The Band plays on, beautifully

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joy, tears, ghosts infuse vibrant new Carol

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Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! The San Francisco cast of the new Tony Award-winning adaptation of A Christmas Carol warm up winter nights on the stage of the Golden Gate Theatre. Below: Francois Battiste as Scrooge embraces Tiny Tim. Photos by Joan Marcus


We’ve experienced A Christmas Carol in so many ways, so many times over so many years that we’re all a little numb to the frights and frissons of the Charles Dickens perennial. As much as I love the story – and especially the metaphorical kick to the groin of the greediest and meanest among us – I sometimes dread the thought of having to watch gnarled old Scrooge get smoothed out by Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Past, Present and Future.

Happy to report, then, that the new adaptation of A Christmas Carol by Jack Thorne (a co-author of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child theatrical enterprise, which, incidentally, resumes performances at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre Jan. 11) has a lot of new fizz in its Fezziwig. Now at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, this Carol is aggressive in its approach as both a ghost story and a psychological excavation of Scrooge, with a whole lot of merriment (and snow) and zippy theatricality (and snow) and music (and did I mention snow?) thrown in for good measure.

At about 2 1/2 hours (including intermission), this version strips out as much as it adds. Directors Matthew Warchus (original London and Broadway productions) and Jamie Manton (this production) blends straightforward storytelling by the ensemble with fully dramatized scenes from Scrooge’s dark night of the soul. The bones of the story are very much as Dickens constructed them, but Thorne goes deeper into why Scrooge turned out the way he did. An abusive, alcoholic, debt-ridden father seems to be the biggest factor, but we also spend time with Scrooge as a young man falling in love with Mr. Fezziwig’s daughter, Belle, and then essentially abandoning her because he discovered the lure of money (and hoarding it) instead.

What’s really interesting about Thorne’s adaptation is not so much the rather easily configured roots of Scrooge’s misery and miserliness (blame the parents!) but rather the way the people from Scrooge’s past are allowed to confront him. For instance, we usually only see Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s dead partner, at the beginning of the ghostly visits. But here, Scrooge and his only friend get to compare notes on the benefits of redemption once Scrooge realizes the error of his ways. Scrooge also gets to find closure with the only woman he ever loved (and she is more generous to him than he probably deserves), which lends an affecting touch.

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The striking set by Rob Howell (who also designed the costumes) takes us into a dark netherworld of swirling smoke (effectively sliced by Hugh Vanstone’s razor-sharp lights), piles of garbage, chains descending from the heavens and hundreds of lanterns hanging above the stage and out into the auditorium.

The 15-member ensemble sings, dances, narrates and embodies the characters with a flashy panache that keeps the show vibrating at a pretty high level. Act 1, as expected, is pretty heavy and dark, but the real genius of the show is how Act 2 just keeps ratcheting up the happiness in sometimes surprising ways. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say the actors make full use of the theater, on stage and off, and that your white Christmas dreams can come true – temporarily anyway – multiple times.

Any Christmas Carol is only as strong as its Scrooge, and Francois Battiste gives a mighty performance. His Scrooge is always a few steps ahead of the ghosts as he steadfastly refuses to succumb to their dime store psychoanalyzing and their sentimental tricks to soften his coal-hard heart. He gets that he’s a bad guy and owns his choices, and that makes his transformation all the more satisfying. He’s the kind of horrible person who stands firm in his greed, all the while justifying what a great person he is and what a vital service (moneylending aka money gouging) he provides to the world. These are the people – and we hear from them and their acolytes every day in the real world – who never seem to suffer from the pain and misery their greed causes in the world.

But then something clicks in Scrooge. Call it the “Tiny Tim” effect, but if every Tiny Tim could be as endearing as Gabriel Kong (who played the role on opening night and shares it with Charlie Berghoffer IV), the world would likely be a better place. The same is true about this production’s effective ghosts: we need Nancy Opel (Past), Amber Iman (Present) and Monica Ho (Future) to maybe focus some of their work outside the theater in certain political and judicial locations around the country.

