Freestyle Love reigns supreme

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.


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.

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’s Covid policies are here.

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

Soaking it up at the SpongeBob musical

The company of The SpongeBob Musical, part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre. Below: Daria Pilar Redus is Sandy Cheeks, Lorenzo Pugliese is SpongeBob SquarePants and Beau Bradshaw is Patrick Star. Photos by Jeremy Daniel

The “why” is easy. When you’ve got a product that earns literally billions of dollars around the globe, at some point you have to stop and say, “Gee, wouldn’t this be a great Broadway musical?” At least that’s what happens these days, especially with successful animated ventures – please note all the Disney musicals (except Aida), Shrek, Anastasia and The Prince of Egypt on its way. So it wasn’t at all surprising when the folks at Nickelodeon decided to turn the internationally beloved SpongeBob SquarePants, created by the late Stephen Hillenburg, into a splashy live musical.

Following the Lion King blueprint, producers turned to a theater director who earned lots of off-Broadway and Chicago street cred before heading to Broadway to turn their franchise into something that could potentially please everybody: die-hard fans of the smiling yellow sponge, musical theater enthusiasts and families who want to enjoy a theater outing together.

The resulting show, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, was the kind of energetic, colorful endeavor that nearly did the trick when it came to making everybody happy. Director Tina Landau and scenic/costume designer David Zinn delivered something with broad humor, fan service and buckets full of flash and sparkle. Cynical critics had to admit they were somewhat surprised to enjoy something they would never have expected to like in a million years. The show never really found its audience on Broadway and closed after less than a year without recouping its costs.

But you can’t sink a sponge. Much of the Broadway cast reconvened for a television broadcast of the show on Nickelodeon last December, and now a non-Equity tour of the show is criss-crossing the country. That production, with a simplified new title for the road – The SpongeBob Musical – is making a quick five-day stop at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season.


Zinn’s DIY set (think water weenies, metal drums and other garage sale-type elements) has been scaled down, and the young cast wavers in vocal quality and comic timing, but this SpongeBob makes a mildly successful case for the leap from TV (and movies and theme parks and gazillions of products) to Broadway for SpongeBob and all his neighbors from Bikini Bottom, their home at the bottom of the sea.

You don’t watch a musical like this lamenting the art form that gave us Carousel, Gypsy and Hamilton. No, you enjoy what there is to enjoy, which in this case is a bright, vivacious package full of sweetly acerbic characters providing entertainment that does indeed have appeal to young and old. Some knowledge of SpongeBob would be helpful but is not required. One wise decision the creative team made was to free the actors from cumbersome theme park-y costumes of any kind. If this guy is a well-adjusted sponge, and that gal is a science-loving squirrel, and this guy is a starfish and that gal is a computer, well it all makes a demented sort of sense without making any sense at all. At least it’s mostly easy to know who’s who and what’s what in this tale of impending apocalypse for SpongeBob and his pals (there’s a volcano and attempts at drama but none of that really matters).

The book by Kyle Jarrow captures a lot of what’s sweet and salty about the show, and Landau’s restrained chaos direction feels like a live-action cartoon, heavy on the looney gags and visuals. It was a smart move to have a percussionist on stage making a whole host of cartoon sound effects (three cheers for Ryan Blihovde. That helps keep things lively, although the show’s length (2 1/2 hours including intermission) does feel like a slog through a kelp forest here and there. That probably wouldn’t be the case were the score stronger or at least more consistent.

The songs represent the work of many people, most of them bona fide rock and pop stars (with only Sara Bareilles and Cyndi Lauper representing experience with Broadway musical success). There are members of Aerosmith, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants and Panic! At the Disco alongside artists including John Legend, Yolanda Adams and even David Bowie (who had done a voice on the TV show and let producers adapt his 1995 song with Brian Eno “Outside”). It’s an uneven mish-mash, but orchestrator/arranger Tom Kitt works hard to make it all sound like it belongs to the same show. The best numbers are Lauper’s “Hero Is My Middle Name” and They Might Be Giants’ “I’m Not a Loser.”

That last number, performed by a four-legged squid named Squidward Q. Tentacles (Cody Cooley), is the show’s apex. The sourpuss character attempts to convince himself he’s not a loser by imagining himself as the center of a lavish production number filled with pink sea anemones (the ensemble decked out in fluffy, funny costumes) and a solo four-footed tap dance. SpongeBob, played by the chipper Lorenzo Pugliese, never gets his own showstopper, but he’s a beaming presence on stage, and though his friendships with Patrick Star (Beau Bradshaw) and Sandy Cheeks (Daria Pilar Redus) are sweet, some of his most affecting moments are with Gary, his (inanimate) pet snail.

If corporations are going to keep turning their intellectual property into Broadway musicals (there must be an easier, more reliable cash grab), they could do worse than The SpongeBob Musical. There’s still a shiny, happy theme-park feel to the show in spite of all its smart Broadway touches, but it’s got some charm, some heart and that good old Broadway optimism that the sun will come out tomorrow.

The SpongeBob Musical continues through Feb. 16 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$266. Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Humans at their best in joyful Come From Away

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The First North American Tour Company of Come From Away, part of the SHN season at the Golden Gate Theatre. The musical tells the story of 7,000 passengers stranded in a small Newfoundland community in the days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Photos by Mathew Murphy

To commemorate a massive event, you can hang a plaque and make a speech. Or, if you’re a theater aritst, you create something so vibrant, so moving, so powerful that it will become a living memory rather than simply a remembrance.

