We’ll have a Black Christmas without you

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Robin Herford (left) and Antony Eden spin a chilling ghostly tale in The Woman in Black at ACT’s Strand Theater. Below: Eden (front) and Herford explore the grounds of a haunted house in remote England in this stage adaptation of the novel by Susan Hill. Photos by Kasey L. Ross


Nothing like a gothic horror story to bring on all those Christmas feels. But seriously, if this holiday season is feeling like a slow-motion nightmare, have I got a show for you!

Forget A Christmas Carol and all those karma-pushing British ghosts. The Woman in Black is the play for old-fashioned spooky houses, ghostly figures and tragedy-filled back stories. If the title of the show sounds familiar, that’s probably because it’s the second-longest-running play in London’s West End (after Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap) and there have been several movies based on the same source, the 1983 novel by Susan Hill (the most recent from 2012 with Daniel Radcliffe, Janet McTeer and Ciarán Hinds).

Stephen Mallatratt adapted Hill’s novel for the stage in 1987, and the director of that original production, Robin Herford, is back to direct the touring production now at the Strand Theater and also to co-star with Antony Eden.

The deep 34-year experience that Herford has with this material is quite apparent, both in his precise and expertly paced direction and in his superb performance. He plays Arthur Kipps, a very nervous non-actor who is terrorized by an experience he had many years before. In attempt to exorcise his demons (literal and figurative), he has committed the entire experience to paper and wants to read it from the stage to an audience full of his friends and family. He has hired an actor/director (Eden, whose character is never named) who determines that simply reading Kipps’ tome will take at least five hours. The actor suggests that they adapt the material into a two-man show. The actor will play the younger Kipps, whose London law firm sends him to a remote corner of England to attend the funeral sort through the estate of a longtime client. The real Kipps, who keeps insisting he is not an actor, will play all the other parts.

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So, it’s an adaptation within an adaptation, which is a tricky way to get us into a theatrical horror story. First we’re engaged intellectually as actors play actors playing parts, but the deeper the actors get into the story, the more engaged we are in the story itself and not the storytelling. By the time the shocks and the chills come, our spooky bone is primed (it’s like the funny bone but more attuned to horror). Even the stage (designed by Michael Holt) begins as a mostly empty stage between productions but eventually introduces more specific locations as we get to know the village of Crythin Gifford (and its graveyard) and the imposing Eel Marsh House (and its graveyard), which is only accessible through the salt marshes at low tide (a warning sign to stay away if ever there was one).

I have found it almost impossible to really scare a live theater audience, but this Woman has some nifty tricks up its sleeve, and a lot of it has to do with skillful work by lighting designer Anshuman Bhatia and sound designer Sebastian Frost (based on the original sound design by Rod Mead). In a situation like this one – with haunted houses, ghostly apparitions and things that make a very loud bump in the night – you’re either game for the chills or you’re a wet blanket. If you play along, The Woman in Black is an awful lot of jittery fun.

Herford and Eden walk that fine line between real drama and melodrama so there’s room for little bursts of humor and a great deal of genuine interest in the unfolding story. Herford plays everything from a freaked-out village lawyer to an enigmatic pony cart driver to a wealthy landowner who doesn’t have time for local lore. And Eden, as Kipps, gives us younger Kenneth Branagh-level earnestness and theatrical panache.

There’s a lot that can’t be told here, but then any good ghost story has to keep its secrets. And The Woman in Black is a walloping good ghost story.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (adapted for the stage by Stephen Mallatratt) continues through Jan. 16 at the Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $35-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org/womaninblack.

COVID Policy:
All ticket holders entering the Strand Theater will be required to show proof of full vaccination (except for those legally exempted), along with an ID with photo and full name. A physical vaccination card, picture of your vaccination card, or digital vaccination record will suffice. California residents may obtain a digital vaccination card at https://myvaccinerecord.cdph.ca.gov/. Proof of vaccination must indicate that it has been at least 14 days since the patron’s last vaccination dose (two doses are required for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, one for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine). All ticket holders are
required to wear face masks inside the venue.

Ant-os in your Pantos: A lively English tradition comes to SF

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Renée Lubin as Genie of the Ring (left) and JM Appleby as Genie of the Lamp in the premiere of The Magic Lamp panto at the Presidio Theatre. Below: Curt Branom as Widow Twankey (left) and Danny Scheie as Abba, the bad guy. Photos by Terry Lorant


The holiday season just got a lot zippier with the opening of The Magic Lamp, a family show at the gorgeously refurbished Presidio Theatre (in the Presidio, not the movie theater on Chestnut of the same name) fashioned in the style of the much-loved British panto tradition. Pantos, if you don’t know, are big business in England this time of year, with shows generally based on a fairy tale or well-known children’s tale but gussied up with outrageous costumes, zany humor of the slapstick variety, cross-dressing and lots of audience participation in the form of sing-alongs, call-and-response or active booing of the bad guy.

The Magic Lamp, written by the wife-and-husband team of Christine Nicholson and Luther Hanson and directed by Tamroz Torfeh, includes all of that plus a whole lot of Bay Area shout-outs and a bundle of hit songs from various eras re-fashioned to tell an updated version of the Aladdin story.

