Ship-shape and sassy! Splendid sailing in Anything Goes

Anything Goes Tour
Rachel York (center) as Reno Sweeney belts out the showstopper “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” in the touring company of Anything Goes at the Golden Gate Theatre. BELOW: York’s Reno and Erich Bergen’s Billy Crocker enumerate reasons why “You’re the Top.” Photos by Joan Marcus

With a nasty flu ravaging the country, the best antidote might actually be show tunes. At least show tunes as they’re served up in the zippy and utterly delightful revival of Anything Goes directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. That’s not medical advice, of course. It’s strictly spiritual – some Cole Porter musical uplift to go with your chicken soup.

Somehow, when this show was on Broadway with star Sutton Foster I wasn’t all that interested. Foster, though wonderful in so many ways, seemed at odds with my vision of the worldly, sexy Reno. I’m glad I waited to see the show on tour. Now on stage at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season, Anything Goes is just about perfect with the stunning Rachel York at its center.

Unlike a Merman or a LuPone, York is a musical theater star who doesn’t devour the show or her co-stars. She’s got a million-watt smile and great gams, all of which are put to great use as nightclub evangelist Sweeney (she makes the late, great Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes even more gorgeous than they already are). She’s got that tough, insouciant but somehow lovable quality that marked so many leading lady star turns of the early ’30s, and her dextrous voice can be soft and warm, full of humor or a clarion call.

When York and company finish the big number near the top of Act 2, “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” the audience response is the definition of showstopping (at least it was at Wednesday’s opening-night performance). York is stunning in the number, but full credit must go to Marshall’s unerring instinct when it comes to pushing audience pleasure buttons with her choreography. This is a director/choreographer who knows how to move her buoyant cast around on a stage to maximum pleasurable effect.

Anything Goes Tour

That same kind of old-fashioned musical theater dazzle and elegance can be seen in the Act 1 charmer “It’s De-lovely,” which starts with Alex Finke as debutante Hope Harcourt and Erich Bergen as stowaway Billy Crocker falling even further in love and ends with a stage full of couples Fred and Gingering their terpsichorean hearts out.

This is musical theater comfort food served in high style and with flair. With Marshall so firmly in control of the tone and the pace, it’s easy to simply relax and cruise along with the S.S. American as it sails through the farcical waters of a somewhat belabored book (originally written by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, then rewritten by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse for the opening in 1934; the 1987 revival as well as this one feature further revisions by Timothy Crouse [son of Russel] and John Weidman). The jokes, some of them pretty hoary, land with astonishing regularity, but it’s really Porter’s score (augmented with additional tunes not in the 1934 original) that put the bubbles in this champagne cocktail.

York kicks things off with a subdued “I Get a Kick Out of You” and then duets with Bergen through the utterly charming “You’re the Top.” It seems York is the ideal duet partner because another highlight of Act 1 is her pairing with Fred Applegate as Moonface Martin on “Friendship.” The Act 1 closer, a tap-happy “Anything Goes,” creates exactly the kind of musical theater ecstasy with which you want to send the audience into intermission.

After the glories of “Gabriel,” the songs in Act 2 don’t quite come up to the level of those in the first act. A string of tunes – “Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye,” “Be Like the Blue Bird” and “All Through the Night” – glides by pleasantly but without making much of an impression. Then Edward Staudenmayer lands like a bolt of comic lightning with “The Gypsy in Me” (performed with York, naturally). Just as the ship seems to be sailing into happy ending waters, we get one more near-showstopper in the form of “Buddie Beware,” performed by the lusty, scene-stealing Joyce Chittick as Erma, a sort of moll for Moonface.

It’s easy to see why Marshall’s production (from the Roundabout Theatre Company) won Tony Awards for best revival and best choreography because it’s 2 1/2 hours that seem so effortless yet so full of charm and energy. The entire company is as sturdy as can be and is as appealing a bunch as you’ll encounter on the high seas of musical comedy.

[bonus interviews]
I chatted with Rachel York and Erich Bergen for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Anything Goes continues through Feb. 3 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$200 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Bergen goes from Jersey boy to bawdy balladeer

Erich Bergen 2

Erich Bergen became a man in San Francisco. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but when the performer was cast as Bob Gaudio in the touring production of Jersey Boys, he was all of 20 years old. The tour ended up sitting down at the Curran Theatre for nine months in 2007, and Bergen, a native of New York City, celebrated his 21st birthday in the City by the Bay.

He’ll be back in San Francisco for an all-too-brief one-night stand at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko on Monday, Feb. 7. His show is affectionately subtitled: “An evening of music, inappropriate laughs and awkward pauses.”

“That city holds a lot of crazy memories,” Bergen says on the phone from Los Angeles, his home since late 2009. “When I was cast, I had never really done New York as an adult actor. I quit college – or ‘left the company’ as I like to say – and was sent out on the road into that crazy Jersey Boys land. Suddenly it was this world you dream of with fans outside the stage door. Then while I was here I was in a relationship and all these first-time grown-up things were happening.”

After that Jersey swirl, Bergen’s first time back in San Francisco was last fall when he was part of a benefit for the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation. “You smell certain things, and it all starts coming back,” Bergen says.

Who knows what he’ll smell when he makes his Rrazz Room debut with a show that he debuted last fall at the Magic Castle. Much of the material comes from his debut CD, “The Vegas Sessions,” a highly enjoyable collection of Bergen originals as well as some surprising covers and songs that are, well, drrrrrrty.

The original idea behind the CD was that it would be a live recording of a concert he gave at the (now-closed) Liberace Museum in Las Vegas while he was in the cast of Jersey Boys there. But on the day he was supposed to go into the recording studio to start cleaning up the live recording, Bergen’s idol, Michael Jackson, died.

“That threw my life into total change,” Bergen says. Rather than work on his CD, Bergen began spending his free time mobilizing all the talent in Las Vegas to perform at a Jackson tribute concert – a mammoth undertaking that eventually won the support of the Jackson estate.

“That show remains the most important work I’ve done,” Bergen says. “I got Las Vegas to stop for a day and pay tribute to Michael. To this day, I can’t believe it happened. I joke that I’m still catching up on sleep. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. Michael was my hero. He meant everything to me, so it was important to me that we honor him in a really respectable way.”

Erich Bergen 3The event ultimately raised more than $100,000 for music education in Nevada public schools.

“Without music education and Michael Jackson, I wouldn’t be where I am,” Bergen says.

When Bergen’s run in Jersey Boys came to an end – he says it was a surprise to him when it did – he returned to New York and listened again to the Liberace tapes.

“That wasn’t me anymore,” he says. “So I figured I’d make a CD that included some of the serious songs I’ve written as well as songs that show off my skanky whore side.”

On the serious side is the song “I Hope You Know,” a beautiful, earnest ballad paying tribute to a true love. Bergen wrote the song in a night, and it’s the song on the album that people tend to gravitate to and the song that will likely go on to have a long life – especially at weddings.

On the dirty side is “Blow Me a Kiss,” a ditty that includes phrases such as “blow me,” “suck me,” “eat me” and “on your knees” combined with comic pauses and old-fashioned lyrics that actually put dirty minds shame. And all you need to know about Bergen’s cover of the Britney Spears tune “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” (see below) is that he introduces it saying, “This song says a lot about me.”

Bergen was supposed to celebrate the release of his CD last fall with a gig at the Rrazz Room, but he was cast in Venice, a new rock/hip-hop musical version of Othello at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in L.A. No, Bergen did not rap in the show, but he says the experience was extraordinary – especially the student matinees. “They were so into it, and that was inspiring,” Bergen says. “It really made me think we’re screwing up the theater charging $100 a ticket. These are the people who need to see new work, and they can’t afford it.”

Now Bergen is back on the performing circuit, amid other projects. He’s also writing music, pitching movie ideas alongside collaborators and keeping quite busy.

At the Rrazz Room, audiences can expect the handsome crooner to deliver an old-fashioned floor show. Bergen says this is not cabaret.

“When I think of cabaret, I think of a housewife in shoulder pads singing ‘Marry Me a Little.’ That’s not what I do,” he says. “I try to give them a great show that’s not about me. I don’t tell stories of my life on the road. I’m really there to share some amazing songs. I take that approach because I’m not the best interpreter of a song, but I’m a really good entertainer. I’m great at giving the audience a good time. Oftentimes, by the end of the show, the audience is having such a good time, it’s like I need to throw a party afterward.”

Erich Bergen in concert, an evening of music, inappropriate laughs and awkward pauses, is at 8pm, Monday, Feb. 7 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20 or $40 for the VIP package (signed CD, meet and greet, champagne). Call 800-380-3095 or visit for information.

Here’s Bergen singing Britney Spears’ “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.”

