Ray of Light’s Party is wild and winsome

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The cast of Ray of Light Theatre’s The Wild Party celebrates 1920s style in a Ray of Light Theatre production at the Victoria Theatre. Below: Queenie (Jocelyn Pickett) and Black (RaMond Thomas) Photos by Nick Otto

San Francisco has known its share of wild parties, but the particular bit of revelry now happening at the Victoria Theatre under the auspices of Ray of Light Theatre is of particular interest. Once again, this enterprising company ignites the local musical theater scene with remarkable energy and talent, and their production of The Wild Party imbues a flawed show with undeniable passion and pizazz.

An interesting footnote in musical theater history, 1928 poem The Wild Party received two musical adaptations in the 1999-2000 season. One by Michael John LaChiusa, is a little more dense and complex, and another by Andrew Lippa that is lighter and more accessible. The latter is the version produced by Ray of Light.

Lippa’s show boasts some real show-stopping moments, but there’s no character you really care about, and his score feels like Kander and Ebb’s Chicago and Cabaret spawned a love child with Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. There’s period pastiche with more contemporary pop that creates a glossy version of decadence that never really feels downright dirty or dangerous. Act One, in which lovers Queenie and Burrs throw a party in an effort to inject a little life into their stale relationship, is much livelier and more fun than Act Two, which zeroes in on the doomed love triangle between Queenie, Burrs and the enigmatic Black. There’s no place for the story to go except to its logical extreme, and without any surprise elements or characters we really care about, it’s all a big shrug.

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That said, director Jenn BeVard does everything she can to keep this party going. Her 14-member cast has the vivacity thing down. They attack this material like it was shrimp on the hors d’oeuvres table, enlivening the choreography by Alex Rodriguez and giving the score their all, which is considerable. Music Director David Aaron Brown fronts a wonderful sextet that’s big on the brass and makes you want to keep the party going even after it reaches its (predictably) tragic end.

The stage of the Victoria looks great thanks to set designer Erik LaDue, who eschews a realistic (or even impressionistic) New York apartment set in favor of a crumbling theater, with red velvet curtains akimbo and bar shelves full of bottles that look like they’re all about to shatter on the floor.

Leading lady Jocelyn Pickett as Queenie has a strong, gorgeous voice and uses it to great effect on “Raise the Roof” – one of the show’s two stand-out songs – and “Who Is This Man?” Paul Grant Hovannes as Burrs is equally adept at tackling Lippa’s score and creating the image of a passionate man and vaudeville clown by trade who is prone to violence, making him a truly scary clown. His “Let Me Drown” in Act Two isn’t a great song, but he turns into a thrilling number. Strong support comes from Alexandra Feifers as Kate, a party guest with designs on Burrs (and a nice stash of nose candy in her brassiere), and she gets the show’s other musical highlight, “The Life of the Party.” And RaMond Thomas radiates sexy allure as Black, the party guest who will end up in the bathtub with Queenie and in trouble with Burrs.

Kathryn Fox Hart as Madeline True has a great moment with “An Old-Fashioned Love Story,” and Daniel Barrington Rubio and Lizzie O’Hara have a lovely vaudevillian duet – he’s giant, she’s tiny – in the charming “Two of a Kind.”

By the time the party devolves into the requisite orgy, nothing of much interest happens (other than a solo dance by Malakani Severson) and the show whimpers away in a funk of gunplay, blood and depressed revelers. All parties have to come to an end. It’s just a shame that this Party is going so strong for so long that it has to crash with so little dramatic consequence.

Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party continues through June 11 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$40. Visit www.rayoflighttheatre.com.

Sweet transvestite! Ray of Light rocks Rocky Horror

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D’Arcy Drollinger as Frank-n-Furter in the Ray of Light Theatre production of The Rocky Horror Show at the Victoria Theatre. Photo by Erik Scanlon

Just in time for Halloween, Ray of Light Theatre invites us to come up to the lab and see what’s on the slab. Any prospect of a live Rocky Horror Show makes us shiver with antici….SAY IT!…………pation. And here’s the good news: this Rocky is a rollicking ride through one of the most beloved cult musicals of all time.

