Mockingbird can still soar in stage revision

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ABOVE: Richard Thomas (left) is Atticus Finch and Yaegel T. Welch is Tom Robinson in Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of the Harper Lee novel To Kill a Mockingbird at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. BELOW: (from left) Justin Mark is Jem Finch, Thomas is Atticus Finch, Melanie Moore is Scout Finch and Steven Lee Johnson is Dill Harris. Photos by Julieta Cervantes


It would be impossible – some might even call it a sin – to kill To Kill a Mockingbird. Like it or not, Harper Lee’s 1960 novel has become our American story – a novel we revere and teach to children, a movie we idolize, a work of art that we feel pushing us to do the right thing. The book has been banned, debated, cast off as white-savior hokum and generally accepted as a way we address the deeply complicated history of race in America as mainstream entertainment.

And being part of the mainstream, theater has not been left out of the Mockingbird nest. For the last 50 years or so, there had been a serviceable stage adaptation of the novel that was faithfully performed around the world (thank you for your service, Christopher Sergel). That version was essentially erased when Aaron Sorkin, of “The West Wing”/A Few Good Men/The Social Network fame, decided to get into the Mockingbird game with an all-new stage adaptation, which opened on Broadway in 2018.

That’s the version of To Kill a Mockingbird that is now on tour and making its Bay Area premiere at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. If you are already a fan of Sorkin’s work as either a writer or director, you know you’ll love his attempt to pull Lee’s novel into a post-George Floyd world where it seems every bigoted, violent, closed-minded townsperson from the story makes up nearly half of our American electorate and its halls of power.

If you’re a Mockingbird loyalist, you may not be as thrilled with Sorkin’s changes, especially the way he pulls Atticus Finch down off his pedestal and makes him more of a flesh-and-blood human being. He also makes Atticus more of the play’s focal point than his young daughter, Scout, who is the narrator of the novel. But if you know Sorkin, you know how much sense that makes. Sorkin loves a trial (see A Few Good Men and The Trial of the Chicago 7) – it is theater and religion rolled into one – and rather than leave the pivotal trial in Mockingbird to the end, he starts there and then cannily shifts back and forth through time as he ratchets up tension leading to the jury’s verdict.

There’s so much that’s just plain smart about Sorkin’s approach. He has streamlined the plot (for instance, there’s no Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’ sister) and tried to give the Black characters, like the Finch maid Calpurnia, more weight in the story. In fact, it’s Calpurnia who has some of the show’s most trenchant lines and makes the greatest effort to show Atticus that his optimism, respect and faith that there’s good in everyone could be blinding him to reality and actually causing damage.

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In this version, Atticus does not remain unruffled. He feels like he knows about his fellow townsfolk to know that they’ll ultimately do the right thing, and if you just imagine being in the skin of those with whom you disagree, you’ll be less prone to hate and more inclined to understanding and neighborly love. But then the catastrophic trial in which he’s involved as a defender grows more and more intense, and he can’t quite feel solid ground under his idealism.

That would be an interesting exploration in the 1930s, when the story takes place, in the 1960s, when Lee shared her story and now, when animosity and lies, especially around issues of race, divide the country as powerfully as they ever have.

Sorkin’s restructuring of the story works well for Atticus, and when he gives the character (played on tour by the superb Richard Thomas) doubt and anger and optimism, the mix is emotional and quite visceral. The element of the story that works less well on stage involves the children – Atticus’ kids, Scout (Melanie Moore) and Jem (Justin Mark), and their summer friend Dill (Steven Lee Johnson). Usually I have an aversion to adults playing children, but here, the performers are good enough to keep the cloying cuteness at bay. But their part of the story, especially as the show winds down with an act of violence and an act of courage, doesn’t have the same weight because the best parts of the show don’t really involve them. Still, it’s essential that Lee’s story involve the opening of a child’s eyes to the reality of the world – especially these children, who are living in segregated Alabama. And it’s vital that the kids infuse her story with the hope that children are going to be better and do better than their parents.

That all still comes across in director Bartlett Sher’s fluid, beautifully textured production, but it’s just not as powerful. The racial inequality, the stupid power of mob rule and the failure of the judicial system are vivid and gut wrenching here. But it seems that in the more realistic world of this Mockingbird, optimism and hope will suffer the law of diminishing returns.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird continues through Oct. 9 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco as part of the BroadwaySF season. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $56-$256. Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com.

