Harry Potter grows up in magical Cursed Child

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With productions in London and New York, the two-part epic Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has opened in San Francisco at the Curran Theatre. The story, focusing on the next generation of magical offspring, was created with J.K. Rowling, playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany. Photos by Matthew Murphy

Harry Potter, known as “the boy who lived,” has continuously found life on the pages of seven best-selling novels, on the screen in eight blockbuster films, in theme parks both in Florida and California and now on stage in an epic two-part, five-plus-hour play that has to be seen to be believed.

With successful productions of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child running in London and New York, the wizard’s theatrical reach has extended to the Curran Theater in San Francisco, where it will undoubtedly run for years to come. Otherwise, why would theater management have gone to the trouble of decking out the building with Harry Potter-themed carpeting?

The smartest thing Potter author J.K. Rowling did when considering an adaptation of her characters to the stage was to connect with director John Tiffany, whose work in shows like Once and Black Watch was incredibly dazzling without being overwhelming because he never loses sight of human scale and emotion within the spectacle.

Rowling, along with Tiffany and playwright Jack Thorne provide the eighth chapter of the Potter saga by jumping ahead 19 years after the action of the final Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. So the story is really about the next generation of young wizards – and how they’ve either been encouraged or messed up by the previous generation. In other words, it’s about the inexorable passage of time. But because this is a magical world, there’s no guarantee that time will move in anything resembling a linear fashion.

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So with a story about parents and children, or fathers and sons to be more specific, Rowling, Thorne and Tiffany pull out all the stops in the creation of an absolutely dazzling, exhilarating, gob-smacking theatrical experience. The less you know about it the better, but know that in addition to Harry, Hermione and Ron, you’ll see a number of characters from the Potter-verse, some beloved, some not so much. It helps to have some knowledge of Potter lore – if you know who Voldemort is (or was), you’re doing pretty well – although this new story is specific enough and provides enough exposition to sustain interest for those who don’t know a horcrux from a Hufflepuff.

Could this story have been told in a four-hour show? Probably, but there’s something very satisfying about settling in for the long haul, and the protracted length allows for more dazzling special effects and tricks and mind-boggling theatricality than you can possibly imagine. Tiffany’s whole design team has done remarkable work here, but to my mind, the two stars are Jamie Harrison, credited with illusions and magic, and lighting designer Neil Austin, whose razor-sharp works allows those illusions to work in such beguiling ways. Of course, Christine Jones’ set and Katrina Lindsay’s costumes are part of the trickery as well, but also a huge part of the beauty. This is a stunning show in every way from beginning to end – it’s almost like you can’t watch it hard enough for fear of missing something. There are images in these plays that are among the most strikingly beautiful I have ever seen in a theater.

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The less said about the plot the better because there’s so much joy of discovery and surprise in this tale of acceptance and honesty (it’s not exactly The Iceman Cometh, but it’s got some emotional heft). Tiffany’s cast is reliably sturdy to deliver the laughs and the deeper emotional moments, and that very Rowling-esque sense of story propulsion is felt throughout, especially when the larger group bonds together to fight a common enemy. The friendship between Albus Severus Potter (played by Benjamin Papac) and Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger is especially potent, and both actors bring a welcome angsty teen edginess to their performances.

The interesting thing about Cursed Child as the eighth Potter story is that it feels organic and heartfelt in a way the Fantastic Beast prequel movies have not. Those feel like a money grab overloaded with CGI effects. These plays are filled with storytelling, right-before-your-eyes magic and good, old-fashioned theatrical dazzle. These plays are proof that there is real magic in the world, and it resides – perhaps not surprisingly – in the realm of live theater.


FOR MORE INFORMATION
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne; based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany. Tickets on sale through June 20, 2019. $59-$289. Curran Theater, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. harrypotteronstage.com

Overwhelming humanity, extraordinary theater in The Jungle at the Curran

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The cast of The Jungle at the Curran includes (from left) Jonathan Nyati as Mohammed, Ammar Haj Ahmad as Safi, Dominic Rowan as Derek and Tommy Letts as Sam. Below: John Pfumojena as Okot. Photos by Little Fang

You may enter The Jungle at the beautiful Curran theater in downtown San Francisco, but you exit in an entirely different place – mentally and emotionally speaking, that is.

The idea of immersive theater tends to bring on expectations of fun and intrigue with promises of leaving present circumstances behind and allowing yourself to be somewhere else (possibly someone else or in some other time) for just a little while. But The Jungle is different. Written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, the play is based on their experience as volunteers and theater-makers at the Calais refugee encampment that came to be known as The Jungle in its nearly two years of existence in 2015 and 2016. At its height, more than 8,000 refugees from many nations – Syria, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Sudan to name a few – were living in what came to resemble a small city. All of them were there in the hope of reaching the UK, that not-so-distant land just across the English Channel, where, on a clear day, you could see the White Cliffs of Dover.

