Alex Boyer as Cavaradossi, Ann Toomey as Tosca. All photos by Barbara Mallon.

Of all opera composers, perhaps none is so beloved for his soaring lyricism and accessibility as is Giacomo Puccini.  His tragic heroines radiate fine-grained distinction.  And where is the maestro more embraced than the Bay Area?  From the time that Gaetano Merola brought professional opera to San Francisco, no composer has reigned with such a following.  All four of Puccini’s top tier of masterworks, “La Bohème” (1896), “Tosca” (1900), “Madama Butterfly” (1904), and “Turandot” (1926) enjoy great popularity here.

The work that stands as the benchmark is the passionate “Tosca,” which audiences can’t get enough of.  While sometimes criticized for its harshness, its compelling music which demands great vocal artistry, along with its wrenching libretto make it a perennial favorite.  As appealing as “Tosca” is to audiences, its productions attract fine performers.  The intense drama possesses three mighty roles to-die-for, and indeed, all three of the characters die!

Kirk Eichelberger as Angelotti.

Livermore Valley Opera provides a handsome, artistic, and well-cast traditional production of “Tosca,” which is no mean feat.  In its essence, the opera is an intimate triangle of love, predation, betrayal, and murder.  Although Puccini was no stranger to big ensemble numbers, he deliberately restrains that temptation to retain a strong sense of verismo and human closeness.

Yet the intimacy of “Tosca” plays against a grand canvass of three unrelated settings, which LVO executes deftly.  Act 1 occurs in the nave of the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, where Cavaradossi is painting a larger-than-life portrait of the Magdalene for the church.  Significant to the narrative, the painter is also a revolutionary fighting to overthrow Rome’s current government.  In this act, the integration of the physical set with the backlit projections is especially well done.  Act 2 takes place in the Chief of Police Scarpia’s vast quarters in Palazzo Farnese.  Here, he manipulates his defenseless prey, Tosca, with sexual extortion, and Cavaradossi, with false arrest and beating.  Act 3 takes place against the parapet of Castl Sant’Angelo, where Cavaradossi faces a firing squad.

Aleksey Bogdanov as Scarpia, chorus.

Casting for the three main parts in this opera is critical, starting with the title role, and Livermore Valley Opera has attracted Ann Toomey for her Bay Area debut.  Toomey offers the vocal versatility that suits this demanding role completely.  In mid range and middle volume, her lyrical voice caresses the composer’s beautiful melodic lines.  But Tosca is an actress – one who suffers personal degradation and whose lover faces existential threat.  As Toomey’s voice crescendos in emotional scenes, it emits a dramatic fervor rising to the intensity of the moment.  Although she masters this duality throughout, it particularly comes together in Tosca’s wistful yet powerful signature aria, “Vissi d’arte” (“I lived for art”), when she realizes that life will not go on as before, and she begs Scarpia to release her from the pain.

Although Alex Boyer’s resumé includes stints around the country, he is well planted in the Bay Area, where he has become an audience favorite as a fine lyric tenor with a strong, clear, and compelling voice.  Cavaradossi fits well within his catalog.  He nails the hero’s bookend arias.   His romanza, “Recondita armonia” (“Concealed harmony”), a love letter to Tosca when life is good, is sung with great panache.  Sadly, he faces death and regret with the hauntingly delivered “E lucevan le stelle” (“The stars showed brightly”), though his being seated at the beginning of the latter reduces the impact at the start of the piece.  Boyer also brings a little bit extra to his portrayal.  Cavaradossi is often played with a rather dull earnestness, but the tenor adds a light and humorous touch with a charming twinkle in the eye.

Aleksey Bogdanov as Scarpia, Ann Toomey as Tosca.

It is unsurprising to learn that, despite his youth, Aleksey Bogdanov has performed Scarpia with several opera companies around the country.  His characterization is as well-matched as it is profound.  The high demand for his services in this part becomes evident from his first entry onto the stage.  Unctuously pursuing Tosca, this cruel and imposing figure is a visual magnet who dominates the stage.  More importantly, Bogdanov’s dark baritone booms, but with a percussive clarity unusual for such deep tones.  While sopranos are often asked to sing above the din of many voices, it is uncommon to expect a male with a lower voice to do so.  But Bogdanov rises to the occasion with his “Va, Tosca / Te Deum” in which he vocally slays the lesser voices surrounding him.  The resounding number is particularly poignant in contrasting Scarpia’s purported religious devotion with his lust for Tosca as he repeats her name against the religiously themed music.

