Bay Area theater 2015: some favorites

2015 illustration

One of the best things about the year-end exercise to round up favorite theatergoing memories of the preceding year is that it can be such a powerful reminder of how much good theater we have in the Bay Area and how many really extraordinary theater artists we have working here. Another element jumps out at me this year and that is how, in addition to great homegrown work, our area also attracts some of the best theater artists from around the world to come and share their work (at the behest of savvy local producers, of course).

So here are some thoughts on memorable work I saw this year – and I will add as a caveat, I didn’t see as much as I should have (or as much as I used to for that matter), and I must express some pride that as we head into 2016, this old Theater Dogs blog will celebrate its 10th anniversary, and that makes me mighty proud. This is a labor of love, and I want it to be that first and foremost, a way of celebrating and promoting the riches we have here.

• The Curran Theatre is reborn. For me, the theater event of the year was actually a series of events comprising Curran Under Construction, a reintroduction of the fabled theater by its owner, Carole Shorenstein Hays not simply as a stop for touring shows but as an important player in the theatrical culture of the city. While the theater undergoes renovation in its lobby and restrooms, Hays invited audiences to enter through the stage door and sit on stage to experience one after another shows of extraordinary power and diversity. She began with The Event, a horrifyingly relevant exploration of mass violence, grief and understanding, and moved on to the wildly different but equally thrilling The Object Lesson with Geoff Sobelle blending materialism and memories in a magical way. Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet offered whisky, haunting music and one of the year’s best, most immersive stage experiences. Steve Cuiffo is Lenny Bruce brought a favorite son back to San Francisco, and Stew and Heidi Rodewald put their own rock-blues spin on James Baldwin in Notes of a Native Son. Every event at the Curran, including the speaker series hosted by the Curran’s resident literary star, Kevin Sessums, has been glorious and fascinating and involving. What more could you want from theater? (read the original posts here)

• Central Market gets a jewel of a theater in ACT’s The Strand. The Curran wasn’t the only re-birth this year. American Conservatory Theater spent a whole lot of time, money and effort bringing some class to the evolving Central Market area. The new Strand Theater is spectacular and should prove to be a key component in the cultural life of San Francisco. (read the original post here)

• Just Theater blows us away. Again. After A Maze last year, Just Theater became a company I wanted to pay attention to, and boy did that attention pay off. With Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 the company emerged as a producer of provocative, impactful work that should attract as big an audience as possible. This play within a play (within a rehearsal) tackled race, history and personal drama in ways that felt mind bending and heart racing.(read the original post here)

• We got to see Angela Lansbury live on stage. Even if she had just stood on stage and waved, that would have been something, but no, Dame Angela, the legend herself, gave a true and truly funny performance as Madame Arcati in the Broadway touring production of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit as part of the SHN season. At 89, she defied any signs of age and offered pure magic. Extraordinary. (read the original post here)

Hookman splatters expectations. Playwright Lauren Yee offered abundant surprises in this “existential slasher comedy,” which is the best possible description of this electric one-act play from Encore Theatre. (read the original post here)

• Tuneful time travel in Triangle. The most heartfelt new musical I saw this year was Triangle at TheatreWorks, a time-twisting tale involving tragedy and romance. Curtis Moore and Thomas Mizer have crafted a smart, melodious show that feels original and scaled exactly right (the cast of six feels much bigger, as do the emotions). (read the original post here)

• There’s still life left in Scrooge after all. There’s absolutely no reason that the new musical Scrooge in Love should not become a holiday perennial. Creators Kellen Blair, Larry Grossman and Duane Poole have crafted an utterly charming musical sequel to A Christmas Carol with songs you actually want to hear and characters you root for. Of course having Jason Graae as Scrooge is a big Christmas bonus, so kudos to all at 42nd Street Moon for breaking away from the classic or forgotten musicals and presenting something fresh and fantastic. (read the original post here)

• Alice Munro should love Word for Word. There’s no better theater company than Word for Word and no better writer than Alice Munro, so…mic drop. This was sublime from beginning to end as director Joel Mullenix and a cast that included the wondrous Jeri Lynn Cohen, Susan Harloe and Howard Swain brought two Munro stories to life, one from 1968, one from 2012. There was humor, heart and exquisite writing. (read the original post here)

