Only neo maxi zoom dweebies won’t enjoy BratPack

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For the Record Live and Feinstein’s at the Nikko present BratPack, a nostalgic fusion of ’80s movies and music that feels part musical, part concert, part vintage video from the age of MTV. Below: Zahan Mehta channels John Cusack in Say Anything. Photos by Kelly Mason courtesy of Feinstein’s at the Nikko

Feinstein’s at the Nikko, one of San Francisco’s last great cabaret rooms, is coming out of its pandemic slumber in day-glo colors, acid-washed denim and a new show that moves way beyond the traditional piano-bass-drums behind a singer idea.

We all love a cabaret diva and a set of songs from the Great American Songbook, but BratPack, which has transformed the room (and especially the stage) at Feinstein’s, is the high-energy, nostalgia-fueled fun fest we need right now.

And by “we” I really mean any GenX-er who graduated high school in the ’80s (greetings from the Reno High School Class of 1985) or who has a deep and abiding love of the John Hughes ouvre. And if you have to ask “what is a John Hughes ouvre?” this show may not be for you.

Hughes was the writer/director who tapped into the ’80s zeitgeist with the kind of generation-specific ferocity that has hardly been seen since. The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink comprise the holy Hughes trinity, and those are the three primary inspirations for BratPack, which takes music from the soundtracks and dialogue from the scripts to craft something in between a musical adaptation and a revue with hints of a really great wedding band and a ship-rocking cruise show thrown in for good measure.

Co-creators Shane Scheel and Anderson Davis take the five basic character outlines from The Breakfast Club – the Athlete, the Basket Case, the Criminal, the Princess and the Brain – and set them loose on the plots and music from Hughes films (which also include Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, Weird Science and Some Kind of Wonderful) as well as other ’80s teen flicks like Say Anything, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and St. Elmo’s Fire (not actually about teens but still feels like teens from a Hughes movie playing grown-up).

The fun is in the mash-up and all the surprises thrown in to delight and amuse ’80s devotees (relics?) throughout the show’s 90 minutes. There are only two dedicated musicians on stage (including musical director Matt Grandy on keyboards), so it’s up to the cast – Rachel Lark (Basket Case), Michael Martinez (Jock), Zahan Mehta (Rebel), Bryan Munar (Geek), May Ramos (Princess) – to add bass, guitar, drums, keyboards and percussion. Scott Taylor-Cole gets to play the enjoyably mean “adult” who takes the form of Ferris’ vengeful school principal and the sadistic detention monitor, Richard “Dick” Vernon. “Don’t mess with the bull, young man. You’ll get the horns.”

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The performers sound great – ’80s power with some contemporary singing competition cascading – and the music is appropriately LOUD as they build an all-encompassing teen story about secret crushes, proms, graduation, locker rooms, detention and fantasies. Their building blocks are songs like “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” (the song we hear the most throughout the evening), “True,” “In Your Eyes,” “If You Leave” and “Melt with You.” There are also non-’80s tunes that factor significantly into some of the movies involved like “Try a Little Tenderness” (Pretty in Pink) and “Twist and Shout” (Ferris Bueller) as well as a pair of David Bowie greats – “Changes” and “Young Americans.”

It’s basically an ’80s-themed party with great music, favorite lines from the movies and re-creations of some of those iconic moments (think kisses over a birthday cake and boom boxes held aloft) – and it’s a whole lot of fun. Even the drinks are a kick – inspired by Capri Sun juice pouches, the brightly colored cocktails come in pouches with straws (there are traditional drinks available as well as food). Everything is ordered and paid for on your phone – one of the nice service improvements that COVID has given us.

Speaking of COVID (sad to even have to talk about something that didn’t exist in the ’80s), Feinstein’s requires proof of vaccination and masks when not eating or drinking. Cast members, who are vaccinated and tested regularly, are all over the room, belting and dancing their hearts out. Those who don’t want “Rebel Yell” sung in close proximity or who don’t want to sing-along with the Simple Minds’ “laaaa, la la la la la” might not be comfortable here.

