Bright, shiny Prom arrives in time for Pride

Prom 3
Above: The national touring company of The Prom, a lively musical about a lesbian teen in Indiana, is at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season. Below: Kaden Kearney (left) is Emma and Kalyn West is Alyssa, the couple at the center of controversy in a small Indiana town. Photos by Deen Van Meer


Though Casey Nicholaw isn’t exactly a brand name on Broadway like, he absolutely should be. With shows like The Drowsy Chaperone, Aladdin and The Book of Mormon, Nicholaw is able to combine his talents as a sterling director of musical comedy and as a choreographer who knows how to show off dancers, tell a story and keep the show moving.

The Prom, a 2018 Broadway musical (and a star-studded Netflix movie two years later), proves a marvelous showcase for Nicholaw, who mostly manages the sharp shifts from bouncy, silly comedy to something darker and more rooted in real life. As fun as it is, nobody will ever accuse this frothy work of musical comedy of being a hard-hitting documentary.

The national touring production of The Prom, now at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, feels like bits of other shows – The Producers, Dear Evan Hansen, Hairspray – mashed together together to tell the story (based on true events) of Emma, a 17-year-old lesbian in a small Indiana town who just wants to take her girlfriend to prom. The local PTA has a conniption fit and cancels the dance altogether before the State’s District Attorney forces them to resume the event.

Book writers Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin (who also wrote the lyrics) smartly dumb things down to recognizable stereotypes that are, in true 21st century fashion, slightly more woke than your parents’ stereotypes. The engine of the plot isn’t the actual discrimination happening in America’s heartland but what a quartet of award-winning Broadway narcissists are going to do about it.

Two-time Tony Award-winner Dee Dee Allen (Courtney Balan) and one-time Drama Desk Award-winner Barry Glickman (Patrick Wetzel) have just been lambasted by New York critics to such a degree that no one will want to work with them again anytime soon. So with the help of a perpetual ensemble member named Angie Dickinson (Emily Borromeo) and a Juilliard-trained waiter/actor named Trent Oliver (Bud Weber), they pick a cause at random to prove that they can think of something or someone other than themselves. They land on Emma’s sad story and hitch a ride to Bumpkinville on a bus-and-truck tour of Godspell to Indiana.

Prom 2

The ego-bashing send-up of Broadway celebrities provides abundant fodder for comedy as the proud (if idiotic) New York liberals clash with the small-town homophobes, who are practically holding pitchforks as they rail against the presence of a young lesbian in their midst.

As long as comedy and sweetness are the prevailing winds, The Prom sails happily. But at the end of Act 1, the whole town, adults and kids, gangs up in Emma in such a cruel, humiliating way that comedy feels uncomfortable. In Act 2, the show never fully regains its buoyancy, mostly because the stereotypes of mean and stupid townsfolk is never really resolved, even though everyone supposedly embraces the joys of diversity and inclusion.

But Act 2 does have the fun faux-Fosse number “Zazz” and the incredibly sweet “Barry’s Going to Prom” (performed with irresistible exuberance by Wetzel). The most memorable songs in the score by Beguelin and composer Matthew Sklar, “Unruly Heart” and “It’s Time to Dance,” help the show end on an upbeat note and spark an incredibly enjoyable curtain call.

The entire cast here is appealing – even the villain, PTA president and helicopter mom Mrs. Greene (Ashanti J’Aria) – and the ensemble, which has to be snooty New York theater patrons, Indiana teens and cruel adults, has an infectious spirit and keeps the stage fizzing and popping with Nicholaw’s vivacious choreography.

Proms in this country have become a rite of passage, but there’s not a lot of depth there (dressing up, drinking, sweaty gym dancing, sex in cars). Still, we take the rites we can get, and if they become a matter of civil rights, perhaps the needle on empathy and acceptance can actually move in a positive direction. The Prom sends show-biz satire and queer rights issues arm in arm to the dance – and truth be told, they have a pretty good time and discover a bump or two of joy along the way.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Prom continues through July 17 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256. Call 888-746-1799 or visit broadwaysf.com.

