“Twelfth Night;” “Cymbeline” – July 8, 2015

There’s an old Latin saying.

“Aestivo Tempori est Shakespeare!”

Roughly translated: There’s no better time to watch Shakespeare than in the summertime!

I don’t know when summer became so connected to the Bad Bard of Avon, but there’s no denying that the moment the weather gets nice, along comes a troupe of iambic-pentameter talking actors to put on a little something by good old William S.

This coming weekend, Railroad Square’s Shakespeare in the Cannery will open “Twelfth Night,” and next month will bring productions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to Guerneville, and “The Taming of the Shrew” to Mill Valley.

Since they are amongst Shakespeare’s better-known shows, there’s a pretty good chance what you see and hear with these productions will be more-or-less what Shakespeare wrote, because there’s an unwritten rule about Shakespeare: If you’re going to mess around with the Bard, you will get less blowback if you pick a play that nobody knows.

Which brings us to William Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” landing with a gleeful-giddy splash last weekend in San Rafael’s Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University.

“Cymbeline,” one of Shakespeare’s final works as a playwright, is rarely ever performed, despite the fact that it’s one of the playwright’s most complexly plotted, entertaining, surprise-packed, and satisfying plays – all of which made it very popular, you know, in the olden days. But modern critics tend to turn their noses up at it, as they do anything Shakespeare wrote for the sheer happy hell of it – which is more-or-less what “Cymbeline” feels like.

As that other old Latin saying goes:

Prolixior est unum rabidus fabula.

Meaning: “This is one crazy play!”

There’s a woman disguised as a boy.

An aging ruler losing his kingdom and his sanity.

A soldier convincing a married man his wife has been unfaithful.

And a magic potion that makes the living appear to be dead.

And that’s just for starters.

“Cymbeline” carries so many plot ideas reminiscent of Shakespeare’s other plays, it sometimes seems like a cross between a deliberate self-parody and a career retrospective.

The play is named for the crazy English king Cymbeline, but the true heroine of the story is his daughter Imogen, played with brilliant simplicity and sweetness by Stella Heath. Having P.O.’d her papa by refusing to marry the obnoxiously self-loving prince Cloten -a hilarious Thomas Gorrebeeck – instead marrying the lowly Roman orphan Leonatus Posthumus – also Gorrebeeck, a quick-change artist of the highest order – Imogen becomes the target of her duplicitous stepmother, the queen, and also the subject of a certain test-of-fidelity on the part of Posthumus.

Falsely accused of fooling around, she ends up on the run, dressed in drag, with wacky old Cloten in pursuit, and that’s where a pair of kidnapped princes raised as mountain men enter the story.

Like I said, Crazy!

And in this light-hearted production, director Robert Currier keeps things frisking along, tackling the problem of the play’s complexity by inserting a few original songs in place of Shakespeare’s text, and adding a few lines of his own here and there to clear things up and explain what’s going on.

I’d have preferred the more classic approach of simply directing the play in a way that makes it understandable to the audience, but hey! It’s sort of fun and it kind of works. And since very few audience members will have seen “Cymbeline” before, it’s likely no one will know the difference.

“Cymbeline” runs Friday–Sunday through July 26 at Forest Meadows Amphitheater at Dominican University. www.marinshakespeare.org

And as they say in Latin . . .

Ego sum David Templeton, Second Row Center, enim KRCB.

“The Count of Monte Cristo;” and “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” – July 6, 2015

One of the cool things about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the current season of which I have been reporting on lately, is the way it often programs shows that cleverly comment on each other in interesting ways. This year’s festival, which runs through November 1st up in Ashland, Oregon, has one particularly creative pairing of shows, though to the casual theatergoer, the connection might not seem obvious.

I’m talking about Charles Fechter’s melodramatic 1868 adaptation of “The Count of Monte Cristo,” now playing on the big outdoor Allen Elizabethan theater, and Eugene O’Neil’s Pulitzer-winning drama “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” running in the intimate indoor Thomas Theater. What does a popcorn-level swashbuckling adventure about revenge and swordfights have to do with a theatrical masterpiece about drug addiction and chronic self-destruction?

