Bright, shiny Prom arrives in time for Pride

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Above: The national touring company of The Prom, a lively musical about a lesbian teen in Indiana, is at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. Below: Kaden Kearney (left) is Emma and Kalyn West is Alyssa, the couple at the center of controversy in a small Indiana town. Photos by Deen Van Meer


Though Casey Nicholaw isn’t exactly a brand name on Broadway like, he absolutely should be. With shows like The Drowsy Chaperone, Aladdin and The Book of Mormon, Nicholaw is able to combine his talents as a sterling director of musical comedy and as a choreographer who knows how to show off dancers, tell a story and keep the show moving.

The Prom, a 2018 Broadway musical (and a star-studded Netflix movie two years later), proves a marvelous showcase for Nicholaw, who mostly manages the sharp shifts from bouncy, silly comedy to something darker and more rooted in real life. As fun as it is, nobody will ever accuse this frothy work of musical comedy of being a hard-hitting documentary.

The national touring production of The Prom, now at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, feels like bits of other shows – The Producers, Dear Evan Hansen, Hairspray – mashed together together to tell the story (based on true events) of Emma, a 17-year-old lesbian in a small Indiana town who just wants to take her girlfriend to prom. The local PTA has a conniption fit and cancels the dance altogether before the State’s District Attorney forces them to resume the event.

Book writers Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin (who also wrote the lyrics) smartly dumb things down to recognizable stereotypes that are, in true 21st century fashion, slightly more woke than your parents’ stereotypes. The engine of the plot isn’t the actual discrimination happening in America’s heartland but what a quartet of award-winning Broadway narcissists are going to do about it.

Two-time Tony Award-winner Dee Dee Allen (Courtney Balan) and one-time Drama Desk Award-winner Barry Glickman (Patrick Wetzel) have just been lambasted by New York critics to such a degree that no one will want to work with them again anytime soon. So with the help of a perpetual ensemble member named Angie Dickinson (Emily Borromeo) and a Juilliard-trained waiter/actor named Trent Oliver (Bud Weber), they pick a cause at random to prove that they can think of something or someone other than themselves. They land on Emma’s sad story and hitch a ride to Bumpkinville on a bus-and-truck tour of Godspell to Indiana.

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The ego-bashing send-up of Broadway celebrities provides abundant fodder for comedy as the proud (if idiotic) New York liberals clash with the small-town homophobes, who are practically holding pitchforks as they rail against the presence of a young lesbian in their midst.

As long as comedy and sweetness are the prevailing winds, The Prom sails happily. But at the end of Act 1, the whole town, adults and kids, gangs up in Emma in such a cruel, humiliating way that comedy feels uncomfortable. In Act 2, the show never fully regains its buoyancy, mostly because the stereotypes of mean and stupid townsfolk is never really resolved, even though everyone supposedly embraces the joys of diversity and inclusion.

But Act 2 does have the fun faux-Fosse number “Zazz” and the incredibly sweet “Barry’s Going to Prom” (performed with irresistible exuberance by Wetzel). The most memorable songs in the score by Beguelin and composer Matthew Sklar, “Unruly Heart” and “It’s Time to Dance,” help the show end on an upbeat note and spark an incredibly enjoyable curtain call.

The entire cast here is appealing – even the villain, PTA president and helicopter mom Mrs. Greene (Ashanti J’Aria) – and the ensemble, which has to be snooty New York theater patrons, Indiana teens and cruel adults, has an infectious spirit and keeps the stage fizzing and popping with Nicholaw’s vivacious choreography.

Proms in this country have become a rite of passage, but there’s not a lot of depth there (dressing up, drinking, sweaty gym dancing, sex in cars). Still, we take the rites we can get, and if they become a matter of civil rights, perhaps the needle on empathy and acceptance can actually move in a positive direction. The Prom sends show-biz satire and queer rights issues arm in arm to the dance – and truth be told, they have a pretty good time and discover a bump or two of joy along the way.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Prom continues through July 17 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256. Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com.

In the uneasy room with Dana H.

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Jordan Baker is Dana H. in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s West Coast premiere of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H., directed by Les Waters. Photos by Calvin Nguy/Berkeley Rep


The premise of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. may sound, at first, bizarre: a lone actor spends the 75-minute show lip syncing to a recorded interview. It’s certainly a novel approach to theatrical storytelling, and within minutes, the reason for this approach begins to reveal itself. By the end, it’s clear that there could be no more effective or powerful means of relaying this particular tale, which just happens to be the real-life story of Dana Higginbotham, who just happens to be Hnath’s mother.

The simple facts are these: in 1997, Higginbotham had been working as a chaplain in a Florida hospital psychiatric unit, met and counseled a patient named Jim. Upon his release, he ended up kidnapping and holding her for a life-altering five months.

The show, which just won two Tony Awards (for lead actress in a play and for the sound design by Mikhail Fiskel, who reprises his stunning work for this Berkeley Repertory Theatre production), is based on a 2015 interview Higginbotham had with Steve Cosson, who taped several days’ worth of audio. Higginbotham says she had not really talked about the events of her kidnapping in the nearly 20 years since they occurred, and it remains unclear how much her son, who took on the task of editing down many hours of the interview into the show’s short hour and 15 minutes, knew about his mother’s harrowing experience prior to this interview.

