2011 in the rearview mirror: the best of Bay Area stages


Let’s just get right to it. 2011 was another year full of fantastic local theater (and some nice imports). Somehow, most of our theater companies has managed thus far to weather the bruising economy. May the new year find audiences clamoring for more great theater. (Click on the play titles to see my original reviews.)

1. How to Write a New Book for the Bible by Bill Cain
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Directed by Kent Nicholson

Only a few days ago I was telling someone about this play – my favorite new play of 2011 and the most moving theatrical experience I’ve had in a long time – and it happened again. I got choked up. That happens every time I try to describe Cain’s deeply beautiful ode to his family and to the spirituality that family creates (or maybe that’s vice-versa). Nicholson’s production, from the excellent actors to the simple, elegant design, let the play emerge in all its glory.

2. Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
American Conservatory Theater

Directed by Jonathan Moscone

Because I interviewed Norris for the San Francisco Chronicle, I wasn’t allowed, at the playwright’s request, to review the production. Well, to heck with you Mr. Pulitzer Prize-winning Norris. This was a genius production. A great play (with some wobbly bits in the second act) that found a humane director and a cast that dipped into the darkness and sadness under the laughs (Rene Augesen in particular). How do we talk about race in this country? We don’t. We just get uncomfortable with it. This is drama that positively crackles – you can’t take your eyes off the stage and find there are moments when you’re actually holding your breath.

3. Bellwether by Steve Yockey
Marin Theatre Company
Directed by Ryan Rilette

Horror is hard in a theater, but Yockey came close to scaring the pants off his audience in this chilling, utterly compelling world-premiere drama about children disappearing from a suburban neighborhood. And the paranormal aspects weren’t even the scariest things – it was the humans being disgustingly human to each other in times of stress that really worked the nerves.

4. The Lily’s Revenge by Taylor Mac
Magic Theatre
Directed by Meredith McDonough, Marissa Wolf, Erika Chong Shuch, Erin Gilley, Jessica Holt and Jessica Heidt

The sheer scope, ambition and feel-good communal aspect of this massive undertaking makes it one of the year’s most disarming experiences. The charms of Mac, who also starred as Lily, cannot be underestimated. Kudos to the Magic for staging what amounted to the best theatrical open house in many a season.

5. The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
California Shakespeare Theater
Directed by Shana Cooper

I debated which Cal Shakes show I should include on this – it was down to Moscone’s Candida, which featured a luminous Julie Ecclesin the title role. But I opted for this high-octane production of a really difficult play. Leads Erica Sullivan and Slate Holmgren brought not only humor to this thorny comedy but also a depth of emotion I hadn’t ever experienced with this play. Director Cooper worked wonders with this Shrew, making it feel new and relevant.

6.The Companion Piece by Beth Wilmurt
Z Space @ Theatre Artaud
Directed by Mark Jackson

The combination of Wilmurt and Jackson is irresistible (Shameless plug! Read my San Francisco Chronicle interview with Jackson and Wilmurt here). Always has been and probably will be as long as they want to keep creating theater together. This vaudevillian spin featured laughs and songs and the most exquisite dance involving wheeled staircases you can imagine. That dance was easily one of the most beautiful things on a Bay Area stage this year.

7. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by Lauren Gunderson
Crowded Fire Theater Company
Directed by Desdemona Chiang

Fresh and funny, Gunderson’s spitfire of a play introduced us to a playwright we need to be hearing from on a regular basis.

8. Phaedra by Adam Bock
Shotgun Players
Directed by Rose Riordan

Every time Bock comes back to the Bay Area he shows us yet another facet of his extraordinary talent. This spin on a classic allowed Shotgun to wow us with an eye-popping set and a central performance by Catherine Castellanos that echoed for months afterward.

9.Lady Grey (in ever lower light) by Will Eno
Cutting Ball Theatre
Directed by Rob Melrose

I can’t get enough Will Eno. Whether he’s the Brecht of our generation or an absurdist spin on Thornton Wilder, I find him completely original and funny in ways that are heartbreaking. This trilogy of plays from Cutting Ball was uber-theatrical and highly enjoyable. As was Eno’s brilliant Middletown, which I saw at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company directed by Les Waters (Berkeley Rep’s soon-to-be-former associate artistic director who’s heading to Kentucky to head the Actors Theatre of Louisville).

10. Strike Up the Band by George S. Kaufman (book) and George and Ira Gershwin (score)
42nd Street Moon
Directed by Zack Thomas Wilde

42nd Street Moon shows have delighted me for years, but I can’t remember having this much fun at the Eureka in a long, long time. The laughs were big and genuine, and the score was sublime. The whole package was so appealing it’s a shame the production couldn’t move to another venue and keep the band marching on.


The Wild Bride by Emma Rice and Kneehigh
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Directed by Emma Rice

This extraordinary show would have been at the top of my Top 10 list had it originated in this region or even in this country first. But as it’s a British import by a genius theater company, it can be content to live in the honorable mention category. The really good news is that Berkeley Rep has extended the show through Jan. 22. Start your new year right and go see this amazing piece of theater.

