The never-again genius of Sondheim

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One thing we can say for sure about Stephen Sondheim is that he died knowing just how loved and admired he was. It seems like the legendary Broadway composer was receiving lifetime tributes for at least the last 40 years, and it also seems like he was there for all of it, humbled, slightly embarrassed but always pleased and moved.

Sondheim’s death this week at age 91 can’t really be described as a surprise, but it’s still a shock. At least since the ’70s, when his incredible output included Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd, he has been contemporary musical theater’s north star – probably the single greatest influence on generation after generation of musical theater writers, directors and performers. To see that light extinguished is profoundly sad, even though the work – so much brilliant work! – will flourish for many generations to come.

Sondheim has been one of my musical theater passions for so long, I had to really stop and think about a time when I didn’t know every show, hadn’t read the books (by him, about him, about his shows), hadn’t obsessively collected the recordings. Growing up in Reno, NV, in the ’70s and ’80s I didn’t have a lot of opportunity to see Sondheim shows, but the few I did made a huge impact. I know my first exposure to Sondheim came through Barbra Streisand’s The Broadway Album in 1985. Seven of the 12 tracks involved Sondheim as either composer/lyricist or just the lyricist, and he famously re-wrote two songs, “Putting It Together” and “Send in the Clowns,” at Streisand’s request (which also got his photo into the liner notes, marking the first time I remember seeing his grizzled face).

The first Sondheim show I saw was the University of Nevada, Reno’s Theatre and Dance Department’s 1987 production of Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies. The irony was that the show is about a great old theater about to be torn down to build a parking lot was being performed in a brand-new new theater built on what was formerly a parking lot. About two years later, the same company in the same space did Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along, a supposedly troubled show that absolutely blew my mind and cracked my heart open.

After moving to San Francisco and becoming a theater critic, I didn’t fully review a Sondheim show until 1998’s Follies at American Musical Theatre of San Jose. I wasn’t crazy about the production, but I loved the show, writing, “Throughout Sondheim’s 40-year career, there have been complaints about his shows being too cerebral and not hummable. Well, those complainers have never seen Follies. Sure, the lyrics are, as expected, smart and clever. And the grand pleasures of the follies numbers are offset by a rather snide take on marriage and relationships. But what songs! This is Sondheim at his most audience-friendly and his most hummable.”

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I have since seen live productions of most of Sondheim’s shows (except for Anyone Can Whistle, The Frogs and his last produced show, Road Show) and couldn’t name a favorite because I’m constantly changing my mind. Sometimes it’s Company (sheer genius top to bottom), sometimes Merrily (so much beauty amid so much pain), sometimes A Little Night Music (the glorious music), occasionally it’s even Sweeney Todd (the humor is unmatched).

To my mind, it’s all of a piece – a giant slice of creative brilliance we have been graced to experience since Sondheim’s lyricist-only days on West Side Story and Gypsy and on through everything he touched through these last months when he appeared on Stephen Colbert’s talk show, attended the first preview of the re-opened Company and sang the praises of the soon-to-be-released remake of West Side Story from director Steven Spielberg.

In the wake of Sondheim’s death, what has been most striking in the flood of tributes is the gratitude for his colossal contribution to the arts. I don’t think we can even begin to wrap our heads around just how great his impact has been or will continue to be. Look no further than the recent film version of …tick, tick, BOOM on Netflix in which Sondheim is a character (played by Bradley Whitford who mentors the main character, based on Rent composer Jonathan Larsen to whom, like so many, Sondheim served as mentor and champion. Toward the end of the movie, Jonathan receives an answering machine message from Sondheim, but listen closely: it’s not Whitford. It’s actually Sondheim. Director Lin-Manuel Miranda had shared the scene with Sondheim, who felt the message as originally written was “trite” and would Lin mind if he took a stab at it. He not only re-wrote it, he also recorded the message. “It makes me weep to even think about,” Miranda told EW magazine. “Because he was such a mentor to Jon and generations of songwriters.” Just as Oscar Hammerstein was a mentor to Sondheim.

I have a friend who, for years, has insisted that she simply doesn’t like Sondheim, try as she might. Too many words, not enough melody. And for all those years, I’ve had a running playlist in my head to try and convince her of Sondheim’s genius. That will probably never happen, but I do have a Spotfiy playlist of favorites that I’m happy to share. The genius, the versatility, the humor, the heart, the keen observation – it’s all here. And always will be.

Revived Fair Lady bursts with melody, life, wit

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The cast of The Lincoln Center Theater production of Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady includes (from left, center) Sam Simahk as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle, Kevin Pariseau as Colonel Pickering and Leslie Alexander as Mrs. Higgins. Below: Transformations are happening in Professor Higgins’ posh London flat (set design by Michael Yeargan). Photos by Joan Marcus


My Fair Lady has always been so brilliantly constructed, so full of beautiful, vital music that its nearly perfect machinations can leave a slight chill. The very idea of turning George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmailion into a musical was at once genius and ridiculous – how could such a brainy parlor comedy sing and dance? Composers Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (working with director Moss Hart) figured it out in 1956, and a classic play was soon eclipsed by a classic musical.

