Young Frankenstein at the Raven Theater in Healdsburg – July 10, 2019

Filmmaker Mel Brooks took Broadway by storm with his musical adaptation of The Producers and hoped lightning would strike twice with the same approach to Young Frankenstein.

It didn’t. Young Frankenstein ran for about 2,000 performances less than its predecessor and while The Producers rang up a total of fifteen Tony nominations (winning a then-record twelve), YF received a scant three nominations and took home none. 

Does that mean it’s a bad show? No, in many ways it’s a better show. It adheres closer to its original material and while The Producers is essentially a one-joke concept (albeit a great joke), Young Frankenstein affectionately spoofs an entire genre and Broadway itself.

The despised Victor von Frankenstein (Robert Bauer) has passed and it’s up to his grandson Frederick Frankenstein – pronounced Fronk-en-steen – (Troy Thomas Evans) to return to Transylvania and claim his birthright. How long before Frederick and Igor – pronounced Eye-gore – (Bill Garcia) get back in the family business?

If you like the film, you’ll like the show but you’re going to have to get past some casting issues. Evans is a talented young performer who’s done good work, but he is decades too young for the role of Frederick. Whether his constipated take on the role was his or director Katie Watts’s decision, it didn’t work.  Bill Garcia does fine as Igor, but it occurred to me as the show drew to a close that, for a number of reasons, he should have played Frederick and Evans would be better suited for the role of Igor.  

The supporting cast is strong, with Tory Rotlisberger stealing scenes as Frau Blücher and Madison Scarbrough a hoot as Frederick’s vainglorious fiancé Elizabeth. Robert Bauer does double duty as Inspector Kemp and Grandpa Frankenstein, and Eric Yanez does well as the monster.

Watts also choreographed the show, and she exhibits a much stronger hand with that task in several well-done production numbers including the classic tap-dancing extravaganza “Puttin’ on the Ritz”.

It’s a Mel Brooks piece, so the humor runs from the clever to the crass.  A great deal of laughter comes from familiarity with the material, as evidenced by the audience’s raucous responses to some jokes despite the delivery being somewhat wobbly.

You know what you’re gonna get with a show like Young Frankenstein and while you do get a lot of it, this monster could have been stitched together better.

‘Young Frankenstein’ runs through July 14 at the Raven Performing Arts Theater in Healdsburg. Friday and Saturday evening performances are at 8 pm; the Sunday matinee is at 2 pm. There’s a Thursday, July 11  “value night” performance at 8pm.

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Wink – July 3, 2019

“Where is my cat?”

So begins the saga of Wink, playwright Jen Silverman’s long gestating play whose title character is said cat. Written in 2013, it’s had several staged readings across the country (including one in 2014 at San Francisco’s Cutting Ball Theater) and is now in its fully-produced world premiere run at the Marin Theatre Company.

That opening line is uttered by Sofie (Liz Sklar), an uptight, upper middle class housewife, to her husband Gregor (Seann Gallagher). Gregor’s cold, emotionless response is a pretty big clue that something’s amiss. A quick blackout takes us to the office of Doctor Frans (Kevin R. Free) where Gregor admits to offing the cat and worse. The good doctor attributes Gregor‘s actions to latent homosexuality and encourages Gregor to take those feelings and just “press them down”. Gregor knows the reason for his actions go deeper and darker than that.

Dr. Frans is also seeing Sofie, who has her own issues and troublesome feelings, which the clueless Doctor also suggests she simply press down and redirect her energies into a hobby like housecleaning.

And then Wink pops back up (in the person of John William Watkins) and hell hath no fury like a cat scorned, or in this case, skinned. He shall have his revenge.      

Silverman says her play is about “the possibility of drastic transformation” and her characters do indeed transform. What lies “beneath the skin” in contrast to how we portray ourselves and how our feelings and sense of being come to the surface are at the heart of her script, which brought to mind Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage. Both shows have a signature scene of destruction, with Silverman’s scene far less disgusting and far more amusing than Reza’s.

