A wildly Happy homecoming at TheatreWorks

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Terry (Richard Prioleau, left)), Gil (Colman Domingo, center), and Mo (Duane Boutté) have a conversation at the funeral home in the West Coast premiere of Domingo’s Wild With Happy, a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Mark Kitaoka. Below: Sharon Washington as Aunt Glo complicates the life of Domingo’s Gil. Photo by Tracy Martin

In his wildly cynical, angry, sad and, ultimately, happy new play Wild With Happy, playwright/actor (and former San Franciscan) Colman Domingo is doing several admirable things. In telling the story of a 40-year-old man who has just lost his mother, he is telling a modern fairy tale in which the mother – so often long dead and gone in such tales – is the driving force. And he’s pushing hard against the enormous cultural boulder that goes by various names – cynicism, snark, realism – but is really just the absence of hope.

In its West Coast premiere from TheatreWorks, Wild With Happy is a light farce until it isn’t. Mixed in with the broad comedy and zany road trip, there’s some heavy baggage involving the mother-son bond and the very real uses of enchantment, tradition and ceremony. It doesn’t all work in director Danny Scheie’s brisk, 95-minute production, but there’s an abundance of humor and heart.

Domingo is as charismatic as ever in the role of Gil, a frustrated 40-year-old actor who fled his native Philadelphia for the promise of stardom in New York. Things haven’t worked out all that well for Gil, and he’s further embittered by a bad breakup with a boyfriend. His eccentric family back in Philly – a Cinderella-loving mom, a wacky aunt – weigh heavily on him, and that’s part of the reason he’s feeling such guilt after his mother’s sudden passing. It’s a challenging role that Domingo has created for himself because Gil isn’t inherently likeable. As a person, he’s tightly wound, cranky and ever the victim of the world and its inhabitants not meeting with his approval or matching his high standards. But Domingo works had, both as playwright and actor, to keep pummeling Gil until he has no choice but to break down (through?) his defensive walls and let the emotion out and the people in.

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Reprising the role she created last fall at the Public Theater in New York, Sharon Washington is a force of nature as Aunt Glo, sister to Gil’s deceased mother (whom Washington also plays in flashbacks). Outfitted in velour track suits and full of strong opinions, Aunt Glo is all riled up. She doesn’t agree with Gil’s decision to have his mother cremated because it goes against everything she (and, by association, her community) believes in when it comes to honoring the dead. She wants an expensive casket, a proper visitation and a blow-out funeral and wake. She feels cheated of a death ritual that means something to her, and she’s convinced Gil, who has issues dealing with his grief, needs it more than anyone. Washington is a firecracker, exploding with each speech, arms splayed and voice pitched at peak volume. She’s hilarious but not a cartoon. Her issues with Gil are real and understandable, and you never forget that she’s grieving, too.

Of course there’s nowhere to head from here but a road trip to Disney World, with Aunt Glo and Terry the sweet man from the Philly funeral home (Richard Prioleau, a great choice for a Prince Charming type) chasing Gil and his sassy friend Mo (Duane Boutté in an underwritten role). It seems Aunt Glo placed a tracking device in her late sister’s Cinderella doll (say what now?). Set designer Erik Flatmo does what he can to make the road trip interesting and funny (we see both cars on stage and well-placed video cameras allow for close-ups from the front seats), but car chases are really better left to movies. Or real life.

Once in Orlando, the action shifts to the Cinderella suite of a Disney hotel, and Domingo lays on the sentiment pretty thick (lighting and media designer David Lee Cuthbert adds some nice firework-y, fairy tale-y touches). But that’s part of the point, right? To bust up Gil’s cynicism, it takes some pretty heavy machinery, and there’s no heavier sentimental machinery than that devised by Disney for its theme parks.

As entertaining as Wild With Happy is, I must admit that my favorite part of the evening was the extraordinary pre-show playlist playing in the theater as audience members took their seats. It was version after version of “Get Happy” – Rufus Wainwright, Puppini Sisters, Tony Bennett, among many others – ending with the inevitable Barbra Streisand/Judy Garland medley of “Get Happy” and “Happy Days Are Here Again.” That music all by itself made me wild with happy.



Colman Domingo’s Wild With Happy continues through June 30 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$73.Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Domingo’s `Boy’ growing up off-Broadway


Thick Description artistic director Tony Kelly reports the good news that former San Franciscan Colman Domingo’s stellar one-man show, A Boy and His Soul, will be part of the 2009-2010 season at off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre.

Kelly will direct, as he did in the show’s original Thick D run in 2005 and in its revival in the fall of last year.

The autobiographical show conjures up Domingo’s childhood in Philadelphia in the 1970s complete with a fantastic soul music soundtrack and one of the most exuberant performances you’re likely to find on a solo stage.