As we know, classic musicals don’t always remain in sync with changing times, especially in respect to issues of race, gender and sexuality. Given that My Fair Lady flexes Shaw’s feminist muscles, it is interesting to re-visit the show in the sumptuous, expertly appointed touring production of the Lincoln Center Theater’s 2018 revival that is now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season.

There has been so much focus through the years (from the original Broadway production through the 1964 movie and endless tours and regional/community productions) on the relationship between Henry Higgins (the teacher) and Eliza Doolittle (the student) that the center of Shaw’s story seems to have shifted. This is a show about class, one of the artificial restrictions society employs to determine who is allowed to do what and to whom. In this case, the wealthy British elite (high society, aristocracy, royalty, etc.) maintain their position over the, as one character puts it, “undeserving poor.”

When Higgins makes a bet with his pip-pip-cheerio chum, Pickering, that in six months, he can pass off Eliza, a “draggle-tailed guttersnipe” flower girl, as a duchess at an embassy ball, he’s making a casual revolt against societal norms for his own amusement (and to maintain his gargantuan ego by proving what a god-like teacher he is). In a musical, this would constitute the “A” relationship, which would normally be a romantic one, and the “B” relationship, here between Eliza and an entitled, rather dopey suitor named Freddy Eysnford-Hill, would be the secondary romance. But Shaw wasn’t aiming for conventional romantic comedy here, even if that’s what audiences crave. Higgins and Eliza develop an extraordinary relationship/battle of wills, but romance isn’t (and shouldn’t) be part of it, which makes the ending problematic (we’ll get to that).

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It also means the Eliza-Freddy plot hardly matters, although the stalker-like Freddy, who writes to her multiple times a day and can’t seem to tear himself away from her doorstep, gets a lovely song in “On the Street Where You Live.” The much more interesting secondary story here belongs to Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, and his unlikely ascent from drunken dustman and general blackguard to eminent philosopher and money bags. He also gets two of the show’s liveliest songs, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”

There’s so much more than a love story here, and director Bartlett Sher’s sterling production brings that out. There are flimsy tours and there are grade-A tours – this falls firmly in the latter category. The design, the onstage talent and especially Sher’s smart, detailed direction make this show shine for a new generation. And here’s the best thing of all: it’s warm, emotional, funny and sharp without having to make any excuses for its age.

Much of the show’s heart comes from Shereen Ahmed as Eliza as she breaks down the character’s gruff exterior to reveal intelligence, vulnerability and strength. The first hint of Eliza’s inner life comes in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and then comes fully forward in a rage-filled “Just You Wait,” which is is staged on Michael Yeargan’s fantastic turntable set allowing Eliza to storm through multiple rooms of Higgins’ handsome two-story London flat. By the time Eliza has her breakthrough in “The Rain in Spain,” we love her, and then she totally captivates us with a shimmering “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

Laird Mackintosh brings a sort of Hugh Laurie quality to his Higgins and gives the character an energetic bounce that rivals the nonstop vibrations of his brain (and, it must be said, ego). Adam Grupper as Doolittle is a comic force, but he’s nuanced and lets the character build. He could stop the show with “Luck” but doesn’t (which can make Act 1 peak too soon), but completely lets loose in Act 2 with his show-stopping march to get to the church on time. This is also when choreographer Christopher Gattelli gets to let it all out with drag queens, drag kings, lust, booze and general debauchery of the highest order.

Every My Fair Lady, although a show full of potent ideas and stinging smackdowns, will always be judged on its “Ascot Gavotte” because a) it’s hilarious and b) it’s such a showcase for the costumes. Designer Catherine Zuber rises to the challenge here (and everywhere else) with a feast for the eyes.

Sher has tinkered with the musical’s ending to make it more in line with Shaw’s original ending (spoiler alert: Eliza asserts her independence and does not stay with Higgins, nor does she fetch his slippers), although the way it’s staged is rather bizarre. It’s almost as if Eliza appears as a figment of Higgins’ imagination as she wordlessly breezes into his flat through the door and out through one of the invisible walls. Still, it’s gratifying to see that Sher sticks with the anti-rom-com trajectory.

I also couldn’t help thinking that maybe it’s time for another movie version – one that stays sharp instead of gets mushy but lets us keep this glorious score alive. In my dream version, the song “Hymn to Him” (aka Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?) becomes literal as confirmed old bachelors Higgins and Pickering discover their deep and abiding love for one another through their love of phonetics and their staggering privilege. Shaw never quite got there, but in time, he probably would have. Higgins could be played by Andrew Scott (the sexy priest from “Fleabag”) and Pickering by Benedict Cumberbatch. And Eliza? Adele, of course. Now wouldn’t that be loverly?

FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Lincoln Center Theater production of Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady, presented by BroadwaySF, continues through Nov. 28 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com. COVID-19 policy detailed here.

