42nd Street Moon lights the stage with Lady Day

Doris Bumpus plays Billie Holiday in the 42nd Street Moon streaming production of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Brill by Lanie Robertson. Photo courtesy of 42nd Street Moon

The extraordinary resilience of theater companies adjusting to the shutdown and continuing to make work will never not amaze me. Against all pandemic odds, these companies muster the resources and figure out how to interact with audiences virtually until we can all come together again.

42nd Street Moon launched the MoonBeams subscription series in May with Jason Graae’s 100% charming tribute to Jerry Herman called Perfect Hermany and continues the trio of offerings with Doris Bumpus in a showcase role at the center of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.

One of the most extraordinary things about these theatrical pivots is how skillfully companies have embraced the challenges of creating a theater/cinema hybrid by filming fully produced productions. Theater-makers have had to become filmmakers in a hurry – at least to the extent that viewers stop thinking about the camera work, the editing or other technical elements and relax into the production itself.

Moon’s Lady Day is a vibrant example of that hybrid working at its efficient best. Lanie Robertson’s 1986 play finds Billie Holiday in one of the final performances before her death in July 1959. She’s back at a familiar Philadelphia jazz club with her pianist, Jimmy Powers (played by music director Marcus McCauley) and a small combo. In this play with music, Holiday sings some of her best tunes and tells stories about her life and her struggles.

Director Brandon Jackson‘s production, which is just over an hour, zips along with an emphasis on the music more than the drama. Bumpus doesn’t do a Holiday impressions so much as capture the essence of a gifted singer whose unique voice and phrasing cut right to the emotional core of the songs she sang. Bumpus has a beautiful musical theater voice that swings, caresses and soothes.

Like so many biographical playwrights, Robertson relies too heavily on contrived nightclub patter to convey a sense of drama as Lady Day goes from a position of jaunty strength at the top of the show to tipsy chanteuse as she tipples and talks and then to a desperate addict who has to run offstage for a fix.

Director Jackson smartly emphasizes the music, which is wonderful – especially Holiday’s trademark “God Bless the Child” (a song she wrote for her mother), “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer),” a rollicking tribute to one of her heroes, Bessie Smith.

Although the music is the star in this production, there’s still an undeniable sadness in Holiday’s story, especially her struggles as a Black woman in the first half of the 20th century. The mistreatment, the bad relationships with men, the drug addiction, the incarceration – it all adds up to a poignant portrait of an extraordinary artist – one of our great American singers, who deserved a whole lot better than she got.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill continues streaming through May 30. Single tickets are $25 and subscriptions range from $60-$112. The final MoonBeams production, Don’t Touch That Dial: DC and Peter’s Glorious Romp Through the Golden Age runs June 5-27. Visit 42ndstmoon.org for information.

Bay Area theater 2015: some favorites

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One of the best things about the year-end exercise to round up favorite theatergoing memories of the preceding year is that it can be such a powerful reminder of how much good theater we have in the Bay Area and how many really extraordinary theater artists we have working here. Another element jumps out at me this year and that is how, in addition to great homegrown work, our area also attracts some of the best theater artists from around the world to come and share their work (at the behest of savvy local producers, of course).

So here are some thoughts on memorable work I saw this year – and I will add as a caveat, I didn’t see as much as I should have (or as much as I used to for that matter), and I must express some pride that as we head into 2016, this old Theater Dogs blog will celebrate its 10th anniversary, and that makes me mighty proud. This is a labor of love, and I want it to be that first and foremost, a way of celebrating and promoting the riches we have here.

• The Curran Theatre is reborn. For me, the theater event of the year was actually a series of events comprising Curran Under Construction, a reintroduction of the fabled theater by its owner, Carole Shorenstein Hays not simply as a stop for touring shows but as an important player in the theatrical culture of the city. While the theater undergoes renovation in its lobby and restrooms, Hays invited audiences to enter through the stage door and sit on stage to experience one after another shows of extraordinary power and diversity. She began with The Event, a horrifyingly relevant exploration of mass violence, grief and understanding, and moved on to the wildly different but equally thrilling The Object Lesson with Geoff Sobelle blending materialism and memories in a magical way. Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet offered whisky, haunting music and one of the year’s best, most immersive stage experiences. Steve Cuiffo is Lenny Bruce brought a favorite son back to San Francisco, and Stew and Heidi Rodewald put their own rock-blues spin on James Baldwin in Notes of a Native Son. Every event at the Curran, including the speaker series hosted by the Curran’s resident literary star, Kevin Sessums, has been glorious and fascinating and involving. What more could you want from theater? (read the original posts here)

• Central Market gets a jewel of a theater in ACT’s The Strand. The Curran wasn’t the only re-birth this year. American Conservatory Theater spent a whole lot of time, money and effort bringing some class to the evolving Central Market area. The new Strand Theater is spectacular and should prove to be a key component in the cultural life of San Francisco. (read the original post here)

• Just Theater blows us away. Again. After A Maze last year, Just Theater became a company I wanted to pay attention to, and boy did that attention pay off. With Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 the company emerged as a producer of provocative, impactful work that should attract as big an audience as possible. This play within a play (within a rehearsal) tackled race, history and personal drama in ways that felt mind bending and heart racing.(read the original post here)

• We got to see Angela Lansbury live on stage. Even if she had just stood on stage and waved, that would have been something, but no, Dame Angela, the legend herself, gave a true and truly funny performance as Madame Arcati in the Broadway touring production of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit as part of the SHN season. At 89, she defied any signs of age and offered pure magic. Extraordinary. (read the original post here)

