Identity crisis renders Anastasia dull, derivative

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Lila Coogan is the central character in the national tour of Anastasia at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre. Photo by Matthew Murphy, Murphymade Below: Coogan’s Anya awaits her fate with Stephen Brower (bowing) as Dmitry. Photo by Evan Zimmerman, Murphymade

As much as we might like to think that the future of Broadway looks like Hamilton or Hadestown, I’m pretty sure the future looks more like Anastasia, the inconsequential musical based on the 1997 animated film (in turn based on the 1956 movie starring Ingrid Bergman) that is now touring the country. Given how uninspired this show is, the fact that it ran for two years on Broadway is surprising, but perhaps lukewarm rehashes are just what audiences want. There seems to be an endless supply.

The one bold feature of the show, the single element that seems to give the show life and a reason for being, is its heavy reliance on giant screens as set pieces. There are a few actual backdrops, but projection designs do most of the work, and it’s an element that to me feels like cheating. I’d rather have too little than too much in design, a reason to ignite the imagination rather than have video game-like images sliding past my eyeballs for 2 1/2 hours. That high-tech gimmickry is the only thing that indicates this musical emerged in the 21st century.

The touring production now at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre employs that flawlessly executed video design, but it overwhelms the actors, who are already struggling to make something of the halfhearted book by Terrence McNally and the surprisingly limp score by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. This musical team wrote the songs for the animated movie, and several of those songs, including the Oscar-nominated “Journey to the Past,” are highlights here. But the songs they’ve created to beef up the story are, for the most part, forgettable. Only a few of the new numbers come close to something interesting, and two of them involve the complicated feelings Russians have about their homeland and its turbulent politics. The first, “Stay, I Pray You,” is a wistful goodbye song at a train station as conflicted citizens reflect on their need to flee and their sadness at doing so. The other, “Land of Yesterday,” is sung by nostalgic Russian expats at a Russian club in Paris who delight in celebrating and bemoaning their homeland (while dancing and drinking vodka).

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The bulk of the over-abundant score is bland except when it’s outright awful (ie, all the songs for Gleb, the bad guy Bolshevik). How is that possible from the team that created Ragtime, Once on This Island and A Man of No Importance, all gorgeous, poignant shows with emotional scores and catchy songs?

Director Darko Tresnjak, aside from relying too much on the big screens, seems content with skimming the surfaces of the execution of the Romanov family, Anastasia’s mysterious survival and the non-suspense of wondering if “Anya” really is the lost princess. There’s a love story that feels about as authentic as Russian salad dressing, and there’s a surprisingly bold rip-off of “The Rain in Spain” when two con-artists attempt to school a street sweeper in the ways of royalty so they can pass her off as the long-lost princess. During “Learn to Do It” I kept expecting Dmitry and Vlad to shout, “By George I think she’s got it!”

Amid all the derivative drivel, there’s a surprising bright spot in Act 2 when two secondary characters, Vlad and Lily, decide they’re doing a sketch on “The Carol Burnett Show,” and for the length of “The Countess and the Common Man,” it feels like we’ve entered another realm entirely, one where entertainment actually matters and the skills of the performers (Edward Staudenmayer and Tari Kelly) are put to effective use. Otherwise, we have sweet-voiced leads Lila Coogan as Anya-Let’s-Just-Call-Her-Anastaisa and Stephen Brower as Dmitry being sincere and feisty with 0% substance and just as much romantic spark.

What does this musical have to say to us? Try not to die when your family is executed? Amnesia is totally reversible? We all have conflicted feelings about our homeland? Digital sets are awesome? Princess dresses are pretty? Anastasia is the kind of theatrical venture that seems like an amiable cash grab: professional and (c)harmless and, except for the producers, completely unnecessary. As I said, the future of Broadway.