There’s not a sour note in the entire cast, and the pleasure they offer, especially when they’re making the house ring with their handbells (lovely musical direction by Matt Smart), is genuine and heartfelt. This is a Carol that lands its punches and then lifts us up with joy. Just when we think it’s over, the volume of that joy gets turned up a little more and then a little more until the darkness and pain are just memories.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
A Christmas Carol continues through Dec. 26 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco, as part of the BroadwaySF season. Tickets are $56-$256 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com.
BroadwaySF’s COVID policies are here.

Revived Fair Lady bursts with melody, life, wit

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The cast of The Lincoln Center Theater production of Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady includes (from left, center) Sam Simahk as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle, Kevin Pariseau as Colonel Pickering and Leslie Alexander as Mrs. Higgins. Below: Transformations are happening in Professor Higgins’ posh London flat (set design by Michael Yeargan). Photos by Joan Marcus


My Fair Lady has always been so brilliantly constructed, so full of beautiful, vital music that its nearly perfect machinations can leave a slight chill. The very idea of turning George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmailion into a musical was at once genius and ridiculous – how could such a brainy parlor comedy sing and dance? Composers Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (working with director Moss Hart) figured it out in 1956, and a classic play was soon eclipsed by a classic musical.

As we know, classic musicals don’t always remain in sync with changing times, especially in respect to issues of race, gender and sexuality. Given that My Fair Lady flexes Shaw’s feminist muscles, it is interesting to re-visit the show in the sumptuous, expertly appointed touring production of the Lincoln Center Theater’s 2018 revival that is now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season.

There has been so much focus through the years (from the original Broadway production through the 1964 movie and endless tours and regional/community productions) on the relationship between Henry Higgins (the teacher) and Eliza Doolittle (the student) that the center of Shaw’s story seems to have shifted. This is a show about class, one of the artificial restrictions society employs to determine who is allowed to do what and to whom. In this case, the wealthy British elite (high society, aristocracy, royalty, etc.) maintain their position over the, as one character puts it, “undeserving poor.”

When Higgins makes a bet with his pip-pip-cheerio chum, Pickering, that in six months, he can pass off Eliza, a “draggle-tailed guttersnipe” flower girl, as a duchess at an embassy ball, he’s making a casual revolt against societal norms for his own amusement (and to maintain his gargantuan ego by proving what a god-like teacher he is). In a musical, this would constitute the “A” relationship, which would normally be a romantic one, and the “B” relationship, here between Eliza and an entitled, rather dopey suitor named Freddy Eysnford-Hill, would be the secondary romance. But Shaw wasn’t aiming for conventional romantic comedy here, even if that’s what audiences crave. Higgins and Eliza develop an extraordinary relationship/battle of wills, but romance isn’t (and shouldn’t) be part of it, which makes the ending problematic (we’ll get to that).

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It also means the Eliza-Freddy plot hardly matters, although the stalker-like Freddy, who writes to her multiple times a day and can’t seem to tear himself away from her doorstep, gets a lovely song in “On the Street Where You Live.” The much more interesting secondary story here belongs to Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, and his unlikely ascent from drunken dustman and general blackguard to eminent philosopher and money bags. He also gets two of the show’s liveliest songs, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”

There’s so much more than a love story here, and director Bartlett Sher’s sterling production brings that out. There are flimsy tours and there are grade-A tours – this falls firmly in the latter category. The design, the onstage talent and especially Sher’s smart, detailed direction make this show shine for a new generation. And here’s the best thing of all: it’s warm, emotional, funny and sharp without having to make any excuses for its age.