Yes it can-can can! Moulin Rouge! The Musical spins into SF

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ABOVE: The cast of the North American Tour of Moulin Rouge! The Musical, now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. BELOW: Courtney Reed as Satine and Conor Ryan as Christian the doomed lovers. Photos by Matthew Murphy for Murphymade


Way back in the early 2000s, I liked the soundtrack of Moulin Rouge much more than I liked Baz Luhrmann’s movie, which left me kind of cold and disappointed that all those mishmashed pop songs I loved on the soundtrack were put to use in a mostly uninteresting La Bohème ripoff movie that primarily coasted on the considerable appeal of Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman.

That’s why I was fully prepared not to enjoy the 10-time Tony Award-winning stage adaptation, now known as Moulin Rouge! The Musical. I never saw it on Broadway (where it is still running), but I did catch the tour, which has landed at the Orpheum Theatre for the next two months as part of the BroadwaySF season.

How wrong I was. I loved Moulin Rouge! The Musical, mostly because the music I so revered in the movie has become the heart of the stage show. The idea behind this adaptation, directed by Alex Timbers, written by John Logan and (this is so important) musically supervised by Justin Levine is simple: more, more more. One stage picture is more lavish the next; there’s more melodrama and fire in the performances from the leads to the ensemble; and there are many, many more songs – 75 songs to be exact, crammed into this 2 1/2-hour show, mostly in medley form. And they run the gamut from The Rolling Stones to Dolly Parton and Edith Piaf to David Bowie.

This show revels in the joy, the corniness and the deep attachments that are embedded in pop music. To sit with an audience that audibly reacts to a song’s opening lyrics as if to say, as one, “Oh, I love this song!” Or that murmured chuckle of recognition when an unlikely character starts sliding into a Rhianna song or some newfound friends find themselves Rick-rolled in a charming medley that starts with Rodgers and Hammerstein, morphs briefly into the theme from “Dawson’s Creek” (aka “I Don’t Want to Wait by Paula Cole) and then makes way for The Police.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical loves, reveres and occasionally derides pop music. The melodrama of the plot (still a consumptive slice of La Bohème) is merely a canvas on which to create a sound collage that exalts, among many others, Adele, Lady Gaga, Labelle and, most reverently, Elton John.

As Noël Coward put it in Private Lives, “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,” and here’s a whole, splashy, gaudy, gorgeous show to prove him right.

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Director Timbers, with repeated jolts of energy from choreographer Sonya Tayeh and her dancers, is like his onstage bohemians. He revels in the pure poppy pleasures of music, which makes this feel less like a traditional musical and more like a party where you’re trying to piece together a story with songs you love and loathe (and songs you love to loathe, a fascinating and abundant category). The ultimate aim is to have fun and get carried away – willingly manipulated, some might say – by the nostalgic associations that carbonate so much of the music in our lives.

This is all accomplished by a marvelous cast headed by Austin Durant as Harold Zidler, the owner of and onstage host at the infamous Moulin Rouge awash in the red lights of Paris’ Montmartre district. His star, or as he keeps putting it, his sparkling diamond, is Satine, played by Courtney Reed, whose singing is superior to her acting (the preferred order of things here), and his goal is to keep his struggling club afloat. To do that, he needs Satine to charm Duke Money Bags (actually the Duke of Monroth, played by the delectably sharp David Harris). But wouldn’t you know that poor old Satine, just about to succumb to consumption (even though she can still hit those amazing power notes in her songs), falls in love. The unlikely object of her affection is the penniless American composer Christian, just arrived in Paris, who immediately falls under the spell of newfound friends Toulouse-Lautrec (André Ward) and the robust Argentine Santiago (Gabe Martìnez.

This is really Christian’s story, and Conor Ryan’s performance makes for a dazzling centerpiece. His voice makes you understand why the worldly Satine would fall for such a naïf, and his hair flips make you see how she might go weak in the knees for someone who can’t help her financially. Sinewy and sexy, this Christian has so much charm you actually feel for him when he gets his heart broken and goes on a green-hued absinthe bender.

This frenzied show doesn’t have the cheap, scaled-down feel of many touring productions. Rather, the dazzling atomic-powered Valentine sets by Derek McLane and giddy costumes by Catherine Zuber feel like rich and lush elements in a fantasy world where people express themselves almost exclusively in pop songs and athletic dance.

When all the elements come together, as in the deliriously dreamy close of Act 1 with an elephant-sized love song medley, the result is pure musical theater heaven. Or when, after the inevitably sad ending, the cast heads into a mega-mix curtain call that involves audience sing-along, confetti and even a little Offenbach.

