Goode shines Light, Frankenstein lives

Young Frankenstein

Shuler Hensley (left) is the Monster and Roger Bart is Dr. Frederick Frankensein in the national tour of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein at the Golden Gate Theatre. Photo by Paul Kolnik

If you need proof of how lively and diverse the San Francisco theater scene can be, let me direct your attention to two wildly different shows I’ve seen recently. One is about as old fashioned as it gets, while the other is wonderfully experimental.

For sheer retro-musical theater pleasures, Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein – at the Golden Gate Theatre until July 25 – is a prime example of Grade B goods. There was a time on Broadway – think the 1950s and early ’60s – when these kinds of shows populated the Great White Way. Taking the term “musical comedy” to heart, these shows have no objective other than to please its audience for a couple of hours. A few laughs, a few hummable tunes, and we’re done.

With The Producers Brooks fulfilled a lifelong passion to create a musical theater blockbuster. Now Brooks is settling into his groove with Young Frankenstein, an extremely faithful version of his classic 1974 movie (co-written with star Gene Wilder). As a recycler of his own material, Brooks sticks to the formula that worked for the movie and supplies songs that, while not as catchy as those in The Producers, are appealing.

The loosey-goosey feel of the entire production, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, Brooks’ partner on The Producers, means that the actors are free to ham it up as much as they want. Star Roger Bart, of the original Broadway production, takes that notion to heart and is hammy and winky-wink to the audience as I imagine Ray Bolger might have been back in the day.

Shuler Hensley (another conquering hero from the Broadway production) as the monster doesn’t have the freedom to yuk it up, but he’s big and green and funny, especially when performing Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Brad Oscar goes to town as the blind man visited by the monster and squeezes every possible laugh in a role originated on film by none other than Gene Hackman.

Young Frankenstein does not breathe new life into musical theater, nor does it electrify on its own merits. But it is a generally pleasing, vintage-feeling show that makes audiences happy.

Traveling Light

A few blocks away from the Golden Gate, local dance world star Joe Goode and his Joe Goode Performance Group are reviving a fascinating show that combines dance, theater, song, spoken word and art installation.

Traveling Light roams the echoing halls and chambers of the Old Mint, once a thriving center of big money and now a historic footnote waiting to be restored and revived. In the meantime, Goode and his company are the best thing to hit the Mint since gold bullion.

The audience is split into four groups to view the quartet of scenes that take place in different parts of the building. At the end of each segment, a guide takes you quickly to where the next tableaux unfurls. It’s all expertly handled, and the excitement of experiencing such a perfectly orchestrated musing on the meaning of money and value burbles throughout the show’s entire 90 minutes or so.

Mention must be made of Jack Carpenter’s lighting, which is a show unto itself – not that it distracts from the performances or calls too much attention to itself. It’s just so exquisite that I found myself wanting to watch the show again just to watch the shifting lights and shadows, especially in the segment that takes place in a courtyard that makes you feel like you’re in Ancient Rome.

Joe Goode’s Traveling Light is a must see for so many reasons – it’s bold, beautiful, impeccably produced and highly original. And you just can’t see it anywhere else.


Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein continues through July 25 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$99. Call (415) 512 7770 or visit

Joe Goode Performance Group’s Traveling Light continues through Aug. 1 at the Old Mint, 88 Fifth St., San Francisco. Tickets are $34-$44. Please note: there are additional 10pm shows on Fridays and Saturdays. Call (415) 561-6565 or visit

Ballet and belts: Smuin Ballet and Sam Harris

It was a perfect Friday-night cultural double feature: opening night of Smuin Ballet’s spring season at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and then a quick dash to the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko for Sam Harris’ late night cabaret gig.


I’m no dance critic, so I won’t even try to analyze the three pieces of Smuin’s highly enjoyable spring season, but I will share what I loved. I fully expected to enjoy St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet, the last narrative ballet Michael Smuin completed before his death two years ago. Originally conceived for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, this dance version of the 1946 Broadway musical by Harold Arlen (music), Johnny Mercer (lyrics) and writers Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen was part of Berkeley’s Cal Performances season in 2004.