Keep listening.

O’Neill’s autobiographical tale tells a painfully personal family story, thinly disguised as fiction, but burning with the raw anguish, and dark comedy of truth. Impressively directed by Christopher Liam Moore – putting the “long” into Long Day’s Journey by using the full text, all four hours of it – the OSF production pulls off something truly spectacular, presenting a lushly real look at the gorgeously ugly inner lives of one very troubled, but occasionally kind-of-loving American family, circa 1912.

Edmund Tyrone (a masterful Danforth Comins) is young, alcoholic, and sick of body. He’s probably dying of consumption. He’s also sick of heart, after learning that his drug addicted mother has just started using again. Over the course of one very long day and night, Edmund will learn his own fate – spoiler: Eugne O’Neil did NOT die of consumption – and will go on to confront each member of his family in turn, as they all pound back enough whiskey to fill an inflatable swimming pool. The exception, of course, is Mom, who prefers shooting up to whiskey shots.

Edmund’s father, James (Michael Winters, also excellent), is terrified of ending up in the poor house, despite having made a fortune as a stage actor in a popular adventure (he calls it “the moneymaker”) which he considered beneath him, but couldn’t stop performing for fear of losing his sizable income.

Guess what that real-life “money-maker was?

Yep. “The Count of Monte Cristo,” the very same adaptation OSF is presenting this year, being careful to retain the script changes made in the early 1900’s by James O’Neill, the real-life actor father of Eugene O’Neill.

This adaptation emphasizes the fun parts of Dumas’ classic novel while diminishing or eliminating its, um, boring parts. It accomplishes this largely by establishing an over-the-top melodramatic tone that has little resemblance to the serious historical melancholy of the original, but works well with the help of some big, entertaining stagecraft, courtesy of director Marcella Lorca.

You probably know the story.

Edmond Dantes is a ship’s captain framed by a trio of businessmen and politicians who all have something to gain by getting rid of the gentle, kindhearted captain. His years-long imprisonment in an island hellhole is condensed here, using some storytelling trickery. After escaping and locating a buried treasure, he returns home as the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo, planning to exact revenge on all who betrayed him.

The performances are tuned a tad bigger than life, but just short of having the villains twirl their mustaches.

Thanks to OSF’s clever programming, audiences can catch ‘Monte Cristo,’ then go see ‘A Long Day’s Journey,’ and when the drunken patriarch talks about his love-hate relationship with “the Money-maker,” everyone will know exactly what he’s talking about.

Thanks OSF. That’s kind of cool.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs through November 1st. www.OSFAsland.org.

I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB.

“Antony and Cleopatra;” and “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land” – July 2, 2015

The good, the bad and the ugly.

It’s not just the name of an old Clint Eastwood movie.

It’s also a fitting way to think about this year’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival, currently running
in Ashland on OSF’s three world-class stages. Yesterday I talked about the VERY GOOD “Head
Over Heels,” a new musical by Jeff Whitty of “Avenue Q” fame.

With summer kicking into gear, there are several shows running on those three stages, and that’s one of the good ones. So let me tell you about the BAD and the UGLY, both of which could be used to describe OSF’s unsatisfying staging of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.”

Tony and Cleo has NEVER been an easy play to produce. Directors have to find clever ways to establish a coherent tone that’s not actually suggested in the script, which – sorry Mr.
Shakespeare – is a bit of a mess.

OSF’s Artistic Director Bill Rauch helms this production. Usually spot-on, Rauch appears to have decided to just follow Shakespeare’s unfocused lead, the result being a sometimes entertaining, frequently baffling mish-mash of tonal inconsistencies.