To be immersed in such a camp, as we are in this intense theater experience, is a complicated thing. On a theatrical level, everything is top notch. Directors Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin skillfully orchestrate chaos, danger, horror and community building in a way that makes it feel real while still guiding us through character development and plot. The Curran has been completely transformed from its usual majesty into a plywood “café” where most of the audience members are sitting at small tables (the same tables that the actors use as their stage). Set designer Miriam Buether pays such attention to detail it’s almost alarming to re-emerge into the world of the Curran and San Francisco at intermission.

The cast, which includes people who actually spent time as refugees at the real Jungle, brings absolute intensity and commitment to making this realistic environment feel fully inhabited by real people, many of them desperate, scared and angry. We get a cross-sampling of refugees and their stories along with a handful of British volunteers who are trying to bring order to the chaos. There’s a lot of shouting, a lot of noise and mayhem as many things happen at once throughout the play’s two acts and nearly two hours.

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Theatrically, we’re in good hands (and that includes work by lighting designer Jon Clark, sound designer Paul Arditti and costume designer Catherine Kodicek), and that means we’re thoroughly immersed in this world where thousands of people (a small representation of refugees in a similar plight around the world) are reduced to a commodity that must be dealt with, ignored, taken advantage of, or, at worst, eliminated. Because we’re in the same room with them, experiencing slices of their hardships and challenges, we see them as what they are: people. Not blurbs in the news. Not data. Not the enemy. People. With so much news and so many politicized headlines inundating us from every angle (and with so much of it being bad news), we become inured to the reality of what people – so many of them families – are actually going through day to day just to survive.

The Jungle accomplishes that absolutely necessary thing: it personalizes the stories, gives names to the faces and provides stories to the lives. In one of the play’s most wrenching monologues, a 17-year-old Sudanese boy, Okot (John Pfumojena) talks about the smugglers he paid to get him out of Darfour but ultimately used him as a pawn to try and extract more money out of his mother. They sent her photographs of her son under a giant cement slab, essentially telling her that without her additional money, he would be killed. She had no extra money, but somehow he survived, making it across the sea in the hold of a horrible boat and then to Calais, where, in a burst of radical hope, he shares his phone’s ringtone: Vera Lynne singing “The White Cliffs of Dover.”

Amid the noise and bustle of the staging, a sense of intimacy is created, and we experience a vital connection with humans in crisis. What to do about that is almost as complicated as the crisis itself. The British volunteers are sometimes seen as interfering or working in their own best interests (not to mention escaping their own lives) as they attempt to find themselves in their good works. But with the governments of France and the United Kingdom doing so little, there’s a huge void and even more enormous need.

The issue of “home” and what that word actually means pervades this experience (calling it simply a play doesn’t quite suffice). Over the course of these three hours, we feel this slapped-together city begin to feel like a home of sorts, a place of refuge even if only temporarily before the bulldozers begin their insidious work. It’s easy to imagine that everyone who experiences The Jungle as a home to return to when this particular story ends. But we fully realize that this story never ends. It never really changes from decade to decade or, to take the long view, from century to century. Horrible things to happen to groups of people all over the world, and most of us feel powerless to do anything about it. The Jungle doesn’t provide any easy answers, but it does say this: remember that every single person you read about is just that: a person with a name and a history and the capacity for deep feeling and a need for everything we mean when we say “home.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s The Jungle continues through May 19 at the Curran, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$165. Call 415-358-1220 or visit https://sfcurran.com

Waving through Evan Hansen’s remarkable window

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[bouns video]
Ben Levi Ross performs “Waving Through a Window” from Dear Evan Hansen


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

Taylor Mac ladles brilliance in Holiday Sauce

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Set and costume designer Machine Dazzle (left) and writer/singer/deity Taylor Mac perform in Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce at the Curran through December 1. Below: Mac deconstructs the patriarchy of spirituality in the unconventional holiday show. Photos by Little Fang Photography


Is it greedy, in this season of generosity, to feel like two hours of Taylor Mac is about four hours short of the minimum time one wants to spend with this extraordinary human being?

The last time Mac was at the Curran, it was with A 24-Decade History of Popular Music in easily digestible six-hour chunks. Those shows were mind-blowing – the kind of immersive, genre-busting, challenging, cosmic experiences that make you re-think just about everything, from what live theater can be to what your purpose is on this planet.

Now Mac is back with a two-hour show called Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce, and while two hours is far better than no hours, by the time the show ended, I felt like we were just getting warmed up and ready to do some real work in tearing down “patriarchy as spirituality,” as Mac puts it. This is like no holiday show you’ve ever seen – a Radical Faerie Realness Ritual Sacrifice that involves music and drag and gloriously theatrical excess and full-blown political revolt. Look for eggnog, Rudolph and Hallmark movies elsewhere.

We do get a Christmas tree (worn as a costume by Machine Dazzle, who designed the set as well as all the outrageously wonderful costumes) as well as an angel (Gabriel, who strips down to skin glitter on stage before ascending and getting his wings) and a nativity complete with camels, a beer-swilling Baby Jesus and three Wise People who may have caused a stir amid the denizens of Bethlehem.