Superstar heralds return to holy place (aka the theater)

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The cast of the North American tour of Jesus Christ Superstar (featuring Aaron LaVigne in the center as the title character) has a light last supper. The show is at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. Below: James T. Justis is Judas. Photos by Matthew Murphy


Hosanna, hey sanna, sanna sanna ho! It sure feels good to be back in a big theater seeing a big Broadway show. This must be the way some people feel going back to church. You might even call it a religious experience.

Except when the show in question is Jesus Christ Superstar, that spiritual uplift quickly turns into confusion. With only a limited knowledge of the Bible, I’ve always found JCS to be a mediocre show with occasional thrills in the score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. I can fully understand why this show became such a sensation more than 50 years ago when the concept album was released (and nothing fires sales more than cries of “Sacrilege!”). Here was a rock opera/Passion Play that really rocked and yowled like the music of the day but also had some orchestral heft to differentiate it from other emerging rock musicals (like Hair).

I can also understand how audiences might have been baffled when the show opened on Broadway Oct. 12, 1971 (50 years ago this week!). If you don’t already know the story of Jesus’ last few weeks or who Judas or King Herod were, the show doesn’t do much to help you out.

Over the last five decades, JCS has become a mainstay, and it seems revisions and revivals and re-imaginings have kept this show resurrecting nonstop. I have yet to see anyone make a case for this being a great show, and the 50th anniversary North American tour now at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season is more interesting than many productions I’ve seen, but it still falls significantly short of miraculous.

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Director Timothy Sheader, who first staged this production for London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2016, aims to rediscover the zeal and youthful cheekiness of the original two-disc concept album by training focus on the music and making this show feel more like a concert than a traditional musical. And the music (not necessarily the voices) quickly emerges as the best part of this touring production. Music director Shawn Gough leads an 11-piece ensemble that expertly captures that unique Lloyd Webber sound blending the symphonic with rock, most notable here in the horns and the guitars.

Set on what looks to be the naked girders of a ruined building (set design by Tom Scutt, who also designed the hair and the costumes), the band occupies the upper levels while the ensemble scampers all over the stage, with a lot of concentrated action on the cross-shaped platform.

Actors in this show don’t have a lot to work with when it comes to characters. They get one act and 95 minutes of nearly nonstop singing that fails to provide much in the way clarity or emotional connection. Aaron LaVigne only really makes an impression as Jesus during “Gethsemane.” Otherwise he just seems like a nice, man-bunned hipster who gets caught in a violent sci-fi story with a mean friend (James T. Justis as Judas) and a sex worker friend who doesn’t know how to love him (Jenna Rubaii as Mary Magdalene). Pilate and the Roman soldiers look like murderous aliens, and King Herod (a fun Paul Louis Lessard) seems to be visiting from an entirely different, much campier and more enjoyable planet.

There’s a weird blend of the realistic and the mythical here. For instance, when Jesus is arrested and is heading toward execution, he emerges shirtless and drenched in blood. Then, when it’s time for the 39 lashes, the whip is replaced with golden glitter bombs. By the end of the lashing, he looks like a terribly abused Academy Award crossed with a disco ball. Probably not the vibe you want when you’re about to watch someone die slowly on a cross.

The thing about Jesus Christ Superstar is this: if you get carried away by the original album (and it still sounds remarkably vital), there is likely never going to be a production better than the one in your head. But isn’t it interesting that the theater where JCS premiered 50 years ago, the Mark Hellinger Theatre, is now the Times Square Church? Hosanna indeed.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Jesus Christ Superstar continues through Nov. 7 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$226. Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com

BroadwaySF COVID policies are here.

Spectacular Animal Wisdom conjures spirits & raises the roof

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Composer/performer Heather Christian stars in the original streaming film adaptation of the Bushwick Starr’s production of Animal Wisdom. Below:Christian and her cast/band connect with another realm.


In the last year, we’ve seen some splendid streamers and some snoozy streamers. We’ve seen filmed productions that get an A for effort (and that’s about it) and Zoom productions that somehow transcend those little boxes. Theater just hasn’t been theater for a while, and we’ve done the best we could, as audiences, as performers, as producers, to keep the spirit alive as best we could.

Then along comes something like Animal Wisdom, a filmed version of Heather Christian’s Bushwick Starr theater experience from the 2017/2018 season. This concert/play/séance/requiem, originally directed for the stage by Emilyn Kowaleski and now filmed by Amber McGinnis, emerges as one of the most searing and satisfying of our pandemic entertainments.

Filmed in March 2021 at Wooly Mammoth in Washington, D.C., and presented by Wooly Mammoth and American Conservatory Theater, Animal Wisdom is, as Christian puts it, “something else.” It’s not theater, it’s not a TV show. It’s in between (like some spirits), and her unique spin involves interactivity (you stand, you sit, you hum). Early on in the two-hour show, she stops the action and sends you on a scavenger hunt around your house. The things you collect will help create a “ritual space” because this is a show about the dead.

