Georgiana & Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley

Lauren Spencer, Daniel Duque-Estrada (rear), Aidaa Peerzada, Emilie Whelan, Zahan F. Mehta, Adam Magill, Madeline Rouverol, Alicia M. P. Nelson. All photos by Kevin Berne.

Jane Austen’s 1831 romantic dramedy, “Pride and Prejudice” stands as one of the most beloved novels in British history – appreciated by critics and public alike.  The story focuses on the lives of the five Bennet sisters, whose family estate can only be passed to a male, thus leaving the young women without income upon their father’s passing, unless they can marry into money.  Crucially, second sister Elizabeth marries Fitzwilliam Darcy (for film buffs, Greer Garson and Lawrence Olivier in the 1940 movie), heir to the Pemberley estate.

The work has spawned many derivatives.  In 2017, Lauren M. Gunderson and Margot Melcon wrote a sequel “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” which quickly became one of the most produced plays in the U.S.  The playwrights continued mining the lode. “Georgiana & Kitty” completes a trilogy, focusing on two previously underdeveloped characters, Darcy’s only sister Georgiana and the second youngest and only unmarried of the Bennet brood, Kitty.  This final chapter adds to the splendor of the trappings with a lively, funny, and sensitive installment, fully worthy of its predecessors.

Lauren Spencer, Adam Magill, Emilie Whelan.

It would be easy to fob off Austen and her downstream contributors as producers of women’s literature, but that would be a mistake.  In “Georgiana and Kitty,” women dominate the stage and women’s issues abound.  But the whole of the social contract comes under examination, some of which is stuck in time, but much of which bears relevance today.  The impracticality of the ladies’ costumes alone suggests the rigidity of the gender system which severely limits the activities of the women.  These restrictions are compounded by notions of class and wealth distinctions; of propriety; family dynamics; the manner of meeting people; and arranged marriages, all of which inhibit women’s mobility and freedom.

One modicum of physical change noted in the play is this new idea of bringing the outdoors to the indoors being practiced in Germany – a nicely trimmed Christmas tree.  But more importantly, an internal change will occur as Darcy will realize his standards and rules don’t necessarily make for a better world.  He will learn that the selfishness of demanding his ward live the life that he wishes her to live will not bring her happiness – nor him, if he fails to persuade her.

Emilie Whelan, Madeline Rouverol, Alicia M. P. Nelson, Aidaa Peerzada.

From the opening scenes of the Bennet sisters in the sitting room, the social closeness of family is palpable, but so is the claustrophobia.  Although life may be soft, the routine, as evidenced by Mary’s constant needlepoint, condemns women to virtually unchanged behaviors and relationships for life.  In this stasis, the shy but musically-talented Georgiana and the ebullient and clever Kitty look to break rules.  But when Georgiana invites a young gentleman who attended one of her concerts to Pemberley for Christmas, the traditionalist Darcy shows his displeasure.  He exercises the common social practice of a male guardian dictating the courting alliances of young women.  But Georgiana will receive her own inheritance, and that twist of fortune which the Bennet sisters lack will grant her the ability to control her own destiny in love, music, and life.

As the center of the narrative, Lauren Spencer delights as Georgiana, who undergoes character development from hesitant and dominated to a woman of independent means and feminist conviction.  Yet the spark comes from the indomitable spirit, Kitty, portrayed by Emilie Whelan with great verve.   Largely ignored as a child, Kitty’s assertiveness and exuberance as a young woman are captured by Whelan with demonstrable charm.

Lauren Spencer, Zahan F. Mehta.

The playwrights and Director Meredith McDonough capture the 19th century life of rural England.  Nina Ball’s scenic design and Fumiko Bielefeldt’s costume design give the right visual effect we expect from these period pieces.  Dialect coach Lisa Anne Porter also deserves a nod for guiding an authentic vocal sound.  More significantly, the situations and interactions among the characters seem genuine.  One false note can’t be revealed, as it would be a spoiler, but there is an important “how could they not have known?” situation that defines the period between the first act and the second, which is 20 years later.  But, there are bigger disbeliefs in other works of fiction, and this whole play works so well that it can receive a pass on this one point.

“Georgiana & Kitty: Christmas at Pemberley,” a world premiere, is written by Lauren M. Gunderson and Margot Melcon, produced by Marin Theatre Company, and plays on their stage at 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley, CA through December 19, 2021.

Così Fan Tutte

Framing set of the opera. All photos by Cory Weaver.

“Così Fan Tutte” was the last of three collaborations by perhaps the strongest composition team in opera history.  Composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte had previously written “Le Nozze di Figaro” and “Don Giovanni.”  Acknowledging the significance of this unplanned trilogy, San Francisco Opera is presenting them all over a three-season period.   With a superb cast and wonderful staging, the company’s production of “Così” absolutely sparkles, making the best of the opera’s assets.

This opera was the only one that the duo produced based on original material written by da Ponte.  The good news is that as a result, the plot line is clear without the gaps and confusion that often accompanies operas compressed from other sources.  The bad news is that the authors take 3 ½ hours to tell a simple story.  The other good news is that Mozart lovers will find that a fine bargain.  The score is pure mature Mozart, yet surprisingly, it lacks signature arias that grace the other two collaborations.  And despite the current respect it receives today, it was virtually ignored for over a century.

Irene Roberts as Dorabella, Nicole Heaston as Despina, Nicole Cabell as Fiordiligi.