Of Dice and Men by Cameron McNary
Impact Theatre
Directed by Melissa Hillman

Nerds are people, too. This sharp, savvy and very funny show takes a very specific world – Dungeons and Dragons gamers – and makes it instantly recognizable because it’s so very human.

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Aurora Theatre Company
Directed by Mark Jackson

The physicality of this production is what lingers in memory, specifically Alexander Crowther’s transformation into a spider-like creature crawling over the wonderfully askew set. Director Jackson does wondrous things with actors and stages.

Spring Awakening by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik
San Jose Repertory Theatre

Directed by Rick Lombardo

This is not an easy musical to pull off, not only because the original Broadway production was so fresh and distinct. It’s tricky material performed by young material who have to act and rock convincingly. Lombardo’s production didn’t erase memories of the original, but it staked its own claim, and the young cast was bursting with talent.

A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee
Aurora Theatre Company
Directed by Tom Ross

Being so close to Albee’s drama in the intimate Aurora proved to be an electrifying experience as we began to feel the tension, the fear and the barely concealed sneers of the upper middle class. Kimberly King’s central performance was wondrous.


Nicest unscripted moment: Hugh Jackman ripping his pants and changing into new ones in full view of the audience on opening night of Hugh Jackman in Performance at the Curran Theatre. He’s a boxer brief guy. And a true showman.

Biggest disappointment: Kevin Spacey hamming it up so uncontrollably in the Bridge Project’s fitfully interesting Richard III. Spacey is a fascinating stage presence, but he’s so predictably Kevin Spacey. His Richard III offered no surprises and, sadly, no depth. If Richard was really the kind of guy who would do Groucho Marx impressions, he probably wouldn’t be the Richard III Shakespeare wrote.

Second biggest disappointment: ACT’s Tales of the City musical. Upon reflection, it just seems all wrong. Good idea to turn Armistead Maupin’s books into a musical. But the creative team was simply too reverent, too outside the time and place.

Pants down, smiles up: you’ve been HughJacked

Hugh Jackman
Hugh Jackman serenades his audience old-school. The razzle-dazzle showman performs at the Curran Theatre through May 15. Photos by Joan Marcus

It was hot and steamy in San Francisco Wednesday. And the weather was nice, too. Hugh Jackman, that final Australian frontier of old-school razzle-dazzle entertainment, put on a show at the Curran Theatre.

And it’s about time. In the old days, Jackman would have starred in a weekly variety show on TV, had regular gigs at the Tropicana in Vegas and toured with his celebrity golf tournament.

These days, it’s much harder for an entertainer. Once you have your street cred and your bona fides – sci-fi/action movie star, romantic lead, beloved awards show host, Tony Award-winning Broadway star – you get license to do as you please.

So Jackman has his own show, courtesy of SHN, and it looks and sounds an awful lot like the shows of yore – and thank the heavens for that. There’s a 17-piece band on the bandstand (under the direction of Patrick Vaccariello, Jackman’s colleague from Broadway’s The Boy from Oz days) and elegant drapes framing the stage just like they used to do in Vegas (Broadway vet John Lee Beatty was the scenic consultant).

The lights (designed by Ken Billington) are a sharp combination of old-school flash and modern-day concert drama. There are two backup singers, Merle Dandridge and Angel Reda both Broadway performers, and a smattering of special guests (more on that later).

Most importantly, center stage, you have Hugh Jackman – handsome, charismatic and generous with both his energy and his talent. At Wednesday’s opening night, the more Jackman was himself, the more he shone. He dutifully followed the script that he and creative producer Warren Carlyle (who most recently directed the Broadway revival of Finian’s Rainbow), but every time he veered away, whether because of technical or costume difficulties, his wattage increased.

The first snafu occurred in Alexander V. Nichols’ projection design. A photo of nerdy Jackman at age 14 failed to materialize. Jackman actually seemed kind of grateful about that.

The second – and this was a doozy – came after Jackman had dutifully opened the show with “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” from Oklahoma!, followed it with the disco strains of “One Night Only” from Dreamgirls and revived his “I Won’t Dance” reluctant dance routine from the 2005 Tony Awards (apparently movie execs get nervous when Wolverine does high kicks). See video below.

He was seriously getting his groove on as Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” turned into Elvis’ “A Little Less Conversation.” He took off his suit jacket, and people in the audience squealed.

Little did they know they were about to get a whole lot more. Catching his breath after the number, Jackman laughed and said, “It must be opening night. I’ve just ripped a hole in my pants.” He turned around, and sure enough the whole back seam of his black pants was ripped open.

Just like he did with the projection bungle, Jackman played it suave and debonair. He had Nancy, his costume assistant, bring him another pair of pants and changed them in full view of the audience. For the record, he’s a boxer briefs guy, and there’s a block of fabric sewn on the tail of his shirt to make sure it stays tucked in while he dances.

“Now you’ll know all my secrets,” Jackman said. Not quite all.

