Grief, puppets collide in TheatreWorks’ great Pretender

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Children’s television show host Mr. Felt (Steve Brady) introduces Carol the Pony to Jodi (Sarah Moser) in TheatreWorks’ world-premiere of The Great Pretender by David West Read. Below: On the set of the children’s show, puppeteer Carol (Suzanne Grodner, left), director Tom (Michael Storm, center, seated), and Mr. Felt (Brady) discuss adding Jodi (Moser, right) as a puppeteer. Photos by Kevin Berne

You don’t often think of puppets and drama together, but playwright David West Read makes a strong case for the combination in the world premiere of his The Great Pretender, the first show of TheatreWorks’ 45th season.

Original, funny and genuinely moving, Pretender is set in a very specific world – a “Captain Kangaroo”-like children’s television program with a mild-mannered host interacting with spunky puppets – and discovers universal strains of grief, comfort and emotional evolution.

Playwright Read and director Stephen Brackett establish a very grounded world in which they can veer from big, satisfying laughs to emotional explorations of depth and substance, which is not an easy thing to do. It helps that they have a marvelous cast and several puppets that turn out to be something more than just adorable pieces of cloth (the puppets are designed by David Valentine).

The cheerful workaday world of the “Mr. Felt” show, a staple of children’s morning television for decades, is still reeling from the loss of one of its own. The show’s host, Roy (Steve Brady), has lost his wife and chief puppeteer in a terrible accident, and it’s been a year since any new episodes have been shot. Director Tom (Michael Storm) thinks he may have found a young woman to take over as a puppeteer. It turns out Jodi (Sarah Moser) grew up with the “Mr. Felt” show and does a fantastically accurate voice for Frances, the show’s primary puppet.

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For Roy, the prospect of interacting with Frances, who was the creation of his late wife, is an emotionally tricky one. He wants the show to continue, and he doesn’t want his young viewers upset by changes to the cast, but it proves to be more challenging than he realized to resume interaction with the puppets and to coach the young, inexperienced puppeteer to be more like his wife.

Elements of grief and sadness are strong in the play, but there are also rich veins of humor, much of what comes from the character of Carol (Suzanne Grodner), puppeteer for the show’s second-banana character, Carol the Pony. Carol the person is a little rough in real life – filters are not her thing, but she’s honest and quite often hilarious.

Just when you think Read’s play is going to be about Roy and Jodi, the focus shifts, and with the help of Daniel Zimmerman’s nifty set, we’re dealing with something larger than one key relationship.

A product of last year’s New Works Festival at TheatreWorks, The Great Pretender keeps threatening to be cute or sitcom-ish but consistently undercuts those expectations with intelligence, quick wit and characters with recognizable emotional lives.

In its final third, the 100-minute play spends a little too much time on Carol’s baseball-playing cat screenplay idea, and Jodi’s story thread still feels unresolved by the end (and Moser is so delightful in the role you don’t want her to disappear), but the joys of this Pretender are far more plentiful than its flaws.

David West Read’s The Great Pretender continues through Aug. 3 in a TheatreWorks production at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $19-$74. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

Sondheim marries love & lyrics in melodic TheatreWorks revue

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A.J. Shively is “Him” and Sharon Rietkerk is “Her” in the two-person Stephen Sondheim musical Marry Me a Little, a TheatreWorks production running through June 29 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Tracy Martin

Even Stephen Sondheim’s cast-offs are sturdy enough to carry a show on their own. At least that’s the case with Marry Me a Little, a 1980 revue created by Craig Lucas and Norman René. The show collects odds and ends from Sondheim’s career, including songs cut from some of his big shows (Follies seems to have lost an extraordinary number of good songs), written for one-off projects or salvaged from flops.

The resulting show, using only songs and no dialogue, tells the story of two lonely neighbors on a Saturday night. The original location was New York, but the new TheatreWorks production directed by Sondheim-o-phile Robert Kelley moves the action to San Francisco and takes every opportunity to have its attractive actors shed clothing. In other words, it’s aiming to be young, hip and sexy, and by and large, that tact succeeds.

I reviewed the show for the San Francisco Chronicle:

It’s hard to imagine two more appealing performers than Sharon Rietkerk and A.J. Shively. If there’s amplification in the theater, it’s so subtly and expertly done (by sound designer Brendan Aanes) that it seems we’re simply hearing two beautiful voices and a piano. Every lyrical nuance is clear but unforced, and that’s a supremely satisfying way to experience Sondheim.