With its fast-paced comedy, pop songs and larger-than-life costumes and wigs, there’s definitely a vibe here that recalls Beach Blanket Babylon, the gone-but-never-forgotten comedy revue that ran for 45 years at Club Fugazi. So it should come as no surprise, then, that there’s a large contingent of Beach Blanket veterans both on stage and behind the scene bringing this energetic holiday endeavor to life.

In this re-telling, Aladdin (Rotimi Agbabiaka is a Daly City-based delivery boy for an egg business run by his mother, Widow Twankey (Curt Branom playing the drag role to the hilt). He falls in love with Jazz (Sharon Shao), daughter of Sultana (Rinabeth Apostol), the richest woman in the world thanks to her online empire, Sultanazon.com.

Bay Area actor/treasure Danny Scheie is on hand to elicit boos and hisses as Abba, the Dodger-loving baddie who needs Aladdin to descend into a cave of jewels and bring him back the magic lamp. That’s all pretty basic, but what’s fun here is that there’s not one but two genies. Renée Lubin is the public transportation-loving Genie of the Ring and traverses the stage via turntable and cable car/magic carpet, and JM Appleby is the Genie of the Lamp, the more traditional three-wishes kind of genie.

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Probably the most enjoyable addition to this version is also the weirdest. Chickens are front and center here, primarily because of the Widow Twankey’s business selling blue eggs (often referred to as “blue balls” to make the grown-ups titter). Aladdin has two sidekicks: the human, Jarvis (Scott Reardon), who also serves as the spirited narrator, and Pecker, a very tall rooster played with admirable commitment by Matthew Kropschot and outfitted in a gorgeous costume by Alina Bokovikova (whose work across the stage is both comic and gorgeous).

And then there’s the scene-stealing trio of hens: Jen Brooks as Preeny, Ruby Day as Queeny and Albert Hodge as Steeny. They speak only in chicken, but their Act 1 number, “Doot Doot Chicken Dance,” is so hilarious that maybe future pantos might want to focus on further flights of the fowl.

At more than 2 1/2 hours (with an intermission), The Magic Lamp maintains an admirable level of energy as the large cast sings, dances (to choreography by Stacey Printz, jokes, tosses candy, vanquishes zombies, clucks and celebrates a big wedding. The aggressive panto style can get a little tiring for some, but these appealing performers (under musical direction by Bill Keck) keep the charm flowing and the laughs coming.

Perhaps best of all, it’s great to see the beautiful Presidio Theatre so full of happy people enjoying a show that overflows with fun and festivity,

FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Magic Lamp continues through Dec. 31 at the Presidio Theatre, 99 Moraga Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$75. Call 415-960-3949 or visit presidiotheatre.org for information.

COVID Safety at the Presidio Theatre
The Theatre requires all guests to wear a mask at all times while inside the building. All guests 12 and older are required to show proof of full vaccination with a matching photo ID. Full vaccination is defined as two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or one dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. Youth 12 to 17 can use a school ID, birth certificate or social security card in place of a photo ID. Young children under five years old are not allowed.<

Joy, tears, ghosts infuse vibrant new Carol

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Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow! The San Francisco cast of the new Tony Award-winning adaptation of A Christmas Carol warm up winter nights on the stage of the Golden Gate Theatre. Below: Francois Battiste as Scrooge embraces Tiny Tim. Photos by Joan Marcus


We’ve experienced A Christmas Carol in so many ways, so many times over so many years that we’re all a little numb to the frights and frissons of the Charles Dickens perennial. As much as I love the story – and especially the metaphorical kick to the groin of the greediest and meanest among us – I sometimes dread the thought of having to watch gnarled old Scrooge get smoothed out by Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Past, Present and Future.

Happy to report, then, that the new adaptation of A Christmas Carol by Jack Thorne (a co-author of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child theatrical enterprise, which, incidentally, resumes performances at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre Jan. 11) has a lot of new fizz in its Fezziwig. Now at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, this Carol is aggressive in its approach as both a ghost story and a psychological excavation of Scrooge, with a whole lot of merriment (and snow) and zippy theatricality (and snow) and music (and did I mention snow?) thrown in for good measure.

At about 2 1/2 hours (including intermission), this version strips out as much as it adds. Directors Matthew Warchus (original London and Broadway productions) and Jamie Manton (this production) blends straightforward storytelling by the ensemble with fully dramatized scenes from Scrooge’s dark night of the soul. The bones of the story are very much as Dickens constructed them, but Thorne goes deeper into why Scrooge turned out the way he did. An abusive, alcoholic, debt-ridden father seems to be the biggest factor, but we also spend time with Scrooge as a young man falling in love with Mr. Fezziwig’s daughter, Belle, and then essentially abandoning her because he discovered the lure of money (and hoarding it) instead.

What’s really interesting about Thorne’s adaptation is not so much the rather easily configured roots of Scrooge’s misery and miserliness (blame the parents!) but rather the way the people from Scrooge’s past are allowed to confront him. For instance, we usually only see Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s dead partner, at the beginning of the ghostly visits. But here, Scrooge and his only friend get to compare notes on the benefits of redemption once Scrooge realizes the error of his ways. Scrooge also gets to find closure with the only woman he ever loved (and she is more generous to him than he probably deserves), which lends an affecting touch.