Hugh Jackman

The thing about Jackman is that he’s got a nice voice – it’s high and nasal and has the brightness of a trumpet. It doesn’t have a lot of dynamic variety in it, but he has solid money notes and incredible breath control. But it’s less about voice than it is about performance.

He can pull off a ballsy choice like the seven-minute “Soliloquy” from Carousel and make it seem as easy as a frothy disco number. Through it all he dazzles with the blinding light of his charm. And in my opinion, the funnier he is, the sexier he is.

The second half of the nearly two-hour concert (no intermission) featured an extended medley of Peter Allen songs from The Boy from Oz – “Not the Boy Next Door,” “Best That You Can Do,” “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” “Quiet Please, There’s a Lady On Stage” and – best of all – “Tenterfield Saddler.” That last song, a touching story song about Allen’s grandfather, was performed with Jackman sitting on the edge of the stage, Garland-style, while guitarist John Joseph McGeehan strummed.

Even throw-away numbers like the movie songs medley or “L-O-V-E” accompanied by a montage of Jackman movie clips give Jackman a chance to reach back to variety show days and simply entertain for entertainment’s sake. He can be cheesy (“Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” Really?) and he can be sassy (“Lady Marmalade”).

He interacts with the audience almost as well (and as often) as fellow Aussie Dame Edna and has a penchant for making fun of how older white guys dance.

The special guest section featured two didgeridoo players from Australia to kick off a film montage of Aboriginal and Australian landscape beauty, and that segued into Jackman singing the Israel Kamakawiwoʻole arrangement of “Over the Rainbow.” The number was also a plug for the Australian charity Nomad Two Worlds (www.nomadtwoworlds.com).

The next special guest was pop star Richard Marx, and, in between giggles and bromantic banter, sang a duet on Marx’s 1989 hit “Right Here Waiting.” Marx posted a video of the opening-night performance.

Getting back to his musical theater roots and demonstrating one last time that he’s a complete and utter musical theater geek (as if his recitation of the Music Man opening number wasn’t enough), Jackman closed with “Luck Be a Lady” from Guys and Dolls and then offered a sincere Peter Allen closer, “Once Before I Go” as his final farewell.

Whether dodging leather handcuffs thrown on stage by a fan (“Tom Jones, eat your heart out!”) or toasting SHN co-founder Carole Shorenstein Hays and her purchase of the Curran (“Sorry, Carole, you were probably writing a press release or something. Oh, well. It’s already on Twitter.”), Jackman is a throwback. He’s an entertainer, a charmer, a vivid personality in a highly appealing package.

May he continue to bounce between stage and screen for a very long time. And if he somehow finds the time, maybe he could bring back the variety show.


Hugh Jackman in Performance at the Curran Theatre continues through May 15 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$250. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Baby, it’s Hugh

Hugh Jackman 2

Australian dreamboat and all-around wonderful entertainer Hugh Jackman is about to take the Bay Area by storm. And if he doesn’t, he’ll be back to settle our hash in his full Wolverine drag.

This week, Jackman opens a brand-new song-and-dance extravaganza at the Curran Theatre, courtesy of SHN. It’ll be like what we’ve seen him do on the Tony Awards and Academy Awards telecasts, which is to say, he’ll charm everyone for miles around and leave us wanting more.

I had 15 minutes on the phone with Jackman, which became a feature in today’s San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Because I had so little time with him, there wasn’t a lot of material from the interview that didn’t make it into the final article, but there were a couple of things.

While on Broadway starring in The Boy from Oz playing gay Australian entertainer Peter Allen, Jackman was called upon to kiss co-star Jerrod Emick. Some of Jackman’s sci-fi/action movie fans weren’t quite prepared for that. Jackson recalls one fateful night on stage: “I’m about to kiss Jerrod, who’s playing my boyfriend, and someone in the audience shouts out, ‘Don’t do it, Wolverine!’ That turned into the longest kiss in history because I was laughing so much I couldn’t let go. It would have been too obvious I was laughing. But the whole audience cracked up as well.”

On various awards shows, Jackman and Anne Hathaway have been adorable together. Jackman says they have talked about doing a movie musical. “I thought I was busy in film. She’s really busy in film. We talk about musicals all the time and would really like to do one together.”

Years ago, in Australia, Jackman turned down the role of bad-guy Javert in stage prdouction of Les Miserables there. Now that Jackman has expressed interest in doing the movie of Les Miz, he says, “I’d be more interested in being Jean Valjean.” The hero, of course.

The last time Jackman was on Broadway, he was in the play A Steady Rain opposite Daniel Craig (aka James Bond). I asked Jackman if he tried to convince Craig to do a musical. “Daniel Craig in a musical — no, that’s the audacity of hope. I don’t think that’ll happen. He’s a brilliant performer, one of the funniest guys I know. But I don’t think he’ll be doing high kicks any time soon.”

[bonus video: Hugh Jackman sings “One Night Only” on the 2004 Tony Awards and high kicks with the Rockettes!]


Hugh Jackman in Performance at the Curran Theatre continues through May 15 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$250. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.