Feeling gleeful with Darren Criss

Darren Criss 1

When Darren Criss was a kid going to American Conservatory Theater’s Young Conservatory, he attended one of the company’s annual galas. Joel Grey was the headliner. Now Criss, all grown up and all of 25, is the headliner for this year’s ACT gala.

To say that San Francisco native Criss has been on a rocket to fame ever since his first appearance as Blaine Anderson on the hit FOX series “Glee” would be to understate his rise to national prominence. He’s had hit records and spent three weeks on Broadway (last January he replaced Daniel Radcliffe in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying).

How Criss has managed to keep a level head on this meteoric journey is a mystery, but in a conversation with the multi-talented young actor on a recent Friday morning, he came across as not only charming and grounded but also, perhaps not surprisingly, intelligent and funny.

I interviewed Criss about his headlining gig at ACT’s Expect the Unexpected gala this Sunday (April 15) for an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

There wasn’t enough room in the story to include everything we talked about, so here are some of the “deleted scenes” if you will.

Q: What do you remember about working with 42nd Street Moon?
Working with them exposed me to a lot of stuff I fell in love with. Babes in Arms was an especially great experience. I sang “Where or When” for my “Glee” audition. I sang two songs, that and a jazzy rendition of “Baby One More Time.”

Q: When you bring friends back to San Francisco, what do you like to show them about where you grew up?
I’m very nostalgic. I went to Stuart Hall, which is reminiscent of Dalton Academy with this gorgeous Victorian architecture. I sneak in every now and then with friends and say, “Look, I went to school at Hogwarts. There’s such a great view from up there overlooking the Marina to the bridge. It’s the best. I love doing that. I like to show people a lot of the stuff I love about San Francisco. My parents joke that when I bring people home I should charge them for my tour.

Q: Last year you signed a record deal with Columbia. What’s the story on your album?
It’s like when you ask a writer, “Hey, so you’re writing a new book?” Yeah, always. There’s always something going on whether it’s tangible or concrete. It’s an ongoing process, always meeting with people. Songs are being worked on. yes, I’d love to put out something at some point soon. It’s always ongoing.

Q: You were only in H2S for three weeks. Would you consider going back?
It was the perfect amount of time. It was a blast. I never would have thought I’d be able to do something like that. It was so overwhelming and happened so fast. I knew it was going to be quick, so I was prepared for it to be mind blowing. It’s such a wonderful show. I was figuring out the character as I was going along, kind of like Finch, the character is doing has he goes along. In some ways, Broadway was imitating life.

[bonus videos]

A very brave Darren Criss answers all interview questions from Rolling Stone in song.

And here’s Criss performing for the Trevor Project (with Katy Perry).


Expect the Unexpected! ACT’s 2012 Season Gala starring Darren Criss and Bill Irwin is this Sunday, April 15, at the Regency Center, 1300 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $500-$2,500. Call 415-439-2470 or visit www.act-sf.org/gala.

Hot Babes! Even hotter tunes!

Babes 2
Alexandra Kaprielian, left, is Billie Smith, Zachary Franczak, center, is French aviator René Flambeau) and Michael Scott Wells is Val LaMar in 42nd Street Moon’s production of Rodgers & Hart’s Babes in Arms. Below: The kids jump for joy at the very thought of putting on a show in a barn! Photos by davidallenstudio.com

Let it be said that Babes in Arms is one of the weirdest musicals with the greatest scores ever written. There have been weirder musicals and greater scores, but never in such striking combination.

You can see for yourself as 42nd Street Moon unfurls all the daffy delirium that is Babes in Arms on stage at the Eureka Theatre. Go for the weirdness but stay for the sheer pleasure of hearing “Where or When,” “My Funny Valentine,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “Way Out West,” “Johnny One-Note” and “The Lady Is a Tramp” in their original context.

This is the second time that 42nd Street Moon has resurrected Rodgers and Hart’s 1937 show. The first time was in November of 1999, when the cast included Darren Criss, the newest cast member on the phenomenon known as Glee.

In fact, Glee and Babes in Arms have several things in common. For one, they’re both full of talented kids crazy about putting shows. For another, they both traffic in some terrific songs. And finally, they’re both about as reality-based as Santa Claus.

In Babes, whose book was written by its composers, a bunch of kids (we have to assume they’re younger than 18) are essentially abandoned by their vaudeville performer parents for six months with no money or means of support. The welfare department (in the form of the local Long Island sheriff) decides the kids should be shipped off to a work farm for their own protection.

The kids fight back! They’re not babes in arms. They’re babes in armor! And there’s work to be done to be done. In their youthful wisdom, they declare that putting on a show in the old barn will solve all their problems. If only President Obama went to the theater more often – he’d know that teenagers putting on shows in barns would surely end troubles in North Korea, the Middle East and Alaska.

Babes 1Not to give too much of the plot away, but when the show idea doesn’t work (aw, heck), the kids expect a solution for their troubles to drop from the sky. Which actually happens in the form a French aviator who crash lands in a nearby field. After being pummeled into unconsciousness, the pilot is imprisoned in a basement and impersonated by one of the kids. All in good fun.

Rather than being angry about the violence and abduction, the pilot is an incredibly good sport because – and you can feel this coming – the kids put on a show for him!

Richard Rodgers, in all his wisdom, feared that Babes, in spite of its extraordinary score, had not aged well, so in 1959, he commissioned George Oppenheimer to revise it. Characters and songs were cut, as was a subplot about performers of color being discriminated against (much to the disgust of the kids).

