No tune like a show tune

Caucasian Chalk Circle

Omoze Idehenre and Manoel Felciano in American Conservatory Theater’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Photo by Kevin Berne

Theater is musical even when it’s not necessarily musical theater. At the very least, you’re likely to hear music in the lobby before and after the show or at intermission. People sing on stage, even in plays, and what’s a blackout without some sort of music or soundscape with which to accompany it?

My point is that theater and music are deeply and inextricably linked. Two ends of the show music spectrum played out this week in San Francisco.

At American Conservatory Theater, directory John Doyle – best known for his Broadway revivals of Sondheim (Sweeney Todd, Company) in which the actors double as the orchestra – applied his talents to a new translation (by Dominique Lozano) of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. On what you might call a “garbage set” (think Cats meets Rent), he stages a sort of wartime, apocalyptic version of the Judgment of Solomon as filtered through Brecht’s epic theater.

What’s most interesting about this play is Doyle’s use of music. You’d never call this a musical, but there’s an awful lot of music. San Francisco composer Nathaniel Stookey has created a sound that is part choral blast, part solemn chant. New ACT core company member Manoel Felciano does most of the heavy vocal lifting as the de facto narrator, and his superb voice serves the score well.

Stookey’s score – at turns accompanied by the occasional accordion, guitar or violin – never lets loose and fully engages singer and audience. This is Brecht, after all, with the theater of alienation and all that. Also, to reach that kind of musical apex would veer more directly into full-fledged musical theater.

The traditional show tune, to put it rather crudely, allows for full release.

Caucasian Chalk Circle takes us close but not all the way. That somehow makes this enterprise seem a more serious way to serve both Brecht’s (and Doyle’s) vision of a wartime parable.

For full-on show tune release – and then some – we had to wait until Saturday night’s performance of Forever Broadway at the Herbst Theatre.

The latest from emerging impresario John Bisceglie, who made a splash with the SF Follies, Forever Broadway was a show-tune lover’s haven and pure hell for anyone else. Here’s the general overview: three hours; a cast of 80; nearly 90 songs. If you left Caucasian Chalk Circle feeling musically frustrated, you left Forever Broadway feeling overstuffed. Director/producer Bisceglie does things on a grand scale, and this show is a lot of fun. But it’s also a little much, even for a show-tune fanatic like me.

The first act has the slickness of a really good high school show choir or a better-than-average cruise ship revue. More than 50 songs are crammed into about 80 minutes, with singers and dancers hustling on and off the stage like they’ll be penalized for lingering (or at least mowed down by a horde of black-clad backup singers, which could actually happen).

Music and vocal director Frank Johnson’s pre-recorded accompaniment adds to the slick factor but also keeps the evening moving right along. Toward the end of the first act, we start a medley with a fist-pumping ensemble number from Les Miserables, segue to “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” make a divergent Sondheim stop for “Broadway Baby” then hustle into the expurgated lyrics of “Greased Lightning” before landing, rather inexplicably, at “Tomorrow” from Annie.

It’s a democratic song selection without any consistent rhyme or reason, but there can be no doubt we hear some wonderful voices. There are also moments of cringing, such as when the inevitable “Memory” pops up with a dancer mimicking feline movements behind the singer.

Act 2 is a definite improvement because Bisceglie lets his singers take the time to connect with the audience and invest more emotion in their songs. Keith Stevenson’s “Some Enchanted Evening” is as sweet a version as I’ve heard, completely free of bombast. And Jason Hite’s musical monologue “If I Didn’t Believe In You” from Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years was one of the long evening’s most memorable moments.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the show that came off best on this show tune-y night was Avenue Q. A suite of that puppet musical’s songs – performed, I might add, completely without puppets by Brett Hammon, Brooke Wallace, Larry Cowen, Daniel Schultz, Chad Benjamin Potter, Lee Achacoso-Haskin and Mandy Wilczynski – was funny and sweet. Suzanne Henry worked the audience with Stars and the Moon (another Jason Robert Brown charmer), and Désirée Goyette showed off a dazzling voice on “Gold,” an unfortunately mediocre Frank Wildhorn song from Camille Claudel.

Bisceglie and his gargantuan cast will reprise the show March 21 at the Herbst (3pm). Tickets, as they were on Saturday, are $25, which is a bargain when you consider how many singers and songs you get for your entertainment dollar.

With Bisceglie’s stage full of talent, I couldn’t help longing for a celebration of the great American show tune that re-cast favorites in a new light and exposed hidden gems that should have stopped their original shows but never got the chance. Maybe that will be the ever-enterprising Bisceglie’s next extravaganza.

Here’s a video taste of Biscgelie’s Forever Broadway. Perhaps I don’t have to mention this, but it’s kinda long.



American Conservatory Theater’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle continues through. Call 415 or visit for information.

Forever Broadway returns March 21. Visit for information.



Delighted by `Ruined,’ Nottage nabs Pulitzer

Lynn Nottage
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage. Photo by the LA Times

Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined, inspired by Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The play, about a Congolese brothel run by a woman named Mama Nadi, is about a country torn apart by civil war and about a woman who is either protecting women or profiting from them. The play began at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last year and is now off Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York.

The 44-year-old Nottage told the Associated Press: “I wanted to tell the story of these women and the war in the Congo and I couldn’t find anything about them in the newspapers or in the library, so I felt I had to get on a plane and go to Africa and find the story myself. I felt there was a complete absence in the media of their narrative. It’s very different now, but when I went in 2004 that was definitely the case.”

Nottage’s best known work, Intimate Apparel, had a successful run in the Bay Area with a 2005 production from Mountain View’s TheatreWorks. That same year, San Francisco’s Lorraine Hansberry Theatre produced Nottage’s Crumbs from the Table of Joy.

Less successful was a 2002 production of Nottage’s Las Meninas at San Jose Repertory Theatre.

Nottage holds degrees from Brown University and the Yale School of Drama. She also is an alumna of New Dramatists. She is currently a visiting lecturer at the Yale School of Drama and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, filmmaker Tony Gerber, and daughter Ruby.

The Pulitzer finalists were:
Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo, a jarring comedy that examines family and romantic relationships with a lacerating wit while eschewing easy answers and pat resolutions.
In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, a robust musical about struggling Latino immigrants in New York City today that celebrates the virtues of sacrifice, family solidarity and gritty optimism.

And this year’s jury comprised Dominic Papatola, theater critic, St. Paul Pioneer Press (chair); John M. Clum, chair, department of theater studies, Duke University; Jim Hebert, theater critic, San Diego (CA) Union-Tribune; David Henry Hwang, playwright, Brooklyn, NY; and Linda Winer, theater critic, Newsday.

Visit for a complete list of this year’s winners.

Here’s Nottage doing a radio show on the topic of Ruined, with Saidah Arrika Ekulona, who plays Mama Nadi:

`Happy’ music

American Conservatory Theater’s first-ever cast album _ for last year’s superb Happy End by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill _ is released Tuesday (Jan.30) on the Ghostlight Records label.

The CD _ the first English-language recording of the score _ is beautifully produced by David Frost and preserves music director/conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos’ excellent work with a snazzy, jazzy eight-piece band.

The Brecht-Weill score (with lyrics adapted by Michael Feingold) is more accessible than some of their other collaborations and features some sonic gems including “The Sailor’s Tango” (sensuously performed by Charlotte Cohn), “The Mandalay Song” (Jack Willis in a vigorous performance as Sam “Mammy” Wurlitzer) and another lustrous Cohn performance on “Surabaya Johnny.”

The ensemble’s moment to shine in this Guys and Dolls meets Threepenny Opera tale of gangsters and Salvation Army soldiers comes in the prologue, with the cynical “blessing” of Rockefeller, Ford and J.P. Morgan.

The show’s lively but sardonic tone resonates throughout the disc, coming on strong in the epilogue: “And though the poor may starve and die, make sure no earthly court will try the rich who rule the Earth the way you rule the sky, almighty Lord!”

Happy End makes for some very happy listening indeed.