In the uneasy room with Dana H.

Dana H 2
Jordan Baker is Dana H. in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s West Coast premiere of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H., directed by Les Waters. Photos by Calvin Nguy/Berkeley Rep


The premise of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. may sound, at first, bizarre: a lone actor spends the 75-minute show lip syncing to a recorded interview. It’s certainly a novel approach to theatrical storytelling, and within minutes, the reason for this approach begins to reveal itself. By the end, it’s clear that there could be no more effective or powerful means of relaying this particular tale, which just happens to be the real-life story of Dana Higginbotham, who just happens to be Hnath’s mother.

The simple facts are these: in 1997, Higginbotham had been working as a chaplain in a Florida hospital psychiatric unit, met and counseled a patient named Jim. Upon his release, he ended up kidnapping and holding her for a life-altering five months.

The show, which just won two Tony Awards (for lead actress in a play and for the sound design by Mikhail Fiskel, who reprises his stunning work for this Berkeley Repertory Theatre production), is based on a 2015 interview Higginbotham had with Steve Cosson, who taped several days’ worth of audio. Higginbotham says she had not really talked about the events of her kidnapping in the nearly 20 years since they occurred, and it remains unclear how much her son, who took on the task of editing down many hours of the interview into the show’s short hour and 15 minutes, knew about his mother’s harrowing experience prior to this interview.

When the show begins, the actor Jordan Baker enters what looks like a cheap hotel room set (perfectly detailed design by Andrew Boyce), sits in a chair and is outfitted with earphones that will feed her the audio of the interview that we also hear. The real Dana H. then tells us her story as best she can. We hear Cosson asking questions, and whenever Hnath has made an edit in the audio, we hear a beep before the segment. So even though Hnath (who was away for his freshman year at NYU when the events of the story happened) is only peripherally a character in the play, he’s very much present as a playwright, shaping how we hear his mother’s story.

And what a story. There’s much more here than just the recounting of trauma. There’s deep psychological and emotional wrestling with the very essence of what it means to be human and how fragile our worlds are, even when we think we’re on solid ground. Dana H. is a play that aims to shake our foundations, and it does so with surprising force. It’s not nearly as difficult as we might think to slip into an underworld where none of what we might consider the usual rules apply.

Dana H 1

The notion of lip synching, as strange as it might seem, is utterly fascinating. It demands a kind of concentration from the audience that even the best actor probably could not command if she or he were simply acting the material with voice and body. We’re used to that, but we’re not used to this. As a piece of documentary theater, we are and we aren’t relying on Baker’s performance. We have Dana Higginbotham herself telling her story in her own words. But then we have Baker’s uncanny ability to make us forget she’s lip synching and to create the illusion of the real person.

Baker and director Les Waters (also nominated for Tony Award for the New York production), have worked out so many fascinating details that it’s impossible not to hang on every word, every laugh or big intake of breath, every rustling sound or tinkling bracelet captured in the audio. In one way, the lip synching keeps us at a distance – we are dissociated from the action by Baker, who serves as a bridge between the real Dana H. and the theatrical version she is presenting. You might think this technique would minimize the emotion or the shock of the violence or the horror of a life turned completely upside down, but it actually has a powerfully opposite effect as the details and complexities coalesce into a relentlessly captivating, devastating experience that is, mercifully, not without hope or humor.

Many questions emerge from this story, and it seems that Hnath has perhaps pushed himself too far out of the narrative. Every beep in the audio stream reminds us of his presence, and as the story comes into its final chapters and skitters through a number of years, we can’t help wondering where he was and how he fits back into his mother’s life in between the end of events recounted in the story and the creation of this play.