Hookman splatters expectations. Playwright Lauren Yee offered abundant surprises in this “existential slasher comedy,” which is the best possible description of this electric one-act play from Encore Theatre. (read the original post here)

• Tuneful time travel in Triangle. The most heartfelt new musical I saw this year was Triangle at TheatreWorks, a time-twisting tale involving tragedy and romance. Curtis Moore and Thomas Mizer have crafted a smart, melodious show that feels original and scaled exactly right (the cast of six feels much bigger, as do the emotions). (read the original post here)

• There’s still life left in Scrooge after all. There’s absolutely no reason that the new musical Scrooge in Love should not become a holiday perennial. Creators Kellen Blair, Larry Grossman and Duane Poole have crafted an utterly charming musical sequel to A Christmas Carol with songs you actually want to hear and characters you root for. Of course having Jason Graae as Scrooge is a big Christmas bonus, so kudos to all at 42nd Street Moon for breaking away from the classic or forgotten musicals and presenting something fresh and fantastic. (read the original post here)

• Alice Munro should love Word for Word. There’s no better theater company than Word for Word and no better writer than Alice Munro, so…mic drop. This was sublime from beginning to end as director Joel Mullenix and a cast that included the wondrous Jeri Lynn Cohen, Susan Harloe and Howard Swain brought two Munro stories to life, one from 1968, one from 2012. There was humor, heart and exquisite writing. (read the original post here)

• Cathleen Riddley lays it bare in Tree. Riddley can always be counted on for a strong performance, but in this powerful Julie Hébert family drama at San Francisco Playhouse she was riveting and heartbreaking as an older woman losing touch with herself and her family. (read the original post here)

• And then the drama comes flooding in. My favorite set of the year was G.W. Skip Mercier’s design for Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Water played a big part in the design of a house in marshy Louisiana territory where the forks of the Mississippi meet. There was a storm, a leaky roof and then a deluge of biblical proportions. And boy was it fun to watch. (read the original post here)

• Hypocrites pummel Pirates perfectly. Probably the most fun you could have in a theater (and not mind getting beaned by a beach ball) was Chicago troupe The Hypocrites’ wild and wonderful take on Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. Berkeley Rep had the smarts to introduce the Bay Area to this smart, enterprising company, and I hope we haven’t seen the last of their inventive, energetic take on interactive theater. (read the original post here)

Much to love in Moon’s charming Scrooge

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Jacob Marley (Ryan Drummond, left) pays a reluctant Ebenezer Scrooge (Jason Graae) another ghostly visit in 42nd Street Moon’s world premiere of Scrooge in Love, running now through Dec. 13 at the Eureka Theatre. Below: Graae’s Scrooge is surrounded by friends and family who are now rooting for the once curmudgeonly miser to fall in love. Photos by Patrick O’Connor

Just when you thought there was not a breath of life left in the seasonal cash cow known as A Christmas Carol, along comes Scrooge in Love! to remind us that there’s still a lot of life and heart and holiday spirit left in old Ebenezer Scrooge.

San Francisco’s venerable 42nd Street Moon, formed 23 years ago to present neglected or forgotten musicals, has been shaking things up of late, with the company’s latest coup being the world premiere of this sequel to Dickens’ Carol with music by Larry Grossman (Minnie’s Boys, Snoopy!!!), lyrics by Kellen Blair (Murder for Two) and a book by Duane Poole (A Christmas Memory). It’s an absolute gem of a musical – fresh, clever, spirited and a welcome addition to the canon of holiday perennials.

Most sequels are a doomed enterprise from the start. They assume you know (and care) what has come before and are excited about continuing. In movies, that is often true, but in musicals (Annie 2, Bring Back Birdie, the Phantom disaster known as Love Never Dies) it’s more like the kiss of death. But Dickens’ Carol is so ubiquitous in so many forms (movies, musicals, cartoons, plays) it seems odd that so few have picked up the story of Scrooge after his transformational night with the four ghosts.

That’s what this Scrooge does and does beautifully. We meet Scrooge a year later. Once again, it’s Christmas Eve, and a familiar, chain-wearing specter appears. It’s Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s deceased business partner, and Scrooge has to wonder if this is going to become an annual visitation. This time around, however, Marley is less interested in terrifying Scrooge into changing his misanthropic ways and more into finishing Scrooge’s evolution into a loving pillar of the community by encouraging him to find someone to love.

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The first act takes us on a familiar journey as the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future reappear to help Scrooge reconnect with Belle, the woman who stole his heart as a young man but who slipped away when he valued work and profit more than love and human connection. In Act 2, an even more enlivened Scrooge embarks on a Christmas Day quest to find and woo Belle in a hurry. Not to give anything away, but this being a warmhearted Christmas tale, there’s a happy ending.

I’ve said this before, but in the good old days of musical theater, composers would be tripping over themselves to write shows for Jason Graae the effervescent performer who perviously dazzled in Moon’s Little Me. Possessed of a beautiful, emotional voice and perfect comic timing, Graae is one of our best musical comedy actors, and Scrooge in Love! is a sensational fit for his talents. He seems a little young to be playing Scrooge, but this is the transformed Scrooge, after all, and do we really want to see a crotchety old crank fall in love? Not really, but we do root for Graae’s sweet Scrooge to finish off his transformation in the most romantic way possible. Graae steals hearts (and the show) with his Act 1 ballad “The Things You Should Have Done” and again in Act 2 with a wonderful song called “A Kitchen Built for Twenty” (but a place set for one – a lament for those who realize living alone is not the best option for them). Graae is so good – seemingly effortlessly – in this show he should clear his holiday calendar for the next 30 years or as long as he wants to continue playing Scrooge.