This 42nd Street Moon version goes back to the original (with a re-write assist by playwright John Guare, who spiffed it up for New York’s Encores! Series in 1999), so the preposterous plot is here in all its glory.

Director Dyan McBride knows just how to keep the action moving and the tone light so that the absurdity of the plot bumping up the richness of the songs isn’t quite as head-scratching as it might be. It’s already bizarre enough to have teenagers singing sophisticated, worldly songs like “Where or When” and “The Lady Is a Tramp,” so McBride’s deft touch, with a choreographic lift fromZack Thomas Wilde, is welcome.

McBride’s cast is merry and bright, and they receive sturdy support from musical director Dave Dobrusky (who also has a cameo as Fiorello LaGuardia). Michael Scott Wells and Alexandra Kaprielian are front and center as (funny) Valentine and charming Billie, the gang leaders, as it were, and Zachary Franczak is enjoyably villainous as Southern bigot Beauregard Calhoun.

A weird highlight of an already weird show comes in Act 2 as one of the minor characters, Peter (played sweetly by Jonathan Shue), gets his own dream ballet. It involves $500, communism and a trip around the world, and it has to be seen to be believed. Kinda like the show itself.

Here’s the trailer for the 1939 Busby Berkeley spectacular that shares the name Babes in Arms a shred of the plot and only two of the songs (“Babes in Arms” and “Where or When”).


42nd Street Moon’s Babes in Arms continues through Dec. 19 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $24-$44. Call 415 255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org for information.

Sam Harris aims for Jolson & ‘Reclamation’

First, two issues that need addressing:
– Why isn’t Sam Harris performing his new gay marriage anthem “My Reclamation” at San Francisco’s Gay Pride celebration? It’s a beautiful, moving ode to love and equal rights — part defiant manifesto, part gorgeous ballad. So far, Harris is not slated to appear on any Gay Pride stage, and that seems, to say the least, like a missed opportunity.
Sam Harris1 – Why isn’t “Glee”mastermind Ryan Murphy begging Sam Harris to play one of Rachel’s (Lea Michelle) two dads? It’s such a brilliant no brainer. Can you just imagine the Harris/Michelle power duets? A show queen’s mind fairly boggles.

We’re thinking about Sam Harris because the big-voiced, Tony-nominated performer is headed back to San Francisco’s Rrazz Room, where he triumphed in a last-minute, late-night about a year ago. It just so happens that Harris’ gig coincides with all the Gay Pride revelry, which can hardly be accidental. In addition to his new song, Harris’ life is practically a paean to the fully integrated, 21st century gay life. He and his husband, Danny, are busy raising their 2-year-old son, Cooper, who after a recent trip to the theater (the child’s first) to see Sesame Street Live, told his dads, “Cooper up there, sing, dance with Cookie Monster.” You could hardly expect less from the spawn of Harris.

“We don’t watch much TV in our house, but I do go to YouTube and show him things like Donald O’Connor doing `Make ’em Laugh,'” Harris says on the phone from his Los Angeles home. “My favorite words from his mouth are, `More Gene Kelly! More Gene Kelly!’ The fact that he’s been backstage when I’m performing or on stage during sound checks — he’s been exposed to show biz. I mean come on, Liza Minnelli (Harris’ good friend) is in his life. It’s inevitable he’s going to be drawn to this environment. But we’re not enrolling him in tap class just yet. He’s into garbage trucks, Elmo, Cookie Monster and playing with balls. He’s a little scrapper.”

The 49-year-old Harris could be a described as a scrapper himself. Ever since winning that first big singing contest (on a little pre-“American Idol” show we used to call “Star Search”), Harris has made a living being an old-fashioned entertainer in a new-fangled world. He’s done albums, Broadway, TV sitcoms and the concert circuit. He’s frank and funny, and full of energy — that much you can see on his regular YouTube posts. Then there’s that voice, a Streisand-esque marvel that soars to unbelievable heights even as it plumbs emotional depths.

Sam Harris2In addition to promoting his “My Reclamation” single, Harris is working on a couple of projects. The big one is something he started working on years ago: a stage biography of Al Jolson, a heart-on-his-sleeve, voices-in-the-rafters entertainer who shares entertainer DNA with Harris.

“This show is meaty and dark and gritty and fat and complicated and really the best part for a man ever, ever, ever,” Harris explains. “It’s about somebody whose first love was the stage. It deals with his relationship with his father and with Ruby Keeler. It’s the inside of this darkly megalomaniacal man who was like a child, kind of a schmuck and then very kind at other times.”

Harris, obviously enamored of the part, goes so far as to call it “the Mama Rose of men’s roles.” The musical, which has been called Let Me Sing and Jolie features a book by Sherman Yellen and music and lyrics by Will Holt (the show also incorporates Jolson’s biggest songs and standards of the day).

“It’s interesting because I did an incarnation of this 10 years ago, and it almost went to Broadway,” Harris recalls. “We had costume fittings and had an out-of-town theater in Boston, but the financing dropped out in an afternoon. But I realized recently that at this time in my life, I’m so much more ready and prepared and right for it than I would have been then. It’s my goal to look at everything that way: work hard toward a goal and go where the universe takes you. I think that now the show’s chances for success are much greater.”

The other project is still a hush-hush TV project. “It’s getting a lot of heat,” Harris says. “I’ll hopefully be able to talk about it soon. It not only satisfies me creatively but also satisfies the obligation to my philosophy, which is about paying it forward.”


Sam Harris in concert, June 23-27 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Call 866 468-3399 or visit www.therrazzroom.com.