Since she was a child in Natchez, Mississippi, Christian has been able to see and communicate with ghosts. Animal Wisdom is about putting some of those ghosts to rest, and so she creates and performs an unusual requiem mass that involves some glorious music that contains everything from folk to rock to pop to gospel to punch-you-in-the-heart communion with…well, with something.

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Christian is our primary focus, but her fantastic band also gets in on the act playing various people – living and dead – in Christian’s life. Sasha Brown, Eric Farber, B.E. Farrow and Maya Sharpe make glorious music and match Christian’s remarkable energy. McGinnis’ filmmaking also powerfully captures the dynamic moods of the show, whether it’s a manic burst of energy that sends actors racing around the theater or a meditative moment on stag in near darkness.

You don’t have to believe in ghosts to enjoy this tale, though Christian is such an effective storyteller/singer that she could likely sway a skeptic into wondering how many of their own dead they brought to witness this show. Believer or not, there’s a lot of emotion packed into this show, and that’s what cuts through the screen and slices right into your guts. The music is a big part of that – especially when waves of choral voices wash through – and though you can imagine how incredible it might be to participate in Animal Wisdom live and in person alongside other flesh-and-bone folks as well as the spirit guests, the show is a powerhouse onscreen. Sometimes the medium is the message.


FOR MORE INFORMATION
Tickets for Animal Wisdom are available at three pay-what-you-wish prices: $19, $29 and $49. The show streams on Broadway on Demand through Sunday, June 13. Visit www.animalwisdomfilm.com

There’s a Sting in this Ship but no sting

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Sting (center) plays Jackie White, a shipyard supervisor in the musical The Last Ship for which he also wrote music and lyrics. The show is part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre. Below: Frances McNamee as Meg Dawson and the cast perform “If You Ever See Me Talking to a Sailor.” Photos by Matthew Murphy

When a show flops on Broadway and then undergoes serious re-tooling, you hold out hope that lessons were learned, wrongs righted and mistakes corrected. The debut musical from rock icon Sting, The Last Ship, fizzled in New York, but that didn’t mean dry dock for this vessel. No, Sting continued to work on it, giving it a complete re-write (with director Lorne Campbell), shuffling and re-shuffling songs and characters and setting out on another voyage, first in England, then in Canada.

The former Police man must be pretty happy with the results because he’s now starring in an American tour (before heading to Las Vegas for a more traditional rock ‘n’ roll residency). The show pulled into the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, and though the cast is able and voices are strong, the show is mild entertainment at best. Though the story takes place in 1986 as the Northern England shipyards were closing, the clothes look like 1973, and Sting’s score sounds like 1873.

Sting himself makes a disappointing impression as both an actor and a singer. He’s hard to understand both in volume and intelligibility. Some of his songs give you that old Sting frisson, but those moments are too few.

I will say that this show, for all its melodrama and righteous sincerity, has a few high points that hint at the way its creators would like us to be inspired by the strength of the working folk and their (temporary) rise against oppressive economic and governmental forces. But again, the highs are surrounded by doldrums. There is, however something remarkable: one of the worst death scenes I’ve ever seen played out on a stage.

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I reviewed The Last Ship for the Bay Area News Group. Here’s an excerpt:

The bad news is that “The Last Ship,” as well-meaning, and mildly entertaining as it is, will never be a great or even very good musical. The whole enterprise is mostly grim and dreary, with competing plot lines involving soapy melodrama, economic downturn and labor strife. There’s even a character with a cough, which you know means that person won’t live to see the finale.
The story about how the shipyard men and the women who love them fight against the forces that are putting them out of business is meant to celebrate the indomitable human spirit. But it all comes across as a shallow gloss on how the downtrodden can fool themselves into a happy ending if they speechify and sing in beautiful choral unison while stomping about in a robust Celtic manner.
While the book never makes a convincing case for any of its plot lines – the wayward teenage love story, the shipyard closure, the family medical drama – there is some pleasure to be had in Sting’s score and the performances, especially by the women of the company.

Read the full review here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Sting’s The Last Ship continues through March 22 at BroadwaySF’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $70-$275 (subject to change). Running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes (including one intermission). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.broadwaysf.com.

Soaking it up at the SpongeBob musical

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The company of The SpongeBob Musical, part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre. Below: Daria Pilar Redus is Sandy Cheeks, Lorenzo Pugliese is SpongeBob SquarePants and Beau Bradshaw is Patrick Star. Photos by Jeremy Daniel

The “why” is easy. When you’ve got a product that earns literally billions of dollars around the globe, at some point you have to stop and say, “Gee, wouldn’t this be a great Broadway musical?” At least that’s what happens these days, especially with successful animated ventures – please note all the Disney musicals (except Aida), Shrek, Anastasia and The Prince of Egypt on its way. So it wasn’t at all surprising when the folks at Nickelodeon decided to turn the internationally beloved SpongeBob SquarePants, created by the late Stephen Hillenburg, into a splashy live musical.

