The general awesomeness of Emily Skinner

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Tony-nominated Broadway actor Emily Skinner dazzled Bay Area Cabaret audiences on Sunday, March 6 at the Fairmont’s Venetian Room, her San Francisco concert debut.

In the last couple of years, San Francisco went from no Emily Skinner to new and improved now with 200 percent more Emily Skinner. The Tony-nominated actor (Side Show) was suddenly making regular appearances on our stages. In October of 2014, Skinner revealed her star power in 42nd Street Moon’s Do I Hear a Waltz? (read about it here),
in May of last year, she was a highlight of American Conservatory Theater’s A Little Night Music (read about it here). The question is how did we get so lucky?

On Sunday, March 6, Skinner made her San Francisco concert debut as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season, and her show was everything her local fans could have wanted: nearly 90 minutes of Skinner showing us why she’s one of the best in the business known as Broadway (pronounced broadWAY).

Skinner’s combination of charm, confidence and vocal mastery makes for a mightily entertaining show. Accompanied by John Fisher on piano, Skinner moved easily through a set of songs that mixed comedy, character and trenchant emotion. She turned to Kander and Ebb twice, once on the opener “Everybody’s Girl” from Steel Pier and later in the show with When You’re Good to Mama from Chicago. Both are saucy, which is something Skinner does well, perhaps because she admits to a fascination with Mae West, whom she channeled brilliantly on the signature “Come Up and See Me Some Time.”

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The out-and-out comedy numbers, like “Here Comes the Ballad” (which Wally Harper apparently wrote for Barbara Cook) and “Bald” by Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler, delivered reliable laughs. And the character tunes – Ursula the Sea Witch’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid, Sondheim’s angry “Now You Know” from Merrily We Roll Along and Noël Coward’s “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” from Sail Away – found something a little meatier than simply comedy.

When Skinner decides to take a breath and play it straight, there’s magic in her balladry. Her powerful, unadorned take on Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” made a familiar song sound fresh, and the poignant “I Don’t Need a Roof” from Andrew Lippa’s Big Fish made a strong case for taking another look at the score from this short-lived Broadway show. The grown-up lullaby “Sleepy Man” from The Robber Bridegroom was hypnotic and lulling in the best possible way.

It turns out that when Skinner was asked to audition for Side Show, they didn’t request an up-tempo and a ballad. Rather, they asked auditioners to perform a song that revelealed something about themselves, about who they are. Skinner chose a tune written by Side Show composer Bill Russell from the song/monologue cycle Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, and she got the job. Now having heard her perform the number, it’s no surprise why. Her version of “My Brother Lived in San Francisco” is a deeply emotional experience, filled with warmth, love and pain. It’s one of those songs (and performances) that’s like a three-act play all contained in a few unforgettable minutes.

Skinner closed her set with a spare and achingly lovely “For All We Know,” and it left the audience – hooting and hollering and on their feet – wanting more, and that seems just right. Now that Emily Skinner is making regular stops in San Francisco, it will be exciting to see what she does here next.

[bonus video]
In her cabaret show, Emily Skinner sings “Send in the Clowns,” probably Sondheim’s most popular and well-covered song. Skinner turned to YouTube to sample different interpretations, and two of her favorites are versions by Cher and Dame Judi Dench. Please enjoy this mini-“Clowns’ fest.

The Bay Area Cabaret season in the Venetian Room in the Fairmont Hotel continues with the fabulous Puppini Sisters April 17 (5:30 p.m. show is sold out; 2 p.m. show added); Bay Area Teen Idol 2015 on May 15; Liz Callaway and Ann Hampton Callaway’s From West Side Story to Wicked on May 22. Visit or call 415-927-4636.

Ladies’ night at ACT’s Music

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Madame Armfeldt (Dana Ivey, right) tells her granddaughter, Fredrika Armfeldt (Brigid O’Brien), about how the summer might smiles three times in Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s A Little Night Music, an ACT production at the Geary Theater. Below: Emily Skinner is Countess Charlotte Malcolm, an embittered wife who sings the fierce song “Every Day a Little Death.” Photo by Kevin Berne

In the 1970s, Stephen Sondheim was on some kind of roll. From Company to Follies to Pacific Overtures to Sweeney Todd, the decade found at the peak of his considerable powers. He was – and is – a musical theater superhero, but in the midst of all that musical and lyrical genius, he dropped a nearly perfect show that was at once a classic musical – operetta almost – and completely contemporary.

A Little Night Music is a dazzling combination of light and funny, clever and romantic with sharp and incisive, deep and dark. The show has elegance and a light touch with an undercurrent of regret, sorrow and misery to keep it from floating away.

