingly funny. My favorite from the first act is, “I’ll say hail Marys until Madonna has a hit movie.” That’s followed closely by Sophia saying she’s saving money for her old age, to which Dorothy gasps, “Old age? You don’t leave fingerprints anymore!”

As in previous years, during the transition moments when there would be commercials on the show, the live version hands the stage over to Tom Shaw for rousing holiday sing-alongs. The raucous songs combined with flowing cocktails from the bar (in the lobby and in the theater before the show and during intermission) gives the even the feel of a Christmas party on the verge of exploding. For my money, this time of year if you’re searching for festivity, that’s just the kind of place you want to be. Thank you for being a friend, indeed.

The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes continues through Dec. 23 at the Victora Theatre, 2961 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$75. Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes. Visit for tickets and info.

Yes, Disney’s Lion King is still roaring

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ABOVE: Gerald Ramsey is Mufasa in the North American touring company of The Lion King. Photo by Matthew Murphy ©Disney BELOW: The Lionesses dance. Photo by Deen van Mee ©Disney

This year for the holidays, BroadwaySF is giving us the equivalent of hot cocoa and nachos – comfort theater in the form of Disney’s The Lion King (now at the Orpheum Theatre) and Mamma Mia! beginning next week at the Golden Gate Theatre. The former has been around for 26 years and the latter for 24. While not exactly fresh, they’re reliable, enjoyable and, more to the point, beloved.

I last saw The Lion King about seven years ago at the Orpheum (read my review here), and the current tour feels sturdier in terms of performances and the overall production. It’s still a spectacularly beautiful show, and Disney has obviously invested in maintaining it at a high level. Other touring perennials (looking at you Les Misérables) seem to shrink in every way, making shortcuts (like too much video) and “reimagining” when they mean “reducing the budget.” But The Lion King is still mighty.

The weak tea Shakespearean book is never going to be one of my favorite musical comedy plots (it was fine for the animated feature, but the songs and spectacle could use more), but this King is all about director Julie Taymor’s ultra-theatrical production – a combination South African cultural festival, modern dance program (thank you, choreographer Garth Fagan) and phantasmagorical explosion of world puppet and mask traditions.

Taymor has blended her outsize theatrical vision with the more mundane aspects of the movie (comic relief, winky modern references, cardboard cutout bad guys) so that the 2 1/2-hour show moves expertly along, but it definitely feels like Taymor was way more invested in conveying the essence and beauty of African nature and wildlife than in the mechanics of storytelling.

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There are two knockout numbers in Act 1, the processional, magisterial “Circle of Life” and the exuberant, dazzling “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” alongside the still-dazzling effect of a wildebeest stampede. Which leaves Act 2 rather barren of high points. The act opener, a straightforward human musical number called “One by One” is charming, and then we get the nearly great “He Lives in You (Reprise)” to close the show. Before the curtain calls, we get a reprise of “Circle of Life” and more amazing animals, but nothing really new other than plot resolution, and that comes way too easily and predictably (kind of like in a Marvel movie).

But here’s what’s so great about The Lion Knig – it’s easy to love for anyone of any age. For many kids, this is their first taste of live theater, and it’s sophisticated in its theatricality while still being easy to digest. There’s a darkness to it (stemming from a lot of death in the story) that sits easily alongside the brighter moments, and the inherent message about maintaining the balance of nature, is no small accomplishment.

In this touring company, special shout out to Julian Villela as Young Simba (sharing the role with Mason Lawason), a star in the making. Charming, assured and affecting, Villela commands the stage like an absolute pro. Gerald Ramsey as Mufasa also makes a strong impression, especially vocally on “They Live in You.” I tend to resist the cornball schtick of Timon and Pumbaa, but Nick Cordileone and John E. Brady respectively are pitch perfect.

On Broadway and around the world, The Lion King musical has reportedly raked in over $8 billion. That’s astonishing. But given the rapturous response of Wednesday’s opening-night audience, it’s not all that surprising. It’s well made, beautifully produced entertainment. It raised the bar for Disney’s theatrical pursuits, a bar the mighty Mouse still hasn’t surpassed.

Disney’s The Lion King continues through Dec. 30 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $66.50-$300.50 (subject to change). Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes (including one intermission). Call or visit

Captivating Crudup makes us wild about Harry

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ABOVE AND BELOW: Emmy and Tony Award-winner Billy Crudup stars in David Cale’s dazzling Harry Clarke at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre through Dec. 23 Photos by Kevin Berne

There’s no question here: the show to see this season is Billy Crudup starring in David Cale’s Harry Clarke at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Alone on the stage of the Roda Theatre for 80 minutes, Crudup creates an entire world of fascinating, flawed people, and at the center of it all is a man whose life is, in a way, theater.

That’s the genius of Cale’s play. He has created a story about acting and playing characters, but it’s not at all about the theater (except for one scene that takes place at a play). It’s about a continuum of being someone other than who you really are, and it goes from creating and playing a character for fun, excitement and challenge (or, perhaps, to shield oneself from the pain of the real world) to believing you are that character to fully crossing over into a state that could yield a mental health diagnosis.

Working with the seamless direction of Leigh Silverman, Crudup takes every appealing thing about his movie and television characters and populates the stage with people who want to be dazzled (entertained? overwhelmed?) by a forceful personality who will exert some influence on their lives. If that kind of charismatic, forceful person doesn’t actually exist, well then, he may just have to be invented.