Much of the show’s heart comes from Shereen Ahmed as Eliza as she breaks down the character’s gruff exterior to reveal intelligence, vulnerability and strength. The first hint of Eliza’s inner life comes in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and then comes fully forward in a rage-filled “Just You Wait,” which is is staged on Michael Yeargan’s fantastic turntable set allowing Eliza to storm through multiple rooms of Higgins’ handsome two-story London flat. By the time Eliza has her breakthrough in “The Rain in Spain,” we love her, and then she totally captivates us with a shimmering “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

Laird Mackintosh brings a sort of Hugh Laurie quality to his Higgins and gives the character an energetic bounce that rivals the nonstop vibrations of his brain (and, it must be said, ego). Adam Grupper as Doolittle is a comic force, but he’s nuanced and lets the character build. He could stop the show with “Luck” but doesn’t (which can make Act 1 peak too soon), but completely lets loose in Act 2 with his show-stopping march to get to the church on time. This is also when choreographer Christopher Gattelli gets to let it all out with drag queens, drag kings, lust, booze and general debauchery of the highest order.

Every My Fair Lady, although a show full of potent ideas and stinging smackdowns, will always be judged on its “Ascot Gavotte” because a) it’s hilarious and b) it’s such a showcase for the costumes. Designer Catherine Zuber rises to the challenge here (and everywhere else) with a feast for the eyes.

Sher has tinkered with the musical’s ending to make it more in line with Shaw’s original ending (spoiler alert: Eliza asserts her independence and does not stay with Higgins, nor does she fetch his slippers), although the way it’s staged is rather bizarre. It’s almost as if Eliza appears as a figment of Higgins’ imagination as she wordlessly breezes into his flat through the door and out through one of the invisible walls. Still, it’s gratifying to see that Sher sticks with the anti-rom-com trajectory.

I also couldn’t help thinking that maybe it’s time for another movie version – one that stays sharp instead of gets mushy but lets us keep this glorious score alive. In my dream version, the song “Hymn to Him” (aka Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?) becomes literal as confirmed old bachelors Higgins and Pickering discover their deep and abiding love for one another through their love of phonetics and their staggering privilege. Shaw never quite got there, but in time, he probably would have. Higgins could be played by Andrew Scott (the sexy priest from “Fleabag”) and Pickering by Benedict Cumberbatch. And Eliza? Adele, of course. Now wouldn’t that be loverly?

FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Lincoln Center Theater production of Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady, presented by BroadwaySF, continues through Nov. 28 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com. COVID-19 policy detailed here.

Superstar heralds return to holy place (aka the theater)

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The cast of the North American tour of Jesus Christ Superstar (featuring Aaron LaVigne in the center as the title character) has a light last supper. The show is at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. Below: James T. Justis is Judas. Photos by Matthew Murphy


Hosanna, hey sanna, sanna sanna ho! It sure feels good to be back in a big theater seeing a big Broadway show. This must be the way some people feel going back to church. You might even call it a religious experience.

Except when the show in question is Jesus Christ Superstar, that spiritual uplift quickly turns into confusion. With only a limited knowledge of the Bible, I’ve always found JCS to be a mediocre show with occasional thrills in the score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. I can fully understand why this show became such a sensation more than 50 years ago when the concept album was released (and nothing fires sales more than cries of “Sacrilege!”). Here was a rock opera/Passion Play that really rocked and yowled like the music of the day but also had some orchestral heft to differentiate it from other emerging rock musicals (like Hair).

I can also understand how audiences might have been baffled when the show opened on Broadway Oct. 12, 1971 (50 years ago this week!). If you don’t already know the story of Jesus’ last few weeks or who Judas or King Herod were, the show doesn’t do much to help you out.

Over the last five decades, JCS has become a mainstay, and it seems revisions and revivals and re-imaginings have kept this show resurrecting nonstop. I have yet to see anyone make a case for this being a great show, and the 50th anniversary North American tour now at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season is more interesting than many productions I’ve seen, but it still falls significantly short of miraculous.

