Theater moments: Reflections on 2007

I’ve already offered up my Top 10 list of 2007’s best Bay Area theater (see it here).

That’s all well and good, but there was way too much good stuff in 2007 to contain in a polite numbered list. What follows, in no apparent order, are some of the year’s most distinctive theater moments (mostly good, some not so much).

The shows in the Top 10 were really great shows, but so were these. This is my honorable mention roster:

American Suicide, Encore Theatre Company and Z Plays
Pillowman, Berkeley Repertory Theatre
The Birthday Party, Aurora Theatre Company
Pleasure & Pain, Magic Theatre’s Hot House ’07
After the War, American Conservatory Theater
Heartbreak House, Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Tings Dey Happen, Dan Hoyle and The Marsh
Annie Get Your Gun, Broadway by the Bay
Des Moines, Campo Santo, Intersection for the Arts
Richard III, California Shakespeare Theater

Favorite scene: Didn’t even have to think twice about this one. The dinner scene in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s adaptation of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Director Les Waters, working from Adele Edling Shank’s script, fashioned a multilayered scene that would have made Woolf herself proud. A boisterous family dinner, warmly illuminated by candles, allows us into the head of each of the diners without ever losing track of the dinner conversation. Extraordinary and beautiful — and vocally choreographed like a piece of complex music.

Greatest guilty pleasure: Legally Blonde, The Musical, had its pre-Broadway run early in 2007 at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre, and though it had its problems, it was a heck of a lot of fun. The best number was the lengthy “What You Want” in which sorority gal Elle Woods (Laura Bell Bundy) decides to apply to Harvard. In true musical fashion, the number sweeps through time and space, coursing through months of effort and from Southern California to the hallowed halls of Harvard. Jerry Mitchell’s choreography incorporates a frat party, the Harvard selection committee and a marching band.

Favorite image:The green girl in Berkeley Rep’s The Pillowman.

Favorite couple: Francis Jue as Mr. Oji and Delia MacDougall as Olga Mikhoels in Philip Kan Gotanda’s After the War at ACT. The sweetest romance was also the most surprising: a shy Japanese man and a recent Russian immigrant, neither of whom speaks much English.

Speaking of MacDougall: It was a good year for the actress (seen at right with the fur and tiara), who died memorably in Cal Shakes’ King Lear and ended 2007 with a superb, hip-swiveling, lip-pursing performance in Sex by Mae West at the Aurora.

Favorite tryout: Joan Rivers is more than a red carpet personality and an experiment in plastic surgery. An avowed theater lover, Rivers got down to some serious (and seriously funny) business in The Joan Rivers Theatre Project at the Magic. She combined stand-up with drama as she told an autobiographical tale of growing old in show business. The play was far from perfect, but she gets an A for effort.

Best ensemble: Behind every good show is a good ensemble, in front of and behind the scenes. But the one that comes to mind that, together, elevated the play was the fine crew in TheatreWorks’ Theophilus North (left) directed by Leslie Martinson.

Biggest disappointments: There were a few of them. I adore Kiki and Herb (Justin Bond and Kenny Melman), but their summer gig at ACT was in desperate need of a director. Berkeley Rep hosted Neil Bartlett’s adaptation of Oliver Twist, and while it was good, it didn’t reach anything approaching the heights of David Edgar’s Nicholas Nickleby. I complained about this in the review, and I’ll complain about it again: In ACT’s The Rainmaker, when the rain falls at the end, the actors should get wet. That’s the whole point of the play. In this version, the rain fell from above, but the actors were behind it and only pretended — acted if you will — the wetness. Lame.

Most gratuitous nudity: Actors bare all emotionally _ it’s what they do. But this year saw some unnecessary flesh, most notably in ‘Bot at the Magic, Private Jokes, Public Places at the Aurora and Two Boys in Bed on a Cold Winter Night. Costumes are a good thing.

Favorite quote of the year: It was uttered by the food critic Anton Ego (and written by Brad Bird) in the brilliant Pixar/Disney movie Ratatouille. As a critic (or what’s left of one), the words really hit home. And they’re true.

Here’s a taste: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”

Happy New Year. May your stages in 2008 be full of the discovery of the new.

Review: `Kiki & Herb Alive From Broadway’

Opened July 18, 2007 at American Conservatory Theater

Kiki & Herb warble, whine and imbibe through `Alive From Broaway’
three stars Dark humor

The warning is right there on the poster and the program: “Dare to suck and let the magic happen,” Kiki.

It’s easy to imagine American Conservatory Theater subscribers being a little startled at what they find onstage at the famed San Francisco theater this summer. But they can’t say they haven’t been warned.

Kiki & Herb Alive From Broadway opened Wednesday, and it’s a homecoming for performers Justin Bond, who stars as “boozy chanteusy” Kiki DuRane, and Kenny Mellman, her constant companion, musical director and accompanist.

About 20 years ago, Bond and Mellman got their act together at small San Francisco clubs, and it’s been an upward downward spiral ever since. Their characters are throwbacks to the drunken mediocrity of airport lounge acts. Think Vegas before it got Cirque du Soleil’d.

But being the edgy kids they were, Bond and Mellman weren’t content making fun of kitsch past. They used their crotchety counterparts to start commenting on the state of American politics, the battle for gay rights, religious hypocrisy and, of course, the end of the world.

After moving to New York, becoming the toast of the downtown hipster crowd, playing Carnegie Hall and then Broadway (where they received a Tony Award nomination earlier this year but lost to a ventriloquist), Kiki & Herb finally come back to their roots with a show that’s not all that different from what audiences saw in small local venues like the Café du Nord and Eichelberger’s back in the day.

The difference, and it’s a big one, is the grandiosity of the American Conservatory Theater. In a polite setting, with everyone in their seats, having paid up to $66 to be there, Kiki & Herb are a different kind of act than when they’re about 5 feet away, and you don’t know if their jokes about being hopped-up on goofballs are jokes or reality. There was edge and danger and wicked hilarity.

Those elements are still in place, but only in traces, with Kiki & Herb Alive From Broadway, which is about 30 minutes too long.

Bond and Mellman are powerful performers, with Bond’s gutsy warble combining the haughty elocution of a Bette Davis or a Katharine Hepburn combined with the Broadway belt of an over-the-hill Liza Minnelli.

Alive From Broadway attempts to be concert and theater, and for about an hour, it’s brilliant and funny. But it quickly grows old, and as Kiki imbibes her cheap bourbon and gets drunker and drunker, her political rants get screechy, and the humor drains from her delivery.

The musical offerings are also somewhat exhausting. The best numbers are the Mountain Goats’ acidic “No Children,” and the encore, the classic reinterpretation of Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield” mashed up with Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It’s a genius moment saved for last.

Dan Fogelberg’s “Another Auld Lang Syne” is a piece of pop mediocrity turned into a bit of autobiography as Kiki recalls a reunion with her estranged daughter, Miss D, at a grocery store. Kiki delivers the song from the branches of a dead tree (appropriately garish set by Scott Pask), but the long number withers.

The funniest re-imagining of a song comes near the top of the show as Kiki takes the Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” very seriously, though her “folk music” rendition of Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype” is pretty hilarious.

Kiki’s one-liners are almost reason enough to see the show. Complaining about how long they’ve been around (since the Nativity, we’re led to believe), Kiki surveys the audience and notes all the young faces and how encouraging that is. “Between the AIDS and the Alzheimer’s, we haven’t a fan left over 40,” she says.

Before taking a sip from her generous cocktail, Kiki says: “Time to make mama pretty.” And the “prettier” she gets, the more likely she is to say something like, “If you weren’t molested as a child, you must have been an ugly kid.” The audience laughs and gasps. “I don’t care if it hurts,” Kiki snaps.

After a long rant on her loathing of President Bush, the Iraq War and many Pope-related issues, Kiki launches into Mark Eitzel’s “Patriot’s Heart” as if it were a Puccini aria, with Herb pounding the piano into submission, and then she tries to lighten things up with the Scissor Sisters’ “Take Your Mama.”

The show sort of crashes down around them but is then rescued by the ultra-dramatic reading of “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which includes a coda incorporating Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”

You either get Kiki and Herb or you don’t. You either find them sharp and funny or flat and ghastly. There’s no middle ground with this kind of performance art, but one thing that is also true of performance art: a little edge goes a very long way.

For information about “Kiki & Herb Alive From Broadway” visit

Kiki & Herb can’t die

The crowd in the funeral parlor was practically giddy.

One man, in a mourning veil, no less, let loose with the fake tears and proclaimed between phony sobs: “Kiki! You were a flaming megastar!”

Rather than mourners, San Francisco’s Halsted Funeral Home was filled last week with press gathered to hear comedian and writer Bruce Vilanch eulogize Kiki and Herb, the ancient singing duo, who had apparently died on their way to be “highlighted yet uninvited performers at the funeral of the Rev. Jerry Falwell.”

As Vilanch took his seat in a front pew, he could be heard asking a fellow across the aisle, “Are you choked up? Would you like to be?”

Such was the non-grief that ruled the unconventional press conference held by American Conservatory Theater to herald the arrival in July of Kiki & Herb Alive from Broadway.

During Vilanch’s eulogy, he mentioned that en route to Falwell’s funeral, Kiki and Herb had stopped in Texas at the Bush Library. “They read one book and colored the other,” Vilanch said. “Then Kiki was abducted by an actual coyote, who rejected her saying, `There’s such a thing as coyote too ugly.’ ”

But before Vilanch could get too far in his speech, the door of the chapel bust open, and in busted Kiki and Herb themselves with Kiki bellowing through a megaphone.

“Having this almost be our funeral is almost a dream come true,” said Kiki (played by Justin Bond), while Herb (Kenny Mellman) settled behind a keyboard. The two then launched into a typical K&H number, a cover of the Mountain Goats’ “No Children,” which has a refrain that goes something like, “I hope you die. I hope we both die. La la la la la.”

The years have been kind to Kiki and Herb. It was nearly 20 years ago that Bond and Melman first hatched the characters on the entertainment fringe in San Francisco. Since the early days of playing clubs like Cafe du Nord, this not-so-dynamic duo moved on to New York, where they became downtown favorites and eventually crossed over to the mainstream — imagine Steve & Eydie on some divine hallucinogen played by Kabuki actors with a penchant for dark rock songs.

Kiki & Herb Alive from Broadway is nominated for a best “special theatrical event” Tony Award. Their competition is ventriloquist Jay Johnson.

“Will you beat the ventriloquist?” a journalist asked Kiki, who narrowed her eyes and muttered: “One way or another.”

Ever the edgy boozy chanteusey, Kiki responses to the press were pointed and only slightly slurred. Here are some highlights:

We’re immortal, so we speak a lot of dead languages.

I was at the bottom of the pile and pleased as punch.

I haven’t touched my hair since 1994 when Pierre died of AIDS. I think of my hair as a living AIDS memorial.

I like to fuel up the old liver and watch her go.

I admire what Paula Abdul did to save her Chihuahua. If I had been that way, my cat Mr. Peepers might still be alive.

This is the start of our Year of Magical Drinking tour.

If we can get a Tony nomination and Jerry Falwell can die on the same day, there’s a tide turning in the culture war. But there’s still a shadow because Pat Robertson is still alive and Bush is still president.

My advice for Paris (Hilton) is to enjoy the ride. I was in prison. That’s where I learned there’s more than one way to love. It’s marvelous

Kiki & Herb Alive on Broadway runs July 13 through 29 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $13-$66. Call (415) 749-2228 or visit

The force & Kiki

Here’s some interesting local theater news — some high-powered casting, a Skywalker-y night out and, be still my heart, the return of Kiki & Herb:

Carl Lumbly, last seen on TV’s “Alias,” heads the cast of Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, the next show at SF Playhouse. Other cast members include Susi Damilano, Daveed Diggs, Joe Madero and Gabriel Marin. Bill English directs the Stephen Adly Guirgis drama, which begins previews Feb. 28 and opens March 3. Call (415) 677-9596 or visit

In other exciting news, at long last, Canadian actor Charles Ross brings his hit solo show, One-Man Star Wars Trilogy, to San Francisco’s Post Street Theatre for 14 performances only, Feb. 27 through March 11.

Since he first performed the show five years ago, Ross has been in demand for what critics have called “effortlessly energetic…he nails the tiny details that fans obsess over.” As the title indicates, Ross takes a brisk, nonstop shot through the first three Star Wars movies, the result of too much of his childhood, Ross says, spent in “a galaxy far, far away.”

Ross does all the character voices, recreates the special effects, sings the music, fights both sides of the light saber battles and, of course, kisses the princess, er, his sister, er, the princess.
Tickets are $37 and go on sale Sunday. Call (415) 771-6900 or visit

And finally, fans of the truly bizarre (in the best possible way) will be happy to know that Kiki and Herb are returning to the city that gave them birth.

Yes, Justin Bond (Kiki) and Kenny Mellman (Herb) return to San Francisco, where they first started singing in 1989, with Kiki & Herb: Alive on Broadway.

As the title suggests, this is the show the duo performed on Broadway last summer, and it opens July 13 at the American Conservatory Theater and runs through July 29.
Kiki and Herb haven’t been in the Bay Area since a triumphant New Year’s Eve appearance when 2005 turned into 2006, so we’re all ready for the duo’s _ how shall we say? _ unique version of songs ranging from The Cure to Public Enemy to Dan Fogleberg. Tickets are $20 to $60. Call (415) 749-2228 or go to

And now, enjoy some Kiki love: