On Wednesdays we wear pink and kvetch about Mean Girls

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ABOVE: The cast of the Mean Girls national tour includes (from left) English Bernhardt as Cady Heron, Jasmine Rogers as Gretchen Wieners, Nadina Hassan as Regina George and Morgan Ashley Bryant as Karen Smith. BELOW: Based on the 2004 movie, Mean Girls explores the highs and lows of high school life. Photos by Jenny Anderson


The burns from the Burn Book are splashed all over the stage when you walk into the Golden Gate Theatre to see the national tour of Mean Girls (part of the BroadwaySF season). Some of the burns are sort of clever, “if corn flakes were a person.” Or another poor dude gets “You could live off the food in his braces.” There are a few of those awful slams that only one girl can perpetrate on another, including “Needs super jumbo tampons.” And then there’s the ultimate burn, the one we all fear to our core. Just a simple “Who?” scrawled over a photo.

High school is awful. The original Mean Girls Burn Book arrived in those (hardly) innocent pre-internet days of 2004 when the movie came out. Fast forward more than a decade to the inevitable musical adaptation, and the Burn Book bullying is no longer contained within the walls of a suburban Illinois high school but rather available for viewing on every screen in every corner of the world.

All to say there’s something retro about Mean Girls, even in its new musical form, and that’s not a bad thing. Tina Fey wrote the original screenplay and starred as one of the beleaguered teachers, and now she makes her debut as a Broadway book writer with the same story, which was inspired by Rosalined Wiseman’s 2002 nonfiction exploration Queen Bees and Wannabes.

Fey knows all the ins and outs of the plot, which remains the same: after growing up home-schooled in Kenya, new girl Cady Heron arrives in the U.S. and begins a stint in a public high school so, in her words, she can become socialized. That means quickly learning the high school caste system, from stoners (rich and poor but taking the same drugs) to obnoxious jocks to sexually active band geeks to math nerds (DO NOT fraternize here or risk certain social death), etc. At the top of the food chain are “The Plastics,” a trio of terror with supplicants Gretchen Weiners and Karen Smith supporting their queen mean girl, Regina George.

Cady is too smart for all this social nonsense – she’s a math prodigy and in Africa she was dealing with actual apex predators – but she wisely acknowledges the “need to belong that roars within us all” and unwisely falls into scheming and social climbing and ultimate disaster.

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Fey’s smart, funny book is really the star here, though composer Jeff Richmond (Fey’s husband) and lyricist Nell Benjamin (of Legally Blonde fame, which feels very on point here) work hard to give this story a musical heartbeat and not just stick songs into a brand-name story. Within the realm of movie-to-musical adaptations, it sits comfortably in the middle of Beetlejuice/Carrie (at the bottom end) and Little Shop of Horrors/The Producers/A Little Night Music (at the top).

Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw brings the same comically fluid pace he brought to The Prom (a similar but better show in almost every way) and to The Book of Mormon. It’s a breakneck 2 1/2 hours with little room for actual emotion and barely time for characters to register in any meaningful way. Oddly, it’s one of the supporting players, Gretchen, who gets the most active inner life. Her song “What’s Wrong with Me” is a standout, and it’s a shame that Cady, the protagonist, can’t fails to get the same traction.

If anything, the show is too slick and efficient for its own good. Scott Pask’s set is essentially blank surfaces to be filled with the hyperactive projections by Finn Ross and Adam Young. The actors are often in competition with the visuals, and they don’t always win. The brightness of the backdrops makes it feel everything is happening in front of a giant screen saver, and that never helps warm a cold tale about mean people. For all the burning here, the show never really heats up.

Among the energetic cast members, standouts at Wednesday’s opening-night performance were Cady’s first friends in the new school, fringe dwellers Janis (Adriana Scalice, filling in for Lindsay Heather Pearce) and the “too gay to function” Damian (Eric Huffman). Also stellar was Mary Beth Donahoe filling in for Jasmine Rogers as Gretchen Wieners, the mean girl you actually root for. Some of the evening’s best laughs come from the underplayed mean girl, Karen (Megan Grosso filling in for Morgan Ashley Bryant), who is a lot smarter than she thinks.

Too often in the sound design stage voices were rendered shrill and over-miked to almost painful levels. That’s the kind of mean nobody needs.

What is the kind of mean people need? Apparently the kind that eventually helps everyone learn a lesson and become better people. The underlying message of Mean Girls – to be kind (to yourself and others), to be authentic, to be fearless – resonates, especially as it relates to young women. That is true of the movie as well, and it’s hard to say if the musical has amplified or improved that message in any meaningful way beyond simply re-telling it in an entertaining way. Sometimes you aim for “fetch” and end up with “feh.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Mean Girls continues through Feb. 26 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco, as part of the BroadwaySF season. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $66.50-$184.50 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com.

Stage, not screen, is the place for Evan Hansen

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ABOVE: Anthony Norman (left) is Evan Hansen in the 2022-23 North American tour of Dear Evan Hansen. Also in the cast are (from left) John Hemphill as Larry Murphy, Lili Thomas as Cynthia Murphy and Alaina Anderson as Zoe Murphy. BELOW: Norman’s Evan attempts connection with his single mom played by Coleen Sexton. Photos by Evan Zimmerman for Murphymade


The movie version of Dear Evan Hansen broke more than its protagonist’s arm. It shattered its source material – a Tony Award-winning musical – into a million awful little pieces. The movie made the cardinal mistake of taking something that can be extraordinary in the theater and making it seem absolutely absurd when earnest characters started to sing in their living room or their classroom, and the audience response was to wince or, even worse, to laugh.