That scene (think of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane when Charles Foster Kane destroys the bedroom of his soon-to-be ex-wife, and just add lots of cat toys) marks the beginning of Sofie’s transformation and the show leaps into the even more absurd from there.

Often confusing and frequently bizarre, it is well-acted and director (and frequent Silverman collaborator) Mike Donahue keeps things zipping along for its very compact 75 minute running time. Watkins absolutely embodies the physicality and attitude of a cat and the other three cast members keep their somewhat cartoonish characters grounded.

Ultimately, Wink comes off somewhere between cutting edge, new-age theater and a bad college thesis production with a budget. There’s one thing for sure – it’s no Cats. Meow.

‘Wink’ runs Tuesday through Sunday through July 7 at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley. Tuesday through Saturday evening performances are at 7:30 pm; there are Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 pm.

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A Chorus Line – June 26, 2019

For eight years, the Transcendence Theatre Company has entertained local audiences with top quality musical revues featuring magnificent choreography set to a mixture of show tunes and popular musical hits. Utilizing talent with Broadway and national touring company experience, the question “When are they going to do a real show?” has lingered over the winery ruins in Jack London State Park for some time.

The answer is ‘right now’ as Transcendence presents A Chorus Line, their first full-length book musical. The Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning classic about dancers auditioning for eight spots in a Broadway chorus is tailor-made for this company.

Being put through their paces by demanding director Zach (Matthew Rossoff), the seventeen performers who make the first cut (the show loses a third of its diverse cast after about 20 minutes) are subjected to penetrating interviews. Who are they? What brought them to dance? What would they do if they couldn’t dance? Their stories are the show. Family problems, sexual awakenings, body image issues and more are beautifully addressed through song and dance.

In a pre-show speech, director Amy Miller shared with the sold-out audience that A Chorus Line was her favorite musical because it was about real people. That, along with the fact that most of the cast have either lived or are currently living lives very similar to the ones they portray, made several characters lack of credibility disappointing.    

Some are played too broadly; others are not played strongly enough. Kristin Piro delivers an excellent Cassie, but I didn’t buy her relationship with Zach for a second. Rossoff simply did not exude the vocal power and physical authority required of the role. 

More than credible was Royzell D. Walker who, while having the least “legitimate” stage experience of the cast (he’s a recent graduate of the University of Alabama), brought a commanding stage presence, a terrific voice and dynamite dance moves to the character of Richie. Natalie Gallo is superb as Diana Morales, who regales us first with her tale of being told she was “Nothing” and then with the show-stopping “What I Did for Love”.

It’s a good first effort by the company that would have benefited from more nuanced direction. There’s great dancing, some very nice vocal work, but uneven acting. In the parlance of the show – Dance: 10, Voice: 8, Character: 6

‘A Chorus Line’ runs Friday through Sunday through June 30th in the Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. The park opens at 5pm for pre-show picnicking; the show starts promptly at 7:30pm.

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West Side Story – June 19, 2019

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has been the source material for umpteen movies and plays. The tale of star-crossed lovers had its most successful theatrical iteration with the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story. It’s running now through July 7 at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse.

Groundbreaking at its time for innovations in dance and music and its addressing of societal problems, Arthur Laurents transplanted Shakespeare’s Verona to New York’s Upper West Side and transformed the feuding Montague and Capulet families into rival white and Puerto Rican street gangs. Leonard Bernstein composed the music, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics made their Broadway debut, and Jerome Robbins handled stage direction and choreography. It was followed by a multi-award-winning film adaptation.

It’s an extremely challenging show to produce. Casting requirements (and the possible criticism of “whitewashing”) along with a very difficult score have led many a company to take a pass.

This no doubt was on director Jared Sakren’s mind as he has done an excellent job in casting numerous latinx performers in this production. Program bios indicate many have gone through/are in the SRJC theatre program or participate in their high schools’ drama or dance programs. This leads to a wide range of on-stage theatre experience and yes, it shows, but it was a tradeoff worth making.