Of the supporting roles, Kirk Eichelberger deserves special recognition.  In his brief presence as Angelotti, an escaped prisoner and political ally of Cavaradossi, he delivers a ringing vocal account with his nimble baritone voice.  Conductor Alexander Katsman paces the orchestra well and produces a mellow sound.  One of the understandable compromises that a smaller opera company must make is the size of the orchestra.  Underpowering is an occasional issue, particularly with the striking opening of the opera and other recurrences of the searing Scarpia motif.  Nonetheless, “Tosca” is another credit to LVO’s artistry.

Alex Boyer as Cavaradossi.

“Tosca,” composed by Giacomo Puccini, with libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, is produced by Livermore Valley Opera and plays at Bankhead Theater, 2400 First Street, Livermore, CA through March 12, 2023.

Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer

Greta Oglesby as Fannie Lou Hamer. Photos by Kevin Berne.

The side walls of the Lucie Stern Theatre are bedecked with simple posters reflective of 1962, when the push for the Civil Rights Act began.  “We Demand the Right to Vote.”  “No to Jim Crow.” “Pass the Civil Rights Bill.”  And many more.  Screen projections and audio on stage highlight the key players and incidents from the movement to secure voting rights for African Americans.

Several years ago, this play could be seen as history – a poignant reminder of the many tragedies and the ultimate triumph of good over evil – an admission of our reviled former days.  Regrettably, this country suffers a redux of our hateful and sinful past, if without the preponderance of violence and extreme intimidation for wanting the vote.  However, violence is still visited upon Blacks in other ways and for other reasons.

The political right wing in the United States threatens the very existence of democracy as political operatives boldly and cruelly crush the goodness out of progress and what made this nation great.  The U.S. Supreme Court has undermined the Civil Rights Act of 1965, and conservative (read Republican) local political authorities, judges, state legislatures, and their colleagues in the U.S. Congress brazenly introduce laws and administrative procedures with the evil intent of depriving people who are not in their clan the right to vote by using lies, deceit, and Machiavellian ploys.  As startling as the following question may be – how do these actions differ from fascism?  And why aren’t its enemies not fielding a stronger defense against this perversion?  So, ultimately, this is to say that “Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer” should not be viewed as a simple history lesson, but as a cautionary analogue to what is happening at this very time.

Greta Oglesby gloriously reprises the role of Fannie Lou Hamer that she performed at Oregon Shakes’ vast outdoor Elizabethan Theatre.  She brings a speaking voice brimming with passion and conviction, as well as a strong and melodious singing voice.  She stalks the stage with a slight hobble as a wounded warrior who is too busy planning the next demonstration to let her nagging injuries slow her down.

So, who was Fannie Lou Hamer?  A minimally educated, but intelligent, articulate, and committed Mississippi woman – she is one of those whose contributions are not recognized in the same breath as activist leaders of the day.  Yet, she organized the pivotal Mississippi’s Freedom Summer and co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus.  Perhaps her story has not rung forth simply because she is a woman, much like Dolores Huerta’s light as a leader of the United Farm Workers’ of America was totally overshadowed by co-founder Cesar Chavez until recently.

Playwright Cheryl L. West has crafted a 70-minute summary of Hamer’s work, shining light on this much overlooked lioness.  Mixing vignettes of great gravity with occasional lighter touches, the playwright keeps the action moving along, and Director Tim Bond creates a kinetic and visual environment to prevent the one-woman show from going stale.

Fighting through poverty, even through the years of her activism, Oglesby depicts Hamer’s indomitable spirit in a series of stories mostly from the 1960’s.  In one harrowing sequence in jail, she is beaten almost to death involuntarily at the hands of a Black male prisoner, so demanded by a White jailer.  Hamer would suffer permanent kidney damage along with other lasting ailments.  She vowed, however, that if she could survive that beating, she would be intimidated by nothing.  She continued to register people to vote and fight literacy tests, poll taxes, and lying intimidation to accomplish equal voting rights.  Along the way, she would objectively acknowledge the truths that she confronted.  Not to generalize, but some white women advanced their own voting rights at the expense of rights of Black women to vote, so that the suffrage movement actually set back progress for Black women.  At the same time, some white men and youths were instrumental in helping to move the needle toward universal suffrage.