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The striking set by Rob Howell (who also designed the costumes) takes us into a dark netherworld of swirling smoke (effectively sliced by Hugh Vanstone’s razor-sharp lights), piles of garbage, chains descending from the heavens and hundreds of lanterns hanging above the stage and out into the auditorium.

The 15-member ensemble sings, dances, narrates and embodies the characters with a flashy panache that keeps the show vibrating at a pretty high level. Act 1, as expected, is pretty heavy and dark, but the real genius of the show is how Act 2 just keeps ratcheting up the happiness in sometimes surprising ways. Without spoiling anything, let’s just say the actors make full use of the theater, on stage and off, and that your white Christmas dreams can come true – temporarily anyway – multiple times.

Any Christmas Carol is only as strong as its Scrooge, and Francois Battiste gives a mighty performance. His Scrooge is always a few steps ahead of the ghosts as he steadfastly refuses to succumb to their dime store psychoanalyzing and their sentimental tricks to soften his coal-hard heart. He gets that he’s a bad guy and owns his choices, and that makes his transformation all the more satisfying. He’s the kind of horrible person who stands firm in his greed, all the while justifying what a great person he is and what a vital service (moneylending aka money gouging) he provides to the world. These are the people – and we hear from them and their acolytes every day in the real world – who never seem to suffer from the pain and misery their greed causes in the world.

But then something clicks in Scrooge. Call it the “Tiny Tim” effect, but if every Tiny Tim could be as endearing as Gabriel Kong (who played the role on opening night and shares it with Charlie Berghoffer IV), the world would likely be a better place. The same is true about this production’s effective ghosts: we need Nancy Opel (Past), Amber Iman (Present) and Monica Ho (Future) to maybe focus some of their work outside the theater in certain political and judicial locations around the country.

There’s not a sour note in the entire cast, and the pleasure they offer, especially when they’re making the house ring with their handbells (lovely musical direction by Matt Smart), is genuine and heartfelt. This is a Carol that lands its punches and then lifts us up with joy. Just when we think it’s over, the volume of that joy gets turned up a little more and then a little more until the darkness and pain are just memories.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
A Christmas Carol continues through Dec. 26 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco, as part of the BroadwaySF season. Tickets are $56-$256 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com.
BroadwaySF’s COVID policies are here.

Welcome return to Pemberley with Georgiana and Kitty

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The cast of the world-premiere Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley includes (from left) Lauren Spencer as Georgiana Darcy, Aidaa Peerzada as Emily Grey, Emilie Whelan as Kitty Bennet, Zahan F. Mehta as Henry Grey, Adam Magill as Thomas O’Brien, Alicia M. P. Nelson as Margaret O’Brien and Madeline Rouverol as Sarah Darcy. Below: Mehta and Spencer find holiday romance in the Marin Theatre Company production. Costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt, Scenic Design by Nina Ball, Lighting Design by Wen-Ling Liao. Photos by Kevin Berne courtesy of Marin Theatre Company


Jane Austen has undoubtedly been visiting with her celestial publisher to check on the status of her earthly estate. Over the years, she has seen her cultural clout grow and grow, with movies, novel sequels, themed weekends and generation after generation of new Austen fans clamoring for more. Among the most interesting of the offerings related to the much-loved 19th-century novelist created in the more than 200 years since her death are the Christmas at Pemberley plays by San Francisco playwrights Lauren M. Gunderson and Margot Melcon.

Locally, we saw the post-Pride and Prejudice Christmas at Pemberley series begin in 2016 at Marin Theatre Company with Miss Bennett (read my review marintheatre.org) and continue in 2018 with The Wickhams (a sort of below-stairs/Downton Abbey take). Now, what has become a trilogy, concludes with Georgiana and Kitty. The genius of the trilogy is that it essentially covers one Christmas holiday but doesn’t actually require you to have seen the other installments (or read Austen, for that matter) – but your enjoyment and appreciation will be enhanced if you have.

This third chapter is the most audacious of them all if only because it takes the greatest liberties with Austen by imagining what the five Bennett sisters, their husbands and children will be doing 20 years after this initial holiday gathering. Not to give anything away, but the future for these characters involves bold moves for womankind, enduing female friendship and consistent breaking of women’s societal restraints – all within a warm holiday glow and amid boisterous (sometimes contentious) familial affection.

We didn’t actually get to meet Kitty Bennett in either of the other two plays, so it’s lovely to see the youngest Bennett finally get her moment in the spotlight along with her BFF, Georgiana Darcy, sister of Fitzwilliam Darcy, husband of Kitty’s sister Lizzy.

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There’s great excitement in the house because of – what else? – boys. Georgiana (Lauren Spencer) has been corresponding with Henry Grey (Zahan F. Mehta), a potential beau, for almost a year, and she has impulsively invited him to visit Pemberley at Christmas. He arrives, smitten and tongue-tied, in the company of his friend Thomas O’Brien (Adam Magill), who immediately sparks with the vibrant Kitty (Emilie Whelan). But this double romance quickly skids to a halt when Henry fails to pass muster with Georgiana’s domineering brother, Darcy (Daniel Duque-Estrada), whose self-imposed duty to protect his sister makes him overbearing and obnoxious.

The great thing about all the Pemberley plays is how they play with formula – calculated through both Austen and holiday romance equations – and still come up with something that is highly enjoyable, smart and full of real charm and warmth. Gunderson and Melcon honor Austen and write characters who defy expectations of the 19th, 20th and 21st century varieties. The holiday aspect wouldn’t be out of place in a Hallmark movie, but there’s an intelligence and spirit at work here that far exceeds all the usual, sappy trappings.

Performances are bright and focused in director Meredith McDonough (who also helmed Miss Bennett five years ago), and if some of the characters seem to be extra set dressing (on Nina Ball’s stately estate set), that is rectified when the action shifts ahead two decades and we meet a vivacious new generation of Darcys, O’Briens and Greys.

Austen would no doubt love to see the triumph of some her women characters as envisioned by Gunderson and Melcon, whether it’s the successful balancing of family and work life by one or the artistic success of another as she makes great inroads in a world wholly dominated by men. She may also love that even in the future, Mr. Darcy is a well-meaning ass who would do well to listen to his wife, who is seldom, if ever, wrong.

It’s a little bit sad that Kitty and Georgiana is the final chapter in the Christmas at Pemberley trilogy, but here’s hoping that Gunderson and Melcon continue to make such savvy, satisfying theater.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Georgiana and Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley continues through Dec. 19 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $25-$60. Call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.

Love chills in Berkeley Rep’s sizzling Wintertime

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The cast of Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime at Berkeley Repertory Theatre includes (from left) Carmen Berkeley (Ariel), Sharon Lockwood (Hilda), Lorri Holt (Bertha), James Carpenter (Frank), Thomas Jay Ryan (Francois), Jomar Tagatac (Bob), and Micah Peoples (Jonathan). Below: (from left) Nora el Samahy (Maria), David Ryan Smith (Edmund), Micah Peoples (Jonathan), James Carpenter (Frank), and Thomas Jay Ryan (Francois). Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre


Oh, the ragged, jagged, chilly, burning season that is Wintertime, the complicated, beautiful, messy play that heralds the live-on-stage return of Berkeley Repertory Theatre after a 20-month pandemic hiatus.

In so many ways, this is the perfect play to bring back this beloved company. First of all, the play itself, by Charles L. Mee is a chaotic, poetic, operatic farce/drama about lovers, friends and family members who have taken each other for granted for too long. What could be an idyllic post-Christmas, pre-New Year’s few days at a snow-covered country home turns into a rage-filled, poignant and occasionally hilarious explosion – like a snow globe has been smashed, and amid the dripping snow bits and wreckage and broken glass, there are humans struggling to find shards of hope, love and forgiveness.

Mee is a Berkeley Rep favorite, with his Big Love and Fête de la Nuit being two highlights of the theater’s production history. Both of those shows were directed by Berkeley Rep’s former associate artistic director, Les Waters, who also directs Wintertime. There’s likely not a director around who can more effectively bring out the raw humanity and sheer beauty in Mee’s fascinating collage of a script.

Then there’s the cast, which includes some of the Bay Area faces you would most wish to see after having been banished from the theater for a year and a half. Most poignantly, James Carpenter is Frank, a married man whose wife holds a prominent place in his heart and his life even though he’s mostly with his lover, Edmund (David Ryan Smith). This is a role Carpenter played 18 years ago at the now-departed San Jose Repertory Theatre, and if he was good then (he was), he’s magnificent now. As someone who has been expected to be solid all his life, Frank is fragile and so very sad. Contemplating the relationship with his wife, Maria (Nora el Samahy), Frank says when he wakes in the morning, “I can’t decide whether I most want to hurt you or give you something.”

Other local stalwarts in the cast include the great Sharon Lockwood and Lorri Holt as Hilda and Bertha, the interfering couple next door, and the gorgeous stage is designed by Annie Smart, whose set brings the winter woods indoors by hanging dozens of silver tinsel garlands from the rafters and gives us one window through which we see a never-ending snowfall. The winter light comes from designer Russell H. Champa, and it’s all appropriately cold until tempers flare and we get flashes of red and changing hints of color around door and window frames.

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The humans within this wintry arena speak in poetic arias like characters out of Shakespeare or Chekhov who behave like the only thing that matters is themselves and their feelings. This means Act One of this 2 1/2-hour play is a near-constant eruption of jealousy, betrayal and hurt. The act’s final scenes offer two showstoppers: one involves a much-slammed red door that becomes the centerpiece of a wounded ego/broken heart ballet and the other turns the stage into the physical embodiment of all those emotions with the kind of mess you don’t envy the stagehands having to clean up.

Through it all, Jake Rodriguez’s sound design keeps pumping loud, heavy music full of voice and orchestra. There are some lighter moments – Silk Sonic makes a welcome audio appearance – and Act Two, with mortality leveling out some of the egos and tormented love stories, features some emotional depth that brings young love back to earth and gives older love reason to hope. And the entire cast ends up dancing around in beautiful underwear (costumes by Anna Oliver because sometimes joy mixed with loud music, dancing and underwear is absolutely necessary.