Anastasia continues through Sept. 29 at SHN Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit

Theater review: `Some Men’

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The cast of Terrence McNally’s Some Men includes (from left) Brandon Finch, P.A Cooley, George Patrick Scott, Scott Cox, Dann Howard, Christopher Morrell, Patrick Michael Dukeman, and Matthew Vierling. This scene from the New Conservatory Theatre Center production takes place in a piano bar adjacent to the Stonewall riots. Photos by Lois Tema

From assignations to spouses for life in McNally’s `Some Men’

Funny, heartfelt and even a little corny, Terrence McNally’s Some Men traipses through gay male history the way a Queer Studies professor might present a survey course of contemporary gay drama.

Here’s a stop at Boys in the Band. Here we are at McNally’s own The Ritz. Now we’re in The Normal Heart territory. Dramatically speaking, we’ve been most of the places McNally takes us in Some Men, but he’s a writer of such compassion and warmth it’s hard to resist his characters, even if we feel like we’ve seen them hundreds of times before.

Now on stage at the New Conservatory Theatre Center under the sure hand of artistic director Ed Decker, Some Men arrives just in time for Pride month, and the production offers an appealing all-male cast, plenty of laughs and some genuinely emotional scenes.

McNally structures the play a little like a variety show with some key plot threads woven throughout the play’s 2 ½ hours. There’s comedy, drama and even some song and dance. The time frame flips back and forth (sometimes causing confusion) but begins and ends in a time resembling the present when gay marriage seems to be unquestionably legal.

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Friends are gathered at New York’s Waldorf Astoria for the wedding of Michael and Eugene. From that moment of casual equality, we head back to the late ’60s, to a room at the Waldorf, where married man Bernie (Dann Howard), who will be one of the characters we follow in multiple scenes, is having his first gay sex encounter, and it’s with a hustler named Zach (Tim Redmond), who (surprise, surprise) just happens to be a Milton-loving Columbia student.

From there we bounce into the 21st century and to the funeral of a soldier who didn’t make it out of Iraq. His high-ranking military father (P.A. Cooley) meets a wounded soldier (Matthew Vierling), who happens to be the fallen son’s lover.

The farthest back McNally goes is the 1920s as he depicts the illicit affair between moneyed East Hampton dweller (Redmond) and his Irish chauffeur (Brandon Finch). We’ll hear about this pair again later in the play when their love story has become part of East Hampton lore, and their ritzy manse has become the home of gay dads and their adopted offspring.

Kuo-Hao Lo’s plain, attractive set (lit by John Kelly) provides the blank canvas on which the drama of 80-plus years unfurls with little need for fancy scenery.

The play’s most effective scene, the one that blends humor and pathos most effectively, is set in the ’90s in an AOL chat room, where men are hunting and hiding with the help of pseudonyms and phony profiles. The most poignant connection is between a muscle hunk (Vierling) and a bookish AIDS widower (Patrick Michael Dukeman), whose brand of snarky humor is hard to convey online, even amid a plethora of LOLs.

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Dukeman makes the most of a centerpiece scene set in a piano bar adjacent to the Stonewall riots of 1969. The show queens in the bar can hardly be bothered to stop contemplating the Broadway oeuvre long enough to pay attention to the commotion outside. Dukeman arrives as a drag queen (looking slightly prettier than Ethel Merman) who just wants a drink and a little respect, both of which are in short supply at this bar. Finally, a kind patron (Scott Cox) buys the lady, known as Archie in pants and as Roxie in a dress, a drink, prompting some deep inner thoughts.

“I look in the mirror and I see an ugly woman but a fuckin’ beautiful drag queen,” Archie/Roxie says. “We owe Barbra so much.”

Dukeman wins over the tough piano bar crowd by warbling a tribute to the recently deceased Judy Garland. When he starts singing “Over the Rainbow” (Christopher Morell plays the pianist but the recorded accompaniment is really by G. Scott Lacy) it seems the scene will implode from precious sentiment, but Dukeman pulls it off with dignity and passion.

Another poignant moment comes from George Patrick Scott as “Angel Eyes,” the proprietor of an underground gay Harlem club attempting to sing “Ten Cents a Dance” but interrupting himself to tell of his fling with the song’s lyricist, Lorenz Hart, who apparently wrote the song for Mr. Eyes.

