Theater moments: Reflections on 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hairy Botter: Naked on Broadway

Little Daniel Radcliffe grew up before our eyes in the Harry Potter movies. Earlier this year, he did his utmost to break away from the “boy wizard” image by starring in a London production of Peter Shaffer’s Equus.

The headline grabber was that the play _ about a mentally disturbed young man who injures a stable full of horses _ requires its star to go starkers.

Now the news is that 18-year-old Radcliffe and the production, which also stars Richard Griffiths (Tony Award-winner for The History Boys), is coming to Broadway.

In an interview with the AP’s Christy Lemire, Radcliffe joked about being naked on a cold stage. Here’s the exchange:

AP: Is it cold on that stage?

Radcliffe: (Smiles) Yes, it’s very well air-conditioned.

AP: There’s shrinkage?

Radcliffe: (Smiles again) There is an element of retraction, certainly.

On the subject of the media frenzy over Radcliffe’s nudity, Radcliffe addressed all the puns involved:

Radcliffe: I could write so many good puns, I’m sorry. They’ve used “Hairy Botter” about five or six times now.

AP: And then there are the obligatory wand puns, of course.

Radcliffe: The wand puns, yeah, you can have lots of fun with them.

Word is that Radcliffe will make the sixth Potter movie next year, and Broadway will follow. Lemire asked the young actor (who appears in a non-Potter movie this fall, December Boys) about the whole Potter phenomenon.

AP: Do you think you understand the insanity of the Harry Potter phenomenon any better today than you did at the beginning?

Radcliffe: Not at all. I think it’s almost impossible to fully comprehend. When you’re in the middle of something, you can’t see how far it stretches. And that’s sort of my position on it. I met someone the other day who said, “You’re really big in Kuwait.”

Proving that he’s serious about breaking the Potter mold, Radcliffe appeared in the last season of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s brilliant comedy “Extras.” He made fun of the whole Potter thing and was hilarious.

Here’s a lengthy clip from that episode. The scene on the food bus is priceless.

The naked truth

What is it about actors that allows them to be naked onstage?

Does that courage come from the same source that lets them be actors in the first place, a mix of confidence, capability and desperate insecurity?

Whatever it is, I admire it. I can barely do the swimsuit thing on a public beach.

I was thinking a lot about the whole nudity thing while sitting in the audience at San Francisco’s Lorraine Hansberry Theatre watching 2 Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter’s Night, a play by James Edwin Parker that opened Sunday.

The plot, as you might gather from the title, is about two 36-year-old men (not exactly boys, but we’ll concede the point) in the midst of what the kids call a hook-up.

The set is a dimly lit gray New York apartment with a Murphy bed, and face down in that bed is Paul Lekakis (above right, a performer who once had a dance club hit called “Boom Boom Boom Let’s Go Back to My Room,’’ which could be this show’s theme song).

He’s naked, of course, but discretely covered with sheets. Then Scott Douglas Cunningham comes out of the bathroom attired in a robe. After squirting a few jolts of Binaca into his mouth, he disrobes and snuggles into bed next to the sleeping figure.

If Cunningham has any reservations about showing off his body, you certainly wouldn’t know it from this show. Lekakis seems a little more hesitant about going “full monty,’’ but he does it.

It’s a relief, as the 75-minute play goes on, that the “boys” do eventually put some clothes on. It’s difficult to concentrate on dialogue when you keep thinking, “Well, would you look at that,” or, “Hmm. I guess that’s what they mean by manscaping.”

The play, given solid direction by David Drake, does actually turn out to be about more than flesh and appendages, and that something is intimacy and the ways in which both reality and fantasy interfere with it.

Set in 1987, the drama is something of a throwback, but when it gets down to the business of trying to figure out just what men want in terms of sex, companionship and honesty, the year hardly matters because those things don’t seem to change much.

The promise of nudity will lure in the theatergoers (though probably not many of the Union Square tourists), but the play delivers something more substantial: a serious look at the difficulty of establishing human connection.

For information about 2 Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter’s Night, visit

Vegas query: Broads or Broadway?


Calling Las Vegas the Broadway of the West is really pushing it.

Sure, Mama Mia! has blossomed into a hit, and it looks like Spamalot and The Phantom of the Opera have a chance of success of long runs in the hot desert, but Chicago, Avenue Q and Hairspray didn’t live up to expectations.

The lesson from those shows is that Vegas – like the American public at large – is fickle and can’t always be bothered with something as tiresome as a plot.