Dana H. stands (or sits, actually) as a wholly unique theatrical experience. It’s real and it’s artificial. It’s at a remove and yet it digs down into our depths. It’s a bold theatrical experiment and its resulting power is such that you’ll feel deeply moved if not more than a little bit terrified of the cracks and terrors it exposes.

[free event]
Dana H. director Les Waters will talk about his superb new book, The Theatre of Les Waters: More Like the Weather at a free Berkeley Rep event on Monday, June 28 at 8pm in the Roda Theatre. The event, Celebrating the Theatre of Les Waters, is free but registration is required: https://tickets.berkeleyrep.org/16522/16825. And the book is essential reading for all theater lovers, especially Bay Area theater lovers who have been lucky enough to see Les’ work on local stages through the years.

[for more information]
Lucas Hnath’s Dana H. continues through July 10 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $22-$115 (subject to change). Call 510-64702949 or visit berkeleyrep.org.

To hell and back, with beautiful music

Hadestown1
ABOVE: Kimberly Marable is Persephone in the North American Tour of the Tony Award-winning musical Hadestown. BELOW: Levi Kreis (center) is Hermes on stage at the Orpheum Theatre through July 3 as part of the BroadwaySF season. Photos by T. Charles Erickson


How fitting to experience the story of Eurydice and Orpheus in the Orpheum Theatre, which essentially means “house of Orpheus.” That’s where the touring company of the Tony Award-winning musical Hadestown is playing as part of the BroadwaySF season. And while being inside the theater might be a slice of heaven, Market Street after dark is definitely a glimpse into what the underworld might actually be like.

In Hadestown, what we have is an adaptation of Greek mythology (specifically Orpheus and Eurydice and Hades and Persephone) updated and reinvigorated for our fraught times. What began 16 years ago as a grass roots theater project by writer/composer Anaïs Mitchell has grown into a wildly successful Broadway musical with the help of director Rachel Chavkin that addresses climate change, corporate greed, poverty, political reprehensibility and, of course, doomed love.

Because it’s an ancient tale full of hellfire, young love, seasons changing, mature (and rather bitter) love, there’s plenty of fervor in the storytelling to ignite Mitchell’s irresistible, jazzy, folky score, while Chavkin’s staging hews to a storyteller style that involves a narrator (Hermes), a fabulous onstage band, a trio of Fates and a small chorus of dancers/singers.

So, in the end, the show feels less like a musical with fully formed, emotionally connected characters and more like the most enjoyable lecture on Greek mythology you’re likely to see combined with a fantastic concert overflowing with talented performers.

From the rousing opening number, “Road to Hell,” it’s clear that Mitchell and Chavkin are going make this 2 1/2-hour show a mightily entertaining trip through the entanglements of mortals and gods and the forging of hellscapes of our own (and others’) making. As our guide, Levi Kreis as Hermes is nimble, charismatic and vocally assured. He sets the scene, introduces us to the major players and then sticks around to provide insight, comfort and, when necessary, instructions on how to successfully exit hell on foot (those instructions may or may not be followed to the letter).

Hadestown3

The central lovers are given full-voiced life by Morgan Siobhan Green as Eurydice, a determined but impoverished (and hungry) wanderer, and Nicholas Barasch as Orpheus, the son of a Muse who is working on a song that will bring order back to an off-kilter world.

When spring arrives (late, thanks climate change), it comes in the form of dazzling Persephone (Kimberly Marable) in a vivid green dress (costumes by Michael Krasov). But spring and summer will be short lived because Persephone is called to return to her husband, Hades (Kevyn Morrow), a baritone in a pinstripe suit with American capitalist aspirations.

The reasons for Eurydice and Orpheus’ sudden plunge into the depths of romance and Eurydice’s even faster decision to give up on life and head into the underworld don’t make a lot of emotional sense, so it’s hard to invest fully in their travails. But Green and Barasch have voices so full of character and power that it’s satisfying to hear them describe their experiences rather than fully feel them.