Married men with secret gay lives, over-earnest gender studies students from Vassar, a night in the late ’70s steam baths are all part of McNally’s mix here, but he only really gains dramatic traction with a stop in a hospital’s AIDS ward and later a visit to a men’s group therapy session.

Decker’s attractive cast shuffles through this history lesson with the requisite energy and charm, but the comedy often lands with more surety than the drama.

The title of the play, Some Men, is truth in advertising – this is gay history from the vantage point of some men – but I have to say I missed the presence of women. They’re referred to – wives and divas mostly – but never seen, and that makes this historical tour shallower than it needs to be. The play depicts a slice of history to be sure, but its single-sex perspective makes it feel hermetically sealed.


Terrence McNally’s Some Men continues through July 12 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$34. Call 415-861-8972 or visit for information.


Terrence McNally, catch him if you can

I wrote a feature on New Conservatory Theatre Center’s Some Men by Terrence McNally for today’s San Francisco Chronicle.

You can read it here.

Here are a few pieces of my interview with Mr. McNally that didn’t make it into the newspaper.

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In addition to Some Men opening this week at the NCTC, McNally has a few other irons in the fire:

  • Last month he wrapped a critically lauded revival of Ragtime (he adapted E.L. Doctorow’s book with Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens providing the score) at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The cast (which McNally describes as “much younger than the original company) included Christiane Noll as Mother and Manoel Felciano (now in Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo here in San Francisco at American Conservatory Theater) as Tateh. The show was so well received, in fact, that there were meetings about a possible transfer to Broadway. “We’ll see,” McNally says. “That would make a lot of people happy.” The show has a whole different production team, headed by director/choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge, but even more than that, McNally says, the country has gone through a seismic shift since Ragtime opened on Broadway in 1998. “The show has a relevance now it didn’t have with the election of Obama,” McNally says. “You view a show like this differently through the lens of current events. People think we’ve re-written it, but it’s not like it was show that didn’t work the first time.”
    McNally isn’t exactly making plans for opening night on Broadway. “I don’t celebrate anything until I’m seeing the curtain go up,” he says. “So much can go wrong at 11:59, which I’ve learned after many bitter disappointments. I’ve learned not to celebrate just because we had a good meeting…but things look really good. We’ll see.”
  • This summer, McNally is a West Coast kind of guy. This week at the La Jolla Playhouse, McNally opened his play Unusual Acts of Devotion with a cast that includes Doris Roberts (“Everybody Loves Raymond”), Richard Thomas (“The Waltons”) and Tony-winner Harriet Harris (Thoroughly Modern Millie) under the direction of Trip Cullman. The show runs through June 28, and then the writer heads up to Seattle (with a likely stop in San Francisco to see NCTC’s Some Men).
  • Toward the end of July, at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, McNally is part of the creative team behind the Broadway-bound musical Catch Me If You Can (based on the book and movie of the same name). Much of the team behind Hairspray – composer Marc Shaiman, lyricist Scott Wittman, director Jack O’Brien, choreographer Jerry Mitchell – have reunited for this show. McNally is the new kid on the block, but after The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime, The Full Monty, A Man of No Importance and The Visit, he’s no stranger to the world of musical.
    Rather than depending solely on the Steven Spielberg movie that starred Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale, a slippery young con artist, McNally has turned to Abagnale’s original book for inspiration. “I hope I have found an emotional resonance to make audiences care about the characters,” he says. “A stage version cannot compete with the movie and its hairbreadth escapes and chases involving airplanes. Maybe someone could do that in a theater. I don’t know how. So my story is much more about the psychological chase of the FBI agent assigned to bring Frank in. It’s a father-son surrogate story. Frank’s real father let him down, and this motivates much of his action. We have musicalized the story, not put a movie on stage, which can very often be the case when movies are translated to the Broadway stage. I’m very proud of this piece.”
    It has been said that working on a musical out of town can be one of the most trying, aggravating and crazy-making experiences on earth. Not for McNally. This is his seventh time out, and he has yet to see the kind of drama people expect from Hollywood versions of backstage drama along the lines of All About Eve. “There’s this preconceived notion of the leading lady throwing down her mink and stomping out,” McNally says. “That has never been my experience, but I have to say it’s an exciting thing to do. There’s a lot of pressure and high emotion. But I don’t ever anticipate being hysterical. I anticipate being challenged and hope I rise to that challenge with my sense of humor and sanity intact. In the writer’s room or in the rehearsal space, the play is the most important thing, the only thing in the world. But out in the street, in the real world, there’s a more important life beyond that.”
  • Some Men, which ran off Broadway two years ago at the Second Stage Theatre (under Cullman’s direction), celebrates gay history and the relatively swift march toward equality in the form of legalized same-sex marriage, which is a given in the play. McNally and his partner, Tom, were civically united in Vermont. “We thought we were doing a political act,” McNally says. “We’d go to Vermont and give the state another number. But the emotions were so strong. The night before we both got so thoughtful at the profundity of it. Our people are raised on `what you do is illegal and criminal and society hates you.’ But to stand in the country and get married. It was…People staying at the inn watched the ceremony, and by the end there must have been 30 people cheering for two strangers. It was incredibly moving to say to another person: `I am yours to the end, for the long haul.’ The change in this country is just amazing. Gay men and women had half-visible, half-not roles for years. They might have been accepted but were frowned on, not embraced. Now I feel such clarity with my friends. I know they take Tom and me just as seriously as any other married couple.”