The marvelous cast, under Waters’ astute, no-nonsense direction, also includes Thomas Jay Ryan as a French lover who (maybe) sees his ribald life a little differently by play’s end, the hilarious but deadpan Jomar Tagatac as a delivery guy/minister who brightens every scene he graces and Carmen Berkeley and Micha Peoples as the young lovers whose shallow sense of the romantic evolves into something much different.

Mee’s dialogue can soar, it can annoy and it can dazzle. He cares about his characters’ dreams and he has compassion for their abundant faults. Then there’s the odd line that makes you take a mental note to write into the script of your actual life: “You were born grouchy; you live in a snit; and you will die in a huff.”

The trick of Wintertime is that it seems like it will be a cozy, romantic canoodle by a roaring fire, but the reality is that this play is, for all its glorious theatricality, jagged, sharp-edged and emotionally authentic – more bitter than sweet, more vodka rocks than hot cocoa.

The play is a carnival mirror, broken as that mirror may be, and there’s much to see (and feel) in it from the perspective of this strange period in which we find ourselves. During a Viking feast, a toast is offered to the assembled, but it might as well be to all of us as we move slowly out of one terrifying era and into…whatever comes next:

to the end of squabbling
the end of jealousy
the end of suspicions
to the new times of gratitude
for what we have.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Charles L. Mee’s Wintertime continues through Dec. 19 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $25-$92 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

Revived Fair Lady bursts with melody, life, wit

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The cast of The Lincoln Center Theater production of Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady includes (from left, center) Sam Simahk as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, Shereen Ahmed as Eliza Doolittle, Kevin Pariseau as Colonel Pickering and Leslie Alexander as Mrs. Higgins. Below: Transformations are happening in Professor Higgins’ posh London flat (set design by Michael Yeargan). Photos by Joan Marcus


My Fair Lady has always been so brilliantly constructed, so full of beautiful, vital music that its nearly perfect machinations can leave a slight chill. The very idea of turning George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmailion into a musical was at once genius and ridiculous – how could such a brainy parlor comedy sing and dance? Composers Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (working with director Moss Hart) figured it out in 1956, and a classic play was soon eclipsed by a classic musical.

As we know, classic musicals don’t always remain in sync with changing times, especially in respect to issues of race, gender and sexuality. Given that My Fair Lady flexes Shaw’s feminist muscles, it is interesting to re-visit the show in the sumptuous, expertly appointed touring production of the Lincoln Center Theater’s 2018 revival that is now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season.

There has been so much focus through the years (from the original Broadway production through the 1964 movie and endless tours and regional/community productions) on the relationship between Henry Higgins (the teacher) and Eliza Doolittle (the student) that the center of Shaw’s story seems to have shifted. This is a show about class, one of the artificial restrictions society employs to determine who is allowed to do what and to whom. In this case, the wealthy British elite (high society, aristocracy, royalty, etc.) maintain their position over the, as one character puts it, “undeserving poor.”

When Higgins makes a bet with his pip-pip-cheerio chum, Pickering, that in six months, he can pass off Eliza, a “draggle-tailed guttersnipe” flower girl, as a duchess at an embassy ball, he’s making a casual revolt against societal norms for his own amusement (and to maintain his gargantuan ego by proving what a god-like teacher he is). In a musical, this would constitute the “A” relationship, which would normally be a romantic one, and the “B” relationship, here between Eliza and an entitled, rather dopey suitor named Freddy Eysnford-Hill, would be the secondary romance. But Shaw wasn’t aiming for conventional romantic comedy here, even if that’s what audiences crave. Higgins and Eliza develop an extraordinary relationship/battle of wills, but romance isn’t (and shouldn’t) be part of it, which makes the ending problematic (we’ll get to that).

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It also means the Eliza-Freddy plot hardly matters, although the stalker-like Freddy, who writes to her multiple times a day and can’t seem to tear himself away from her doorstep, gets a lovely song in “On the Street Where You Live.” The much more interesting secondary story here belongs to Eliza’s father, Alfred P. Doolittle, and his unlikely ascent from drunken dustman and general blackguard to eminent philosopher and money bags. He also gets two of the show’s liveliest songs, “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.”

There’s so much more than a love story here, and director Bartlett Sher’s sterling production brings that out. There are flimsy tours and there are grade-A tours – this falls firmly in the latter category. The design, the onstage talent and especially Sher’s smart, detailed direction make this show shine for a new generation. And here’s the best thing of all: it’s warm, emotional, funny and sharp without having to make any excuses for its age.

Much of the show’s heart comes from Shereen Ahmed as Eliza as she breaks down the character’s gruff exterior to reveal intelligence, vulnerability and strength. The first hint of Eliza’s inner life comes in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and then comes fully forward in a rage-filled “Just You Wait,” which is is staged on Michael Yeargan’s fantastic turntable set allowing Eliza to storm through multiple rooms of Higgins’ handsome two-story London flat. By the time Eliza has her breakthrough in “The Rain in Spain,” we love her, and then she totally captivates us with a shimmering “I Could Have Danced All Night.”

Laird Mackintosh brings a sort of Hugh Laurie quality to his Higgins and gives the character an energetic bounce that rivals the nonstop vibrations of his brain (and, it must be said, ego). Adam Grupper as Doolittle is a comic force, but he’s nuanced and lets the character build. He could stop the show with “Luck” but doesn’t (which can make Act 1 peak too soon), but completely lets loose in Act 2 with his show-stopping march to get to the church on time. This is also when choreographer Christopher Gattelli gets to let it all out with drag queens, drag kings, lust, booze and general debauchery of the highest order.