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Director Timothy Sheader, who first staged this production for London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2016, aims to rediscover the zeal and youthful cheekiness of the original two-disc concept album by training focus on the music and making this show feel more like a concert than a traditional musical. And the music (not necessarily the voices) quickly emerges as the best part of this touring production. Music director Shawn Gough leads an 11-piece ensemble that expertly captures that unique Lloyd Webber sound blending the symphonic with rock, most notable here in the horns and the guitars.

Set on what looks to be the naked girders of a ruined building (set design by Tom Scutt, who also designed the hair and the costumes), the band occupies the upper levels while the ensemble scampers all over the stage, with a lot of concentrated action on the cross-shaped platform.

Actors in this show don’t have a lot to work with when it comes to characters. They get one act and 95 minutes of nearly nonstop singing that fails to provide much in the way clarity or emotional connection. Aaron LaVigne only really makes an impression as Jesus during “Gethsemane.” Otherwise he just seems like a nice, man-bunned hipster who gets caught in a violent sci-fi story with a mean friend (James T. Justis as Judas) and a sex worker friend who doesn’t know how to love him (Jenna Rubaii as Mary Magdalene). Pilate and the Roman soldiers look like murderous aliens, and King Herod (a fun Paul Louis Lessard) seems to be visiting from an entirely different, much campier and more enjoyable planet.

There’s a weird blend of the realistic and the mythical here. For instance, when Jesus is arrested and is heading toward execution, he emerges shirtless and drenched in blood. Then, when it’s time for the 39 lashes, the whip is replaced with golden glitter bombs. By the end of the lashing, he looks like a terribly abused Academy Award crossed with a disco ball. Probably not the vibe you want when you’re about to watch someone die slowly on a cross.

The thing about Jesus Christ Superstar is this: if you get carried away by the original album (and it still sounds remarkably vital), there is likely never going to be a production better than the one in your head. But isn’t it interesting that the theater where JCS premiered 50 years ago, the Mark Hellinger Theatre, is now the Times Square Church? Hosanna indeed.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Jesus Christ Superstar continues through Nov. 7 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$226. Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com

BroadwaySF COVID policies are here.

There’s a Sting in this Ship but no sting

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Sting (center) plays Jackie White, a shipyard supervisor in the musical The Last Ship for which he also wrote music and lyrics. The show is part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre. Below: Frances McNamee as Meg Dawson and the cast perform “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor.” Photos by Matthew Murphy

When a show flops on Broadway and then undergoes serious re-tooling, you hold out hope that lessons were learned, wrongs righted and mistakes corrected. The debut musical from rock icon Sting, The Last Ship, fizzled in New York, but that didn’t mean dry dock for this vessel. No, Sting continued to work on it, giving it a complete re-write (with director Lorne Campbell), shuffling and re-shuffling songs and characters and setting out on another voyage, first in England, then in Canada.

The former Police man must be pretty happy with the results because he’s now starring in an American tour (before heading to Las Vegas for a more traditional rock ‘n’ roll residency). The show pulled into the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, and though the cast is able and voices are strong, the show is mild entertainment at best. Though the story takes place in 1986 as the Northern England shipyards were closing, the clothes look like 1973, and Sting’s score sounds like 1873.

Sting himself makes a disappointing impression as both an actor and a singer. He’s hard to understand both in volume and intelligibility. Some of his songs give you that old Sting frisson, but those moments are too few.

I will say that this show, for all its melodrama and righteous sincerity, has a few high points that hint at the way its creators would like us to be inspired by the strength of the working folk and their (temporary) rise against oppressive economic and governmental forces. But again, the highs are surrounded by doldrums. There is, however something remarkable: one of the worst death scenes I’ve ever seen played out on a stage.

