House lights down. Cue the music. The curtain rises weekly on KRCB’s early-morning news segment Second Row Center.There’s a lot of theatre in the Bay Area. With so many options and limited time and resources, how does one go about deciding just what to see? That’s where a critic can be of assistance. Theatre critic Harry Duke has been knocking around Bay Area stages for twenty years since his days in the Sonoma State University Theatre Arts program. He’s turned what used to be post-show conversations with fellow artists into full-fledged reviews of Bay Area theatre that can be found in the Sonoma County Gazette and on the For All Events website. More than a simple recitation of a plot (you can look that up yourselves,) his reviews are honest evaluations of the components that make a good show good and a bad show bad.
Million Dollar Quartet - March 13, 2019
On December 4, 1956, a legendary jam session was held at rock and roll pioneer Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee. Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley were labeled the “Million Dollar Quartet” by a local journalist and the moniker stuck to the recordings of the session released decades later.
In 2006, Colin Escott and Floyd Matrux unleashed a highly fictionalized and time-compressed theatrical version of the event also titled Million Dollar Quartet. After several successful bay area productions, Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse gives the North Bay a chance to check out this popular jukebox musical now running through March 24.
Jukebox musicals are usually comprised of a couple of dozen well-known songs connected by expositionary material and Million Dollar Quartet is no different. Sam Phillips (Benjamin Stowe) narrates the tale of the event, filling in the backstory and presenting the dramatic conflict (Will Johnny Cash sign a contract extension or fly the coop?) around which the music swirls.
At a recording session for Carl Perkins (Jake Turner) with Jerry Lee Lewis (Nick Kenrick, also music director) on piano, who should happen to drop by but Elvis Presley and his girlfriend (played by Daniel Durston and Samantha Arden) and Johnny Cash (played by Steve Lasiter)! In no time, there’ll be a whole lot of shakin goin’ on as we’re treated to “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “That’s All Right”, “Great Balls of Fire” and 20 other classics.
Director Michael Ray Wisely – who has played Phillips and directed this piece before - had the benefit of 6th Street expending significant coin on this production beginning with an impressive set (Conor Woods adapting Kelly James Tighe’s original scenic design) and imported talent. It’s not an easy show to cast as each performer must be a “triple threat” - an actor, a singer, and a musician.
Kenrick reprises his TBA Award-winning performance as Jerry Lee Lewis and steals the show with his kinetic piano playing and entertaining characterization. Local performer Jake Turner manages to hold his own against Kenrick as Carl Perkins, and Durston and Lasiter do fine in capturing the essence of their characters while avoiding simple caricatures. They receive good musical support by locals Nick Ambrosino on drums and bassist Shovanny Delgado Carillo.
Ignore the shaky musical history and often-pedestrian exposition that’s presented and you’ll find yourself enjoying a well-performed staged concert of some of rock and roll’s greatest hits.
'Million Dollar Quartet' runs Thursdays through Sundays through March 24 at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa. Thursday through Saturday evening performances are at 7:30pm; there are Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm.
For more information, go to 6thstreetplayhouse.com
Hello, Dolly! - March 6, 2019
Anyone going to a performance of Hello, Dolly! - running now at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco through March 17 - with an appetite for an enlightened look at male/female relationships is likely to leave quite hungry. The current national tour of the 2017 revival of the 1964 Broadway smash based on Thorton Wilder’s 1955 revision of his 1938 play extrapolated from an Austrian playwright’s 1842 extension of an English dramatists 1835 one-act reflects the then-common attitudes towards a women’s place in society and the home.
Anyone going to a performance of Hello, Dolly! with an appetite to see a Broadway legend at work, or hear magnificent musical classics delivered with gusto, or see a bevy of athletic dancers spring across the stage in spirited numbers based on Gower Champion’s original choreography, or be dazzled by the color and craftsmanship at work in Santo Loquasto’s scenic and costume design, is likely to leave the theatre with their appetite satiated.
Tony-winner Betty Buckley (Cats, Sunset Boulevard) plays Dolly Gallagher Levi, a matchmaker and jill-of-all-trades in 19th century New York engaged by the well-known Yonkers half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder (Lewis J. Stadlen) to find him a bride, an assignment which Dolly intends to fill herself. Sub-plots involve Vandergelder’s niece Ermengarde and her paramour Ambrose Kemper (played by Morgan Kirner and Garret Hawe) and Feed Store clerks Cornelius and Barnaby (played by Nic Rouleau Jess LeProtto).
At age 71, Buckley does her damnedest to make the part made famous by Carol Channing (at age 42) her own, and succeeds to an extent. It’s obvious and understandable that her choreography has been limited and that she lacks the vocal power to deliver some of the musical’s biggest moments (“Before the Parade Passes By” was disappointingly flat) but she really delivers in the show’s quieter moments when she engages with the memories of her late husband.
The supporting cast is outstanding with Rouleau and LeProtto really scoring as the clerks unleashed in New York City and Analisa Leaming and Kristen Hahn as the objects of their affections.
MVP of this production goes to Stadlen, a reliable Broadway performer for the past 50 years who often toils in the anonymity common to great character actors. His eyebrows are as expressive as anything else on stage.