Every My Fair Lady, although a show full of potent ideas and stinging smackdowns, will always be judged on its “Ascot Gavotte” because a) it’s hilarious and b) it’s such a showcase for the costumes. Designer Catherine Zuber rises to the challenge here (and everywhere else) with a feast for the eyes.

Sher has tinkered with the musical’s ending to make it more in line with Shaw’s original ending (spoiler alert: Eliza asserts her independence and does not stay with Higgins, nor does she fetch his slippers), although the way it’s staged is rather bizarre. It’s almost as if Eliza appears as a figment of Higgins’ imagination as she wordlessly breezes into his flat through the door and out through one of the invisible walls. Still, it’s gratifying to see that Sher sticks with the anti-rom-com trajectory.

I also couldn’t help thinking that maybe it’s time for another movie version – one that stays sharp instead of gets mushy but lets us keep this glorious score alive. In my dream version, the song “Hymn to Him” (aka Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?) becomes literal as confirmed old bachelors Higgins and Pickering discover their deep and abiding love for one another through their love of phonetics and their staggering privilege. Shaw never quite got there, but in time, he probably would have. Higgins could be played by Andrew Scott (the sexy priest from “Fleabag”) and Pickering by Benedict Cumberbatch. And Eliza? Adele, of course. Now wouldn’t that be loverly?

FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Lincoln Center Theater production of Lerner & Loewe’s My Fair Lady, presented by BroadwaySF, continues through Nov. 28 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com. COVID-19 policy detailed here.

Superstar heralds return to holy place (aka the theater)

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The cast of the North American tour of Jesus Christ Superstar (featuring Aaron LaVigne in the center as the title character) has a light last supper. The show is at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. Below: James T. Justis is Judas. Photos by Matthew Murphy


Hosanna, hey sanna, sanna sanna ho! It sure feels good to be back in a big theater seeing a big Broadway show. This must be the way some people feel going back to church. You might even call it a religious experience.

Except when the show in question is Jesus Christ Superstar, that spiritual uplift quickly turns into confusion. With only a limited knowledge of the Bible, I’ve always found JCS to be a mediocre show with occasional thrills in the score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. I can fully understand why this show became such a sensation more than 50 years ago when the concept album was released (and nothing fires sales more than cries of “Sacrilege!”). Here was a rock opera/Passion Play that really rocked and yowled like the music of the day but also had some orchestral heft to differentiate it from other emerging rock musicals (like Hair).

I can also understand how audiences might have been baffled when the show opened on Broadway Oct. 12, 1971 (50 years ago this week!). If you don’t already know the story of Jesus’ last few weeks or who Judas or King Herod were, the show doesn’t do much to help you out.

Over the last five decades, JCS has become a mainstay, and it seems revisions and revivals and re-imaginings have kept this show resurrecting nonstop. I have yet to see anyone make a case for this being a great show, and the 50th anniversary North American tour now at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season is more interesting than many productions I’ve seen, but it still falls significantly short of miraculous.

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Director Timothy Sheader, who first staged this production for London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2016, aims to rediscover the zeal and youthful cheekiness of the original two-disc concept album by training focus on the music and making this show feel more like a concert than a traditional musical. And the music (not necessarily the voices) quickly emerges as the best part of this touring production. Music director Shawn Gough leads an 11-piece ensemble that expertly captures that unique Lloyd Webber sound blending the symphonic with rock, most notable here in the horns and the guitars.

Set on what looks to be the naked girders of a ruined building (set design by Tom Scutt, who also designed the hair and the costumes), the band occupies the upper levels while the ensemble scampers all over the stage, with a lot of concentrated action on the cross-shaped platform.

Actors in this show don’t have a lot to work with when it comes to characters. They get one act and 95 minutes of nearly nonstop singing that fails to provide much in the way clarity or emotional connection. Aaron LaVigne only really makes an impression as Jesus during “Gethsemane.” Otherwise he just seems like a nice, man-bunned hipster who gets caught in a violent sci-fi story with a mean friend (James T. Justis as Judas) and a sex worker friend who doesn’t know how to love him (Jenna Rubaii as Mary Magdalene). Pilate and the Roman soldiers look like murderous aliens, and King Herod (a fun Paul Louis Lessard) seems to be visiting from an entirely different, much campier and more enjoyable planet.

There’s a weird blend of the realistic and the mythical here. For instance, when Jesus is arrested and is heading toward execution, he emerges shirtless and drenched in blood. Then, when it’s time for the 39 lashes, the whip is replaced with golden glitter bombs. By the end of the lashing, he looks like a terribly abused Academy Award crossed with a disco ball. Probably not the vibe you want when you’re about to watch someone die slowly on a cross.

The thing about Jesus Christ Superstar is this: if you get carried away by the original album (and it still sounds remarkably vital), there is likely never going to be a production better than the one in your head. But isn’t it interesting that the theater where JCS premiered 50 years ago, the Mark Hellinger Theatre, is now the Times Square Church? Hosanna indeed.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Jesus Christ Superstar continues through Nov. 7 as part of the BroadwaySF season at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$226. Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com

BroadwaySF COVID policies are here.