Jonah Robinson (as Tony) and Carmen Mitchell (as Maria) have significant training and experience behind them and it shows, too. Both are in fine voice, though I found Mitchell’s accent a bit forced at times and Robinson was plagued with microphone issues at the performance I attended.

Good character work is done by Denise Elia-Yen as Anita (despite also suffering from sound issues), Justin Thompson in the dual roles of Lt. Schrank and Gladhand, and Al Kaplan as Doc. Notable among the younger cast members were Benjamin Donner (Chino), Katerina Flores (Consuela), and Noah Sternhill (Action).

Joseph Favalora’s choreography honors Robbins’ original work while making the necessary adjustments for the varied dance experience of the large cast. He was very fortunate to have a fair number of experienced dancers to literally do the heavy lifting.

Music director Ginger Beavers and a seven-piece orchestra more than met the challenge of the Bernstein/Sondheim score and filled the house with such classic numbers as “Maria”, “Tonight”, “America”, “I Feel Pretty”, and “Somewhere”.
Despite the obstacles any production of West Side Story faces, the 6th Street Playhouse artistic team has managed to mount a pretty respectable production.

‘West Side Story’ runs through July 7 in the GK Hardt Theatre at the 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa. Thursday through Saturday performances are at 7:30pm; there are Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm.

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Cabaret – June 12, 2019

Is there a darker or more depressing Broadway musical than Cabaret?

Kander and Ebb’s 1966 musical (with book by Joe Masteroff) won eight Tonys for its original run and four more for its 1998 revival. It’s become a staple of regional and community theatres, as evidenced by the umpteen productions throughout the Bay area in recent memory. It’s the season-ending production at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions and it runs through June 16.    

Based on John Van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera, it’s the tale of two couples in pre-Nazi Germany – American ex-patriate “novelist” Cliff Bradshaw (Ryan Hook) and British cabaret performer Sally Bowles (Ashley Garlick), and boarding house proprietor Fraulein Schneider (Karen Pinomaki) and grocer Herr Schultz (Tim Setzer).

Sally’s headlining days at Berlin’s Kit Kat Klub are over, as are the days of the Weimar Republic. The rise of National Socialism is reflected in the performances at the club, which are overseen by an omnipresent emcee (Brian Watson), and in the dissolution of the two couple’s relationships.   

Director Ken Sonkin and his team have opted for a monochromatic approach to this production, bathing almost everything from the set and costumes to prop apples and oranges in shades of black, white and grey. This led to a sense of flatness, leaving little for other technical elements (especially lighting) to explore. The “dulling” of the space does not serve the production well, which was further clouded by an ever-present quantity of stage fog.

Sound is also an issue with this production, with background effects often overwhelming key dialogue and inconsistent microphone levels a real problem.

Performance-wise, Garlick does well with an extremely unlikeable female lead. Shallow, self-centered and selfish, Sally Bowles is not a character for whom you’ll find yourself rooting. Hook, a talented performer, is about a decade too young for his part and simply doesn’t have the weight yet for the role.  Pinomaki and Setzer bring heart and a real sense of sadness, regret and resignation to their characters. There’s good work by F. James Raasch as a Nazi party official who’s the catalyst for most of the action and Watson is excellent as the emcee.

And yet, while several other aspects of the production are also done well (music, choreography), the show never really gelled and this Cabaret simply failed to connect with me. It should have.

‘Cabaret’ runs through June 16 at the Lucky Penny Community Arts Center in Napa.  Thursday performances are at 7pm; Friday & Saturday evening performances are at 8pm, and there’s a Sunday matinee at 2pm.

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Beautiful – The Carole King Musical – June 5, 2019

“Jukebox” musicals tend to use really flimsy connecting material to string together the musical hits of an artist or genre in the creation of a show. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, running now through June 9 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco, has the advantage of having the really interesting true-to-life tale of an American musical icon with which to wrap around a couple of dozen instantly recognized hits.

The show opens with Carole King (Sarah Bockel) opening her triumphant 1971 Carnegie Hall show but then moves quickly to her as a 17-year-old songwriter battling with her mother (Suzanne Grodner) over her future. Carole wants to be a songwriter but mom wants her to be a teacher. She agrees to commit to teaching if she fails to sell her latest song. She walks into the office of music publisher Don Kirshner (James Clow) and the rest is musical history.

King spent the first part of her career writing songs for others in partnership with her eventual-husband Gerry Goffin (Dylan S. Wallach). There are performances of such numbers as “Some Kind of Wonderful” by the Drifters, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” by the Shirelles, and “The Locomotion” by Little Eva, who really was Carole King’s babysitter before she hit it big.    

The fact that Carole and Gerry’s best friends were another songwriting team increased the musical options for this show. Cynthia Weil (Alison Whitehurst) and Barry Mann (Jacob Heimer) add immensely to the story, both through the recreations of their numerous hits (“On Broadway” by the Drifters, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” by the Righteous Brothers) and by the humor their characters bring to the story. 

The deterioration of King’s relationship with Goffin provides the show’s drama culminating with her incredible success as a solo artist and performer with the release of her blockbuster album Tapestries.

Douglas McGrath, better known for his screenplays (Woody Allen’s Bullets over Broadway, Emma) had a lot of material to work with here and does a fine job encapsulating a life in two hours. His book balances the relationship of King and Goffin with that of Weil and Mann almost to the point of the show really being about both. Most amazingly, he’s written a script that features two music industry veterans (Kirschner and Lou Adler (John Michael Dias) who do not come off as weasels.

Director Marc Bruni’s cast is uniformly excellent, from Bockel and Wallach as King and Goffin to the ensemble members performing as various members of famous musical groups.  The show maintains a pleasant lightness to it that is never overwhelmed by its more dramatic moments. A good deal of the humor comes from the relationship of Weil and Mann, and Whitehurst and Heimer are terrifically entertaining in their roles.

Dazzling production numbers of a plethora of hits from the 60’s and 70’s combined with the tale of an American original coming into her own make Beautiful: The Carole King Musical a thoroughly enjoyable and uplifting evening of musical theatre.

‘Beautiful – The Carole King Musical’ runs through June 9 at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco. Dates and times vary.

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Faceless – May 29, 2019

Courtroom dramas have long been a staple of mass entertainment. From TV’s Perry Mason to plays and films like The Caine Mutiny Court Marshall and A Few Good Men, audiences have long enjoyed the compact drama provided by a judicial trial. Playwright Selina Fillinger has written a worthy addition to that canon with Faceless, running now at 6th Street Playhouse through June 2.

Susie Glenn (Isabella Sakren) is an 18-year-old Chicago woman who is being put on trial for “conspiring to commit acts of terrorism”. Seduced and recruited on-line by a member of ISIS she knew as Reza, she converted to Islam and was apprehended on her way to become his bride.

United States Attorney Scott Bader (David Yen) is determined to make Susie an example for other easily-manipulated youth and figures the best way to do that is to have one of his assistant attorneys lead the prosecution. Why? Well, it might strengthen their case against a young, female Muslim defendant if it’s led by a young, female Muslim prosecutor. Claire Faith (Ilana Niernberger) at first resists the appointment as mere tokenism, but soon sees the case as a way to defend her faith against those who would corrupt it.

For the defense, Claire’s father Alan (Edward McCloud) has hired top gun attorney Mark Arenberg (Mike Pavone) who has his hands full dealing with a defendant who, upon looking at a photograph of her, is seen by one person as a confused young girl and by another as an angry young woman. Which persona will the jury see?

Former 6th Street Artistic Director Craig Miller returned to direct this crackling drama. Set in the round in their Studio Theatre, the focus switches back and forth between the two sides as they prepare for trial with sidebars to Susie’s social media-facilitated enlistment.

Conflict is at the heart of all good drama, and the religious, political, personal, and legal conflicts that envelop these characters all make for a gripping evening of theatre.   

Miller’s cast is terrific, delivering Fillinger’s sharp and often uncomfortably humorous dialogue via somewhat stock but nevertheless dynamic characters. All are excellent, with McCloud doing some very heavy lifting as a man living a parent’s worst nightmare – a child accused of a heinous crime.

An absorbing script, top notch performances, and some very effective technical elements combine to make Faceless one of the most compelling courtroom dramas in recent memory. Case closed.  

‘Faceless’ runs through June 2 at the 6th Street Playhouse Studio Theatre in Santa Rosa. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30pm; the Sunday matinee is at 2pm.

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This Random World – May 22, 2019

Serendipity. Fate. Chance. Destiny. Karma. Fortune. Kismet.

Call it what ever you like, but playwright Steven Dietz (Becky’s New Car) doesn’t believe in it so much so that his play This Random World, running through May 26 at Left Edge Theatre, is even sub-titled The Myth of Serendipity. The connections that people have, make, or miss are the focal point of this pleasant collection of vignettes featuring pairs of characters.

There’s an over-achieving sister (Heather Gordon) and her under-achieving brother (Zane Walters at the performance I attended, Anthony Martinez at all others) who are bickering over the writing of an obituary. There’s a couple (Paige Picard, Ariel Zuckerman) who are dissolving their relationship from across the table at a bad Mexican restaurant. There’s an elderly woman (Trish DeBaun) and her caregiver (Rosie Frater) who travel the world and spend each morning looking at the sunrise. There’s also a funeral home receptionist (Chandler Parrott-Thomas) and a gentleman (Norman Hall) who makes a late appearance.

How these characters connect (or don’t) is something that the audience gets to discover – even if the characters never do – as the show progresses through its 90 intermission-less minutes. No point in ruining that for you now.

The play hopscotches around from such places as a living room to a mortuary to an airport to Nepal to a hospital waiting room and accomplishes this in Left Edge’s intimate theatre with a combination of great technical elements. Argo Thompson’s minimalist set and vibrant projection design are really enhanced by April George’s lighting and Joe Winkler’s sound design.

Director Phoebe Moyer has an excellent ensemble at work here with Dietz’s characters (with one exception) pretty much sharing the stage for equal amounts of time and each getting opportunities to shine in both comedic and dramatic moments. As the initial pairings of characters splinter off, each actor gets to display real range as their stories develop. All are excellent, with Gordon in particular displaying why she’s one of the best comedic talents around and DeBaun providing the wisdom, strength, and regret at the center of this World.

This show has humor and heart. What it’s missing is an ending. After 85 minutes of somewhat exaggerated but nevertheless relatable humanity, this smooth-running express train of story-telling inexplicably derails. Dietz’s script has a natural ending point, but he runs right over it.

There’s random, and then there’s random.

‘This Random World’ runs through May 26 at Left Edge Theatre in Santa Rosa. Friday and Saturday evening performances are at 8pm; the Sunday matinee is at 2pm.

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Jazz – May 15, 2019

The Oxford Dictionary uerecsa Huerdefines ‘jazz’ as a type of music of black American origin characterized by improvisation, syncopation, and usually a regular or forceful rhythm.

The same definition could be applied to Nambi E. Kelley’s Jazz, her theatrical adaptation of Toni Morrison’s 1992 novel of the same name. Awoye Timpo directs the Marin Theatre Company production running through May 19 in Mill Valley.

Death hangs over this story like a coffin lid, which is exactly what the scenic design by Kimie Nishikawa evokes from the opening. Below it is the grave of an unknown person, surrounded by mourners. Enter a woman who begins to rail against the deceased before pulling out a knife with the intent to disfigure the corpse.

We soon learn that the woman is Violet Trace (C. Kelley Wright), wife of Joe Trace (Michael Gene Sullivan), and that the deceased was a young girl named Dorcas (Dezi Soley). She was Joe’s mistress and Joe shot her after she attempted to end the relationship. Violet is bedside herself trying to understand why Joe would enter into that relationship. The story then moves back in forth in time and location as Violet and Joe’s story is told.

Having not read the book, I can’t tell you whether or not the playwright successfully captures the essence of the novel, or what is kept or lost when a 229-page novel is reduced to 95 uninterrupted minutes.

What I can say is that the non-linear approach is often confusing. Scenes and dialogue are repeated, ostensibly from different points of view, but that is often not very clear. A parrot (portrayed by Paige Mayes with wonderful physicality in a terrific Karen Perry-designed costume) seems to exist only to chirp “I love you” to Violet. By the end, we do get a sense of why Joe did what he did, but the morally ambiguous conclusion is unsatisfying.

What is more-than-satisfying is the caliber of performance brought to this tale by a cast of Bay Area stalwarts and guest talent. Wright and Sullivan give towering lead performances and are given a bedrock of support from Margo Hall as Alice Manfred, Dorca’s aunt and guardian. Soley spends a great deal of time on stage as a “living” painting, but really comes alive in her portrayal of Dorcas. Strong work is done by the entire ensemble.

Jazz isn’t the most comprehensible play. Actually, it’s a bit of a mess but a well-produced and well-acted one.

‘Jazz’ runs Tuesday through Sunday through May 19 at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley.

Tuesday through Saturday evening performances are at 7:30 pm; the Sunday matinee is at 2:00 pm.

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To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men – May 8, 2019

The theatrical treatments of two great American novels come alive on North Bay stages with mixed results in productions running through May 19.

6th Street Playhouse is presenting Christopher Sergel’s adaptation (not Aaron Sorkin’s) of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Sergel had an agreement with Lee to produce a theatrical version of her novel suitable for school or community theatre productions and, though revised several times by Sergel, those roots show.

Lee’s tale of growing up in the South and her memories of one momentous summer involving her lawyer father and the trial of a black man was adapted by Horton Foote for the classic 1962 film starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, and this Marty Pistone-directed production does battle with memories of the film.

Jeff Coté, while having the look we’ve come to expect for Atticus, lacks the gravitas necessary for the character and though technically the lead, cedes the spotlight to the play’s supporting characters.  The young actors playing Scout, Jem and Dill (Cecilia Brenner, Mario Herrera, Liev Bruce Low) do fine, and Val Sinckler is a tower of strength as Calpurnia. Jourdán Olivier-Verdé is a steadfast Tom Robinson, and Mike Pavone and Caitlin Strom-Martin succeed in making the Ewell’s thoroughly detestable.

An interesting addition to this production is a gospel choir/Greek chorus to ‘bookend’ several scenes. It’s quite effective and the addition of music is welcome.

Lee’s story still packs a punch and, while uneven, this production does have its strong moments.

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ runs through May 19 at the 6th Street Playhouse Studio Theatre in Santa Rosa. Thursday through Saturday evening performances are at 7:30 pm. There are Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm.

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The Cloverdale Performing Arts Center is presenting John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in a production directed by Beulah Vega, who had the advantage of working with a script written by Steinbeck himself.

Steinbeck’s depression-era tale of George and Lenny (Rusty Thompson, William Gilbertson) and their dream of a place of their own still resonates today for those seeking the ever-more-unattainable “American Dream”.

Vega has taken a minimalist approach to the show’s staging, leaving it to her cast to grab your attention and hold it for two hours. They do.

Gilbertson brings a fresh approach to Lenny, a character that can often dive into caricature, and there’s a strong ensemble doing excellent work here.

Hell, even the dog is good.

‘Of Mice and Men’ runs through May 19 at the Cloverdale Performing Arts Center in Cloverdale. Saturday evenings at 7:30pm; Sunday afternoons at 2pm.

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