Cirque du Soleil has achieved near-religious status in Vegas because it offers up grandiose spectacle that dazzles and overwhelms (almost to a fault), but except for Ka, there are no plots. There are barely even characters.

So what’s a poor little Broadway musical to do in the face of the Cirque juggernaut?

If you’re Spamalot (above), you roll ‘em in the aisles. During my three years in Vegas last week, I saw a lot of empty spectacle, so the stage version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the Wynn Las Vegas was like an oasis of authenticity.

There’s nothing authentic about the show, of course. As adapted by Pythoner Eric Idle, it’s pure silliness, but the laughs are real and hearty.

John O’Hurley (best known as J. Peterman on “Seinfeld’’ and as the “Dancing with the Stars’’ champion) plays King Arthur, and he’s every bit as good as Tim Curry was on Broadway. In fact the whole cast, which includes Harry Bouvy, Justin Brill, J. Anthony Crane, Randal Keith, Edward Staudenmayer, Steven Strafford and Nikki Crawford, is fantastic.

This is a 90-minute, intermissionless version of the show, and that’s just fine. Brevity is the soul of comedy, and director Mike Nichols has trimmed the show appropriately.

Crawford’s Lady of the Lake is a showstopper, and her second-half number, “The Diva’s Lament,’’ has had to be re-written because the Knights of the Round Table no longer search for shrubbery. The song also mentions Jennifer Hudson and gets off a quick “And I Am Telling You’’ riff.

Mel Brooks’ The Producers at the Paris Las Vegas also gets its share of honest laughs, though this is a show whose time has come — and gone.

This abbreviated Vegas version loses at least five songs (including “Der Guten Tag Hop Clop,’’ “That Face,’’ “You Never Say Good Luck on Opening Night,’’ “Where Did We Go Right?’’ and “Betrayed’’) and doesn’t bother with the Act 2 white washing of the set.

But all the good parts — “Little Old Lady Land’’ with its tap-dancing walkers and, of course, the sublimely silly “Springtime for Hitler’’ – are still present and accounted for. There just seems to be something deflated about the comedy.

Lee Roy Reams (replacing David Hasselhoff) is hamming it up something fierce as Roger DeBris, the worst director in New York, and Bill Nolte is nearly stealing the show as Franz Liebkind, the author of the worst play ever written. Brad Oscar (an original Broadway cast member) is a reliable Max Bialystock and Larry Raben is a worthy Leo Bloom.

The audience seems to have a good time with the show (which even though it feels somewhat empty is still far superior to the lame movie version of the musical), but I was uncomfortable with some of the gay and ethnic humor, like the laughs were more “at’’ than “with.’’

Which brings us to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular, which is the official name of the dead, soulless heap of stagecraft playing at the Venetian.

The $40 million spent to create a Phantom theater and produce a 95-minute version of the 20-year-old show is certainly visible, but when the best part of a show is the crowd of 80 Belgian-made mannequins (above) that sit in the “opera boxes’’ lining the theater, you know there’s a problem.

In trimming the score, Lloyd Webber has done the show a favor. It seems less bloated and self-important now. But the speed of Harold Prince’s new staging turns the show into what it has always threatened to become: a theme park ride.

In the face of Cirque du Soleil’s O and Love, seeing stage smoke and candles come up from under the stage is not that impressive.

The Vegas chandelier begins the show in multiple pieces, and when they fly into place, it looks like the theater is being overrun by UFOs. When the chandelier falls, the effect is truly impressive: it drops at great speed directly down toward the audience. You can actually feel the whoosh of its drop. But that’s the only thrill here.

Broadway veterans Brent Barrett and Anthony Crivello are sharing the role of the Phantom. I saw the Tony Award-winning Crivello, and he made absolutely no impression at all other than a certain proficiency at hitting his marks. The less said about Christine (Elizabeth Loyacano at my performance) and Raoul (Tim Martin Gleason) the better. I’ll just say the beautifully costumed mannequins gave more believable performances.

I feel about Phantom the way I feel about Las Vegas: I hope the last time was the last time.

And now, one last dip into the Vegas waters. Some 25 years ago, Donn Arden, a master of the Vegas spectacular, crafted Jubilee! in the style to which Vegas had become accustomed, which meant topless showgirls, G-stringed showboys, state-of-the-art special effects circa 1981 (Oooh, fire! Oooh, water!) and thousands of glittery, feathery costumes.