Director Michael Cavanagh sets the action in the 1930s at a country club in the mid-Atlantic of the United States.  The time and venue changes work exceptionally well.  Erhard Rom’s framing set in Federalist style serves as backdrop for introduction to period props and decorations that work nicely – everything from a badminton court to a visual conceit of swimmers rising out of a pool.  And Constance Hoffman’s oft-changed costumery provides a panoply of color that engulfs the stage and a comic mock-country-club look.

The meaning of the title translates roughly to “all women do it.”  The “it” refers to infidelity.  Opera aficionados will realize the humorous irony of the libretto’s argument.  Da Ponte is acknowledged as one of the great womanizers in opera history – a bit of the pot calling the kettle black.

In this case, two somewhat naïve and headstrong military officers insist that their fiancées are eternally faithful, to which a provocateur, Don Alfonso, offers a wager that he can reveal them unfaithful in less than 24 hours.  What follows is a series of silly, unrealistic, but fun-filled episodes in which the officers disguise themselves as Albanians and try to court the sisters.  The men’s pratfalls to induce sympathy include fake poisoning followed by electromagnetic treatment that leaves them thrashing and writhing on the floor.

John Brancy as Guglielmo, Ben Bliss as Ferrando.

Ben Bliss as Ferrando possesses a classic tenor voice, while John Brancy as Guglielmo is a fine lyric baritone, and the contrast works nicely apart and together.  Sisters Fiordiligi, played by Nicole Cabell, and Dorabella, played by Irene Roberts, demonstrate singing and acting skills equal to the men.  But their depictions play to similarities.  With identical wigs, makeup, and costume style, they look like sisters.  What’s more, though Cabell has glorious power in her upper range and the higher tessitura in her soprano part, the two have very similar timbres in their mid ranges, which makes their close harmonies sound like they are related.

The third dyad of principals in “Così” are the instigators.  Don Alfonso is portrayed by the redoubtable Ferruccio Furlanetto, and he inhabits the role with great flair, seeming perfectly suited to his ‘30s wardrobe.  His vocals are largely recitatives, but, again, well suited.  The really juicy role, however, is that of Despina, his co-conspirator.   Nicole Heaston squeezes it for everything it’s worth.  Apart from being sassy and cynical as the girls’ maid who encourages deceiving the men, she plays a notary and the doctor who administers the anti-poison treatment, in disguise.  Oh, and like the other principals, she has a fine voice, a coloratura soprano.

John Brancy as Guglielmo, Irene Roberts as Dorabella, Ferruccio Furlanetto as Don Alfonso, Ben Bliss as Ferrando, Nicole Cabelle as Fiordiligi, Nicole Heaston as Despina (disguised as notary).

Given the length of the opera and its nature as a domestic comedy, the action may seem to move slowly.  In the first act, the unhurried story is mitigated by the initial high jinks and a number of bright ensembles.  The tone changes in the second act which is dominated by reflective stand-and-deliver arias and other fairly static set pieces that don’t move the narrative forward.  Two of the solos, however are the best candidates to appear in compilation albums, and they are both beautifully delivered.  Bliss gives a fine tenor rendering of ‘Un’aura amorosa,’ (A loving aura), while Cabell follows with the delicate apologia ‘Per pietà, ben mio’ (In the name of pity).  In the end, all is well in the world of romance.

“Così Fan Tutte,” composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, is produced by San Francisco Opera and plays at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA through December 3, 2021.

Father/Daughter

Sam Jackson, William Thomas Hodgson. All photos by Kevin Berne.

Nature or nurture?  This question has been raised for centuries.  Which is the greater determinant of intelligence and personality?

The storyline of “Father/Daughter” builds from the biological relationship of Baldwin, a high-school chemistry teacher, and his daughter, Miranda.    It is comprised of a sequence of many vignettes, but a scene between those two occurs only at the end.  The main action alternates between brief interludes of two couples.  In one set, Baldwin and Risa are courting, while the eight-year-old Miranda, a product of Baldwin’s failed marriage, is unseen.  The other set involves Miranda as a young adult, and her romance with Louis.

The Bay Area is blessed with many great performing artists, and Sam Jackson (for the sake of clarity – she!) and William Thomas Hodgson (he) are among the finest.  Jackson portrays both females, and Hodgson both males.  And both actors are scintillating. The same descriptors apply to each performer and their performances – attractive and charismatic; confident in their actions; possessing easy charm; able to extract humorous response almost effortlessly; and displaying a full range of emotions.  What’s more, the chemistry between them pops.  Watching them act is a real pleasure.

The anecdotes pretty much encompass the life cycles of two romantic relationships, occurring a generation apart. Some are funny, some are sad.  They are full of insight and are individually well constructed and entertaining.  Early on, we witness two different dating rituals, with the clumsy Baldwin and Louis berated respectively by the assertive Risa and Miranda.  Somewhat akin to trying to find the right lines in today’s evolving political correctness, the men never seem to say or do quite the right thing, and the women let them know it.  But despite the men’s ineptness and the women’s combativeness, each couple will have a roll in the hay and proceed to a serious relationship.  Later, each couple deals with hard issues like a serious problem that Baldwin faces with Miranda as daughter, and Miranda as woman getting pregnant.

In one funny scene involving the younger couple, Louis is on the brink of asking Baldwin for Miranda’s hand.  Louis tells Miranda that her dad talked with him about how on the outside, opposites attract, but on the inside, likes attract.  Louis took this figuratively and responded with “Yes.  We’re very different, but we both love your daughter.”  Horrified that her father was not ready to hear about that topic Miranda responds “Oh, no.  He wasn’t talking about love.  He was talking about chemical bonds!”

