There’s a Sting in this Ship but no sting

Last Ship 1
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.

Last Ship 2

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

Spongebob1
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.

Spongebob2

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

Summer 2
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.”

Summer 1

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

Anastasia 1
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).

Anastasia 2

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

Beautiful 1
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.

Beautiful 2

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

Charlie 1
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.

Charlie 2

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.

Hamilton continues to dazzle in new #AndPeggy tour

Hamilton
The cast of the #AndPeggy tour of Hamilton, at the SHN Orpheum Theatre through Sept. 8, includes, from left, Rubén J. Carbajal as John Laurens, Julius Thomson III as Alexander Hamilton, Simon Longnight as Marquis de Lafayette and Brandon Louis Armstrong as Hercules Mulligan. Photo by Joan Marcus

If anything, the current company – known as the #AndPeggy company – of Hamilton now at the SHN Orpheum Theatre through Sept. 8, is even better than the one we saw at the same theater in 2017. Maybe it’s because this company got to perform for three weeks in Puerto Rico with the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, reprising the lead role. Or maybe the Hamilton machine, with productions in New York, Chicago and London and with two other tours (currently in Tampa and Cincinnati), has just become so incredibly efficient that it has collected all the best performers in all the land(s).

You might expect that a property that burns as hot and bright as Hamilton does in our pop culture would crest and fade at some point. That may happen, but not yet. The custodians of this extraordinary musical are taking awfully good care of it and are not only preserving but also expanding on the work of Miranda, director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and orchestrator/arranger Alex Lacamoire. What that team created and what continues to unfold on stage is absolutely remarkable.

This is the third time I’ve seen Hamilton (original cast on Broadway, the first national tour launch in San Francisco in 2017 and now #AndPeggy company), and I feel like I could see 50 more times and still not absorb everything happening on that stage. It’s so easy to get caught up in the story of Hamilton and Burr weaving their narratives through the birth of a nation and tangling in their final dual that you don’t always notice what’s happening on the periphery in Blankenbuehler’s incredibly rich work for the ensemble or how Kail’s staging makes such effective use of the two turntables that you fall into the seamless flow of scene after compelling scene. [Just how intricate is the staging? Read this fascinating piece on the dancer who is known as #TheBullet.]

Miranda and company revolutionized musical theater by a) making the racial diversity of the cast so important that it seems there’s no other possible way to make good theater, b) merging history with the present in such a way as to make both more alive and more intricately connected that many of us realized and c) fusing hip-hop, rap, pop, R&B and musical theater in ways that are so vibrant and rich that other contemporary scores seem bland by comparison. All of that becomes even clearer on repeated viewings (and listenings, though the cast album only tells half the story because the visuals are so powerful).

Happily, Hamilton seems far from becoming a museum piece or something that can only be in the mold of the original production. In the performances especially, actors are given enough space to put their own spin on the characters. That’s where the #AndPeggy company really shines. Starting with Julius Thompson III as Hamilton, the performances are fresh and focused, and the chemistry among all the major players is electric.

Thompson brings all kinds of youthful enthusiasm to young Alexander, newly arrived in New York from the West Indies, one more immigrant who will get the job done (that lyric still gets a round of applause). He’s brash and confident and terrified and insecure – a sure recipe for success. As Hamilton makes friends and moves up through the ranks in the Revolutionary War, Thompson expands in the role, and by the time Hamilton is a battered politician, philandering husband and grieving father, there is a depth and ache that comes from maturity and harsh experience. Through it all, Thompson’s voice is glorious (all love to Miranda, but his distinctive voice is not his strongest suit).

Donald Webber Jr. as Aaron Burr is sly and quiet at first. He embodies Burr’s “talk less, smile more” philosophy, but when it comes to Burr’s ambition, which seems constantly thwarted by Hamilton, the actor releases a powerful fury. His “Wait for It” is the best I’ve heard, and his “The Room Where It Happens” dazzles in its show-stopping desperation.

We saw Isaiah Johnson as George Washington last time around, and he’s even better now. When Washington decides to step down from the presidency and enlists Hamilton’s help in writing his farewell address, it’s a moving moment. But Johnson lifts the number – “One Last Time” – higher and digs deeper, making it a show highlight.