The structure of the play is a key element in the entertainment.  Throughout, Hamer sings snippets of songs of protest to enliven the stories, and she does so with great verve in a number of styles from ballad to rousing revival meeting gospel with sing-along, inducing audience involvement.  Some lyrics are organic and cleverly carry the narrative of the story, while others are old standards like “This Little Light of Mine” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.”   Missing is the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome,” which may have been omitted because it would seem too cliché.  This device of integrating music into dialog, which she did use in her meetings, adds much liveliness to what could be a wholly depressing chronicle.

“Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer,” is a fitting tribute to a courageous and accomplished woman.  While its messages are important, unfortunately, they largely reach the already converted.  In these days, many people do not seek the truth but rather reinforcement of what they already believe.  So those who don’t want to acknowledge the flaws in American history are unlikely to seek exposure to a presentation like this.  As a footnote, Hamer’s prescient warning echoes that just because White resisters to the progress of Blacks are not wearing hoods doesn’t mean that they’re not trying to destroy the Black community.  The battle is far from won.

“Fannie: The Music and Life of Fannie Lou Hamer,” is written by Cheryl L. West, produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, and is performed at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA through April 2, 2023.


Chanáe Curtis as Alice Ford, Darren Lekeith Drone as Sir John Falstaff. All photos by David Allen.

Verdi admired Shakespeare.  “Macbeth” was among the composer’s great early works.  Four decades later, he would return to The Bard’s folio for his final two operas. Verdi’s penultimate opera, “Otello,” was perhaps his crowning achievement, with many cognoscenti arguing that the opera improves upon the play.  After toiling seven more years, the composer premiered “Falstaff,” based on the character introduced in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and fleshed out in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”  For the librettos of both of these final operas, the composer turned to Arrigo Boito, who perhaps deserves as much credit as Verdi for the greatness of these works.

“Otello” abounds with darkness and tragic intrigue, while “Falstaff” offers spirited roguishness and light intrigue. This would be Verdi’s only attempt at comedy other than the failed early work “Un Giorno de Regno.”  Unlike “Otello,” which is rich with notable arias, “Falstaff” seems to eschew memorable tunes in its through-sung, largely conversational format.  Lacking set pieces that would appear on “Best Hits” albums, “Falstaff” instead treats the listener to endless anticipation and variety.  In its highly inventive score, Verdi’s lifetime of musical mastery comes through.  The mix of texture and rhythm are pronounced, especially in ensemble pieces.

(below) Marc Molomot as Bardolfo, Andrew Allan Hiers as Pistola, (above) Alexander Hernandez-Lopez as Page, Darren Lekeith Drone as Sir John Falstaff, Zhengyi Bai as Dr. Caius.

Frothy delights like “Falstaff” present particular challenges.  Comic timing, enthusiastic affect, and vocal versatility must be heightened.  Opera San José’s production excels in every dimension.  Performers sing with joy and act with charm.  All of the artistic elements strike the right note, resulting in a production that glitters.

As the focus of his comedy, Verdi set his sights on the larger-than-life character Sir John Falstaff.  Licentious and self-indulgent, he is one of literature’s notable comic characters.  He may be viewed as a chauvinist whose confidence to seduce women exceeds his desirability as a love interest, and he’s certainly willing to use whatever deception to entrap the opposite sex.  But his self-delusion will become apparent as his scheming leads to humiliation.  Indeed, Shakespeare and Verdi may be viewed as feminists in the context of this work as the women win the contests by outfoxing the conniving men.

In the central plot line, Falstaff sends love letters to two married women, Alice Ford and Meg Page.  Although he fancies himself an appealing lover, his motivation is financial – to blackmail the women after having assignations with them.  Unknown to the perpetrator, his quarries are friends, and learning of the deception, they are able to turn the tables on Falstaff.  In a secondary plot, Alice’s husband, John Ford, has arranged for their daughter Nannetta to marry the established and older Dr. Caius, but she loves the callow Fenton.  The story develops a little slowly, having incidents that introduce characters without adding to the central narratives. But the story picks up steam and is always aided by the energy of the music as well as the fine performances and production values of this offering.