By pushing the comedic moments to goofy excess, it diminishes, rather than enhances, the
whole flow of the show. Consider the arrival of a bumbling snake seller who acts like an extra
from T.V.s Hee-Haw show, a bit of outrageousness that comes just seconds before the tragic
demise of a major character. And after watching the supposedly middle-aged Antony and
Cleopatra act like lovesick puppies for thirty minutes, it’s hard to feel bad for them when their
world starts to crumble under the weight of their irresponsible actions. That’s the point, of course, to show how great societies are often destroyed by the acts of selfish rulers, but it’s just inconceivable that the real Tony and Cleo would have run around squealing and clapping like toddlers at a birthday watching the clown tie balloon animals.

Such choices leave the entire enterprise foundering in a kind of dramatic uncertainty.

This is a tragedy, after all.

In this production, that’s true in many ways.

Let’s move back to the category of the GOOD, with the clever, emotionally rich “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land,” written and directed by Stan Lai. The American premiere is a translation of a Chinese play originally performed in in 1986, shortly after the 40-year ban on communication between China and Taiwan had been lifted and families long-separated were taking steps at reunion. In its first-ever English version, Lai takes the original script – a kind of site-specific experiment in which two theater companies attempt to rehearse on the same space – and tailors it to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which is referred to often by name, along with numerous suggestions that someone should call Bill Rauch – mentioned earlier – to come straighten out the mess.

One of the plays, the deadly serious drama “Secret Love,” is being directed by a Stan Lai stand-
in known only as Director, putting his race-blind cast through the paces of a story clearly based on the loss of his one great love. When a group of Chinese-American comedians crash the theater, insisting Bill Rauch has given them the space for their rehearsal, a strange back-and-forth ensues. With an outrageously silly send-up of the ancient Chinese fable Peach Blossom Land – about an unhappily married man who finds a magical world where all his dreams come true, but pines for the wife who never really loved him – the newcomers agree to share the space, with some very funny, genuinely touching results.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival runs through November 1. www.osfashland.org

I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB.

“Head Over Heels” – July 1, 2015

Well, the recent Supreme Court ruling affirming marriage equality to all couldn’t be better timed, ‘cause the big celebration’s already started up in Ashland, Oregon, and this dance party’s got somethin’ special on the record player.

It’s got the Go-Go’s.

Well . . . it has a bunch of Go-Go songs, if not the actual 1980’s all-female punk-pop band, but either way, the music is so good even Shakespeare would be dancing.

He, after all, was a big believer in love.

And so is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where – two whole weeks before the historic ruling making same-sex marriage legal all over the country – the popular Ashland-based festival unveiled “Head Over Heels,” a joyously love-affirming musical by Tony-winner Jeff Whitty, the guy behind the hit musical Avenue Q. Anyone wanting to celebrate a new engagement or legally-sanctioned wedding might want to hit the road to Oregon and snap up some tickets to this outrageously creative, gleefully uplifting world premiere show.

Directed by Ed Silvanus Iskandar, “Head Over Heels” takes a bunch of the Go-Go’s greatest hits and spreads them throughout Whitty’s clever comic adaptation of the forgotten Elizabethan pastoral romance The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. The original play was written in the 1600s by the poetry-penning soldier Phillip Sydney, a member of Queen Elizabeth’s court till he was banned for dueling – and for daring to propose marriage to the queen. In exile, he wrote his play, snappily reinterpreted as a big bright burlesque about forbidden love.

Basilius is the King of Arcadia. When he gets a prophecy predicting the collapse of his kingdom and the disruption of his family, he does what any fictional ruler of the Elizabethan era would do – he packs up his court, his wife, and his two daughters, and heads out to the forest to wait for it all to blow over. There in the wide arms of mother nature, of course, a series of confusions and collisions ensue, most of them revolving around the character of Musidorus, a lovesick young shepherd boy pining for the king’s youngest daughter. Musidorus disguises himself as an amazon woman to be admitted to the King’s company in the forest.

And almost immediately . . . everyone falls in love with him . . . uh, her.


All of this confuses some characters and leads others to a number of much-needed self-discoveries, the end result being that the King’s definition of love – and everyone’s ideas about the purpose of marriage – get a well-timed overhaul by the end of the play.