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I reviewed The Last Ship for the Bay Area News Group. Here’s an excerpt:

The bad news is that “The Last Ship,” as well-meaning, and mildly entertaining as it is, will never be a great or even very good musical. The whole enterprise is mostly grim and dreary, with competing plot lines involving soapy melodrama, economic downturn and labor strife. There’s even a character with a cough, which you know means that person won’t live to see the finale.
The story about how the shipyard men and the women who love them fight against the forces that are putting them out of business is meant to celebrate the indomitable human spirit. But it all comes across as a shallow gloss on how the downtrodden can fool themselves into a happy ending if they speechify and sing in beautiful choral unison while stomping about in a robust Celtic manner.
While the book never makes a convincing case for any of its plot lines – the wayward teenage love story, the shipyard closure, the family medical drama – there is some pleasure to be had in Sting’s score and the performances, especially by the women of the company.

Read the full review here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Sting’s The Last Ship continues through March 22 at BroadwaySF’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $70-$275 (subject to change). Running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes (including one intermission). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.broadwaysf.com.

Soaking it up at the SpongeBob musical

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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.

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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.

[FOR MORE INFORMATION]
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 www.broadwaysf.com

Summer’s a bummer in all but music

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Dan’yelle Williamson (Diva Donna, left), Alex Hairston (Disco Donna, center), Olivia Elease Hardy (Duckling Donna) and the company of Summer: the Donna Summer Musical at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. Below: The three ages of Donna in various shades of blue. Photos by Matthew Murphy for Murphymade

For a terrible show, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is fairly enjoyable, and that is for one reason alone: the music. As jukebox musicals go, this one is toward the bottom of the list, which is surprising given that director and co-writer Des McAnuff has two shows much (much) higher on that list: Jersey Boys and Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.

Summer suffers from the bane of the jukebox musical: forcing innocent pop songs into being show tunes that are meant to convey something meaningful about plot or character. When “Dim All the Lights,” a groovy tune about gettin’ down and dirty, is sung at a funeral, we know we’re in trouble.

If Summer had a knowing sense of humor, such moments might play better. For instance, in the completely tone-deaf (emotionally not musically) scene involving cartoonish domestic abuse set to “Enough Is Enough,” Donna fights back, and one of her weapons happens to be a coffee table book about Barbra Streisand. Say what now? Joke or bad idea? Hard to say, but probably the latter.

Like The Cher Show, another jukebox bio musical that never quite connected on Broadway, Summer represents the late Donna Summer with three actors portraying her at different times in her life. There’s Ducking Donna, a young girl from a big family in Boston played by De’Ja Simone filling in for an ailing Olivia Elease Hardy. Once young Donna drops out of high school and heads to Europe, she becomes Disco Donna played by Alex Hairston, who is really the most interesting Donna as she goes from unknown to big star. And sort of lording above them all is Diva Donna played by Dan’yelle Williamson, who serves as our guide through this “concert of a lifetime.”

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If this really were a concert, things would be so much better. The Donnas could talk about life moments and sing the songs surrounded by the mostly female ensemble working through Sergio Trujillo’s rather uninspired choreography and wearing the glittery costumes by Paul Tazewell. You could also keep most of Robert Brill’s set (especially the gigantic Studio 54 disco ball), even if the design leans too heavily on over-active video screens, and Howell Binkley’s concert-appropriate colorful lighting could stay as well. Great voices, enjoyable songs, flashy lights and colors – that’s really all we need to be happy.

The book by McAnuff, Robert Cary and Colman Domingo does Summer (or anyone in her life) no favors because it’s shallow, cheesy and unreliable. All of these things may have happened to Summer in exactly this way, but because of the way the show puts her biography across, it all feels like gloss and shine with no relationship to reality. If Summer really did engage in a pitched battle with her record company, we never really know the details beyond the fact that the fight fits nicely with her song “She Works Hard for the Money.” And Diva Donna’s attempt to explain her “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” comment, which hurt and alienated her gay fan base, by singing “Friends Unknown” as a tribute to those lost to AIDS feels more like a PR move than a deeply felt moment. More shine over substance.