That’s what Come From Away is: a testament to the horror of humanity – the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – and of the boundless kindness and compassion of humanity in the way a small Newfoundland community fostered 7,000 stranded air travelers for five days in the wake of the attacks.

You have to wonder why some stories are forced to be musicals, while others, like Come From Away, are born to be told in song. The events of 9/11 and its aftermath are already such a heightened experiences. Life was vibrating on a whole different level in those terrifying, maddening, heartbreaking days, so it makes sense to revisit that time with music, a language that goes beyond words and deals directly with emotion. In this particular story, a community of 9,000 people, which just happens to have one of the world’s biggest airports (from the days when jets had to refuel before continuing on to Europe) suddenly becomes a community of 16,000 people, and nobody knew how long these folks, who are “come from away,” would be stranded. So the town of Gander and its neighboring communities pulled off an extraordinary feat of hospitality, providing shelter, food, drink, phones/Internet, clothing and entertainment for people from around the world, many of whom did not speak English. Nothing tells the story of community and creating community better than singing – voices joined to create a big, emotional, often joyous sound. This is a story that needs to sing, and composers Irene Sankoff and David Hein (who also wrote the book) have done a beautiful job giving the story heart and melody and a propulsive Celtic pulse that keeps the 100-minute show moving at an extraordinary (but never rushed) pace.

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Already a long-running hit on Broadway, Come From Away is now making its way around the country. The touring company at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre is extraordinary. A dozen performers play the passengers and the townsfolk with astonishing ease and remarkable versatility with just the shift of an accent or a small bit of costume (designs by Toni-Leslie James). The clarity of the storytelling never fails to delight, and credit must go to director Christopher Ashley and musical stager Kelly Devine for keeping the action in constant motion but never making it feel slick or mechanical.

There’s a danger when dealing with kindness of dipping into sentimentality, a lapse Come From Away never makes. The Newfoundlanders, who sound a bit like the Irish of Canada, are depicted as characters full of pride in their rocky, rural outpost where everybody knows everybody. There’s some of “Northern Exposure” quirkiness to them, but what really comes through is salt-of-the-earth people who, when called upon, provide extraordinary service in an international emergency.

This is such an ensemble show it’s hard to single out performers because each is vital to the whole, a constant stream of movement to create a sense of place (stuck in the airplane for 28 hours, at a scenic overlook, in a grungy bar) with only chairs, a turntable in the floor of Beowulf Boritt’s set and the occasional neon sign to create some beautiful stage pictures as one scene seamlessly blends into another under Howell Binkley’s ever-shifting lights.

The closest we get to a central character is American Airlines pilot Beverly Bass played by Becky Gulsvig, a strong leader show is, unbeknownst to her passengers, shaken to her core that the thing she loves most in the world – airplanes and flight – have been used as a bomb. Gulsvig is stellar, and her big solo, “Me and the Sky,” is a show highlight. Each cast member has multiple memorable moments, whether it’s Christine Toy Johnson as Texan Diane and Chamblee Ferguson as Brit Nick falling in love despite their (or maybe because of) their most unusual circumstances or Nick Duckart playing the cranky half of a gay couple and an Egyptian chef named Ali who finds himself the object of other passengers’ fear and anger.

There’s a marvelous moment when James Earl Jones II as Bob muses that when people ask him about his ordeal and his time in Gander, they wonder if he’s OK. His response, which is tinged with guilt, is that he was more than OK – he was the best he’s ever been. That captures the spirit of this story: how something horrible became something positively life-changing because people shared their better selves with one another.

There’s an amazing amount of humor in this sad, uncomfortable story – of course there’s a moose joke – and that doesn’t at all detract from how moving it can be. There’s also a simple scene of prayer, where Christians sing a hymn, a Jewish man sings in Hebrew, a Muslim man prays and others join in their own ways. Not many musicals this side of Fiddler on the Roof attempt to find beauty and solace in depicting spirituality, but then again, not many musicals have the heart-bursting power and foot-stomping joy of Come From Away.

Come From Away continues through Feb. 3 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$226. Cal 888-746-1799 or visit

Waving through Evan Hansen’s remarkable window

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The cast of the Dear Evan Hansen tour includes (from left) Ben Levi Ross as Evan Hansen, Aaron Lazar as Larry Murphy, Christiane Noll as Cynthia Murphy and Maggie McKenna as Zoe Murphy. Below: Ross’ Evan seeks connection in an isolating age in the Tony Award-winning musical at the Curran. Photos by Matthew Murphy. 2018.

It’s absolutely astonishing that a musical about pain – in itself a painful experience – can be so enjoyable. But Dear Evan Hansen is a deeply felt show that wrings tears but is so artfully crafted that its pain is also a pleasure.

This is also a show that managed, in the shadow of Hamilton a season before it, to become its own kind of phenomenon. Much of the credit went to original star Ben Platt, who originated the role of the title character, a high school senior whose discomfort in his own skin much less the world around him is palpable. There were also plaudits for composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul for songs that felt vital and contemporary yet still carried emotional weight within the trajectory of the plot. Songs like “Waving Through a Window” and “You Will Be Found” quickly took on life outside the musical, making Evan Hansen the show people wanted to see (after Hamilton, of course).