The way Whitty and his musical arranger have integrated the songs into the story is nothing short of brilliant. Whether translated into English Madrigals, doo-wop quartets, or slinky rock-and-roll tangos, the song’s lyrics move the action along, nicely revealing the inner lives of the characters just as if the songs had been written with the show in mind.

It’s all goofy, giddy fluff, yes – but its sweet, irresistible, ingenious fluff. And as the many happy Americans who finally get to meet their soul-mates at the altar will tell you, sometimes, nothing is better than a bit of fluffy sweetness – and a big old dance party – to celebrate the end of a long, hard journey.

“Head Over Heels” runs through October 10 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. www.OSFAshland.org

I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB

“Oh, What A Night!” – June 24, 2015

Lets talk about inspiration.

Inspiration is often likened to lightning striking, or an electric bulb popping on over our heads. Metaphorically, when light suddenly appears, when lightning suddenly strikes, it means we have been inspired, either with a new idea or with a new sense of energy and excitement.

Theater has long been in the business of inspiration.

It feeds off of it, and also causes it, in a remarkable endless loop of creativity.

Which brings me to the Transcendence Theater Company, and Broadway Under the Stars.

Continuing their own mysterious knack for making lightning strike over and over, Transcendence Theater has just kicked off its third full season of Broadway Under the Stars shows, with yet another toe-tapping, soul-pleasing, one-hundred-percent inspiring, music-and-dance extravaganza designed to lift our spirits and raise some money for the gorgeous local treasure, the Jack London State Park.

“Oh, What a Night!” – the first of several shows performed outside at Jack London and elsewhere this summer – is a wonderful, witty collection of songs and dance numbers, borrowed from big and little Broadway shows and from the world of pop music.

One might ask the question, how often can these folks keep making the same thing work, assembling songs into shows that don’t just entertain and keep our attention, but also send us home wondering what we might do to make the world a happier place.

Under the artistic direction of Amy Miller, the Transcendence people show no signs of stopping or soon ending their lightning strike record. By blending top-tier talent, endlessly clever ideas, brilliant programming, and a persistent sense of professional polish and contagious enthusiasm, they just keep turning these shows into something special. Think of it as part concert, part dance party, part master class, and good part old-fashioned tent revival.

“Oh What a Night!” runs for two more weekends out at Jack London, and for one-night-only tonight, at 7:30, at Wells Fargo Center for the Arts. Transcendence will follow it up with a whole bunch of other shows, large and small, spread out over the rest of the summer, with a special one-night-only appearance in July by Megan Hilty.

Highlights of “Oh What a Night!” include Leslie McDonel’s gorgeously slinky interpretation of Summertime (from Porgy and Bess), a lovely duet of Say it Somehow (from A Light in the Piazza) performed Julie Craig and Michael Mahaney, and a pair of stunningly funny songs by Lexy Fridell – Miss Byrd, in which she dances with an office chair, and In My Car, in which she does things with her face and voice you have to see to believe, Fridell teams up later with Stephan Stubbins for a clever condensation of West Side Story, singing all of its songs, and telling the story, in just six minutes.

Another crowd-pleasing medley brings to life the manic-depressive emotions of a typical high school prom, with half-a-dozen classic dance tunes acted out and sung by the cast.

Ultimately, the show is more than just another presentation of the patented Transcendence Theater magic, it’s an event, deliberately and admittedly aimed at inspiring us all to go out and make our own magic in the world. Even the port-a-potties are inspiring, festooned inside with uplifting quotes from great minds.

Whether outside at Jack London or indoors at Wells Fargo, “Oh What a Night” lives up to its name.

“Oh! What a Night!” runs tonight, June 24 at Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, and then continues weekends through July 3 at Jack London State Park. www.broadwayjacklondon.com has all the info on this summer’s Transcendence shows. Check it out.

I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB.

“Falstaff;” and “Choir Boy” – June 17, 2015

There’s no denying it. Music is a powerful force. Music can express the deepest of human emotions. And there are, obviously, many different styles and forms of music. One could easily make the argument that no two forms of musical expression better convey the depth of human feeling than do OPERA and the mighty SPRITUALS that grew out of slavery and the African-American experience.

Right now, two different opportunities await you in the Bay Area to experience the power of both musical forms.

Let’s start with opera.

In Giuseppe Verdi’s “Falstaff,” the last of 30 operas the Italian composer wrote in the late 1800s, the emotional and financial stakes are high for everyone, but the comedy is as broad as the girth of its title character.

Now running in an intimate English-language adaptation at Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma, the story of Falstaff is borrowed from William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. The debt-ridden Sir John Falstaff – played with delightful expressiveness by Jo Vincent Parks – is a plus-sized inebriate with an exaggerated appreciation for his own attractiveness and charm. When he runs out of money with which to pay his bills, including the tab for all the beer and food he ingests, Falstaff attempts to solve his money problems by seducing two different local married women, Mrs. Ford – played by Eileen Morris, who practically glows with charm and mischief – and Mrs. Page – Kim Anderman, quite good as the less flashy of the two wives. Both merry wives are beautiful and, most importantly, rich.

When they discover Falstaff is courting both of them, they launch a scheme to expose and embarrass Falstaff. Their plan is complicated by certain subplots – one involving Mrs. Ford’s jealous husband (William Neely, who’s hilarious), the other involving the sweet, secret love affair between the Ford’s daughter Nannetta and a poor local boy.

As directed by Elly Lichenstein, who brings plenty of wicked silliness and disarming funny business to the story – aided by strong musical direction from Mary Chun – “Falstaff” is classic fluff, but it’s fluff with tremendous heart and some spectacular operatic melodies.

Melody and heart are traits shared by the brilliant, beautifully written, flawlessly acted “Choir Boy,” by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Directed with stunning intensity by Kent Gash at Marin Theatre
Company, the play is set at the fictional Charles Drew Prep School for Boys, a prestigious all-black boarding school.

As a new year begins, tensions boil when the all-but-openly gay student Pharus – a stunningly good Jetani Alladin – is made the leader of the school’s all-important a cappella choir.

The choir presents classic black spirituals in contemporary arrangements, and the uplift they give Pharus, a true believer in the power of music, helps guide him through what turns out to be a very rocky year.

The music, by the way, is awesome, with the cast all able of blending into some jaw-dropping harmonies.

A coming-of-age story with tremendous insight and lovingly observed characters, this lyrical thought-poem of a play is not just about bullying and prejudice and homophobia. Yes. It touches on those things, but at its heart “Choir Boy” is about friendship and self-acceptance.

Wonderfully crafted and beautifully staged, “Choir Boy” is about what happens when a person is finally accepted for who they are. It’s about the transcendent power of a simple song, and the power of a single voice when they are finally allowed to sing from the heart.

“Choir Boy” runs Tuesday–Sunday through June 28 at Marin Theatre Company. www.marintheatre.org.

“Falstaff” runs through June 28 at Cinnabar Theater, www.cinnabartheater.org

I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB.

“The North Plan;” and “The Clean House” – June 3, 2015

Making an audience laugh is not an easy task for any playwright, or for the actors indebted with bringing the author’s words to life on stage. Humor is primarily a matter of taste. Where one of might think a joke about geometry is hilarious, another prefers to watch an actor plummet headlong into a birthday cake. Expecting an entire audience to snort and guffaw at any one gag or line of dialogue is as optimistic as thinking that every patron in a restaurant will start salivating at the same single entree on the menu.

Unless, of course, it’s one very special entrée.

Which brings us to two brilliant-but-unconventional plays currently running in the North Bay. In Sarah Ruhl’s 2004 “The Clean House,” a Brazilian comedian-turned-house cleaner, Matilde – played by Livia Demarchi – confesses in her opening monologue that cleaning houses depresses her. Unfortunately, her over-stressed employer Lane – an excellent Sylvia Burboeck – is a surgeon who likes things clean. Meanwhile, Lane’s sister Virginia – Tamar Cohn, also wonderful – just isn’t happy unless she’s cleaning something, so a secret arrangement is made between Virginia and Maitilde wherein the former sneaks in to clean cleans Lane’s house every day while Matilde lies on the couch trying to think up the perfect joke – a joke, she says, that will be “somewhere between an angel and a fart.”