Following the Lion King blueprint, producers turned to a theater director who earned lots of off-Broadway and Chicago street cred before heading to Broadway to turn their franchise into something that could potentially please everybody: die-hard fans of the smiling yellow sponge, musical theater enthusiasts and families who want to enjoy a theater outing together.

The resulting show, SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical, was the kind of energetic, colorful endeavor that nearly did the trick when it came to making everybody happy. Director Tina Landau and scenic/costume designer David Zinn delivered something with broad humor, fan service and buckets full of flash and sparkle. Cynical critics had to admit they were somewhat surprised to enjoy something they would never have expected to like in a million years. The show never really found its audience on Broadway and closed after less than a year without recouping its costs.

But you can’t sink a sponge. Much of the Broadway cast reconvened for a television broadcast of the show on Nickelodeon last December, and now a non-Equity tour of the show is criss-crossing the country. That production, with a simplified new title for the road – The SpongeBob Musical – is making a quick five-day stop at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season.

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Zinn’s DIY set (think water weenies, metal drums and other garage sale-type elements) has been scaled down, and the young cast wavers in vocal quality and comic timing, but this SpongeBob makes a mildly successful case for the leap from TV (and movies and theme parks and gazillions of products) to Broadway for SpongeBob and all his neighbors from Bikini Bottom, their home at the bottom of the sea.

You don’t watch a musical like this lamenting the art form that gave us Carousel, Gypsy and Hamilton. No, you enjoy what there is to enjoy, which in this case is a bright, vivacious package full of sweetly acerbic characters providing entertainment that does indeed have appeal to young and old. Some knowledge of SpongeBob would be helpful but is not required. One wise decision the creative team made was to free the actors from cumbersome theme park-y costumes of any kind. If this guy is a well-adjusted sponge, and that gal is a science-loving squirrel, and this guy is a starfish and that gal is a computer, well it all makes a demented sort of sense without making any sense at all. At least it’s mostly easy to know who’s who and what’s what in this tale of impending apocalypse for SpongeBob and his pals (there’s a volcano and attempts at drama but none of that really matters).

The book by Kyle Jarrow captures a lot of what’s sweet and salty about the show, and Landau’s restrained chaos direction feels like a live-action cartoon, heavy on the looney gags and visuals. It was a smart move to have a percussionist on stage making a whole host of cartoon sound effects (three cheers for Ryan Blihovde. That helps keep things lively, although the show’s length (2 1/2 hours including intermission) does feel like a slog through a kelp forest here and there. That probably wouldn’t be the case were the score stronger or at least more consistent.

The songs represent the work of many people, most of them bona fide rock and pop stars (with only Sara Bareilles and Cyndi Lauper representing experience with Broadway musical success). There are members of Aerosmith, Plain White T’s, They Might Be Giants and Panic! At the Disco alongside artists including John Legend, Yolanda Adams and even David Bowie (who had done a voice on the TV show and let producers adapt his 1995 song with Brian Eno “Outside”). It’s an uneven mish-mash, but orchestrator/arranger Tom Kitt works hard to make it all sound like it belongs to the same show. The best numbers are Lauper’s “Hero Is My Middle Name” and They Might Be Giants’ “I’m Not a Loser.”

That last number, performed by a four-legged squid named Squidward Q. Tentacles (Cody Cooley), is the show’s apex. The sourpuss character attempts to convince himself he’s not a loser by imagining himself as the center of a lavish production number filled with pink sea anemones (the ensemble decked out in fluffy, funny costumes) and a solo four-footed tap dance. SpongeBob, played by the chipper Lorenzo Pugliese, never gets his own showstopper, but he’s a beaming presence on stage, and though his friendships with Patrick Star (Beau Bradshaw) and Sandy Cheeks (Daria Pilar Redus) are sweet, some of his most affecting moments are with Gary, his (inanimate) pet snail.

If corporations are going to keep turning their intellectual property into Broadway musicals (there must be an easier, more reliable cash grab), they could do worse than The SpongeBob Musical. There’s still a shiny, happy theme-park feel to the show in spite of all its smart Broadway touches, but it’s got some charm, some heart and that good old Broadway optimism that the sun will come out tomorrow.

[FOR MORE INFORMATION]
The SpongeBob Musical continues through Feb. 16 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$266. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.broadwaysf.com

Summer’s a bummer in all but music

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Dan’yelle Williamson (Diva Donna, left), Alex Hairston (Disco Donna, center), Olivia Elease Hardy (Duckling Donna) and the company of Summer: the Donna Summer Musical at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. Below: The three ages of Donna in various shades of blue. Photos by Matthew Murphy for Murphymade

For a terrible show, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is fairly enjoyable, and that is for one reason alone: the music. As jukebox musicals go, this one is toward the bottom of the list, which is surprising given that director and co-writer Des McAnuff has two shows much (much) higher on that list: Jersey Boys and Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations.