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But holiday traditions are more exploded than celebrated here, and it feels so good. If “The Black Angel’s Death Song” by Velvet Underground is your idea of a stirring holiday carol, you’re in luck. That’s how Mac opens the show (accompanied by musical director Matt Ray at the piano and magnificent eight-piece orchestra complete with brass and strings), and it’s our first blast of the Mac voice, that muscular tone that can belt and swoon and hammer and caress. Later on Mac will blend “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (another Velvet Underground tune) with “The Little Drummer Boy,” and then turn “O, Holy Night” into a de-constructed, re-constructed audience sing-along that just may revise how you hear all those classic holiday chestnuts.

Mac’s triptych tirade against capitalism includes William Roy’s “Bargain Day” and Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” capped off with the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” complete with an elder choir singing on the mezzanine.

It’s all in service of Mac’s effort to bring the margins into the center, to re-frame how we look at tradition and why so many parts of the population – queer, gender fluid, female, senior – are kept from the heart of the celebration. Mac also aims to pay tribute to Mother Flawless Sabrina, whose image presides over the increasingly crowded stage (filled with elves and Dandy Minions and a Santa who will ask before touching). A spiritual mother figure to Mac, Mother Flawless is quoted as saying things like, “Reality is a mass hunch” and “Normal is a setting on the dryer” – aphorisms that feel like shiny adornments on this bounteous holiday package.

My favorite musical moment in the show is one that highlights something Mac is especially skilled at: building a sense of community among audience and performers. The song is The Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York,” and anyone who knows the lyrics (or anyone who doesn’t) is invited to join the party on the stage, where Bushmill’s and Jameson’s are served in little paper cups. It’s a party you don’t want to see ending anytime soon.

Mac commands the stage like no one else. The Machine Dazzle outfits help a lot. The first ensemble includes boars’ heads with apples in their mouths as epaulets and a skirt of elf arms and hands tangled with reindeer antlers. The second is a Nutcracker fantasy in pink with a skirt that doubles as a carousel. Mac doesn’t need all the flash to hold an audience in thrall, but the grand drag is magnificent. It frames a performance brimming with intelligence, ferocity and theatrical charm.

That’s why, at the end of two hours, it’s so hard to say goodbye to Mac. Once you’re on the Holiday Sauce you’re well on your way to a case of Macaholism that will last well into the new year.

[bonus video]
Here’s Taylor Mac performing Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” in October 2018:

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Taylor Mac’s Holiday Sauce continues through Dec. 1 at the Curran, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $29-$175. Call 415-358-1220 or visit sfcurran.com.

Soft Power electrifies at the Curran

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The cast of Jeanine Tesori and David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power includes (from left) Kristen Faith Oei, Raymond J. Lee (obscured), Austin Ku, Daniel May, Geena Quintos, Jon Hoche, Paul HeeSang Miller, Jaygee Macapugay, Billy Bustamante (obscured), Maria-Christina Oliveras and Kendyl Ito. Below: (from left) Maria-Christina Oliveras (obscured), Geena Quintos, Billy Bustamante, Conrad Ricamora, Jaygee Macapugay, Jon Hoche and Daniel May in the production directed by Leigh Silverman and choreographed by Sam Pinkleton on stage at the Curran Theatre. Photos by Craig Schwartz

Remarkable. Inspiring. Hilarious. Moving. There aren’t enough descriptive words to fully express just how wonderful and fascinating and exhilarating it is to experience Soft Power the new musical by David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori now at the Curran Theatre.

Forget Go-Go’s pop musicals (sorry Head Over Heels). Hit the road, lame movie-to-musical adaptations (looking at you, Walk on the Moon). This is what it’s like to be in the presence of musical theater with bracing originality, thrilling artistry, abundant intelligence (and humor) and expert execution. Watching Soft Power feels important – it’s tremendously entertaining and thought-provoking, but it also feels somehow bigger than the average show. This stage contains a larger conversation about the musical theater form itself, our evolution as truly compassionate humans and about the state of our nation. This is easily the most important musical since Hamilton.

Describing Soft Power is challenging primarily because it has so much going on, which is one of its many charms. There are three main ingredients here: The King and I, Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign and China’s quest for “soft power,” which is the notion of ideas, inventions and culture that change the way people think.

This is also described as “a play with a musical,” and that’s appropriate because the musical that eventually transpires is dependent on the short play that precedes it. Once that musical arrives, audience members find themselves in high-concept territory because you’re not just watching a musical. You’re watching, essentially, a reversal of The King and I from the 22nd century. No more is the white lady in the foreign country taming the barbarians and teaching the king how to govern his own people. In this case, the cast is primarily Asian playing blonde, gun-toting Americans who are tamed by the kind-hearted Chinese guy, who also happens to fall in love with Mrs. Clinton.