Jason Hoover, Ray of Light’s artistic director, is at the helm of this full-scale production, which Ray of Light last produced in 2008 when Hoover played Brad Majors, one half of the imperiled couple trapped in a remote and mysterious castle on a sultry, stormy night. With a game cast and some terrific singers, Hoover delivers a high-energy, high-camp Horror that will satisfy even diehard fans of the show and its more popular movie version.

At the center of the action, in the towering heels and fishnetted legs that go on for days, is D’Arcy Drollinger as Dr. Frank-n-Furter, the sweet transvestite from transexual Transylvania. Drollinger looks and sounds great, and boy, does he know how to command a stage and work an audience. He’s especially funny at the top of Act 2 when, in shadow, he seduces Brad (Ryan Cowles) and Janet (Chelsea Holifield) individually, corrupting each in the process.

Cowles and Holifield make for an appealingly nerdy couple learning to swim in the warm waters of the sins of the flesh, and on the other end of their spectrum are Frank’s minions, Riff Raff (Paul Hovannes), Magenta (Tielle Baker) and Columbia (Mary Kalita), who lead a rousing “Time Warp.” Hovannes has a spectacular voice, which he puts to good use in a powerhouse “Over at the Frankenstein Place.”

Choreographer Bobby Bryce makes the bustier-clad chorus of phantoms work hard, but he gets great results. There’s energy to spare here, and with his sassy moves, even secondary numbers like “Once in a While” come alive.

Steve Hess has some fun in the dual role of narrator and Dr. Scott, though at Wednesday’s opening night performance, he seemed a trifle thrown by the very active audience participation component involving a select few failing to miss an opportunity to throw up classic and newly fashioned retorts to the dialogue on stage. (My favorite audience jab of the night came at the beginning of Janet’s “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me” with the audience line “Tell us about the Giants” preceded her lyric “Couldn’t win.”) This is Rocky Horror, after all, the world’s most famous interactive experience, and though this production forbids the throwing of anything (rice, toast, toilet paper), there’s no ban on tossing off comments (“Asshole!” for every time Brad’s name is spoken, “Slut!” for Janet’s).

Some audience members seemed to love the audience interaction, others were mildly annoyed. But you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do, and for some, that means being part of the show. And honestly, this is such a fun, lively production, who wouldn’t want to be part of it? The gothic set by Kelly Tighe is especially inviting – a grand, sweeping staircase takes up most of the rear of the stage, with cascading red drapes and dripping white candles.

Also adding some pizzazz to the cast are Alex Rodriguez as the barely dressed Rocky who also happens to be a snazzy dancer and Madeleine Pla as the usherette who starts the show with “Science Fiction/Double Feature” and then later as bad boy Eddie.

Just as A Christmas Carol has become the winter holiday perennial, Ray of Light makes a strong case for the annual revival of The Rocky Horror Show, especially with Drollinger as the king and queen of it all.

Ray of Light’s The Rocky Horror Show continues through Nov. 7 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$36. Visit www.rayoflighttheatre.com.

Gently with a chainsaw: Heathers really sings

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Jessica Quarles (right) is Veronica Sawyer in the Ray of Light Theatre production of Heathers: The Musical at the Victoria Theatre. Below: Jordon Bridges is JD, the bad (very bad) boy in Westerberg High. Photos courtesy of Ray of Light Theatre

Funnier and feistier than the movie on which it’s based, Heathers: The Musical is an exceedingly successful screen-to-stage adaptation, and San Francisco’s Ray of Light Theatre is just about the perfect company to produce it.