So often musical revues are just cheesy excuses to sing a lot of songs, but “Marry Me a Little” is distinguished by its notable lack of cheese. Director Robert Kelley never lets the naturalism of single people going about their Saturday night business get forced or silly, even when the song “Pour Le Sport” turns into a his-and-her round of video game golf.

Read the entire review here.

One thing I didn’t get to say in the review was how effectively set designer Bruce McLeod incorporates musical director/pianist William Liberatore into the set. Liberatore actually “plays a role” as a neighbor who happens to love Sondheim and plays his songs continually (how convenient!). We see him in his home at the piano surrounded by Sondheim show posters (Merrily We Roll Along, Sweeney Todd), and right about at eye level on the wall next to the piano, is a framed photo of Sondheim himself. Such a nice touch.

TheatreWorks’ Marry Me a Little continues through June 29 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$73. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

Bouncy Island breezes blow at TheatreWorks

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Ti Moune (Salisha Thomas) is lifted by the cast of Once This Island, a TheatreWorks production at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Last Saturday I reviewed the TheatreWorks production of Once on This Island, the charming musical fairy tale by the Ragtime/Rocky team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. My review ran in the San Francisco Chronicle, and you can read it here.

Director Robert Kelley’s production captures much of the show’s charm and energy, and the cast is delightful. But I’ve been thinking about what it is – the production? the musical itself? – that left me feeling rather emotionally shut out of the story at the end.

First, here’s what I liked:

Kelley’s production bursts with tropical color in Joe Ragey’s painterly sets and Cathleen Edwards’ bright costumes, but what really energizes the show, from beginning to end, is the glorious choreography by Gerry McIntyre, a member of the original 1990 Broadway cast. There’s meaning in every movement, from the broad, bold swirl of an up-tempo number like “Mama Will Provide” to the more somber, folkloric feel of “A Part of Us.” McIntyre works wonders with the 11-member cast, making a small village feel much larger.

I think the answer to my emotional distance can be found in the general tone of the production, which is so bright and cheery and brisk. That combined with the graphic illustration-type set design makes the show feel less human and more like animation. Sure, it’s a fairy tale, but a grown-up one involving issues of race and death and resurrection. The difficulty comes in balancing the lightness of the fairy tale style with the darkness in the story itself. That’s where my disconnect happened.

[bonus interview]
I talked to director Robert Kelley and actor Adreinne Muller about Once on This Island for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

TheatreWorks’ Once on This Island continues through March 30 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $19-$73. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

Starry, starry night: Gunderson lights up Sky at TheatreWorks

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The cast of Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky at TheatreWorks includes, from left, Matt Citron as Peter, Jennifer Le Blanc as Margaret, Elena Wright as Henrietta, Sarah Dacey Charles as Annie and Lynne Soffer as Williamina. Below: Citron and Wright find love through astronomy. Photos by Mark Kitaoka

Mind-expanding science and heart-expanding characters are the stock in trade of San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson, whose not-so-stealthy takeover of the Bay Area theater scene couldn’t be more welcome. Her staggering smarts are matched by her delectable sense of humor, so any new work with her name attached to it is reason to pay some serious attention.

Gunderson’s latest Bay Area production comes from TheatreWorks: Silent Sky, a bright, poignant drama about, among other things, the persistence and power of dreams, the transforming nature of scientific exploration and discovery and the triumph of women working under the weight of a sexist society. The play is warm, funny and incisive. It’s deftly directed by Meredith McDonough and features an entirely likable cast of five working on a lovely observatory set by Annie Smart that gives them plenty of room for stargazing.

Elena Wright, sharp and funny, is Henrietta Leavitt, a real-life pioneer of American astronomy and someone I didn’t know at all before this play. Her discoveries while working a menial job at the Harvard College Observatory went on to influence Edwin Hubble (of Hubble Space Telescope fame) and inspired consideration (albeit posthumously) for the Nobel Prize in Physics for her work on “period luminosity relationship,” which had to do with the rhythmic (like music) pulsing of stars known as Cepheids (one can learn so much from the theater).