Questions of appropriation and representation – those catch phrases that we hear so much about these days – are not merely asked here, they are considered and corrected and satirized. This is not a show that debates issues. It embodies them. It makes fun of them, pummels them, satirizes them, eviscerates them.

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This immersive 2 1/2-hour experience is filled with laughs and parody and homage, both in Tesori’s lush, gorgeous score, with its echoes of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Sondheim and so much more, as well as in Sam Pinkleton’s choreography with its pop-meets-de-Mille exuberance. Hwang’s book is sharp and pointed, but what’s so extraordinary about Soft Power is the way the show also works as musical storytelling. Just as one of the characters complains about the political incorrectness of The King and I she heaps praise upon that show’s beautiful score and emotional storytelling, or, as she describes it, the show’s “perfect delivery system.” You might not like aspects of King (like its caucasian perspective on Asian culture), but once the music starts, your heart surrenders. Something like that happens here. Tesori’s score, which is so wonderfully different from the superb work she created in shows like Caroline, or Change and Fun Home, bursts with life and humor and beauty. Hwang’s lyrics (with additional lyrics by Tesori) are direct and insightful.

Director Leigh Silverman manages the impossible here. She creates an emotional framework that allows Hwang and Tesori to careen all over the place while still creating characters and stories we care about. Just when it seems the musical will fully flip into full-on political buffoonery, we’re drawn back into human-scale emotion. And here’s another astonishing thing: everything here feels relevant, from the deconstruction of good ol’ American musical theater to the bashing of the television personality with all the bankruptcies who beat Hillary (he is referred to as the president or as “dear leader” but is never referred to by name). Silverman, Hwang and Tesori have taken our world – what feels like this exact moment – and turned it into art on a grand scale. How did they do that? When they get to the inspirational number at the end, it actually IS inspirational because it feels as if the actors are reaching down to your seat and offering you that little spark, that little push, that little reminder to keep going.

When Act 1 ends, and you’re thinking, “What in the world did I just see?” and then you consider this: “There’s no way Act 2 can continue on this tightrope. As with so many musicals, Act 2 will deflate the balloon.” But then Act 2 happens and it’s even better, and all those courageous leaps come together with emotional and intellectual pay-off.

Huge credit must go to the dynamic cast headed by Conrad Ricamora as our hero from China, Alyse Alan Louis as Hillary Clinton and former Bay Area stalwart Francis Jue as a playwright named David Henry Hwang. They are supported by an outstanding ensemble that can handle every tonal shift thrown at them and then some.

Set designer David Zinn, lighting designer Mark Barton and costume designer Anita Yavich bring clarity and humor to the stage as well and keenly differentiate between our real 21st world and the future musical world of the 22nd century. The flashy stage is often like the circus meets grand opera but with many, many, many more guns.

Soft Power (which can actually be defined by its title) makes it very clear that democracy may break your heart, but this brilliant show also has the very real power to restore your faith in art as reflection, renewal and, perhaps most importantly, revolution.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Jeanine Tesori and David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power continues through July 8 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $29-$175. Visit sfcurran.com for information.

Ga-ga for Go-Go’s in giddy Head Over Heels

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Taylor Iman Jones as Mopsa (center) and the company perform “We Got the Beat,” the opening number of the new musical Head Over Heels, which features songs by the Go-Go’s. (below) Peppermint (center) is Pythio, The Oracle of Delphi, in the number “Vision of Nowness.” Photos by Joan Marcus

My love for the Go-Go’s began with my first Sony Walkman and the first cassette I bought to play in that Walkman: “Beauty and the Beat,” the debut album from the Go-Go’s featuring “We Got the Beat,” “This Town” and “Our Lips Are Sealed.” Almost 40 years later, I still have great affection for Belinda, Charlotte, Gina, Kathy and Jane, my first delicious taste of girl power before I even knew what that was.

How thrilling, then, to find the songs of the Go-Go’s fashioned into a fizzy new jukebox musical, Head Over Heels with the inventive concept of folding the punky-poppy ’80s tunes folded into a (greatly) adapted version of Sir Philip Sidney’s late 16th-century Arcadia. You’ve got song and text separated by more than four centuries, so it’s a mash-up of sensibilities with lots of room for cheeky humor and the exploding of gender norms.

All of that was on display when Head Over Heels opened April 18 at the Curran theater, but a lot has changed since the show’s first production three years ago at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The whole creative team, headed by director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, American Idiot, Hedwig on Broadway), is new, including book writer James Magruder, who replaces Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q), who conceived this wacky idea in the first place. There’s a whole village of producers ahead of the title, including the Curran’s Carole Shorenstein Hays and Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow, and an opening date on Broadway looming in the very near future (July).

As the out-of-town tryout before heading to Broadway, the production at the Curran reveals a show that is fizzy and fun (especially for those of us ga-ga for Go-Go’s) but with work still to be done before a New York bow to make the show really come together.