Graae gives a star turn here, but director Dyan McBride’s top-notch production provides abundant pleasures. Music Director Dave Dobrusky with Ken Brill on synthesizer and Ami Nashimoto on cello bering a full, rich sound to the Grossman-Blair score, which has to be one of the most charming and tuneful new scores in recent memory. There’s an old-fashioned, Golden Age feel to the songs, but they’re also infused with intelligence and solid craftsmanship, which makes the evening that much more effervescent. Just try to resist Scrooge’s “Happier” or the ghostly quartet “You Can’t Put a Price on Love.”

McBride and choreographer Staci Arriaga seamlessly blend dance and movement into the action so that the entire two hours feels lively and merry without ever feeling forced. The ghosts are all marvelous, especially the high-energy Elise Youssef as Christmas Past. Ryan Drummond is also wonderful as Marley, who gets his own shot at redemption this time out.

One nice surprise of Scrooge is that it’s actually moving without ever being corny. Scrooge’s connection with Belle (Melissa Reinertson) feels genuine, so it’s easy to feel invested in their love story, and Scrooge’s struggle to find value in life minus the dollar signs is a nice echo of the original and a nod to what makes the Scrooge story so powerful, even in its many and varied forms.

This is a joyous world premiere, an utterly delightful and disarming holiday treat, and you don’t need to be the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be to see that this show is going to have a long, happy life.

Scrooge in Love! continues through Dec. 13 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

42nd Street Moon hits the high seas with Coward’s Sail Away

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In the 42nd Street Moon production of Noël Coward’s Sail Away, passengers and crew aboard the S.S. Coronia include (from left) Barnaby Slade (Nathaniel Rothrock), Nancy Foyle (Khalia Davis), cruise hostess Mimi Paragon (Allison F. Rich), Alvin Lush (Jordan Martin) and Elinor Spencer-Bollard (Darlene Popovic). Below: Mimi develops feelings for passenger Johnny Van Mier (Lucas Coleman). Photos by David Allen

Sail Away, the last musical for which the great Noël Coward wrote the whole shebang (book, music, lyrics), had two things going for it when it premiered on Broadway in 1961. First was the customary Coward wit, which shone in numbers like “The Passenger’s Always Right” and “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” And then there was the show’s star, Elaine Stritch for whom Coward created the role of cruise hostess Mimi Paragon. Any show was better for having Stritch in it (Goldilocks anyone?), and the combination of her personality and Coward’s charm should have proven irresistible.

Reviews were decidedly mixed, however, and the show only ran five months. London audiences were much more receptive to Stritch and Coward, and the show ran nearly a year. But since then, Sail Away has done just that – it has pretty much sailed into obscurity, making it ideal fodder for the folks at 42nd Street Moon, the company that has spent the last two decades celebrating lost, forgotten and under-appreciated musicals.

The biggest challenge facing director Greg MacKellan would be finding an actor to play Mimi – filling the shoes of Elaine Stritch is a daunting task to be sure. But MacKellan found a ringer in Allison F. Rich, who had been such a standout in his Nick and Nora last spring. Rich is wry, sexy, statuesque and possessed of a powerhouse voice. On stage she’s something like a cross between Allison Janney and Carol Burnett, which is mightily appealing.

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The whole show rests on Rich’s capable shoulders because Mimi is by far the most interesting character in the show. A failed actress who now cruises the high seas giving tours of ruins and organizing shuffleboard tournaments, Mimi has sass to spare, and on this particular cruise, she will far for a handsome younger man, a trust fund baby named Johnny Van Mier (played by the charming Lucas Coleman and put her cynicism to the test.

That’s really all that happens in Sail Away – a crusty cruise director falls in love, while around her, the various passengers do their best to come across as colorful even if none of them is terribly compelling.

There’s a secondary love story involving a sweet solo traveler, Barnaby (Nathaniel Rothrock) and Nancy (Khalia Davis), secretary to a famous romance author (the ever-amusing Darlene Popovic). Nancy has zero interest in taking dictation and is only on board for romance. Though she resists Barnaby at first, she succumbs to his earnestness and they dance through two Coward numbers attempting to be hip by 1961 standards, “Beatnik Love Affair” and “When You Want Me.” Their choreography, by Brittany Danielle has more than charm and does as much to develop their personalities as Coward’s rather wan book.

The rest of the passengers try to make up for the surprising lack of plot by being annoying. There’s the brash American couple, the Candijacks (Katherine Cooper and Davern Wright), the stuffy Brits, the Nutleys (Michael Patrick Gaffney, Maria Mikheyenko) and the lax mother (Ashley Garlick) and her out-of-control child (a fine Jordan Martin).

The Keats-spouting author, Elinor Spencer-Bollard, has a folksy comedy number, “Alice,” which Popovic delivers beautifully, and Lucinda Hitchcock Cone gets to be the overprotective mother of Johnny as Evelyn Van Mier, but her only function seems to be to disapprove loudly of Mimi’s excessive enthusiasm.

Musical director Dave Dobrusky at the piano with Nick Di Scala on woodwinds keep Coward’s score lively, and there are some delights here beyond the show-stopping final number (Mimi’s “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?”). Her duet with Martin on “The Little One’s ABC” yields some very satisfying laughs, and her “Useless Useful Phrases” is an enjoyable traveler’s lament.