At the time of the movie’s release (fall of 2021) there was a lot of unnecessary gnashing about how original Broadway star (and Tony winner) Ben Platt was too old (27 at the time) to convincingly play a 17-year-old. Platt was hardly the problem. His Herculean stage performance was fairly effectively modulated for the screen. But it’s the very notion of this story on a screen that was the problem.

On stage, Dear Evan Hansen takes place in a dark, impressionist version of modern society. Suburban households and schools are rendered with just a few pieces of furniture on David Korins’ set, while seemingly gazillions of screens, mostly flashing, streaming and scrolling info from our social media wasteland, fills much of the rest of the space. It’s visually overwhelming (as it should be), and it never lets us forget that the stakes in this drama are rooted, triggered and magnified by the omnipresent internet.

When this dazzling stage version of our warped world was hemmed in by the conventions of a movie screen depicting real-life locations, it became just another “window” much like the one Evan sings about in the showstopping “Waving Through a Window” – another screen on which we’re on one side and the rest of the world feels like it’s on the other.

The only way to truly feel the impact of this story about living a delusional life is to experience it on stage. The Broadway production closed last September, but the national tour, now in its fifth year, is going – at least until July, when it will close up shop. Bay Area audiences first saw the tour at the Curran Theatre late in 2018 (read my review here), and now, a little more than four years later and in the wake of the movie, that same tour, with an entirely different cast, is back as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Orpheum Theatre.

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The good news is that the tour is still in fine shape. The physical production (which, in addition to Korins’ incredibly efficient set, includes lights by Japhy Weideman, projections by Peter Nigrini and sound by Nevin Steinberg) delivers all the necessary bells and whistles to keep the show speeding along through its nearly three hours. And the cast of eight is spot on, with shouts out to Micaela Lamas as Alana, a teenager whose desperation for acceptance provides a powerful mirror for Evan’s, and to understudy Gillian Jackson Han filling in for Alaina Anderson as Zoe Murphy, the sister of a teen who takes his own life, who becomes caught in the intricate web of Evan’s lies. As Evan’s mom, the superb Coleen Sexton brings equal amounts of hurt, rage and insecurity to the role, and her “So Big/So Small,” a song to comfort Evan and reassure him of her love, is like a small, exquisite musical all on its own.

In the title role, Anthony Norman is an excellent actor if a less excellent singer, although he delivers on all the dramatic high points of his character, an anxiety-ridden, mentally unstable 17-year-old who cannot stop himself from falling into lie after lie when his dreams of being what he considers “normal” begin to materialize around him. The son of a divorced, hardworking mom and an all but invisible father in a different state, Evan’s failure to clarify a misunderstanding leads him to experience what it might be like to have a stable home with a mom who cooks and dotes; a father who is present and supportive; peers at school who actually talk to him; and the affection of a girl he has adored from afar for years.

The score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul reveals something more with every listen. “Waving Through a Window,” Evan’s cri de coeur, remains chilling, especially in the frenetic way director Michael Grief stages it, and the faux-inspirational rush of the Act 1 closer, “You Will Be Found” is fascinating. A social media viral sensation happens before our eyes, and though the song hits all the right notes and words about creating a supportive, connected community, it’s all based on a huge lie, and all that online hubbub feels like hollow platitudes that could just as easily turn into bone-crushing stones (which they do in Act 2). That said, I could do without ever hearing “To Break in a Glove” ever again – its purpose to create a surrogate father moment for Evan is clear and potent, but the song, unlike most of the rest of the score, does not bear repeated listenings.

I also wish the show had a more powerfully musical ending. People gripe that Evan isn’t punished enough for his lies and his fraud, but I’m not one of them. What Evan does is wrong, most certainly, but he’s primarily acting out of a need to help other people and in turn helps himself to a life he never thought he could have. His breaking point comes when one final lie turns out to be wholly self-serving (a clever, powerfully desperate moment in the book by Steven Levenson). And then, in the emotional aftermath, we skip ahead in time and end with a reprise of “For Forever” rather than “You Will Be Found.” Both songs have finally found some semblance of truth in Evan’s acceptance of himself and his need for help. Still, it’s “You Will Be Found” that feels more relevant and ultimately more hopeful than “For Forever.”

At some point, Dear Evan Hansen with its focus on social media damage, the precarious state of teen mental health and its characters who work so hard to delude themselves, may feel dated. Sadly, that day when “we could be all right for forever” seems very far away.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Dear Evan Hansen continues through Feb. 19 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $66.50-$256.50 (subject to change). Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes. Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com.

A Beauty awakes, Panto style, at the Presidio

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ABOVE: The cast of Sleeping Beauty, the second annual holiday Panto at the Presidio Theatre. BELOW: Cast members include (from left), Phoebe Angeni as Major Major, Scott Reardon as Embarkadero and Curt Branom as Julia the Cook. Photos by Terry Lorant


How do you start what you hope will become a new holiday tradition? Persistence and pluck – at least that seems to be how the Presidio Theatre is going about it as they attempt, for a second year, to make the British tradition of Panto a thing stateside (or at least in the Bay Area).