A joyful circus bounces into Club Fugazi

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Ruben Ingwersen (left) and Jérémi Levesque hit remarkable heights in Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story, the exuberant new show at Club Fugazi. Below: Devin Henderson jumps through the hoop. Photo credit: Kevin Berne


If it were possible to actually see the heart of San Francisco, it might look like the beautifully diverse group of awe-inspiring acrobats bouncing around the stage in Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story. And this is not just any stage: this is Club Fugazi, the storied North Beach theater built in 1913 where Beach Blanket Babylon ran for most of its nearly five-decade run.

That’s a tough act to follow, but you know what? COVID is even tougher. And the glorious artists behind this enterprise rise to the challenge and then some. As Bay Area theater slowly begins to wake up from its 18-month imposed nap, it’s positively bracing to be in the presence of not only the wonderful performers of Dear San Francisco but also the loving, funny, thrilling show itself.

Co-conceived, created and directed by Shana Carroll and Gypsy Snider for their company, The 7 Fingers, this is a circus show that aims to share what’s lovable, what’s quirky and what’s annoying about San Francisco. Such a show could run for six hours at least, but this one runs around 90 minutes, and, happily, it doesn’t get hung up on SF stereotypes or get too sappy or silly about what makes this place unique. It takes an open-hearted approach and embraces these 7×7 miles by creating a portrait of a city that feels as wonderful and exciting as it feels unknowable. This isn’t a schmaltzy show built for tourists, but any living, breathing human (tourist or not) would be inclined to enjoy it and its robust portrait of the City by the Bay.

Carroll and Snider come to the world of the modern circus through San Francisco’s own chapter of circus renown, specifically through the Pickle Family Circus (Carroll was a trapeze artist and Snider’s parents founded the Pickles when she was 4). We tend to think of modern circus in terms of Cirque de Soleil, but I have to admit a certain weariness for that empty corporate spectacle. Give me a pulsing, human troupe like The 7 Fingers any day, and in addition to reveling in the performers’ skills, I’ll also enjoy their camaraderie, the light in their eyes and the magic they can create with their bodies and very little else.

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The nine-person cast is charming, sexy, funny and gobsmacking. If you’ve ever been to Fugazi, you know it’s not a very big theater. How Beach Blanket managed to get those giant props and hats onto that small stage is one of the wonders of the world. And 7 Fingers goes even further toward making this an intimate experience by putting audience members on the stage. Those folks almost end up with acrobats in their laps several times, but it’s hard to imagine anyone complaining.

There’s a poetic fluidity to the sequence of events, and the acrobatic acts themselves are woven into captivating vignettes about, for instance, falling in love in Golden Gate Park (which involves a trapeze and, apparently, a deal with gravity to take some time off). Or there’s the unicyclist who seems to be dancing and taking over the city on one wheel. It’s aggressive and beautiful at the same time (and the effect often appears more like rollerskating than unicycle riding).

Diving through a twirling hoop is set against recitations from the Beat poets, and the magnitude of an earthquake is measured by two men on a teeterboard (and it is seismic). Even Sam Spade and an enigmatic, truth-challenged client get in on the act with white balls (sort of like smaller volleyballs) that allow for a startling blend of film noir and juggling.

Tech folks get a mild skewering in a bit called “Privatize This,” and a hand balancing act becomes poetry in motion involving the beauty of redemption. My favorite act – the one that literally made me hold my breath – takes place on the stage-to-ceiling poles with a level of strength and control that is mind boggling.

Dear San Francisco really is a high-flying love story. There are people in love mixed into its portrait of a beautiful city, but it’s really a love story between us and the city itself. At one point, performers read postcards written by audience members (and some famous folk), and at Tuesday’s opening-night performance, one postcard said something to the effect of, “San Francisco, you have broken my heart and filled it over and over again,” which makes this place almost impossible to quit. How do you capture a historic city in flux? With a pile of irresistible acrobat performers, that’s how. This living, breathing love letter of a show finds joy in every leap, razzle-dazzle in every flip and absolute joy in every moment.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Tickets for Dear San Francisco: A High-Flying Love Story are on sale through Dec. 30. Tickets are $35-$89. Call 415-273-0600 or visit clubfugazisf.com. Club Fugazi is at 678 Green Street., San Francisco.

COVID Protocol
Club Fugazi requires proof of full vaccination with valid ID upon entry for all guests 12 years and up. Acceptable forms of proof include your physical vaccination card, a photo of your vaccination card, or a digital vaccination record. (California residents can request a digital vaccination record at https://myvaccinerecord.cdph.ca.gov/). Masks will be required for all patrons (including children) at all times. Unvaccinated children between the ages of 5 – 11 will be able to attend with vaccinated adult(s).

Who’s Zooming who in ACT’s Communion?

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Stacy Ross is the star and the host of Communion, a new play presented on Zoom by American Conservatory Theater. Photos courtesy of American Conservatory Theater


For almost 30 years now, I have enjoyed performances by Stacy Ross on Bay Area stages. From Shakespeare to comedy to drama, Ross is masterful in everything she does – incisive, direct and full of surprises. She is reason enough to see Communion a new Zoom play by San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen commissioned and produced by American Conservatory Theater through June 27.