• Cathleen Riddley lays it bare in Tree. Riddley can always be counted on for a strong performance, but in this powerful Julie Hébert family drama at San Francisco Playhouse she was riveting and heartbreaking as an older woman losing touch with herself and her family. (read the original post here)

• And then the drama comes flooding in. My favorite set of the year was G.W. Skip Mercier’s design for Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Head of Passes at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Water played a big part in the design of a house in marshy Louisiana territory where the forks of the Mississippi meet. There was a storm, a leaky roof and then a deluge of biblical proportions. And boy was it fun to watch. (read the original post here)

• Hypocrites pummel Pirates perfectly. Probably the most fun you could have in a theater (and not mind getting beaned by a beach ball) was Chicago troupe The Hypocrites’ wild and wonderful take on Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance. Berkeley Rep had the smarts to introduce the Bay Area to this smart, enterprising company, and I hope we haven’t seen the last of their inventive, energetic take on interactive theater. (read the original post here)

Much to love in Moon’s charming Scrooge

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Jacob Marley (Ryan Drummond, left) pays a reluctant Ebenezer Scrooge (Jason Graae) another ghostly visit in 42nd Street Moon’s world premiere of Scrooge in Love, running now through Dec. 13 at the Eureka Theatre. Below: Graae’s Scrooge is surrounded by friends and family who are now rooting for the once curmudgeonly miser to fall in love. Photos by Patrick O’Connor

Just when you thought there was not a breath of life left in the seasonal cash cow known as A Christmas Carol, along comes Scrooge in Love! to remind us that there’s still a lot of life and heart and holiday spirit left in old Ebenezer Scrooge.

San Francisco’s venerable 42nd Street Moon, formed 23 years ago to present neglected or forgotten musicals, has been shaking things up of late, with the company’s latest coup being the world premiere of this sequel to Dickens’ Carol with music by Larry Grossman (Minnie’s Boys, Snoopy!!!), lyrics by Kellen Blair (Murder for Two) and a book by Duane Poole (A Christmas Memory). It’s an absolute gem of a musical – fresh, clever, spirited and a welcome addition to the canon of holiday perennials.

Most sequels are a doomed enterprise from the start. They assume you know (and care) what has come before and are excited about continuing. In movies, that is often true, but in musicals (Annie 2, Bring Back Birdie, the Phantom disaster known as Love Never Dies) it’s more like the kiss of death. But Dickens’ Carol is so ubiquitous in so many forms (movies, musicals, cartoons, plays) it seems odd that so few have picked up the story of Scrooge after his transformational night with the four ghosts.

That’s what this Scrooge does and does beautifully. We meet Scrooge a year later. Once again, it’s Christmas Eve, and a familiar, chain-wearing specter appears. It’s Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s deceased business partner, and Scrooge has to wonder if this is going to become an annual visitation. This time around, however, Marley is less interested in terrifying Scrooge into changing his misanthropic ways and more into finishing Scrooge’s evolution into a loving pillar of the community by encouraging him to find someone to love.

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The first act takes us on a familiar journey as the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future reappear to help Scrooge reconnect with Belle, the woman who stole his heart as a young man but who slipped away when he valued work and profit more than love and human connection. In Act 2, an even more enlivened Scrooge embarks on a Christmas Day quest to find and woo Belle in a hurry. Not to give anything away, but this being a warmhearted Christmas tale, there’s a happy ending.

I’ve said this before, but in the good old days of musical theater, composers would be tripping over themselves to write shows for Jason Graae the effervescent performer who perviously dazzled in Moon’s Little Me. Possessed of a beautiful, emotional voice and perfect comic timing, Graae is one of our best musical comedy actors, and Scrooge in Love! is a sensational fit for his talents. He seems a little young to be playing Scrooge, but this is the transformed Scrooge, after all, and do we really want to see a crotchety old crank fall in love? Not really, but we do root for Graae’s sweet Scrooge to finish off his transformation in the most romantic way possible. Graae steals hearts (and the show) with his Act 1 ballad “The Things You Should Have Done” and again in Act 2 with a wonderful song called “A Kitchen Built for Twenty” (but a place set for one – a lament for those who realize living alone is not the best option for them). Graae is so good – seemingly effortlessly – in this show he should clear his holiday calendar for the next 30 years or as long as he wants to continue playing Scrooge.

Graae gives a star turn here, but director Dyan McBride’s top-notch production provides abundant pleasures. Music Director Dave Dobrusky with Ken Brill on synthesizer and Ami Nashimoto on cello bering a full, rich sound to the Grossman-Blair score, which has to be one of the most charming and tuneful new scores in recent memory. There’s an old-fashioned, Golden Age feel to the songs, but they’re also infused with intelligence and solid craftsmanship, which makes the evening that much more effervescent. Just try to resist Scrooge’s “Happier” or the ghostly quartet “You Can’t Put a Price on Love.”

McBride and choreographer Staci Arriaga seamlessly blend dance and movement into the action so that the entire two hours feels lively and merry without ever feeling forced. The ghosts are all marvelous, especially the high-energy Elise Youssef as Christmas Past. Ryan Drummond is also wonderful as Marley, who gets his own shot at redemption this time out.

One nice surprise of Scrooge is that it’s actually moving without ever being corny. Scrooge’s connection with Belle (Melissa Reinertson) feels genuine, so it’s easy to feel invested in their love story, and Scrooge’s struggle to find value in life minus the dollar signs is a nice echo of the original and a nod to what makes the Scrooge story so powerful, even in its many and varied forms.

This is a joyous world premiere, an utterly delightful and disarming holiday treat, and you don’t need to be the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be to see that this show is going to have a long, happy life.

Scrooge in Love! continues through Dec. 13 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit

Big laughs, super star in Moon’s Little Me

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Jason Graae stars as all the men who woo the irresistible Belle Poitrine (Teressa Byrne) in the 42nd Street Moon production of Little Me at the Eureka Theatre. Below: Graae is Prince Cherney and Sharon Rietkerk is young Belle. Photos by David Allen

My faith in the good ol’ American star-making machine is kaput. Any yahoo with a access to a “reality” show camera crew gets 15 minutes and all the nonsensical covers of ridiculous magazines they could wish for. Or singers of dubious talent get in front of a national audience singing notes by the pound with no understanding of (or interest in) the songs they’re macerating.

And then you have journeymen performers like Jason Graae, who by all rights should be an enormous star, doing stellar work that is seen by far too few. I get worked up every time I see Graae perform because something is definitely not right that his dynamic performer with a golden voice and flawless comic timing hasn’t already had several hit sitcoms, won a couple of Tony Awards, sold millions of albums, had a few plum roles on the big screen and written at least one tell-all memoir. In another era, all of the above would be true, but the truth is, Graae is a genius in a world of show biz that has come and gone (and may yet come again – if we’re lucky).

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, go see Graae play seven leading men in 42nd Street Moon’s production of Little Me, a 1962 musical tailored to the talents of Sid Caesar. The irresistible score by Cy Coleman (music) and Carolyn Leigh (lyrics) features delightful songs like “I’ve Got Your Number,” “On the Other Side of the Tracks,” “Deep Down Inside” and “Here’s to Us” among others, and though you may leave humming a few tunes, what really lingers is the rip-roaring book by Neil Simon (adapted from novel Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs of That Great Star of Stage, Screen and Television, Belle Poitrine, as told to Patrick Dennis).

Act 2 is kind of a letdown, comically speaking, but there’s so much effervescent good will left over from the hearty laughs of Act 1 it hardly matters. And the real reason to see this production is Graae’s master class in musical comedy. His first (and most frequently recurring) character is Noble Eggleston, a blue blood from the right side of the tracks who falls for exactly the wrong girl, an impoverished Belle Shlumpfert from Drifter’s Row (definitely the wrong side of the tracks). Theirs is a love for the ages – you can tell because music plays every time they touch – and they’ll spend most of their lives pining for one another and just missing the chance to be happy in one another’s arms.

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While Noble heads off to Harvard and Yale, where he’ll become a doctor and a lawyer (and a war hero), Belle makes it her life’s mission to become worthy of Noble’s love by attaining wealth, culture and social position. This quest leads Belle into the arms of all the wrong men, all happily played by Graae.

This story is told by Older Belle (Teressa Byrne) as she regales her biographer (Caleb Haven Draper as Patrick Dennis) with stories of her colorful past, and Younger Belle is played by Sharon Rietkerk, a spirited and big-voiced leading lady who is more than up to the challenge of keeping up with Graae while still managing to get some great laughs on her own. They are a delightful pairing, and it’s easy to see why Belle and Noble are so hooked on one another.

My favorite of Graae’s characters is the clueless Fred Poitrine, an inexperienced farm boy on his way to the European theater of World War I. Graae does idiocy brilliantly, but he also does it with heart. Fred’s big number, “Real Live Girl,” is as sweetly heartbreaking as it is funny.

When you’ve got someone as sure-footed as Graae going for big laughs onstage, you kind of want things to go wrong, at least a little bit. When the comedy train is going full speed, you can’t stop it – you just have to make sure everyone stays on board then stoke the engine a little more. That’s what happened with Graae on opening night when a pistol accidentally fell out of his pants (no really, he was just happy to see us) and, while playing French performer Val DuVal, his moustache kept sliding all over his face. Those were some of the funniest moments of the 2 ½-hour show, but there are plenty of sizable laughs built into Simon’s script, and they usually have something to do with rich people making fun of poor people or poor people sacrificing anything to escape their grim reality.

Aside from the joys of Graae and Rietkerk, director Eric Inman’s production is a hit-and-miss affair, and it’s impossible to laugh over the shortcomings of Act 2 (the highlight of which is Rietkerk and Byrne singing the title song). But music director Brandon Adams, at the piano alongside Nick Di Scala on woodwinds, keeps the electricity of Coleman’s score surging, and the sheer enjoyment of watching Graae do such good work diminishes any sense of letdown in the show itself.

Little Me may not be a genius piece of musical theater, but when you have leading players as appealing as Graae and Rietkerk and delivering superstar turns, the Little charms go a long, long way.

[bonus interview]

I interviewed Jason Graae for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here. [subscription may be required]


42nd Street Moon’s Little Me continues through May 19 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit

Faith Prince & Jason Graae: a perfectly delightful duet

He says he’s been a fan of hers since he was a child. She says he makes her pee.

Quips fly fast and furious when talking to Jason Graae and Faith Prince, especially when they’re talking about each other. Graae and Prince are the latest double act on the circuit, and it’s about time. Seriously. These two have known and loved each other for years, ever since they met in college at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

Faith & JasonAnd oh, yes, there’s that infamous homecoming date and late-night chili surprise. But more on that in a minute.

Graae is the celebrated singer/actor/comedian who most recently brought his Jerry Herman tribute, Perfect Hermany, to the Rrazz Room last spring. And Prince is the Tony-winning Broadway star of Guys and Dolls, Little Me, A Catered Affair (among others) and last summer’s national tour of Billy Elliot, which had an abbreviated stop at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre last fall.

Now bosom buddies Prince and Graae and hitting the road together in The Prince and the Showboy (and there’s a long subtitle with their names and awards attached, see the info box below), coming to the Rrrazz Room this weekend (March 25-27) for three performances only.

The idea for teaming up was actually hatched here in San Francisco, thanks to 42nd Street Moon. The company’s annual songwriter salon feted Jerry Herman this year, and Graae and Klea Blackhurst were slated to headline the show. Blakchurst had to pull out because she got another gig (“I had a dream…”), so Prince, who lives just up the road in Sacramento, filled in.

Graae explains: “When news of our show hit, we got a call from a synagogue in Westchester. ‘Oh, you have a show together? Great!’ And they essentially hired us.”

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So Graae and his college pal had a show to put together, and while they were at it, they decided to hit the road together. But what about an act? They already had “Bosom Buddies” from the 42nd Street Moon show. “We’ll just do that one song over and over again,” Graae jokes. But seriously folks, they’re working with musical director Alex Rybeck on putting together a combustible evening of duets and solos.

Of course it will be brilliant – you don’t expect any less from these two. But will they reveal their romantic history? Just in case they don’t, let’s travel back a few years to Cincinnati (let’s just say they were in college a few years ago). She was a junior. He transferred in as a sophomore. Both were working toward a BFA in musical theater. She was friendly resident assistant, and he was living in the dorms.

“I asked him to go to the homecoming dance,” Prince recalls. “He was really funny and charming and very good. He was fun.”

Neither remembers much about the dance itself, but afterward, Graae says Prince invited him to one of her favorite little Italian restaurants. She said it was called something like Schalina. Turned out she was taking him to a hole-in-the-wall chili restaurant called Skyline Chili (who knew Cincinnati proclaimed itself to be the chili capitol of the world?).

“We had chili five ways, which includes spaghetti noodles, cinnamon, onions, beans, cheese. You name it,” Graae says. “That was Faith’s little joke on me, but I loved the chili, and we had a great night.”

It wasn’t a love match in the traditional sense, but it was a love match of sorts.

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“Jason evokes in me what he evoked in me then,” Prince says. “My heart always gets lighter when I’m around him. He’s a fun person to be with. He makes me smile and makes me howl with laughter. He also has incredible depth and has done well with life. It’s invigorating to be around somebody like that.”

Here’s Graae’s end of the mutual fan club: “She’s a powerhouse, and I’m thrilled to be performing with her. Should be combustible and exhausting for the audience, I should think. I always look forward just to being in the same room with her. She’s an incredible actress. I’m blown away by how focused she is, how economical with movements and comedy. Just so smart. She can get any laugh she wants, of course, but then she can sing a ballad and rip your heart out.”

Graae, though he’s a mighty funny man, can do exactly the same thing. “Jason and I both like to do the pathos and the humor,” Prince says. “I think we really complement each other, and we have the same sense of humor. It’s wacky, but it’s grounded in truth. We both have enough edge that it’s not gooey. It’s not from anger or harshness. It’s not bitter.”

The set list is still being developed, but Graae and Prince may even pull out some material from the post-college shows they did together in New York, Living Color (which originally had the much more interesting name of The Texas Chainsaw Manicurist) and Olympus on My Mind.

Who knows, they may even re-live their early days and treat the audience to a bowl of 5-way chili.

And, by the way, Prince is serious when she says Graae makes her laugh so hard she tinkles. “I may have to invest a little in Depends.”

The Prince and the Showboy: An evening with Tony Award-Winner Faith Prince and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle/Ovation Award-Winner Jason Graae runs March 25-27 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 800-380-3095 or visit

Faith Prince photo credit above: Joseph Marzullo/

Jason Graae: the funniest best singer you’re likely to see


Collective memory will soon forget that there used to be entertainers in the grandest sense – performers who could be hilarious, could interact with audience members in wonderful (non-cheesy) ways and, when the mood was right, sing the hell out of great songs.

Sammy Davis Jr. could do that. So could Bobby Darin. And Judy Garland, and the list goes on. The entertainment world has changed a lot – of course there are still wonderful performers out there.

But I have to say, I miss the all-around entertainer, the guys and gals who could hold a Vegas stage without the need for twirling acrobats and pyrotechnics.

Broadway veteran Jason Graae is one of those old-school entertainers. You are guaranteed several things when you see him perform: you will fall under the spell of his dynamic tenor/baritone voice, and you will laugh your ass off.

We don’t see enough of this Los Angeles-based performer here in the Bay Area, but happily he’ll be at the Rrazz Room for two nights, April 3 and 4, with a brand-new show.

As if the anticipated delight of Graae wasn’t enough, he’s doing a tribute to Jerry Herman on the occasion of the composer’s 80th birthday year. Just think of it – a real entertainer doing real show tunes. It’s a show music fan’s (OK, show queen’s) dream come true.

Graae has a long history with Herman as both a friend and a collaborator. For about a decade, Graae has been a part of Hello, Jerry a concert production featuring Karen Morrow, Paige O’Hara and musical director Donald Pippin all performing Herman songs with Herman himself making an appearance.

“In terms of audience reaction, it was like a rock concert every time Jerry came out to sing ‘Mame,’” Graae says on the phone from L.A. “To work closely with him, to travel with him was such an honor.”

The touring has stopped because it simply got too exhausting for Herman, but Graae found he still wanted to sing those great Herman songs. That desire combined with Herman being honored by the Kennedy Center last fall helped Graae make a decision: he’d do his own Jerry Herman show.

The problem with this decision arose when Graae sat down with the Jerry Herman songbook. “I wanted to do every song,” the singer says. “It’s a tightrope for me because I want to get my humor in there while I pay tribute to Jerry. I want to honor his material without imposing my stuff onto it.”

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With the help of director Lee Tannen, he has fashioned Perfect Hermany: Jason Graae Sings Jerry Herman, a 70-minute showcase that hits all of Herman’s shows except Mrs. Santa Claus and Miss Spectacular. That means audiences will hear tunes from Milk and Honey, Hello, Dolly!, Mame, The Grand Tour, Mack and Mabel and La Cage aux Folles. There will also be selections from Dear World, which Graae says just might be his favorite Herman score with his hands-down favorite Herman song, “I’ve Never Said I Love You.”

The problem with singing that song is that if you’re over 18, it doesn’t quite work.

“You have to be so ingenuous, so virginal to sing it,” Graae says, indicating he is no longer either of this. “But I found another way to get in there and still pay tribute to the song.”

Happily for Graae, Herman has become cool again. With the Kennedy Center Honor, the 80th birthday and the Tony-winning return of La Cage to Broadway, the cycle has returned Herman to favor.

“People are a little cynical these days,” Graae says. “It’s easy to say that Jerry was part of a certain era and is a certain type of writer. Then you sit down to listen to the music and lyrics. They’re deceptive because they seem simple, but the message is so powerful. His optimism is contagious, and doing a show like this gives audiences permission to sit there and celebrate Jerry and have fun even if you look down a little bit on musical theater.”

There are plans afoot to record the Herman show, which is good news indeed.

“There’s no way in the world you can’t feel better listening to a Jerry Herman song,” Graae says.

[bonus videos]
Here’s a nice video tribute from a Jason Graae fan:

And here’s Graae with Megan Hilty performing “Popular” from Wicked:

Visit Jason Graae’s official website:


Perfect Hermany: Jason Graae Sings Jerry Herman” is at 4pm April 3 and 8pm April 4 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 22 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 800-380-3095 or visit for information.

New seasons: TheatreFIRST, Broadway by the Bay

TheaterFIRST, under the new artistic direction of Dylan Russell, has announced its 15th anniversary season, which will run from January to June 2009 and will include a staged reading series and a Harold Pinter revival.

The season opens with a staged reading series from mid-January to mid-February. Plays and location still to be announced, but the readings will be at 2 p.m. Sundays.

The centerpiece of the season is Pinter’s Old Times featuring L. Peter Callender, a veteran Bay Area actor who last performed with TheatreFIRST in World Music. Old Times runs April 2 through May 3 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley.

Call 510-436-5085 or visit for information.

San Mateo’s Broadway by the Bay, under the leadership of artistic director Brooke Knight and executive director Jim Gardia, has also announced its new season — its 44th — which begins in April of 2009 and concludes the following November. Here’s how the season shakes down:
Crazy for You, a revamped Gershwin musical, runs April 2-19.
The King and I, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, dances July 16-Aug. 2
The Full Monty, a Broadway musical based on a spunky British film, disrobes Sept. 17-Oct. 4
Broadway Up Close and Personal: A Tribute to Cy Coleman, starring Jason Graae (right), runs Nov. 5-8

Performances are in the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware, San Mateo. Season subscriptions are $90-$152 until Nov. 16, when prices change to $100-$164. Single tickets also go on sale Nov. 16. Call 650-579-5565 or visit