Sidney’s Arcadia surfaces here mostly to provide framework for a road trip comedy as the royal family of Arcadia attempts to outrun a doomsday prophecy by journeying to Bohemia. Otherwise, this is a pretend period comedy with a checklist of modern issues to address: lesbian love, inept men yielding power to more competent women, trans people achieving god-like status, certain body shapes subverting other body shapes to dismantle the beauty standard, cross-dressing men who access the divine female within and on and on. As checklists go, that’s a pretty great one, but you can feel the effort behind each tick mark.

With the Go-Go’s fueling the party (and an all-female band headed by Kimberly Grigsby that, unfortunately, we don’t get to see until the curtain call), there’s a mighty girl power vibe emanating from the stage, and that’s fantastic. Nothing against the male members of the cast, but how great would it be to go all the way and make this an all-woman cast. The original text is a relic from the 16th century when women weren’t allowed on stage, so let’s make up for some lost ground and just set the women loose on all the roles.

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And let’s make the band visible for all of the show’s 2 1/2-hours while we’re at it, which might mean eighty-sixing the flat “pastoral” set pieces by Julian Crouch, which, at best, feel like they’re borrowed from an old tour of Kiss Me Kate.

As is, Head Over Heels feels too polite and could use a little anarchy, some punk-lite to rough up the edges and make songs like “Lust to Love” and “Skidmarks on My Heart” and “Automatic Rainy Day” come to life even more. This is an enjoyable show, but I craved something bolder, edgier and even more cranked up.

The Go-Go’s songs sound great (music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements by Tom Kitt), and because they’re not theater songs, they don’t carry a lot of emotional weight (and sometimes don’t fully make sense, but who cares?). The title song, for instance, “Head Over Heels,” is a zippy Act 2 opener in which couples frolic. The more apt title for the show might be “We Got the Beat,” the show’s opener and a rather belabored attempt to tell us how Arcadia is special because of its passionate pulse or, if you will, its beat. At a certain point in the plot, Arcadia loses its beat, and the bright, jewel-toned colors of Kevin Adams’ lighting design fade and the stage goes blah. So keeping the beat is central to the show – why not the title?

What is most definitely not blah here is the cast, even when the material lets them down (like the entire ending). As the king and queen, Jeremy Kushnier and Rachel York get to be adulterous (with each other, no less), though it takes too long for us to hear York let loose with her glorious voice. She also gets saddled with an eye-roller of a monologue (about that elusive beat) that she conveys with such poignancy that it actually works.

As sisters Pamela and Philoclea, Bonnie Milligan and Alexandra Socha respectively get to explore vanity and sincerity. Pamela has to figure out why her hordes of suitors leave her so cold, while Philoclea wrestles with her love for a humble shepherd, Musidorus (Andrew Durand), an inappropriate match for a princess. Durand gets to do some major cross-dressing as an Amazon warrior, and he is as hilarious as he is endearing. He even makes the song “Mad About You” (not, technically, a Go-Go’s song but a solo hit for Belinda Carlisle) sweet instead of schmaltzy.

Taylor Iman Jones oozes charm as Mopsa, a narrator of sorts who breaks the fourth wall to move the plot along when necessary, and a major player in one of the romances. And then there’s Peppermint, the second-runner-up in Season Nine of RuPaul’s Drag Race, playing Pythio, the Oracle of Delphi, savoring every quip and ounce of attitude the role has to offer.

The entire ensemble works hard to keep the energy level up, and if choreographer Spencer Liff’s moves are heavy on the hand-jive, there’s still a lot of verve, though not a lot of meaning.

After a dud of an ending, Head Over Heels cranks up the volume for the curtain call, reveals (at long last) the band at the back of the stage and invites the audience to get on their feet because they know we can dance to the beat. We may not jump and get down, but we can go round and round and round the idea that this is a show still finding itself, though it has most definitely got the beat.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Head Over Heels continues through May 6 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $29-$175. Call 415-358-1220 or visit www.sfcurran.com.

2017 theater in review: Reflections on a powerful year

Best of 2017 (inside)

If you’re a theater fan, 2017 was a very good year. If you’re an American, depending on your point of view, 2017 was a terrifying year. Quite often, it seemed, the theatrical stage and the national stage were in direct conversation.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the year was dominated by the juggernaut known as Hamilton, the musical that signaled new hope in diversity, inclusion and making new conversations and new rules even while the country regressed in unfathomable ways. The first touring production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer- and Tony-award winning musical kicked off at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season and played to packed houses for five months before heading down to Los Angeles. The show itself was as thrilling and important and satisfying and moving as everyone said, and we couldn’t enter the ticket lottery often enough (let alone win the ticket lottery). [Read my Hamilton review]

It’s hard to compete with the sheer magnitude of Hamilton, but local stages held their own, especially when it came to conversations about race.