The Panto (short for pantomime) is a raucous family entertainment trotted out for the holidays that redecorates a crusty fairy tale with amped-up fabulousness: exaggerated, colorful costume; ditzy pop songs with re-written lyrics; lots of daffy gender-bending; abundant audience participation; and heaps of silliness.

Last year, as part of the beautifully renovated Presidio Theatre’s return from Covid hibernation, the company offered a Panto in the form of a Bay Area-based Aladdin (read my review here), and while that was a lot of fun, Sleeping Beauty, which I finally caught up with just before Christmas, is even better.

For one thing, director Liam Vincent and writers Stephanie Brown and Richard Ciccarone bring even more zip and zest. The show is shorter (just about two hours, including intermission) and moves along at a terrific comic clip.

The highly energetic cast is matched in vibrancy only by the stunning costumes by Alina Bokovikova. Nobody makes a better chicken costume, and this year, Bokovikova also gets to dress a talking dog, a trio of fairies and the juiciest villain this side of Maleficent (only with devilish red horns instead of black).

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The juiciest roles are the showiest, including Rotimi Agbabiaka as Hernia the Evil Witch, and Curt Branom as Julia the Cook. Their performances are outsize and truly funny. Their interactions with the audience are among the show’s highlights, and the night I saw the show, the audience was way more than willing to talk back, shout back and truly give their all to catch the candy that is frequently thrown at their heads.

The story of this sleeping beauty, one Princess Sonoma (Sharon Shao), makes very sure that should the curse of her falling into eternal sleep ever come true, Prince Logan (Matthew Kropschot) has her full consent to kiss her back to life. With that detail taken care of, the production has free reign to be goofy as all get out. The fairies who have to muster their strength to fight Hernia are a delight: Ruby Day is Orinda, Ryan Patrick Welsh is Fremont and Eiko Yamamoto is Pacifica. These marvelous Bay Area names also extend to the trio of chickens which, as they did last year, threaten to steal the show. Andre Amarotico is Pecker, and the hens are Phaedra Tillery Boughton as Mission Burrito, Jen Brooks as Sourdough and Kaylee Miltersen is Cioppino.

At the performance I saw, the venerable Danny Scheie was out as Major Major, the palace’s stern taskmaster, and assistant director Phoebe Angeni was in without missing a beat or a laugh. That’s one of the keys to a successful Panto – making it seem breezy and effortless with a continuous roll of laughs, and dancing and dazzle. The Panto doesn’t have anything to do per se with the holidays, but that carefree, let-it-all-go vibe is key to capturing the holiday spirit that is so hard to find in real life.

Happily, it seems that local audiences are taking a shine to the Panto. The tradition is taking hold, and the Presidio Theatre could be in the Panto business for many years, many jokes, many chickens and many chucked chocolates to come.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Sleeping Beauty continues through Dec. 30 at the Presidio Theatre, 99 Moraga Ave., in The Presidio San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$40 (subject to change). Call 415-960-3949 or visit presidiotheatre.org.

Giving up the musical ghost in ghastly Beetlejuice

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ABOVE: The cast of the Beetlejuice national tour includes (from left) Britney Coleman as Barbara, Will Burton as Adam, Isabella Esler as Lydia and Justin Collette as Beetlejuice. BELOW: (from left) Danielle Marie Gonzalez as Miss Argentina, Esler as Lydia and Jesse Sharp as Charles. Photos by Matthew Murphy


That the Beetlejuice musical is dead on arrival shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Tim Burton’s 1988 movie of the same name, which is, after all, about a dead guy trying really hard to rejoin the world of the living.

What the Beetlejuice musical, which premiered on Broadway in 2019 and is still running, joins is that ever-expanding group of semi-living movie-to-musical adaptations that don’t improve on the source material in any way, nor do they contribute anything of note to the larger world of musical theater.

My biggest complaint about this singing Beetlejuice isn’t the bawdy, crude, antic humor – in fact, that’s one of the show’s major assets and true source of entertainment. No, the problem is the score by Eddie Perfect, which is standard issue, vaguely rock, vaguely pop, vaguely Broadway. Why do so many new shows have such a nondescript sound?

Some of Perfect’s lyrics are sharp and funny, while whole ballads are filled with inanity. When Perfect mimics Broadway to get the big, razzle-dazzle vibe going, the show comes to life. The opener “The Whole ‘Being Dead’ Thing” is a hoot and makes it very clear (a la “Comedy Tonight”) to the audience exactly what is going on: “This is a show about death.”

Except that it’s not, really. It’s a show about dead people and living people who are stunted or lonely or grieving, and they’ll all have warm-and-fuzzy resolution by show’s end – a narrative that feels quite at odds with the irreverent tone that director Alex Timbers tries hard (but fails) to keep alive for 2 1/2 hours. There are some scattered musical theater jokes in the book by Scott Brown and Anthony King, but mostly the story seems scattered and unfocused, unsure whether the protagonist is Beetlejuice, grieving daughter Lydia or newly dead couple The Maitlands (why, oh why do they get a whole insipid number called “Barbara 2.0”?).