Producers wisely put the show on the road as quickly as possible, and the good news is the touring company now at the Curran is every bit as powerful and moving as the Broadway production. Platt’s shoes are awfully hard to fill, but Ben Levi Ross gives a remarkable performance as Evan – naturalistic enough to feel real but theatrical enough to make breaking into song feel like it makes total sense. Keeping that tricky balance is a distinguishing feature of director Michael Greif’s work throughout the show. This is an intimate musical – only eight characters – that is (as hard as it is to believe these days) not based on a book or a movie or a cartoon or meme. It’s an original story by book writer Steven Levenson about the power of the truth.

When a classmate commits suicide, Evan is mistakenly identified as a close friend of the deceased. What’s surprising is neither Evan nor his supposed friend, Connor Murphy, had any friends. Evan is almost pathologically shy and has trouble navigating even the smallest social interaction and Connor was a rebel who spent most of his time angry and high. Still, once the connection between the two boys is made, the misunderstanding quickly leads to lies of increasing size and significance. Evan finds himself caught in a difficult place where he doesn’t want to disappoint Connor’s family, who are so surprised and delighted Connor had a best friend, so he doesn’t correct their misapprehension. And once he’s embraced by the Murphy family, his miserable life as a lonely kid of an overworked single mom is suddenly brightened. Evan’s mom is loving and doing her absolute best juggling a son, a medical career and night school, but here in Mrs. Murphy, Evan finds a surrogate mom who is happy to cook for him and talk to him and not want to fix all of his, as he puts it, “broken parts.” And here’s a dad who, unlike Evan’s dad who bolted years ago and started another family, shows interest in him and actually acts like a dad.

To further complicate things, Evan has long harbored a crush on Connor’s little sister, Zoe, and now that he’s spending all this time in the Murphy house making up a friendship full of imaginary incidents, he can’t help but feel the complicated pull of his attraction.

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As Evan and the Murphys grow closer, Evan’s fellow high school students rally around him as the flashpoint for all things Connor Murphy until Evan becomes a viral sensation promoting inclusion and kindness and the notion no person should ever feel so alone or forgotten that they take their own life.

Dear Evan Hansen is a musical built on discomfort. Evan’s physical presence telegraphs discomfort at practically every moment (something Levi does with such natural efficiency that it never feels affected), and once he begins what will become an avalanche of lies, the anxiety level only goes up and up. And yet the audience is fully with the show, especially with Evan, whose behavior is understandable even if you want to scream at him and prevent him from digging in deeper and deeper. By Act 2, when the Internet has blown Evan’s lies to terrifying proportions, the whole thing has to come crashing down. So it does, but not in a punitive way. More in an emotional, prepare-for-an-ugly-cry kind of way.

In the centerpiece role of Evan, Ross is both brittle and resilient. We see Evan struggle and crumble and find his way. Ross’s voice has the vulnerability and power that Platt’s does, which gives extraordinarily dynamic power to the score, especially in “Waving Through a Window” (with the window being Evan’s metaphorical isolation as well as the isolation behind the “window” of our ever-present screens), “For Forever” (his reverie about a fantasy friendship with Connor) and his breakdown aria, “Words Fail.”

The whole cast is superb, with Jessica Phillips as Evan’s mom really coming to life in Act 2 with a raging “Good for You” and a heartbreaking (truly) “So Big/So Small.” Aaron Lazar as Connor’s dad delivers a beautiful song/scene with Evan in “To Break in a Glove” that masterfully deals with a father’s grief and disappointment, and Christiane Noll as Connor’s mom is like an open wound of regret and delusion.

Maggie McKenna as Zoe, Connor’s sister (who is not a Connor fan) and Evan’s love interest, is astonishingly natural as a young person who thinks she has things figured out and is mostly dismayed that she really doesn’t. Her love duet with Ross, “Only Us,” has a beautiful simplicity to it, like something two young people who are just finding each other, might actually express.

And the other teenagers – Marrick Smith as Connor, whose death does not prevent him from being an active character; Jared Goldsmith as Evan’s reluctant, ever-acerbic friend Jared; and Phoebe Koyabe as Alana, an ambitious senior unafraid of creating opportunities for herself – are equally as effective, with Goldsmith contributing the bulk of the show’s welcome comic relief.

They say the truth shall set you free, and that’s true. But what they don’t say is how hard it can be to even get close to the truth. There’s the crux of Dear Evan Hansen right there. Evan can twitch and dodge and apologize and be uncomfortable all he wants, but he can’t face the ultimate truth about himself and just how in need of help he really is. And his mom and the Murphys are just as reluctant, in their own ways, to acknowledge what they most need to acknowledge. This is such a beautiful, painful and deeply human show – our flaws and our salvation, the pain and the beauty, are so intricately intertwined, it’s hard to tell one from another.

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Ben Levi Ross performs “Waving Through a Window” from Dear Evan Hansen

Dear Evan Hansen continues through Dec. 30 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $99-$325. Call or visit DAILY DIGITAL LOTTERY: Lucky Seat hosts a digital ticket lottery for a limited number of $25 tickets available per performance. Visit until 9 a.m. the day before the performance you’d like to see and follow prompts to enter the lottery.