My two favorite local productions of 2017 both happened to be directed by Eric Ting, the artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater, and both happened to attack the issue of race in American in totally different and quite unconventional ways. An Octoroon at Berkeley Repertory Theatre saw playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins take an old play and blow it to smithereens as a way to illustrate just how poorly we have dealt with the ramifications of slavery in this country. The play, under Ting’s expert direction, was funny and disturbing and confusing and startling and altogether extraordinary. [Ready my review of An Octoroon]

On his own Cal Shakes turf, Ting turned to Oakland native Marcus Gardley for black odyssey for the year’s most moving theatrical experience. This loose adaptation of Homer translates the “soldier returns” story to the African-American experience and moves through time and history and mortals and gods with poetic ease and powerful impact. Music and dance elevate the emotional level, and the super cast made it all soar. The show was a wonder and needs to be shared, somehow, from coast to coast. Happily, Cal Shakes will remount black odyssey next season (Sept. 25-Oct. 7). Don’t miss it. [Read my review of black odyssey]

On a smaller scale, but with no less emotion, humor and inventiveness, two other local productions told stories of what it means to be black in America. Shotgun Players produced Kimber Lee’s drama brownsville song (b-side for trey), a play that deals with the emotional aftermath of violence and the defiance of hope. [Read my review of brownsville song (b-side for trey)]

And San Francisco Playhouse sparked a blaze in the fall with Robert O’Hara’s wild Barbecue, a play that literally flips race on its ear and has a splendid time doing so (special shout-out to director Margo Hall, who also dazzled as an actor in black odyssey and also managed to stand out in the cast of this production as well). [Read my review of Barbecue]

Another hot topic that received some astute theatrical attention this year is immigration. Crowded Fire Theater and TheatreWorks both tackled the topic with energy and imagination. Crowded Fire’s production of You for Me for Youby Mia Chung blended elements of Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole to illuminate the different experiences of North Korean sisters, one who is stuck in the country and the other who makes it to America. The fantastical and the devastating lived side by side in director M. Graham Smith’s memorable production. [Read my review of You for Me for You]

At TheatreWorks, The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga saw local composer Min Kahng turn Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama’s 1931 comic The Four Immigrants Manga into an irresistible musical that, for all its exuberance, still managed to convey the darkness and weight of the immigrant experience. [Read my review of The Four Immigrants]

It was interesting this year that two theaters emerged in San Francisco as homes to a compelling variety of work and became the kind of theater spaces where you pretty much want to check out whatever comes to their stages no matter what you might (or might not) know about the shows themselves. American Conservatory Theater’s The Strand Theatre on Market Street hosted two of my favorite shows of the year – small shows that ACT could never have done so successfully in the much larger Geary Theater. In March, Annie Baker’s fascinating John blended domestic drama and ghost stories into three gloriously offbeat hours with a cast headed by the sublime Georgia Engel. [Read my review of John]

And later in the year at the Strand, another quiet show, Small Mouth Sounds dove underneath the New Age calm to see what drama lies beneath. Comedy ensued in this mostly wordless play by Bess Wohl. [Read my review of Small Mouth Sounds]

Then there’s the Curran Theatre, which used to be a stopping place for Broadway tours but is now, under the stewardship of Carole Shorenstein Hays, something more – a carefully curated collection of extraordinary theatrical experiences. There are the Broadway tours, like the sublime musical perfection of Fun Home [Read my review of Fun Home] but also the experiences you won’t find anywhere else, like Taylor Mac’s overwhelming and gobsmacking and deliriously delightful 24-Decade History of Popular Music.

That’s a pretty dynamic year right there, but I would be remiss not to mention the roaring good time (amid imperfections) of the Broadway-bound Ain’t Too Proud, the Temptations musical at Berkeley Rep [read my review]; Peter Brook’s elegiac and stunning Battlefield at ACT [read my review]; and the deeply moving revival of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz at the Magic Theatre. [read my review]

Amid so much that is disturbing in our world, I am heartened by the ever-reliable level of theatrical art-making here in the Bay Area. There’s challenge as well as comfort, belly laughs and punches to the gut (metaphorically speaking of course) and perhaps best of all, real engagement. Not every time, certainly, but often enough that it’s clear our local artists are paying close attention and doing what they can to make change while they entertain.

Galaxy of emotions surround Bright Star at the Curran

Bright Star 1
Carmen Cusack reprises her Tony-nominated role as Alice Murphy in the touring production of Bright Star, now at the Curran Theatre. Below: A.J. Shively also reprises his role for the tour: Billy Cane, who has just returned from World War II and is ready to start his life as a writer. Photos by Joan Marcus

Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star is a beautiful musical, especially if you have a penchant for bluegrass music and florid stories with twists, turns and not-so-surprising surprises.

It feels like a quintessentially American musical in several ways, the first being that glorious, banjo-heavy bluegrass, which brings to life a story that stretches from the 1920s to the 1940s in North Carolina. That is such a bright, emotional American sound, filled as it is with elements of country and gospel and soul-rattling spirituals. It is an absolute pleasure to sit in a theater – the Curran Theatre in this case – for two-plus hours and listen to a great bluegrass band and the soaring voices of the cast.