Click here for more Erich Bergen videos.


Live from Las Vegas: `Jersey Boys’ opening night bash

What a party! You expect big things in Las Vegas, and that’s what you get.

The Palazzo put on quite a show before and after the show as Jersey Boys officially opened on May 3, becoming the first show at the Palazzo hotel, which officially opened last January.

The requisite red carpet arrivals saw the surviving Four Seasons — Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio and Tommy DeVito, along with producer Bob Crewe — as well as a few celebrities, including John Cleese, Michael Urie (of “Ugly Betty” fame) and Willie Garson (of “Sex and the City” fame) as well as some Vegas celebs: Rita Rudner, Wayne Brady and John O’Hurley (in the soon-to-close Spamalot).

The most moving moment of the evening was when the real Four Seasons went on stage at the curtain call to take a bow with their musical theater counterparts. Read about that and see a photo in my review below.

The opening-night party, held in one of the Palazzo/Venetian airplane hangar-like ballrooms, was a scene. Classic ’60s cars, complete with go-go dancers, adorned the corners of the room where the food tables were, and in the center of the room, like an air traffic control tower, also complete with go-go dancers, was the DJ.

Opening night also happened to be Frankie Valli’s 74th birthday, so when the onstage Four Seasons — Erich Bergen, Rick Faugno, Jeremy Kushnier and Jeff Leibow — arrived at the party, they announced Valli’s birthday then sang a beautiful four-part harmony version of “Happy Birthday to You.” After the stage was cleared, the back “wall” of the ballroom came swooshing down to reveal a dance floor and a stage adorned with — you guessed it! — go-go dancers grooving to a ’60s beat.

Here are some photos of Valli’s birthday tribute:

At the party I ran into Jeff Leibow (who plays Nick Massi) and his lovely wife, Melody, both formerly residents of East Palo Alto and now Las Vegans. They looked fantastic:

I also ran into Joyce Chittick, who plays multiple roles, including Frankie’s wife. Her real-life love is Rick Faugno, who happens to play Frankie. I’ve known Joyce since she was in high school (my mother was her high school principal at Sparks High School), when she performed in a top-notch performance choir called Skyfire. She and Rick were beaming, and rightfully so. They’re in a hit show, and they’re both superb in it.

Live from Las Vegas! `Jersey Boys’

Opened May 3 at the Palazzo Las Vegas

OK, so technically we’re not “live” in Las Vegas anymore (6:05 a.m. flight from LV to SFO – ouch). But given that it feels like I’m still at the opening-night party of Jersey Boys at the Venetian (next door to the Palazzo, where the show actually resides), I feel as live as is humanly possible.

There’s only good news for fans of Jersey Boys. The show has not been Vegas-ized. The creative team, headed by director Des McAnuff has been creative about making cuts and getting the show down to a brisk 2 hours and 10 minutes. The biggest cut is in the intermission, which here is called a “pause.” At the end of Act 1, after the reprise of “Walk Like a Man,” the audience is instructed via a projection that they have eight minutes do with what they please. Now, eight minutes is not a lot of time to run to the restroom or the bar (especially for slower-moving folks), so the wise people simply stand up, chat and watch the projections on the giant video screens (projections of a cross-country tour circa 1964, including footage of a trip across the Golden Gate Bridge and a glimpse of the Transamerica Pyramid-less San Francisco skyline).

Co-writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman have artfully trimmed their book here and there, but only purists (and there are plenty of them out there!) will notice. All the songs are there, albeit some of them have also been shortened (not detrimentally and none of the big Four Seasons numbers are noticeably shorter).

Act 1 does feel rushed at times, though audiences will likely appreciate getting through the early stages of the Four Seasons’ development so they can get to the meaty hits such as “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “December 1963 (Oh What a Night),” “My Eyes Adored You” and “Dawn (Go Away).” Act 2 feels more like it did at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco.

Speaking of the Curran, I must say the theater at the Palazzo, which seats 1,700, is quite nice, if unadorned. The sound system, which is what really counts, is phenomenal and is a great improvement over the Curran’s.

The cast, a blend of the casts we saw in San Francisco (but primarily comprised of the performers we saw last fall), is more than up to the high standards we Bay Area fans are used to. The sad news is that John Altieri, whose primary role is producer Bob Crewe, had to leave the cast for health reasons, and his role is now being played by John Salvatore, who’s terrific.

