Slice of life served up sweet and tuneful in Waitress

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Christine Dwyer is Jenna, a pie-making genius and a troubled wife in the musical Waitress at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre through Nov. 11. Below: Jessie Shelton (left) is Dawn, Dwyer (center) is Jenna and Tatiana Lofton is Becky (a role now played by Anastacia McCleskey) in the national touring company of Waitress. Photos by Tim Trumble

Waitress is very much like one of the wacky pies its title character concocts – an odd combination of ingredients that come together in a surprisingly delightful way. As a musical, it’s about ordinary life – low-paying jobs, abusive relationships, childhood trauma, the families we make as opposed to the ones we’re born into – but it sings, often beautifully, about the deep pain and the little joys of everyday living, and it finds ways to make the ordinary soar with lyricism and expressive movement. In the hands of director Diane Paulus, it’s all so heartfelt and compassionate that it works in quite a satisfying way.

Based on the 2007 indie movie written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly, Waitress captures the sad charm of the movie, much of which comes from the wholly delightful score by pop star Sara Bareilles. When people join voices in this show, it means something. Their harmony resonates at levels both musical and emotional, which isn’t always the case in musicals. For instance, as the lead character, Jenna (Christine Dwyer) and her coworkers Dawn (Jessie Shelton) and Becky (Anastacia McCleskey) clean tables and wrangle condiments in preparation for the breakfast crowd at the diner where they work, they sing “Opening Up” in a dynamic arrangement that serves up energy and personality. Later in Act 1, the co-workers, who are also close friends, sing “A Soft Place to Land,” which replaces all that energy with wells of emotion and connection.

Jenna finds herself in a predicament: she’s pregnant by Earl (Matt DeAngelis), the abusive husband whom she cannot escape. It’s a relationship, we see in dreamy/nightmare-y flashbacks, not unlike the one between her late mother and father. Jenna doesn’t have the money or resources to escape, and now, with a baby on the way that she really does not want, she feels even more trapped. It’s no wonder, then, that the secret garden into which she escapes is her pie baking. She gives her unique concoctions fun and funky names like “Betrayed By My Eggs Pie,” “Marshmallow Mermaid Pie” and “A Little Wild, Wild Berry Pie” and customers go crazy for them. The pies are a link to her mom and to a safe place of creativity and positivity and a feeling that she matters in a world where she often doesn’t recognize herself. Her mantra, repeated often in the show’s 2 1/2-plus hours, is “sugar, butter, flour.” That’s a tasty mantra.

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That’s the real plot of Waitress – Jenna discovering herself and her worth. She has to conquer Earl, figure out how to be a mom and sort through the complicated feelings of having an affair with her gynecologist, the goofy Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart), who is also married. The heart of the musical is in the gorgeous ballad “She Used to Be Mine,” sung by Jenna as a letter to her unborn child attempting to describe who she is. Dwyer’s performance throughout is sensitive and emotional, but for this number she pulls out all the extraordinary stops.

The nice thing about Jessie Nelson’s book is that though Jenna’s story is the centerpiece, her friends are on their own evolutionary tracks. The quirky Dawn reluctantly falls for the aggressively odd Ogie (Jeremy Morse in a comedically inspired, physically deft performance), and their nerd love is played for laughs but never makes fun of them. And the married Becky embarks on affair of her own, and when Jenna (also, as a reminder, having an affair) seems to judge her for it, Becky delivers a powerhouse “I Didn’t Plan It,” which argues that there may be more room in love, fidelity and lust than we know. Choreographer Lorin Latarro imbues the movement with humor and dreaminess and a sense of finding – or feeling – the extraordinary in the ordinary.

And then there’s Joe (Larry Marshall), the diner’s eccentric owner who likes his sliced tomato on its own plate. He’s curmudgeonly but has a soft spot for Jenna. He’s a frank talker, and his one song, “Take It from an Old Man,” could be a throwaway little moment, but it’s not. It’s got the same kind of sass and dignity and heart that makes this show special.

By the way, if fans of 1970s television find this diner arrangement similar to “Alice,” well, that’s OK. Jenna is Alice, Dawn is Vera, Becky is Flo and Cal (the gruff chef, played by Ryan G. Dunkin) is Mel. It’s a structure that works just as well for comedy as for drama so why mess with it?

Waitress is a show that loves its characters, flaws and messes and all. There’s a sense of community that lives here – which even applies to the band, which is on a stage in the diner on Scott Pask’s perfect set – and it’s all warm and comforting. “Sugar, butter, flour.” We really are all in this together. How nice to be reminded in such a wonderfully musical, soul-satisfying way.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Sara Bareilles for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Waitress continues through Nov. 11 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $55-$256. Visit www.shnsf.com.

Finding Neverland: never found, never lands

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The Llewelyn Davies boys (from left) Jack (Mitchell Wray), Michael (Jordan Cole), George (Finn Faulconer) and Peter (Ben Krieger) in the national tour of the musical Finding Neverland, part of the SHN season. Below: Kevin Kern (center) is playwright J.M. Barrie and Tom Hewitt (right, in red) is Captain Hook. Photos by Carol Rosegg

I’m calling it: the use of Peter Pan as an automatic trigger for poignant reflections on lost youth and the emotional cruelty of aging is officially over. It’s been over for a while, but no one told Sarah Ruhl, whose For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday (read review here) got the hook at Berkeley Repertory Theatre last year. We have exceeded the Pan threshold.

That’s unfortunate for the musical Finding Neverland, based on the 2004 movie of the same name starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet and the remarkable child actor Freddie Highmore. This story behind the story of how author J.M. Barrie came to write Peter Pan worked much better on screen than it does in the bland Diane Paulus-helmed production that opened Wednesday night as part of the SHN season.

The Broadway production of Finding Neverland didn’t exactly alter the course of musical theater in any way, but it seemed to make audiences reasonably happy, and that can also be said of the general feeling at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre on Wednesday night. But from the opening scene, where a theatrical troupe is performing Peter Pan, I knew my Pan fatigue was going to prevent me from really enjoying this middling enterprise.

The score by British pop star Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy disappoints from the start (“Welcome to London”) and then lurches from unremarkable ballads well-suited to televised singing contests to derivative ensemble numbers that at least get a little spark from the muscular choreography by Mia Michaels but fade from memory the minute they’re over.

The story of a story isn’t inherently interesting, even if that story is Peter Pan, and this telling relies so much on stereotype (Actors are quirky and egotistical! British people are snobs! Dying women are noble and without character!) that the only depth comes from the actual size of the stage.

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Without much to work with in terms of script (by James Graham, based on a screenplay by David Magee, which is in turn based on a play by Allan Knee), the performers work with all the professional gusto they can muster to sell this undercooked baked potato of a show. Aside from some godawful mugging among the ensemble, they manage an admirable level of energy and appeal.

Kevin Kern as Barrie has leading man appeal and a pleasant voice, but his character has no apparent conflicts. His answer to a creative block is to just steal from rambunctious neighborhood kids he befriends in the park (one of the kids asks if he will get royalties and isp promptly shushed). His romance with the children’s mother (Christine Dwyer) would be Hallmark perfect if it weren’t for that pesky cough and those spots of blood on her handkerchief. She’s a one-dimensional character, and her big song, “All That Matters,” does nothing to change that.

Tom Hewitt blusters through his role as American theater producer Charles Frohman but really comes to life when he plays Captain Hook at the end of Act 1 (“Hook”/”Stronger Part 2”).

The real spark of the show comes from the young actors playing the four Llewelyn Davies children. At Wednesday’s performance, the roster included Finn Faulconer as George, Ben Krieger as Peter, Mitchell Wray as Jack and Jordan Cole as Michael. In Act 2, the brothers put on one of Peter’s plays (“We’re All Made of Stars”), and it’s by far the best song and scene in the show, with a natural charm and humor that eludes pretty much everything else before or after it.

Just when you think the show will submerge itself into mawkish dreck when all the poppy, bouncy machinations have to shift into a more serious gear, Paulus, whose directorial ambitions here seem wasted on a show that has seemingly no ambition at all, delivers a sparkly, breezy bit of stagecraft. The moment feels surprisingly sophisticated for a show like this, which would seem much more successfully scaled to the level of audience-pleasing community theater. Finding Neverland is an unremarkable piece of musical theater flying on the coattails of a much beloved, much better creation that has been overworked to the point of exhaustion.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Finding Neverland continues through at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $55-$275 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Pippin in the center ring: razzle-dazzling!

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Sasha Allen (center) is the Player, in the touring production of Diane Paulus’ revival of Pippin, the 1972 musical by Stephen Schwartz and Roger O. Hirson. The exuberant new production is set in a circus. Below: John Rubinstein, who originated the role of Pippin in 1972, now plays Pippin’s father, King Charlemagne. Pippin is played by Matthew James Thomas. Photos by Terry Shapiro

Now this is how you revive a musical.Sure, you could set Les Misérables or Sunday in the Park with George in a circus with results that would likely be as baffling as they are entertaining. But when Diane Paulus was inspired to set her revival of Pippin under the big top, she was going for something more than a bright and shiny gimmick. Working with “circus creator” Gypsy Snier of the acclaimed Montréal-based theatrical circus company 7 doigts de la main, Paulus crafted a physical production that mirrored the emotional journey of the show’s central character.

It’s a brilliant concept and one that reenergizes the 1972 show and features its score by Stephen Schwartz and book by Roger O. Hirson off to their greatest advantage. Pippin still feels a little like a hippy ’70s musical (a good thing in my book), but this production finds something even more universal in it and makes it feel surprisingly of the moment.

The touring production of Paulus’ Tony Award-winning revival pulled in to the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season, and it’s a walloping good time. Everything from the cast (singers, dancers and acrobats), to the sets (by Scott Pask) to the lights (by Kenneth Posner to the music (band under the direction of Ryan Cantwell) is first rate and throbbing with life. That’s what you want from this show: color and fun and good old-fashioned razzle-dazzle – until you don’t.

And that’s the trick of Pippin. Originally directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse the show was sly and sexy and funny, doing for war and raping and pillaging and greed what Chicago (also a Fosse production) did for fame whoring. Fosse’s troupe of players, led by The Player, lent a cynical tone to Pippin’s quest for fulfillment. He thinks he’s extraordinary and destined for great things like fame, wealth and cosmic importance, but the players around him know better and continually pull him back into reality.

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In Paulus’ production, that world of carnal lust, power lust, filthy lucre lust is embodied by Sasha Allen as The Player and by the extraordinary ensemble creating the acrobatic circus world around her. Everything is thrilling and gasp-inducing and marvelous and colorful – all the things you want a seductive world to be. And as Pippin, played here as on Broadway by Matthew James Thomas, moves through his journey toward fulfillment (“gotta find my corner of the sky”), the spinning circus of war and politics and sex and revolution is pretty seductive (and incredibly fun to watch).

Act 1 ends in a blaze of glory, but Act 2 presents a big challenge as Pippin actually evolves and begins to embrace a simpler life where fulfillment can be found in work, in nature, in relationships with other people. That writhing, bounding, thrusting mass of players and stunt people becomes a whole lot less important, which means the tone of Act 2 is quite different from Act 1. It’s slower, quieter and boasts a lot less dazzle. Some would say Act 2 is inferior to Act 1 for that reason, but to remain true to Pippin’s story, that’s how it has to be, and this another reason Paulus’ choice of the circus world is so astute. When the circus begins to abate, you really feel its absence. The problem isn’t the lack of spectacle but rather the blandness that begins to infuse Schwartz’s score here. Songs like “Kind of Woman” and “Love Song” are nice, but not nearly as satisfying as earlier tunes like “Magic to Do” or “Morning Glow.”

But the overall concept is a huge win, and it helps make sense of the book, allowing the audience to have a whole lot of fun along the way. Among the many highlights are “War Is a Science” as Pippin’s papa, King Charlemagne, teaches him how to head into battle. Charlemagne, or Charles as he’s called here, is played with gusto by John Rubinstein, who originated the role of Pippin in the original production. Rubinstein seems to relish every minute on stage, and he shows off some fancy knife work in the circus arena.