“Father/Daughter” covers a lot of ground leading to the question of whether, fundamentally, Miranda is her father’s daughter.  Although she hasn’t grown up in the same household with him, has she acquired similar disposition through genetics or osmosis?  Is she doomed to make his same mistakes?  But beyond trait-based linkages, does her limited relationship with her father inform her attitude toward her boyfriend, or does her feeling toward her boyfriend influence her feeling toward her father?  This line of inquiry deviates from the more common same-gender assessment, as in the injunction that if you want to know what a young woman will be like in later years, look at her mother.

Many new plays undergo revisions after their premiere, and while this one has a strong core that should attract future audiences, it might need revision to do so.  Authors and directors can sometimes be so close to their own work that they often don’t see that other observers don’t see.  In this case, they expect too much from their audience.  This reviewer read everything about the play in the program and on the Aurora website but still struggled to recognize some shifts between couples.  In talking with five other serious theater goers afterward, each of them was at least moderately confused about identities and relationships.  One who likes surprise and avoids advance publicity about plays was totally lost as were others who didn’t get what was going on.

The ages, ethnicities, social class, and such between the characters that each actor plays varies so little that there is not much they can do to differentiate their roles with affect alone.  Supertitles for each scene, however, would elucidate effectively, by designating, for instance, “Baldwin and Risa 1992.”  Otherwise, extensive use of character names in the script at the beginning of each scene would help.  Changing clothes came to be generally associated with change in characters in the play, but some dressing or changing occurs within roles to somewhat nullify that insight.  Truly distinctive wardrobe differentiation would help.

Some confusion might be attributable to having two actors playing four parts, and it is not clear whether that is specified by the playwright or the producer.  While it would be interesting to see a four-actor version in contrast to this one, the unbroken tour de force acting by a twosome like this would be splintered.  Also, an unspoken but the palpable link demonstrated by the two roles that Hodgson plays as father and lover would be severed.  By nature, do humans seek spouses that are reminiscent of their opposite gender parent?

Director M. Graham Smith keeps the action moving, but at one hour and forty-five minutes, the play exceeds some viewers’ tolerance for a two-hander, especially without intermission.

“Father/Daughter,” a world premiere, written by Kait Kerrigan, is produced by Aurora Theatre, and plays on their stage at 2081 Addison St., Berkeley, CA through December 12, 2021.

sAiNt jOaN (burn/burn/burn)

Daniela Cervantes as Sabra, Romeo Channer as Jean Dark, Success Ufondu as Bell, Charlotte Ying Levy as May, and Metsehafe Eyob as Angie. All photos by Carson French.

Jean d’Arc (Joan of Arc to English speakers) (1412-1431) holds a singular place of admiration in world history.  She is revered by French people for her military leadership, while still a teenager, in lifting the Siege of Orléans and turning the tide against England during the Hundred Years War.  Burned at the stake by enemies and declared a martyr by allies, she was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church for having been inspired by religious visions and for her fight against Protestant invaders.  She represents a role model for authority to feminists and to women in general for her ability to command men in battle and for her unwavering courage and determination against great odds.  But were her visions and her resulting brief period of triumph a result of psychological instability – massive delusion?

Playwright Lisa Ramirez draws on Jean d’Arc’s motive force as the basis for examining the will of young women to effect change in today’s frightening world.  Her vehicle is a riveting, uber-energetic, often chaotic and confrontational clash of five young people one fateful night.  “sAiNt jOaN” grabs the attention by the throat and throttles it for 60 exciting and exhausting minutes.

Charlotte Ying Levy as May and Success Ufondu as Bell.

The setup occurs on the night of a Black Lives Matter protest in Oakland.  In the tumult of violence and police chase, many protesters escape if possible.  Sabra (played by Daniela Cervantes) is of Guatemalan heritage.  Her mother works in a devotional candle jar factory nearby, and Sabra has the code to enter the building, where she and her Chinese-Jewish girlfriend May (Charlotte Ling Levy) take refuge.  During the melee, two strangers, African-American sisters Bell (Success Ufondu) and Angie (Metsehafe Eyob) are allowed in.  Finally, a non-binary who identifies as Jean Dark (Romeo Channer) insinuates themself into the mix.  But did Jean even know where they were or why the protest?  Perhaps they missed taking their meds.  What ensues is a night of personal confrontations and empathy and learning.

A theatergoer might be understandably leary of a new work about teenagers and acted by ingénues, especially a play that attempts to catch the spark of a moment in time.  But Director Michael Socrates Moran lets out all the stops in facilitating the actors’ emotional rage, and they respond with raw and totally convincing portrayals.  Issues that are often carefully soft-pedalled in real life are blasted at megaphone volume.

Daniela Cervantes as Sabra and Romeo Channer as Jean Dark.

Each of the characters carries the burden of a minority status that suffers under the dominance of a largely unsympathetic majority.  Their having come from an event with a mutually shared objective, the expectation would be for a Kumbaya moment.  But even the core singularity of the protest is challenged.  Although the vacuous counterclaim that “White Lives Matter” is clearly an attempt to invalidate “Black Lives Matter,” what about the plight of Latinx?  Sabra raises the provocation that “Brown Lives Matter,” but can that doctrine exist in harmony with the goals of the Black community?  The tempestuous Bell is briefly silenced by the idea.

The complicated quest for united action by youth, who are clearly concerned with the future of their society, is evidenced by fractures within.  (In the real world, such internal divisions have weakened the organization of the “Me, Too” movement.)  Although May suffers discrimination from being both Chinese and Jewish, others in the group lack sympathy as they consider Chinese to be the model minority and Jews to be privileged.  Add that May is focused on environmental issues and that she has an important relative whom the protesters would consider an enemy.  Despite being presumed transgender, the white Jean fails to gain sympathy on an ad locum basis.  Jean is from tony Piedmont.  Through it all, Bell in her stridency sees the world through a race-based prism, although the more moderate and laid-back Angie tries to lower the temperature.  The group even argues over the value of various social media platforms, which Jean rejects the use of altogether.