This version uses the same Tony Walton set and Willa Kim costumes (both hot and gorgeous) but seemed shorter. It uses a recorded soundtrack of Arlen’s irresistible music and the great Arlen-Mercer songs such as “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “Cakewalk Your Lady,” “Ridin’ on the Moon” and “It’s a Woman’s Prerogative.”

I have to admit it’s a little weird to see a story that’s supposed to be performed by an all African-American cast inhabited by a predominantly white cast. But the dancing is flashy and fun, full of Broadway pizzazz and flash.

The real stand-out of the night for me is the second piece, Bouquet, which Smuin choreographed to the music of Shostakovich. Romantic and achingly beautiful, the piece begins with a pas de quatre (Erin Yarbrough-Stewart, Darren Anderson, Ryan Camou and Shannon Hurlburt) and ends with a pas de deux by Brooke Reynolds and Aaron Thayer that is an exquisite expression of love through dance.

For information about the Smuin season tour, visit

It’s a shame that Sam Harris is only in town for two late shows (his second is tonight, Saturday, May 9) at the Rrazz Room. He deserves a much longer run, but he’s got a year-old baby and a busy career developing sitcoms and getting ready to star in a Broadway-bound musical (The First Wives Club). We’ll take what we can get.

Harris is as much a comedian as he is a singer. He compared the Rrazz Room to his own living room and said of his boyfriend (now husband) of 14 years, Danny Jacobsen, that they have been five of the best years of his life, not consecutive. “When we got married I didn’t know what true love was. And now it’s too late.” Bad dum bum.

Even though the late show was “so past my bedtime – I’m serious” Harris and his extraordinary pianist/musical director Todd Schroeder put on a remarkably good and varied show, which opened with U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for,” given the full gospel treatment, merged with Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” re-written with lyric references to Harris’ career, his sobriety, his family, etc. It might be noted that Cher opened her interminable farewell tour with “I Still Haven’t Found…” but that didn’t even seem like the same song Harris sang.

With his big voice, crazy range and complete comfort on stage, Harris was a delight from beginning to end, whether he was chiding Rrazz management for not providing him with a towel (he borrowed one from a gentleman in the front row who just happened to have his gym bag – ah, San Francisco!) or forgetting the lyrics to his intensely emotional version of “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”

Song choices were all over the place, from Harold Arlen’s 1930s ode to ganja in “The Wail of the Reefer Man” to the James Taylor-Carly Simon version of “Mockingbird” song full throttle with Schroeder to a moving version of Maury Yeston’s tender “New Words.” Harris was practically a one-man Broadway show on the amped-up “Ain’t We Got Fun,” an aggressively cynical take on the Depression-happy tune, which Schroeder pounded through with bravura ferocity.

A gimmick purporting to take audience suggestions for show tunes resulted in an aborted “Ease on Down the Road” and a full-throttle “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and a jazzy “My Favorite Things.”

Harris pulled out all the vocal/emotional stops on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Over the Rainbow” before closing the show with a gentle “In My Life.”

It seemed we were just getting going when the show was over, leaving us wanting more, which is always a good thing.

Keep up with Harris, his calendar, his projects and his video blogs at



On his toes: Matthew Linzer of Smuin Ballet

On an uncharacteristically hot San Francisco afternoon, the halls of City Ballet are swarmed with dancers young old. The younger ones are there for afternoon classes. The older ones, most of them members of Smuin Ballet, are just finishing up rehearsals for the launch of the spring season.

This is the 15th anniversary season of Smuin Ballet, founded by Michael Smuin, and on this particular afternoon, some of the older dancers are holding plastic cups with champagne to toast Smuin’s memory on the second anniversary of his death.

Matthew Linzer

The show, as they say, must go on, and so it has for two years, with new dances, new choreographers and new dances carrying on the Smuin Ballet legacy.

Matthew Linzer has been with Smuin Ballet for two years. He never actually got to work with Smuin, but they did meet. Linzer, who is Juilliard trained, was dancing with Diablo Ballet at the time. Smuin watched Linzer in class and then joked with the 6’4″ dancer, “We’re looking for someone taller.” “I’ll work on that,” Linzer joked back.