(seated) Natalia Santaliz as Nannetta, Chanáe Curtis as Alice Ford, Megan Esther Grey as Mistress Quickly, (standing) Shanley Horvitz as Meg Page.

The lively music is punctuated by animated ensemble pieces including the complex a capella patter quartet by the women in which they vow revenge against Falstaff.  Another highlight is the double quartet plus one, in which the four men commit to foil the young lovers Fenton and Nannetta, while the women show support for them, and the lovers pledge their love above the cacophony of their elders.  These clever ensembles are sung with remarkable zest and skill.

The score also includes aria-length soliloquys.  Particularly touching is Ford’s wonderful reflection about his love for Alice.  As previously noted, Verdi does not yield to recurring melodic phrases which mark the beloved arias of his middle period.  While this may disappoint some, “Falstaff” is a masterpiece in its own right.

Opera San José’s casting is superb.  Of course, the sine qua non for success with this opera is a compelling title character, and Darren Lekeith Drone transcends requirements in every way.  His full baritone voice with warm vibrato suits the role well.  Moreover, he nails the portrayal with a full range of visual and vocal expression.  In his flouncy corpulence, Drone commands the stage, displaying pompousness and narcissism with everything from mugging to mock and genuine ire.  His exuberance and smiling visage make him sympathetic enough to ultimately allow forgiveness in the end for his bad behavior.


Falstaff’s nemesis, Alice Ford, provides a counterbalance.  Played brilliantly by Chanáe Curtis, Mistress Ford possesses enterprise and quick wit to defeat him.  Curtis exudes charm and a full range lyric soprano with considerable power in the mid and upper portions.  Every other cast member contributes well to the happy outcome.  It is a little unfair to mention one individual without mentioning them all, but Natalia Santaliz, with a sweet soprano voice, as the young lover Nannetta is a favorite.

Joseph Marcheso conducts the orchestra with complete authority.  The sound is always rich and bright and the pace is brisk. Marcheso navigates the dynamics and staccato elements with particular skill.  Director José Maria Condemi deserves special commendation for orchestrating the onstage chaos, with striking movement and positioning.  The laundry scene, in which the women have Falstaff hide in a clothes basket only to get dumped into the river is particularly raucous.  Steven C. Kemp’s scenic design also deserves a nod.  He uses a single and appropriate basic set in a reddish wood color that is built around the visual theme of wine kegs and openings framed by the head hoops of barrels. Additionally, kudos to Howard Tsvi Kaplan for costumes, Christina Martin for wigs and makeup, and David Lee Cuthbert for lighting.

Darren Lekeith Drone as Sir John Falstaff.

“Falstaff” stands as a great achievement in the exquisite catalog of Giuseppe Verdi as well as that of librettist Arrigo Boito.  It is a work that will satisfy the greatest opera afficionados yet is accessible to newcomers to the genre as a great comedy supported by exhilarating music.  Opera San José has shown again what an asset it is to the Bay Area’s cultural community.

“Falstaff” is composed by Giuseppe Verdi with libretto by Arrigo Boito, produced by Opera San José, and plays at California Theatre, 345 First Street, San Jose, CA through February 19, 2023.

Everest: An Immersive Experience (Opera)

Sasha Cooke as Jan Arnold, Hadleigh Adams as Doug Hansen, Nathan Granner as Rob Hall, Kevin Burdette as Beck Weathers. All photos by Stefan Cohen.

For all of human history and eons before, Mount Everest has stood as steady as a rock – literally.  In its eight years, the opera “Everest: An Immersive Experience” has had three very different realizations, even though under the baton of Nicole Paiement for each version.  The genesis of the opera’s narrative is a real-life tragedy about three members on an Everest expedition in 1996, two of whom never came back. 

“Everest” premiered in traditional stage form at Dallas Opera.  Then, motivated by the pandemic, it transmutated under Brian Steufenbiel’s direction into an immersive, animated opera film by Opera Parallèle for home viewing.  Extending the film’s structure, it now returns to performance before a live audience in an innovative form under the guidance of the same two creative artists and their company.  The result is a unique and gripping 70-minute operatic experience.