Aside from a few standout staging moments (like Orpheus’ descent into the underworld, which is so much more effectively staged than his journey back out), one of the most delightful aspects of this production is the band itself, which is featured prominently on Rachel Hauck’s set. Has there ever been a Broadway show in which the trombonist (in this case, the marvelous Audrey Ochoa) feels like a major character? Perhaps this should become a thing.

Hadestown offers big bumps of jubilation and sweetness amid its dark sadness and grim realities. Young love can’t solve all its own problems, but older love can be rekindled at a deeper level. Greed, ego, walls and dominion never equal freedom but always result in doom. And music may not be able to right the world, but as this glorious score amply demonstrates, it can make hell seem pretty heavenly for a couple of hours.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Hadestown continues through July 3 at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the BroadwaySF season, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $56-$256. Call 888-746.1799 or visit broadwdaysf.com.

Octet at Berkeley Rep is a revelation

Octet 2
In Berkeley Rep’s production of Octet, Alex Gibson (center) is Henry, surrounded by (from left) Adam Bashian as Ed, Margo Seibert as Jessica, J.D. Mollison as Marvin, Kuhoo Verma as Velma, Isabel Santiago as Paula, Justin Gregory Lopez as Toby and Kim Blanck as Karly. BELOW: The cast of Octet in the West Coast premiere of Dave Malloy’s astonishing theater piece, directed by Annie Tippe. Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre


Writer/composer Dave Malloy calls his Octet a “chamber choir musical,” and that’s certainly an apt description of this one-act show featuring eight performers and a shimmering a cappella score. But an even better description of Octet might be a “revelation” or maybe even a “miracle.”

Commissioned by New York’s Signature Theatre, who premiered the work in 2019, Octet is now on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, and it is (and probably was and will likely remain) the right show at the right time. As long as we’re isolated, anxiety-ridden or damaged, this show will have something to say (or perhaps sing is the better word) to us.

There’s a beautiful simplicity to Octet, which is interesting because the show traffics in the internecine complexities of our modern world, more specifically, with the horrors of the Internet: the isolation, the addictions, the pornography, the self-righteousness, the polarization, the anonymity, the cruelty, the fraud…and the list just goes on and on.

The simplicity comes in the show’s form: eight people gather for a 90-minute support group meeting in a faith center community room. The group, created by an enigmatic figure named Saul, is patterned after a 12-step program but with eight guiding principles and designed for people in recovery from multitudinous online damage. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of this program is that its therapy takes the form of choral singing. Armed with their pitch pipes, group members sing some hymns (of Malloy’s creation, of course, and very specific to the 21st century), but when it comes time for them to share their stories, these are also presented in song.

Octet 1

The idea seems to be that this group embodies the exact opposite of the trauma suffered by its participants. By singing together, they are physically (through voice), mentally and emotionally connected in a way rivaled only by sex. Their octet is a living, creative organism that can only exist when they are together, and the mind-blowing beauty of what they create is matched only by the emotional wallop of what they’re actually telling each other (and us) about what they’ve suffered and how they’re surviving and evolving.

In addition to his glorious score, Malloy’s script also has its own power. There are familiar sitcom rhythms to the humor, but that’s just one of the ways Malloy pulls us in and calms us down before taking us places we could never have expected. There’s real wit here (especially in some of the lyrics), and it’s easy to relate to pretty much everything being discussed, which is why so much of it is at once funny and terrifying. There’s also a level of mysticism at work here – the Tarot factors in, as does a chatbot named Eugene Goostman that apparently fooled people into thinking it was human.

Local audiences have the benefit of seeing most of the original New York Octet cast reprising their roles, along with most of the creative team headed by director Annie Tippe. There’s not a false moment among the pitch-perfect actors, and the verisimilitude of the situation – the details in the set by Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta are fascinating – only amplifies the otherworldly places the music takes us (Malloy did the vocal arrangements, which are like a language unto themselves, and Or Matias is the sterling music supervisor and music director).