The Four Seasons have meshed nicely. Rick Faugno, who we first saw in the role of Joe Pesci with the first national tour, has really grown into the central role of Frankie Valli. His voice – already strong – has gotten even better and smoother, and dramatically, he’s spot on, especially in his scenes with Joyce Chittick as Frankie’s wife, Mary. Their “My Eyes Adored You” post-break-up scene packs a wallop.

Erich Bergen, also from the first national tour, has evolved as Bob Gaudio, the musical mastermind (with Crewe) of the Four Seasons sound. Bergen is a charmer and a fine singer. He’s also extremely tall, so to say his talent is giant seems fairly accurate.

Jeremy Kushnier, from the second San Francisco cast (the one that headed to Chicago), makes the somewhat despicable character of Tommy DeVito not only appealing but somewhat understandable. He’s not necessarily a bad guy. He sort of means well and just lets his ego do its dirty work. Kushnier’s performance is incisive, and his section as narrator (each of the Four Seasons takes a turn narrating) crackles with New Jersey wit.

Last but not least is the Bay Area’s own Jeff Leibow as Nick Massi, the “Ringo” of the Four Seasons as he says toward the end. Leibow was in the final San Francisco cast (rumored to be the Vegas cast, which turned out only partly to be true), and though he was strong then, he’s even better now. Nick’s mostly contained emotions register more now, and his explosion – geared mainly toward Tommy – is seismic.

The nine-piece band, headed by Keith Thompson, sounds sharp, and Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is as smooth and sexy as ever.

Now that I’ve seen Jersey Boys five times (which is nothing compared to the real fans), I feel it’s necessary to mention the Jersey Girls every time. The three women in the show play all the women in the show, and they work really hard. The expert Chittick is joined by the multitalented Natalie Bradshaw and Julia Krohn in making sure the men don’t completely take over the show.

(above from left) Real life Jersey Boys meet Las Vegas Jersey Boys during the curtain call on opening night at the Palazzo: John Salvatore and Bob Crewe, Bob Gaudio and Erich Bergen, Frankie Valli and Rick Faugno, Jeremy Kushnier and Tommy DeVito and Jeff Leibow.

As has become the custom for a big opening night, the surviving Seasons show up for the curtain call and hug the actor who played them. The Vegas opening was no different. After the rousing closer of “Who Loves You,” Faugno introduced the surviving guys: Valli, Gaudio and DeVito as well as producer Crewe, who all took the stage. DeVito, who is dramatically banished to Las Vegas in the show, still lives in Sin City, and I had to wonder what it was like for him to sit through this show yet again and hear about what a slime bag crook he is – but now in his hometown. But then again, I have to wonder what it’s like for Valli and Gaudio, too, to relive those moments in their past over and over again. They’re probably inured to it now, but I can’t imagine what it’s like for Valli to have to repeatedly watch his stage self go through the death of his daughter Francine.

But at the curtain call in Vegas, it was all smiles. DeVito seemed as robust as ever, and I was only disappointed that Joe Pesci, who was also in the audience, didn’t get to go on stage and hug the actor (Jonathan Gerard Rodriguez) who played him.

As beautifully and as expertly as this show is put together, and with so many great songs and performances, Jersey Boys is mighty satisfying and sets a new standard for musical theater in Las Vegas.

For information about Jersey Boys at the Palazzo, visit



The boys of `Jersey’

Earlier this month, I sat down with the stars of San Francisco’s Jersey Boys, the quartet driving audiences into a frenzy every night as Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. You can read the story here.

Here are some tidbits that didn’t make it into the newspaper. If this were a DVD, we’d be in the “special features” section right now.

The players are (pictured above from left) Deven May (Tommy DeVito), Michael Ingersoll (Nick Massi), Christopher Kale Jones (Frankie Valli) and Erich Bergen (Bob Gaudio), and we’re in a suite at the Hotel Diva, across Geary Street from the Curran Theatre, where Jersey Boys is running seemingly until it’s not running anymore.

A discussion about how audience members react with such personal connections to the Four Seasons music leads Bergen to say: “My dad listened to this music. His style was more Motown and doo-wop, but the Four Seasons were definitely in there, and I heard it growing up. That’s one of the reasons I was so excited to be doing this show rather than an old traditional book musical.”

May interjects: “Isn’t this a book musical? I don’t know…”

After some discussion, the actors determine that Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman’s book is indeed one of the key factors in their show’s success. The way the script incorporates Four Seasons songs into the framework of a tightly written play does make it a traditional, indeed, very well written, book musical.