All we really need here is for the three talented leads to perform Summer’s hit parade. There are delicious moments of pure performance – “MacArthur Park,” “On the Radio,” “Heaven Knows” – but they get derailed by the storytelling. When we finally get an unbridled, “Last Dance,” it feels like the party has begun at last, but then the show is over. In real life, Donna Summer was hot stuff and we loved to love her, baby. But on stage she’s another casualty of the empty-calorie cash grab known as the jukebox musical.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical continues through Dec. 29 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com

Identity crisis renders Anastasia dull, derivative

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Lila Coogan is the central character in the national tour of Anastasia at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre. Photo by Matthew Murphy, Murphymade Below: Coogan’s Anya awaits her fate with Stephen Brower (bowing) as Dmitry. Photo by Evan Zimmerman, Murphymade

As much as we might like to think that the future of Broadway looks like Hamilton or Hadestown, I’m pretty sure the future looks more like Anastasia, the inconsequential musical based on the 1997 animated film (in turn based on the 1956 movie starring Ingrid Bergman) that is now touring the country. Given how uninspired this show is, the fact that it ran for two years on Broadway is surprising, but perhaps lukewarm rehashes are just what audiences want. There seems to be an endless supply.

The one bold feature of the show, the single element that seems to give the show life and a reason for being, is its heavy reliance on giant screens as set pieces. There are a few actual backdrops, but projection designs do most of the work, and it’s an element that to me feels like cheating. I’d rather have too little than too much in design, a reason to ignite the imagination rather than have video game-like images sliding past my eyeballs for 2 1/2 hours. That high-tech gimmickry is the only thing that indicates this musical emerged in the 21st century.

The touring production now at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre employs that flawlessly executed video design, but it overwhelms the actors, who are already struggling to make something of the halfhearted book by Terrence McNally and the surprisingly limp score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. This musical team wrote the songs for the animated movie, and several of those songs, including the Oscar-nominated “Journey to the Past,” are highlights here. But the songs they’ve created to beef up the story are, for the most part, forgettable. Only a few of the new numbers come close to something interesting, and two of them involve the complicated feelings Russians have about their homeland and its turbulent politics. The first, “Stay, I Pray You,” is a wistful goodbye song at a train station as conflicted citizens reflect on their need to flee and their sadness at doing so. The other, “Land of Yesterday,” is sung by nostalgic Russian expats at a Russian club in Paris who delight in celebrating and bemoaning their homeland (while dancing and drinking vodka).

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The bulk of the over-abundant score is bland except when it’s outright awful (ie, all the songs for Gleb, the bad guy Bolshevik). How is that possible from the team that created Ragtime, Once on This Island and A Man of No Importance, all gorgeous, poignant shows with emotional scores and catchy songs?

Director Darko Tresnjak, aside from relying too much on the big screens, seems content with skimming the surfaces of the execution of the Romanov family, Anastasia’s mysterious survival and the non-suspense of wondering if “Anya” really is the lost princess. There’s a love story that feels about as authentic as Russian salad dressing, and there’s a surprisingly bold rip-off of “The Rain in Spain” when two con-artists attempt to school a street sweeper in the ways of royalty so they can pass her off as the long-lost princess. During “Learn to Do It” I kept expecting Dmitry and Vlad to shout, “By George I think she’s got it!”

Amid all the derivative drivel, there’s a surprising bright spot in Act 2 when two secondary characters, Vlad and Lily, decide they’re doing a sketch on “The Carol Burnett Show,” and for the length of “The Countess and the Common Man,” it feels like we’ve entered another realm entirely, one where entertainment actually matters and the skills of the performers (Edward Staudenmayer and Tari Kelly) are put to effective use. Otherwise, we have sweet-voiced leads Lila Coogan as Anya-Let’s-Just-Call-Her-Anastaisa and Stephen Brower as Dmitry being sincere and feisty with 0% substance and just as much romantic spark.