Summer suffers from the bane of the jukebox musical: forcing innocent pop songs into being show tunes that are meant to convey something meaningful about plot or character. When “Dim All the Lights,” a groovy tune about gettin’ down and dirty, is sung at a funeral, we know we’re in trouble.

If Summer had a knowing sense of humor, such moments might play better. For instance, in the completely tone-deaf (emotionally not musically) scene involving cartoonish domestic abuse set to “Enough Is Enough,” Donna fights back, and one of her weapons happens to be a coffee table book about Barbra Streisand. Say what now? Joke or bad idea? Hard to say, but probably the latter.

Like The Cher Show, another jukebox bio musical that never quite connected on Broadway, Summer represents the late Donna Summer with three actors portraying her at different times in her life. There’s Ducking Donna, a young girl from a big family in Boston played by De’Ja Simone filling in for an ailing Olivia Elease Hardy. Once young Donna drops out of high school and heads to Europe, she becomes Disco Donna played by Alex Hairston, who is really the most interesting Donna as she goes from unknown to big star. And sort of lording above them all is Diva Donna played by Dan’yelle Williamson, who serves as our guide through this “concert of a lifetime.”

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If this really were a concert, things would be so much better. The Donnas could talk about life moments and sing the songs surrounded by the mostly female ensemble working through Sergio Trujillo’s rather uninspired choreography and wearing the glittery costumes by Paul Tazewell. You could also keep most of Robert Brill’s set (especially the gigantic Studio 54 disco ball), even if the design leans too heavily on over-active video screens, and Howell Binkley’s concert-appropriate colorful lighting could stay as well. Great voices, enjoyable songs, flashy lights and colors – that’s really all we need to be happy.

The book by McAnuff, Robert Cary and Colman Domingo does Summer (or anyone in her life) no favors because it’s shallow, cheesy and unreliable. All of these things may have happened to Summer in exactly this way, but because of the way the show puts her biography across, it all feels like gloss and shine with no relationship to reality. If Summer really did engage in a pitched battle with her record company, we never really know the details beyond the fact that the fight fits nicely with her song “She Works Hard for the Money.” And Diva Donna’s attempt to explain her “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” comment, which hurt and alienated her gay fan base, by singing “Friends Unknown” as a tribute to those lost to AIDS feels more like a PR move than a deeply felt moment. More shine over substance.

All we really need here is for the three talented leads to perform Summer’s hit parade. There are delicious moments of pure performance – “MacArthur Park,” “On the Radio,” “Heaven Knows” – but they get derailed by the storytelling. When we finally get an unbridled, “Last Dance,” it feels like the party has begun at last, but then the show is over. In real life, Donna Summer was hot stuff and we loved to love her, baby. But on stage she’s another casualty of the empty-calorie cash grab known as the jukebox musical.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Summer: The Donna Summer Musical continues through Dec. 29 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com

Of mice and music: Berkeley Rep’s Despereaux charms

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Dorcas Leung (Despereaux) with (back, l to r) Ryan Melia (Librarian), Betsy Morgan (Queen Rosemary), Matt Nuernberger (Botticelli) and Curtis Gillen (Most High Head Mouse) in Berkeley Rep’s production of PigPen Theatre Co.’s The Tale of Despereaux. Below: Despereaux (center) and the hardworking ensemble raise the roof of the Roda Theatre. Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

There are so many charming, astonishing, inspiring moments in PigPen Theatre Co.’s The Tale of Despereaux you have to stop logging them and simply realize that, from beginning to end, this is exactly the show we need this holiday season.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre has a long tradition of bringing inventive, highly theatrical shows to its stage this time of year (the wondrous shows of Mary Zimmerman and Kneehigh come immediately to mind), and this year, we get a wildly wonderful Despereaux from PigPen Theatre Co., a group of friends who met and began making theater and music at Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in 2007.

And while it’s easy to see why the handmade quality PigPen’s exuberant storytelling is so well suited to the stage adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s Newberry Award-winning 2003 novel. But this production is a little fancier than that. It’s financed by Universal Theatrical Group, the stage arm of the movie studio that made the 2008 animated Despereaux novel, and it’s co-directed by PigPen and Marc Bruni, who also helmed the Tony-winning Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

The stage Despereaux, which is acted, played and sung entirely by the 11-person ensemble, had its premiere last summer at San Diego’s The Old Globe, and one would guess that a new musical this good will go on to a long life wherever it wants to go.

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Like the novel, this musical is about finding the courage to be the one who makes a difference, fights for justice and overcomes preconceived notions of who someone should be. In this particular story, the hero is a mouse with giant ears (not Mickey, that’s a different movie studio) who, inspired by the story of a knight’s quest, determines to bring light back to the now-darkened kingdom where he and his family live.