The key to a jukebox musical’s success is tapping into what people love about the chosen music in the first place and giving it a new spin. With its fun-loving attitude, party vibe and all-around gorgeousness, Moulin Rouge! The Musical is the most sumptuous Broadway jukebox yet.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Moulin Rouge! The Musical continues through Nov. 6 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $61-$256. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.broadwaysf.com.

The great Oklahoma! bloodbath

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ABOVE: Christopher Bannow (center left) is Jud Fry, Sean Grandillo (center) is Curly and Sasha Hutchings (right) is Laurey in the national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! BELOW: Hennessy Winkler as Will Parker, Sis as Ado Annie, and the company. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for Murphymade


OK, so it’s not exactly a bloodbath, but director Daniel Fish’s bold new take on the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! is definitely gorier than your grandmammy’s memory of this nearly 80-year-old musical. There’s a lot that’s different in Fish’s production – now at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season – and a lot that’s the same. It’s all part of re-thinking how to approach an American classic that allows a contemporary entry point into something we think we already know.

This revival’s original production as an intimate and involving affair, with audience and cast in the same space and cornbread and chili served during intermission. The touring production has to work on a traditional proscenium stage, so we get set designer Laura Jellinek creating a big, bright, wood-covered box filled with wooden picnic tables and folding chairs. There are colorful metallic banners (like at a carnival or used car lot) and guns. Lots and lots of guns in racks.

This is Oklahoma Territory circa 1906. There are some fields and homesteads painted on the wood-paneled walls, but things are pretty austere. The same word could be used to describe Scott Zelinski’s lights, which frequently shine brightly on the audience or, in a moment of passion, wash the stage entirely in green or red. The seven-piece (mostly string) band is on stage as well and scenes fold in on one another without much delineation. Fish doesn’t have time for things like specific locations or set pieces. He and his company are here to strip things down.

There’s nothing lush, plush or flush with sentiment about this Oklahoma!. The score has a lean bluegrass sound, and the voices are, for the most part, smaller and twangier and not that robust musical theater sound (as in the 1955 movie with Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae). Performances in general are more focused and interior – often more like a play than a musical – and Fish has a trick that he (over)uses when he wants the audience to focus on the dialogue: he turns off all the lights and has the actors speak into handheld microphones. There are also instances of handheld video projections on the big back wall just to remind us that in the 21st century, the cutting edge always involves a screen.

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There are lots of Bud Light cans on the picnic tables, abundant ice chests, piles of shucked and unshucked corn on the cob (which is used by the womenfolk to make a mess of the stage – take THAT Little House on the Prairie!) and there are moments that feel much more Green Day’s American Idiot than Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!.

Fish’s theatrical experiments certainly shake things up and make us pay attention, and that attention pays off in several ways that make you want to shout “yeeow-a-yip-i-o-ee ay!” The first is a dazzling Ado Annie from Sis, who is funny, naive, sensual and surprising in equal measure. She cain’t say no, but she also cain’t stop stealing every scene she’s in. Another high point is Sasha Hutchings as Laurey, who is drawn to the dark, outsider energy of hired hand Jud Fry (Christopher Bannow) and to the full-of-himself machismo of cowboy Curly (Sean Grandillo). Hutchings’ voice fully and effectively conveys the character’s ambivalence, longing and, frankly, horniness.

There’s definitely an erotic charge to this production – like characters, from Ado Annie and Ali Hakim (Benj Mirman) to the intriguing triangle of Laurey, Curly and Jud, are all aware of their genitals. So often in musicals it seems like characters are like dolls with nothing but molded plastic below the waist.

The one major disappointment here is the dream ballet. Originally choreographed by Agnes de Mille, the sequence illuminates the Laurey-Curly-Jud triangle. Here, with athletic choreography by John Heginbotham and wailing electric guitars from the band, dancer Jordan Wynn wears a sparkly, much too wink-wink “Dream Baby Dream” t-shirt and gives us a jittery dream Laurey that fails to connect in any meaningful way.

We tend to think of the end of this musical as the ensemble singing the rousing title song and spelling out the name of a new state. And while that certainly happens, there’s also a death, which in this version involves a gun and a very direct murder (not someone falling on a knife). There’s a bloody, painful cost to progress, this version seems to say, and it comes to those who fall outside the acceptable center. A new American twist on a classic American tale. And it makes you never want to hear, let alone sing, the song “Oklahoma!” ever again. Thematically, that makes sense. But for showtune lovers, that’s not OK.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! continues through Sept. 11 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 www.broadwaysf.com.

Bright, shiny Prom arrives in time for Pride

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To hell and back, with beautiful music

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.