The show is all but stolen by Lucie Arnaz as Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother. Paulus and Snider have devised a routine for her that is at once astonishing and beautiful. The song, “No Time at All,” becomes the true showstopper of the evening – it’s a sing-along, a wonderful circus act and a surprisingly heartfelt communication between grandmother and grandson. (Side note: Andrea Martin, who won a Tony as Berthe on Broadway, reprises the role the last two weeks of the run in San Francisco.)

Another highlight is Sabrina Harper as Fastrada, wife of the king who would like their son Louis (not Pippin) to ascend the throne. Her number, “Spread a Little Sunshine,” shows off choreographer Chet Walker’s Fosse-inspired moves and gives us three lightning-fast costume changes (costume designs are by Dominiue Lemieux).

The show is chock full of wonderful little moments, from the conversation with the beheaded man to the disembodied legs pushing the cart to the hilarious chickens in the barnyard. It’s musical theater pageantry at its best (though the sound in the Golden Gate leaves something to be desired), and it’s a joy to run away with this unique, ultimately quite moving, circus.

[bonus interview]
I had the pleasure of interviewing Pippin circus creator Gypsy Snider, a San Francisco native and member of local circus royalty, for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Pippin continues through Oct. 19 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40 to $210. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Amaluna captures a tempest under a big-top

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Laura Jacobs Rigolo steals the show with her hypnotic balancing act in the highly entertaining Cirque du Soleil show Amaluna under the yellow-and-blue-striped big-top just outside AT&T Park. Below: The Castaways defy gravity with a thrilling teeterboard act. Photos by Laurence Labat

The last time Cirque du Soleil rolled through town with Totem in 2011, the company seemed refreshed and revived. Gone was the pretentious stuttering and back was the purely enjoyable spectacle and thrill.

Now with Amaluna, the company’s 32nd show since 1984, they remain firmly in that mind-blowing, eye candy groove, and it feels so good. Broadway veteran Diane Paulus is at the helm, and though there’s a vague attempt to riff on an all-female version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, that’s really just an excuse to hire a lot of great women (including a kick-ass, all-girl band) and put on an eye-popping pageant.

Paulus, whose Tony-winning Porgy and Bess opened in San Francisco earlier this week, has done a lovely job integrating the essence of a story with the spectacle and the circus acts. There’s an extremely high level of beauty in this Cirque outing, from the grace of Scott Pask’s set (influenced, it seems, by peacocks and fireworks) to the dazzle of Mérédith Caron’s era-busting costumes to the exquisite lighting by Matthieu Larivée. There’s really nothing on stage for 2 1/2 hours that isn’t, in some way, absolutely gorgeous (the exception being, as is so often the case in a Cirque show, the tiresome clowns).

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There’s an aerial ballet in Act 1 that is thrilling and steamy, accompanied by Prospera (the gender-altered Prospero played by Julie McInnes) playing the cello while dangling from the moon and two purple-clad electric guitar players (homage to Prince?). It’s the perfect combo of circus act trimmed with just enough theater to give it a little meaning and then sumptuous dressing to make it irresistible. The same is true for the giant water bowl on stage. Prospera’s daughter, Miranda (Iulia Mykhailova), does some hand balancing on the rim of the bowl before diving in and doing a confined aquatic ballet in which she is later joined by a shipwrecked Romeo (Evgeny Kurkin at Friday’s opening-night performance).

There’s a sharp, all-women uneven bars act and a zippy all-male teeterboard, but the highlight of the show is Laura Jacobs Rigolo’s surprising balancing act, which involves the manipulation of what look like small to large palm fronds with the tines shaved off. Slowly and gracefully, she lifts each frond with a foot and places one on another until she’s holding a delicately balanced leaf-like sculpture. At one point, she places the whole contraption on her head and spins slowly. That’s it – that’s the act. But it’s among the most mesmerizing and beautiful I’ve ever seen. No flash, no ta-da! Just delicacy, grace and quiet skill. In the flashy world of Cirque, it’s practically poetry.

Not that there’s anything wrong with flash. When Amaluna turns on the spectacle, costumes flaring, acrobats spinning and flying, the band (playing music by Bob & Bill) wailing – it’s the joy of the circus combined with that Ziegfeldian need for color, lights and sparkle and the sheer pleasure of expertly orchestrated pageantry. That’s what Cirque can do better than just about anybody and what Amaluna does with warmth and charm.