Young Despereaux (played with verve by Dorcas Leung) lives in castle clouded with grief. Years before, the queen’s heart stopped at the sight of a rat in her soup. Since then, rats and soup have been forbidden, and the sad king (Arya Shahi) and his daughter, the Princess Pea (Yasmeen Sulieman), live a quiet, isolated life. They don’t throw parties or have feasts, so the crumb quotient for the castle’s mice population is alarmingly low, though the red-eyed rats that inhabit the castle’s darkest, dankest basement don’t seem to be suffering near as much.

One visit to the castle’s library and an encounter with the tale of a brave knight (Dan Weschler) is all it takes to ignite Despereaux’s warrior heart and a desire to fulfill his destiny as a hero. But first he must deal with the mice, who fear any change to the status quo, and the nasty rats in the basement, especially their leader, Roscuro (John Rapson, deftly capturing the light and dark of chiaroscuro). He breaks rules and tries to keep the faith that what he’s doing is right and just (not an easy task).

From beginning to end, this 90-minute treat is chock full of appealing songs with a Celtic pulse, performed with gusto by the ensemble. The voices are glorious (especially Sulieman’s princess, Betsy Morgan’s Miggery Sow and Rapson’s Roscuro), and the stage is alive with beautiful images. There’s a strong theme of light and dark built into the story, so the lighting by Donald Holder takes on significance beyond the beautiful way it illuminates the rough-hewn timber and crockery of Jason Sherwood’s castle set.

At the opening-night performance (Monday, Nov. 25), Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre was filled with children, and it’s a testament to the performers on stage (and to the parents) just how well behaved the audience was. Director Bruni and his ensemble manage to keep up the pace of the show without ever making it feel rushed. There’s time for ballads and introspection and shadow puppetry. And it’s absolutely enchanting the way the company uses stuffed mice and rats to convey the size difference between the animal characters and the human characters, all the while keeping us emotionally invested in every inter-species interaction.

The Tale of Despereaux is neither corny nor sappy the way entertainment aimed at all ages can sometimes be. Rather, this is rich, emotional, rewarding theater that pulls us all into its story of the littlest guy choosing to make the biggest difference.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
PigPen Theatre Co.’s The Tale of Despereaux continues through Jan. 5 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$100 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Identity crisis renders Anastasia dull, derivative

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Lila Coogan is the central character in the national tour of Anastasia at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre. Photo by Matthew Murphy, Murphymade Below: Coogan’s Anya awaits her fate with Stephen Brower (bowing) as Dmitry. Photo by Evan Zimmerman, Murphymade

As much as we might like to think that the future of Broadway looks like Hamilton or Hadestown, I’m pretty sure the future looks more like Anastasia, the inconsequential musical based on the 1997 animated film (in turn based on the 1956 movie starring Ingrid Bergman) that is now touring the country. Given how uninspired this show is, the fact that it ran for two years on Broadway is surprising, but perhaps lukewarm rehashes are just what audiences want. There seems to be an endless supply.

The one bold feature of the show, the single element that seems to give the show life and a reason for being, is its heavy reliance on giant screens as set pieces. There are a few actual backdrops, but projection designs do most of the work, and it’s an element that to me feels like cheating. I’d rather have too little than too much in design, a reason to ignite the imagination rather than have video game-like images sliding past my eyeballs for 2 1/2 hours. That high-tech gimmickry is the only thing that indicates this musical emerged in the 21st century.

The touring production now at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre employs that flawlessly executed video design, but it overwhelms the actors, who are already struggling to make something of the halfhearted book by Terrence McNally and the surprisingly limp score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. This musical team wrote the songs for the animated movie, and several of those songs, including the Oscar-nominated “Journey to the Past,” are highlights here. But the songs they’ve created to beef up the story are, for the most part, forgettable. Only a few of the new numbers come close to something interesting, and two of them involve the complicated feelings Russians have about their homeland and its turbulent politics. The first, “Stay, I Pray You,” is a wistful goodbye song at a train station as conflicted citizens reflect on their need to flee and their sadness at doing so. The other, “Land of Yesterday,” is sung by nostalgic Russian expats at a Russian club in Paris who delight in celebrating and bemoaning their homeland (while dancing and drinking vodka).

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The bulk of the over-abundant score is bland except when it’s outright awful (ie, all the songs for Gleb, the bad guy Bolshevik). How is that possible from the team that created Ragtime, Once on This Island and A Man of No Importance, all gorgeous, poignant shows with emotional scores and catchy songs?

Director Darko Tresnjak, aside from relying too much on the big screens, seems content with skimming the surfaces of the execution of the Romanov family, Anastasia’s mysterious survival and the non-suspense of wondering if “Anya” really is the lost princess. There’s a love story that feels about as authentic as Russian salad dressing, and there’s a surprisingly bold rip-off of “The Rain in Spain” when two con-artists attempt to school a street sweeper in the ways of royalty so they can pass her off as the long-lost princess. During “Learn to Do It” I kept expecting Dmitry and Vlad to shout, “By George I think she’s got it!”