Enough with the clichés already in A Bronx Tale

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Joe Barbara is Sonny (left), the mafioso, and Joey Barreiro is Calogero (center), the kid who gets tangled in his web, in the touring Company of A Bronx Tale, a musical version of Chazz Palminteri’s autobiographical story. Below: Little C (Frankie Leoni) finds himself in the good graces of the neighborhoods No. Guy (Barbara as Sonny). Photos by Joan Marcus

If it feels like we’ve seen it all before, well, we have. The gangsters, the tormented teens, the tough streets of New York’s deeze, dem, dose borough – it’s all the same old stuff in the musical version of A Bronx Tale now at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season. And the familiarity isn’t just because this story was previously the basis for Chazz Palminteri’s autobiographical one-man show or the movie version that served as the feature directing debut of Robert De Niro or the upgraded one-man show that Paminteri took to Broadway and then around the country.

A Bronx Tale just feels like a cursory retread of a coming-of-age story with the tension coming from a young Italian-American boy’s pull between a mobbed-up good life (choosing to be feared) and the noble life of a working man (choosing to be loved) with a little mixed-race romance thrown in to remind us that the bulk of the show takes place in the late ’60s, even though the musical feels like perpetual 1959.

Palminteri adapted his script for the musical, while Alan Menken provides the score, which feels like Hairspray meets Jersey Boys by way of Goodfellas and Glenn Slater provides the pile of clichés that serve as lyrics. If you played a drinking game and took a shot every time someone says or sings the word “heart,” you’d be sozzled by the end of Act 1. For a musical so concerned about heart, it’s interesting that there really isn’t one here – just a lot of slick staging (by co-directors De Niro and Jerry Zaks) and choreography (by Sergio Trujillo) tied together with a by-the-numbers script and a score filled with Frank Sinatra/Bobby Darin/Four Seasons/Motown knockoffs that are pleasant but shallow. The opening number, “Belmont Avenue,” feels like Menken’s opening number from Beauty and the Beast pieced together with leftovers from his Little Shop of Horrors score.

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The cast delivers exactly what the show asks of them. Joe Barbara makes for an imposing Sonny, the chief goomba. You believe he’s feared in the neighborhood, but even though we see him shoot a guy in cold blood, his toughness tends to evaporate each time he opens his mouth to sing. The kid pulled between the forces of good and evil on Belmont Avenue, Calogero or “C” as he’s known by his mob pals, is played as a 9-year-old by Frankie Leonie, who displays some terrific dance moves, and as a 17-year-old by Joey Barreiro, who’s earnest but lacking any complexity. The female characters in the show are, alas, way, way, way in the background. The only one who makes an impression is Brianna-Marie Bell as Jane, the African-American girl from Webster Avenue who catches Calogero’s eye. She doesn’t get a great song or a chance to make Jane anything more than sweet and apparently unbound by societal conventions.

Richard H. Blake as Calogero’s noble bus driver dad is a standout here, even though he’s stuck with the sappiest song in the score, “Look to Your Heart.” In a role he originated on Broadway, he’s got a sweet, supple voice that makes his character, Lorenzo, feel like a good guy, even though there aren’t many shades to the man other than he loves his family and is good at a job he does out of duty rather than passion.

And that kind of describes this Bronx Tale – competent and fitfully enjoyable but crafted more out of duty than of passion.

A Bronx Tale continues through Dec. 23 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit

S’Just All Right: Gershwin score saves American in Paris

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The touring company of An American in Paris, based on the 1951 movie of the same name, dances into the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season. The score features glorious work by George and Ira Gershwin as well as choreography and direction by Christopher Wheeldon. Photos by Matthew Murphy

The highlight of the 1951 movie An American in Paris is the glorious 17-minute ballet at the end featuring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dancing through an artist’s version of Paris (think Renoir, Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec) to the strains of the glorious horn-honking title composition by George Gershwin. Movie musicals have rarely been so transporting, especially in the seamless blend of classical and modern dance with musical theater.

Given that the movie has become a beloved classic, it makes perfect sense that the Gershwin estate would want to capitalize on the score and keep it alive in a new stage adaptation. Much like they did with Crazy for You (and to a lesser extent with Nice Work If You Can Get It), the idea would be to fold in other songs by George & Ira Gershwin to create a whole new property.

The resulting show, adapted by writer Craig Lucas and directed and choreographed by a member of ballet world royalty, Christopher Wheeldon, is a decidedly uneven affair. It wants to be part serious musical (the darkness of Paris after World War II and the Nazi occupation), part musical comedy (three guys in love with one girl!) and part contemporary and ballet dance show. Call it a ballet-sical (mullet doesn’t quite work). Whatever it is, it doesn’t quite work.

After a short tryout in Paris, An American in Paris opened on Broadway in 2015 and ran for about a year and a half before embarking on the national tour that brings the production to San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season.

It’s a handsome production thanks to some beautiful, evocative sets and costumes by Bob Crowley and gorgeous lighting by Natasha Katz. There are abundant, mostly unnecessary projections (by 59 Productions) that don’t bring a whole lot the soirée other than a sense that we’re watching a 1940s version of Inception, but when they work, as with the sparking light on the waters of the Seine, they’re lovely. Crowley really gets to let loose in the big production number for “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” with a dazzling art deco fantasia on the Chrysler Building that underscores the evening’s most thoroughly enjoyable musical theater experience.