[bonus interview
It’s what we’re calling the great Paulus-palooza of 2013. I talked to Diane Paulus about directing Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna (and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess) for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Cirque du Soleil’s Amaluna continues through Dec. 31 at AT&T Park, Third Street and Terry A. François Boulevard, San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$175. Call 800-450-1480 or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.

Porgy sings anew at the Golden Gate

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Alicia Hall Moran is Bess and Nathaniel Stampley is Porgy in the national touring cast of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess directed by Diane Paulus. The tour launches its national tour at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season. BELOW: Kingsley Leggs as Sporting Life takes a roll of the dice along Catfish Row. Photos by Michael J. Lutch

The music of Porgy and Bess is so pervasive in the musical landscape that actually seeing the show and how the songs fit into the story is a little startling.

I know the George GershwinIra GershwinDuBose Heyward score not from cast recordings but from pop and jazz versions recorded by the likes of Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Carmen McRae, Cleo Laine and Ray Charles and Frances Faye and Mel Tormé. And then there are the countless covers of the show’s songs. “Summertime,” for instance, is considered one of the most recorded songs of all time, with more than 30,000 versions. This music, in other words, is deeply woven into the American cultural fabric.

Productions of Porgy and Bess don’t come along very often, and when they do, they’ll likely involve four hours spent in an opera house. Since its debut in 1935, Porgy has been the odd show out – part American folk opera, part Broadway musical. There’s no question of this landmark creation’s place in the pantheon, but getting audiences to embrace it has been a challenge over the years.

The latest effort to re-style Porgy and Bess for the populace is the result of director Diane Paulus working with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to create a 2 1/2-hour version of the show that sits squarely in the realm of Broadway musical. Though initiated by the Gershwin and Hayward estates, this re-tooling was not without its detractors (hello, Stephen Sondheim). Still, the goal was accomplished. The revival, dubbed The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (as had a 2006 London revival directed by Trevor Nunn) won Tony Awards for best revival and best actress in a musical (Audra McDonald as Bess). That production, with a new cast, has launched its national tour at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season.

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Having never seen another production of Porgy and Bess I can’t make comparisons, operatic or otherwise, but I can say that what Paulus and Parks have done is create a strong, character-based showcase for the glorious score. Parks’ script, which replaces recitative with spoken dialogue, is sharp and pulls no punches. She creates a tangible sense of community in Catfish Row, and Paulus’ lean production, with rough, abstract designs by Riccardo Hernandez and painterly lighting by Christopher Akerlind create stage pictures that evoke African-American folklore more than real life.

That seems appropriate because this Porgy and Bess does play out like a grim folktale with glimmers of hope. George Gershwin’s remarkable score emphasizes this with its intoxicating blend of spirituals, folk music, jazz, blues and popular song. Diedre L. Murray has adapted the original score, played here by a 23-piece orchestra under the direction of Dale Rieling, and she has created a sound that is at once grand and intimate.

What surprised me about this Porgy and Bess is that it’s really Porgy’s story. As played by a triumphant Nathaniel Stampley, Porgy is a compassionate voice of humanity. He is crippled (walks with a cane, not a goat cart as in the original) but not self-pitying or maudlin. He defends the wonton Bess from the community who reviles her drugging and drinking ways, and it is through his kindness and love that Bess finds, if temporarily, a better life. Stampley’s nuanced performance has warmth and beauty, strength and passion in abundance.

Like Stampley, this Bess, Alicia Hall Moran, was an understudy on Broadway, and that experience yields a compelling central couple wrestling with all kinds of demons. When Moran and Stampley launch into “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” or “I Loves You, Porgy,” all notions of opera, Broadway, controversy and history vanish, replaced by simply extraordinary musical theater.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Diane Paulus about directing The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess as well as the new Cirque du Soleil show Amaluna for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

I also talked to Alicia Hall Moran, who plays Bess, about the role and about her marriage to renowned jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran for the Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR INFORMATION
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess continues through Through Dec. 8. at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$210. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.