The other way Bright Star is so very American is the way it renders African-American people in the South completely invisible. They aren’t on stage. They aren’t mentioned. They may as well not exist. Apparently Martin and Brickell felt it was necessary to abide by the Jim Crow system of the time, which is a shame because this story, which we’re told is “inspired by a true event,” isn’t important enough to be yet another “whites only” story of America.

Bright Star 2

That makes it hard to love a show that is eminently lovable. The original, Tony-nominated leading lady from Broadway, Carmen Cusack signed on for the tour, which is fortuitous circumstance for audiences around the country. Cusack has a rich, expressive voice that is able to make the best possible case for bluegrass-informed show tunes. She reveals everything she can about her character, Alice Murphy, through songs like the opener, “If You Knew My Story,” and her magnificent “At Long Last” as all the strands of her story come together. This is Alice’s story, after all, as she takes us back to her youth and re-lives a series of events – a romance with the mayor’s’ son, unintended consequences, tragedy – that eventually led her to success as the editor of the literary magazine the Asheville Southern Journal.

If Cusack wanted to sing the score as a one-woman concert version, that would be splendid, but it would rob us of some of the production’s other pleasures, from the elegant, fluid staging by director Walter Bobbie to the graceful/rambunctious choreography by Josh Rhodes to the effectively minimalist set by Eugene Lee that enlists actors to move pieces on and off and keeps the on-stage shack that houses the band shuttling around the stage like a lone bumper car at a carnival.

The music is credited to both Martin, who has gone from being a “wild and crazy guy” to a guy who is pretty much doing anything and everything he wants, and Brickell, with book by Martin (featuring more humor than you might imagine in what is a pretty melodramatic tale) and lyrics by Brickell. It’s the hope-tinged music – more than any words either spoken or sung – that is most moving. The great, mostly string band is led by P. Jason Yarcho, with music supervision by Peter Asher and Rob Berman (who also did the glorious vocal arrangements). Bonus points to the musicians for not getting motion sickness.

It’s all in service to a story that is pulpy to say the least. Family secrets, parental interference, thwarted love and blossoming romance all play a part. There are so many spinning wheels of plot it feels a little like Shakespeare, especially when everything comes together and the couples start pairing off, which then makes it feel like Guys and Dolls. There’s a sweet romance between lifelong friends, appealing “big city” secondary characters, villains who feel like they just stepped out of a silent movie after tying a damsel to the railroad tracks and one moment of kindness between a father and daughter that is remarkably poignant.

Bright Star is quaint and old-fashioned … to a fault. It’s whitewashed loveliness is definitely of another era, but its beauty – that music! – is undeniable.

[bonus videos]
Carmen Cusack performs “Sun Is Gonna Shine” and “If You Knew My Story” from Bright Star.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star continues through Dec. 17 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $39-$175. Call 415-358-1220 or visit sfcurran.com.

A unique aural Encounter at the Curran

Encounter 1
Simon McBurney in The Encounter, an immersive solo show incorporating 3-D audio headphones at the Curran Theatre. (Photo by Tristram Kenton) Below: McBurney delves into the disappearance of National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre, while attempting to document the Mayoruna in a remote part of Brazil in 1969. (Photo by Robbie Jack)

Not to take anything away from Simon McBurney’s rather extraordinary show The Encounter now at the Curran Theatre, but my first encounter with binaural sound at Disneyland remains my favorite.

The Disney folks always seem to be searching for ways to jazz up the Lincolon-as-robot attraction “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” and for a while, the jazz turned out to be a 3-D audio experience in which a young Union soldier prepares to get his photo taken by the famous Matthew Brady. He gets a haircut, and with the headphones on, you could practically feel the scissors snipping alongside your ears. Then, after the soldier is wounded in battle and recovering in a hospital, he meets and chats with President Lincoln, and the audio immersion attempts to give you a sense of what it might be like to be in the same room as our 16th president.

Happily, that theme park technology has been translated into theater. Low art grows up into high art in the form of this globe-trotting solo show from McBurney and his theater company, Complicite. Already a hit in London and New York, this unique theatrical experience involves McBurney on stage telling the story of Loren McIntyre, a photographer for National Geographic who would go on to locate the source of the Amazon. This particular story, though, is about how McIntyre got lost in Amazonia while attempting to photograph the Mayoruna people, an undocumented tribe deep in the jungle, and it is adapted from the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu.

Encounter 2

But the way McBurney, who directed (along with Kirsty Housley), tells McIntyre’s story makes all the difference. Harnessing the best of audio technology and a spectacular sound design by Gareth Fry with Pete Malkin, the show requires audience members to wear headphones for its nearly two-hour duration. At the top of the show, a very casual McBurney (a familiar face from Harry Potter movies and a bunch of other British movies you’ve seen) takes the stage and starts talking about photos of his children on his mobile phone, an antique videotape of home movies from his childhood and about how telling stories is what makes us human.