Otherwise, this high-voltage exercise in cinematic and pop music nostalgia is the perfect place to revel in and re-live nearly 40-year-old memories that only seem to (day)glow brighter with time.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
BratPack continues through Nov. 7 at Feinstein’s at the Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $79-$104. Call 415-394-1100 or visit www.FeinsteinsSF.com.

A hitch in the getalong: Looking back at 2014’s best

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Reviewing the shows I reviewed this year, I was struck by two things: first, and as usual, there’s an abundance of talented people doing great work at all levels of Bay Area theater; second, this was a lesser year in Bay Area theater. Perhaps the reason for the later has to do with the changes in the Bay Area itself – artists are fleeing outrageous rents, companies are downsizing or disappearing altogether. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I don’t see as much theater as I used to and to find the really interesting stuff, you have vary the routine and expand the reach a little more.

That said, there was still plenty of terrific theater in 2014. Herewith some thoughts on an assortment of favorites.

FAVORITE SHOWS

1. Lost in A Maze-ment – Just Theater’s A Maze originally appeared in the summer of 2013, and I missed it. Luckily for me (and all audiences), the company brought it back with the help of Shotgun Players. Rob Handel’s play surprises at every turn and resists easy classification. The cast was extraordinary, and coming to the end of the play only made you want to watch it again immediately. Read my review here.

2. Choosing Tribes – Families were the thing at Berkeley Rep last spring. Issues of communication, familial and otherwise, were at the heart of director Jonathan Moscone’s powerful production of Nina Raine’s Tribes. Dramatic, comic, frustrating and completely grounded in real life, this is a play (and a production) that lingers. Read my review here.

3. Tony Kushner’s Intelligent – There’s no one like Tony Kushner, and when he decides to go full on Arthur Miller, it’s worth nothing. Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at Berkeley Rep was a master class in the art of dialogue and family dynamics. Read my review here.

4. Adopt a Mutt – San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen’s Mutt at Impact Theater (co-produced with Ferocious Lotus Theater Company) was hilarious. Thinking about Patricia Austin’s physical comedy still makes me laugh. Sharp, edgy and consistently funny, this was my favorite new play of the year. Read my review here.

5. Blazing RaisinCalifornia Shakespeare Theater’s 40th anniversary season got off to a powerhouse start with A Raisin in the Sun, which worked surprisingly well outdoors in director Patricia McGregor’s beguiling production. Read my review here.

6. Party on – The UNIVERSES’ Party People was probably the most exciting show of the year … and the most educational. An original musical about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, this Party, directed by Liesl Tommy, was thrilling, revolutionary, incendiary and a powerful example of what theater can do. Read my review here.

7. Counting the DaysThe Bengsons, husband-and-wife duo Shaun and Abigail Bengson, proved that a rock musical can have heart and great music and intrigue in Hundred Days. This world premiere had some structural problems (goodbye, ghost people), but with a glorious performer like Abigail Bengson on stage, all is forgiven. Pure enjoyment that, with any luck, will return as it continues to evolve. Read my review here.

8. Fire-breathing DragonsJenny Connell Davis’ The Dragon Play at Impact Theatre was a strange and wondrous thing. Director Tracy Ward found nuance and deep wells of feeling in one of Impact’s best-ever productions. Read my review here.

9. Barbra’s basement – Michael Urie was the only actor on stage in Jonathan Tolins’ marvelous play Buyer and Cellar, part of the SHN season, but he was more incisive and entertaining than many a giant ensemble cast. This tale of working in the “shops” in Barbra Streisand’s basement was screamingly funny but with more. Urie was a marvel of charm and versatility. Read my review here.

10. Thoughts on Ideation – It might seem unfair that Bay Area scribe Aaron Loeb’s Ideation should appear on the year’s best list two years in a row, but the play is just that good. Last year, San Francisco Playhouse presented the world premiere of the play in its Sandbox Series. That premiere resulted in awards and a re-staging with the same cast and director on the SF Playhouse mains stage. More brilliant and entertaining than ever, Loeb’s play is an outright gem.