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If the real Leavitt was as disarming and lively as Wright and Gunderson make her out to be, she must have been fun (and occasionally frustrating) to be around. Though stifled in her own scientific explorations by the men who called the well-educated, hard-working women in her department a “harem,” she didn’t pout or rail. She just did her job (brilliantly) and pursued her own course of exploration on her own time. In Gunderson’s version, it helps considerably that she has the support of two of her co-workers, Annie (Sarah Dacey Charles) and Scottish pistol Williamina (Lynne Soffer), as well as a doting sister back home in Wisconsin (Jennifer Le Blanc as Margaret) who took the more traditional wife-mother route rather than focusing on her music composition.

There’s also a sweet love story afoot involving one of Henrietta’s other co-workers, a man and automatically her professional superior. Peter Shaw (Matt Citron) is also a nerdy astronomer, but while Henrietta has an open, inquisitive mind and a willingness to accept the unknown, Peter is much more rigid in his views (about the universe and about women), so their relationship is far from smooth, and it helps us know Henrietta a little bit better as she navigates a realm – romance – she knows so little about.

Though Silent Sky paints a vibrant portrait of Henrietta Leavitt, with a abundance of good humor and some terrific laugh lines, I have to say I lost track of her in Act 2, which becomes more of a surface skim than a deep dive. Time goes by quickly, relationships get a little fuzzy and tragedy strikes. My impression of what fate befell Leavitt was such that I wanted to know more about her, so I was surprised to find out that what I thought was happening to her in her early 30s actually happened in her early 50s. Somehow I really lost track of the passage of time (which, as we’re reminded, is relative).

As beautiful as Gunderson’s Sky is – and it is, both in content and in form, with a lilting underscore by Jenny Giering – I found myself wanting more. More science, more biography, more time with Henrietta Leavitt. But that’s also the triumph of the play. Here’s a significant figure in American astronomy about whom I’d never heard a word, and I’m feeling greedy about her. I want more. So, perhaps we can fantasize about Silent Sky the Discovery Channel miniseries penned by Gunderson in her spare time when she’s not writing a new play for every theater in the Bay Area?

[bonus interview]
I talked to Lauren Gunderson and Jennifer Le Blanc about their working relationship for a story in American Theatre magazine. Read the feature here.

Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky continues through Feb. 9 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$73.Call 650-463-1960 or visit

2013: The year’s best Bay Area theater

2013 (third try)

If you’re looking for the year’s best, you can shorten your search by heading directly to Word for Word, that ever-amazing group that turns short works of fiction into some of the most captivating theater we see around here. This year, we were graced with two outstanding Word for Word productions.

You Know When the Men Are Gone – Word for Word’s first show of the year was based on two excellent stories by Siobhan Fallon. We are a country at war, and as such, we can never be reminded too often about the sacrificed made not only by the men and women serving in harm’s way but also the families and friends they leave behind. These connected stories, masterfully directed by Joel Mullenix and Amy Kossow, created a direct, emotional through line into the heart of an experience we need to know more about. Read my review here.

In Friendship – A few months later, Word for Word returned to celebrate its 20th anniversary by casting the nine founding women in several stories by Zona Gale about small-town, Midwestern life. It was pleasure from start to finish, with the added emotional tug of watching the founders of this extraordinary company acting together for the first time. Read my review here.

Campo Santo, Intersection for the Arts and California Shakespeare Theater collaborated this year on an intimate epic about the Golden State we call home comprising three plays, art projects, symposia and all kinds of assorted projects. This kind of collaboration among companies is exactly the kind of thing we need to infuse the art form with new energy and perspectives. The best of the three theatrical offerings was the first.

The River – Playwright Richard Montoya authored the first two plays in this collaboration, and though the Cal Shakes-produced American Night was wild and enjoyable, Montoya’s The River, directed by Sean San José had the irresistible pull of a fast-moving current. A truly original work, the play was part comedy, part romance, part spiritual exploration. Read my review here.

Ideation – My favorite new play of the year is from local scribe Aaron Loeb because it was fresh, funny and a thriller that actually has some thrills. Part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series for new play development, Ideation is still in search of the perfect ending, but you can expect to hear much more about this taut drama of corporate intrigue and interpersonal nightmares. Read my review here.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane – The combination of heartbreaking personal history and heart-expanding piano music made this Berkeley Repertory Theatre presentation the year’s best solo show. Mona Golabek tells the story of her mother’s exit from Germany as part of the Kindertransport includes all the horror and sadness you’d expect from a Holocaust story, but her telling of it is underscored by her exquisite piano playing. Read my review here.