Then he demonstrates the bells and whistles of the sound design by pretending to walk through our brains and then shows off an incredible microphone center stage. It’s in the shape of a human head, and it conveys sound with a sense of direction and space so that it can feel like voices are coming from behind you or whispering so closely to your ear you can all but feel the breath on your neck.

It’s incredibly cool technology, and its effect, once the storytelling begins in earnest, is to create a shared experience for the audience as a whole that also manages to create individual sound bubbles in which McIntyre’s harrowing odyssey lost in the jungle becomes a dizzying spiritual experience that feels incredibly intimate.

Imagine Heart of Darkness meets Fitzcaraldo meets “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” and you’ll get an idea of what this experience is like. McBurney is offering a physically demanding live performance and all the vocal subtlety of a radio drama. Although I never got as swept up in it all as I would have liked, I fully appreciated how enthusiastically McBurney was able to expand the notion of solo performance through technology that can be expansive and personal simultaneously. It’s a close Encounter of the theatrical kind.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Complicite’s The Encounter continues through May 7 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $49-$129. Call 415-358-1220 or visit http://sfcurran.com.

Eclipsed demands attention at the Curran

Eclipsed 1
The cast of Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed at the Curran Theatre includes (from left) Adeola Role, Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Stacey Sargeant, and Ayesha Jordan. Below: Photos by Little Fang

Danai Gurira’s intense, harrowing drama Eclipsed really only appeals to two kinds of people: those who care about women and those who care about basic human decency. Anyone else should stay home (or in the White House).

The history of humanity has not been kind to either of those groups, and Gurira offers a stark reminder that our so-called evolution hasn’t progressed very far. Set in the early 2000s in the final days of Liberia’s second civil war, the play examines war from the point of view of women, specifically four women who are essentially sex slaves to an unseen Commanding Officer. One of the unnamed “wives,” as they are known, has turned herself into a fierce soldier fighting for the CO’s rebel group, while another, at 15, is new to this hideous world but like the women around her, she’s figuring out how to survive.

Only the second production at the stunningly refurbished Curran Theatre, Eclipsed follows a triumphant Fun Home and serves as an indicator of the kind of shows the Curran and leader, Carole Shorenstein Hays will be bringing in: important, powerful and risky. You don’t go to a play like Eclipsed for a rollicking good time. This is impeccably produced theater, but it’s challenging and disturbing. The play was first produced at the Public Theater in 2015 before moving to Broadway last year. That’s the production, with some of the actors who were involved with the show in New York, now at the Curran, and it’s a historic production: the first Broadway play to have a cast, playwright and director who are all black women.

Director Liesl Tommy, who was briefly the associate director at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, keeps the focus on the women but relies on set designer Clint Ramos (who also won a Tony for the vibrant and varied costumes) to convey the stark reality of the bullet hole-riddled shack in which the wives live and work (they do the CO’s cooking and his laundry). The lighting (by Jen Schriever) and sound (by Broken Chord) conjure some of the natural beauty of the land, but they really come into play as the story intensifies and the harsh reality of war becomes more vivid.

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Though an ensemble piece, the story’s trajectory follows the character known simply as The Girl (Ayesha Jordan), who is hidden by the other wives #1 (Stacey Sargeant) and #3 (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) to keep her away from the CO, but he finds her and makes her Wife #4. Unlike the other women around her, The Girl has had some education and can read (she entertains the other wives by reading from a tattered book about Bill Clinton). Her intelligence makes her susceptible to Wife #2 (Adeola Role), who has gone from enslavement to ferocious militarism. With her gun slung across her shoulders and a kind of power the other women cannot access, The Girl sees the advantages of becoming a fighter. As we see, those advantages come with tremendous cost.

The outside world is represented by Rita (Akosua Busia), a member of the group Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace that is attempting to negotiate a ceasefire among all the warlords. She represents not only an escape route for the women but a strong maternal force attempting to reconnect them to their humanity (and the names they were born with, which have ceased to be used).

What’s deceptive in Act 1 of this nearly 2 1/2-hour play is that its rhythms feel natural and familiar: women talking, working, squabbling and joking. Then, when one of them is selected by the CO to satisfy his sexual pleasure, we’re reminded what’s really going on. These women (one of whom is pregnant) are prisoners and subjected to sexual assault on a regular basis. The fact that they are managing some semblance of normal existence together is astonishing. Things become more harrowing in Act 2, and Jordan especially as The Girl, is so powerfully good it’s almost hard to breathe watching her struggle through her attempt to reconcile her anger and ferocity with her basic humanity.

All the performances are wrenching, but they have to be. The glimmers of hope here come from the way the women care for each other and from the possibility that even in the worst of circumstances, all is not completely lost. During an eclipse, after all, light is only blocked temporarily.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed continues through March 19 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $29-$140. Call 415-358-1220 or visit www.sfcurran.com.