Says Bergen: “OK. Write this: Erich Bergen is wrong. Three out of four seasons say Erich Bergen is wrong.”

Cue much laughter and more discussion about why Jersey Boys works so darn well. After much praise is heaped on director Des McAnuff and the creative team, Ingersoll theorizes that people are drawn in by the true story of these New Jersey guys and their rough lives, which involved prison stretches for Massi and DeVito. Later, after fame struck, life didn’t necessarily get any easier.

“One of the points of the show,” Ingersoll says, “is that in life, you never reach a point where everything’s good — no matter how much success, money or fame you have. There’s always another side to the coin. Think about us. We’re on the road, away from home for a year. I’m away from my wife for a year. She visits, and this is a dream job for me. The guys would say the same thing. Nothing could be better in that way. But the fact remains I’m not seeing my wife for such a long time. There’s a price to pay. It’s never just: I’ve arrived! Everything’s great! This show thrives on showing the reality of that.”

The reality of the show is so convincing, in fact, that when audience members hang around the Curran stage door for a post-show chat, fans call the actors by their character names.

“We walk out that door and we’re still Bob, Frankie, Tommy and Nick,” Bergen says. “They’ll say things like, `When you wrote that song…’ And I have to remind them I’m just an actor. But they don’t want you to be an actor. They want you to be the real thing.”

The huge success of Jersey Boys in New York and now in San Francisco means more productions are forthcoming — probably London and another touring production (that might actually tour to places other than San Francisco). There’s been talk of a movie, of course. And Bergen theorizes that in 10 years, every high school in the country will be doing Jersey Boys.

Says May: “If you take all the profanity out of the show for the high school version, it’ll be 45 minutes long!”

Jones chimes in: “I cannot wait to see a high school guy singing in Frankie Valli’s voice. I think it might be easier to reach those notes when you’re still in puberty.”

And finally, here’s a fact you need to know about each of these actors.
Jones is a Rubik’s Cube expert. He can solve the puzzle in under three minutes.
Ingersoll has a black belt in Tai Kwon Do and may do some teaching while he’s here.
May is a professional photographer.
Bergen produces a podcast called Green Room Radio.

For information about Jersey Boys, visit

Who Loves You

Last night, the Curran Theatre in San Francisco was the center of the golden oldie universe.

The Tony Award-winning musical Jersey Boys kicked off its national tour, but it doesn’t look like the show will be going anywhere for a while. If the phenomenal audience response last night — not to mention all the curiosity at the office from people who hardly ever talk to me, let alone about theater — is any indication, we’ll be seeing a lot of these Jersey boys in the coming months.

You can read my four-star review here, but I feel the need to review the opening-night audience as well. If you’ve ever been to an official press opening, you know how weird they can be. You’ve got stodgy old critics like me, pens in hand, who don’t respond much, and then you have all the invited guests (that is, people who got their tickets for free) over-reacting, so the response is far from natural.

That wasn’t the case Sunday at Jersey Boys, which, if you don’t know, is the musical biography of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The mostly middle-age (and older) crowd whooped and hollered and carried on such that the show stopped no fewer than three times — after “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man” in Act 1 and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” in Act 2. The actors had to hold while the audience made repeated attempts to tear the roof off the theater. My personal favorite Seasons song is “December, 1963 (Oh What a Night),” which opens the show (in its hit 2000 French hip-hop version), reappears in an Act 1 deflowering scene, and then keeps the blood pumping at the top of Act 2.

Perhaps the audience reaction had something to do with the fact that the real-life Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio and Tommy DeVito (not to mention songwriter Bob Crewe) were in the house and took the stage at the curtain call to take bows with their theatrical counterparts.

I can’t say enough about the fab four at the story’s center. Conveniently, three of them have Web sites, so you can check them out for yourselves.
Christopher Kale Jones (Frankie Valli): (currently under construction, but now that the show’s open, surely Christopher will get around to finishing up the site)
Michael Ingersoll (Nick Massi): (a slick site)
Erich Bergen (Bob Gaudio): (a My Space page that includes four songs, including one of my new favorites, “Bless the Broken Road”)
Deven May (Tommy Devito): Deven May Photography (how much talent can one guy have?)

These guys are stars in the making. Who needs Broadway when the tour is this good?

And there are juicy rumors afloat out there that Steven Spielberg is interested in making a Jersey Boys movie. Guess we’ll see how Dreamgirls does to determine if or when the movie gets made.