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Justin Collette in the title role isn’t nearly as charming, menacing or funny as Michael Keaton was in the movie, but then again he’s saddled with songs about how it’s OK for him to take an underage bride. But Collette, in wocka-wocka vaudeville mode, sells the songs well, and his audience interactions are terrific. His big Act 2 number, “That Beautiful Sound” (about screaming and being terrified) is another one of those attempts to capitalize on some Broadway pizzazz, and it nearly infuses some life into this moribund enterprise.

The sets by David Korins bring to mind the Tim Burton sensibility with some theatrical fizz and flair, as do the puppets by Michael Curry and the costumes by William Ivey Long.

But the storytelling seems confined by Perfect’s score rather than liberated or enlivened by it. The songs don’t seem written to reveal character so much as to reveal just another song sung by just another person we don’t care much about. There’s a blandness to the words and music no matter how many applause-inducing buttons are appended. When the Belafonte numbers “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jump in the Line (Shake, Senora),” magically appear, the whole original score vanishes anyway, which leads one to wonder: how might Beetlejuice have fared as a play (with these Belafonte songs, which were also pivotal in the movie) rather than as a full-blown, please-everybody musical.

Sometimes it’s OK for the dead just to speak.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Beetlejuice continues through Dec. 31 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $66.50 – $194.50 (subject to change). Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes (including intermission). Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com.

On thin ice with Disney’s stage Frozen

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ABOVE: Caroline Bowman (left) is Elsa and Lauren Nicole Chapman is Anna with the company of the North American tour of Disney’s Frozen at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. BELOW: Collin Baja is Sven the reindeer and Jeremy Davis is Olaf the snowman. Photos by Matthew Murphy. © Disney


Frozen on stage is a disappointment. Here you have the No. 1 animated film of all time (according to Disney) with one of the most beloved and omnipresent songs from a movie (animated or otherwise) in decades, and it comes from a multimedia entertainment company that has a history of translating its properties to the Broadway musical stage.

When Disney adapts one of its own, the results can vary wildly, with the better results at one end (The Lion King, Aladdin, Peter and the Starcatcher, which is play with music) and the disasters at the other (Tarzan, The Little Mermaid), and a bunch of pleasant enough work filling the middle (Mary Poppins, Newsies, Aida). On that scale Frozen is not a disaster, but it’s barely entertaining and feels like a missed opportunity.

Director Michael Grandage’s production feels like it wants very much to be a Disney Wicked, with two strong women at the center of a story and the requisite bad guys and love story relegated to the periphery. But this show, which features sisters instead of frenemies, doesn’t do world building nearly as efficiently or effectively as Wicked, and the score, by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Bobby Lopez has a few high points from the movie (“Let It Go,” of course, “Love Is an Open Door” and “In Summer”) and a whole lot of filler.

The set and costume design by Christopher Oram copies the movie slavishly, and the translation from animation to three dimensions lacks imagination in the way the story does. It’s all so literal and without charm. When Elsa finally unleashes her powers in “Let It Go” and builds an ice palace, there’s a spiffy instant costume change, but the palace itself is something akin to a Swarovski-sponsored Christmas display at Nordstrom. The rest feels very theme park fake with heavy reliance on projections (by Finn Ross trying hard to turn live action back into animation) and icy lighting (by Natasha Katz).

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Performances are fine, but there’s not a lot demanded of the actors in terms of complication or subtlety. Voices all have that singing competition belt, and leads Caroline Bowman as Elsa and Lauren Nicole Chapman as Anna do their best to forge a sisterly bond and bridge the tonal gap in Jennifer Lee’s lazy book that shifts quickly from dramatic and dull to contemporary cartoon goofy.

What charm there is in this plodding production comes from Jeremy Davis as the fully visible puppeteer behind Olaf, the magically conjured snowman who likes warm hugs. Designed by Michael Curry (who provided similar services for The Lion King), the puppet has more personality that almost anyone on stage except Sven the reindeer, rendered as a fully costumed character and performed beautifully by Collin Baja and Dan Plehal alternating in the physically demanding role.

Of the humans, the brightest spark on the iceberg comes from Dominic Dorset as Kristoff, whose best song is still the sweetly silly “Reindeer(s) are Better Than People” from the movie, though he does his best with the heavy handed ballad “What Do You Know About Love?”

Even though the creative team has apparently tried to deepen the original story and correct the fact that the movie simply stops being a musical about halfway through, the results are so middling, there can’t be another reason for the show’s existence other than a money grab. There’s not a lot here for adults or musical theater enthusiasts, and for the target audience of kids, there will be moments of delight separated by too many turgid stretches.

There’s only one bit of appropriate advice here, and you probably know what that is. If you’re going to Frozen with an expectation of high-level Disney entertainment, do the opposite of hang on to it.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Disney’s Frozen continues through Dec. 30 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Running time: Two hours, 15 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $50.50-$294.50 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit sfbroadway.com.

Irresistible Temptations abound in Ain’t Too Proud

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ABOVE: The cast of the National Touring Company of Ain’t Too Proud includes (from left) Harrell Holmes Jr., Elijah Ahmad Lewis, Jalen Harris, Marcus Paul James and James T. Lane BELOW: Ain’t Too Proud tells the story of the Temptations’ rise to pop music glory. PHOTO CREDIT: EMILIO MADRID


A little more than five years ago, a new musical about a legendary musical group had its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations hit a few more cities before it landed on Broadway, where it ran from February 2019 to January of this year (with a Covid shutdown amid the blur of what we were told was 2020). Now the show is on the road again and back in the Bay Area, this time at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season.