Coward seems to be working in a decidedly Irving Berlin-meets-Rodgers and Hammerstein mode here, and while Sail Away is pretty bland compared to the much livelier Anything Goes, his attempt at an R&H ballad, “Later Than Spring,” is a lot like the show itself: enjoyable if not terribly convincing.

Noël Coward’s Sail Away continues through Nov. 15 in a 42nd Street Moon production at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

Nick & Nora and musical theater necrophilia

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The cast of 42nd Street Moon’s Nick & Nora includes (from left) Brittany Danielle and Ryan Drummond as Nick and Nora Charles, and Allison Rich (right) as actress Tracy Gardner and Nicole Frydman (reclining) as murder victim Lorraine Bixby. Below: Danielle’s Nora is charmed by William Giammona as Victor Moisa, much to the chagrin of Drummond’s Nick. Photos by David Allen

The greatest crime the musical Nick & Nora seems to have committed in its ill-fated 1991 debut was not being nearly as good as it should have been and not being nearly the catastrophe everyone had imagined. The notorious musical is based on Dashiell Hammett’s final novel, The Thin Man from 1933, which was turned into the more memorable series of Thin Man movies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as soigné sophisticates Nick and Nora Charles, who also solve crimes.

Nick & Nora has not been fully produced since its Broadway demise (72 previews and only a week of performances following the disastrous reviews), which is why we love 42nd Street Moon, the company that dusts off the flawed, forgotten and factious musicals of old and allows a contemporary audience to see what’s actually there. Sometimes these shows fell through the cracks for good reason, but more often there’s something surprising or gem-like to unearth in their resurrection.

Moon’s production of Nick & Nora does not reveal an unjustly maligned masterpiece, but it is great fun – exuberantly produced with a game cast directed by co-artistic director Greg MacKellan. One of the most common reactions to the original Broadway production seems to have been “well, it wasn’t as bad as they said it was,” and that is, perhaps, the worst kind of review. Not only is the show not good, it’s not the delicious debacle that can be just as fun (if not more so) than a masterwork.

No, Nick & Nora is an inherently flawed show with moments of charm, humor and even beauty that fails to make a case for itself as a work of art independent of the novel and the movies (and the radio show and the subsequent TV series and assorted rip-offs). The one thing I kept thinking over and over while watching the nearly three-hour show is, “This gives me a whole new appreciation for just how good City of Angels is.” That jazzy show is also set amid the glamour and backbiting of Hollywood in the early mid-20th century, but it’s got style and high concept and a score that won’t quit.

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It’s understandable that expectations would be high for Nick & Nora. It’s director and book writer, Arthur Laurents, wrote what is arguably the greatest musical of all time in Gypsy and has other shows like West Side Story and La Cage aux Folles on his lengthy and distinguished resumé. Composer Charles Strouse had huge success with Bye Bye Birdie and Annie, and lyricist Richard Matlby Jr. made a splash with his Richard Maltby collaborations Baby and Closer Than Ever and then with his lyrics for Miss Saigon. That’s the kind of creative team that looks good on paper, but on stage, there’s no real magic. These are all artists capable of great work, but the spark of inspiration seems to have bypassed this endeavor entirely.

Still, Nick & Nora has a sort of clunky, old-fashioned charm, which director MacKellan emphasizes in his enjoyable production. Ryan Drummond and Brittany Danielle in the title roles have abundant charm, but what’s nice about their downplayed performances is that they also come across as human beings and not Art Deco archetypes of crisp, urbane repartee. The show’s creators, however, have not done a good job of conveying who Nick and Nora are in their songs or convincing us that these blithe crime busters should be singing and dancing. Laurents introduces marital discord into the mix, which seems wildly off base, especially when he’s already juggling a complicated murder mystery in which every supporting character seems to be a suspect. On Broadway there was an actual dog playing famous sidekick Asta, but this production keeps the canine offstage.

The show’s one bold theatrical touch is having murder victim Lorraine Bixby (played with brio by Nicole Frydman) continually back from the dead to reenact key moments of her tumultuous life and death. She also gets the score’s best song in the funny and rousing “Men.” Lorraine was a movie studio bookkeeper with secrets and potentially destructive gossip. Many had a motive to see her silenced, including the Hepburn-esque actress Tracy Gardner (the robust Allison F. Rich), the crooked producer (Michael Kern Cassidy), the corrupt detective with a foot fetish (Michael Barrett Austin), the embezzling director (Brian Herndon), the slick union chief (William Giammona) and the highly protective wife of the producer (the invaluable Cindy Goldfield). There are other players as well, including the surprisingly drawn racial stereotypes (the show is set in 1937 but was written in the ’90s so there’s really no excuse) of a Mexican entertainer and a Japanese house boy.

The talented cast makes a good case for Nick & Nora as a show that deserves another look and perhaps a longer life in community theater, but it’s also easy to see why this Broadway misfire – stuck in that purgatory of “not so bad/not so good” – has lain dormant for nearly a quarter of a century.

[with thanks to the marvelous George Maguire for the headline]

42nd Street Moon’s Nick & Nora continues through April 19 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

A hitch in the getalong: Looking back at 2014’s best


Reviewing the shows I reviewed this year, I was struck by two things: first, and as usual, there’s an abundance of talented people doing great work at all levels of Bay Area theater; second, this was a lesser year in Bay Area theater. Perhaps the reason for the later has to do with the changes in the Bay Area itself – artists are fleeing outrageous rents, companies are downsizing or disappearing altogether. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I don’t see as much theater as I used to and to find the really interesting stuff, you have vary the routine and expand the reach a little more.

That said, there was still plenty of terrific theater in 2014. Herewith some thoughts on an assortment of favorites.


1. Lost in A Maze-ment – Just Theater’s A Maze originally appeared in the summer of 2013, and I missed it. Luckily for me (and all audiences), the company brought it back with the help of Shotgun Players. Rob Handel’s play surprises at every turn and resists easy classification. The cast was extraordinary, and coming to the end of the play only made you want to watch it again immediately. Read my review here.

2. Choosing Tribes – Families were the thing at Berkeley Rep last spring. Issues of communication, familial and otherwise, were at the heart of director Jonathan Moscone’s powerful production of Nina Raine’s Tribes. Dramatic, comic, frustrating and completely grounded in real life, this is a play (and a production) that lingers. Read my review here.

3. Tony Kushner’s Intelligent – There’s no one like Tony Kushner, and when he decides to go full on Arthur Miller, it’s worth nothing. Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at Berkeley Rep was a master class in the art of dialogue and family dynamics. Read my review here.

4. Adopt a Mutt – San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen’s Mutt at Impact Theater (co-produced with Ferocious Lotus Theater Company) was hilarious. Thinking about Patricia Austin’s physical comedy still makes me laugh. Sharp, edgy and consistently funny, this was my favorite new play of the year. Read my review here.

5. Blazing RaisinCalifornia Shakespeare Theater’s 40th anniversary season got off to a powerhouse start with A Raisin in the Sun, which worked surprisingly well outdoors in director Patricia McGregor’s beguiling production. Read my review here.

6. Party on – The UNIVERSES’ Party People was probably the most exciting show of the year … and the most educational. An original musical about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, this Party, directed by Liesl Tommy, was thrilling, revolutionary, incendiary and a powerful example of what theater can do. Read my review here.

7. Counting the DaysThe Bengsons, husband-and-wife duo Shaun and Abigail Bengson, proved that a rock musical can have heart and great music and intrigue in Hundred Days. This world premiere had some structural problems (goodbye, ghost people), but with a glorious performer like Abigail Bengson on stage, all is forgiven. Pure enjoyment that, with any luck, will return as it continues to evolve. Read my review here.

8. Fire-breathing DragonsJenny Connell Davis’ The Dragon Play at Impact Theatre was a strange and wondrous thing. Director Tracy Ward found nuance and deep wells of feeling in one of Impact’s best-ever productions. Read my review here.

9. Barbra’s basement – Michael Urie was the only actor on stage in Jonathan Tolins’ marvelous play Buyer and Cellar, part of the SHN season, but he was more incisive and entertaining than many a giant ensemble cast. This tale of working in the “shops” in Barbra Streisand’s basement was screamingly funny but with more. Urie was a marvel of charm and versatility. Read my review here.

10. Thoughts on Ideation – It might seem unfair that Bay Area scribe Aaron Loeb’s Ideation should appear on the year’s best list two years in a row, but the play is just that good. Last year, San Francisco Playhouse presented the world premiere of the play in its Sandbox Series. That premiere resulted in awards and a re-staging with the same cast and director on the SF Playhouse mains stage. More brilliant and entertaining than ever, Loeb’s play is an outright gem.


Best hop from screen to stage – The Broadway touring company of Once, which arrived as part of the SHN season, is a superb example of how deft adaptation can further reveal a work of art’s depth and beauty. Rather than just stick the movie on stage (hello, Elf or any number of recent ho-hummers), director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett make the cinematic theatrical and bring the audience directly into the heart of the story. Read my review here.

Dramatic duo – The year’s most electric pairing turned out to be Stacy Ross and Jamie Jones in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Gidion’s Knot. Intense barely begins to describe the taut interaction between a parent and a fifth-grade teacher reacting to crisis and death. These two fine actors (under the direction of Jon Tracy were phenomenal. Read my review here.

Bucky’s back – Among the most welcome returns of the year was D.W. Jacobs’ R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe starring original Bucky Ron Campbell. Before, sadly, succumbing to financial hardship, the late San Jose Repertory Theatre brought Bucky back, and everything the man says seems smart and/or funny and/or relevant to our own lives. Read my review here.

Simply Chita! – For sheer pleasure, nothing this year beat the evening spent with octogenarian legend Chita Rivera in Chita: A Legendary Celebration as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Chita was a wow in every way. Read my review here.

MVP 1 – Nicholas Pelczar started off the year practically stealing the show in ACT’s Major Barbara as Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins (review here). Later in the year he was the show in Marin Theatre Company’s The Whale (review here). Confined in a fat suit, Pelczar was a marvel of compassion and complication. He also happened to be adorable in Cal Shakes’ Pygmalion and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pelczar has entered the ranks of the Bay Area’s best.

MVP 2 – Simply put, without Emily Skinner in the lead role, there would have been little reason to see 42nd Street Moon’s production of Do I Hear a Waltz?. Tony nominee Skinner was a revelation as a tightly wound American tourist in Venice. Her voice was spectacular, but her entire performance was even more so. Read my review here.

MVP 3 – Jeffrey Brian Adams deserves some sort of theatrical purple heart medal. His performance as Chuck Baxter in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Promises, Promises is heartfelt, multi-dimensional and entirely likable – in other words, he is everything the production itself is not. In this giant misstep by the usually reliable Playhouse, Adams shone and presented himself as someone to watch from here on out.