ASSORTED THOUGHTS ON THE YEAR THAT WAS

Best hop from screen to stage – The Broadway touring company of Once, which arrived as part of the SHN season, is a superb example of how deft adaptation can further reveal a work of art’s depth and beauty. Rather than just stick the movie on stage (hello, Elf or any number of recent ho-hummers), director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett make the cinematic theatrical and bring the audience directly into the heart of the story. Read my review here.

Dramatic duo – The year’s most electric pairing turned out to be Stacy Ross and Jamie Jones in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Gidion’s Knot. Intense barely begins to describe the taut interaction between a parent and a fifth-grade teacher reacting to crisis and death. These two fine actors (under the direction of Jon Tracy were phenomenal. Read my review here.

Bucky’s back – Among the most welcome returns of the year was D.W. Jacobs’ R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe starring original Bucky Ron Campbell. Before, sadly, succumbing to financial hardship, the late San Jose Repertory Theatre brought Bucky back, and everything the man says seems smart and/or funny and/or relevant to our own lives. Read my review here.

Simply Chita! – For sheer pleasure, nothing this year beat the evening spent with octogenarian legend Chita Rivera in Chita: A Legendary Celebration as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Chita was a wow in every way. Read my review here.

MVP 1 – Nicholas Pelczar started off the year practically stealing the show in ACT’s Major Barbara as Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins (review here). Later in the year he was the show in Marin Theatre Company’s The Whale (review here). Confined in a fat suit, Pelczar was a marvel of compassion and complication. He also happened to be adorable in Cal Shakes’ Pygmalion and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pelczar has entered the ranks of the Bay Area’s best.

MVP 2 – Simply put, without Emily Skinner in the lead role, there would have been little reason to see 42nd Street Moon’s production of Do I Hear a Waltz?. Tony nominee Skinner was a revelation as a tightly wound American tourist in Venice. Her voice was spectacular, but her entire performance was even more so. Read my review here.

MVP 3 – Jeffrey Brian Adams deserves some sort of theatrical purple heart medal. His performance as Chuck Baxter in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Promises, Promises is heartfelt, multi-dimensional and entirely likable – in other words, he is everything the production itself is not. In this giant misstep by the usually reliable Playhouse, Adams shone and presented himself as someone to watch from here on out.

No thanks – Not every show can be a winner. Among the shows I could have done without this year: Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Berkeley Rep; Promises, Promises at San Francisco Playhouse; Forbidden Broadway at Feinstein’s at the Nikko; SHN’s I Love Lucy Live on Stage.

Thank you, more please – If these shows didn’t make my best-of list, they came very close: Lasso of Truth at Marin Theatre Company; HIR at Magic Theatre; 42nd Street Moon’s original musical Painting the Clouds with Sunshine; California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Aurora Theatre Company’s Rapture, Blister, Burn; SHN’s Pippin; Impact Theatre’s Year of the Rooster.

Forbidden Blah-way is more like it

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Gina Kreiezmar delivers a spot-on Patti LuPone impression in Forbidden Broadway: Alive and Kicking! at Feinstein’s at the Nikko. Below: Kreiezmar again, this time as Mary Poppins. Photos by Carol Rosegg

It must be better in New York.

I’ve heard about Forbidden Broadway for much of its 32-year history and enjoyed some very funny recordings on several of the cast albums, but until this week, I had never seen a production. In New York, time is generally consumed with actual Broadway, which leaves little time for the Forbidden variety.

A touring version of the off-Broadway show, dubbed Alive and Kicking! opened an extended run at Feinstein’s at the Nikko Thursday, and the 70-minute show was underwhelming to say the least.

Four performers, each of whom has some appealing moments, and musical director Catherine Stornetta do their best to make the most of some generally weak and dated material by Gerard Alessandrini, the show’s creator.