Heathers, which features a score and book by Laurence O’Keefe (of Bat Boy and Legally Blonde fame) and Kevin Murphy, (Reefer Madness, “Desperate Housewives”), is dark and damaged in all the right ways. But the musical amps up the fun factor with the ideal amount of camp. It winks and nods to the 1989 movie but lets the story be the story, with all its attendant snarkiness, teen angst, murder and sincere hope for a more beautiful life.

All of that lands right in Ray of Light’s wheelhouse. Hot on the heels of shows like Carrie: The Musical and Yeast Nation (from the Urinetown team), ROL is emerging as the city’s best source of edgy musicals performed with seemingly depthless raw energy and talent the likes of which other theaters must surely envy.

The young and exuberant cast and the wicked, tuneful show combined with an opening-night audience overflowing with audible adulation made for a kind of pop-rock musical nirvana. This kind of show too grungy, fun and primal for Broadway-type houses, but the Victoria Theatre is the perfect raw nerve kind of a place for this sort of musical to really take flight. There’s a bit of that “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” energy backed up by the talent and panache to make the $25-$36 ticket price one of the best deals in town.

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From the first number, “Beautiful” (which depicts an Ohio high school experience that is anything but), it’s clear that the show and the production are going to hit the right notes of humor and horror. And leading lady Jessica Quarles is a showstopper in multiple ways: her voice, her performance and not least of all, her pitch-perfect channeling of Winona Ryder’s Veronica Sawyer while avoiding slavish imitation.

Within that one number, we’re immersed in the toxic world of a high school full of bullies and the bullied and the three queens who rule it all: the Heathers (Jocelyn Pickett as Heather Chandler, Samantha Rose Cardenas as Heather Duke and Lizzie Moss as Heather McNamara). In their primary colors, ‘80s shoulder pads and big hair (costumes by Katie Dowse), the Heathers pop and lock with bitchy authority in Alex Rodriguez’s delightful choreography. They’re fierce and they know it.

Once Veronica falls in with these popular mean girls, it’s only a matter of time before her heart and their viciousness will battle to the death, but when Veronica meets the enigmatic, trench coat-wearing JD (Jordon Bridges), that death becomes more than metaphorical.

As the body count begins to rise, the tone of director Erik Scanlon’s production shifts just enough to make the insanity of Westerberg High School and its seeming wave of student suicides both believable, funny and sad.

The Act 2 opener is set at the funeral of two brutish jocks (Paul Hovannes as Kurt and Nick Quintell as Ram), who are believed to have killed themselves as part of a gay love pact. The song, “My Dead Gay Son,” is performed by their dads (Mischa Stephens and Andy Rotchadl), and it is hilarious, sweet and surprising – easily one of the best Act 2 openers in recent memory.

Heathers: The Musical has all the pop hooks and renegade spirit of a big hit, a sort of full-throated revenge fantasy for anyone who has lingering high school damage, which pretty much means all of us.

[bonus interview]
I talked to leading lady Jessica Quarles (who plays Veronica Sawyer) about her experience with Heathers: The Musical for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the interview here.

Ray of Light Theatre’s Heathers: The Musical continues through June 13 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$36. Visit www.rayoflighttheatre.com.

Well I’ll be dipped in pig’s blood — Carrie lives

In the Ray of Light Theatre production of Carrie the Musical, Carrie (Cristina Ann Oeschger, right) is taunted by popular girls Chris (Riley Krull, left) and Sue (Courtney Merrell). Below: A terrified and frozen Carrie (Cristina Ann Oeschger) struggles to control the mysterious force inside of her on stage at the Victoria Theatre.Photos by Erik Scanlon

The bucket of pig’s blood is to Carrie the Musical what the chandelier is to The Phantom of the Opera — you just know both of those suckers are coming down. In fact, Carrie and Phantom have more than falling props in common. They’re both essentially horror stories adapted for the musical stage in which the central character is a misunderstood, sensitive soul who gets bullied to the point of horrific violence. The difference is that one has an upper berth on the “most successful musicals of all time” express train, and one is a flattened penny on the track underneath that train.