Each of the actors gets a moment to shine, but, by design, the show’s undeniable power comes from all the voices. It’s hard to imagine anyone better in these roles than Adam Bashian, Kim Blanck, Alex Gibson, Justin Gregory Lopez, J.D. Mollison, Isabel Santiago, Margo Seibert and Kuhoo Verma. We don’t know all that much about their characters, but we know enough to see ourselves and the people around us in them, and if it feels like they are working to be better and do better, so can we. Somehow, through the magic of experiencing something profound together, the octet expands to include the audience.

In the hours since I left Berkeley Rep, the show has continued to vibrate in me, and I haven’t interacted with a screen without thinking about it and about how ill equipped we have been to keep up with the rush of technological advances and all that entails (and the effect on our brains and our attention spans and our relationships with others). I can’t sing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel a very strong urge to return to that community room as one of the Friends of Saul.

Octet is just astonishing. It is one of those theater experiences that makes good on the promise of the art form – the kind of experience that keeps you going to show after show after show because you know this kind of transcendence is possible every time you step into a theater.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Dave Malloy’s Octet continues through May 29 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$159, subject to change. Visit berkeleyrep.org or call 510-647-2949.

ACT immerses audience into captivating Fefu

FAF_166
The cast of American Conservatory Theater’s Fefu and Her Friends by María Irene Fornés includes (from left) Lisa Anne Porter as Julia, Sarita Ocón as Christina, Jennifer Ikeda as Cindy, Cindy Goldfield as Emma, Catherine Castellanos as Fefu and Marga Gomez as Cecilia. BELOW: Taking place in various spots around The Strand, Fefu immerses its audience in scenes like this one in the lobby with Castellanos and Goldfield on a balcony. Photos by Kevin Berne.


There are actors in American Conservatory Theater’s Fefu and Her friends that I would travel continents to see. I would climb flights of stairs and even sit on the floor to get to see them perform. The good news about Fefu is that it’s not continents away – it’s down on Market Street in a Strand Theater that has been transformed, in its theatrical way, into a New England country home full of interesting people. You will, however, have to climb stairs (or take the elevator) and sit on the floor (if you want to) because this is an immersive production that takes you all over the building.

With its premiere in 1977, María Irene Fornés’ Fefu (pronounced FEH-foo) emerged as a theatrical experiment in feminism. Set in 1935 during a reunion of college friends, the all-women cast explores their relationships to each other and to a world that desperately wants men and women to conform to accepted gender roles.

There’s not a traditional plot, but that’s not really the point here. It’s all about discovery and play. We first meet the eight characters as they arrive at Fefu’s house for a weekend of fun and rehearsal for an upcoming charity event. The audience is seated in the theater, and the characters inhabit the lovely home designed by Tanya Orellana in a traditional proscenium setting. The tone that emerges under Pam MacKinnon’s direction is one of joviality, introspection and the ever-present possibility of surprise (good and bad).

For the second of the play’s three parts, the audience is separated into four groups (your color-coded wristband lets you know which group you’re in) and taken into various parts of Fefu’s house. Our group first headed to the lobby, which had been transformed into Fefu’s garden, complete with grass (of the artificial variety), gorgeous Monet-like projections (by Hana S. Kim) and a real-life plant exchange (bring a plant, take a plant, so if you’re going definitely bring a plant!). Fefu (Catherine Castellanos) and Emma (Cindy Goldfield) have an al fresco chat about, among other things, how none of us talks about our genitals enough.

FAF_118

Then we headed backstage into a dimly lit room (Russell H. Champa is responsible for the gorgeous lighting throughout the building), where Julia (a mesmerizing Lisa Anne Porter) wrestled with demons. And then it was upstairs to the top of the building where a black-box space has been turned into two performance spaces (with a fair amount of sound bleed between the two stages). In one room, the study, Cindy (Jennifer Ikeda) and Christina (Sarita Ocón) talk about French verbs, dreams and nightmarish doctors, and in another, the kitchen (an absolutely stunning design), Paula (Stacy Ross) chats with Sue (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong) before rekindling an old flame with the enigmatic Cecilia (Marga Gomez).