No thanks – Not every show can be a winner. Among the shows I could have done without this year: Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Berkeley Rep; Promises, Promises at San Francisco Playhouse; Forbidden Broadway at Feinstein’s at the Nikko; SHN’s I Love Lucy Live on Stage.

Thank you, more please – If these shows didn’t make my best-of list, they came very close: Lasso of Truth at Marin Theatre Company; HIR at Magic Theatre; 42nd Street Moon’s original musical Painting the Clouds with Sunshine; California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Aurora Theatre Company’s Rapture, Blister, Burn; SHN’s Pippin; Impact Theatre’s Year of the Rooster.

Emily Skinner waltzes away with Moon’s Waltz

A love letter to Emily Skinner…

Dear Ms. Skinner,I had the pleasure of seeing you perform in 42nd Street Moon’s production of Do I Hear a Waltz, and I was completely captivated by your Leona Samish, the lonely American tourist who travels to Venice for a taste of life.

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I have fond memories of Moon’s 1998 production back when they were doing staged concert productions with actors holding their scripts. That was my first encounter with Waltz, a 1965 Broadway curiosity that matched three musical theater masters – Richard Rodgers writing the score, Stephen Sondheim writing the lyrics and Arthur Laurents writing the book based on his play The Time of the Cuckoo (also the source material for David Lean’s 1955 movie Summertime starring Katharine Hepburn as Jane Hudson, a totally re-written Leona). The show, by all accounts, was a misery to create, primarily because Rodgers, lacking confidence in his abilities in the wake of Oscar Hammerstein’s death, was a miserable and stubborn collaborator

The result is a show that feels part Follies, all sophistication and darkness, and part The Sound of Music, all cheerful musical comedy. Sondheim has described the show as perfectly respectable but labels it a “why?” musical – why, if the creators were not passionate about the adaptation, does the musical need to exist?

I can tell you, with some certainty, that “why?” was answered for me in the person of you, Ms. Skinner. This oddball musical needs to exist so that actors as skilled as you can perform in it and attempt to make some sense of it. I was not lucky enough to see you in your star-making turn in Side Show, but I did see you on Broadway in The Full Monty and in James Joyce’s The Dead, but seeing you in the intimate Eureka Theatre was a revelation. With no microphones and only piano accompaniment (Dave Dobrusky is the pianist/musical director), it was just you and the show and the audience.

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I will say that the set looks so much like the Olive Garden that it was distracting and that the supporting cast was uneven but certainly has its charms, but this experience was all about Leona, a tough, funny, lonely woman who deserves more from life and has set out to grab it. If there is ever serious interest in reviving Do I Hear a Waltz on Broadway (and there probably won’t be unless Sondheim wants to do some serious tinkering), we have found the ideal Leona. In your capable hands, Leona is likable without being sappy or needy. She’s smart but she’s out of her element and a little off balance, especially when she falls for a Venetian antique seller who may or may not be on the up and up. Leon has some considerable defenses around herself, but she also, as we see briefly, a great capacity for joy.

Ms. Skinner, you are in spectacular voice – “Someone Woke Up” and the title song have never sounded so good. I found myself wishing that Sondheim and Rodgers had mustered a great aria for Leona to perform at show’s end that lets us in on the state of her heart and mind as she heads home. In the latter part of Act 2, it’s almost as if the creative team forgot they were creating a musical and focused much more on the play. In the hands of a skilled actor we hardly miss the score (Leona’s drunken breakdown at the party she’s throwing is some serious musical theater drama), but Waltz does end rather with a whimper, which doesn’t quite seem fair to Leona.

As strange as it is, Do I Hear a Waltz? is awfully entertaining, and kudos to director Greg MacKellan for wrestling this beast into such pleasant form. But the best decision of all was to hire such a remarkable leading lady. Thank you, Ms. Skinner, for allowing us such a captivating Waltz.

42nd Street Moon’s Do I Hear a Waltz continues through Oct. 19 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

PHOTO CREDITS: (top) Emily Skinner as Leona Samish in 42nd Street Moon’s Do I Hear a Waltz? (lower) Skinner and Jonah Broscow as her pint-sized guide, Mauro. Photos by pwophoto.com

Bright and bouncy, Moon’s Sunshine radiates charm

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Kari Yancy as Alice swoons while Galen Murphy-Hoffman as George declares his love in the world-premiere musical Painting the Clouds with Sunshine, a first in the 42nd Street Moon canon. Below: Movie stars Iris (Allison F. Rich) and Russell (Ryan Drummond) demonstrate a little Fred and Ginger action. Photos by David Allen

The song titles say a lot about what this musical is like: “Livin’ in the Sunlight,” “You Hit the Spot,” “Sweeping the Clouds Away.” If it seems there’s a rosy glow emanating from these titles, that’s exactly right. You’ll find no more glowing show in town than 42nd Street Moon’s first original musical in its two-decade history, Painting the Clouds with Sunshine.

This is a stage musical in love with movies. Creators Greg MacKellan and Mark D. Kaufmann have learned a whole lot from the passing parade of lost, forgotten and banal-to-brilliant musicals that have made 42nd Street Moon’s reputation since its debut in 1993. They eschew the corniness of most musical books, build in a whole lot of charm (from both performers and their songs) and add just enough shadow and smarts to keep the show from flittering away in the breeze of twirling tap dancers.