Other Desert CitiesTheatreWorks demonstrated the eternal appeal of a well-told family drama with this Jon Robin Baitz play about Palm Springs Republicans, their lefty-liberal children and the secrets they all keep. This one also happens to have the most beautiful set of the year as well (by Alexander Dodge). Read my review here.

The Fourth MessengerTanya Shaffer and Vienna Tang created a beguiling new musical (no easy feat) about Buddha (absolutely no easy feat). The show’s world premiere wasn’t perfect, but it was damn good. Expect big things from this show as it continues to grow into its greatness. Read my review here.

Good People – Any play starring Amy Resnick has a good chance of ending up on my year’s best list, but Resnick was beyond great in this David Lindsay Abaire drama at Marin Theatre Company. Her Margie was the complex center of this shifting, surprising story of old friends whose lives went in very different directions, only to reconnect at a key moment. Read my review here.

The Taming – One of the year’s smartest, slyest, most enjoyable evenings came from Crowded Fire Theatre and busy, busy local playwright Lauren Gunderson. This spin (inspired by The Taming of the Shrew) was madcap with a sharp, satiric edge and featured delicious comic performances by Kathryn Zdan, Marilee Talkington and Marilet Martinez. Read my review here.

Terminus – Oh so dark and oh so very strange, Mark O’Rowe’s return to the Magic Theatre found him exploring theatrical storytelling that encompassed everyday lie, mythic monsters and rhymed dialogue. Director Jon Tracy and his remarkable trio of actors (Stacy Ross, Marissa Keltie and Carl Lumbly) grabbed our attention and didn’t let it go for nearly two hours. Read my review here.

No Man’s Land – Seems a little unfair to include this production here if only because the can’t-miss team of Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart would likely be a year’s best no matter where they were performing or what they were doing. In this case, they were headed to Broadway but stopped at Berkeley Rep to work on Harold Pinter’s enigmatic comic drama. Their work (along with that of Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley) provided laughs and insight and complexity where you didn’t know any was possible. Pure master class from start to finish. Read my review here.

Breakout star of the year: Megan Trout. It was impossible not to be transfixed by Megan Trout not once but twice this year. She illuminated the stage as Bonnie Parker in the Mark Jackson-directed Bonnie and Clyde at Shotgun Players and then stole the show in the Aurora Theatre Company’s A Bright New Boise as a shy big-box store employee who is mightily intrigued by the new guy who also happens to have been involved with a now-defunct cult. Trout has that magnetic ability to compel attention and then deliver something utterly real and constantly surprising.

TheatreWorks’ shining Desert Cities

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Brooke (Kate Turnbull, center) returns to Palm Springs to celebrate Christmas with her parents Lyman (James Sutorius, left) and Polly (Kandis Chappell, right) in TheatreWorks’ production of Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz. Photo by Tracy Martin

I sort of fell in love with Jon Robin Baitz more than 20 years when I saw his The Substance of Fire at the Magic Theatre. He was an astoundingly intelligent playwright crafting dramas that felt of another time and from a writer well beyond his years.

Baitz has continued to turn out compelling dramas over the decades, but it was his stint in Hollywood that seemed to really recharge his theatrical battery. After a not-so-great experience in the world of network television, Baitz wrote what might be his best play yet, Other Desert Cities, which receives its local premiere from TheatreWorks.

I reviewed the play for the Palo Alto Weekly, an excerpt of which follows.

From the play’s first moments, thanks largely to the incredible set, the audience is completely drawn into the Wyeth household drama, and once Baitz’s crackling dialogue begins, resistance is futile. This is a classically well-made play about the theater of family: how each member chooses and plays a role, some more forcefully than others. There are no gimmicks as the drama unfolds over a couple of fraught December days. Whether this is a family breaking apart or ultimately pulling together isn’t revealed until the last moments of the two-hour play.

Expertly directed by Richard Seer, this cast performs with such precision it’s hard to imagine anyone better in the roles. Chappell dominates the stage as the powerhouse Polly, a bright woman so devoid of compassion (yet not of love) for her children it’s almost shocking to hear some of the things that come out of her mouth. She’s brutal but she’s also funny, which makes her irresistible.