Read my review of the show from last fallhere and my interview with Domingo on the subject of Broadway fame after his Passing Strange experience and the resurrection of his Soul here.

Here is Domingo, along with his Passing Strange co-star Stew, performing the composer’s “Gary’s Song” from “Spongebob Squarepants” at Joe’s Pub last fall.

Here’s the Vineyard’s official season announcement.

Review: `A Boy and His Soul’

Colman Domingo revisits his West Philadelphia, soul music-infused childhood in the solo show A Boy and His Soul at San Francisco’s Thick House. Photos by Rick Martin.

Domingo’s soulful `Boy’ better than ever at Thick House
(four stars)

Marcel Proust had his madeleienes. Colman Domingo has his ’70s soul music.

The needle touches down on the spinning vinyl, snaps and crackles make the speakers bounce. Then the music starts to play, and we’re jettisoned back into a world where nostalgia, family and deep emotion provide the bass groove to an all-grown-up tune.

Domingo’s dynamic solo show “A Boy and His Soul” has traveled this memory road before – at the Thick House in 2005. Now Domingo and the show are back as part of Thick Description’s 20th anniversary year, and “Soul” finds new depth it didn’t have three years ago.

Since we last saw Domingo, he has starred in a Broadway show (“Passing Strange”) and lost both parents whom he so affectionately conjures in “A Boy and His Soul.” His show is about growing up, but in many ways, a bunch of that growing up has happened fairly recently.

Raised in West Philadelphia in the 1970s – the same neighborhood that spawned, among others, Patti LaBelle and Will Smith – Domingo watched his neighborhood evolve from “loving, educated working class to crack central.” At a pivotal moment – his parents are selling his childhood home – Domingo discovers crates of old albums in the basement.

Seizing on these records as a link to a childhood about to disappear, Domingo takes one long, groovy look back before he turns his attention forward.

Wearing a red Adidas track suit – appropriate clothing because he gets a workout both physical and emotional – Domingo spends a fair portion of his 85-minute show listening to music, singing and dancing along. Of course he and director Tony Kelly have shaped the well-written show in dramatic and emotional ways as well, but those moments of letting loose to beloved songs are the ones that really stick with you.

Who hasn’t found some sort of joyous abandon in a favorite song, played at maximum volume in the privacy of one’s own personal nirvana?

We may not have grown up gay or black or in Philadelphia, but we can feel the musical connection to Switch’s “There’ll Never Be” or Ohio Players, James Brown, Teddy Pendergrass, Smokey Robinson, Kool and the Gang, Al Green or Diana Ross.

At one point, we’re so into Domingo’s world, when he encourages us to sing along with him to the Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow,” we do – shyly, but we do, and it’s magical.

We also get to know Domingo – called JJ by his family after his middle name, Jason – and his older siblings, brother Rick and sister Avery. There’s a younger brother, Philip, but Domingo says he’ll write another show about him. We also develop great affection for his mother, Edie, and his stepfather, Clarence.

There’s nothing shattering about Domingo’s upbringing – there was love, there was fighting, there was struggle – nor is there anything particularly novel about his coming out in college. But the story of anyone discovering himself or herself, coming to terms with the past and taking ownership of it is something we never grow tired of hearing – especially when it’s told with heart and honesty.

Domingo, with his boundless energy and ingratiating charm, definitely displays both, and he is able to punctuate his tale with the likes of Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, the Isley Brothers and the Five Stairsteps, so his story is that much more involving.

“A Boy and His Soul” continues through Sept. 14 at The Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30 on a sliding scale. Call 415-401-8081 or visit www.thickhouse.org

Colman Domingo moves from`Strange’ to `Soul’

You know you’ve achieved a certain level of success when you’re on line, waiting to get into an exclusive magazine party, and Spike Lee sticks his head out the door, sees you waiting and immediately says, “Get him in here.”

That’s what life is like these days for Colman Domingo, one of those Bay Area success stories: young actor moves here, starts working like crazy, emerges as a major talent and then heads off to New York and stardom.

For Domingo, who moved from San Francisco to New York in 2001, the turning point came with Passing Strange, the Tony Award-winning musical that had its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre before heading to the Public Theater in New York and an eventual transfer to Broadway.

“The Passing Strange experience led to a lot of things career-wise,” Domingo says. “Creatively and spiritually, that was the most dynamic theater experience I’ve had in 15 years of being in this business.”

Domingo is back in the Bay Area, his old stomping grounds, for a revival of his solo show, A Boy and His Soul, opening Wednesday, Sept. 3, as part of Thick Description’s 20th anniversary season.

The 38-year-old actor returns as a Broadway veteran who now has a management and a publicist. He was just splashed across the pages of Out magazine in a glamorous fashion spread, and he’s a regular on the LOGO network’s Big Gay Sketch Show.