Terrence McNally’s Some Men continues through July 12 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $22-$34. Call 415-861-8972 or visit for information.

Midsummer stages heat up

David Kahawaii (left) is JoJo and Carl Danielsen is The Cat in the Hat in the Woodminster Musicals production of Seussical the Musical.

Summer used to be a dead time in Bay Area theater. No longer. Here are some hot shows to check out this weekend and in the weeks to come.

Terrence McNally, the man who wrote Master Class and Love! Valour! Compassion! wrote this pair of one-acts in the early ‘70s and set them in warring rest homes to examine how bucking the status quo can often be the best revenge. Square MaMa resurrects the one-acts for your summer viewing.
– Terrence McNally’s Bad Habits, through Aug. 30 at Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th ST., San Francisco (one block from 16th Street BART station).

One of Canada’s most acclaimed performance art duos,, Stephen Lawson and Aaron Pollard, bring their unique repertoire of “epic multimedia performance” to the States. Described as an “inimitable blend of burlesque, video projections, opera, show tunes and old films,” the boys will present Puree and Zona., through Aug. 31 at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. $22-$34. 415-861-8972;

Every summer, Thunderbird Theatre premieres something funny. This year we get a show with a tag line: “Jane Austen Sucks (blood).” Yes, Jane Austen meets vampires in Pride & Succubus, the creation of Claire Rice.
– Thunderbird Theatre’s Pride & Succubus, through Aug. 23 at New Langton Arts, 1246 Folsom St., San Francisco. $17-$25. 415-289-6766;

One of the most intriguing offerings of the summer, Gary Aylesworth’s The Ballad of Edgar Cayce is a “bluegrass operetta” about one of the world’s most famous so-called psychics who attempted to channel spirit voices to answer the great questions of existence such as: was there really an Atlantis? The show is performed by Aylesworth and Peter Newton, who also supply the live music.
– Gary Aylesworth’s The Ballad of Edgar Cayce, through Aug. 30 at Traveling Jewish Theatre, 47- Florida St., San Francisco. $15-$20. 415-831-1943;

The characters of Dr. Seuss come to musical life in Seussical the Musical created by the same team that brought Doctorow’s Ragtime to the stage. Kids and adults appreciate the travails of Horton, who hears a Who, Maisy the Duck, who admires her tail and the Cat in the Hat.
Seussical the Musical, through Aug. 17 at Woodminster Amphitheater, Joaquin Miller Park, Oakland. $23-$38. 510-531-9597;