If you’ve heard of Carrie the Musical it’s probably in the context of “musical disasters” or “Broadway’s biggest flops.” Indeed, the show began with the world-premiere pedigree of the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1988 and the spiraled into ignominy with the subsequent Broadway debut, which closed after 15 preview performances and only five actual performances.

Creators Michael Gore (music), Dean Pitchford (lyrics) and Lawrence D. Cohen (book, based on his screenplay for the 1976 movie, which is in turn based on the 1974 Stephen King novel) sat tight while the musical theater world turned their show into legend that would not (unlike the title character) pass gracefully from this world. In 2009, the re-writing and re-workshopping began, and a greatly revised, scaled-down version of the show opened to mixed reviews off Broadway in March of 2012.

That’s the version now heading into the world (and being done by high school musical theater groups no less). The West Coast premiere comes to us courtesy of Ray of Light Theatre, and if this production had been the one to introduce Carrie the Musical to the world, all that flop stuff would never have been allowed to lead the discussion. Rather, we’d have seen a flawed show with some arresting musical moments and two incredibly juicy roles for powerhouse women.

There’s no getting over the fact that horror and musical theater is an iffy proposition at best, and depicting telekinesis on stage can’t help being slightly cheesy. Then there’s the issue of the apocalyptic prom, when poor, tortured Carrie is pushed over the edge by her entire high school full of heinous bullies and wreaks bloody revenge on them all. In the original movie (still the best in spite of a sequel, a TV remake and another upcoming remake), moments after Carrie is named homecoming queen, she is doused with pig’s blood and then everybody dies violent, fiery bloody deaths. Unless you’re going full Martin McDonagh and unleashing torrents of fake blood (which I’d love to see) and going Grand Guignol on the story, your apocalypse is going to be pretty wan.


That’s definitely the case with Ray of Light. There’s an attempt to choreograph the chaos, but the result is silly rather than chilling. And there’s not even any blood. The publicity photos show the actress playing Carrie drenched in the red stuff, but director Jason Hoover chooses to douse Carrie in water while she’s bathed in intense red lights. It’s a choice, but it’s also a cop out. The one really great, highly theatrical effect during the destruction involves Kellyl Tighe’s set, and that one moment indicates there are ways to make this scene work.

Horror (or lack thereof) aside, this Ray of Light production has two magnificent actors to carry the show, and that counts for a whole lot. Heather Orth is Margaret White, Carrie’s religious fanatic mother, and she electrifies the stage. Her numbers “I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance” and especially “When There’s No One” underscore just how powerful the fraught story of a controlling mother and her terrorized daughter really is. And Cristina Ann Oeschger immediately makes us root for Carrie with her first song, sung with passion and a voice that soars. She comes across as believably young, and even though the path to Carrie’s empowerment is swiftly, even sketchily drawn, Oeschger does it all with such integrity that she’s irresistible.

The large ensemble is energetic, and if there is some unevenness in the voices, there are some nice turns by Nikita Burshteyn as Tommy Ross, the one nice guy in the school; Courtney Merrell as Sue Snell, a popular girl who has a change a heart about Carrie; and Jessica Coker as gym teacher Miss Gardner.

The Pitchford/Gore score has its appealing pop moments, but the serious musical theater is reserved for the scenes of Carrie and her mother. Act 2 loses focus, especially around the character of Carrie. For instance, we don’t need a sappy love duet between Sue and Tommy, but we do need a memorable, soul-stirring musical finale for Carrie and her mom, but we don’t get one. Instead, there’s a rush to the end that squanders all the emotional investment we have in Carrie and her mother. The show needs to go full-on blood opera at the end, but it pulls those punches.

Cohen incorporates a narrative device that has Sue being questioned by the police about events leading up to the blood-bath prom, and it’s about as clumsy and ineffective as such devices can be.

Still, there’s a reason this story keeps getting told and re-told. The bullying aspect certainly resonates powerfully these days, but it all comes down to the sense of being an outsider and that delicious revenge fantasy of teaching a lesson to anyone who has ever attempted to make you feel “less than.” Carrie does that in an extreme way, and in this version, she sings while she’s doing it.

Entertaining and at times inspired, Ray of Light Theatre makes a strong case for problematic show. Carrie the Musical is a long way from the disaster it once was, but it’s still a ways away from the triumph it might someday be.

Ray of Light Theatre’s Carrie the Musical continues through Nov. 2 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., San Francisco. tickets are $25-$36. Visit www.rayoflighttheatre.com.

Life is hell for Jerry Springer and Judas Iscariot

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Timitio Artusio as Treymont (front) and Jordan Best as Zandra, both guests on “The Jerry Springer Show” in Jerry Springer the Opera at the Victoria Theatre. Photo by Ben Krantz Studio

Below: Brandy Leggett is Mother Teresa and Ben Ortega is a prosecuting attorney in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at the Gough Street Playhouse. Photo by Jamie Buschbaum

There are some wonderfully theatrical theological discussions going on around town these days.

At the Victoria Theatre in the Mission, outlandish talk show host Jerry Springer is facilitating a conflict resolution session between Satan and Jesus in Ray of Light Theatre’s Jerry Springer the Opera.

And the Custom Made Theatre Company is delving deep into notions of Judeo-Christian forgiveness and despair in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Satan and Jesus make appearances in this show, too.

Jerry Springer is a mammoth undertaking for Ray of Light, and the results are pretty spectacular. I don’t love the show, which whisks us from the set of The Jerry Springer Show to the bowels of hell, but I admire the way it lends operatic grandeur to lives we too casually condemn as trailer trash.

M. Graham Smith’s production features a cast of more than 40 plus an eight-piece band, and the music, especially the choral blasts, is the best part of this nearly three-hour blast of foul language, bad behavior and humorously serious reflections on the worst (and marginally best) of human nature.

Music Director Ben Prince has accomplished some magnificent things with his singers and band – even when the show gets repetitive, the score by Richard Thomas (music and lyrics) and Stewart Lee (book and lyrics) is always interesting. You don’t exactly go out humming any of the melodies, but the blend of opera and show tune is mighty appealing.

For all of its shock (and schlock) value, Jerry Springer the Opera really is trying to jolt us into the realization that we’re all on this sinking ship together, and if we go down throwing chairs at each other and infecting everyone with our filth, we can’t fall into the drink quickly enough. But hey, at least we go down singing.

In place of glorious choral music, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is filled with a wondrous wash of words. This play is a whole lot of talk – nearly three hours’ worth – mostly because Guirgis utilizes the crusty old narrative tool of a trial.

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The setting is purgatory – here a city very much like New York – and the trial concerns the fate of Judas, who has been condemned to eternal damnation for his betrayal of Jesus. The audience sits in jury boxes on three sides of the stage in the newly reconfigured Gough Street Playhouse (formerly The Next Stage).

Unfortunately, we the jury don’t get to vote on whether the prosecution (Ben Ortega as the unctuous El-Fayoumy) has made a convincing argument that Judas got what he deserved or whether the defense (Edith Reiner as the Irish/Gypsy Cunningham) has proved that Judas was part of a larger plan, that others acted more harshly than he did or that his attempt to recant makes his offense less damning.

Custom Made’s artistic director, Brian Katz, orchestrates this sprawling play with aplomb. He also appears an Everyman whose moving monologue attempts to link Judas’ actions with our contemporary lives.

This is actually a play masquerading as a bible study class for those of us with limited knowledge of the bible and its key players. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Guirgis is an entertaining writer who is able to engage and inform. He adheres to the trial structure but breaks out with scenes involving, for instance, a streetwise Saint Monica (Corrine Elizabeth Proctor), a Mary Magdaelne (Amelia Avila) bent on setting the record straight and a childhood friend of Judas’ (Perry Aliado as Matthias of Galilee).