Metsehafe Eyob as Angie, Romeo Channer as Jean Dark, and Success Ufondu as Bell.

Yet as morning breaks, there is cause for hope. Is it possible that youth can agree on a common agenda of non-competing issues to embrace? Maybe the mere exposure to people of different backgrounds and to their ideas has produced bonding.  Perhaps even Jean will be accepted and join the movement.  Perhaps like her inspiration, Jean will lead future battles.

“sAiNt jOaN (burn/burn/burn),” a world premiere is written by Lisa Ramirez, produced by Oakland Theater Project, and plays at FLAX art & design, 1501 Martin Luther King Jr Way, Oakland, CA through December 19, 2021.

Dido and Aeneas

Nikola Printz as Dido, Efraín Solís as Aeneas. All photos by David Allen.

Ladies and Gentlemen – please welcome Opera San José back to the stage of their lovely home, the California Theatre.  After 20 months of pandemic-induced darkness, OSJ has returned with a carefully-selected, one-hour opera, “Dido and Aeneas.”  Although it was chosen nine moths ago, when live performance strictures were stricter, two characteristics still make it ideal.  First, it is brief, which means the audience remains stationary indoors for a short period.  Second, and uniquely, the entire orchestra is masked, as the composer’s orchestration calls for no wind instruments.  OSJ’s configuration includes about two dozen strings, including a harpsichord, and one percussionist.  Clever thinking by the decision makers.  And to make it better, the company provides an outstanding rendering of the opera.

Rarely has an esteemed opera endured the ignominy of its birth as “Dido and Aeneas.”  Although its composer, Henry Purcell, would reign as the preeminent composer of serious British music from his death in 1695 until the 20th century, his only pure opera borrowed slavishly from a crypto-opera, John Blow’s “Venus and Adonis,” that has not even remained in the canon.

Nathan Stark as the Sorcerer.

Structurally, it follows the predecessor’s tragedy with a prologue followed by three acts; having a chorus playing several roles; driving plotline at times through dance; using ariosa recitatives; and adopting similar allegorical themes such as boars.  Further, despite the fact that Purcell was already distinguished and his ouevre mature, the opera didn’t premiere at a grand venue but at a girls’ school, sometime in the late 1680s, though the exact date is not even known!  It was not produced again during his lifetime, and indeed, languished unnoticed for almost a century before its glorious and lasting revival.

Glaring weaknesses pervade the libretto.  Its brevity relative to its source material results in glossed-over, confused, or absent critical events.  The character of Aeneas is poorly developed.  And for those who dislike repetitious lyrics in opera, Purcell is the king of the repeat – as if you didn’t get it the first two times.  Yet this baroque gem among the earliest of operas has lived on because of its beguiling music, emotional power, and compact energy.

Nikola Printz as Dido pointing at Maya Kherani as Belinda.

In the narrative, Dido, the widowed Queen of Carthage, hosts Aeneas after his escape from the fall of Troy.  Although Dido has pledged to never love again, she is unable to resist Aeneas.  However, an evil sorcerer intervenes with a plan to trick Aeneas into sailing to sea, leaving the forlorn Dido behind to die brokenhearted.

Nikola Printz, as the tormented Dido, offers a model fit with their rich, dark, and powerful mezzo instrument.  Their sound remains round and full even when supine or when being cast about by members of the chorus.  They also demonstrate outstanding control of vocal dynamics, amping and dampening with exceptional control of gradations.  And they rise to the occasion at the conclusion, with a poignant rendering of Dido’s glorious lament “When I am laid in earth.”

Although Aeneas is clearly more important in ancient mythology, Purcell gives him short shrift with less stage time and no signature aria.  Baritone Efraín Solís gives a steady performance with passion when needed and a solid voice, in his rare solo, the recitative “Jove’s commands shall be obeyed.”  As is often the case, the bad guy gets the juicy part, and it is the Sorcerer, portrayed by Nathan Stark who enlivens the action.  Appearing and acting very much the menacing figure intended, his fearsome intimidation extends to his deep, thunderous, chesty vocals. Acknowledgement is also due Maya Kherani as Belinda and Erin Alford as the otherwise unnamed Second Woman.

Efraín Solís as Aeneas, Nikola Printz as Dido (at right)

Purcell was a master of choral works, and much of the score resonates with impressions of sacred music.  The chorus is active throughout and is assigned meaningful and vocally rich highlights such as “Cupid only throws the dart,” and the conclusion, “With drooping wings,” all of which the youthful chorus handles with great competence.

If the libretto is full of jump cuts, the score of “Dido and Aeneas” offers greater continuity and beauty starting with the inviting overture.  The music, ably conducted by Music Director Joseph Marcheso, is characteristically Baroque, but in a distinctive British fashion.  As it is written for a string orchestra, the sound is warm and mellow.  And while there is a harpsichord, we don’t hear (the annoying to some) repeated tinkling riffs to end numerous tracts in the score.

“Dido and Aeneas,” composed by Henry Purcell with libretto by Nathan Tate, based on Tate’s play “Brutus of Alba” and Virgil’s “Aeneid,” is produced by Opera San José and plays at California Theatre, 345 South First St., San Jose, CA through November 28, 2021.

Harriet’s Spirit

Tiffany Austin as Harriet Tubman. Photo by Rachael Heiman.