When the show begins, the actor Jordan Baker enters what looks like a cheap hotel room set (perfectly detailed design by Andrew Boyce), sits in a chair and is outfitted with earphones that will feed her the audio of the interview that we also hear. The real Dana H. then tells us her story as best she can. We hear Cosson asking questions, and whenever Hnath has made an edit in the audio, we hear a beep before the segment. So even though Hnath (who was away for his freshman year at NYU when the events of the story happened) is only peripherally a character in the play, he’s very much present as a playwright, shaping how we hear his mother’s story.

And what a story. There’s much more here than just the recounting of trauma. There’s deep psychological and emotional wrestling with the very essence of what it means to be human and how fragile our worlds are, even when we think we’re on solid ground. Dana H. is a play that aims to shake our foundations, and it does so with surprising force. It’s not nearly as difficult as we might think to slip into an underworld where none of what we might consider the usual rules apply.

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The notion of lip synching, as strange as it might seem, is utterly fascinating. It demands a kind of concentration from the audience that even the best actor probably could not command if she or he were simply acting the material with voice and body. We’re used to that, but we’re not used to this. As a piece of documentary theater, we are and we aren’t relying on Baker’s performance. We have Dana Higginbotham herself telling her story in her own words. But then we have Baker’s uncanny ability to make us forget she’s lip synching and to create the illusion of the real person.

Baker and director Les Waters (also nominated for Tony Award for the New York production), have worked out so many fascinating details that it’s impossible not to hang on every word, every laugh or big intake of breath, every rustling sound or tinkling bracelet captured in the audio. In one way, the lip synching keeps us at a distance – we are dissociated from the action by Baker, who serves as a bridge between the real Dana H. and the theatrical version she is presenting. You might think this technique would minimize the emotion or the shock of the violence or the horror of a life turned completely upside down, but it actually has a powerfully opposite effect as the details and complexities coalesce into a relentlessly captivating, devastating experience that is, mercifully, not without hope or humor.

Many questions emerge from this story, and it seems that Hnath has perhaps pushed himself too far out of the narrative. Every beep in the audio stream reminds us of his presence, and as the story comes into its final chapters and skitters through a number of years, we can’t help wondering where he was and how he fits back into his mother’s life in between the end of events recounted in the story and the creation of this play.

Dana H. stands (or sits, actually) as a wholly unique theatrical experience. It’s real and it’s artificial. It’s at a remove and yet it digs down into our depths. It’s a bold theatrical experiment and its resulting power is such that you’ll feel deeply moved if not more than a little bit terrified of the cracks and terrors it exposes.

[free event]
Dana H. director Les Waters will talk about his superb new book, The Theatre of Les Waters: More Like the Weather at a free Berkeley Rep event on Monday, June 28 at 8pm in the Roda Theatre. The event, Celebrating the Theatre of Les Waters, is free but registration is required: https://tickets.berkeleyrep.org/16522/16825. And the book is essential reading for all theater lovers, especially Bay Area theater lovers who have been lucky enough to see Les’ work on local stages through the years.

[for more information]
Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. continues through July 10 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $22-$115 (subject to change). Call 510-64702949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

To hell and back, with beautiful music

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ABOVE: Kimberly Marable is Persephone in the North American Tour of the Tony Award-winning musical Hadestown. BELOW: Levi Kreis (center) is Hermes on stage at the Orpheum Theatre through July 3 as part of the BroadwaySF season. Photos by T. Charles Erickson


How fitting to experience the story of Eurydice and Orpheus in the Orpheum Theatre, which essentially means “house of Orpheus.” That’s where the touring company of the Tony Award-winning musical Hadestown is playing as part of the BroadwaySF season. And while being inside the theater might be a slice of heaven, Market Street after dark is definitely a glimpse into what the underworld might actually be like.

In Hadestown, what we have is an adaptation of Greek mythology (specifically Orpheus and Eurydice and Hades and Persephone) updated and reinvigorated for our fraught times. What began 16 years ago as a grass roots theater project by writer/composer Anaïs Mitchell has grown into a wildly successful Broadway musical with the help of director Rachel Chavkin that addresses climate change, corporate greed, poverty, political reprehensibility and, of course, doomed love.

Because it’s an ancient tale full of hellfire, young love, seasons changing, mature (and rather bitter) love, there’s plenty of fervor in the storytelling to ignite Mitchell’s irresistible, jazzy, folky score, while Chavkin’s staging hews to a storyteller style that involves a narrator (Hermes), a fabulous onstage band, a trio of Fates and a small chorus of dancers/singers.

So, in the end, the show feels less like a musical with fully formed, emotionally connected characters and more like the most enjoyable lecture on Greek mythology you’re likely to see combined with a fantastic concert overflowing with talented performers.

From the rousing opening number, “Road to Hell,” it’s clear that Mitchell and Chavkin are going make this 2 1/2-hour show a mightily entertaining trip through the entanglements of mortals and gods and the forging of hellscapes of our own (and others’) making. As our guide, Levi Kreis as Hermes is nimble, charismatic and vocally assured. He sets the scene, introduces us to the major players and then sticks around to provide insight, comfort and, when necessary, instructions on how to successfully exit hell on foot (those instructions may or may not be followed to the letter).

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The central lovers are given full-voiced life by Morgan Siobhan Green as Eurydice, a determined but impoverished (and hungry) wanderer, and Nicholas Barasch as Orpheus, the son of a Muse who is working on a song that will bring order back to an off-kilter world.

