Overwhelming humanity, extraordinary theater in The Jungle at the Curran

Jungle 1
The cast of The Jungle at the Curran includes (from left) Jonathan Nyati as Mohammed, Ammar Haj Ahmad as Safi, Dominic Rowan as Derek and Tommy Letts as Sam. Below: John Pfumojena as Okot. Photos by Little Fang

You may enter The Jungle at the beautiful Curran theater in downtown San Francisco, but you exit in an entirely different place – mentally and emotionally speaking, that is.

The idea of immersive theater tends to bring on expectations of fun and intrigue with promises of leaving present circumstances behind and allowing yourself to be somewhere else (possibly someone else or in some other time) for just a little while. But The Jungle is different. Written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, the play is based on their experience as volunteers and theater-makers at the Calais refugee encampment that came to be known as The Jungle in its nearly two years of existence in 2015 and 2016. At its height, more than 8,000 refugees from many nations – Syria, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, Sudan to name a few – were living in what came to resemble a small city. All of them were there in the hope of reaching the UK, that not-so-distant land just across the English Channel, where, on a clear day, you could see the White Cliffs of Dover.

To be immersed in such a camp, as we are in this intense theater experience, is a complicated thing. On a theatrical level, everything is top notch. Directors Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin skillfully orchestrate chaos, danger, horror and community building in a way that makes it feel real while still guiding us through character development and plot. The Curran has been completely transformed from its usual majesty into a plywood “café” where most of the audience members are sitting at small tables (the same tables that the actors use as their stage). Set designer Miriam Buether pays such attention to detail it’s almost alarming to re-emerge into the world of the Curran and San Francisco at intermission.

The cast, which includes people who actually spent time as refugees at the real Jungle, brings absolute intensity and commitment to making this realistic environment feel fully inhabited by real people, many of them desperate, scared and angry. We get a cross-sampling of refugees and their stories along with a handful of British volunteers who are trying to bring order to the chaos. There’s a lot of shouting, a lot of noise and mayhem as many things happen at once throughout the play’s two acts and nearly two hours.

Jungle 2

Theatrically, we’re in good hands (and that includes work by lighting designer Jon Clark, sound designer Paul Arditti and costume designer Catherine Kodicek), and that means we’re thoroughly immersed in this world where thousands of people (a small representation of refugees in a similar plight around the world) are reduced to a commodity that must be dealt with, ignored, taken advantage of, or, at worst, eliminated. Because we’re in the same room with them, experiencing slices of their hardships and challenges, we see them as what they are: people. Not blurbs in the news. Not data. Not the enemy. People. With so much news and so many politicized headlines inundating us from every angle (and with so much of it being bad news), we become inured to the reality of what people – so many of them families – are actually going through day to day just to survive.

The Jungle accomplishes that absolutely necessary thing: it personalizes the stories, gives names to the faces and provides stories to the lives. In one of the play’s most wrenching monologues, a 17-year-old Sudanese boy, Okot (John Pfumojena) talks about the smugglers he paid to get him out of Darfour but ultimately used him as a pawn to try and extract more money out of his mother. They sent her photographs of her son under a giant cement slab, essentially telling her that without her additional money, he would be killed. She had no extra money, but somehow he survived, making it across the sea in the hold of a horrible boat and then to Calais, where, in a burst of radical hope, he shares his phone’s ringtone: Vera Lynne singing “The White Cliffs of Dover.”

Amid the noise and bustle of the staging, a sense of intimacy is created, and we experience a vital connection with humans in crisis. What to do about that is almost as complicated as the crisis itself. The British volunteers are sometimes seen as interfering or working in their own best interests (not to mention escaping their own lives) as they attempt to find themselves in their good works. But with the governments of France and the United Kingdom doing so little, there’s a huge void and even more enormous need.

The issue of “home” and what that word actually means pervades this experience (calling it simply a play doesn’t quite suffice). Over the course of these three hours, we feel this slapped-together city begin to feel like a home of sorts, a place of refuge even if only temporarily before the bulldozers begin their insidious work. It’s easy to imagine that everyone who experiences The Jungle as a home to return to when this particular story ends. But we fully realize that this story never ends. It never really changes from decade to decade or, to take the long view, from century to century. Horrible things to happen to groups of people all over the world, and most of us feel powerless to do anything about it. The Jungle doesn’t provide any easy answers, but it does say this: remember that every single person you read about is just that: a person with a name and a history and the capacity for deep feeling and a need for everything we mean when we say “home.”

Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson’s The Jungle continues through May 19 at the Curran, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$165. Call 415-358-1220 or visit https://sfcurran.com

Oi! Dancing boy! The barnstorming brilliance of Billy Elliot

Billy Elliot 1
Half Moon Bay native J.P. Viernes played the title role in Billy Elliot the Musical for the opening-night performance at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, where the show runs through Sept. 17. Photo by Joan Marcus. Below: Faith Prince (amid the gaggle of girls) is Mrs. Wilkinson, dance teacher to Billy, played by Daniel Russell, one of five boys sharing the role. Photo by Kyle Froman

When Billy Elliot the Musical caused a sensation in London in 2005 and then swept the 2009 Tonys with 10 awards, you could be excused for wondering what all the fuss was about. Wasn’t this yet another in a seemingly endless and mostly unnecessary line of movie-into-musical transformations?

The answer in the case of Billy is a definite no. There has never been a musical quite like this before that blends politics and pathos, glitz and grim reality, corny schmaltz and genuine emotion. This is sophisticated stuff: an old-fashioned and new-fangled musical all jumbled up in one fascinating, enormously entertaining package. It’s a sad story with joyous highs and inspiring performances.

All that said, the musical is still not as good as the 2000 movie it’s based on (which is an absolute gem), but given that the movie’s creative team also worked on the musical indicates a pleasingly high level of integrity in the musical expansion of this story.

The touring version of Billy Elliot, the final show of the SHN season, opened Tuesday at the Orpheum Theatre for a three-month run, and it’s “cush,” to use the characters’ Northern England slang.

Everybody wrestles with that tricky Northern England accent (not everybody wins), but we get the picture. This small coal-mining town, Easington, is in the throes of the yearlong coal miners’ strike of 1984/85. Times are rough, and being a boy who likes ballet in this tense, hyper-masculine land makes life challenging for 11-year-old Billy.

In an effort to be a creative endeavor apart from the film, the musical blends much more of the politics into the story. Director Stephen Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling (both reprising similar duties from the movie) make bold choices in staging the sort of fairy tale coming-of-age story of Billy’s triumph through ballet with the harsh reality of the strike.

The number “Solidarity” gives us our first taste of what Daldry and Darling have up their theatrical sleeves as striking miners tussle with riot police, while little girls in tutus dance among them as they take their ballet class. It’s a clash of worlds, and it makes for powerful theater.

Daldry also allows several songs to veer from reality into razzle-dazzle musical moments. When dance teacher Mrs. Wilkinson (the ever-wonderful Faith Prince evoking the equally wonderful Julie Walters from the movie) tries to inspire her mini-corps de ballet by encouraging them to “Shine,” the mundane rec hall gives way to a sparkly curtain and some trusty Broadway gusto.

Billy Elliot 2

Even better is when Billy (played on opening night by Half Moon Bay native J.P. Viernes, who rotates in the role with four other actors) and his best friend Michael (Griffin Birney on opening night) dress up in women’s clothes for the number “Expressing Yourself.” What starts as a lark in a bedroom becomes a full-blown production number complete with ludicrous (in the best sense) costumes of giant dresses and trousers bouncing around the stage with the boys.

The young actors who play Billy (in addition to Viernes they are Ethan Fuller, Kylend Hetherington, Lex Ishimoto and Daniel Russell) have a performance marathon to contend with in this show. In addition to the singing, the acting and the accent, they have some huge dance numbers, which really are the highlights of the show. The Act 1 closer, “Angry Dance,” expresses Billy’s rage at being told boys don’t do ballet, and the Act 2 high point is Billy’s aerial pas de deux with his older self (Maximilien A. Baud).

Young Viernes – he’s 15 – is an extraordinary dancer and a solid actor. It also doesn’t hurt that he rates pretty high on the Billy adorability scale.

The score, with music by Elton John and lyrics by Lee Hall (who also wrote the scripts for the musical and the movie), serves the story well. These aren’t songs I love hearing apart from the show, but while the story is unfolding, they’re just right. This time out, the songs that stood out for me were the melancholy “We’d Go Dancing” sung by Billy’s slightly dotty grandmother (Patti Perkins), the scathing “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher” and the heartbreaking “folk song” (sounds old but is actually new) sung by Billy’s grieving father (Rich Hebert).

There’s no escaping the fact that Billy Elliot is a deeply sad show. Sure, there’s a happy ending for Billy, but he’s the only one with the chance of a future outside of a fast-fading coal-mining town. The final images of the show are actually quite heartbreaking.

That’s probably why the creative team went to such lengths to stage the peppiest curtain call this side of the “mega mix” that concludes later productions of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The entire cast, led by Billy of course, goes through a marvelous series of dances, all performed with comic verve and high spirits. There’s even confetti and streamers, so the audience goes out on a high, perhaps forgetting the grim story that has just been told.

PARENTS PLEASE NOTE: Though there are a lot of kids in Billy Elliot the Musical, the language is rough and the volume high. It’s recommended for children 8 and older.

[bonus video]
Meet the five Billys in the touring production of Billy Elliot the Musical

Billy Elliot the Musical continues through Sept. 17 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets start at $35. Call 888-746-1799 or visit http://shnsf.com/shows/billyelliot for information.