Composer Marcus Shelby is an accomplished artist.  A distinguished bass player, he is well regarded for his compositions for jazz orchestra, most notably “Port Chicago,” “Soul of the Movement: Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” and for the oratorio “Harriet Tubman.”  He breaks new ground with a 50-minute, one-act opera that draws on the inspiration of that great Civil War era abolitionist and humanitarian.

Commissioned by Opera Parallèle as part of their Hands-On-Opera program, a series of operas for youth, “Harriet’s Spirit,” is performed appropriately at the Bayview Opera House, which operates as the hub of the San Francisco African American Arts and Culture District.  The production energizes and provides a beacon of hope for the communities that its story represents.

Librettist Roma Olvera has written her third libretto for Hands-On-Opera, but this is her first of wholly original source material.  In this new work, she perceives the intersection of Harriet Tubman’s fight to eliminate slavery with contemporary teenage bullying, which itself symbolizes many ills in society, the first of which is racism.

Christobel Nunoo as Modesty. Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo.

“Harriet’s Spirit” deals with overcoming fear to stand up for what it right.  As her name suggests, young Modesty is a reserved, bookish teen.  After being taunted and unable to defend herself, Modesty sees a vision of Harriet Tubman who encourages her to be strong and courageous by singing “Do What You Have to Do.”  Yet when a friend is attacked, Modesty still lacks the determination to challenge the bullies.  Another incident occurs, and Modesty finally realizes, through the example of Harriet, that standing up for righteousness is the foundation of love and friendship and the only way to defeat evil.

This opera carries the DNA of an earlier Opera Parallèle production, “Champion,” the first opera by another great jazz artist, Terence Blanchard.  The operas connect through their musical influences and through story lines that speak to the African-American experience.

The narrative in this work is driven by a scintillating, complex, and eclectic score, starting with a striking overture that overlays action on the stage – at first lyrical and bucolic as Modesty reads on a bench, and then ominous as she is taunted by the bullies.  Their powerful, rhythmic stomping and clapping emphasize the threat, reminiscent of gang behavior in “West Side Story.”

The jazz influence comes through in the striking orchestration, with the prominent use of the vibraphone ringing out euphonious jazzy chords and runs.  No doubt, Shelby’s love for the bass violin and its sound results in the frequent double bass thumping in the background and its occasionally acting as lead instrument.  The orchestra is conducted by Nicole Paiement with her characteristic accuracy and decisiveness.

Bradley Kynard as General Montgomery, Christabel Nunoo as Modesty, Tiffany Austin as Harriet Tubman. Photo by Rachael Heiman.

Tiffany Austin, herself a jazz artist, admirably performs Harriet Tubman.  Although not an opera singer, her unamplified warm voice has sufficient strength, and certainly the melodiousness, required for the house.  Her role includes not only bluesy tracts, but encouraged improvisation that occurs in a flashback to Harriet’s lifetime.  Christabel Nunoo is Modesty, whom she aptly portrays as an intimidated and gawky teen.   Her voice, however, is very seriously not teenage.  She possesses fine vibrato, and her top end is very powerful and penetrating.  The two women sing some lovely duets, and both carry an abundance of messages, culminating with Modesty’s anthem “I Will Not Stand Still” and Harriet’s “You’re Meant to Always be Free.”

The third principal is baritone Bradley Kynard, who plays the school janitor in present time and General Montgomery in the flashback.  Although some of his musical lines are at the bottom of his range, he sings those with great professionalism, and he flourishes in his mid and upper range with sonorous tone even in dissonant passages.

The versatile L. Peter Callender, who is an eminent actor and director in the Bay Area theatrical community, undertakes his first opera challenge as stage director.  He transitions with ease, guided by the rhythm of score and libretto as he would be by the language in a play.  Perhaps his greatest accomplishment in this task is successfully shepherding the other collective “character,” the girls in the schoolyard, performed by San Francisco Girl’s Chorus.  Though he can’t take credit for their delightful singing, he guides the novices’ movement and acting, much of which is presumably out of character (they’re probably not bullies in real life!)

Bradley Kynard as General Montgomery. Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo.

Happily, the house was sold out for all three performances, but based on the one I saw, the audience is mostly comprised of the usual suspects – friends and family, company associates, and regular OP patrons.  The Bayview community, and particularly African-Americans, did not seem much represented.  These kind of outreach activities need to reach their target audiences to be effective.

One weakness in the production is the absence of supertitles, which results in much meaning being lost, even for the viewer who has read the synopsis beforehand.   Subject to that correction, “Harriet’s Spirit” should work nicely for its intended audience, and adults should appreciate it as well. 

“Harriet’s Spirit,” is a world premiere composed by Marcus Shelby with libretto by Roma Olvera, produced by Opera Parallèle and Bayview Opera House, playing at Bayview Opera House, 4705 3rd St., San Francisco, CA through November 14, 2021.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association

A Little Night Music

William Giammona as Count Carl-Magnus, Alison Ewing as Desiree, and Martin Bell as Fredrik. All photos by Ben Krantz Studio.

Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber are undoubtedly the most lauded living composers for the musical theater.  Although Lloyd Webber has garnered more commercial success, Sondheim is probably preferred by most cognoscenti for his originality; sophisticated musicality; concise and insightful lyrics; and adventurous themes.  And while Lloyd Webber seems driven more by popularity, Sondheim almost disdains it.  But the Sondheim canon is so rich that 42nd Street Moon has announced that it plans to produce every Sondheim musical, from the most successful to the abject failures.