When spring arrives (late, thanks climate change), it comes in the form of dazzling Persephone (Kimberly Marable) in a vivid green dress (costumes by Michael Krasov). But spring and summer will be short lived because Persephone is called to return to her husband, Hades (Kevyn Morrow), a baritone in a pinstripe suit with American capitalist aspirations.

The reasons for Eurydice and Orpheus’ sudden plunge into the depths of romance and Eurydice’s even faster decision to give up on life and head into the underworld don’t make a lot of emotional sense, so it’s hard to invest fully in their travails. But Green and Barasch have voices so full of character and power that it’s satisfying to hear them describe their experiences rather than fully feel them.

Aside from a few standout staging moments (like Orpheus’ descent into the underworld, which is so much more effectively staged than his journey back out), one of the most delightful aspects of this production is the band itself, which is featured prominently on Rachel Hauck’s set. Has there ever been a Broadway show in which the trombonist (in this case, the marvelous Audrey Ochoa) feels like a major character? Perhaps this should become a thing.

Hadestown offers big bumps of jubilation and sweetness amid its dark sadness and grim realities. Young love can’t solve all its own problems, but older love can be rekindled at a deeper level. Greed, ego, walls and dominion never equal freedom but always result in doom. And music may not be able to right the world, but as this glorious score amply demonstrates, it can make hell seem pretty heavenly for a couple of hours.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Hadestown continues through July 3 at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256. Call 888-746.1799 or visit broadwdaysf.com.

Octet at Berkeley Rep is a revelation

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In Berkeley Rep’s production of Octet, Alex Gibson (center) is Henry, surrounded by (from left) Adam Bashian as Ed, Margo Seibert as Jessica, J.D. Mollison as Marvin, Kuhoo Verma as Velma, Isabel Santiago as Paula, Justin Gregory Lopez as Toby and Kim Blanck as Karly. BELOW: The cast of Octet in the West Coast premiere of Dave Malloy’s astonishing theater piece, directed by Annie Tippe. Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre


Writer/composer Dave Malloy calls his Octet a “chamber choir musical,” and that’s certainly an apt description of this one-act show featuring eight performers and a shimmering a cappella score. But an even better description of Octet might be a “revelation” or maybe even a “miracle.”

Commissioned by New York’s Signature Theatre, who premiered the work in 2019, Octet is now on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, and it is (and probably was and will likely remain) the right show at the right time. As long as we’re isolated, anxiety-ridden or damaged, this show will have something to say (or perhaps sing is the better word) to us.

There’s a beautiful simplicity to Octet, which is interesting because the show traffics in the internecine complexities of our modern world, more specifically, with the horrors of the Internet: the isolation, the addictions, the pornography, the self-righteousness, the polarization, the anonymity, the cruelty, the fraud…and the list just goes on and on.

The simplicity comes in the show’s form: eight people gather for a 90-minute support group meeting in a faith center community room. The group, created by an enigmatic figure named Saul, is patterned after a 12-step program but with eight guiding principles and designed for people in recovery from multitudinous online damage. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of this program is that its therapy takes the form of choral singing. Armed with their pitch pipes, group members sing some hymns (of Malloy’s creation, of course, and very specific to the 21st century), but when it comes time for them to share their stories, these are also presented in song.

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The idea seems to be that this group embodies the exact opposite of the trauma suffered by its participants. By singing together, they are physically (through voice), mentally and emotionally connected in a way rivaled only by sex. Their octet is a living, creative organism that can only exist when they are together, and the mind-blowing beauty of what they create is matched only by the emotional wallop of what they’re actually telling each other (and us) about what they’ve suffered and how they’re surviving and evolving.

In addition to his glorious score, Malloy’s script also has its own power. There are familiar sitcom rhythms to the humor, but that’s just one of the ways Malloy pulls us in and calms us down before taking us places we could never have expected. There’s real wit here (especially in some of the lyrics), and it’s easy to relate to pretty much everything being discussed, which is why so much of it is at once funny and terrifying. There’s also a level of mysticism at work here – the Tarot factors in, as does a chatbot named Eugene Goostman that apparently fooled people into thinking it was human.

Local audiences have the benefit of seeing most of the original New York Octet cast reprising their roles, along with most of the creative team headed by director Annie Tippe. There’s not a false moment among the pitch-perfect actors, and the verisimilitude of the situation – the details in the set by Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta are fascinating – only amplifies the otherworldly places the music takes us (Malloy did the vocal arrangements, which are like a language unto themselves, and Or Matias is the sterling music supervisor and music director).

Each of the actors gets a moment to shine, but, by design, the show’s undeniable power comes from all the voices. It’s hard to imagine anyone better in these roles than Adam Bashian, Kim Blanck, Alex Gibson, Justin Gregory Lopez, J.D. Mollison, Isabel Santiago, Margo Seibert and Kuhoo Verma. We don’t know all that much about their characters, but we know enough to see ourselves and the people around us in them, and if it feels like they are working to be better and do better, so can we. Somehow, through the magic of experiencing something profound together, the octet expands to include the audience.

In the hours since I left Berkeley Rep, the show has continued to vibrate in me, and I haven’t interacted with a screen without thinking about it and about how ill equipped we have been to keep up with the rush of technological advances and all that entails (and the effect on our brains and our attention spans and our relationships with others). I can’t sing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel a very strong urge to return to that community room as one of the Friends of Saul.