When Lane’s cancer surgeon husband Charles announces he’s fallen in love with a much older woman on whom he’s just performed a double mastectomy, life suddenly takes on a series of twists and turns for everyone, proving that, as tidy as we might like our lives to be, sometimes things just get messy.

Directed with energy and sensitivity by JoAnne Winter, “The Clean House” is packed with surprises, and is as funny as it is genuinely, authentically moving.

Jason Wells’ “The North Plan,” on the other hand is both broader and darker. Directed with a taste for farce and a furious sense of wicked glee by Rick Eldridge, “The North Plan” finds humor in the disconcerting not-too-distant future, a future made possible by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s pronouncement that torture isn’t torture if it’s applied not as punishment but as interrogation.

Ready to laugh?

Believe it or not, I think you will.

A mysterious shadow government has taken over the White House and declared martial law, and Carlton, a fugitive government employee has stolen a secret list of “government enemies.” Carlton is played by Sam Coughlin with a manic intensity reminiscent of Woody Allen, only more believable. When Carlton winds up in a rural Missouri jail awaiting the arrival of two scary government agents – John Browning and Jared Wright – he has no choice but to try and enlist the help of his jailers, the patient police chief Swenson, John Craven, and bored administrator Shonda, played by Miranda D. Lawson. When he strikes out there, he has no choice but to try and get through to his agitated, foul-mouthed fellow prisoner Tanya – played by Sharia Pierce, who is a hoot). Sharia is an unhinged local motor-mouth whose just turned herself in for drunk driving, and what happens next shouldn’t be funny, but in this cleverly crafted fable of fermenting revolution, the end of the world miraculously becomes wildly, inspiringly – and a bit frighteningly – hilarious.

“The North Plan” runs Thursday–Sunday through June 21 at Main Stage West. www.mainstagewest.com

“The Clean House” runs Thursday–Sunday through June 14 at Ross Valley Players. www.rossvalleyplayers.com

I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB.

“Peter Pan” – May 27, 2015

No one’s ever done an official scientific study on this, but I have observed certain conspicuous distinctions between the way adults react to the story of Peter Pan, and how children respond to the same story – whether we’re talking about the 1911 novel by J.M. Barrie or the various stage versions, and especially the 1954 musical adaptation made famous by Mary Martin.

Kids, of course, love the action and adventure, they love the fairies, pirates, the natives, mermaids, the crocodile, the swordfights – and who doesn’t love that little flying boy.

Adults, on the other hand, tend to get strangely weepy about Peter Pan, and I have observed—as recently as last weekend when I saw the massive production of Peter Pan presented by the Mountain Play association on Mt. Tam – that the older we get, the more emotional we become.

This becomes a little complicated for us, since we’ve been trained since adolescence that we’re all supposed to grow up eventually and let go of childish things, even fairy tales about the psychological cost of growing up and letting go of childish things.

Peter Pan was never intended as a story for children alone, as is pretty obvious to any adult who’s ever read Peter Pan aloud to children and been shocked to find themselves giving a careful dissection a pirate murder, or describing a group of drunken fairies on their way home from a fairy “orgy,” or decrying the cruelty and “heartlessness” of children.

Peter Pan is, to a large degree, a psychological and sociological examination of the differences between childhood and adulthood, culminating in the observation that each holds benefits and deficits not available to the other. In other words, Peter Pan is a very sad story.

Fortunately, it’s also a blast.

And in the smart, entertaining, visually inventive Mountain Play production. there is plenty of that cool, kid-friendly stuff and plenty of heart-stopping emotion to choke up the adults who still remember what it was like to be a kid, to play and imagine and pretend like our lives depended on it.