Rather than a traditional live performance, the soundtrack for this production is recorded.  The box-like, flat-floor theater provides scenic-surround, with motion-capture animation projections on all four walls.  Having the grainy, low-resolution, slow-moving look of images from a graphic novel, its illustrations are by Mark Simmons, projection design by David Murakami, and scenic design by Jacquelyn Scott.  Most of the important visuals project onto the forward sections of the venue’s wall, but scouring the full 360 degrees is certainly grounds for neck ache.

The full expedition.

Mountaineers confront many enemies – possibilities of illness, falling, storm, avalanche, and more.  One constant is the inevitability of the race against time.  The climbers are reaching the summit 30 minutes after safe turnaround time.  Visual portrayal of the passage of time on the screen in addition to the slow dimming of light on the projections constantly forewarns of the risks ahead and adds to the tension of the score and the visual account.

Expedition guide Rob Hall has left Beck Withers 2,000 feet below, as the latter is suffering high altitude blindness.  Hall struggles to help Doug Hansen on the final assault, passionately urging him, but Hansen weakens and is unable to keep up.  The portentous depiction of the repetitious entreaties and pulsing music leaves the viewer quavering.  Flashbacks, reflections by the climbers, and radio communications with loved ones, both fearful and mundane, add to the anxiety sensed by the audience.  In a series of “what if” circumstances, a combination of deadly factors befalls the climbing party.

Beck Withers’ dreams in vivid colors.

Although the storyline is accompanied by simple graphics, the severity of the consequences carry inherent drama, which is amplified by the thumping of the music and the urgency of the dialog.  Joby Talbot’s eerie music for “Everest” is appealing and effective.  In keeping with the geographic situation, grandness, howling, groaning, and ringing abound in the score, describing the vastness of the horizon, the wind, and obstacles to overcome.

While there are some brief soliloquies and duets, conversational mode dominates the libretto.  The instrumental music backing the lyrics emphasizes percussiveness, while the sung melody lines are largely tonal.  Gene Scheer’s crisp and often stressful lyrics provide tautness, especially as Hall tries to induce Hansen onward.  The libretto speaks both to the grandeur and threat of the environment as well as the intimacy of the human experience.  Among the many ominous and touching lyrics are “Is this how it ends?” and “How can you know when you’re starting to let go?”

The quality of the musical performances is nearly flawless, delivered by a system that produces rich, full, spatially-mapped sound.  It is outstanding recorded music, but it is not comparable to live opera.   The voices of Nathan Granner, Hadleigh Adams, Kevin Burdette, and Sasha Cooke are electronically enhanced and presumably re-recorded until everything is just right.  The chorus that represents the soul of the mountain sounds like 40 voices, but is four singers who are repeatedly overtaped.  Rather than a traditional orchestra, the orchestral sound comes from MIDI (musical instrument digital interface).

Nathan Granner as Rob Hall, Sasha Cooke as Jan Arnold.

The great appeal of this unusual entertainment raises a couple of broader questions.  First is whether immersive, electronic opera represents a form that surpasses novelty to become a significant niche, a Cirque de Soleil of opera.  Perhaps some other productions will follow “Everest,” but the answer to the question is probably not.  To be sustainable as a form requires an audience with interests at the intersection of immersive electronic performance and opera music.

Among its many attractions, live opera is compelling because of the thrill of hearing highly accomplished vocalists and instrumentalists operating without aids.  Another aspect is the sheer humanity of the living form on stage interacting with the audience, from the crowd’s gaiety in the Café Momus scene of “La Boheme” to the intimate death scene sequence in “Otello.”  Electronic entertainment certainly has its benefits, but the market for live opera will remain.

The psycho-social issue is why mountaineers risk death for exhilaration.  Is it to accomplish or to escape?  To conquer? To stroke one’s ego? Rob Hall notes that “This is where I want to be.” It’s the only place that he can find bliss, but what does that say about the rest of his life?  And in seeking that bliss, he endangers the future of his pregnant wife and children.  It may be the ultimate price to pay.

“Everest,” an opera composed by Joby Talbot with libretto by Gene Scheer, is produced by Opera Parallèle and plays at Z Space, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco, CA through February 12, 2023.