Octet is just astonishing. It is one of those theater experiences that makes good on the promise of the art form – the kind of experience that keeps you going to show after show after show because you know this kind of transcendence is possible every time you step into a theater.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Dave Malloy’s Octet continues through May 29 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$159, subject to change. Visit berkeleyrep.org or call 510-647-2949.

ACT immerses audience into captivating Fefu

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The cast of American Conservatory Theater’s Fefu and Her Friends by María Irene Fornés includes (from left) Lisa Anne Porter as Julia, Sarita Ocón as Christina, Jennifer Ikeda as Cindy, Cindy Goldfield as Emma, Catherine Castellanos as Fefu and Marga Gomez as Cecilia. BELOW: Taking place in various spots around The Strand, Fefu immerses its audience in scenes like this one in the lobby with Castellanos and Goldfield on a balcony. Photos by Kevin Berne.


There are actors in American Conservatory Theater’s Fefu and Her friends that I would travel continents to see. I would climb flights of stairs and even sit on the floor to get to see them perform. The good news about Fefu is that it’s not continents away – it’s down on Market Street in a Strand Theater that has been transformed, in its theatrical way, into a New England country home full of interesting people. You will, however, have to climb stairs (or take the elevator) and sit on the floor (if you want to) because this is an immersive production that takes you all over the building.

With its premiere in 1977, María Irene Fornés’ Fefu (pronounced FEH-foo) emerged as a theatrical experiment in feminism. Set in 1935 during a reunion of college friends, the all-women cast explores their relationships to each other and to a world that desperately wants men and women to conform to accepted gender roles.

There’s not a traditional plot, but that’s not really the point here. It’s all about discovery and play. We first meet the eight characters as they arrive at Fefu’s house for a weekend of fun and rehearsal for an upcoming charity event. The audience is seated in the theater, and the characters inhabit the lovely home designed by Tanya Orellana in a traditional proscenium setting. The tone that emerges under Pam MacKinnon’s direction is one of joviality, introspection and the ever-present possibility of surprise (good and bad).

For the second of the play’s three parts, the audience is separated into four groups (your color-coded wristband lets you know which group you’re in) and taken into various parts of Fefu’s house. Our group first headed to the lobby, which had been transformed into Fefu’s garden, complete with grass (of the artificial variety), gorgeous Monet-like projections (by Hana S. Kim) and a real-life plant exchange (bring a plant, take a plant, so if you’re going definitely bring a plant!). Fefu (Catherine Castellanos) and Emma (Cindy Goldfield) have an al fresco chat about, among other things, how none of us talks about our genitals enough.

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Then we headed backstage into a dimly lit room (Russell H. Champa is responsible for the gorgeous lighting throughout the building), where Julia (a mesmerizing Lisa Anne Porter) wrestled with demons. And then it was upstairs to the top of the building where a black-box space has been turned into two performance spaces (with a fair amount of sound bleed between the two stages). In one room, the study, Cindy (Jennifer Ikeda) and Christina (Sarita Ocón) talk about French verbs, dreams and nightmarish doctors, and in another, the kitchen (an absolutely stunning design), Paula (Stacy Ross) chats with Sue (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) before rekindling an old flame with the enigmatic Cecilia (Marga Gomez).

Some characters wander out of one short scene and into another, which is thrilling – like turning the play house into a playhouse, and we’re all kids having a blast playing pretend (but the conversations are decidedly not childlike). It’s that sense of discovery again – poking into corners of The Strand that audience members don’t usually see and, with all the fanciful design touches along our travel routes, feeling embraced by the idea of pretending to be in some other place in some other time with people who were imagined into being by a playwright with a lot to say. Kudos to MacKinnon and her team (notably Stage Manager Elisa Guthertz, whose team works with military precision and maximum affability) for such sterling execution of the Fefu challenge.

After intermission, audience members return to their seats in the theater for the final section of the play. We know these women better now, so the intricacies of the relationships, the shared histories and the personal traumas all carry more weight. The miracle of the actors is that they do feel connected by years of events, so their ability to shift from joy and frivolity to deep sadness and despair feels lived. There’s unevenness in the performances in some scenes, but that can’t obscure some stunning work by Castellanos as the gregarious but enigmatic Fefu, Goldfield as the effervescent Emma, Ross as the deceptively grounded Paula and Porter as the tormented Julia.

There’s no end to the discovery as Fornés allows us to spend 2 1/2 hours immersed in what women are thinking – a significant undertaking executed with a great deal of spirit and fun. In that sense, you can definitely say that hanging out with Fefu and Her Friends is a seriously good time.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
María Irene Fornés’ Fefu and Her Friends continues through May 1 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Theatrical magic is the blessing in shorter Cursed

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ABOVE: Harry Potter (John Skelley,left), Hermione Granger (Lily Mojekwu, center), and Ron Weasley (Steve O’Connell) are up to some new tricks in the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Curran Theater. BELOW: Dementors descend to terrorize both characters and audience. Photos: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade


Amid clanking bottles of butter beer, confetti canons and celebratory words from the mayor, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the live theater component of the Potter Empire, has officially reopened at San Francisco’s Curran Theater.