Now that’s the kind of Vegas I’m talking about. I loved every super-cheesy, old-school minute of Jubilee! from the opening Ziegfeld-like number to the ridiculous, nearly nude story of “Samson and Delilah.’’ When you fill a glittery stage with 85 performers high stepping to a mostly pre-recorded soundtrack, never mind the nudity: The spirit of 1970s variety shows lives!

But nothing rivals the sinking of the Titanic (following a ridiculous parade of dancing and Bob Mackie costumes that recall a finale from “The Carol Burnett Show’’). After we see the ship sink amid hulking icebergs, the stage goes black. Within seconds, the cast returns, outfitted in red-white-and-blue to sing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.’’

The mind fairly reels. From tragedy to patriotism in the blink of a false eyelashed eye.

Today’s Vegas looks like an otherworldly circus and smells like air freshener working overtime to cover up cigarette smoke, greed and desperation. Old Vegas smells like smoke, vice and rhinestones and looks like Jubilee! Now, if only Frank, Sammy and Elvis would return, I might actually think about liking Las Vegas.

So many Cirques


The celebrated Montreal-based circus re-inventors Cirque du Soleil currently has five shows in Vegas (with two more on the way — one, an Elvis-themed show, the other built around magician Criss Angel).

The only Cirque show I missed this trip was Mystere, the first one (at Treasure Island), but I saw it years ago when I said I’d never be back in Vegas.

Mystere is probably the most similar to the touring shows we see here in the Bay Area. It’s a basic Cirque experience, but the company has expanded its horizons with each successive production.

Still the best all-around show is O (above) continues to be a transcendent experience. The theme is water, and the stage is a 1.5 million-gallon pool with the ability to create a dry stage or a pool deep enough for high-divers to make your heart stop when they leap from their lofty perch.

Nearly 10 years old, O is not showing its age at all and is, in fact, the most graceful and transporting show on the Strip.

The other big Cirque show is Love, which opened earlier this year amid great hoopla. Instead of the weird, New Age-y pop music found in most Cirque shows, this one uses a soundtrack by a rock quartet from Liverpool.

If you’re going to break tradition by using recordings instead of a live band, it’s probably a good thing your band is the Beatles.

It’s also a good thing to get original Beatles producer Sir George Martin and his son Gilles to come in with bounteous material from the Beatles vaults and then remaster, remix and just generally fiddle with the original recordings.

The result is a captivating sound montage that incorporates 29 Beatles tunes almost in their entirety along with bits and pieces of dozens more combined with dialogue by John, Paul, George and Ringo from recording sessions, movies and a variety of sources.

The show — at the Mirage, where Siegfried and Roy used to be before Roy was nearly killed by a tiger — has been described by its creators as a visual rock ‘n’ roll poem, and that’s exactly what it is.

Images of the ’60s, both groovy and violent, get a surreal twist as we tumble through the Beatles songbook played through a sound system that has been designed to make us feel like we’re actually inside the songs.

Two speakers in each seat’s headrest combined with a surround-sound speaker in front of each seat create a very personal sound bubble, and it would almost be worth the ticket price ($69-$150) just to sit and listen to the soundtrack in the dark.

But this is more than an incredible aural experience. Even though you’ll probably remember the songs more than the images, creators Guy Laliberte, Dominic Champagne, Gilles Ste-Croix and Chantal Tremblay have outdone themselves crafting a dazzling blend of dancing, video projections and circus acrobatics.

“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” gets a fairly literal translation, with ladies soaring over the theater (a complete 360-degree space) with strings of lights creating a trippy version of deep space.

“Blackbird” uses the two permanent video screens (attached to the wall) and the four moving screens to project images of white blackbirds against a blue sky.

The best circus stunt — the acts here feel less showy and more like fancy choreography than in other Cirque shows — comes during “Revolution”/“Back in the USSR” as hippies and gas-mask-wearing policemen use trampolines to leap over a giant British phone booth.

For those of us not on drugs, the trippy “Octopus’s Garden” number, complete with outlandish creatures from the fictional deep, sure makes us feel otherworldly.

Equally mind-bending are the two enormous, wraith-like paper puppets that soar through “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

My favorite moment of the show isn’t musical. Shadow figures of the Beatles appear projected on an almost invisible curtain. On the ground at the lads’ feet is the famous Abbey Road crosswalk. The dialogue — patched together from various audio sources — is like a comedy routine from the quartet, ending in the crossing of the street made famous on the “Abbey Road” album cover.

Of course the evening ends with “All You Need Is Love,” and if you need a surefire show in Vegas and have already seen O, all you need is Love.

The most troubled Cirque show in Vegas is Zumanity at the New York-New York hotel and casino. The company was charged with creating an adult show that really pushed the envelope of Vegas shows. So that’s what it delivered, but it was apparently too much. Apparently as many people walked out of the Zumanity as stayed, so changes were made, and it was altered.

Based on what I saw, I’m not sure I’d want to see the really dirty version. This is an enjoyably adult show that, though it has certain Cirque trademarks, is a very different experience.

There’s nudity, foul language, same-sex kissing, pretend S&M, a chaste orgy (complete with two audience volunteers) and two really terrific clowns: Shannan Calcutt and Nicky Dewhurst (above) as a freewheeling couple who do funny things with sex toys, bananas and audience members. Calcutt also does a solo bit involving her bare chest, two plastic bags and a bottle of scotch. I can’t really tell you more, but it’s hilarious, and she’s a treasure.

Cirque’s Ka at the MGM Grand was supposed to be the show that redefined the company. This one had a story (in the folksy, fantasy Lord of the Rings realm) and an extraordinary stage that seemingly existed outside the bounds of gravity.

The show is technically extraordinary, and just being in the theater (beautifully themed to look like an otherworldly oil rig or something equally as mechanical and complex) is exciting.
The story, told without words (except for some ponderous opening narration), is reasonably interesting, though many in the critics’ group found it difficult to follow.

I enjoyed Ka, though I would say it falls behind O and Love and, for sheer entertainment value, even Zumanity, which is sort of perceived to be the unloved Cirque stepchild.

Next post: Broadway West? Reviewing Las Vegas’ Phantom, Spamalot and The Producers, not to mention some well-aged Vegas cheese, Jubilee.

Review: `Take Me Out’

Baseball drama aims for more than just naked truth

three stars Play ball!

It’s a shame that Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out is known as “the naked baseball play.”

Sure, there’s more male nudity than in all the previous Tony Award-winning best plays combined. Sure, the front rows have more than their share of gawkers. But at least there’s an actual play there amid all that flesh.

At its best, “Take Me Out,” now receiving a sturdy, often insightful production from San Francisco’s New Conservatory Theatre Center, the play is more than simply a play about a popular major league baseball player who rocks the ultra-macho world of professional sports by coming out of the closet.

The play is often about being part of something larger than our individual selves. There’s a spiritual element (couched in intense, baseball-loving dialogue) that goes beyond labels like “baseball play” or even “gay play.”

Being part of a community — whether it’s a baseball team or a stadium full of cheering or booing fans — consumes much of Take Me Out and its flashes _ not just of skin _ of tremendous intelligence, humor and compassion.

Director Ed Decker’s production succeeds in many ways comparable to the touring Broadway version that played San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre in 2004.

This is a more modest production without all the bells and whistles (or running water for the shower scenes), but its smaller, more intimate nature gives Greenberg’s philosophical dialogue a more comfortable, thought-provoking arena.

The intimacy also underscores the play’s trouble spots — mostly in Act 2 when the emerging plot is hijacked by violence _ and its tendency to make athletes sound like college professors or complete dunderheads. Greenberg also has a tendency to use race as a substitute for character when it comes to the minor players on the team.

The most striking performance comes from Jeffrey Cohlman (above, center) as the bad guy: Shane Mungitt, a racist rookie from the minor leagues brought on board to help the world-champion New York Empires clinch another title.

Mungitt, unlike so many of the other characters, is barely verbal, and there’s something terrifying in the lanky tension of his body and the vacant look in his eyes. Cohlman, with his redneck sideburns and Southern drawl, goes far beyond caricature to create a truly menacing — either through ignorance or intent — player.

As main character Darren Lemming, Brian J. Patterson (seen in the photo at the top of the review) has the requisite good looks, and he manages to give the character some shading beyond his vanity and super-size ego.

Matt Socha as Kippy Sunderstrom, the ball player who serves as our narrator, has warmth and charm.

As for the other guys, well, kudos to them for their ability and willingness to be little more than fleshy set dressing.

There’s probably more nudity than is really necessary here, but this is a play dealing with, among other things, masculinity and vulnerability — the naked truth if you will — so at least there’s some sense under the sensation.

Take Me Out may not be a grand slam, but it’s a good, solid triple that leaves you wondering if baseball — or believing in baseball or believing in something — is really the secret of life.

For information about Take Me out, visit