Lewis Campbell
plays both the trial judge (a Confederate deserter) and Caiaphas and does well with both, especially the latter, the man often blamed for Jesus’ death. But the show is stolen, at least for a few minutes, by Brandy Leggett as a wily Mother Teresa.

I must admit to a low tolerance for biblical tales, but Guirgis held my interest for most of the play. He made me care about Judas (played with intensity by Kristoffer Barrera) and question what he represents in our culture. If Stephen Adly Guirgis were going to teach bible study class regularly, I might actually show up.


Ray of Light Theatre’s Jerry Springer the Opera continues through October 16 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$36. Visit www.jerrysf.com for information.

Custom Made Theatre Company’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot continues through Oct. 30 at the Gough Street Playhouse,1620 Gough St., (at Bush Street), San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$30. Visit www.custommade.org for information.

`Rocky Horror’ time warps again, Living Word lives, Mickey skates

It’s a Bay Area autumn weekend. The weather is gorgeous and you should be out in the world enjoying various entertainments. And entertainments are never more varied than they are in the Bay Area.


Just in time for revving up Halloween spirits, Ray of Light Theatre opens The Rocky Horror Show tonight (Friday, Oct. 17) at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., San Francisco. The five-week run continues through Nov. 15.

Jef Valentine plays Dr. Frank ‘n Furter, the man making a man (Scott Gessford) on the slab in the lab. The lovebirds from Denton, Brad and Janet, are played by Jason Hoover and Rebecca Pingree respectively. Frank’s team of Columbia, Riff Raff and Magenta are played by Sarah Kathleen Farrell, Manny Caneri and Jessica Coker.

Cate Chaplin directs and choreographs this time-warping, gender-bending, rocking and rolling musical.

Tickets are $15-$35. Visit www.rockysf.com for information.


The Living Word, the resident theater company of Youth Speaks, launches the seventh annual Living Word Festival today in San Francisco and Oakland.

The 10-day festival is curated by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and features commissioned work, live music , workshops, lectures, literary panels and educational sessions.

The centerpiece of the festival is the premiere of War Peace: The One Drop Rule, a youth-driven hip-hop theater piece that imagines the Bay Area as a potential war zone in a time of protracted drought. Joseph directs the piece, which is written and performed by Chinaka Hodge, Rafael Casal, Daveed Diggs and Nico Cary. The piece features a score by SF Jazz Youth All-Stars, and Emmy-winning choreographer and tapper Jason Samuels-Smith choreographs. The show runs Oct. 23 and 24 at Theater Artaud, 450 Florida St., San Francisco.

Today’s kick-off events include a free lunchtime concert at Yerba Buena Gardens (760 Howard St.) featuring Goapele and Kev Choice Ensemble at 12:30 p.m. Also today at the Oakland Museum (1000 Oak St.) is a literary panel featuring Adam Mansbach and Jeff Chang and Urban Word NYC reading from new work and having a conversation on the topic of “race is fiction.” The event is at 7 p.m.

There are many other events. For a full schedule visit www.youthspeaks.org.


And now for something completely different: this will neither save the world nor will it engage your mind. But it could be an awful lot of fun (especially for the younger audience members). The latest Disney on Ice production, 100 Years of Magic, continues at the Oakland Oracle Arena through Saturday, Oct. 18.

More than 60 Disney characters from 18 movies mingle on the ice, which means Mickey and Minnie will be doing Hamill camels with Buzz Lightyear, Nemo and those ever-popular Disney princesses. Tickets are $16-$65. Call 415-421-8497 or visit www.ticketmaster.com for info. When the Disney spectacular leaves Oakland, it heads to the HP Pavilion in San Jose from Oct. 22-26.