“For me, being in this business 15 years, the idea that it’s all happening now, at 38, is great,” Domingo says. “I’ve worked toward this. I don’t know if I’d have appreciated this at 23.”

Though the Broadway experience had its dazzle – rubbing shoulders with Edward Albee and Marian Seldes during awards season, breakfast with Spike Lee, etc. – it also had its rigors. To maintain his health and stamina, Domingo says he “lived life as a nun.” He saw a chiropractor for the first time in his life.

“The work day began at 3 p.m.: eat, work out, nap,” Domingo explains. “On your day off you really had to do nothing. And then there all the events you need to attend, the press stuff. A friend got upset with me because I hadn’t called her or seen her. `No one can be that busy,’ she said. With a show on Broadway, actually you can be that busy. I had no idea.”

Domingo insists the success hasn’t gone to his head and that his friends keep him grounded.

“This has been a high time, a nice time,” he says. “I understand it and appreciate it. I’m enjoying the ride of it all. I still have my closest friends around me. I still have my apartment in Harlem. It’s nothing fancy. I just have better furniture now. For the first time I have furniture I actually bought and wasn’t handed down. I always realize that I could be back bartending like I was two years ago. This is a great time, but I’m very lucky – no different from any other actor.”

During Domingo’s decade in the Bay Area – “I tell people it’s where I became an artist” – Domingo hatched A Boy and His Soul – he connected with Thick Description on Oliver Mayer’s Blade to the Heat in 1997, and the seeds for A Boy and His Soul, the story of Domingo’s childhood in Philadelphia in the 1970s, began to sprout.

Thick D artistic director Tony Kelly eventually directed the premiere of Boy in 2005 and began talking to Domingo about bringing it back for the anniversary season even before Passing Strange took off.

“I was happy with the San Francisco version,” Domingo says, “but it needed more work, more focus.”

In addition to work done at the New York Theatre Workshop and recent re-writes with Kelly in New York, Domingo says the piece has deepened with the loss of his parents in the last two years.

Passing Strange helped me heal, especially after losing my mom,” Domingo says. “I had my first audition on a Monday with the callback on Wednesday. My mom passed away on Tuesday. They held the callback for me two weeks later and sang an a cappella gospel song. It’s so interesting, with all that, and Broadway, I’ve been through something and life has changed so much. It’s good to get back to A Boy and His Soul.”

Domingo was recently back in Philadelphia visiting his sister and visiting old haunts. “It feels so different but inherently the same,” he says. “I feel like I’m always in a dream state when I’m here.”

In the less dreamy real world, Domingo’s career is still burbling. He has a bit part in Spike Lee’s new movie Miracle at St. Anna, a World War II drama in which he plays a West Indian postal customer. Of course he’ll also be in Lee’s filmed version of Passing Strange, which took place during the show’s final days on Broadway in July. And he plays a ’70s disc jockey in An Englishman in New York starring John Hurt.

As for a return to Broadway after his brief San Francisco sojourn, he says it could happen.

“I’m sniffing around a production or two,” he says. “Right now I’m in a place of what’s next? A lot of meetings. A lot of possibilities.”

A Boy and His Soul runs Sept. 3 through 14 at the Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$30 on a sliding scale. Call 415-401-8081 or visit www.thickhouse.org

Here’s Domingo as a gay grandson visiting his grandmother on “The Big Gay Sketch Show” (the language is ROUGH, so don’t watch this at work…at least not with the sound on):

It’s good to be…Colman and Francis

Two wonderful actors, formerly of the Bay Area, are having some good days in the New York theater world. We’re sorry they’re not having good theater days in the Bay Area, but we wish them well. Here’s the scoop:

Colman Domingo is starring in the Tony-nominated Passing Strange, which, incidentally, just won three Drama Desk Awards including Best Musical, two Obie Awards including Best New American Theatre Piece, two Theatre World Awards, and the top prize from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle (whew). If that weren’t cause enough to celebrate, Colman will direct New Professional Theatre’s production of Lisa B. Thompson’s Single Black Female, a comedy about “single black women and their search for love, dignity and clothes.” The production will star Soara-Joy Ross and Riddick Marie, at The Duke on 42nd St. in Manhattan. The show will run June 10-29.
Colman first directed the play in March of ’99 at San Francisco’s Theatre Rhinoceros.

Francis Jue, San Francisco native and a favorite at TheatreWorks in Mountain View (though that’s hardly the only local stage he has graced), won an Obie Award for his featured performance in David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face.
Here’s a nice story on Francis from AsianConnections.com. No word on whether Francis will be in the production of Yellow Face closing Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s 2008-09 season. Here’s hoping…