Paradise Blue

Anna Marie Sharpe as Pumpkin, Titus VanHook as Blue. All photos by Kevin Berne.

Post-World War II urban planning from New York City to San Francisco and many cities in between failed egregiously.  It supplanted ethnic neighborhoods, usually African-American, with sterile public housing that failed to improve living conditions, or with freeways that divided communities but rarely reduced traffic.  Though the previous housing stock often consisted of blighted tenements, they were neighborhoods that provided a sense of belonging and dignity to most residents.  Most of these areas were largely redeemable if granted the investment that went instead to rebuild from scratch.  But by political imposition, not only was the baby thrown out with the bathwater, but the replacement was more pernicious bathwater.

Against this backdrop, Dominique Morisseau has authored the final installment of her Detroit Trilogy.  Previously, she explored race riots and relationships in “Detroit ‘67” and the effect of economic decline in traditional industries on the Black working class in “Skeleton Crew.”

Kenny Scott as P-Sam, Michael J. Asberry as Corn.

With “Paradise Blue,” she looks at a Black neighborhood of Detroit called Black Bottom, so named for its soil and geography, not for the people who later settled it or for the dance.  The area housed a vibrant jazz quarter in a district called Paradise Valley.  In the late ‘50s, Black Bottom had been targeted for urban renewal – read, destruction.  Morisseau has written a sometimes funny but always tense noirish drama which Director Dawn Monique Williams plumbs for all its nuance.  The actors find the essence of each character and deliver a gripping entertainment.

The Paradise of the title refers to the name of the jazz club and boarding house where the action of the play takes place.  Blue refers to its second-generation owner, who leads a quartet that performs at the club.  He is considered a second-tier trumpet player compared to his late father.   And though Blue is not the primary character in terms of stage time, “Paradise Blue” is about him.  Fittingly, he treats everything in his orbit as being about him.  And despite the fact that the other characters live and work in close proximity and feel like family, Blue, who would be the titular head of household, stands apart.

Rolanda D. Bell as Silver, Michael J. Asberry as Corn.

Titus VanHook portrays Blue in an apt, chillingly cool manner.  Suave and sartorially smart, his empathetic detachment from those around him is almost complete.  He runs the quartet in his own manner and brooks no interference.  A triggering event that has put the other band members (pianist Corn played by Michael J. Asberry and percussionist P-Sam played by Kenny Scott) out of work is that Blue refuses to pay the bass player before gigs rather than after, despite the known consequences of his intransigence. 

Blue suffers the unsettling spirits of his parents in the four walls around him.  Selling the property for the renewal project would give him the money to escape and begin a new life elsewhere, but the question is whether the demons would follow.  As far as others in the community who would be displaced, he doesn’t seem to have any concern.

Titus VanHook as Blue, Rolanda D. Bell as Silver.

Like many dissociative types, Blue has room for only one person who he can share warm moments with, even if he can’t totally open up.  That person is Pumpkin, who is delightfully portrayed by Anna Marie Sharpe.  While Blue is a one-note character who has difficulty living in his own skin, the well-written character of modest Pumpkin is complex, yet she is highly content with the simplicity of her existence.  A one-woman boarding house cook, server, and cleaning crew, she is happy to serve others and perform simple tasks in a small sandbox.  Despite her mousy affect, she draws empowerment from the beauty and symbolism of the works of Harlem Renaissance poet Georgia Douglass Johnson.  And though Pumpkin blushes at foul language, she does appear to have a carnal relationship with Blue.

Into this already tempestuous situation walks trouble in the form of a traveling woman, Silver, who takes lodging at the Paradise.  Rumors about this black-widow, Louisiana woman swirl – 50 men in 50 cities, murdered her husband, practices voodoo.  What is true is that she’s an exceptionally strong woman, and her plans and actions could have some significant consequences in a short period of time.  As with Pumpkin, Morisseau endows this female with more breadth than the men in the show.  As Silver, a sassy and confident Rolanda D. Bell shows how women with conviction can hold their ground.

Anna Marie Sharpe as Pumpkin, Titus VanHook as Blue.

Although the context of “Paradise Blue” is a grand scale project, the playwright’s concerns are with the individuals whose lives will be buffeted by the larger scheme of things.  The intimacy of Aurora Theatre serves this play well.  There is some stage clutter having both the club venue and bedroom scenery on the stage throughout, but the closeness of the performers to the audience enhances the intensity of the fine drama.