Go ahead, roll your eyes during “It Takes a Woman” but don’t be surprised to find yourself cheering after “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “The Waiters’ Gallop” and, at the very least, smiling through almost everything else.
‘Hello, Dolly! ’runs through March 17 at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco. Dates and times vary.
For more information, go to shnsf.com
After Miss Julie - February 27, 2019
Sometimes the most interesting dramas are the simplest - a single set, a few characters, a conflict. “Naturalistic” plays, as they are sometimes referred, were the result of a late 19th century movement in European theatre to enhance the realism of plays with an understanding of how heredity and environment can influence an individual.
The most famous play to come out of this period is Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. Set in the downstairs kitchen of an estate, it’s a three-character piece examining issues of sex and class. The title character’s the daughter of a count with an eye for the manor’s chauffeur, complicated by the presence of the manor cook who also happens to be the chauffeur’s wife-to-be.
Playwright Patrick Marber (Closer, film’s Notes on a Scandal) adapted the play for British television in 1995 under the title After Miss Julie and a stage version premiered in 2003. It’s the version running now through March 3 at Sebastopol’s Main Stage West.
Marber moved the time and setting of the play to post-WWII England, specifically to the night of the Labour Party’s landslide victory over Winston Churchill and the Conservative Party. The significant upheaval to Great Britain’s political and social system is reflected in the characters.
Miss Julie (Illana Niernberger) is literally “to the manor born”, but that doesn’t stop her from slumming with the servants. John (Sam Coughlin) is the Lord of the Manor’s chauffeur who, while harboring a long love for Miss Julie, is to be married to Christine (Jennifer Coté), the manor cook. Miss Julie is used to getting what she wants, and that includes John. John wants something, too, and that is to “improve” his lot in life and Miss Julie can facilitate that. Christine wants a simple life with a husband with a pension and a family.
Co-Directors/Scenic Designers Elizabeth Craven and David Lear elicit strong performances from the cast. Niernberger’s Julie is lost in a changing society, turning on a dime from entitled superior to groveling submissive. Coughlin’s John is the villain of the piece, desperate to be something other than he is at any cost, but destined to be no more than a (literally) bootlicking lackey. Coté’s Christine is the most aggrieved of the party, but she is willing to overlook - or forgive – John’s boorishness to ensure she gets what she wants.
After Miss Julie is a classic love triangle told exceedingly well, though the question of how much “love” exists between any of them is up for debate.
'After Miss Julie' runs through March 3 at Main Stage West in Sebastopol. Thursday through Saturday evening performances are at 8pm. The Sunday matinee is at 5pm.
For more information, go to mainstagewest.com
Forever Plaid - February 20, 2019
Musical zombies rise from the dead to sing an evening of ‘50’s pop standards.
Let me try that again.
On February 4, 1964, The Plaids, an eastern Pennsylvania-based vocal quartet, were headed for a major gig at the Fusel-Lounge at the Harrisburg Airport Hilton when their cherry red Mercury was broadsided by a bus full of Catholic schoolgirls. The girls, who escaped unscathed, were on their way to see the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. The Plaids went on to that Great Performance Hall in the Sky… or at least the green room of the Great Performance Hall in the Sky. Rather than spend an eternity waiting to “go on”, they make their way back to earth to give the concert that never was.
That is the plot upon which Stuart Ross and James Raitt hang twenty-four musical standards in their very popular jukebox musical Forever Plaid, running through March 3 at the Lucky Penny Community Arts Center in Napa.
Frankie (F. James Raasch), Sparky (Scottie Woodard), Jinx (Michael Scott Wells), and Smudge (David Murphy) were high school friends who dreamed of musical glory. Following the path created by ‘50’s versions of what we now refer to as “boy bands” (The Four Lads, The Four Aces, The Crew-Cuts, etc.), they formed The Plaids and specialized in four-part harmonies.
And that’s what you’ll hear over the Michael Ross-directed show’s one hour and 45-minute running time. “Three Coins in the Fountain”, “Sixteen Tons”, “Chain Gang”, and “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” are just some of the 20-plus songs performed by the crisply costumed gents (courtesy Barbara McFadden) with matching choreography by Woodard. Music is nicely performed by a trio consisting of music director Craig Burdette (keyboards), Quentin Cohen (drums), and Alan Parks (bass).
The guys are good with each one getting a solo shot to go along with the group work. Their stock characters (the shy one, the funny, etc.) banter with each other between numbers and amusingly engage with the audience. The comedic numbers are particularly well done with the show’s highlight being a three-minute recreation of The Ed Sullivan Show, though it helps to have some familiarity with that show.
The same can be said for the music. Yes, it’s a trip down memory lane, but if toe-tapping, hand-squeezing and perpetual grinning are any indications, Forever Plaid hits all the right notes with an audience willing to make the trip.
’Forever Plaid' plays through March 3rd at the Lucky Penny Community Arts Center in Napa. Thursday evening performances are at 7pm; Fridays and Saturdays are at 8pm. There’s a Sunday matinee at 2pm.