American Conservatory Theater is producing Night Music, and though there are some problems with the production, it provides a stellar opportunity to see the show’s genius at work. I reviewed the production for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s an excerpt.

Leading men Patrick Cassidy as lawyer Frederik Egerman and Paolo Montalban as dragoon Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm both cut striking figures, but their acting and singing tend toward the stolid or overly cartoonish. They are eclipsed by their female co-stars who, in scene after scene and song after song, handily take control of this “Night Music.” Of the men, only Justin Scott Brown as Frederik’s frustrated, lovelorn son, makes a lingering impression.

Karen Ziemba as fading stage actress Desiree Armfeldt gets to be world weary (“The Glamorous Life”), funny (“You Must Meet My Wife”) and gently heartbreaking (“Send in the Clowns”), all the while managing to be completely lovable. Desiree is aching for “some sort of coherent existence after so many years of muddle,” and Ziemba makes us root for her success.

Read the full review here.

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I interviewed director Mark Lamos and cast members Karen Ziemba, Emily Skinner, Dana Ivey and Patrick Cassidy about working on A Little Night Music for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s A Little Night Music continues through June 21 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$140. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Emily Skinner waltzes away with Moon’s Waltz

A love letter to Emily Skinner…

Dear Ms. Skinner,I had the pleasure of seeing you perform in 42nd Street Moon’s production of Do I Hear a Waltz, and I was completely captivated by your Leona Samish, the lonely American tourist who travels to Venice for a taste of life.

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I have fond memories of Moon’s 1998 production back when they were doing staged concert productions with actors holding their scripts. That was my first encounter with Waltz, a 1965 Broadway curiosity that matched three musical theater masters – Richard Rodgers writing the score, Stephen Sondheim writing the lyrics and Arthur Laurents writing the book based on his play The Time of the Cuckoo (also the source material for David Lean’s 1955 movie Summertime starring Katharine Hepburn as Jane Hudson, a totally re-written Leona). The show, by all accounts, was a misery to create, primarily because Rodgers, lacking confidence in his abilities in the wake of Oscar Hammerstein’s death, was a miserable and stubborn collaborator

The result is a show that feels part Follies, all sophistication and darkness, and part The Sound of Music, all cheerful musical comedy. Sondheim has described the show as perfectly respectable but labels it a “why?” musical – why, if the creators were not passionate about the adaptation, does the musical need to exist?

I can tell you, with some certainty, that “why?” was answered for me in the person of you, Ms. Skinner. This oddball musical needs to exist so that actors as skilled as you can perform in it and attempt to make some sense of it. I was not lucky enough to see you in your star-making turn in Side Show, but I did see you on Broadway in The Full Monty and in James Joyce’s The Dead, but seeing you in the intimate Eureka Theatre was a revelation. With no microphones and only piano accompaniment (Dave Dobrusky is the pianist/musical director), it was just you and the show and the audience.

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I will say that the set looks so much like the Olive Garden that it was distracting and that the supporting cast was uneven but certainly has its charms, but this experience was all about Leona, a tough, funny, lonely woman who deserves more from life and has set out to grab it. If there is ever serious interest in reviving Do I Hear a Waltz on Broadway (and there probably won’t be unless Sondheim wants to do some serious tinkering), we have found the ideal Leona. In your capable hands, Leona is likable without being sappy or needy. She’s smart but she’s out of her element and a little off balance, especially when she falls for a Venetian antique seller who may or may not be on the up and up. Leon has some considerable defenses around herself, but she also, as we see briefly, a great capacity for joy.

Ms. Skinner, you are in spectacular voice – “Someone Woke Up” and the title song have never sounded so good. I found myself wishing that Sondheim and Rodgers had mustered a great aria for Leona to perform at show’s end that lets us in on the state of her heart and mind as she heads home. In the latter part of Act 2, it’s almost as if the creative team forgot they were creating a musical and focused much more on the play. In the hands of a skilled actor we hardly miss the score (Leona’s drunken breakdown at the party she’s throwing is some serious musical theater drama), but Waltz does end rather with a whimper, which doesn’t quite seem fair to Leona.

As strange as it is, Do I Hear a Waltz? is awfully entertaining, and kudos to director Greg MacKellan for wrestling this beast into such pleasant form. But the best decision of all was to hire such a remarkable leading lady. Thank you, Ms. Skinner, for allowing us such a captivating Waltz.

42nd Street Moon’s Do I Hear a Waltz continues through Oct. 19 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit

PHOTO CREDITS: (top) Emily Skinner as Leona Samish in 42nd Street Moon’s Do I Hear a Waltz? (lower) Skinner and Jonah Broscow as her pint-sized guide, Mauro. Photos by