Read the full review here.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed playwright Jon Robin Baitz and Other Desert Cities leading lady Kandis Chappell for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Other Desert Cities continues through Sept. 15 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$73. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

A wildly Happy homecoming at TheatreWorks

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Terry (Richard Prioleau, left)), Gil (Colman Domingo, center), and Mo (Duane Boutté) have a conversation at the funeral home in the West Coast premiere of Domingo’s Wild With Happy, a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Photo by Mark Kitaoka. Below: Sharon Washington as Aunt Glo complicates the life of Domingo’s Gil. Photo by Tracy Martin

In his wildly cynical, angry, sad and, ultimately, happy new play Wild With Happy, playwright/actor (and former San Franciscan) Colman Domingo is doing several admirable things. In telling the story of a 40-year-old man who has just lost his mother, he is telling a modern fairy tale in which the mother – so often long dead and gone in such tales – is the driving force. And he’s pushing hard against the enormous cultural boulder that goes by various names – cynicism, snark, realism – but is really just the absence of hope.

In its West Coast premiere from TheatreWorks, Wild With Happy is a light farce until it isn’t. Mixed in with the broad comedy and zany road trip, there’s some heavy baggage involving the mother-son bond and the very real uses of enchantment, tradition and ceremony. It doesn’t all work in director Danny Scheie’s brisk, 95-minute production, but there’s an abundance of humor and heart.

Domingo is as charismatic as ever in the role of Gil, a frustrated 40-year-old actor who fled his native Philadelphia for the promise of stardom in New York. Things haven’t worked out all that well for Gil, and he’s further embittered by a bad breakup with a boyfriend. His eccentric family back in Philly – a Cinderella-loving mom, a wacky aunt – weigh heavily on him, and that’s part of the reason he’s feeling such guilt after his mother’s sudden passing. It’s a challenging role that Domingo has created for himself because Gil isn’t inherently likeable. As a person, he’s tightly wound, cranky and ever the victim of the world and its inhabitants not meeting with his approval or matching his high standards. But Domingo works had, both as playwright and actor, to keep pummeling Gil until he has no choice but to break down (through?) his defensive walls and let the emotion out and the people in.

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Reprising the role she created last fall at the Public Theater in New York, Sharon Washington is a force of nature as Aunt Glo, sister to Gil’s deceased mother (whom Washington also plays in flashbacks). Outfitted in velour track suits and full of strong opinions, Aunt Glo is all riled up. She doesn’t agree with Gil’s decision to have his mother cremated because it goes against everything she (and, by association, her community) believes in when it comes to honoring the dead. She wants an expensive casket, a proper visitation and a blow-out funeral and wake. She feels cheated of a death ritual that means something to her, and she’s convinced Gil, who has issues dealing with his grief, needs it more than anyone. Washington is a firecracker, exploding with each speech, arms splayed and voice pitched at peak volume. She’s hilarious but not a cartoon. Her issues with Gil are real and understandable, and you never forget that she’s grieving, too.

Of course there’s nowhere to head from here but a road trip to Disney World, with Aunt Glo and Terry the sweet man from the Philly funeral home (Richard Prioleau, a great choice for a Prince Charming type) chasing Gil and his sassy friend Mo (Duane Boutté in an underwritten role). It seems Aunt Glo placed a tracking device in her late sister’s Cinderella doll (say what now?). Set designer Erik Flatmo does what he can to make the road trip interesting and funny (we see both cars on stage and well-placed video cameras allow for close-ups from the front seats), but car chases are really better left to movies. Or real life.

Once in Orlando, the action shifts to the Cinderella suite of a Disney hotel, and Domingo lays on the sentiment pretty thick (lighting and media designer David Lee Cuthbert adds some nice firework-y, fairy tale-y touches). But that’s part of the point, right? To bust up Gil’s cynicism, it takes some pretty heavy machinery, and there’s no heavier sentimental machinery than that devised by Disney for its theme parks.

As entertaining as Wild With Happy is, I must admit that my favorite part of the evening was the extraordinary pre-show playlist playing in the theater as audience members took their seats. It was version after version of “Get Happy” – Rufus Wainwright, Puppini Sisters, Tony Bennett, among many others – ending with the inevitable Barbra Streisand/Judy Garland medley of “Get Happy” and “Happy Days Are Here Again.” That music all by itself made me wild with happy.



Colman Domingo’s Wild With Happy continues through June 30 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$73.Call 650-463-1960 or visit

TheatreWorks’ musical Earnest fun but unnecessary

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The cast of TheatreWorks’ world-premiere musical Being Earnest includes, from left, Mindy Lym, Hayden Tee, Euan Morton and Riley Krull. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is now set in 1965 and includes an original score by Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska. Photo by Mark Kitaoka. Below: The Act 2 opener, “All in the Gutter,” pays tribute to Wilde. The complete cast includes, from left, Lym, Krull, Diana Torres Koss, Tee, Morton, Brian Herndon and Maureen McVerry. Photo by Tracy Martin

In addition to some terrific songs and a perennial reason to scream at Dover to “move yer bloomin’ ass,” My Fair Lady has left an interesting legacy in the form a highly raised bar to which all classic plays turned into musicals must aspire. Most composers have all but given up trying to transform an already great play into an even better musical and instead turn to movies as grist for the musical mill.

But Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska are still aiming toward the Shavian/Lerner and Loeweian heights. Quite courageously, they have turned Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest into a musical. Being Earnest, their transformed work, is having its world premiere courtesy of TheatreWorks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Taken from its late 18th-century time period and transported to London’s fashionable and swinging Carnaby Street circa 1965, this admirable attempt to musicalize Wilde takes some risks, but, it turns out, none of them are quite big enough.

Being Earnest is a perfectly pleasant two-plus hours. Wilde’s ever-reliable play, still largely intact, offers wit and crisp comedy, and the score, with music by Gruska and Gordon and lyrics by Gordon, feels repetitive, but at least what’s repeated has a sturdy melodic hook. But there’s no fizz in the score to match the carbonation of Wilde’s farce. The sound of the mid-’60s in England is evoked but without the go-go energy and ebullience that the play aches for.

The basic fact is that Earnest the play did not need to be a musical at all. The play, though brilliantly written, requires a delicate comic touch, a careful approach to tone and performance that relies heavily on timing and tempo. The songs simply gum up the comic works and make the actors, under the direction of Robert Kelley, work too hard to connect the dots between the original text, the songs and a time period shift that ultimately feels way out of whack with the stolid society that Wilde was satirizing.

In a reversal of most musicals, Act 2 is actually much better than Act 1 because Wilde’s comic machinations are grinding away at full steam and a song finally lands solidly. The cat fight between Gwendolen (Mindy Lym) and Cecily (Riley Krull), who mistakenly believe they’re engaged to the same man, is actually sharpened by the musical thrust and parry. The only song in Act 1 that comes close to matching the play’s comedy and serving a real purpose is Lym’s reverie about men named Ernest, “Age of Ideals.”

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A good example of tone and setting working against the play is veteran Bay Area comic actor Maureen McVerry as Lady Bracknell. The role’s comedy stems from dowager stuffiness and blatant greed masquerading as propriety. McVerry is, as expected, quite funny, but she looks so chic and gorgeous in Fumiko Bielefeldt’s costumes that it’s hard to get a bead on where the character is coming from and why, in 1965, she is being so creakily old-fashioned.

The opening number attempts to set the scene, and while that song, along with the snazzy mod costumes on parade, should do the trick, the annoying video screen at the back of Joe Ragey’s set design goes into overdrive with photos of Twiggy and the Rolling Stones to ensure there’s no mistaking when and where we are. But if the score can’t do it, then it’s not really getting done.

Leading men Euan Morton as Algernon and Hayden Tee as Jack, who don’t fare nearly as well as the women on the fashion front, are never very likable, and it seems they keep singing the same song at each other for most of the show. Brian Herndon as butlers Lane (in the city) and Merriman (in the country) and as the Rev. Chasuble feels much more in tune with Wilde and seems to be laboring much less feverishly. Diana Torres Koss as Miss Prism also has some nice moments, though the notion of a spinster teacher/companion employed by a guardian for his 20-year-old ward seems much more 1895 than 1965.

What you don’t want in a production of Earnest, musical or not, is for the play to seem like an endless string of Wildean epigrams strung together by an ineffectual plot enacted by brittle caricatures resembling people. Too many scenes come off that way here, and the Act 2 opener, “All in the Gutter,” is actually a string of Wilde epigrams performed in front of a photo of the author on the big video screen. It is, in effect, what “Seasons of Love” is in Rent: a direct address to the audience welcoming them back from intermission and attempting to re-immerse them in the world of the show. In theory, it works, but in practice it does not.

Even while you can admire the attempt to improve upon The Importance of Being Earnest, it comes down to this: Wilde’s is a comedy for the ages, touched with brilliance. Being Earnest has been created with intelligence and some charm, but it tames Wilde and adds weight where there should be lightness.