For more information, go to luckypennynapa.com
Hamlet - February 13, 2019
To see or not to see? That is the question.
Anyone with even the slightest interest in theatre has probably seen a production or two of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in their lifetime. Considered by many to be Shakespeare’s - if not the world’s - greatest play, it’s one-third ghost story, one-third dysfunctional family drama, and one-third revenge tale. It’s now the first-ever Shakespeare play to be mounted on the Nellie W. Codding stage at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center. Artistic Director Sheri Lee Miller helms the production which runs through February 17.
Something is rotten in the state Denmark. A spirit claiming to be the late King has appeared to Prince Hamlet to inform him he was poisoned by his own brother Claudius, who then married the widowed queen Gertrude and usurped the throne. He has one simple request of Hamlet – revenge!
Miller has gathered an impressive roster of talent to essay the Bard’s classic roles. First and foremost, there’s Keith Baker as the brooding Prince. Baker is a marvel to watch and to listen to as Shakespeare’s words come trippingly off his tongue. Peter Downey is magnetic as the scheming Claudius, shading his villainy with a glimpse into his humanity and his true love of Gertrude. Eric Thompson’s Polonius brings a welcome lightness to the stage and is sorely missed upon his “departure”. Chad Yarish as faithful friend Horatio, Danielle Cain as the easily swayed Gertude, Ivy Rose Miller as the doomed Ophelia and the entire supporting cast do honor to their roles.
The stark yet imposing set by Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen in conjunction with Hansen’s lighting Design and Chris Schloemp’s projections design give the production an otherworldly feel. Costumes by Pamela Johnson pop against the dark and dank (courtesy of ample fog) backgrounds.
An extremely effective addition is a live music “soundscape” composed and performed by Nancy Hayashibari. Accompanying many scenes, Hayashibari’s contribution to this production’s success cannot be overstated.
Look, folks, I’m no Shakespeare pushover. It’s overdone, usually underproduced, and often interminable, but I get it. It’s royalty free, has roles that are on every actor’s bucket list, and comes with a built-in audience. Yes, it’s long, but director Sheri Lee Miller has put together an outstanding production of Hamlet that should reach beyond that “Shakespeare” audience. Will they come?
Aye, there’s the rub.
'Hamlet' runs through February 17th at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park. Friday and Saturday evening performances are at 8pm, the Sunday matinee is at 2pm. There’s also a Thursday, February 14th performance at 7pm.
For more information, go to spreckelsonline.com
Arsenic & Old Lace - February 6, 2019
Serial killing would seem to be rather ghoulish subject matter for a comedic play, yet Arsenic and Old Lace has been a reliable audience-pleaser for over seventy-five years. Sonoma Arts Live has a production running through February 10. Joseph Kesselring’s tale of the Brewster sisters and their pension for helping lonely old men meet their maker via a glass of elderberry wine debuted on Broadway in 1941 and ran for 1,444 performances. It starred Jean Adair, Josephine Hull, and Boris Karloff as black sheep Jonathan Brewster. A film adaptation by Frank Capra followed in 1944 starring Cary Grant as Jonathan Brewster. Though the play has since become a staple of the American theater, like an old haunted house it’s starting to creak. Mortimer Brewster (Michael Coury Murdock) returns to his childhood home and his Aunts Abby & Martha (Karen Brocker & Karen Pinomaki). After getting engaged to the next-door preacher’s daughter Elaine (Julianne Bradbury), Mortimer is horrified to discover his aunts have taken on the most macabre hobby. They’re helping lonely old men find “peace” and disposing of the bodies in the basement. Luckily, Uncle “Teddy” (Tim Setzer) believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt and is always willing to dig a new lock downstairs at the Panama Canal for the latest “yellow fever victim.” Mortimer figures he can pin everything on the obviously insane Teddy, but things get complicated when brother Jonathan (Mike Schaeffer) shows up with a physician friend (Rose Roberts) and a body of their own. Director Michael Ross has some good talent at work here. Mmes. Brocker and Pinomaki are delightfully dotty as the sisters, and Setzer invigorates the stage with his every appearance. However, Mr. Murdock is too one-note as Mortimer, showing little range of emotion considering the insanity that’s going on around him. He rarely seems to be “in the moment”, often appearing to be casually awaiting his next line. Ms. Bradbury is far more animated as Elaine, making one wonder what she see’s in Mortimer. Schaeffer and Roberts are two very talented actors, but I’m not sure these were the right roles for them. I found Schaeffer’s menacing Jonathan undone by his distracting John O’Hurley (J. Peterman from Seinfeld)-like voice and Roberts baby-faced Dr. Einstein too youthful to capture the character’s exhaustion and desperation. Nice stagecraft compliments the performances. The black and white set (by Michael Walraven) and costumes (by Janice Snyder) evoke a classic cinema period-like feel. Arsenic and Old Lace is definitely a nostalgia piece, best enjoyed by those familiar with it. ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ runs through February 10 at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center in Sonoma. Thursday through Saturday performances are at 7:30pm; the Sunday matinee is at 2pm. For more information, go to sonomaartslive.org.