This is basically a whole show of highlights, so there are too many to mention here. Just know that “The Schuyler Sisters” (played by Julia K. Harriman as Eliza, Sabrina Sloan as Angelica and Darilyn Castillo as Peggy) is as snazzy as it needs to be; King George III (Rick Negron) is as diabolically funny as he needs to be; and the boys – Brandon Louis Armstrong as Hercules Mulligan/James Madison, Rubén J. Carbajal as John Laurens/Philip Hamilton and Simon Longnight as Marquis de Lafayette/Thomas Jefferson – are a boisterous, funny, obstreperous and loyal.

I see something new and hear something new every time I see the show, and one thing that must be said about this company (and perhaps the sound system at the Orpheum) is that their diction is superb. Approximately 10 bazillion words fly by in this 2 1/2-hour show, and I heard more of them than I ever had before, which was thrilling. Miranda has become so famous for so many things at this point it’s nice to be reminded just what an inventive, intelligent and emotional composer he is.

Hamilton succeeds in abundant ways, but the thing that really got me this time was how our smart, squabbling founding fathers were really just winging it. Doing the best they could, relying on their educations, brandishing their egos, but never possessing absolute answers. The nation was a work in progress then and remains so today. That’s comforting…and terrifying. In Hamilton it would seem there is room enough for us all to figure it out. If only reality reflected one of our great works of art.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Hamilton: An American Musical continues through Sept. 8 at the SHN Orphem Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $111-$686, subject to change. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Daily #HAM4HAM ticket lottery
At each performance of Hamilton 44 tickets are made available at $10 each. Use the Hamilton app or visit hamiltonmusical.com/lottery to enter and to read all the details.

Well, well helloooo, Dolly!

Dolly 1
Betty Buckley won a Tony Award singing “Memory” in Cats but is probably best known as the tenderhearted stepmother on the TV show “Eight Is Enough.” Buckley returns to the musical theater stage as Dolly Gallagher Levi in the national tour of Hello, Dolly! running through March 17 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre. Below: Buckley as Dolly and Lewis J. Stadlen as Horace Vandergelder with the company. Photos by Julieta Cervantes

I didn’t always get Hello, Dolly! partly because I didn’t think there was anything to get. I just thought I didn’t like it much. Sure, the Jerry Herman score is irresistibly cheerful, but I was always resistant to the Carol Channing clown show that so defined the musical from its inception in 1964 through Channing’s last tour in the mid-‘90s.

I saw the late Channing in her final tour and enjoyed her verve and comic skill, but the show was like an archival print you appreciate for its historical value more than it was a vital piece of musical theater. Then I saw the 2017 Broadway revival starring Bette Midler directed by Jerry Zaks. That bright, ebullient production was a whole different experience. The joy factor was enormous, the performances were warm and funny and Herman’s score was sheer delight from beginning to end. I’ve never experienced an audience so enraptured with a show that their collective adulation became a character in the show. It’s like the entire audience was enraptured and subjected to repeated fits of ecstasy. There was weeping and cheering and cheering on top of cheering.

That production reminded me that this musical has its roots in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, his second attempt at adapting a European play for American audiences. The first, 1938’s The Merchant of Yonkers flopped, but he revisited the play in 1955 as The Matchmaker, which was a hit and later served as the basis for Michael Stewart’s book for Hello, Dolly!. All those wonderful Wilder qualities – reminding us to live not merely inhabit our lives, to connect with other people, to trust more and worry less – were bursting out of the musical, which in itself provided a reason to revel in the present moment.

The Broadway revival has spawned a national tour with the marvelous Betty Buckley as Dolly, and while the erstwhile star of Cats, The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Sunset Boulevard may not be the first person you think of when you think of musical comedy, she attacks the material as a serious actor and delivers a deeply felt performance full of life and love.

Dolly 2

The production, now at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre, retains the colorful zest of the Broadway production, from the cheerfully old-fashioned sets and Easter egg-colored costumes by Santo Loquasto to the choreography by Warren Carlyle (inspired by the original staging by Gower Champion) that embodies the ideal combination of charm, athleticism and beauty in musical theater dance.