Director Michael Schwartz, a Broadway veteran with an eye for spectacle, shows a keen sense of how to use the enormous stage area of the Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre overlooking the San Francisco Bay. On a set resembling a summer camp playground in the woods, pirates, natives and lost boys erupt from all corners of the amphitheater, the crocodile is assembled from spare tires and puppets.

Shadows dance.

An invisible fairy knocks things over and pulls hair.

Magical animals prowl.

Trampolines are hopped upon, teeters are tottered, and bright-colored balls are bounced out into the crowd.

As Peter, Melissa WolfKlain displays a strong singing voice and a nicely boyish sense of rough-and-tumble confidence, making it obvious why Wendy and her brothers would leave the safety of their beds and follow him to Neverland. The villainous but somewhat foolish Captain Hook—played well by Jeff Wiesen) and his right-hand man Smee – a hilarious David Yen – do a good job of straddling the balance between threat and comedy.

Most importantly, Peter flies, beautifully, thanks to some conspicuous but still magical pulleys and wires.

Kids will be happy as clams, and older folks will be happy and sad at the same time—they may even wish they could be kids again while being secretly glad they never will, because, hey, that’s the magic of Peter Pan.

‘Peter Pan’ runs Sundays though June 21 (and one Saturday, June 12), at the Cushing Memorial Amphitheatre.


I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB.

“Noises Off;” and “One Man, Two Guvnors” – May 20, 2015

Let’s face it – it’s not always easy to look on the bright side of life. Laughter helps, but getting there often requires a helpful boost. If you are looking for something to give your laughing-and-smiling impulses a comedic kick in the pants, you are currently in luck. Right now, there are two shows running in the Bay Area, each one designed to make you feel a bit lighter and a touch happier – a stunt made possible by daredevil actors committed body-and-soul to the fine art of stage comedy, confident in the uplifting power generated through the sheer ridiculous joy of watching a skilled comedian tumbling down a flight of stairs.

In downtown Sonoma, on the Rotary stage at the Sonoma Community Center, Narrow Way Stage Company has pulled out all the stops with Michael Frayn’s high-energy farce “Noises Off” Running weekends through May 31. Though a bit loose and lumpy here and there, the Narrow Way actors bring a strong, pulse-quickening dose of their patented theater-punk sensibility to this rollicking play-within-a-play, the meta-level story of dysfunctional actors rehearsing and performing a wild sex farce called ‘Nothing On.’ Tony Ginesi’s rotating two-story set let’s us see both sides of the action, front-of-stage and back-of-stage, as the hapless actors present the same ridiculous story three times over the course of its months long run, which – true to the longstanding rules of comedy – goes anything but smoothly.

Directed by Nick Christenson, with a bring-it-on, anything-goes sense of heightened performance and comedic timing, this high-energy roller-coaster of a show benefits from a cast willing to do just about anything, from romping about in underwear to falling down stairs – I told you – to slipping on a plate of sardines or sitting on a cactus.

Meanwhile, just beyond the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, Berkeley Repertory Theater is presenting the West Coast premiere of “One Man, Two Guvnors,” Richard Bean’s joyously madcap assault on the average funny-bone, running through June 21. A bawdy British adaptation of the classic Italian farce A Servant of Two Masters, “One Man, Two Guvnors” is set in Brighton, circa 1963, where a poor, hungry musician, desperate for a sandwich or a plate of eggs, finds himself working for two different criminals, one rich, one on the lam. With original tunes played by a “skiffle” band along the lines of John Lennon’s pre-Beatles band The Quarrymen, this show caused a sensation in London and New York, making a star of James Corden (The Late Late Show), whose shoes are capably filled in Berkeley by actor Dan Donohue, acclaimed for his work with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The show is brilliantly performed by every single member of the ensemble, playing an assortment of oddballs from the cross-dressing woman pretending to be her dead brother, to the jittery servant who keeps falling down stairs – there it is again. Even the poor guy with only three lines as a waiter makes comic gold of his brief moment in the spotlight. Directed by David Ivers with a sense of controlled mania, the show incorporates ingenious audience participation and musical interludes that both set the tone and add a specific flavor of riotous party-time mayhem to the proceedings.