MacKellan (a 42nd Street Moon founder, with Stephanie Rhoads and Kaufmann, who also directs, have chosen Depression-era movie songs from 1929 to 1939 to tell their original tale of a hardworking journalist, a not-so-naive farm girl from Iowa and the world-weary owner of a diner whose paths cross in 1935.

The plot, while not exactly heavy drama, isn’t light. Morals are compromised (or at least sorely tested), hearts are broken (and mended), secrets are revealed and propositions are tendered. The action takes place in a Hollywood of swanky parties, graveyards and streets full of people down on their luck.

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There’s only a cast of eight, but they work hard to populate Tinsel Town. We even get glimpses of the glamorous movies themselves in the Fred-and-Ginger like Russell and Iris (Ryan Drummond and Allison F. Rich), who convey a lovely sense of escapist fun that made the movies so popular (and important to the national mood) in the ’30s.

Galen Murphy-Hoffman is George, a reporter for the Hollywood Citizen News, and Kari Yancy is hyper-appealing as Alice, the young woman who slings hash but has big dreams, not the least of which is helping her folks back in Iowa survive the financial disaster of their farm.

John-Elliott Kirk is a diner regular who works at the RKO Studios, and he finally got the nerve to act on his years-long flirtation with diner owner Willa played with tenderhearted strength by the invaluable Cami Thompson. Nicole Frydman is the wisecracking best friend of Alice and Justin Gillman is a newsstand owner who knows how to survive on the streets pushing more than papers.

If these folks are all types, they’re also more human than they might be than in, say, an actual 1930s movie. They also have a robust selection of songs from the era to keep things lively. There are great songwriters represented like Rodgers and Hart (“My Friend the Night”) and Frank Loesser (“Some Like It Hot”) and some of the era’s most industrious tunesmiths like Mack Gordon, Harry Revel and Al Dubin.

Among the many musical highlights (Dave Dobrusky is the pianist and musical director) are “Breakfast Table Love,” “Dusty Shoes” and “Gather Lip Rouge While You May.” The vocal arrangements rely heavily on harmonies, and they’re gorgeous. Staci Arriaga’s choreography has bounce and inventiveness, and the costumes by Felicia Lilienthal add delightful period color.

The charm of Painting the Clouds cannot be overstated. It has been conjured with tremendous skill and true affection for the period. The show, like the movies it celebrates, is “an elixir of joy to put us in dream land for a couple of hours.”

42nd Street Moon’s Painting the Clouds with Sunshine continues through April 20 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

Big laughs, super star in Moon’s Little Me

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Jason Graae stars as all the men who woo the irresistible Belle Poitrine (Teressa Byrne) in the 42nd Street Moon production of Little Me at the Eureka Theatre. Below: Graae is Prince Cherney and Sharon Rietkerk is young Belle. Photos by David Allen

My faith in the good ol’ American star-making machine is kaput. Any yahoo with a access to a “reality” show camera crew gets 15 minutes and all the nonsensical covers of ridiculous magazines they could wish for. Or singers of dubious talent get in front of a national audience singing notes by the pound with no understanding of (or interest in) the songs they’re macerating.

And then you have journeymen performers like Jason Graae, who by all rights should be an enormous star, doing stellar work that is seen by far too few. I get worked up every time I see Graae perform because something is definitely not right that his dynamic performer with a golden voice and flawless comic timing hasn’t already had several hit sitcoms, won a couple of Tony Awards, sold millions of albums, had a few plum roles on the big screen and written at least one tell-all memoir. In another era, all of the above would be true, but the truth is, Graae is a genius in a world of show biz that has come and gone (and may yet come again – if we’re lucky).

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, go see Graae play seven leading men in 42nd Street Moon’s production of Little Me, a 1962 musical tailored to the talents of Sid Caesar. The irresistible score by Cy Coleman (music) and Carolyn Leigh (lyrics) features delightful songs like “I’ve Got Your Number,” “On the Other Side of the Tracks,” “Deep Down Inside” and “Here’s to Us” among others, and though you may leave humming a few tunes, what really lingers is the rip-roaring book by Neil Simon (adapted from novel Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs of That Great Star of Stage, Screen and Television, Belle Poitrine, as told to Patrick Dennis).

Act 2 is kind of a letdown, comically speaking, but there’s so much effervescent good will left over from the hearty laughs of Act 1 it hardly matters. And the real reason to see this production is Graae’s master class in musical comedy. His first (and most frequently recurring) character is Noble Eggleston, a blue blood from the right side of the tracks who falls for exactly the wrong girl, an impoverished Belle Shlumpfert from Drifter’s Row (definitely the wrong side of the tracks). Theirs is a love for the ages – you can tell because music plays every time they touch – and they’ll spend most of their lives pining for one another and just missing the chance to be happy in one another’s arms.

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While Noble heads off to Harvard and Yale, where he’ll become a doctor and a lawyer (and a war hero), Belle makes it her life’s mission to become worthy of Noble’s love by attaining wealth, culture and social position. This quest leads Belle into the arms of all the wrong men, all happily played by Graae.

This story is told by Older Belle (Teressa Byrne) as she regales her biographer (Caleb Haven Draper as Patrick Dennis) with stories of her colorful past, and Younger Belle is played by Sharon Rietkerk, a spirited and big-voiced leading lady who is more than up to the challenge of keeping up with Graae while still managing to get some great laughs on her own. They are a delightful pairing, and it’s easy to see why Belle and Noble are so hooked on one another.