“Paradise Blue” is written by Dominique Morisseau, produced by Aurora Theatre, and plays on its stage at 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA through February 26, 2023.

Cashed Out

Rainbow Dickerson as Rocky. All photos by Vita Hewitt.

The government-mandated discrimination against and subjugation of minorities in the United States is legend.  Among the more egregious abuses have been those suffered by Native Americans, the country’s original denizens.  Under official aegis, they have suffered armed conflicts resulting in loss of life and lands; devastating dislocations; breaches of treaties; and attempts to eliminate their cultural heritage.

One official effort to rectify wrongs was the creation of Indian Reservations throughout the country, which has engendered mixed results.  Among the benefits to the tribes has been the authority to permit gambling on their lands, which has yielded financial benefits, but considerable social liabilities.  Addiction, especially alcohol-related, had long been a major affliction on “the res,” but casino society has exacerbated the plague.

Chingwe Padraig Sullivan as Levi, Rainbow Dickerson as Rocky.

“Cashed Out” takes place on the Gila River Reservation in southern Arizona, home to the Pima tribe, traditionally noted for their finely woven baskets – tightly twined bowls with crisp angular patterns.  The Camu family, whose women are noted as talented weavers, serve as the focal point.  While the compelling narrative gives interesting insights into the culture of the native people, universal themes abound – the power of love in family and friendship; internal struggle and external conflict; forgiveness and redemption.  The production is striking and highly appealing.

The central figure is Rocky Camu (Rainbow Dickerson), a bright and aspirational young woman.  Among the most talented weavers of her generation, she feels overshadowed by her deceased mother, Virginia (Lisa Ramirez), a legendary designer and artisan who views her creations as life forms.  Rocky wants to be somewhere other than the res, but despite going away for college, fortune brings her back.  However, unlike her working-class family, she would join the white-collar world, becoming an accountant working for the reservation.

Lisa Ramirez as Virginia.

Virginia’s downfall would be addiction to pain pills.  Rocky avoided the physical pitfalls of drugs and alcohol, but she would succumb instead to the psychological lure of gambling.  In Rocky, playwright Claude Jackson, Jr. has created a character who arouses mixed emotions.  In her early days, we laud her enthusiasm; her tender feeling for those near to her; and her quest to better herself.  Although we feel betrayed and reproachful as she makes unwise decisions, we wonder, does she suffer a disease for which we should sympathize, or does she bear full responsibility for her plight?  The playwright conveys in Rocky not just the desperation caused by gambling addiction, but also the loneliness and alienation.  

Rocky’s plight begs questions.  What makes a person believe that they can beat the odds, especially in a 100% chance proposition like slots or craps or roulette, where the long-term outcomes are highly predictable and always negative?  Why do people evaluate themselves and think that others will value them based on their hitting the jackpot?  Why do they shirk responsibility and sacrifice human interaction for the repetitive spin of the wheel?

Louisa Kizer as Maya, Matt Kizer as Buddy, Chingwe Padraig Sullivan as Levi, Sheila Tousey as Nan.

Women dominate the action of the story, displaying agency, leadership, and humanity.  One of the interesting aspects of “Cashed Out” is that the addicts are women.  In virtually all other artistic works about gambling, the gambler is a male, which may be true in high stakes games.  But the glazed eyes of slots players like Rocky usually belong to women.

Apart from the addiction issue, the narrative is full of well-developed collateral relationships.  Rocky’s drunkard father, Buddy (Matt Kizer), abandoned Virginia and has a new family, but he makes appearances in the latter period of the play.  Appropriately, he lives in Gallup, New Mexico, fondly known as “Drunk Town, USA.” Rocky has a complex, life-long friendship with Levi (Chingwe Patraig Sullivan) who rises to become Manager of Security in the casino.  She also has a daughter, Maya (Louisa Kizer – whose real father plays her grandfather), who faces the conflicts of growing up Native American on the reservation, and an aunt Nan (Sheila Tousey) who is a community leader and has takes on guardianship responsibilities when needed.

Louisa Kizer as Maya, Rainbow Dickerson as Rocky.