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The less you know about the plot of Harry Clark the better because it’s unraveling is so deliciously enticing. Cale has created an improbable but highly entertaining play with sharp twists and turns peppered with hearty laughs even though it’s not a comedy. And there is Crudup, handsome and in total control (even when the characters are not), making it all look effortless (when surely it’s not). The momentum that he, Cale and Silverman create is so propulsive, so captivating that the end comes far too quickly. And even though the play’s conclusion is a little too easy, you still don’t want your time with Crudup and his stageful of personalities to be over.

Crudup is a beguiling storyteller who is both inside and outside the play – a fascinating place to be for an actor – but it also happens to be where his main character lives as well. Inside and outside his own life. Crudup has the advantage of a sharp playwright guiding the action and a subtle but perfect design team – Alexander Dodge (set), Alan C. Edwards (lights), Kaye Voyce (costume), Bart Fassbender (sound) – to help shape the world that he conjures so effectively mostly just by standing and delivering (with a skosh of adorable dancing and singing).

It’s a stunning experience full of imagination (of a mostly R-rated variety), gusto and thrilling theatricality.

David Cale’s Harry Clarke continues through Dec. 23 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Running time: 80 minutes (no intermission). Tickets are $22.50–$134 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit

Bonus Audiobook
If you can’t make it to Berkeley Rep (or, if the show sells out, which it is likely to), Crudup’s performance was recorded in 2018 off Broadway by Audible and is available here (along with Cale’s one-man show, Lillian).

Of beauty, Bulrusher and Boontling

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ABOVE: Jordan Tyson is the title character in Eisa Davis’ lyrical coming-of-age story, Bulrusher, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. BELOW: Cyndii Johnson (left) is mysterious stranger Vera, Jeorge Bennett Watson (center) is Logger, two people who loom large in the world of Tyson’s Bulrusher (right). Photos by T. Charles Erickson

Sixteen years ago, when I first reviewed Eisa Davis’ Bulrusher in a Shotgun Playes production, I marveled at the practically Shakespearean way Berkeley native Davis blended fantastical language, epic dramatic moments and intimate personal tragedies and triumphs.

All these years later, now that Bulrusher has returned, this time at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in a co-production with the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., my opinion hasn’t changed. This is a more opulent production, but Davis’ play is a classic American drama ratcheted up a few notches through the powerfully skillful way it looks at race and through the inclusion of Boontling, a jargon particular to Northern California’s Anderson Valley and the Mendocino County town of Boonville. Words like bilchin, bow for and heel scratchin, all of which mean having sex, date back to the late 19th century, and except for in this Pulitzer Prize finalist play, are mostly forgotten today.

You don’t have to know any Boontling to understand the words when they pop up (there’s a handy glossary in the program, which is available digitally and, praise the heavens and apologies to the environment, on actual paper). Davis is such an adept poet that she can slip in the words, and just through context we get the idea.

It seems most of Bulrusher takes place outdoors, and the set by Lawrence E. Moten III conjues an almost fairy tale vision of Mendocino, with the rivers and redwoods, fog and rain. Projection designer Katherine Freer devises the most beautiful evocation of waves crashing on a beach I’ve seen indoors.

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There’s a crescent of water at the front of the stage because water is so important to the story. The first person we see in that water is Bulrusher (Jordan Tyson), a young woman who nearly lost her life in that cold water when, as a newborn, her mother set her adrift, like Moses, with only a small raft woven of river weeds to protect her. Bulrusher, a mixed-race baby, was found by a Black logger named Lucas, who goes by Loggeer (Jeorge Bennett Watson) and raised by Schoolch (Jamie LaVerdiere) a schoolteacher of few words.

Bulrusher’s relationship to water is a complicated one. Though the river could have ended her life barely after it started, the water also triggers her second sight. Such clairvoyance and her brown skin make Bulrusher an outcast in Boonville except for her tiny circle, which also includes the proprietor of the local brothel, appropriately called Madame (Shyla Lefner) and a boy (Rob Kellogg) who used to taunt her but now sees her as a possible romantic partner.

Into this contained little world, complete with its own lingo, comes someone from far away. Vera (Cyndii Johnson), fresh of the bus from Alabama, shakes up Bulrusher’s life in a lot of ways, not least because she’s the first Black woman Bulrusher has met, and has tales to tell of a country rife with racial strife and violence.

Secrets, confessions and love all begin to swirl in the wake of Vera’s arrival, and though Act 1 still feels overstuffed with exposition, Act 2 goes all in on the drama. Director Nicole A. Watson and her glorious cast find beauty and power in the lives of ordinary country people who are unafraid to expose their emotions, even at the risk of rejection.

Bulrusher is a long play (nearly three hours including intermission), but it’s worth every minute for the gorgeous and moving conclusion. We’re all familiar with the coming-of-age tropes, but here, we really feel the growth, especially spiritually, of Bulrusher. Tyson’s central performance grows and grows until we’re seeing practically a different person than the one we met hours before. It’s bahl (good) to know a little of the Boontling lingo, but it’s ever so much better to watch a young woman coming into her own power.

Eisa Davis’ Bulrusher continues through Dec. 3 in Berkeley Repertorty Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $22.50-$134 (subject to change). Running time is nearly 3 hours (including a 15-minute intermission). Call 510-647-2949 or visit