Struggling with jet lag from 24 hours of flying, my wife/editor and I attended the Broadway production of “A Little Night Music” with the noteworthy original cast.  In my drowsy condition, it served as a fine soporific.  Not having revisited it for nearly half a century, I remained convinced of its mediocrity.  Wrong!  The 42nd Street Moon production disabuses me of that notion and reveals what a gem it is.  The company offers an entertaining and likeable rendition that demonstrates the show’s many assets but would benefit from some refinements.

Alison Ewing as Desiree, Chloe Fong as Fredrika, Cindy Goldfield as Mdm. Armfeldt, and Jack O′Reilly as Frid.

Sondheim chose his source material well.  “A Little Night Music” is a truly charming, lighthearted delight, with the proviso that strict moralists may find its gentle and mischievous treatment of illicit affairs not to their liking.  Although Sondheim’s music and themes often have sharp edges, “A Little Night Music,” which is based on Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” is written predominately in waltz time and is highly melodic.  And with the exception of the pivotal character, Desiree, the singing parts call for highly trained voices.  These characteristics of the musical are in evidence from the opening number which includes operatic vocalizing and waltzing.

In this farcical Swedish comedy of relationships from the turn of the century, Desiree is a faded but esteemed stage actress reduced to performing in lesser markets.  Alison Ewing, who carries the magnetic air of a diva with great confidence, exquisitely portrays Desiree.  Ewing captures the flair, the self-indulgence, and condescension, yet concealed angst, of the center of attention with a memorable performance.

A lover from Desiree’s past, lawyer Frederik, is recently married to a teenage bride, Anne, but the marriage has not been consummated.  His confused son, Henrik, who is the same age as Anne, is studying at a theological seminary, but is on a home holiday.  Desiree performs nearby, and Frederik furtively visits.  She receives him despite otherwise carrying on an affair with the married Dragoon Count Carl-Magnus.  In short order, after a weekend in the country with humorous interludes, some alignments shift, others remain.

Trixie Aballa as Petra and Samantha Rose Cárdenas as Anne.

The other star turn in the production is Cindy Goldfield as Desiree’s mother, Madame Armfeldt.  She is commanding as the imperious, authoritative grande dame, but under the veneer, she reveals wistfulness and love.  Although she doesn’t take part in the dalliances and is often off to the side of the stage in her wheelchair, she provides the philosophical core to the story and much of its heart.

It’s hard to decide which of the composer’s elements is more compelling in “A Little Night Music,” the music or the lyrics.  The melancholy “Send in the Clowns” is certainly one of the most sublime melodies in all of music, and it is beautifully delivered by Alison Ewing in an uncommonly low register.

But the whole score is not only tuneful, but jaunty and highly complex, with wonderful numbers of hope and regret like “A Weekend in the Country,” “Perpetual Anticipation,” and “It Would Have Been Wonderful.”  Ensembles abound, including a double quintet, as well as rich counterpoint and rondo.  And straying from the central musical motif, the composer integrates a doleful folk melody in the maid’s thoughtful commentary on love and social class, “The Miller’s Son.” The lyrics amaze with their intelligence and incorporation of copious rapid patter, alliteration, multiple rhyming, and frequent use of rhythmic tripling patterns.

Credit 42nd Street Moon for bringing this beautiful and multifaceted work to their stage when the pandemic creates immeasurable challenges in preparation.  Musical lovers who forgive unevenness will find much to enjoy in this production.  Director Brandon Jackson’s overall presentation charms; Mark Mendelson’s versatile one-set staging represents multiple venues well; and Michael Palumbo’s lighting visually partitions the stage in several instances.  Acting generally serves the story.

Shai Wolf as Henrik.

Vocal demands make casting of this musical difficult.  Some singers lack appropriate power and/or vocal quality desired.  Minimally, the performers portraying teenagers would benefit from amplification to ensure that their speaking and singing is sufficiently audible for the audience to follow.  Yet, except for some early murkiness of sound, the singers handled the quick crispness of the lyrics and the convoluted ensembles very well, many of which will put a smile on your face.

“A Little Night Music” with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, and suggested by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night” is produced by 42nd Street Moon and plays at Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco, CA through November 21, 2021.

At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen

Mario Mazzetti as Hunter/Vickie, Devin Cunningham as Anthony/Courtney. Photo by Vince Thomas.

In seeing the title of this play, many a theatergoer might ask, “What’s in it for me? It sounds like it could be depressing or preachy, and it’s not really in my area of interest.”  Regrettably, the title not only misleads, but it could discourage potential audience.  As declared by Courtney, the main character – “If you’re expecting something depressing, you’re in the wrong place.  Go see ‘Philadelphia.’”  Only by seeing the play’s promotional literature will you learn that it is a multidimensional dramedy.  Only by seeing the play itself will you learn that the wake is only figurative.  The narrative is a flashback of the central character’s last months with a focus on relationship.  You will also learn that other than the quirkiness associated with men portraying flamboyant women, that they share the same joys and sorrows as the rest of us do.

Appropriately, Theatre Rhinoceros presents “At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen” in its new, intimate home in The Castro.  Their choice of play to christen the new venue fits like a glove.  Thematically, the suitability is clear for the longest running LGBTQ theater company in the universe.  And in a setting where the audience can reach out and touch the performers, a small two hander where the actors’ every small gesture can be seen works well.

“At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen” transcends the boundaries of its genre and can be broadly appreciated.  It doesn’t hurt that the play is an affective and effective character study of two people grappling with an inordinate number of life’s challenges.  And by the way, it’s a very thoughtful play with generous doses of humor and pathos; well produced and directed; and acted with consummate charm and authenticity. 