Already a hit in London, New York and elsewhere around the world, Cursed opened late in 2019 and then was shuttered by the pandemic. During that time, creators J.K. Rowling (the author of the seven Potter novels), playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany decided to downsize their show. What was originally a five-plus-hour two-play experience has now become a 3 1/2-hour single play.

I saw and loved the original two-part production in December 2019 (oh, those sweet, unmasked days of yore) – read my review here – but wondered if the experience wouldn’t benefit from being shorter. Turns out, it is more potent in one sitting.

The new, condensed version re-opened Feb. 24 amid much hoopla re-directing attention to San Francisco’s beleaguered Union Square area and theater district, and the show is in sterling condition. Everything that was wonderful about the original is still here and strong – it’s just swifter and a little more dense. The best news is that all those incredible displays of theatrical magic are still dazzling and thrilling and chilling and mesmerizing. The soul-sucking dementors, for instance, are as horrifying as they are beautiful, and if you’ve ever wondered what it might actually feel like to slip through the cracks of time, hold tight. The effect, incorporating projections, sound and (probably) actual magic, is stunning.

But it’s not all mind-boggling effects bringing things like floo powder, wand battles and magic spells to life. Thorne’s script (based on an original story by Rowling, Tiffany and Thorne) wastes no time in getting us up to speed on Harry Potter’s life 19 years after the action of the final novel. Harry (John Skelley) and Ginny Weasley (Angela Reed) have two boys, James (William Bednar-Carter) and Albus Severus (Benjamin Papac), at Hogwarts. Harry, who remains the most famous and beloved of wizards, works at the Ministry of Magic, and his legacy weighs heavily on his younger son.

Albus is a loner and does not enjoy his time at Hogwarts. Save for his friendship with Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger), son of Draco (Lucas Hall), it’s all kind of a teen-angsty nightmare but with flying broomsticks. Being the son of “the boy who lived” involves a whole lot of pressure to live up to the Potter name, and Albus feels he’s nowhere near up to that task. It doesn’t help that Harry and Albus do not get along, thus setting the stage (literally) for a play that is primarily about fathers and sons.

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What the play does exceptionally well is mine the Potter mythology for insider delights and for hefty emotional connections. Beloved characters from the books pop up here and there, and though there’s plenty to enjoy for the Potter novice, it’s a much richer experience if you know why the audience collectively sighs when a certain someone whom we haven’t seen for a very long time, steps onto the stage.

Though Cursed Child is not a musical, it has the highly choreographed and fluid feel of a musical. Credit movement director Steven Hoggett for creating that flow – and all that robe swirling – and for designing one of the show’s most beautiful moments: a duet for rolling staircases that evokes the Escher-like Hogwarts architecture.

There is an emotional heart to this story amid all the fiery spectacle, and the actors are fully committed to the drama (or, in the case of Steve O’Connell’s Ron Weasley, the snide comedy). Skelley’s Harry is kind of a jerk for much of the play – a man pressured by his past and his celebrity status and his bureaucratic job – and there’s one intensely emotional scene in particular that serves as a reminder of just how much trauma Harry has been through in his nearly 40 years. I wish Hermione (the wonderful Lily Mojekwu) had more to do. Maybe the next stage epic – and there should be one – will focus on her and her daughter, Rose (Folami Williams).

The emotional core of the show belongs to Papac and Steiger as Albus and Scorpius, unlikely friends and even unlikelier heroes. Both actors manage to be believable, ultimately lovable teens whose father issues bond them and then compel them to behave rashly before doing some serious growing up.

The mix of wizarding razzmatazz and genuine emotion will be familiar to fans of the books (and the movies), but everything in the theater (effects AND emotions) feels at a higher volume and intensity. And that’s a glorious – you might even say genuinely magical – feeling. In this wacko world, it’s almost a relief to to escape into a theatrical epic for 3 1/2 hours and experience the satisfying thrill of magic empowering good vanquish bad.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child continues through Sept. 4 at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $59-$199 (subject to change). Visit harrypottertheplay.com for information.
Covid information: All ticketholders 16 years of age and older who are eligible must present proof of full vaccination with booster. All patrons, regardless of age, are required to wear masks inside the theater at all times when not actively eating or drinking. For more information, click here.


Pass Over captivates at Marin Theatre Co.

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Eddie Ewell (left) is Moses, LeRoy S. Graham III (center) is Kitch, and Adam Roy is Mister in Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over at Marin Theatre Company. BELOW: Ewell’s Moses transcends his situation. Photos by Kevin Berne.


There are multiple ways to look at Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over, which is probably why it’s one of the most discussed plays of the last five years.

The play, which has its West Coast premiere at Marin Theatre Company, can be looked at historically. After its Chicago premiere in 2017, the play headed to New York and Lincoln Center with plans for Broadway. Then the pandemic hit, and the country began to roil with protest and calls for change, especially where racial justice and police brutality were concerned. The hope was that as we emerged from a global crisis, that we would also be entering a new era with more focused intent around equality and access. It was into this world that Pass Over became the first play to re-open Broadway.

And then there’s Pass Over in the realm of legacy. Nwandu structures her play much like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in which two worn down tramps occupy a wasteland in anticipation of someone coming and something changing. Beckett’s play set the bar for existential exploration – the futility, absurdity, comedy and tragedy of human life – and tested the limits of an audience’s patience for obtuseness and lack of traditional plot. Nwandu also places two men into a wasteland of sorts. This time it’s Moses and Kitch under a streetlamp in some sort of dead-end urban setting. They’re also waiting for something to happen, but their “something” is more specific: they expect they’ll be killed by the police at some point.