Buckley’s Dolly Gallagher Levi has to make us care about her in several ways. We have to empathize with her grief. She has, after all, spent the last decade mourning the loss of her great love, her husband Ephraim Levi. And we have to give ourselves over to the philosophy she has adopted for herself, which is that everything will work out just fine. She may seem a little kooky or daffy in her meddling and the way she posits herself as an expert at everything, but she does all of that wisely. She simply trusts that good intentions and allowing for the best in people will yield the best possible result. Buckley succeeds beautifully on both counts. She’s warm and funny and, in her monologues to her husband (taken right from Wilder), quite affecting. As a singer, Buckley is having fun with the Herman score. She can deliver the comic goods (“So Long Dearie”) and the belt (“Before the Parade Passes By”) in equal measure, all the while making it entirely her own.

Of course Dolly is the fulcrum of the farce, but surrounding her is a delicious assortment of comic performances. Lewis J. Stadlen is appropriately gruff as Yonkers unmarried half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder, but he’s also just sweet enough to make you want him to end up with the scheming Dolly (she wants him for his money so she can spread it around). His is a classic style of musical theater comedy, and it works perfectly here. His chemistry with Buckley delights, especially in their turkey-beet-giblet dinner scene at the Harmonia Gardens.

As Vandergelder’s employees, Nic Rouleau and Jess LeProtto playing Cornelius and Barnaby respectively find that nice balance – as so much in this production does – of comedy and humanity so that when their big day in New York yields true love for both, we’re giddy right along with them. Rouleau has a spectacular voice, and LeProtto is a deft physical comedian. As Irene and Minnie, the women who conquer the hearts of the Yonkers clerks, Analisa Leaming and Kristen Hahn have gorgeous voices and admirable comic chops. Like Barnaby and Cornelius, they are breaking out of their usual roles and diving into adventure with gusto.

The lavishness of the production, the energy of the choreography and the sweetness of the story all combine perfectly in Act 2 as Dolly prepares, in her words, to rejoin the human race, and makes her grand entrance at the top of the stairs at the Harmonia Gardens. The waiters have preceded her entrance with a dazzling “gallop,” and Zaks’ and Carlyle’s staging of the title song reveals one delight after another as Buckley sets out, or so it seems, to charm the entire planet.

There’s a refrain running through Hello, Dolly! that the world is full of wonderful things. This heartfelt, buoyant production – a vivid reminder of why it’s so beloved – is most certainly one of them.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Betty Buckley for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. You can read the story here. Several paragraphs didn’t make the final edit and are included below:

The revival, Buckley says, feels connected to the original source material, Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker” (which is actually a re-write of his earlier play, “The Merchant of Yonkers”).

“I am a Wilder devotee,” Buckley says. “In college, I played Mrs. Antrobus in his ‘The Skin of Our Teeth.’ There I was this budding feminist, a charter subscriber to Ms. Magazine, and I was thrilled to have words for all these feelings I had growing up about the hypocrisy I saw around me, the inequity between men and women. And the reaction to these Wilder monologues I was speaking as this character were just visceral and emotional. It was such an enlightening experience for me. I will be forever grateful to Thornton Wilder.”

Many of Dolly’s monologues in the musical, Buckley points out, are pulled directly from Wilder’s play. “Here’s this beautiful, joyous musical, but within it is a message about the truth vs. the cultural notion of patriarchy and people who are focused on money and hardness learning more about their humanity and human connection,” Buckley says. “Dolly is a sage widow who has been retired, making a living catch as catch can, and she has intuitive gifts about life, love and connections. She decides to come back to life after 10 years of grieving, and she helps people remember where their hearts are. This story is so resonant and timely.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Hello, Dolly! continues through March 17 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com

Humans at their best in joyful Come From Away

come from away 3
The First North American Tour Company of Come From Away, part of the SHN season at the Golden Gate Theatre. The musical tells the story of 7,000 passengers stranded in a small Newfoundland community in the days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Photos by Mathew Murphy

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

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

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

come from away 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough with the clichés already in A Bronx Tale

Bronx 2
Joe Barbara is Sonny (left), the mafioso, and Joey Barreiro is Calogero (center), the kid who gets tangled in his web, in the touring Company of A Bronx Tale, a musical version of Chazz Palminteri’s autobiographical story. Below: Little C (Frankie Leoni) finds himself in the good graces of the neighborhoods No. Guy (Barbara as Sonny). Photos by Joan Marcus

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

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

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

Bronx 1

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

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

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

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