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If, when spoofing Broadway, the best you can come up with is Annie worrying about gray hair, Cameron Mackintosh selling merchandise and Barbra Streisand being egotistical, you’ve got problems. The two most current bits involve a lengthy spoof of Once (which happens to be playing a few blocks away at the Curran Theatre) and an Idina Menzel/”Let It Go” riff. Otherwise, we get Mandy Patinkin, Ethel Merman, Les Miz and Jersey Boys rather than anything that’s making news on Broadway today. Perhaps they figure we numbskulls in the provinces wouldn’t get the most current Broadway jokes about Hedwig or Rocky or Aladdin.

The saving grace here comes in the form of cast member Gina Kreiezmar, who delivers a spot-on Patti LuPone impression (“everything’s coming up roses for me and for meeeeee”) and offers an amusing Mary Poppins suffering the indignities of dumbed-down shows manufactured for low-brow audiences in “Feed the ‘Burbs.”

There are laughs to be had here, but they’re not nearly as frequent as they’re intended to be, and too often the numbers are shrill and forced and as low-brow as the shows it’s intending to lampoon.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Forbidden Broadway: Alive and Kicking! continues through July 27 at Feinstein’s at the Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$60. Call 866-663-1063 or visit www.ticketweb.com.

Donna McKechnie charms in uneven cabaret show

Donna McKechnie

Broadway legend Donna McKechnie, the original Cassie in A Chorus Line, has talked and sung about her life before in San Francisco. In 2001, she brought Inside the Music to the Alcazar Theatre. The Tony Award-winner is back in town, still chatting and warbling about her storied life, but this time in a much smaller (and shorter) show in a much more charming room (Feinstein’s at the Nikko).

Same Place, Another Time begins in 1975 (to the strains of “The Hustle”) as McKechnie, then starring in A Chorus Line, arrives at Studio 54 for the first, moving past the velvet ropes and into the Liza-Mick-Warhol-glittered nightclub. Though from the Midwest, she sings “Native New Yorker” like she means it, though how “Where or When” fits into the scenario never becomes quite clear.

What starts out to be a document of becoming a Broadway star in the ’70s quickly devolves into a “then I went into therapy and got divorced” framework on which to hang some nice, if uninvolving songs. Belying her 72 years, McKechnie looks and sounds gorgeous, and when she deigns to move a little on the small stage, you see the elegance and panache that made her such a thrilling dancer.

This slight, hour-long show, with Eugene Gwozdz on piano, benefits from McKechnie’s abundance of charm, though at Friday’s opening performance she seemed nervous, bobbling a few lyrics and constantly pulling at the lapels of her black, sparkly jacket.

The best moments of the show are its most heartfelt. Discussing the creation of A Chorus Line, McKechnie admitted how wonderful it was to have a song written for her by Marvin Hamlisch and Ed Kleban that expressed her feelings about dance (“The Music and the Mirror,” which she did not sing). But then she said that her life experience was also the basis for the character of Maggie, at which point she movingly sang Maggie’s part of the trio “At the Ballet.”

McKechnie also talked about doing A Chorus Line in Los Angeles and who should show up to take her to dinner but Fred Astaire himself. Imagine dancing with Fred Astaire in his living room.

But what McKechnie doesn’t say but what was almost certainly true, is that Astaire had the privilege of dancing with the extraordinary McKechnie, who was then at the height of her terpsichorean powers.

And there’s the underlying problem with Same Place, Another Time, which is perfectly enjoyable: it doesn’t showcase McKechnie’s depths. Her “Better Luck Next Time” and “I Got Lost in His Arms” demonstrate a dramatic actress ready to tackle meatier, more revealing material that doesn’t necessarily need to be about the performer’s life but about the depths of the song itself.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Donna McKechnie’s Same Place, Another Time is at 7 p.m. Aug. 17. Tickets are $30-$55. Call 866-663-1063 or visit www.ticketweb.com.

Sutton Foster charms at swanky new Feinstein’s

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San Francisco Bay Area cabaret lovers drooped a little when The Rrazz Room, after attempting to make a go of it after departing the Hotel Nikko, finally packed up and headed out of town earlier this year.