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The show’s opening, set to “Concerto in F,” indicates that this is going to be something special. With a grim color palette and intricate choreographic storytelling, we are immersed into the world of post-war Paris, where denizens are slow to emerge from the Nazi oppression and the general horror of the war. There’s violence, cruelty and grace woven into this rather startling prologue. But then we get into “I Got Rhythm” and introduction of the characters, so we shift right into musical theater mode trying to replicate the ebullience of Crazy for You choreographer Susan Stroman and coming up short.

There’s a sloppiness to this production that affects the acting – don’t even ask about the French accents – and the singing and even some of the dancing.

The revised book shifts the action from the Paris art world into the ballet world, which makes sense so there can be more dancing, but characters are under-developed and relationships are cursory at best. The bright light of the cast is Sara Esty as Lise Dassin, a ballet dancer who catches the eye of two Americans (McGee Maddox as GI Jerry Mulligan and Stephen Brower as composer Adam Hochberg) and one Frenchman (Nick Spangler as Henri Baurel), who all, conveniently, end up being buddies. There’s another brash American, Emily Ferranti as moneyed Milo Davenport, who attempts to grab the spotlight occasionally, but it’s Esty’s Lise who dances away – literally – with the nearly 2 1/2-hour show.

She’s a strong actor, singer (her “The Man I Love” is charming) and dancer, which is a tall order, and not one others match as gracefully or forcefully as she. Her performance in the “An American in Paris” ballet, which here is presented as a ballet company’s dance performance and not as a Parisian fantasy, is absolutely beautiful.

And there’s just no escaping the fact that Gershwin songs and music can carry an evening no matter what else is going on. “But Not for Me,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “I Got Rhythm,” “S’Wonderful” – it’s a feast of great American songwriting. And then you’ve got more classically leaning pieces from George – “Second Prelude,” “Second Rhapsody/Cuban Overture” and, of course, the title piece, and you just can’t lose. Rob Fisher’s arrangements (with orchestrations by Christopher Austin and Bill Elliott and dance arrangements by Sam Davis) work hard to make a 14-piece band sound like a symphony orchestra or a jazz band and mostly succeed.

The details of this stage American in Paris may not linger, but the beauty of its design and the glory of its music are here to stay.

An American in Paris continues through Oct. 8 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$214. Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Something wickedly delightful in Something Rotten

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Shakespeare sings (sort of)! Rob McClure (center, arms wide) is Nick Bottom, co-inventor of the musical, in the touring production of the hit Broadway musical Something Rotten!, part of the SHN season at the Orpheum Theatre. Below: McClure as Nick and Adam Pascal as his arch rival, William Shakespeare. Photos by Jeremy Daniel

Thank you, Something Rotten!. I need that.

Sometimes you need light and froth and delectable show tunes to lift you out of the quagmire of our something-more-than-rotten times, and this musical, now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season, is just the ticket.

But it’s not like current events are completely shut out. On the contrary. At Wednesday’s opening-night performance, a line about Nazis in The Sound of Music, which may have been slightly tweaked for the unfortunately Nazi-heavy news cycle this week, got such an audience response that it actually stopped the show.

But mostly, Something Rotten!, which ran for nearly two years on Broadway, is a whole lot of escapist fun, a crisp and funny contemporary example of why the classic musical comedy model works. Give ’em song and dance razzle dazzle, some hearty (and bawdy) jokes and tunes that don’t feel like the aural equivalent of gummy risotto and you’ll likely have a happy audience. And the San Francisco audience sure seemed happy.

Conceived by brothers Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick, who wrote music and lyrics and co-wrote the book (with John O’Farrell), Something Rotten! is sort of a spin on Shakespeare in Love but more like Shakespeare in Rivalry (with jazz hands). It’s all about the invention of the musical as a means to surpass Shakespeare as the rock star playwright of Elizabethan times.

Brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom run a struggling theater London theater company. They are constantly in the shadow of Shakespeare, who used to be a bad actor in their company before Nick encouraged him to become a writer. They’re barely scraping by, and in desperation, older brother Nick spends his family’s last few coins to engage a soothsayer, Thomas Nostradmus (a distant relative of the more famous Nostradamus), to find out a) what the next big thing in theater is going to be and b) what Shakespeare’s greatest hit will be. The answers are, in order: musicals! and something about a sad prince eating a danish called Omelette.

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In the meantime, Nigel (the dreamy poet and the eventual, actual author of Shakespeare’s Hamlet) falls in love with Portia, a Puritan’s daughter, and Bea, Nick’s enterprising and equality minded wife, dons men’s drag to find gainful employment (and prove her point that women are the equal of men).

Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon, Aladdin) knows his way around bright and fizzy musicals, and he keeps Something Rotten! clipping right along, even when the heavy heart on its sleeve weighs things down a bit. The best moments are its lightest and brightest, with the absolute most memorable show-stopping moment coming with the Act 1 number, “A Musical,” when Nostradamus (Blake Hammond) reaches into the future to explain to Nick (Rob McClure) the whole concept of a musical. He borrows liberally from classic shows (The Music Man, South Pacific) and more contemporary shows (Rent, A Chorus Line) to illustrate his point, along with a tap-dancing, high-kicking chorus. The number builds to a frenzy of delight, and though the show peaks here, we are carried through to the end on such a wave of grinning good will that it hardly matters.

McClure’s central performance as Nick is as solid a musical comedy turn as you could hope for, and he’s nicely supported and contrasted by Josh Grisetti as the moony poet Nigel and by his real-life wife, Maggie Lakis playing his on-stage wife. For the role of Shakespeare, you need someone who can lend some rock-star edge to the role because that’s how he’s played here – he even performs a stadium-like greatest hits concert for his swooning fans – and Adam Pascal of Rent fame fits the bill. It also helps that he can be pretty funny while he’s parading around like the cock of the Tudor walk in the mighty pleasing costumes by Gregg Barnes (the codpieces alone are hilarious).

The character/actor who drew the most audible laughter from me was Scott Cote as the Puritan, Brother Jeremiah, who is fond of expressing his disdain for the corrupt world and its godless inhabitants by shrugging, shading, and flouncing like he was a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The general irreverence dial could be turned up a few notches for the show, but its sweetness is nicely cut by the numbers that Nick and Nigel are writing for the “new” musical theater form they are developing: “Black Death” (dancing Grim Reapers!), “It’s Eggs” (a scrambled notion) and “Make an Omelette” (more, more, more inside Broadway musical references).

Something Rotten! is definitely something delightful in the state of musical comedy. It’s also a show that basically reviews itself in its centerpiece song: “A big and shine-y, mighty fine-y, glitter-glitz-and-chorus-line-y, bob your head and shake your hiney musical.”

[bonus video]
Watch the Broadway company perform an abbreviated version of the standout number from Something Rotten, “A Musical.”

Something Rotten continues through Sept. 10 as part of the SHN season at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$214. Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Gorgeous, moving Fun Home at the Curran

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Alessandra Baldacchino (left) is Small Alison, Pierson Salvador (center) is Christian and Lennon Nate Hammond is John in the Broadway touring company of Fun Home at the newly renovated Curran Theatre. Below: The three actors who play writer/artist Alison Bechdel at various times in her life in Fun Home are (from left) Kate Shindle, Abby Corrigan and Baldacchino. Photos by Joan Marcus

At only about 100 minutes, the musical Fun Home, manages to encapsulate a profoundly moving life experience: coming to terms with your parents as human beings and not just the people who gave you life then messed up that life one way or another.

That’s a universal experience, although the version in Fun Home is very specific to writer/artist Alison Bechdel, who chronicled her childhood and coming out in the extraordinary 2006 graphic memoir of the same name. Chances are good that not all of us grew up in a small Pennsylvania town with a dad who was a high school English teacher, a furniture and house restoration buff, a mortician and a closeted gay man. But that doesn’t make Bechdel’s coming to terms with her dad (and, subsequently herself) any less relatable, funny or deeply moving.

What an extraordinary show to officially re-open the spectacularly renovated Curran Theatre, now in its 95th year and the ongoing project of Carole Shorenstein Hays and her family. With this one show, the Curran establishes itself as a home for the kind of forward-thinking, emotionally and artistically complex theater we need most now and will likely continue to need at an even greater level in the near future.

Fun Home does not seem like the kind of musical that would become a big hit, but that’s what happened in the wake of its premiere at New York’s famed Public Theater in 2013. The show, adapted by book writer and lyricist Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori and directed by Sam Gold, found a way to make the musical re-telling of Bechdel’s story feel fresh and original while never losing sight of the fact that Bechdel is telling her story from a cartoonist’s point of view. In many ways, the show is about a woman creating her memoir. To do that successfully requires the author to dig deep and try and face the truth. For Bechdel, that means containing her dad, mom and two brothers within cartoon panels with balloon dialogue and captions. For the musical’s creators, that means finding the emotional sounds of difficult personalities and incidents and making them sing and (occasionally) dance.

On Broadway, where it won five Tony Awards (including statues for Kron, Tesori and Gold), Fun Home was performed in the round. Now on its national tour, the production has been reconfigured for proscenium theaters and what it might lose from in-the-round intimacy, it gains in David Zinn’s stunning design, which has a profound moment of deepening the clarity of the storytelling and pulling us deeper into Alison’s experience as she draws closer to the last time she ever spent with her dad.

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Until that time, the staging is simple. The small orchestra is on a platform at the rear of the stage, and actors move tables and other pieces of furniture around to suggest the family home, the funeral home (known in the family as the “fun home”), a car, Alison’s college dorm room and more. Simplicity turns to escapist flare for two feel-good numbers. The first involves the three young Bechdel children creating their own commercial for the family business (“Come to the Fun Home”) with echoes of the Jackson 5 (especially in the choreography by Danny Mefford) and another with Alison reacting to the rough-edged relationship with her mercurial father by fantasizing a “Partridge Family”-style number to life (“Raincoat of Love”).

Tesori’s music for these numbers is infections and joyful and stands in contrast to much of the other music in the show, which feels weighted by dark emotion and uncertainty. It’s not surprising that some moments here evoke Tesori’s brilliant Caroline, or Change in the way they bear the emotional heft of opera but still live in the world of musical theater. Several stand-out numbers include “Ring of Keys,” a startlingly resonant moment in young Alison’s life when she identifies with a butch delivery woman; “Changing My Major,” college-age Alison’s incredibly endearing rush of first love excitement; and “Telephone Wire,” a duet for older Alison and her dad, which says as much in its silences as it does in its music and lyrics. The show ending trio between all three actors who play Alison at various ages, “Flying Away,” is as beautiful and as moving as any musical finale ever. Sometimes musical theater composers forget that when people join voices, it means something, and if there’s a resonant reason for them to be harmonizing the power can be overwhelming. That’s the zone in which Fun Home works.

The cast for this Fun Home tour is spectacular. The three actors who play Alison are the show’s heart. Alessandra Baldacchino as young Alison conveys childish enthusiasm confronting the reality of an erratic father, and her performance of “Ring of Keys” is nothing short of thrilling. Kate Shindle as older Alison hovers around the action for much of the play but finally comes into her own in the show’s final numbers. It is irresistible Abby Corrigan as college-age Alison who super-charges the evening. Coming out is such a fraught experience, and she conveys every shadow and spark of the experience with absolute charm and graceful intelligence.

Though the story here centers primarily on the enigmatic and troubling Bruce Bechdel, played with utterly believable storm, confusion and steel by Robert Petkoff, his wife, Helen (Susan Moniz), emerges as a fascinating character, a mother who has made some giant compromises and will fiercely protect her children from making the same mistakes. Her song “Days and Days” is shattering. Bruce’s “aria,” “Edges of the World,” captures his conflicts and troubled state of mind in a sad and powerful way.

Fun Home began life as an extraordinary work of memoir on the page and has just grown richer in its journey to the stage, with emotional undercurrents bringing depth, beauty and profound reflection to a story of secrets, lies and discovering what it really means to grow up.

Fun Home continues through Feb. 19 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco Tickets are $29-$149. Call 415-358-1220 or visit

Finding Neverland: never found, never lands

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The Llewelyn Davies boys (from left) Jack (Mitchell Wray), Michael (Jordan Cole), George (Finn Faulconer) and Peter (Ben Krieger) in the national tour of the musical Finding Neverland, part of the SHN season. Below: Kevin Kern (center) is playwright J.M. Barrie and Tom Hewitt (right, in red) is Captain Hook. Photos by Carol Rosegg

I’m calling it: the use of Peter Pan as an automatic trigger for poignant reflections on lost youth and the emotional cruelty of aging is officially over. It’s been over for a while, but no one told Sarah Ruhl, whose For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday (read review here) got the hook at Berkeley Repertory Theatre last year. We have exceeded the Pan threshold.

That’s unfortunate for the musical Finding Neverland, based on the 2004 movie of the same name starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet and the remarkable child actor Freddie Highmore. This story behind the story of how author J.M. Barrie came to write Peter Pan worked much better on screen than it does in the bland Diane Paulus-helmed production that opened Wednesday night as part of the SHN season.

The Broadway production of Finding Neverland didn’t exactly alter the course of musical theater in any way, but it seemed to make audiences reasonably happy, and that can also be said of the general feeling at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre on Wednesday night. But from the opening scene, where a theatrical troupe is performing Peter Pan, I knew my Pan fatigue was going to prevent me from really enjoying this middling enterprise.

The score by British pop star Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy disappoints from the start (“Welcome to London”) and then lurches from unremarkable ballads well-suited to televised singing contests to derivative ensemble numbers that at least get a little spark from the muscular choreography by Mia Michaels but fade from memory the minute they’re over.

The story of a story isn’t inherently interesting, even if that story is Peter Pan, and this telling relies so much on stereotype (Actors are quirky and egotistical! British people are snobs! Dying women are noble and without character!) that the only depth comes from the actual size of the stage.

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Without much to work with in terms of script (by James Graham, based on a screenplay by David Magee, which is in turn based on a play by Allan Knee), the performers work with all the professional gusto they can muster to sell this undercooked baked potato of a show. Aside from some godawful mugging among the ensemble, they manage an admirable level of energy and appeal.

Kevin Kern as Barrie has leading man appeal and a pleasant voice, but his character has no apparent conflicts. His answer to a creative block is to just steal from rambunctious neighborhood kids he befriends in the park (one of the kids asks if he will get royalties and isp promptly shushed). His romance with the children’s mother (Christine Dwyer) would be Hallmark perfect if it weren’t for that pesky cough and those spots of blood on her handkerchief. She’s a one-dimensional character, and her big song, “All That Matters,” does nothing to change that.

Tom Hewitt blusters through his role as American theater producer Charles Frohman but really comes to life when he plays Captain Hook at the end of Act 1 (“Hook”/”Stronger Part 2”).

The real spark of the show comes from the young actors playing the four Llewelyn Davies children. At Wednesday’s performance, the roster included Finn Faulconer as George, Ben Krieger as Peter, Mitchell Wray as Jack and Jordan Cole as Michael. In Act 2, the brothers put on one of Peter’s plays (“We’re All Made of Stars”), and it’s by far the best song and scene in the show, with a natural charm and humor that eludes pretty much everything else before or after it.

Just when you think the show will submerge itself into mawkish dreck when all the poppy, bouncy machinations have to shift into a more serious gear, Paulus, whose directorial ambitions here seem wasted on a show that has seemingly no ambition at all, delivers a sparkly, breezy bit of stagecraft. The moment feels surprisingly sophisticated for a show like this, which would seem much more successfully scaled to the level of audience-pleasing community theater. Finding Neverland is an unremarkable piece of musical theater flying on the coattails of a much beloved, much better creation that has been overworked to the point of exhaustion.

Finding Neverland continues through at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $55-$275 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Hello, love: Hedwig slams her Angry Inch in our faces

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Darren Criss is Hedwig, a rock star with issues, in the Broadway touring production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Below: Lena Hall reprises her Tony Award-winning role as Yitzhak in Hedwig. Both Criss and Hall are San Francisco natives, and they kicked off the Broadway tour at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre in their hometown. Photos by Joan Marcus.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch launches its first Broadway national tour with the power of a barbecue fired with jet fuel. An explosion of rock, lights, humor and heart, this show is a rarity among rarities: a quirky late ’90s off-Broadway hit that inspired a devoted cult following that seemingly peaked with its big-screen adaptation in 2001. Over the years, however, Hedwig’s tragic tale of rejection and glam-rock transformation has traveled around the world and created an international league of Heheads.

By 2014, the next logical step for a misfit rock musical with a built-in and avid fan base was Broadway. Armed with director Michael Mayer and star Neil Patrick Harris, Hedwig opened on Broadway to rapturous response and ran for a year and a half with five Hedwigs after the Tony-winning Harris departed the production. One of those Hedwigs, “Glee” heartthrob Darren Criss now headlines the national tour, which kicked off in fine form Wednesday night at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season.

The show is essentially rock concert and monologue, making it an extraordinary showcase for its star, but creators John Cameron Mitchell (book and the original and still greatest Hedwig) and Stephen Trask (music and lyrics) add other levels to this show, including a secondary lead, Yitzhak, Hedwig’s Croatian husband, a former drag queen whose presence adds even more depth to the show’s gender fluidity and sexual vibrancy. For the tour, Yitzhak is played by the fierce Lena Hall, who won a Tony for the role on Broadway. In a delightful twist, Hall will take over as Hedwig for one performance a week (schedule below).

This tour recreates the Broadway production faithfully, right down to the concept that for one night only, Hedwig and her band, the Angry Inch (named after the result of her botched sex-change operation), are taking to the stage in a legit theater after the failure of Hurt Locker: The Musical (as on Broadway, the theater floor is littered with playbills for that bomb of a show, which opened the previous night and closed at intermission – do yourself a favor and spend time with that playbill because it is hilarious). The set for Hurt Locker remains, and Yitzhak performs a snippet of the show’s love theme. Otherwise, aside from some script tinkering to make it San Francisco-centric (references to the “newly annoying Mission,” Uber X, a gender-neutral bathroom on a idling Google bus, doing drugs in the Tenderloin as one does), this is Hedwig as she is meant to be seen: damaged, fabulous, ferocious, heartbroken, funny, loud and aggressively awesome.

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I saw Harris do the show on Broadway, and he was phenomenal, although he didn’t inhabit the character as fully or as emotionally as the remarkable Kevin Cahoon in the much scrappier San Francisco debut of the show at the Victoria Theatre in 2001. Every actor who dons Hedwig’s many (and marvelous) wigs will bring something unique to the party, and Criss brings extraordinary energy and a genuine rock vibe to the scorching score. He shows off some sharp comic timing, although his Hedwig voice seems less East Berlin than it does a governess raised in London by German parents. Aside from the songs, which he imbues with passion and grit, Criss’ best moments are those in which he’s playing the American characters: Luther, the GI who marries young Hansel, turns him into Hedwig and lands her in a Kansas mobile home; and Tommy Speck, an Army brat whom Hedwig takes under her wing (and then some) and turns into the rock star Tommy Gnosis. At 29, Criss is the youngest of the Broadway Hedwigs, and that’s a little problematic for a world weary and wise character who tosses off lines like, “One day in the late mid-’80s I was in my early late 20s.” Criss was born in the late ’80s, so when Hedwig is referencing Google buses and placing the action of the show in the here and now, it doesn’t fully make sense.

But Hedwig doesn’t have to fully make sense to be an extraordinary experience, and that’s what this is. Just hearing those songs played full throttle (the fiery four-piece band, under the music direction of Justin Craig are all from the Broadway company) is a transporting experience. Add in the fantastic costumes by Arianne Phillips (that hair dress!) and towering wigs by Mike Potter and you have a rock musical dream in the flesh. The nuclear explosion lighting design (by Kevin Adams) can be a bit much, but if elements of Hedwig aren’t a bit much, it’s not really Hedwig.

The nuance, tenderness and, ultimately power of Hall as Yitzhak provides ample evidence of why a seemingly secondary presence in the show would not only garner awards but make Hall a star. Hers is a voice that can be delicate and searing, and her physical transformation in the show is part of what makes the quasi-religious conclusion so mind-bogglingly glorious. Lift up your hands indeed.

[more on Hedwig]
Check out San Francisco kids Darren Criss and Lena Hall and composer Stephen Trask chatting about Hedwig and performing songs from the show here.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch continues through Oct. 30 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$212 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit

From the department of YOU’RE NOT GOING TO WANT TO MISS THIS:

Lena Hall takes over as Hedwig on Wednesday, Oct. 12 at 8pm, Wednesday, Oct. 19 at 8pm and Wednesday, Oct. 26 at 8pm.