That was just several weeks before Smuin died.

“I quite regret not having worked with him,” Linzer says. “My dance partner, Robin Cornwell (seen below with Linzer, photo by Marty Sohl), was close to Michael, and she thinks he and I would have gotten along very well. I miss him even though I didn’t really know him and I feel his influence in the people he did work with.”

Smuin Ballet as a company performs more short than full-length work and isn’t afraid to incorporate some Broadway-style showmanship into the work.

“There’s a unique diversity to the work done by Smuin,” Linzer says. “It can be playful, like last year in our Gershwin program, we did a kick line, and I never thought I’d be doing one of those. And it can be serious, too, like with Bouquet in this season’s program.”

Smuin choreographed Bouquet to the music of Shostakovich, and Linzer dances the pas de deux with Cornwell.

“It’s a beautiful, sexy story set in Hawaii with the woman on the beach and the man coming out of the water,” Linzer says. “They make love and it’s very intense, light but heavy. Very loving. It’s fun to have a character and a role.”

Linzer has another character in the program of three works. He plays the character Bigelow, noted by his green zoot suit, in St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet, originally conceived to the music of Harold Arlen by the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 2003. He also dances in the third piece, The Naughty Boy! created by Trey McIntyre.

“I like variety in my world,” Linzer says. “I get to dance and be beautiful, but then with a piece like St. Louis Woman, I get to act as well, and that brings a whole new dimension to performance.”

Robin_Cornwell_Matt Linzer_Photo_by_Marty_Sohl

The 27-year-old Linzer grew up outside of Washington, D.C., and pretty early on his parents saw that he was a dancer. Even before he was in kindergarten, Linzer was taking weekend dance classes and ended up at prestigious Juilliard for 2 ½ years.

Having previously danced with Bowen McCauley Dance, Ballet Memphis and Oakland Ballet, Linzer lives the life of a professional dancer, which means when he’s not rehearsing or performing, he’s probably taking care of himself. It’s a hard life for friends to fully understand. He works from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sundays. A sufficient amount of rest is essential to body maintenance, as are occasional Epsom salt baths, massages, stretching sessions, icing sessions and trips to the chiropractor.

“It’s a lifestyle, not just a job,” Linzer says. “When I go home, I’m exhausted. I have a lot of friends outside the dance world, and they want to go out and do something, but I can’t always go because at 9 a.m., I’m going to be lifting girls.”

Not that Linzer is complaining. He still manages to get to concerts (he recently saw the Fleet Foxes at the new Fox in Oakland) and spend time with his boyfriend. He says he loves his job and knows how lucky he is to be able to do it. And then there’s the relatively short shelf life of a dancer. Most professional dance careers are over between the ages of 30 and 40, which means Linzer has about a decade left of dancing.

“I know it will be time to go when the pain begins to outweigh the passion,” he says.

Linzer is enthusiastic about pursuing choreography, which he has done for the last two years in Smuin’s choreographic workshop in which dancers create dances for one another. Earlier this year, Linzer created the dance piece The Sound of a Circle, which was inspired by a trip he took to Israel several summers ago.

“When I was in Israel, I was struck by the contrast of the young and hip and the old and traditional,” Linzer recalls. “Creating that piece touched a different side of me. I think people in the audience were amazed by the variety of classical dance, hip-hop and humor. I like to reassure the dance audience. People tend to be afraid of the formality and don’t’ trust what they’re watching. People need to know that whatever they’re seeing, however they’re responding to it, that’s correct. There’s no such thing as a wrong answer.”


Inevitably, people tend to see Matthew Linzer’s life as a dancer through the lens of whatever ballet movie they’ve happened to see most recently.

Linzer is not a fan of such hits as CenterStage or The Company. He deems those “awful.” But he does recommend Ballets Russes, Paul Taylor: Dancemaker and Billy Elliot.



Smuin Ballet’s Spring Program performs May 8-17 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco (tickets $18-$50), May 23-24 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek ($40-$55), May 27-31 at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts in Mountain View ($40-$55). Call 415-495-2234 or visit for information.