What does this musical have to say to us? Try not to die when your family is executed? Amnesia is totally reversible? We all have conflicted feelings about our homeland? Digital sets are awesome? Princess dresses are pretty? Anastasia is the kind of theatrical venture that seems like an amiable cash grab: professional and (c)harmless and, except for the producers, completely unnecessary. As I said, the future of Broadway.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Anastasia continues through Sept. 29 at SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Carole King and all that is Beautiful

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Sarah Bockel is Carole King in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, part of the SHN season at the Golden Gate Theatre. Below: Bockel’s Carole confers with (from left) Alison Whitehurst as Cynthia Weil, Jacob Heimer as Barry Mann and Dylan S. Wallach as Gerry Goffin. Photos by Joan Marcus

Almost six years ago, a Broadway-bound musical had its world premiere at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre, and though there were a few issues, the show looked like a bona fide hit. Sure enough, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical became a smash on Broadway, winning a Tony Award for star Jessie Mueller and continuing to draw a cheering audience more than five years later.

Read my original review here.

There’s one simple reason Beautiful is a hit, and that reason is Carole King. The show is at its best when it’s tracking her brilliance and her rise from co-songwriter of a bazillion 1960s hits to legendary singer-songwriter in her own right. Happily, the show is at its best for much of its 2 1/2-hour running time. The only time the enterprise flags is when we get too caught up in a ’60s musical revue cycle and lose track of Carole’s quest to become so much her authentic self that she becomes a legend (that’s not really her quest, but it’s exactly what happens). Sure, there’s a lot of feel-good nostalgia here, but we also get a powerful story of self-actualization that feels real and not just the standard Hollywood cliché.

Now Beautiful is back in San Francisco, this time at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season. Since the show’s debut here, it has become funnier, livelier and more polished, all good things for slick Broadway musical biography. But the one constant is the warmth of the characters and the way that warmth makes them feel genuinely connected. Sarah Bockel as Carole has to go from smart-beyond-her-years 16-year-old peddling songs at the Brill Building to Grammy Award-winner performing at Carnegie Hall a little more than a decade later. It’s an evolution Bockel makes with believable grace and goofiness. Like Mueller before her, she’s not exactly imitating King, but she’s giving us enough King-ness to satisfy our craving and remind us that we’re watching a version of what happened to a still-living, still-performing, still-beloved artist.

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As Gerry Goffin, the handsome writer King marries and churns out hits (and children) with, Dylan S. Wallach has charm and complication to spare. We can see why Carole is so attracted to him, and we can feel just how heartbroken she is when he breaks out of the marriage and begins suffering from unnamed traumas (unnamed other than “nervous breakdown”). Rather than focus on the drama of a youthful marriage and its eventual dissolution, the plot here revs up a competition between Carole and Gerry and their closest friends (and office neighbors), Cynthia Weill and Barry Mann (played, respectively, by Alison Whitehurst and Jacob Heimer). Moving the emotional storytelling to the back burner for a portion of Act 1, book writer Douglas McGrath gives us the Battle for the #1s, with a nonstop stream of hits like “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof,” “On Broadway,” “The Locomotion,” “One Fine Day” and “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.”

It’s fun, but the glittery revue quality wears a little thin. We’re eager to get back to Carole, so director Marc Bruni refocuses the story in Act 2 as Carole’s marriage is falling apart and the music industry is changing faster than you can say Liverpool.

Beautiful began as a way to celebrate the life and work of King (even though the story stops short just as Tapestry is taking over the world) and has become a living monument to her greatness. She was a skilled songwriter in the ways of the old school, but she, like the world, evolved. She got ahead of the sound and managed to meld song craft and modern sounds in a way that remain fresh and vibrant. This musical and its success was that little push King needed to remind us how essential she is to the 20th-century pop-culture pantheon. May Beautiful continue burnishing King’s iconic status and keep us excited and interested every time she (or her avatar) begins playing that piano.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Beautiful: The Carole King Musical continues through July 9 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$226 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit shnsf.com.

Not even Oompa Loompas can save this foundering Factory

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Noah Weisberg (center) is Willy Wonka with the touring company of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Below: Wonka leads golden ticket-winners on a tour of his factory. Photos by Joan Marcus

A golden ticket doesn’t buy you much these days – a cut-rate touring musical with chintzy sets, a mediocre score and about as much joy as you’d find in a board meeting about turning wacky movies into boring musicals.

You’d be justified in hoping for more from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a new musical re-working of the 1964 novel by Roald Dahl and the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The show, with a score by Hairspray and “Smash” tunesmiths Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, opened in London’s West End in 2013 and had changed drastically (new director, designer and choreographer, more songs from the movie) when it bowed on Broadway four years later. That’s the version now on tour at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre. It should be fun, funny, dark and wondrous – like the novel and parts of the movie (hello, Gene Wilder as the wonkiest of Wonkas) – but it’s none of those things. More like schematic, uninspired and dull.

I saw the original London production and was profoundly disappointed. Clearly, millions had been spent on elaborate sets and costumes, and Shaiman and Wittman are among my favorite contemporary Broadway composers. But nothing really worked in that production, and I was hopeful that the changes made for Broadway would liven up the property. I was especially intrigued by the notion of replacing all the child actors – except protagonist Charlie Bucket – with adult actors. As the nasty golden ticket-winners tour Wonka’s factory, they get their comeuppance in rather nasty ways, and it was hard finding any joy in watching live children get sucked into chocolate rivers, turned into blueberries and thrown down garbage chutes.

The good news is that it is indeed much funnier watching bad things happen to bad children played in exaggerated ways by adults. The bad news is that’s hardly enough to save this tepid endeavor. The entire first act centers on gathering the group of golden ticket winners who will be the first civilians ever to be allowed inside the marsh-hallowed halls of Wonka’s chocolate factory. There are only five tickets hidden in the wrapping of five Wonka chocolate bars, which means we have to get through five songs introducing each of the winners. Act 1 ends with the kids and their parents about to enter the factory. So basically, Act 1 feels like a looooong prologue.

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Act 2 is definitely livelier, largely thanks to the half-human/half-puppet Oompa Loompas (puppetry and illusions designed by the great Basil Twist), and even though the underwhelming score doesn’t improve, you find yourself hoping that the wonders of the factory will allow for some stage dazzle. Alas, Mark Thompson’s set is dominated by giant screens, and there’s really nothing wondrous about screens. If we’re going to spend this much time watching screens, we might as well just watch the movie again.

There’s not a lot the actors can do with this material, but they do their best. Noah Weisberg is a game but unremarkable Wonka who is forced to spend the first act pretending to run a small candy shop in the slum Charlie and his desperately impoverished family call home. At Wednesday’s opening-night performance, Charlie was played by Henry Boshart (who shares the role with Collin Jeffery and Rueby Wood) in a bright and friendly fashion. It’s too bad that the moment when Charlie finds his golden ticket is such a massive let down. Director Jack O’Brien hardly allows for a beat to transpire before the event happens and is gone.

Other than the songs from the movie – notably “The Candy Man,” “Pure Imagination” and “The Oompa Loompa Song” – nothing in the Shaiman/Wittman score sticks. The Act 1 closer, “It Must Be Believed to Be Seen,” will likely go down as one of the worst act closers in Broadway history. And the ballad for Charlie’s mom (played with winsome loveliness by Amanda Rose), “That Little Man of Mine,” showcases the gross sentimentality that plagues so many of the new songs.

This whole show is such a missed opportunity. There’s enough here for families to have a reasonably enjoyable theater experience, but it would be so much better if kids got to experience something truly magical on stage. What this show feels like is a multimedia conglomerate wanting to maximize a property with minimal creative license. This Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a great glass elevator ride to nowhere.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues through May 12 at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$226 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit shnsf.com.