But as Maria von Trapp is fond of saying, “When the Lord closes a door, somewhere He opens a window.” In this, case credit is due not so much the Lord (apologies) but to Michael Feinstein, one of this country’s greatest natural resources and practically a one-man juggernaut in celebration (and preservation) of the Great American Songbook.

Consider what this man is doing these days: he constantly criss-crosses the country performing in concert with symphonies and makes audiences very happy. He’s spearheading the The Michael Feinstein Great American Songbook Initiative, which is based out of the Center for Performing Arts in Carmel, Indiana. He just broadcast the third season of “Michael Feinstein’s Great American Songbook,” a fascinating series on PBS. He just published the book The Gershwins and Me (well worth a read, and the CD tucked into the back cover is sublime, with Feinstein singing and Cyrus Chestnut playing 12 Gershwin tunes).

He closed his New York nightclub at the Loew’s Regency last New Year’s Eve after 14 years (there are rumored plans of opening another Manhattan club), but at the end of April, there he was on stage for two private concerts in the former Rrazz Room space launching Feinstein’s at the Nikko.

San Francisco is where the young Feinstein cut his cabaret teeth – at the dear, departed Plush Room, to be exact. And it’s thrilling to have Feinstein back. He’s got an upcoming gig with the San Francisco Symphony on July 12 (info here) pegging to his Gershwin book, and after that he says we can expect him back regularly at Feinstein’s at the Nikko.

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To officially open the room to the public, Feinstein and his team made a shrewd choice in two-time Tony Award-winner Sutton Foster. She’s a classic ingenue in the great Broadway tradition yet she’s contemporary (a moment to give a shout out to “Bunheads,” Foster’s sublime TV series on ABC Family – can we PLEASE have a second season of this sweet and witty series? Please?). To my mind, she’s a Mary Tyler Moore for the 21st century, with a little Ethel Merman and Julie Andrews thrown in for good measure.

Foster’s 70-minute show is pure delight. Her dress selection shows off her incredible legs, and her song selection demonstrates that she’s more than just a pretty (and pretty big) voice.

She pays homage to her Broadway roots in medley of songs from her shows Thoroughly Modern Millie, Annie and Little Women that bursts with optimism, then toward the end of the set she reveals a little more world weariness with a Sondheim blend of “Anyone Can Whistle” and “Being Alive.”

Musical director/arranger/accompanist Michael Rafter supports Foster with sensitive playing throughout her polished standards (“Nice and Easy,” “The Nearness of You,” “Warm All Over,” “I Get a Kick Out of You”) and on some of the more dramatic story songs such as Francesca Blumenthal’s “The Lies of Handsome Men” and Rupert Holmes’ “The People That You Never Get to Love.”

Foster shows off assured comic timing in Christine Lavin’s “Air Conditioner,” in which an overheated Manhattan dame is willing to throw down for anyone with AC.

The show’s sweetest moment wasn’t in “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” which was a little too sweet for my taste but rather in a medley of “It Only Takes a Moment” and “Time After Time.” Foster performed the song, without the aid of a microphone (like she ever really needs a microphone) to her adorable little dog Linus, who was sitting comfortably in her lap.

Though Foster doesn’t spend a lot of time on patter, and when she sings, she mostly directs her attention straight ahead and doesn’t really play the room, she oozes charm and cheerful good will. She sells Nat “King” Cole’s “It’s Crazy But I’m in Love” and Harry Nilsson’s “Good Old Desk” with a quiet voice that is the aural equivalent of a smile.

But on several songs, which she makes inextricably her own, we get more depth from this 38-year-old performer. “My Heart Was Set on You” by Jeff Blumenkrantz is heartbreaking, and James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” is a wistful way to say goodnight to the audience (before storming back with a microphone-free “Anything Goes”).

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Sutton Foster continues through July 12 at Feinstein’s at the Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $75-$95 (note: ticket price includes a $30 food and beverage credit). Call (415) 394-1111 or visit www.hotelnikkosf.com for information.