Unlike a lot of Zoom plays we’ve experienced in the last year or so, this one uses the format to its fullest, weirdest, wonkiest effect. That means a certain degree of audience participation, but don’t let that scare you. How can you expect a play called Communion not to ask audience members to commune, albeit from their homes via the Zoom grid? Some people are asked to contribute more than others, but Ross, who is our Zoom meeting host as well as the star of the play, will make sure you’ve experienced pinned Zoom boxes, grid views, muted/un-muted microphones, breakout rooms and a camera that remains on for the duration of the play’s 70 minutes.

Chen, working with director Pam MacKinnon, happily blurs the lines between where Ross ends and the play begins. She is, ostensibly, playing herself and broadcasting from her home. She and Chen, or so she tells us, want to experiment with this unique moment in our history when we’ve been separated for so long, to see if we can experience true communion through this thing they have created: a play. We can’t have the usual 3-D, flesh-and-blood, wood-and-paint theater experience, but we can experience each other in real time and do things that may or may not make us feel bonded as an audience.

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If that sounds rather ordinarily aspirational, don’t forget that Chen is the architect of this experience, so it’s going to elevate into something smart, funny and unique in ways that may surprise you. The medium is the message here, and it can all get very meta, with Zooming about Zoom and thinking about thinking and communing over communion. Chen is constantly peeling back the layers, exposing the infrastructure and still asking us to stick with him, open-hearted but wary in order to make the play’s title come to fruition.

Ross is a beguiling host as she skillfully bridges her own life with glimpses into her past and her craft as an actor with her performance as a character in a play who may or may not be improvising even while she follows a script. We trust Ross, Chen and MacKinnon to take us someplace interesting, someplace we haven’t been on Zoom, and they definitely fulfill their end of that bargain. It’s ultimately what we go to the theater for in the first place: the illusion of reality that becomes real if you let it.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Christopher Chen’s Communion continues through June 27 with live Zoom performances. Tickets are $41-$55. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Brilliant Mind artfully blends live, digital, interactive

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Denmo Ibrahim as Dina and Ramiz Monsef as Yusef in Marin Theatre Company and Storykrapht’s live and interactive premiere of Brilliant Mind by Denmo Ibrahim. Below: Dina and Yusef deal with the aftermath of their father’s death.


Samir El Musri texted me more than two dozen times the other night while I was watching an online play. Rather than tell Samir to stop bothering me while I was otherwise engaged, I eagerly awaited each short message or photograph.

Samir, you see, is not a real person. He’s a character in Denmo Ibrahim’s world-premiere show Brilliant Mind, a presentation from Marin Theatre Company and Storykrapht that revels in the digital realm rather than treats it like a stopgap until theaters reopen.

Before the 80-minute show begins, we’re invited to explore a virtual 3-D replica of Samir’s apartment in which there are a number of items that will trigger additional information. We’re also invited to allow Samir to text us and to put his name in our address book so the texts actually come from Samir (and heightens the reality of the experience).

Unlike many digital plays, Brilliant Mind begins at a proscribed time because, as it turns out, there’s a live aspect in addition to the interactivity, and that live aspect involves Samir himself (as played by Kal Naga aka Khaled Abol Naga, who has died this very day and exists in a sort of limbo while he observes his grown children, Yusef (Ramiz Monsef) and Dina (Ibrahim) sort through what he has left behind – physically, culturally, emotionally.

Dramatically speaking, this live aspect combined with previously filmed segments involving Ysef and Dina, could be gimmicky at best and technologically glitchy at worst. Happily, Ibrahim, working with director Kate Bergstrom and digital/interactive designer Marti Wigder Grimminck, folds this idea meaningfully into the narrative, making Samir an observer – as we are – of the unfolding action and giving him a touch of magic realism in that he is able to use his phone to text us (his fellow observers) and make his presence felt in the world his children occupy.

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Yet another interactive component allows viewers to choose the play’s path at certain moments, which frankly made me a little anxious because of I have FOMO and am always certain I choose the less interesting option (and if you don’t choose rather quickly, the system chooses for you, so there’s that).

All the technology aside, the story of Brilliant Mind is intriguing in its own right as it explores the lives of Yusef and Dina, first-generation Arab-Americans, and how their lives have been (are being) affected by the lives of their immigrant parents and how a family forms its identity through cultural roots, geography, secrets and the politics of history (and the history of politics).

Ibrahim has long been a Bay Area actor of note, someone to rely on for depth, intelligence and emotional realism on stage. She and Monsef are marvelous together as their scenes crackle with the fraught chemistry of siblings who want to do better by one another but mostly fail to rise to that challenge. This period following their father’s death is sort of an emotional crucible, which is, of course, an excellent time to check with them from a dramatic point of view.

The richness of the characters and the bells and whistles of the presentation can’t conceal certain lags in the script (which would probably be more effective on stage than on screen) and a reliance on clichés (especially for Samir), but it’s all so well acted and produced that there’s still a great deal to enjoy, savor and ponder.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Denmo Ibrahim’s Brilliant Mind continues performances through June 13. Tickets are $30. Call 415-388-5208 or visit marintheatre.org.