[Read my review of the Berkeley Rep production here.]

It’s interesting to revisit a new show and see how it has evolved on its journey to Broadway. Ain’t Too Proud is definitely a stronger show than it was five years ago, although it’s hard to imagine a better cast than that original one (not to take anything away from the touring cast, which is terrific). The book by Dominique Morisseau is tighter and more focused, and the (Tony Award-winning) choreography by Sergio Trujillo is about as fun as it could possibly be as the Temps swoop and slide and do the splits in perfect gentlemanly boy band fashion.

Trujillo and director Des McAnuff also served as choreographer and director on another theatrical boyband biography: Jersey Boys. It’s interesting to see the similarities in the stories of two enterprising musical groups from humble beginnings begin their climb up the pop charts to superstardom and the inevitable drama of ego clashes, addictions, family turmoil and tragedies. There’s nothing new in either story when it comes to the depiction of fame. The climb is more interesting than the descent, and it’s amazing that so much good pop music came out of so much personal and professional chaos.

Jersey Boys is the better constructed show, with its careful balance of character, plot and jukebox musical nostalgia. But Ain’t Too Proud has much better music, though the production itself is overly slick with its many-layered video projections and the increasingly impersonal rush through the Temps’ history from solid quintet to fractured, battle-scarred Motown money-making machine with a revolving door of members.

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Given that the Temptations’ song catalogue is so rich with treasure, it can be frustrating when a song keeps getting interrupted for plot, and that happens a lot here. The song “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” for instance, is stretched about as far as it can be across years of exposition involving death and family strife.

But when tunes like “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” or “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” have room to land, they really land. The onstage band headed by Jonathan “Smitti” Smith, recreates that famous Motown sound with thrilling accuracy,

The cast, headed by Marcus Paul James as band founder Otis Williams (on whose book the show is based and who serves as one of the show’s executive producers), and he’s a solid guide through these “life and times.” The showcase singing (and dramatic fireworks) belong, as they did in life, to David Ruffin, played by Elijah Ahmad Lewis, and Eddie Kendricks, played by Jalen Harris. Both performers have electrifying moments, and the show definitely loses its oomph when their troubles – with Williams, with life, with substances, with health – begin pulling them in and out of the band.

But even as the story loses steam, the music keeps the energy level high and the entertainment value strong. Ain’t Too Proud may not have much new to say about the cost of fame and success, but it celebrates a legacy of great music that will keep the Temptations in the pantheon of our greatest music makers.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations continues through Dec. 4 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes. Tickets are $56-$256. Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com.

Alanis and her Jagged Little musical

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Above: Lauren Chanel (center) and the company of the North American Tour of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre. BELOW: Heidi Blickenstaff (left), Allison Sheppard (center) and Jena VanElslander. Photos by Matthew Murphy for Murphy Made


I was 28 when Alanis Morissette’s album Jagged Little Pill came out, and while I bought it and both liked and admired it, a deeper love never formed. I say that in preparation for saying that the musical inspired by the album, which is now having a tour stop at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, is not for me.

The show arrives with a pedigree that includes a revered director (Diane Paulus), an Academy Award-winning book writer (Diablo Cody) and, of course, the songs from that album that Morissette created with Glen Ballard (and to be fair, there are two new songs written just for the show alongside songs from several other Morissette albums). If you love the songs from the album and/or the Morissette oeuvre in general, you may enjoy the show more than I did.

Even with the theatrical-rock orchestrations by Tom Kitt for an 11-piece band, there’s a sameness to the sound of the songs, whether loud or quiet, and that is not very exciting, even though the show’s aim seems to be to energize Cody’s dissection of suburban darkness with a rock sensibility both in the music and in the aggressive choreography (by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui).

My problem with the show, in the absence of a score that grabs me emotionally, is that its “the suburbs are really poisonous pits of secrets and cruelty” vibe feels like a rehash of Next to Normal meets Dear Evan Hansen with an abiding wish to be American Idiot.

I like musicals that are about the real lives of real people, but this Pill, for its abundant
issues like opioid addiction, sexual assault, #MeToo, social media shaming, cisgender ignorance (of basically everything, including transgender or bisexual people), it all ends up being very politely wrapped up and presented with a nice little bow on top. The last number, set to “You Learn,” feels like a throwback to 1970s after-school specials.

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My dream of a “toxic suburbs” show would not have a single couch on stage, nor would there be any realistic representations of perfect houses. We know what the suburbs look and feel like down to our bones. While we blow up the idea of the suburbs, let’s also blow up the way we think we have to convey the suburbs.

Jagged Little Pill comes close to being truly original and electrifying twice, and both instances involve the secretly drug-addicted mom character, Mary Jane, played by the extraordinary Heidi Blickenstaff. The first takes us into her mental state as she gets her family ready for the day, chats with the local busybodies at the pharmacy and then covertly buys drugs in an alley. Throughout the song, “Smiling” (one of the new ones), she moves backward through her day in a steady stream of regret, pain and wishful thinking.