Anthony, AKA Courtney, is an experienced black drag performer in small city Georgia.  Hunter, AKA Vickie, is a white drag newcomer who Courtney takes under her wing and more.  It is the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and both suffer from its threat – a fitting corollary to the current pandemic.  Courtney is played by Devin Cunningham with great panache and gusto – flashing a smile and false eyelashes with the confidence of one who is a sexual magnet.  But while the character can seem blithe and flighty, she has a hard edge.  Having lived under the dark clouds of discrimination and fear for her 23 years, she is cynical, self-indulgent, and sometimes thoughtless.

Credit playwright Terry Guest for investing well in the second character to provide great balance.  Mario Mazzetti plays the more sensitive Vickie with complete conviction, and she can be very engaging and empathetic.  Though she has suffered many of the afflictions that Courtney has, she still retains some optimism and aspiration.  Is it perhaps because she is white, or is it because she is not at death’s door?

The girls dress with the full signature accoutrements associated with drag queens – over-the-top makeup, flashy wigs, garish wardrobes.   They also delight with classic drag queen entertainment.  There’s plenty of lip syncing, with the most memorable being a duet to Shirley Brown’s “Woman to Woman” and Vickie’s rendition of Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” (how appropriate!) aria from “The Magic Flute.”

In this production, talented Director Tanika Baptiste multitasked to also cover costume design and choreography.  One of the pleasant little surprises is the choreography and execution of the dance numbers, which includes a nice dance duet and a sassy solo by Vickie of Shania Twain’s “Man!  I Feel Like a Woman!” 

Between the diverting entertainments, the drama of the relationship ebbs and flows from sweet nothins’ to bickering and avoidance.  As their personalities are exposed, so are broader issues that the playwright addresses.  These are the contrasts between black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight in a state that simultaneously lurches toward inclusive harmony and retreats to all manner of divisiveness.  And in one of the sad and more telling truths, Vickie observes that poor whites and poor blacks have so much in common that they could fight together, but a chasm between them is created by the likes of the NRA and Big Pharma.  Unfortunately, this lesson is lost on the masses, who if united, could institute real change for the better.

“At the Wake of a Dead Drag Queen” is written by Terry Guest, produced by Theatre Rhinoceros, and plays at Spark Arts, 4229 18th Street, San Francisco, CA through November 14, 2021.

The Great Khan

Brian Rivera as Genghis Khan, Leon Jones as Jayden. All photos by Jessica Palopoli.

No good deed goes unpunished.  Often, acts of compassion or bravery imperil the hero.  The ensuing limelight is often unwelcomed as the savior may prefer to lead an anonymous life.  Worse yet, the person may have something to hide that becomes exposed with the notoriety, so that hero becomes victim.  Even the beneficiary of the good deed can be displeased.  The public portrayal of that person may not be consistent with the person’s self-image.

Playwright Michael Gene Sullivan fills the house with laughter in addition to thoughtfulness and social reflection.  In his affecting premiere “The Great Khan,” an otherwise unassuming, middle-class, black teenage boy, Jayden, has saved a black teenage girl, Ant (full name – Antoinette), from a gang of boys.  This creates a dissonant condition for both of them.  Each must deal with the undesired reputation that the situation has spawned.  They are sweet kids, but does Jayden have to live up to being courageous, and should Ant accept the perception that she needed saving, or should she show that she’s tough?  Single-parent mother, Crystal, is so concerned that the gang might strike back at her son for interfering that mother and son move, with the boy enrolling in a new school.

Leon Jones as Jayden, Jamella Cross as Ant.

Several short thrusts into other social issues occur – relationships between mother and child, teacher and student, boy and girl; white abuse of and ignorance about blacks; puberty and more.  Some may consider the play a bit preachy, but quite frankly, there’s a lot more to preach about beyond the limits of this staging.  The other main theme of the play derives from a school research assignment that Jayden shares with Gao-Ming, a shy, yet effusive Chinese-American girl.  The task is a presentation on Mongolian leader Genghis Khan, an evocative figure, largely reviled in the West, and indeed, by many Asians including Gao-Ming’s mother.

While the two students affirm much of what is popularly known of Genghis Khan, they find that he, like many famous leaders, was very complex with much to admire.  So why does the playwright care about this historical figure?  Jayden notes that when European countries by dint of superior force colonized the African continent, they decimated local leaders, records, and cultural artifacts, destroying the people’s heritage.  African heroes from history were lost.  Largely, whites feared blacks and often assaulted them preemptively in many ways, a condition which remains today.  Jayden latches onto Genghis as a proxy, who, because of a different set of circumstances than Africans, beat the Europeans at their own game.

Leon Jones as Jayden, Kina Kantor as Gao-Ming.

Much of the humor in the play derives from surprise visitations that Jayden receives first from Ant and later from Genghis Khan.  Ant is tangible and her mission is palpable.  She wants to assure that Jayden doesn’t spoil her reputation, and maybe something else.  But what about Genghis?  Is he Jayden’s fantasy? a neighbor? Gao-Ming’s father?   In any case, he has some wise things to say, and he sure is funny as he rattles the kid’s cage.

Finally, beyond the moral issues and conflict resolution, “The Great Khan” is about the beauty of youth, and how many of us look back blissfully on our younger days.  Kids never want to move.  We don’t want things to change.  Both Jayden and Ant want nothing more than to have their lives before the defining incident back.  Even Genghis perceives himself not as the great conqueror, but as Temujin (his birth name), who loved and fought to win his young wife and who brought people together in his early days.

Velina Brown as Crystal.

