Young actor soars in autism musical Max Understood

Max Understood 1
Jonah Broscow is Max, a young man with autism in the world premiere of the musical Max Understood by Nancy Carlin and Michael Rasbury. Photo by Mark Palmer

In the world of pop culture, we’ve had precious few insights into the world of autism. Certainly the work of Oliver Sacks and Temple Grandin (and the HBO movie about her starring Claire Danes) have provided a window, as has the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, which was adapted for the stage by London’s National Theatre in 2012 before becoming a big hit on Broadway. Now local actor/director/ Nancy Carlin and composer Michael Rasbury have created a musical about a young boy with autism called Max Understood.

After three workshop productions, Max finally receives his world premiere with a production directed by David Schweizer at the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason. Like the stage version of Curious Incident, this production attempts to show us the world through the young man’s eyes, experiencing the sounds and sensations the way he does as he moves through a day that starts in the safety of his family home and then takes him for a dangerous solo journey through his neighborhood.

At the center of the show is fifth grader Jonah Broscow as Max, and his performance, from the very first moment of the 75-minute show right to the end, is extraordinary. His precise, fascinating performance galvanizes the entire production, and when he finally gets to sing (a lovely song called “Poetry” performed alongside a mermaid), it’s heartbreakingly lovely.

The idea to immerse us in Max’s world gets off to a powerful start with the opening number, “Noise Symphony,” which incorporates the astonishing sound design by The Norman Conquest. Alarms and cars and clocks and every little sound of an average morning are amplified until we feel as overwhelmed as Max. Then we meet Max’s parents (Teddy Spencer and Elise Youssef. Mom loves her song but longs for a more normal life. Dad, as a way to survive, has shut himself off emotionally (it’s almost like their part of the musical is a lost chapter of Next to Normal). While mom and dad struggle with the details of the day, Max slips out of the house on his little scooter.

Out on the street, he meets a mean teenage girl (Alyssa Rhoney), a nerdy boy with a head for facts (Jeremy Kahn), a sweet young woman (Hayley Lovgren) and a gardner with a fondness for leaf blowing (Jackson Davis). Like The Wizard of Oz, which Jonah watches repeatedly, these figures become fantasy characters that populate his journey. The nice lady doing her laundry, for instance, grows wings like his beloved Pegasus toy, and the nerdy boy embodies both Max’s obsession with both Albert Einstein and the American presidents (their song “Rushed Up” is a highlight of the score).

Director Schweizer makes effective use of the giant revolving set (by Alexander V. Nichols), which begins as a fairly straightforward family living room but then revolves to reveal a steep rake, which beautifully captures the projections (by Micah J. Stieglitz) and makes the outside world feel precarious and rather dangerous for anyone who’s running up and down its length.

There’s an emotional distance to the storytelling, which could be intentional given Max’s remove from the world he inhabits, but that distance is at odds with the nature of a musical, which usually uses songs and underscoring to draw an audience in emotionally. There are emotional moments to be sure, but we’re either too far in to Max’s world or not far enough to really make the show soar. This is an unusual, sophisticated piece of new musical theater. It’s clearly a labor of love, and Max Understood offers an intriguing glimpse into the world of autism but still hasn’t fully pulled us into that world.

Max Understood continues through April 26 at the Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$40. Call 415-392-4400 or visit

Enter Stage Left: SF theater history on film

Stage Left 1
Robin Williams is interviewed in a scene from the documentary Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco.

Docuemntary film director/producer Austin Forbord (below right) has created a fascinating documentary about the history of San Francisco theater from the post-World War II days up to the present. The movie has its premeire at the Mill Valley Film Festival this week and will likely see wider release soon after.
Austn Forbord
I interviewed Forbord for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. You can read the story here.

The extraordinary cast of interviewees includes: Robert Woodruff, Chris Hardman, Christina Augello, Robin Williams, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, Tony Taccone, David Weissman, Misha Berson, Cynthia Moore, Luis Valdez, Peter Coyote, Herbert Blau, Robert Hurwitt, Jean Schiffman, Anna Halprin, Mort Subotnick, RG Davis, Joan Holden, Oskar Eustis, Richard E.T. White. Larry Eilenberg, Bill Irwin, Jeffery Raz, Kimi Okada, Geoff Hoyle, Joy Carlin, Carey Perloff, Bill Ball, Ed Hastings, Bernard Weiner, Charles “Jimmy” Dean, Robert Ernst, Paul Dresher, John O’Keefe, Leonard Pitt, Scrumbly Koldewyn, Pam Tent, John Fisher, Melissa Hillman, Brad Erickson, Philip Gotanda, John LeFan, Dan Hoyle, Stanley Williams and Krissy Keefer.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

You can keep up to date on the movie’s trajectory at the oficial website (click here).

Heading to the ‘Lighthouse’

Here at Theater Dogs, we zip from one subject to the next — from the dark cynicism of American $uicide to the zip of a light saber with One-Man Star Wars Trilogy.

Well, imagine how hard it must have been for director Les Waters (above) to go from the child torture and murder of The Pillowman to the world of Virginia Woolf and her sedate surfaces and roiling interior emotions.

Last month at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Waters opened Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman one week and began rehearsals for the world-premiere stage adaptation of Woolf’s 1927 novel To the Lighthouse the next.

“I went from an aggressive male play with a fast rhythm to working on unconventional scenes that appear to be like scenes you’d encounter in a conventional play, but everyone is speaking their internal thoughts,” Waters explains. “My first week of Lighthouse following Pillowman was a jolt to my system.”

Waters, who is Berkeley Rep’s associate artistic director, never counted himself as a Virginia Woolf fan. Growing up in England, he didn’t study her in high school or college, but he did see Sally Potter’s movie version of Orlando starring Tilda Swinton.

“I think I had some kind of reservation or distance toward Virginia Woolf, which sounds stupid,” Waters says. “There’s such a cult around her, particularly in England. Every member of that Bloomsbury group had diaries or letters published, and I always thought, `Oh, God. No more.”’

But while working as a professor in the theater department at UC San Diego, Waters’ colleague, Adele Edling Shank, handed him a script for her adaptation of To the Lighthouse.

Waters read it and then bought the novel.

“Yes. Virginia Woolf. I’d come on board,” Waters says.

That was about six years ago, and this weekend the Lighthouse finally shines.

Previews begin this weekend, and the show opens Feb. 28 at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre.

Like the novel, the play is in three sections: “The Window,” in which the Ramsay family visits its summer home in the Hebrides; “Time Passes,” a fast-forward peek into the various Ramsays’ lives (and deaths); and “The Lighthouse,” set 10 years after the family last visited the vacation home, and involving the painting of a picture and a boat trip to the lighthouse.

Not exactly action packed, but then again Woolf was all about breaking the conventions of the novel. That’s why Woolf and Shank added music to their stage version.

“For a while, the script felt like a normal adaptation,” Waters says. “We knew we needed to expand or develop in a different direction. It felt a little tight and needed to go somewhere else. The same way Woolf is experimenting with the form and content of a novel, Adele felt there was something we needed to do to push the adaptation just past being a tightly controlled distillation of the text.”

Enter composer Paul Dresher, who composed the play’s score, which will be played onstage by the Seventh Avenue String Quartet.

Waters says the music starts off the play and helps in scene transitions at first, then fully develops during the “Time Passes” sequence.

“In `Journey to the Lighthouse,’ the four performers sing the majority of the text,” Waters says. “If you read the section, it’s very dry. Set to music, it expands with these sorts of volcanic emotions.”

This is Waters’ first time working on an adaptation (he doesn’t really count his work with Caryl Churchill on Mouthful of Birds, which was “such a loose adaptation” of Euripides’ The Bacchae ). There are a couple of other novels he’d like to see come to the stage, notably Lynn Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field.

“I’m also a huge fan of Proust,” he says. “But how? I have no idea. You could ask the same question of Woolf. The answer is: You try.”

To the Lighthouse continues through March 25 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Call (510) 647-2949 or visit