My favorite of Graae’s characters is the clueless Fred Poitrine, an inexperienced farm boy on his way to the European theater of World War I. Graae does idiocy brilliantly, but he also does it with heart. Fred’s big number, “Real Live Girl,” is as sweetly heartbreaking as it is funny.

When you’ve got someone as sure-footed as Graae going for big laughs onstage, you kind of want things to go wrong, at least a little bit. When the comedy train is going full speed, you can’t stop it – you just have to make sure everyone stays on board then stoke the engine a little more. That’s what happened with Graae on opening night when a pistol accidentally fell out of his pants (no really, he was just happy to see us) and, while playing French performer Val DuVal, his moustache kept sliding all over his face. Those were some of the funniest moments of the 2 ½-hour show, but there are plenty of sizable laughs built into Simon’s script, and they usually have something to do with rich people making fun of poor people or poor people sacrificing anything to escape their grim reality.

Aside from the joys of Graae and Rietkerk, director Eric Inman’s production is a hit-and-miss affair, and it’s impossible to laugh over the shortcomings of Act 2 (the highlight of which is Rietkerk and Byrne singing the title song). But music director Brandon Adams, at the piano alongside Nick Di Scala on woodwinds, keeps the electricity of Coleman’s score surging, and the sheer enjoyment of watching Graae do such good work diminishes any sense of letdown in the show itself.

Little Me may not be a genius piece of musical theater, but when you have leading players as appealing as Graae and Rietkerk and delivering superstar turns, the Little charms go a long, long way.

[bonus interview]

I interviewed Jason Graae for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here. [subscription may be required]


42nd Street Moon’s Little Me continues through May 19 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

Moon’s Carnival: midway between comedy, drama

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Optimistic orphan Lili Daurier (Ashley Jarrett) makes friends with the carnival puppets, unaware that puppeteer Paul Berthalet (Ryan Drummond, left) and his assistant Jacquot (Michael Doppe, center) are the people pulling the strings in the 1961 musical Carnival revived by 42nd Street Moon. Below: Rosalie (Dyan McBride, left) eyes Jarrett’s Lili as she watches the magic of Marco the Magnificent (Bill Olson). Photos by David Allen

Watching the 1961 musical Carnival, a hit on Broadway, it’s fairly easy to see why the show was never a candidate for major Broadway revival or a staple of community theaters. The score, by Bob Merrill, has real charm and beauty mixed with pleasant mediocrity. The standout song, “Love Makes the World Go Round,” is used to great effect, although the most poignant song in the score is a longing-for-home number called “Mira” that perfectly captures what the show wants to be: a sweet, melodic story with melancholy and pain running not too far under the surface. And therein lies the tricky part. This musical, with a book by Michael Stewart, looks like a happy mainstream musical, but it’s much more complex than that. In many ways, it succeeds in being musical comedy and drama, but the creators didn’t have quite the sophistication to pull it off – or maybe they felt they were offering as much sophistication or complexity as an early ’60s Broadway audience could handle.

Whatever the reason, Carnival Remains a curiosity, and thanks to 42nd Street Moon, the great reviver of Broadway curiosities, treasures and castoffs, we get to explore Carnival games in a production that lets us experience what the show does best. Director Greg MacKellan and choreographer Jayne Zaban guide a spirited cast through a bright 2 1/2 hours filled with some lively moves and some gorgeous voices.


In its two key roles, Carnival requires performers who can really sing and really act with an almost operatic intensity. Leading lady Lili Daurier (Ashley Jarrett) is freshly orphaned and just off the bus looking for a friend of her late father’s who sells souvenirs in a second-rate French carnival. The man she’s looking for is dead, and she quickly learns that carnies who offer a helping hand may have other body parts in mind. Lili, who is described later in the show as a “grown-up girl with the mind of a child,” is a tricky character. Is she simply a country bumpkin so naive to the ways of the world she might as well be 9 years old? Or is this more of a Light in the Piazza situation in which her simplemindedness is more complex? Hard to know, but Lili’s sweetness and sincerity are never in question, and those qualities are the primary reason she bonds with the puppets in the carnival’s rag-tag puppet show and helps turn the struggling act into the hit of the midway.

The primary puppeteer, Paul Berthalet (Ryan Drummond) is a disillusioned former dancer dealing with war injuries and a life he neither expected nor likes. He’s immediately skeptical of Lili and her infatuation with the rakish magician Marco the Magnificent (Bill Olson), but at some point, he falls for her and is only able to express himself when he’s performing as one of the puppets. When he’s just himself, he’s downright cruel to Lili, much to the disgust of his assistant, Jacquot (an affecting Michael Doppe).

Both Drummond and Jarrett have powerful voices and give convincing performances, especially Jarrett, whose interaction with the rather disappointing (but well performed) puppets is filled with childlike glee.

With such interesting central characters, it’s too bad that the secondary love story, between Marco and his assistant, the Incomparable Rosalie (Dyan McBride) relies more on comedy than complexity, and the introduction of a potential fiancé for Rosalie, a goofy vet from Zurich, doesn’t really add much to the overall story, although McBride’s number, “Humming,” is performed with her customary aplomb and crack comic timing.

Carnival, in the end, plays it safely down the middle, trying to be a family-friendly musical with darker undertones. There’s a gentle charm to the show, and this production’s musical director, Dave Dobrusky, makes a melodic case for the best of Merrill’s score, but there seems to be an impulse on the part of the creators to make something more significant here. The songless final stretch of the musical is all about drama and character and not at all about fulfilling musical comedy expectations.


42nd Street Moon’s Carnival continues through April 21 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.