The other comes at Mary Jane’s breaking point, when past trauma and current addiction fold in on themselves in the from of a dance trio (set to “Uninvited”) with Allison Sheppard (as Bella) and the remarkable dancer Jena VanElslander, who is sort of Mary Jane’s dark mirror self. It’s a dazzling moment of character, narrative, song and choreography fusing into one.

More than any other person in the capable cast, Blickenstaff can veer between the biting humor and the soulful depths. Her voice pierces and soars in ways that transcend the songs – she is really something special. So, too, is Jade McLeod as Jo, an evolving teenager whose passion and intelligence burn bright. McLeod’s vocal performance comes closest to Morrissette herself, but without being a mimic makes the songs “Hand in My Pocket” and especially “You Oughta Know” ferociously powerful.

Jagged Little Pill needs more moments/performances like these to make the show feel less like carefully considered ideas about turning a beloved album into a show and more like the explosive American tragedy it seems, at heart, to want to be.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill continues through Nov. 6 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including one intermission). Tickets are $66.50-$157.50 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.org.

Yes it can-can can! Moulin Rouge! The Musical spins into SF

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ABOVE: The cast of the North American Tour of Moulin Rouge! The Musical, now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. BELOW: Courtney Reed as Satine and Conor Ryan as Christian the doomed lovers. Photos by Matthew Murphy for Murphymade


Way back in the early 2000s, I liked the soundtrack of Moulin Rouge much more than I liked Baz Luhrmann’s movie, which left me kind of cold and disappointed that all those mishmashed pop songs I loved on the soundtrack were put to use in a mostly uninteresting La Bohème ripoff movie that primarily coasted on the considerable appeal of Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman.

That’s why I was fully prepared not to enjoy the 10-time Tony Award-winning stage adaptation, now known as Moulin Rouge! The Musical. I never saw it on Broadway (where it is still running), but I did catch the tour, which has landed at the Orpheum Theatre for the next two months as part of the BroadwaySF season.

How wrong I was. I loved Moulin Rouge! The Musical, mostly because the music I so revered in the movie has become the heart of the stage show. The idea behind this adaptation, directed by Alex Timbers, written by John Logan and (this is so important) musically supervised by Justin Levine is simple: more, more more. One stage picture is more lavish the next; there’s more melodrama and fire in the performances from the leads to the ensemble; and there are many, many more songs – 75 songs to be exact, crammed into this 2 1/2-hour show, mostly in medley form. And they run the gamut from The Rolling Stones to Dolly Parton and Edith Piaf to David Bowie.

This show revels in the joy, the corniness and the deep attachments that are embedded in pop music. To sit with an audience that audibly reacts to a song’s opening lyrics as if to say, as one, “Oh, I love this song!” Or that murmured chuckle of recognition when an unlikely character starts sliding into a Rhianna song or some newfound friends find themselves Rick-rolled in a charming medley that starts with Rodgers and Hammerstein, morphs briefly into the theme from “Dawson’s Creek” (aka “I Don’t Want to Wait by Paula Cole) and then makes way for The Police.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical loves, reveres and occasionally derides pop music. The melodrama of the plot (still a consumptive slice of La Bohème) is merely a canvas on which to create a sound collage that exalts, among many others, Adele, Lady Gaga, Labelle and, most reverently, Elton John.

As Noël Coward put it in Private Lives, “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,” and here’s a whole, splashy, gaudy, gorgeous show to prove him right.

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Director Timbers, with repeated jolts of energy from choreographer Sonya Tayeh and her dancers, is like his onstage bohemians. He revels in the pure poppy pleasures of music, which makes this feel less like a traditional musical and more like a party where you’re trying to piece together a story with songs you love and loathe (and songs you love to loathe, a fascinating and abundant category). The ultimate aim is to have fun and get carried away – willingly manipulated, some might say – by the nostalgic associations that carbonate so much of the music in our lives.

This is all accomplished by a marvelous cast headed by Austin Durant as Harold Zidler, the owner of and onstage host at the infamous Moulin Rouge awash in the red lights of Paris’ Montmartre district. His star, or as he keeps putting it, his sparkling diamond, is Satine, played by Courtney Reed, whose singing is superior to her acting (the preferred order of things here), and his goal is to keep his struggling club afloat. To do that, he needs Satine to charm Duke Money Bags (actually the Duke of Monroth, played by the delectably sharp David Harris). But wouldn’t you know that poor old Satine, just about to succumb to consumption (even though she can still hit those amazing power notes in her songs), falls in love. The unlikely object of her affection is the penniless American composer Christian, just arrived in Paris, who immediately falls under the spell of newfound friends Toulouse-Lautrec (André Ward) and the robust Argentine Santiago (Gabe Martìnez.

This is really Christian’s story, and Conor Ryan’s performance makes for a dazzling centerpiece. His voice makes you understand why the worldly Satine would fall for such a naïf, and his hair flips make you see how she might go weak in the knees for someone who can’t help her financially. Sinewy and sexy, this Christian has so much charm you actually feel for him when he gets his heart broken and goes on a green-hued absinthe bender.

This frenzied show doesn’t have the cheap, scaled-down feel of many touring productions. Rather, the dazzling atomic-powered Valentine sets by Derek McLane and giddy costumes by Catherine Zuber feel like rich and lush elements in a fantasy world where people express themselves almost exclusively in pop songs and athletic dance.

When all the elements come together, as in the deliriously dreamy close of Act 1 with an elephant-sized love song medley, the result is pure musical theater heaven. Or when, after the inevitably sad ending, the cast heads into a mega-mix curtain call that involves audience sing-along, confetti and even a little Offenbach.

The key to a jukebox musical’s success is tapping into what people love about the chosen music in the first place and giving it a new spin. With its fun-loving attitude, party vibe and all-around gorgeousness, Moulin Rouge! The Musical is the most sumptuous Broadway jukebox yet.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Moulin Rouge! The Musical continues through Nov. 6 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $61-$256. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.broadwaysf.com.

A gorgeous Goddess descends at Berkeley Rep

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ABOVE: Amber Iman (front) is Nadira in the world-premiere musical Goddess directed by Saheem Ali, book by Jocelyn Bioh, music and lyrics by Michael Thurber at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Also pictured (l to r): Zachary Downer (Moto Moto Ensemble – Sameer), Phillip Johnson Richardson (Omari), Rodrick Covington (Ahmed), Melessie Clark (Grio Trio – Musi) and Awa Sal Secka (Grio Trio – Zawadi). BELOW (back, l to r) Awa Sal Secka (Grio Trio – Zawadi), Quiantae Thomas (Moto Moto Ensemble – Amina), Isio-Maya Nuwere (Moto Moto Ensemble – Safiyah), Wade Watson (Moto Moto Ensemble – Musa), Grasan Kingsberry (Moto Moto Ensemble – Jaali) and Teshomech (Grio Trio – Tisa). In front is Rodrick Covington as Ahmed. Photos by Kevin Berne and Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre


There are so many ways a world-premiere musical can go. Goddess had its splashy premiere this week at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and to use some examples from that theater company alone, a new musical can be bold and bracing and surely Broadway bound (Green Day’s American Idiot, Ain’t Too Proud); it can be intriguing but needs a lot of work (Amélie); or it can be a giant question mark, as in why oh why does this musical need to exist (Swept Away, Monsoon Wedding).

Goddess, an entirely original work (blessedly not based on a movie, a book or an existing catalogue of songs), is a vibrant explosion of exuberance featuring a cast whose combined talent and charisma is stratospheric. In those moments when this show clicks, its humor, emotion and storytelling fuse into the very reason we love musical theater – it is communal, it is bigger than us and it is filled with emotions that are too rich for words alone.

Happily, Goddess has a number of those moments in its 2 1/2 hours. From the joyous opening number introducing us to the setting – the nightclub Moto Moto in Mombasa, Kenya – it’s clear that this cast and creative team are going to take us somewhere worthwhile. That good will goes a long way toward keeping the show moving, even when the story gets a little clunky, when some of the songs don’t quite rise to the level of the performances and especially when the ending is clouded in rushed confusion.

To begin with the good in director/creator Saheem Ali’s production, look no further than the title character, Marimba, goddess of music in African folklore, who escapes her evil mother and takes mortal form so that she might find true love. On Earth, she becomes Nadira, the soulful headliner at Moto Moto, and while she spurns the advances of Madongo, the club’s owner, she falls for Omari, a sweet saxophone player whose parents are pushing him to continue their legacy as the first family of Mombasa politics.

Played by Amber Iman, whom local audiences might remember as Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds in the first national tour of Hamilton when it opened in San Francisco in 2017, Nadira is a bit of an innocent when it comes to the ways of love but has a sultry way with a song. Iman is 100% believable as a goddess in hiding and looks stunning (as does all the cast) in the eye-popping costumes by Dede Ayite. She offers several tour de force solos, and even if the songs by Michael Thurber stop just short of being the dramatic showcases she deserves, her riveting performances more than make up the difference.

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A general issue with Thurber’s score, as appealing as it is, has to do with a lack of depth in his lyrics and definitive shape to his melodies. For instance, from the second we meet Omari’s regal mom, Siti, played by the captivating Kecia Lewis, we know we need a big solo from her. She is the driving force behind pushing her son (even if it’s against his will) into politics because that is her family’s legacy stretching back for a century. When we finally get that song, Lewis’ performance is stunning, but the song itself is not. It lacks the sophistication of the character.

Other than throw-away songs for Omari’s too-strident fiancé, Cheche (Destinee Rea), and a bland “I will get what I want” song for the bad guy club owner (Lawrence Stallings), Thurber’s score has a pulsing appeal and pleasing pop sensibility, even if he leans far too heavily on the “above, of, love” rhyme scheme. The on-stage band, led by music director Marco Paguia, sounds great, and they’re at their best when the stage is in full party mode, and the ensemble is twirling, stomping and leaping to the lively choreography by Darrell Grand Moultrie.

As long as Goddess is in Moto Moto (a beautifully detailed set by Arnulfo Maldonado) or concentrating on Nadira, things are good. Whenever Jocelyn Bioh’s book wanders into Omari’s home life or his world of politics, things get a lot less interesting and much more melodramatic. The exceptions are the visits to Balozi (Reggie D. White), a shaman of sorts who can consort with the wishes of the gods. White is a compelling performer, and the stage smoke and video projections add a little pizazz to the production.

In supporting roles within the second-tier romantic plot, Abena as the club’s manager/bartender Rashida and Rodrick Covington as Ahmed, the club’s MC, are utterly charming and threaten to steal the show. But Nadira and Omari maintain the emotional center. Their love story, although rushed, is touching, and we root for them to achieve their destinies as the fullest versions of themselves. It seems there are some missed musical opportunities here with Nadira and Omari. She’s the goddess of music. He’s a musician. They sing/play together once, but that connection feels underdeveloped, especially musically.

And then there’s that ending, which is not as developed as it likely (hopefully) will be. A character shows up with a gun. Something happens with the shaman, an incredibly dramatic ballad is delivered and BOOM, the cast reprises the glorious opening number. Then we get to the cast bows. If something specific happened with the gun situation, I completely missed it. I wanted to be fully immersed in the jubilation of the ending, but I was honestly still trying to put the pieces together.

Even as this new musical continues to develop, there’s much to love and enjoy. This show could be the burst of color, energy and new life that Broadway needs. There are issues to work out, but this Goddess definitely has more than a prayer of success.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Goddess continues an extended run through Oct. 1 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$138. Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.
Goddess runs about 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.

Watch the opening number of Goddess in rehearsal:

The great Oklahoma! bloodbath

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ABOVE: Christopher Bannow (center left) is Jud Fry, Sean Grandillo (center) is Curly and Sasha Hutchings (right) is Laurey in the national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! BELOW: Hennessy Winkler as Will Parker, Sis as Ado Annie, and the company. Photo credit: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for Murphymade


OK, so it’s not exactly a bloodbath, but director Daniel Fish’s bold new take on the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! is definitely gorier than your grandmammy’s memory of this nearly 80-year-old musical. There’s a lot that’s different in Fish’s production – now at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season – and a lot that’s the same. It’s all part of re-thinking how to approach an American classic that allows a contemporary entry point into something we think we already know.

This revival’s original production as an intimate and involving affair, with audience and cast in the same space and cornbread and chili served during intermission. The touring production has to work on a traditional proscenium stage, so we get set designer Laura Jellinek creating a big, bright, wood-covered box filled with wooden picnic tables and folding chairs. There are colorful metallic banners (like at a carnival or used car lot) and guns. Lots and lots of guns in racks.

This is Oklahoma Territory circa 1906. There are some fields and homesteads painted on the wood-paneled walls, but things are pretty austere. The same word could be used to describe Scott Zelinski’s lights, which frequently shine brightly on the audience or, in a moment of passion, wash the stage entirely in green or red. The seven-piece (mostly string) band is on stage as well and scenes fold in on one another without much delineation. Fish doesn’t have time for things like specific locations or set pieces. He and his company are here to strip things down.

There’s nothing lush, plush or flush with sentiment about this Oklahoma!. The score has a lean bluegrass sound, and the voices are, for the most part, smaller and twangier and not that robust musical theater sound (as in the 1955 movie with Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae). Performances in general are more focused and interior – often more like a play than a musical – and Fish has a trick that he (over)uses when he wants the audience to focus on the dialogue: he turns off all the lights and has the actors speak into handheld microphones. There are also instances of handheld video projections on the big back wall just to remind us that in the 21st century, the cutting edge always involves a screen.

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There are lots of Bud Light cans on the picnic tables, abundant ice chests, piles of shucked and unshucked corn on the cob (which is used by the womenfolk to make a mess of the stage – take THAT Little House on the Prairie!) and there are moments that feel much more Green Day’s American Idiot than Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!.

Fish’s theatrical experiments certainly shake things up and make us pay attention, and that attention pays off in several ways that make you want to shout “yeeow-a-yip-i-o-ee ay!” The first is a dazzling Ado Annie from Sis, who is funny, naive, sensual and surprising in equal measure. She cain’t say no, but she also cain’t stop stealing every scene she’s in. Another high point is Sasha Hutchings as Laurey, who is drawn to the dark, outsider energy of hired hand Jud Fry (Christopher Bannow) and to the full-of-himself machismo of cowboy Curly (Sean Grandillo). Hutchings’ voice fully and effectively conveys the character’s ambivalence, longing and, frankly, horniness.

There’s definitely an erotic charge to this production – like characters, from Ado Annie and Ali Hakim (Benj Mirman) to the intriguing triangle of Laurey, Curly and Jud, are all aware of their genitals. So often in musicals it seems like characters are like dolls with nothing but molded plastic below the waist.

The one major disappointment here is the dream ballet. Originally choreographed by Agnes de Mille, the sequence illuminates the Laurey-Curly-Jud triangle. Here, with athletic choreography by John Heginbotham and wailing electric guitars from the band, dancer Jordan Wynn wears a sparkly, much too wink-wink “Dream Baby Dream” t-shirt and gives us a jittery dream Laurey that fails to connect in any meaningful way.

We tend to think of the end of this musical as the ensemble singing the rousing title song and spelling out the name of a new state. And while that certainly happens, there’s also a death, which in this version involves a gun and a very direct murder (not someone falling on a knife). There’s a bloody, painful cost to progress, this version seems to say, and it comes to those who fall outside the acceptable center. A new American twist on a classic American tale. And it makes you never want to hear, let alone sing, the song “Oklahoma!” ever again. Thematically, that makes sense. But for showtune lovers, that’s not OK.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! continues through Sept. 11 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 www.broadwaysf.com.