It’s a powerful thing to build a contemporary play on a base made of Beckett. There’s a certain familiarity with the lack of specifics and in the sometimes playful, sometimes fearful interaction between the men, but Nwandu charts her own course here. She takes her characters somewhere – keeping in mind one of the characters is named Moses and the Bible, particularly the Book of Exodus, factors largely. Where Nwandu takes this brisk, 85-minute play is spiritual, emotional – even joyful. But because we’re dealing with human beings here, it’s also fraught. Nothing is going to be easy, it seems, and nothing is going to be permanent. Beckett would undoubtedly approve.

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Because Pass Over feels so vital and like a major step for American theater, it’s hard to see it as just a play. Nwandu, like Beckett, purposefully keeps many details out of the play, and as a result, it’s easier for audience members to project their own experiences and impressions into the action, which is infused with, among other things, threat and violence and fear. So viewers who have had their own experiences with racial injustice or being marginalized or being brutalized or feeling stuck or hopeless will have very different reactions than those who haven’t. There’s a reason the creative team includes a drama therapist and compassion consultant.

Director Kevin R. Free delivers a straightforward production that lets Nwandu’s play shine. His actors are stellar: Eddie Ewell is Moses and LeRoy S. Graham III is Kitch. They bear the responsibility of conveying a soul-deep connection to one another through the rhythm of their banter (which includes so many repetitions of “damn, nigger” that it begins to feel like song, poetry and even prayer). They do this effectively and will only get better as the run continues.

Playing dual roles of Mister and Ossifer, Adam A. Roy brings the tension of the racist white world onto Moses and Kitch’s block (depicted with spartan elegance by set designer Edward E. Haynes Jr.). This is where Free’s production could stand to turn up the volume so that the final portion of the play, where power and grace come into the mix, feels like more of a contrast. This final portion also feels hemmed in by being a play in a theater, a weird thing to say about a play in a theater. But if the walls were to come down (partially), and the sky become visible, that would feel like where the play is aiming to go more effectively than lighting changes and projections.

The physical production aside, what lingers after the curtain call is the connection between Ewell and Graham and how for their characters, Moses and Kitch, their push-and-pull connection to each other as friends, as brothers, as leader/follower, takes them into something bigger. They may or may not have escaped the block, but they’ve taken a giant step.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over continues through Feb. 20 at Marin Theatre Company, Tickets are $25-$60. Call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.
Marin Theatre Company’s COVID policies are here.

Great music can’t save sinking Swept Away

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John Gallagher, Jr., (front, center) is Mate in Berkeley Rep’s world-premiere musical, Swept Away. The cast also includes (from left, second row) Cameron Johnson, Taurean Everett, Jacob Keith Watson and Vishal Vaidya; (from left, back row) Adrian Blake Enscoe and Stark Sands. BELOW: (from left) Sands as Big Brother, Wayne Duvall as Captain, Gallagher as Mate and Enscoe as Little Brother. Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre


When you leave a new musical humming the shipwreck, you know there’s a problem.

The first question hovering over Swept Away, the world-premiere musical at Berkeley Repertory Theatre is why everyone behind it thought that, in the 21st century, the American musical theater canon needed an all-male show. Why choose a story that banishes women from the stage and leaves them only to be mentioned as whores in port or dear, sweet Melody Anne back home on the farm. The second is why re-purpose great songs from the Avett Brothers’ impressive catalogue in service of a cliché-ridden story that ends up being about four white guys in a lifeboat.

The impulse to turn songs by Scott and Seth Avett, who have released album after album of rich, melodious music over the last two decades, into some sort of theatrical experience is completely understandable. Their brand of folk-Americana-rock is humorous, dark, beautiful and full of interesting stories. The more than a dozen Avett songs incorporated into Swept Away are not the problem. As long as the men of the cast are singing songs like “Go to Sleep,” “Swept Away” and “Murder in the City,” all is well. The vibrant adaptations of the songs for the stage by Chris Miller and Brian Usifer are rousingly performed by the band under the direction of Julie Wolf and Sean Kana (both credited as music director).

If the performers just sang the songs and didn’t bother with the book by John Logan, Swept Away would be thoroughly enjoyable. Unfortunately, the songs are part of meager story about a late 19th-century whaling ship. There’s a stern captain (Wayne Duvall) who bemoans the loss of his way of life because people don’t need whale oil now that they have paraffin and kerosene. It’s not clear if we’re supposed to feel bad for a guy whose speech basically sounds like, “Damn that kerosene! I want to kill more whales!”

And then there are the neophyte sailors joining the crew. Little Brother (Adrian Blake Enscoe) has run away from his hard life on a hard farm surrounded by hard people. He wants to live life, dammit, not stare at the ass end of a mule. Big Brother (Stark Sands) couldn’t let his little brother run away unsupervised, so the young men set out on an adventure, with Big Brother certain that Little Brother will soon see the error of his ways and come home to family and church (and the aforementioned sweet Melody Anne).

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The fourth main character, played by Tony-winner John Gallagher Jr., known only as Mate, represents every hackneyed image of a sailor you can dredge up. He’s seen it all, done it all, killed it all, fucked it all and he’s here to tell you that he’s got a knife and he’s a menace. Gallagher, although an engaging singer, is miscast. He conjures about as much menace as a labradoodle puppy.

While on the ship, the show is buoyed by a terrific ensemble that includes Taurean Everett, Cameron Johnson, Vishal Vaidya and Jacob Keith Watson. They sing, they dance (a bit), they tie ropes. Their shining moment is the shipwreck – a dazzling bit of stagecraft helmed by director Michael Mayer. This stunning moment is a combination of slow-motion choreography by David Neumann, set design by Rachel Hauck, lights by Kevin Adams and sound by Kai Harada. This scene also serves, sadly, as the end of the ensemble.

The action then shifts to a lifeboat and the intense discussions about how the men might survive. Though the whole show is only 90 minutes, the lifeboat section feels like hours. Then there’s a wholly unearned ending filled with salvation for characters who have never felt anything but hollow.

I can only speak for myself here, but I had no interest in any aspect of Logan’s story. That’s hugely disappointing because the Avett Brothers’ songs deserve better. They don’t serve the story well here, and the wearisome story certainly doesn’t support them. You might say it’s all a bit of a shipwreck.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Swept Away continues through March 6 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peets Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $44-$180 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.
Berkeley Rep’s Covid information is here.

Enjoy this playlist of songs from Swept Away as originally performed by the Avett Brothers

Freestyle Love reigns supreme

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The cast of Freestyle Love Supreme at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater includes (from left) Chris Sullivan (Shockwave), Andrew Bancroft (Jelly Donut), Jay C. Ellis (Jellis J), Kaila Mullady (Kaiser Rözé), Morgan Reilly (Hummingbird), Aneesa Folds (Young Nees) and Anthony Veneziale (Two Touch). BELOW: Freestyling with (from left) Bancroft, Ellis, Folds and Veneziale. Photos by Kevin Berne


Wednesday night at the Geary Theater was one those nights theater lovers had been waiting for: the re-opening of American Conservatory Theater’s glorious home. We thought such an occasion would happen post-pandemic, but as that “post” era seems ever elusive, we’ll take what vaccinations and masks will allow.

And what they allow at this moment in the gorgeous Geary is exceptionally enjoyable. Freestyle Love Supreme is not a new show (its roots go back to 2004), but among its creators – Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anthony Veneziale (who originally conceived the project) – are Broadway superstars. Miranda is, well, Miranda (Hamilton, In the Heights, Encanto and a million things he’s already done) and Kail is the Tony-winning director of Hamilton. So this improv hip-hop side project garnered a lot of attention and eventually found life on Broadway and many other places.

The most recent Broadway iteration of FLS kicks off its national tour at the Geary, and though this 90-ish-minute blast of high-energy theatrics would be a giddy delight on any given night, its arrival during our most recent surge feels especially fortuitous. It’s a bountiful serving of inventive fun when we needed it most.

The concept is just like any improv show: the performers will create entirely original work based on suggestions from the audience. In this case, the stakes are raised by the performers having to freestyle rap with the help of two keyboardists and two beatboxers to control melody and rhythm. So the performers are rapping, singing and acting all at the same time, which is quite the high-wire act.

Happily, this crew, which can vary from night to night with special guests, knows how to spit rhymes (as they say), get laughs, connect with deeper emotions and offer high-velocity entertainment. Veneziale serves as the de facto host as the well-crafted but just loose enough structure keeps the show moving from segment to segment without feeling constrictive.

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In true improv fashion, audience members are called upon to supply raw material like verbs, things they intensely dislike, things they love and, twice during the show, more involved things like a painful memory you wish you could do over or how you spent your day. Of course the masks muffled the suggestions somewhat, but everybody who wanted to be heard was heard (from the balcony in response to things you couldn’t live without: the word “the”).

At Wednesday’s opening-night performance, the verbs included litigate, catapult, masturbate and fondle. The crew chose litigate to expound upon, but they managed to get most of the other words in there as well. Among the things that were working the audience’s last nerves were Joe Manchin, Covid, the My Pillow guy, Wordle, “my vegan girlfriend” and “too much mayonnaise.” In a 21st-century pandemic twist, audience members can scan a QR code in the program and submit words for a fast round of improv rapping as the words are pulled at random from a bucket.

There are three more involved segments of the evening, all of which verged on brilliant on opening night. Recalling a childhood memory, an audience member named Breezy described her second day of third grade at a new school when she fainted while giving a book report. Veneziale interviewed Breezy for more details (the school was in New Jersey, the teacher was Mrs. Walker, the book was Nancy Drew, and if she had it to do over again, Breezy would have said “no” when asked to do her report). Then the cast re-created the event before rewinding and providing the “just say no” alternative reality. Morgan Reilly (aka Hummingbird) was especially effective in the role of Breezy, who became the center of a “raise your voice” anthem at the end of the bit.

A more intimate moment had four performers on stools riffing on the audience-inspired word “destiny” by sharing a story they assured us was 100% true. Jay C. Ellis (aka Jellis J) rapped about his childhood in Ohio and coming out. Andrew Bancroft (aka Jelly Donut) described his time living in the Bay Area when he discovered rap battles in Oakland and found his life’s calling. Veneziale (aka Two Touch) also recalled time spent living in San Francisco, but that quickly expanded into a piece about racial equality and George Floyd’s needless death. Throughout these stories, Aneesa Folds (aka Young Nees) supplied soulful vocals, which were mostly vocalizations on the word destiny. It was a beautiful segment that underscored the notion that improv isn’t always (and shouldn’t always be) going for laughs.

The show’s finale had Veneziale finding an audience member willing to go into great detail about their day prior to arriving at the theater. On this night, a high school science teacher named Jay talked about his kids, his parents, his job, his workout regimen and his invitation to discuss Finnish education at a Palo Alto senior center. Then the full cast turned that day into a rather astonishing hip-hop musical.

Part theater, part concert, part party trick, Freestyle Love Supreme revels in on-the-spot creativity. The stage crackles with invention as the talented performers revel in riffing off of one another and sharing the spotlight. It’s generous, it’s dazzling and it’s the kind of spine-tingling communal experience you could never get in front of a screen.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anthony Veneziale’s Freestyle Love Supreme continues through Feb. 13 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theatre, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$130. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org. ACT’s Covid policies are here.

Check out the excellent documentary We Are Freestyle Love Supreme on Hulu.

The Band plays on, beautifully

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Janet Dacal is Dina and Sasson Gabay is Tewfiq in the national tour of The Band’s Visit, part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre. Below: The boys in the band. Photos by Evan Zimmerman, Murphymade.


Like Come from Away, The Band’s Visit is a musical about one set of people in a jam and another set of people offering some assistance – two groups never meant to be together share a little time and space and something wonderful happens. That’s really where the similarities end. While both are Tony Award-winning Broadway shows, The Band’s Visit, whose touring production is at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, is a very different kind of musical. It’s subtle, gentle and runs deep with the emotion (mostly sadness and longing) of everyday people. Where other Broadway shows kick and flash and shine, this one is still and contemplative, except when music is revealing – and ultimately connecting – its characters.

Composer David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Tootsie) and playwright Itamar Moses (a Berkeley native and revered playwright) have so skillfully adapted the 2007 Israeli movie of the same name that it’s hard to imagine Eran Kolirin’s story now without Yazbek’s decidedly non-showy songs. That’s how complete it now feels (and it was really wonderful to begin with).

Not much happens in this story other than a big misunderstanding. The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrives from Egypt for a special concert at the Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tikvah. But because of issues involving language and Chet Baker, the band ends up in Beit Hatikva, a speck of a town in the desert where nothing ever happens and no one ever comes. So having a troupe of musicians in powder-blue uniforms is a major event.

There’s not another bus until the morning, so the band will stay with various residents and make the best of their predicament. Nobody seems to mind too much, although the heavy security in Israel feels ominous to the visiting Egyptians, so much so that they encourage one another to speak only in English.

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The band’s director, Tewfiq, is reserved but cordial. He and Haled, one of the group’s more colorful members, end up staying with Dina, who runs the town’s cafe. As night falls, Haled ends up at a makeshift roller disco with some locals, while Dina and Tewfiq get to know each other over dinner and a walk through what passes as a park (“You have to use your imagination,” Dina says).

Janet Dacal as Dina is tough and magnetic. She begins to feel that the band’s arrival, specifically Twefiq’s arrival, may have been destined for her. But as the strangers get to know one another better, specifically through the gorgeous songs “Omar Sharif,” “Itgara’a” and “Something Different,” reality is more complicated than meet-cute romantic comedy.

As Twefiq, Sasson Gabay offers a rich, admirable and complex portrayal, which is probably not surprising given that he originated the role in the movie 15 years ago. He commands respect from his bandmates, and it’s clear how much the music means to him. His gruff exterior shields a grieving soul, and this unexpected night clearly has an effect on him.

Director David Cromer trusts that this intimate tale will play out in its own time. The show only runs about 100 minutes, but it’s never rushed or frantic. The set design by Scott Pask allows various spots in the city to flow on and off stage, giving us a distinct sense of how isolated this town and its people truly are. Performances throughout are earnest and honest, scaled to the story and not to musical theater. The last third of the show is especially spellbinding, beginning with Joe Joseph’s superb “Haled’s Song About Love” through Dacal and Gabay’s park duet and into “Itzik’s Lullaby” tenderly sung by Clay Singer before the poignant finale. The show finds its deepest groove and transports us into as heartfelt a place as musicals can take us. It’s human, it’s spiritual…it’s simply amazing.

It’s the use of music throughout the show, both underscore and songs, that truly elevates the storytelling here (credit music supervisors Andrea Grody and Dean Sharenow and conductor Adrien Ries). Of course there’s Yazbek’s stunning music, but there’s also space for people to connect over a love of “Summertime” warbled over a shared dinner, or Chet Baker’s take on “My Funny Valentine,” which soothes the end of an unusual night and gives us a glimpse into the heart of the musician playing it. There are violin and clarinet solos to melt the heart as well as instruments you don’t hear in every musical theater band, like the darbouka, riq and oud.

Not everything we see these days has to be about COVID, but it’s hard not to feel the connection in the loneliness and desperate hope of the small town inhabitants, especially as they feel their worlds enlarging, even if just a bit, through the brief visit from the band and the connection they feel. From isolation there’s connection through the shared language of music. In the most challenging times, as we have seen, art can mean more than just about anything. It can provide some relief, some joy, some emotional purging. It can also make us feel part of something bigger than ourselves – kind of like being players in a big, beautiful band.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Band’s Visit continues through Feb. 6 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256. Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com
Read about BroadwaySF’s COVID policies here.