[bonus interview]
I talked to composers Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

TheatreWorks’ Being Earnest continues through April 28 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$73. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

Look! You can see Jersey Boys from The Mountaintop

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The finale of Jersey Boys features a full-cast performance headed by the Four Seasons played by (from left) Miles Jacoby, Nick Cosgrove, John Gardiner and Michael Lomenda. The Tony Award-winning musical runs at the Curran Theatre through April 28 as part of the SHN season. Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Two reviews in print this week for two wildly different shows. First up is the return of Jersey Boys to the Curran Theatre, where the first national tour of the Tony Award-winning show kicked off in 2006.

My review is for the San Francisco Chronicle, and here’s a sample:

The structure of the biographical musical, created by book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice along with director Des McAnuff, is what makes the difference between a ferociously fun musical theater blast with emotional heft and a show that easily could have been a run-of-the-mill drama depicting hardscrabble beginnings, raging success and the dark side of fame.
Who really cared about Valli and the Four Seasons before “Jersey Boys” stormed Broadway in 2005 and kicked off its national tour a year later at the Curran? Their songs were fun, but their petty-crime origins in Jersey, their struggle to find a group identity and then their incredible string of pop hits in the ’60s were all largely forgotten.
Then Brickman, Elice and McAnuff devised a way to make everybody care.

Read the full review here.

On last thing. My original review had a final paragraph that got lopped off. The nice thing about having my own website is that I can lop it right back on:

Maybe the best thing of all is that the show itself, now the final chapter in the Four Seasons legacy, is the real happy ending musical theater audiences crave.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Adrian Roberts) laughs with Lorraine Motel maid Camae (Simone Missick) in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, a TheatreWorks production at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Heading south, TheatreWorks presents the local premiere of Katori Hall’s award-winning drama The Mountaintop, a fantasia on the last night in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The production, at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, is top notch and features two strong performances. The script, ultimately, is flawed, but the intent is noble.

Here’s a bit of the review:

The Martin Luther King Jr. we meet in Katori Hall’s “The Mountaintop” isn’t orating magnificently on a theme of civil rights for all. Rather, he’s hollering after someone about a pack of Pall Mall cigarettes. Once alone in his Lorraine Motel room in Memphis, Hall’s King is further deconstructed as just an ordinary man. He takes his shoes off and his feet stink — he calls it “marching feet.” Then we hear him going to the bathroom just off stage (he washes his hands after).

Thus begins the demystification process of Hall’s play, an award-winner in London three years ago and a 2011 New York star vehicle for Samuel L. Jackson (making his Broadway debut) and Angela Bassett. Now Hall’s piece of re-imagined history is spreading out across the land.

In its local premiere at the Lucie Stern Theatre courtesy of TheatreWorks, “The Mountaintop” appears to be part of a campaign to pull the Rev. King off his pedestal. The play roots around in his humanity a bit, then returns him to the pantheon of great Americans with a renewed sense of appreciation and respect for what this man, who was mortal after all, was able to accomplish.

Read the full review here.

Lopez family aims high in TheatreWorks’ Somewhere

Somewhere 1
The cast of TheatreWorks’ Somewhere includes, from left, Eddie Gutierrez as Francisco, Priscilla Lopez as Inez, Michael Rosen as Alejandro, Leo Ash Evens as Jamie and Michelle Cabinian as Rebecca. Photo by Tracy Martin

In my interview with Priscilla Lopez (see below for the link), the original Diana Morales in the landmark production of A Chorus Line, she calls Somewhere, the play written by her nephew Matthew Lopez now at TheatreWorks, a “dance-ical,” meaning not a play exactly, not a musical exactly but a drama infused with dance. That’s a great way to describe the show, which features a number of dance sequences.

I reviewed Somewhere for the Palo Alto Weekly. Here’s an excerpt:

If you could distill American drama down to two themes, they might be family and dreams, especially if dreams can also encompass delusions. Lopez’s play, which had its premiere last fall at San Diego’s Old Globe and has been seriously revised for its bow in Mountain View, is all about a family of dreamers.

“We force the world to look like our dreams,” the starry-eyed mother tells her disillusioned son. “We do not force our dreams to look like the world.”

That’s the truth. How else to account for just how happy the Candelarias are when the reality of their situation could make for a depressing evening of theater.

Read the complete review here.

[bonus interview]
I had the pleasure of interviewing Tony Award-winner Priscilla Lopez for a story in the San Francisco Chornicle. Read the story here.

Matthew Lopez’s Somewhere continues through FEb 10 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$73. Call 650-463-1960 or visit