Structurally, a weakness in the play is the extended use of video games toward the end, which slows the pace and won’t resonate with those unfamiliar with the particular titles.  As a preface to the major irritant, let me note that I am a liberal/progressive.  But even I find it offensive that Jayden and Ant repeatedly use “the n…. word” which is deemed so despicable that whites aren’t to even use the word in a third-party quote or reference.  Putting the word unnecessarily and aggressively on display provides ammunition to racists who don’t buy the argument that minorities get an exemption to call themselves by ethnic pejoratives that others can’t.

Although the characters are largely stereotypes, they are sympathetic.  The performers are engaging, led by Leon Jones as the always under pressure but resilient Jayden, with a particularly strong comic contribution by Brian Rivera as Genghis.  Jamella Cross as Ant, Velina Brown as Crystal, Kina Kantor as Gao-Ming, and Adam KuveNiemann as Mr. Adams, round out the excellent cast. Credit Darryl V. Jones with fine direction.

Adam KuveNiemann as Mr. Adams.

“The Great Khan” by Michael Gene Sullivan is produced by San Francisco Playhouse in co-production with The San Francisco Mime Troupe in a rolling world premiere.  It plays on SF Playhouse’s stage at 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA through November 13, 2021.

Fidelio

Elza van den Heever as Leonore/Fidelio, Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Marzelline, James Creswell as Rocco, Christopher Oglesby as Jaquino. All photos by Cory Weaver.

Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the greatest serious music composers ever, loved opera but created only one.  Near death, he noted of “Fidelio” that “Of all my children, this is the one that cost me the most birth-pangs and the most sorrow…..it is the one most dear to me.”  After the failures of earlier produced versions, the composer endlessly revised it into its final form over nine years ending in 1814.  It emerged a masterpiece enriched by the composer’s complete musical vocabulary.  It also acted as a springboard for his most famous and incomparable vocal piece, Beethoven’s Ninth (Choral) Symphony.

Despite compelling and highly respected music, however, “Fidelio” has generally been consigned in status and popularity to the second twenty of best operas.  San Francisco Opera’s current production maximizes the values of the piece through excellent casting, fine musical direction by Eun Sun Kim, and the addition of what amounts to another character, the stunning scenic design by Alexander V. Nichols, under the purview of Director Matthew Ozawa.

Elza van den Heever as Leonore/Fidelio, Russell Thomas as Florestan.

“Fidelio” is the story of Leonore, whose husband has been imprisoned in a secret location.  In modern terminology (and the setting has been made modern) the husband, Florestan, is a whistleblower (and the modern implications of the risks of this practice are unsettling).  The perpetrator he exposed, Governor Don Pizarro, portrayed chillingly by Greer Grimsley, has vowed to terminate him.  Against this threat, Leonore disguises herself as a man, Fidelio, and takes employment as a guard in the prison where Florestan is isolated.

The relentless and courageous Leonore is played by South African Elza van den Heever.  Her triumphant return represents a homecoming for the world class artist, who received her training and development in San Francisco, from Conservatory through Merola and Adler Fellowship.  Although classified as a dramatic soprano, her timbre smooths the usual harshness associated with that vocal quality, with the result that her voice penetrates yet gleams.  Effective throughout the performance, she acquits herself particularly well on Leonore’s signature aria, “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst do hin!” (O! thou monstrous fiend!).

Leonore’s foremost ally and greatest obstacle is Rocco, the chief jailer, sung admirably by recurring SF Opera visitor, bass James Creswell.   While his vocal parts are not very memorable, Creswell does participate in the ethereal quartet “Mir ist so wunderbar!,” led by fine young soprano Anne-Marie MacIntosh as his daughter Marzelline.  Unlike most characters in the opera who lack dimensionality, a decided weakness in the libretto, Rocco reveals conflicts in objectives and cracks in disposition and morality.  Most vitally, to what limit will Rocco go to facilitate Don Pizarro’s evil plot?

Greer Grimsley as Don Pizarro, James Creswell as Rocco.

Florestan doesn’t appear until Act 2 when the forces of both life and death descend to his dungeon.  As the victim, able tenor Russell Thomas displays near-dead weariness from his captivity but must rise to the occasion for his thrilling and iconic call for “Freiheit! Freiheit!” (freedom! freedom!) which he does with imposing skill.

All of the action of the production takes place in and around the 20-ton “cube” of steel tubing and plates that revolves to reveal its different aspects.  Most appropriately and obviously, its massive angularity represents the prison, but from other angles, it is offices or the dungeon.  This powerful metaphor in metal, glaring in harsh lights, dominates the stage and the viewer’s perception of the severe world that it comprises.

San Francisco Opera’s rendering of “Fidelio” pulls out all of the stops and offers a superb experience.  Kim conducts with verve – capturing the dynamics and tempo of the orchestral-like score.  Ensembles excel, often with beautiful close harmonies, and the prisoners’ choruses stand out.

Chorus.

For those inclined to look at opera with further analysis, it is noteworthy that the conductor chose to omit the option of performing Leonore Overture #3, which saves 15 minutes of run time but loses the most famous music from the opera.  That said, nothing is lost in conveying the narrative.  What’s more, there is plenty of fine music, though surprisingly, given Mozart’s precedent, no arias from “Fidelio” have found their way into common usage.    A final criticism that matters little to many is that the opera is in the form of a singspiel, meaning that there is considerable spoken dialog that results in inconsistent dramatic tone.  Of course, “The Magic Flute” is a singspiel, so “Fidelio” is in good company.  And as we know, “Fidelio” was the composition by Beethoven that was most dear to him, and who could be a more illustrious judge of fine music?

“Fidelio,” composed by Ludwig von Beethoven with libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner and Georg Friedrich Treitschke, is produced by San Francisco Opera and is performed at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Street, San Francisco, CA through October 30, 2021.

Victor Cordell, Ph.D.
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association