Amid all the derivative drivel, there’s a surprising bright spot in Act 2 when two secondary characters, Vlad and Lily, decide they’re doing a sketch on “The Carol Burnett Show,” and for the length of “The Countess and the Common Man,” it feels like we’ve entered another realm entirely, one where entertainment actually matters and the skills of the performers (Edward Staudenmayer and Tari Kelly) are put to effective use. Otherwise, we have sweet-voiced leads Lila Coogan as Anya-Let’s-Just-Call-Her-Anastaisa and Stephen Brower as Dmitry being sincere and feisty with 0% substance and just as much romantic spark.

What does this musical have to say to us? Try not to die when your family is executed? Amnesia is totally reversible? We all have conflicted feelings about our homeland? Digital sets are awesome? Princess dresses are pretty? Anastasia is the kind of theatrical venture that seems like an amiable cash grab: professional and (c)harmless and, except for the producers, completely unnecessary. As I said, the future of Broadway.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Anastasia continues through Sept. 29 at SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Come to the Cabaret at SF Playhouse

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The Master of Ceremonies (John Paul Gonzalez) performs with the Kit Kat Dancers in Cabaret at San Francisco Playhouse. Below: Sally Bowles (Cate Hayman) contemplates her future with Clifford Bradshaw (Atticus Shaindlin) in tumultuous Berlin in the 1930s.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli


San Francisco Playhouse’s Cabaret is, to put it simply, a wow. A big, debauched, delightful wow. Everything in director Susi Damilano’s production just clicks. The look, the feel, the sound of this John Kander and Fred Ebb classic are all securely in place, so this well-constructed musical (Damilano is using the 1998 Broadway revival as her base) can connect directly with its audience.

This is the second time the Playhouse has done Cabaret. Co-founder and artistic director Bill English directed a strong production in 2008 at their tiny former theater on Sutter Street (read my review here). Two of the actors from that production return to the new one in the same roles. Louis Parnell is even better and more sensitive as Herr Schultz, and Will Springhorn Jr. is once again Ernst Ludwig, one of those fine German citizens who turns out to be monster.

Damilano (also a Playhouse co-founder and its producing director) has a much bigger stage to work with than English did 11 years ago, and she and set designer Jacquelyn Scott make the most of it with a two-level structure that shifts easily from being the stage of the Kit Kat Klub (the epitome of early 1930s Berlin decadence) to the rooming house where newly arrived American writer Clifford Bradshaw (Atticus Shaindlin) is going to finally find something worth writing about. The stage even has room for a few cabaret tables, so audience members are able to get very up close and personal with the exuberant cast.

There’s not a sour note in this production (not counting the Nazis – Nazis are always the sourest of notes in any form), from the lusty ensemble executing Nicole Helfer’s clever sensual/vulgar choreography to the hot, hot band led by Dave Dobrusky (with a special shout-out to drummer Geneva Harrison for giving the show its driving pulse).

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It’s all top-notch, but the pinnacle here is the star-making performance by Cate Hayman as the Toast of Mayfair, Sally Bowles. Her program bio yields some interesting facts, not the least of which is that she just finished her junior year of college at Carnegie Mellon University. Also of note is that this is her THIRD production of Cabaret in a year (although in the last two she played the aggressively amorous Fräulein Kost). The bio doesn’t mention that Hayman is a Marin native who won a $15,000 Beach Blanket Babylon scholarship in the voice category in 2016. After experiencing this performance, it’s easy to see why Hayman is an award winner. She is polished and assured but vulnerable and fully present. Her Sally is a pragmatist who gauges her debauchery almost as a means of survival. This Sally is less of a kook and more of an artists whose capacity for hurt and damage is more than she can bear. This comes through powerfully in “Maybe This Time,” but then in Act 2, when Hayman dives into the title song, the stage ignites, and we hear the song as if for the first time.

Unlike the 1972 film, which scrambled and chopped the original stage production, Cabaret is not only the story of Sally and Cliff and the Kit Kat Klub shenanigans. It’s also a love story between two older people: landlady Fräulein Schneider (Jennie Brick) and Jewish grocer Herr Schultz (Parnell). They get five numbers in the show, which makes them central characters. In addition to dealing with aging, loneliness and romance, they’re also up against the rise of Nazi power and a growing tide of antisemitism. Parnell and Brick are wonderful together, and Brick’s performances of “So What” and the especially daunting “What Would You Do?” are poignant and nuanced. With such strong actors in these roles, the show feels more balanced.

In many productions, the role of the Emcee tends to overwhelm the proceedings, but here, John Paul Gonzalez is less of a show-off and more part of the ensemble. It’s only in Act 2, when he delivers a stunning “I Don’t Care Much” that we get something more from the character than just brash sexuality.

Sadly, it seems a musical about the rise of Fascism will never seem quaint. When, at the end of Act 1, a group of Berliners joins in on the Nazi propaganda tune “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” it feels strangely familiar and more than a little unsettling. Cabaret has been kicking around for more than 50 years now in various forms, and it has never felt so relevant. There’s so much to enjoy in it and yet so much to fear.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret continues through Sept. 14 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $35-$125. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.