Some characters wander out of one short scene and into another, which is thrilling – like turning the play house into a playhouse, and we’re all kids having a blast playing pretend (but the conversations are decidedly not childlike). It’s that sense of discovery again – poking into corners of The Strand that audience members don’t usually see and, with all the fanciful design touches along our travel routes, feeling embraced by the idea of pretending to be in some other place in some other time with people who were imagined into being by a playwright with a lot to say. Kudos to MacKinnon and her team (notably Stage Manager Elisa Guthertz, whose team works with military precision and maximum affability) for such sterling execution of the Fefu challenge.

After intermission, audience members return to their seats in the theater for the final section of the play. We know these women better now, so the intricacies of the relationships, the shared histories and the personal traumas all carry more weight. The miracle of the actors is that they do feel connected by years of events, so their ability to shift from joy and frivolity to deep sadness and despair feels lived. There’s unevenness in the performances in some scenes, but that can’t obscure some stunning work by Castellanos as the gregarious but enigmatic Fefu, Goldfield as the effervescent Emma, Ross as the deceptively grounded Paula and Porter as the tormented Julia.

There’s no end to the discovery as Fornés allows us to spend 2 1/2 hours immersed in what women are thinking – a significant undertaking executed with a great deal of spirit and fun. In that sense, you can definitely say that hanging out with Fefu and Her Friends is a seriously good time.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
María Irene Fornés’ Fefu and Her Friends continues through May 1 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$110 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org.

Theatrical magic is the blessing in shorter Cursed

Potter 1
ABOVE: Harry Potter (John Skelley,left), Hermione Granger (Lily Mojekwu, center), and Ron Weasley (Steve O’Connell) are up to some new tricks in the San Francisco production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Curran Theater. BELOW: Dementors descend to terrorize both characters and audience. Photos: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade


Amid clanking bottles of butter beer, confetti canons and celebratory words from the mayor, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the live theater component of the Potter Empire, has officially reopened at San Francisco’s Curran Theater.

Already a hit in London, New York and elsewhere around the world, Cursed opened late in 2019 and then was shuttered by the pandemic. During that time, creators J.K. Rowling (the author of the seven Potter novels), playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany decided to downsize their show. What was originally a five-plus-hour two-play experience has now become a 3 1/2-hour single play.

I saw and loved the original two-part production in December 2019 (oh, those sweet, unmasked days of yore) – read my review here – but wondered if the experience wouldn’t benefit from being shorter. Turns out, it is more potent in one sitting.

The new, condensed version re-opened Feb. 24 amid much hoopla re-directing attention to San Francisco’s beleaguered Union Square area and theater district, and the show is in sterling condition. Everything that was wonderful about the original is still here and strong – it’s just swifter and a little more dense. The best news is that all those incredible displays of theatrical magic are still dazzling and thrilling and chilling and mesmerizing. The soul-sucking dementors, for instance, are as horrifying as they are beautiful, and if you’ve ever wondered what it might actually feel like to slip through the cracks of time, hold tight. The effect, incorporating projections, sound and (probably) actual magic, is stunning.

But it’s not all mind-boggling effects bringing things like floo powder, wand battles and magic spells to life. Thorne’s script (based on an original story by Rowling, Tiffany and Thorne) wastes no time in getting us up to speed on Harry Potter’s life 19 years after the action of the final novel. Harry (John Skelley) and Ginny Weasley (Angela Reed) have two boys, James (William Bednar-Carter) and Albus Severus (Benjamin Papac), at Hogwarts. Harry, who remains the most famous and beloved of wizards, works at the Ministry of Magic, and his legacy weighs heavily on his younger son.

Albus is a loner and does not enjoy his time at Hogwarts. Save for his friendship with Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger), son of Draco (Lucas Hall), it’s all kind of a teen-angsty nightmare but with flying broomsticks. Being the son of “the boy who lived” involves a whole lot of pressure to live up to the Potter name, and Albus feels he’s nowhere near up to that task. It doesn’t help that Harry and Albus do not get along, thus setting the stage (literally) for a play that is primarily about fathers and sons.

P0tter 2

What the play does exceptionally well is mine the Potter mythology for insider delights and for hefty emotional connections. Beloved characters from the books pop up here and there, and though there’s plenty to enjoy for the Potter novice, it’s a much richer experience if you know why the audience collectively sighs when a certain someone whom we haven’t seen for a very long time, steps onto the stage.

Though Cursed Child is not a musical, it has the highly choreographed and fluid feel of a musical. Credit movement director Steven Hoggett for creating that flow – and all that robe swirling – and for designing one of the show’s most beautiful moments: a duet for rolling staircases that evokes the Escher-like Hogwarts architecture.

There is an emotional heart to this story amid all the fiery spectacle, and the actors are fully committed to the drama (or, in the case of Steve O’Connell’s Ron Weasley, the snide comedy). Skelley’s Harry is kind of a jerk for much of the play – a man pressured by his past and his celebrity status and his bureaucratic job – and there’s one intensely emotional scene in particular that serves as a reminder of just how much trauma Harry has been through in his nearly 40 years. I wish Hermione (the wonderful Lily Mojekwu) had more to do. Maybe the next stage epic – and there should be one – will focus on her and her daughter, Rose (Folami Williams).

The emotional core of the show belongs to Papac and Steiger as Albus and Scorpius, unlikely friends and even unlikelier heroes. Both actors manage to be believable, ultimately lovable teens whose father issues bond them and then compel them to behave rashly before doing some serious growing up.

The mix of wizarding razzmatazz and genuine emotion will be familiar to fans of the books (and the movies), but everything in the theater (effects AND emotions) feels at a higher volume and intensity. And that’s a glorious – you might even say genuinely magical – feeling. In this wacko world, it’s almost a relief to to escape into a theatrical epic for 3 1/2 hours and experience the satisfying thrill of magic empowering good vanquish bad.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child continues through Sept. 4 at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $59-$199 (subject to change). Visit harrypottertheplay.com for information.
Covid information: All ticketholders 16 years of age and older who are eligible must present proof of full vaccination with booster. All patrons, regardless of age, are required to wear masks inside the theater at all times when not actively eating or drinking. For more information, click here.


Freestyle Love reigns supreme

Freestyle3
The cast of Freestyle Love Supreme at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater includes (from left) Chris Sullivan (Shockwave), Andrew Bancroft (Jelly Donut), Jay C. Ellis (Jellis J), Kaila Mullady (Kaiser Rözé), Morgan Reilly (Hummingbird), Aneesa Folds (Young Nees) and Anthony Veneziale (Two Touch). BELOW: Freestyling with (from left) Bancroft, Ellis, Folds and Veneziale. Photos by Kevin Berne


Wednesday night at the Geary Theater was one those nights theater lovers had been waiting for: the re-opening of American Conservatory Theater’s glorious home. We thought such an occasion would happen post-pandemic, but as that “post” era seems ever elusive, we’ll take what vaccinations and masks will allow.

And what they allow at this moment in the gorgeous Geary is exceptionally enjoyable. Freestyle Love Supreme is not a new show (its roots go back to 2004), but among its creators – Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anthony Veneziale (who originally conceived the project) – are Broadway superstars. Miranda is, well, Miranda (Hamilton, In the Heights, Encanto and a million things he’s already done) and Kail is the Tony-winning director of Hamilton. So this improv hip-hop side project garnered a lot of attention and eventually found life on Broadway and many other places.

The most recent Broadway iteration of FLS kicks off its national tour at the Geary, and though this 90-ish-minute blast of high-energy theatrics would be a giddy delight on any given night, its arrival during our most recent surge feels especially fortuitous. It’s a bountiful serving of inventive fun when we needed it most.

The concept is just like any improv show: the performers will create entirely original work based on suggestions from the audience. In this case, the stakes are raised by the performers having to freestyle rap with the help of two keyboardists and two beatboxers to control melody and rhythm. So the performers are rapping, singing and acting all at the same time, which is quite the high-wire act.

Happily, this crew, which can vary from night to night with special guests, knows how to spit rhymes (as they say), get laughs, connect with deeper emotions and offer high-velocity entertainment. Veneziale serves as the de facto host as the well-crafted but just loose enough structure keeps the show moving from segment to segment without feeling constrictive.

Freestyle2

In true improv fashion, audience members are called upon to supply raw material like verbs, things they intensely dislike, things they love and, twice during the show, more involved things like a painful memory you wish you could do over or how you spent your day. Of course the masks muffled the suggestions somewhat, but everybody who wanted to be heard was heard (from the balcony in response to things you couldn’t live without: the word “the”).

At Wednesday’s opening-night performance, the verbs included litigate, catapult, masturbate and fondle. The crew chose litigate to expound upon, but they managed to get most of the other words in there as well. Among the things that were working the audience’s last nerves were Joe Manchin, Covid, the My Pillow guy, Wordle, “my vegan girlfriend” and “too much mayonnaise.” In a 21st-century pandemic twist, audience members can scan a QR code in the program and submit words for a fast round of improv rapping as the words are pulled at random from a bucket.

There are three more involved segments of the evening, all of which verged on brilliant on opening night. Recalling a childhood memory, an audience member named Breezy described her second day of third grade at a new school when she fainted while giving a book report. Veneziale interviewed Breezy for more details (the school was in New Jersey, the teacher was Mrs. Walker, the book was Nancy Drew, and if she had it to do over again, Breezy would have said “no” when asked to do her report). Then the cast re-created the event before rewinding and providing the “just say no” alternative reality. Morgan Reilly (aka Hummingbird) was especially effective in the role of Breezy, who became the center of a “raise your voice” anthem at the end of the bit.

A more intimate moment had four performers on stools riffing on the audience-inspired word “destiny” by sharing a story they assured us was 100% true. Jay C. Ellis (aka Jellis J) rapped about his childhood in Ohio and coming out. Andrew Bancroft (aka Jelly Donut) described his time living in the Bay Area when he discovered rap battles in Oakland and found his life’s calling. Veneziale (aka Two Touch) also recalled time spent living in San Francisco, but that quickly expanded into a piece about racial equality and George Floyd’s needless death. Throughout these stories, Aneesa Folds (aka Young Nees) supplied soulful vocals, which were mostly vocalizations on the word destiny. It was a beautiful segment that underscored the notion that improv isn’t always (and shouldn’t always be) going for laughs.

The show’s finale had Veneziale finding an audience member willing to go into great detail about their day prior to arriving at the theater. On this night, a high school science teacher named Jay talked about his kids, his parents, his job, his workout regimen and his invitation to discuss Finnish education at a Palo Alto senior center. Then the full cast turned that day into a rather astonishing hip-hop musical.

Part theater, part concert, part party trick, Freestyle Love Supreme revels in on-the-spot creativity. The stage crackles with invention as the talented performers revel in riffing off of one another and sharing the spotlight. It’s generous, it’s dazzling and it’s the kind of spine-tingling communal experience you could never get in front of a screen.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anthony Veneziale’s Freestyle Love Supreme continues through Feb. 13 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theatre, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$130. Call 415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org. ACT’s Covid policies are here.

Check out the excellent documentary We Are Freestyle Love Supreme on Hulu.

We’ll have a Black Christmas without you

Black 3
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.

Black 2

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

Panto 1
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.

Panto 2

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

Carol 1
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.

Carol 2

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.