Easily one of the best new-but-based-on-something-old comedies of the year, “One Man, Two Guvnors” is a happy smile of a show that, like Noises Off, brings its characters right to edge of tragedy before winging wackily back to the land of happy endings.

It’s hard not to feel happy after something like that.

“Noises Off” runs through May 31st at the Sonoma Community Center (sonomaartslive.org) and “One Man, Two Guvnors” runs through June 21st at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (BerkeleyRep.org)

I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB.

“Mary Poppins;” and “Crazy For You” – May 14, 2015

Theater is all about transformation, and transformation is never easy. But transforming one of the best-loved movies of all time into a stage musical? That’s a huge challenge, because the expectations are always so remarkably high. So it takes guts, creativity, and a whole lot of daring-do, all of which are on vivid display in the splendid new production of “Mary Poppins,” presented by Spreckels Theater Company in Rohnert Park.

Adapted, in part, from the Walt Disney film with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, “Mary Poppins,” the play, is a fascinating fusion of the expected and the unexpected. Writer Julian Fellowes, the guy behind Downton Abbey, pulls off the trick by rewriting the lighthearted movie’s plot to make it a bit more faithful to the darker, scarier books by P.L. Travers, while still retaining most of the movie’s songs and several of its best moments.

The magic carpet bag? It’s there, as is the smarty-pants tape measure that tells more about you than just your height. Gone, though, are the dancing penguins and the tea party on the ceiling.

In their place are dancing statues and a trip to a magical shop where letters and words can be purchased like candy.

The big question is, does Mary Poppins still fly?

Yes she does, spectacularly.

And as played by the delightful Heather Buck, she shows a lot more strength, edge and power than in the film, sweet when she needs to be, but tough too, and even a little bit dangerous.

The unruly siblings Jane and Michael Banks are causing friction between their parents, the skittish but blustery Mr. Banks, played by Garet Waterhouse, and the strong-willed Mrs. Banks, played wonderfully by Sandy Riccardi. Right on cue, the mysterious Mary Poppins arrives with her bag of tricks and a plan to put things right with the amiable assistance of her best friend Bert, played with energy and charm by Dominic Williams. There’s a dark-humored subplot involving the terrifying Miss Andrews – a stellar Mary Gannon Graham – who shows up to battle Mary Poppins for the family’s future – and perhaps a bit of its soul.

Under the direction of Gene Abravaya, who handles the shifts in tone from light to dark and back with grace and ease, the entire show is packed with wonder and rich with emotion.

Give this man the Facing-a-Challenge and exceeding-all-expectations award. The effects are cleverly done, the dancing and music are eye-popping and ear pleasing, and the bittersweet ending is effectively lovely. True to form, when Mary Poppins shows up, she brings out the best in everyone she meets.

Meanwhile, at 6th Street Playhouse, the Lemons-into-Lemonade Award of the month goes to director Craig Miller, who has cleverly surmounted a number of imposing challenges in creating a highly entertaining new production of the 1992 musical “Crazy for You.” The Tony-winning show by Ken Ludwig is built from old standard songs by George and Ira Gershwin – “I’ve got Rhythm,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Slap that Bass” – inventing a plot about a dusty western town invaded by show-people from New York.

It works, due to strong lead performances and some clever invention from Miller, whose written a new opening scene that sets things up and solves an array of issues, including the fact that Miller’s cast has far more women than men. His solution to the problem is not just clever. It makes the show funnier.

With spectacular choreography by lead actor Joseph Favalora, and a winning performance by Abbey Lee as a love-struck cowgirl, “Crazy for You” is not exactly deep theater, but its funny, sweet, and driven by an infectious love of the theater.

If you like musicals, especially if you love Gershwin, you should check it out.

“Crazy for You” runs Thursday–Sunday through March 15 at 6th Street Playhouse. www.6thstreetplayhouse.com.

“Mary Poppins” runs Friday–Sunday, through May 23 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. www.spreckelsonline.com

I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB.