Raven Theater’s As You Like It (Aired: August 7, 2019)

Summer used to be the season for Shakespeare ‘al fresco’ but with the shuttering of the Shakespeare in the Cannery Program last year it seems be in shorter supply these days. Still, interested patrons can find a couple of shows at opposite ends of the North Bay to satiate their seasonal appetite for the Bard.

Mill Valley’s Curtain Theatre will present The Merry Wives of Windsor in mid-August and the Marin Shakespeare Company will close their 30th season in September with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Healdsburg’s Raven Players are in the middle of their run of As You Like It.

Probably best known for the monologue that begins with “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…”, there’s so much going on in As You Like It as to make it almost impossible to summarize. Suffice it to say that it contains the usual Shakespeare plot devices – feuding Dukes, sibling rivalries, disguises, cross-dressing, mistaken identity, and young love. Add wrestling, sheep herding, and a melancholy malcontent to the mix and you’ve got a show.

Director Steven David Martin has set the production during the ’67 Summer of Love, which means its cast is attired in bell bottoms, beads, and bandanas and its scenes are bridged by some of the sixties’ best known musical hits. Healdsburg’s tiny West Plaza Park (really just a patch of grass between the Bear Republic Brewing Company and a municipal parking lot) fills in for the Forest of Arden where much of the play’s action takes place. 

There’s no set to speak of (just a single backdrop) and the large cast is often in a losing battle for vocal superiority with the nearby raucous brewpub patio crowd, but they’re an energetic group doing their best to bring a little theatre to their hometown audience. It’s actually a co-production with the City of Healdsburg and kudos to them for supporting the performing arts. 

The cast is peppered with some North Bay stalwarts as well as some new faces. Azulito Bernal as Orlando and Grace Reid as Rosalind are charming leads. Athena Gundlach’s ‘Jaques’ gets most of the good lines, while Hande Gokbas steals every scene she’s in as the put-upon and infatuated Phebe.

Ask audience members at the conclusion of the show what it was about and they might shrug their shoulders. Ask if they had a good time and I suspect they would enthusiastically nod their heads in the affirmative. 

‘As You Like It’ runs through August 10 at West Plaza Park in Healdsburg. Performances are Thursday through Saturday evenings at 7:30 pm. Admission is free. Bring a blanket, a low-back chair, and a picnic to enjoy. 

For more information, go to raventheater.org.

Crimes of the Heart – Ross Valley Players (Aired: July 31, 2019)

The Ross Valley Players conclude their 89th season with a production of Crimes of the Heart, running in Ross through August 11. Beth Henley’s tragicomedy won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was followed by a film adaptation starring Sissy Spacek that nabbed three Oscar nominations.

The Magrath sisters have gathered at their grandfather’s home in Hazelhurst, Mississippi in support of sister Babe (Margaret Grace Hee) who’s out on bail after shooting her husband in the stomach. Lenny (Jensen Power) has been taking care of Grandpa after sister Meg (Chandler Parrott-Thomas) took off to Southern California in pursuit of a singing career.

Things haven’t turned out so well for any of them. Lenny’s given up hope of ever finding love because of a shrunken ovary. Meg, who left a broken heart in town, is back after suffering a breakdown and spending the last year working for a pet food company. Babe is going to find herself on trial soon for the attempted murder of her ne’er-do-well husband. Current problems and past grievances will test the bonds of sisterhood.

Full of the absurd and grotesque for which the style of “southern Gothic” is known, Henley’s play has six great character roles for actors, and director Pat Nims has filled those roles well. Along with the three aforementioned sisters, there’s Chick Boyle (Caitlin Strom-Martin), a neighboring cousin with a perpetually upturned nose; Doc Porter (Michel Harris), the man Meg left behind; and Barnett Lloyd (Jeremy Judge), the wet-behind-the-ears defense attorney who has taken Babe’s case for some “personal” reasons.

The cast keep their performances nicely modulated, with no one succumbing to the urge to go full “southern” and chew the scenery which, by the way, has been provided via a finely detailed set by Ron Krempetz.  The action is relegated to the kitchen of the modest Mississippi home with a short staircase leading to the rest of the house and front and back entry/exit ways. Subtle lighting and sound cues really enhance the environment.

Henley mines the dark material (suicide, infidelity, attempted murder, etc.) for a lot of humor, and none of it seems cheap. The ability for these women to carry on despite the harshness of their lives and still have hope for better times to come is one of this show’s appeals. Audiences looking for a little support in their lives might learn a little something from the Magrath sisters.

‘Crimes of the Heart’’ runs Friday through Sunday through August 11 at the Barn Theatre in the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross. Thursday through Saturday evening performances are at 8pm; the Sunday matinee is at 2pm.

For more information go to rossvalleyplayers.com.

“Bonnie & Clyde” at SRJC’s Summer Repertory Theater (Aired: July 24, 2019)

After a one-year hiatus forced upon them by the renovation of Santa Rosa Junior College’s Burbank Auditorium, the Summer Repertory Theatre program returns with a full schedule of three musicals and two plays running in “rep”. The plays will continue to be performed in Newman Auditorium while the musicals are being done in the SRT Performance Pavilion; an enclosed, air-conditioned, hi-tech tent erected over the campus tennis courts that seats 300 in-the-round.

Their season opened in June with the 147th Bay Area production of Mamma Mia! and continues with the musical Bonnie & Clyde. It had a brief Broadway run in 2011 before being relegated to the regional and community theatre circuit. Opening with the deaths of Bonnie Parker (Jamie Goodson) and Clyde Barrow (Cameron Blakeley), it travels through time from their childhood to their violent end.

Young Bonnie (Evie Goodwin) wants to be a movie star like Clara Bow and Young Clyde (Liev Bruce-Low) wants to be an outlaw like Billy the Kid. Their older counterparts meet cute and in no time one of their dreams comes true. Along for the ride is Clyde’s brother Buck (CJ Garbin), his wife Blanche (Gabbi Browdy), and local constable Ted Hinton (Jeremy Beloate) who pines for Bonnie but will soon join forces with the lawmen sent to track the gang down.

Taking a cue from the 1967 Hollywood blockbuster starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, the show presents a highly fictionalized and romanticized version of the story with a book by Ivan Menchell, music by Frank Wildhorn and lyrics by Don Black. Music director Jane Best and a nine-piece orchestra (tucked behind a curtain in the back) do a good job with the mostly-unmemorable mixture of country, blues, and gospel music.

The young cast who, in a rarity, are actually close to the ages of the protagonists, do well by their roles with particularly strong work done by Goodson and Browdy. Beloate shines in the show’s stand-out number “You Can Do Better Than Him”.

Director James Newman mostly meets the challenges of performing in-the-round, though sight-line and audio issues are present, especially for those sitting directly in front of the orchestra. The minimalist set by Sarah Beth Hall works and there’s creative use of crates, suitcases and trunks to create various set pieces. Terrific costuming by Megan Richardson evokes the period.

SRT’s Bonnie & Clyde is a well-crafted and well-performed production of a mediocre musical. 

‘Bonnie & Clyde’ runs through August 7 in the SRT Performance Pavilion at the back of the campus of Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa. Add some extra time to your plans to find it. Dates and times vary.

For specific show dates and times and ticketing information, go to summerrep.com

Marin Theater Company’s “Measure for Measure” – July 17, 2019

The Marin Shakespeare Company opens its 30th season with Measure for Measure. The Bard’s take on justice and mercy would seem to be a perfect fit for a company that brings their Shakespeare for Social Justice program to eight California State Prisons.

Officially labeled as a comedy, it’s considered by some to be one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’ in which the situation a main character gets into is reflective of a greater societal problem. In Measure for Measure, it’s the enforcement of law with little mercy.

Judge Vincentio (Patrick Russell) cedes his authority to Judge Angelo (Joseph Patrick O’Malley) in an attempt to avoid responsibility for the strict enforcement of the law. Vincentio disguises himself as a friar so he can stick around and see what happens.

Angelo begins immediate enforcement of the laws, closing all the brothels (except those that cater to the upper crust) and imposing the death penalty on those found guilty of fornication.  Claudio (Brennan Pickman-Thoon), who has impregnated his girlfriend, soon finds himself on death row. He begs his friend Lucio (Ariel Zuckerman) to get his sister Isabella (Luisa Frasconi) to leave her convent and intercede with the judge.

Isabella meets with the judge to plead for her brother’s life. After a day’s consideration, Angelo offers to release Claudio if Isabella gives herself to him. Isabella threatens to expose him, but the smug Angelo knows she will not be believed, “Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.”

Working behind the scenes to right the many wrongs in play, Vincentio puts a plan in motion to save the day.

One of Shakespeare’s lesser known and infrequently-produced works, director Robert Currier has added elements to make the play more contemporary. The set by Jackson Currier is modeled after San Quentin. The costumes by Tammy Berlin are modern. Spoken word sound-bites by LeMar “Maverick” Harrison and picket signs with social justice messages were used to bridge the scenes.Devices like these are often used to make a play more accessible, but this a case where the show was lesser (and longer than it needed to be) for some of them.

Performances ranged from the professional to the amateurish with the best work done by Russell, O’Malley (when you could hear him), Frasconi, Steven Price as advisor Escalus, and Ed Berkeley as Pompey.

Get past the directorial excesses and you’ll find a darkly comic tale of morality, hypocrisy, and law. After all, the play’s the thing.

‘Measure for Measure’ runs through July 21 at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University in San Rafael. Thursday through Saturday evening performances are at 8 pm; the Sunday matinee is at 4 pm.

For more information, go to marinshakespeare.org.

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.

For more information, go to raventheater.org.

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.

For more information, go to marintheatre.org.

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.

For more information, go to transcendencetheatre.org

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.

For more information, go to 6thstreetplayhouse.com

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.

For more information, go to luckypennynapa.com

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.

For more information, go to shnsf.com