The portrayals of the two leads drive the production.  Rainbow Dickerson plays the complex role of Rocky.  With a quick smile and equally easy despair, her unquestionable charisma carries much of the show, though her performance is not fully consistent.  Sheila Tousey as the stoic and steady matriarch, Nan, is every bit Dickerson’s equal in easy emotional expression.  Tousey demonstrates noble command and great likeability in her character, though she did flub a few lines on opening night.  All of the characters in the play are distinctive, and most reveal complexities that generate a strong sense of realism.

Staging is another asset.  Designer Tanya Orellana takes advantage of San Francisco Playhouse’s revolving stage to offer two sets for scene shifts, and the stage walls are covered in a woven design to represent basketry.  Michael Oesch’s lighting offers contrasts and highlights, and Tara Moses directs with conviction.

Chingwe Padraig Sullivan as Levi, Sheila Tousey as Nan, Matt Kizer as Buddy.

The script does suffer a couple of weaknesses that were mentioned by multiple attendees.  One easily correctible is that time changes between scenes are often difficult to comprehend, which is exacerbated by flashbacks and imaginary sightings of Virginia.  Another is that the ending surprises with its suddenness.  It occurs without buildup, and there is a resolution of a character relationship that occurs without sufficient explanation.  In terms of performance, a number of lines were difficult to hear, particularly Maya’s.  Nonetheless, the play makes an important contribution by exploring Native American society.  Its topic matter and treatment are provoking and interesting.

“Cashed Out” is written by Claude Jackson, Jr., produced by San Francisco Playhouse, and appears on its stage at 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA through February 25, 2023.

Dear Evan Hansen

Anthony Norman (Evan Hansen). All photos by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

Anyone who says they never got caught telling a fib is probably telling a fib.  But what is worse is covering the tracks of the first lie with another, and then another, until the wheels finally come off.  Often, the result is loss of respect from others, compounded by loss of self-respect.  If there is a road back, it is an arduous one.

“Dear Evan Hansen” opens with a dramatically dark cacophony of moving electronic images and sounds associated with messaging and social networks.  Terminally timid and insecure, Evan lacks friends, and what little release from his fears of humanity comes through his laptop.  A senior in high school whose divorced mother has put him in therapy, he receives an assignment to write letters to himself intended to boost his self-esteem.  One such letter falls into the wrong hands and is subsequently misinterpreted.  So begins Evan’s descent down the rabbit hole.

Anthony Norman (Evan Hansen), Coleen Sexton (Heidi Hansen).

This set up may seem like a dreary appetizer to a dreadful meal, but the multiple Tony award-winning Broadway production ran 1,678 performances before succumbing to the effects of the pandemic hiatus and a poorly reviewed film adaption.  So, what’s behind its success?  Although the overarching issues are serious, if not depressing, plenty of comic relief, appealing music, and hope yield a great balance of entertainment and meaningfulness.

Evan’s deception, which dominates the plotline, occurs by accident, not by design, so it’s not that he’s like Donald Trump or Congressman George Santos who strategically create successful identities based on a web of lies.  For Evan to deal with the triggering incident truthfully would be an embarrassment that he doesn’t have the constitution to deal with.  So we sympathize with him because of his inadequacies and his circumstances.  It doesn’t hurt that the talented Anthony Norman portrays the dorky character with great sensitivity or that creative elements of the show lift the proceedings.

Further bad judgments and misadventures lead Evan to ally with two more losers in his class to form a project memorializing Connor, a fellow student who has committed suicide.  Along with a successful crowdfunding campaign to revitalize an apple orchard in honor of the deceased, the project is commercialized with tribute sweatshirts and buttons, but with the knowledge that fast action is required, as society will quickly move on to another focus.

Anthony Norman (Evan Hansen), Alaina Anderson (Zoe Murphy).

These sequences offer many funny moments but caution about the power of electronic communication and the ease of deceiving the public.  They also suggest how the departed can become idealized, as well as how they can bring people together and come to represent something far greater than themselves.  Sustaining that image often becomes more important than facing newer truths that may not jive with the myth.  Regrettably, this inclination also occurs at societal levels where whole countries are unable to learn and grow because of being wed to falsehoods they fail to address.  At least in this show, Evan acknowledges “All I ever do is run from the truth” and finally appears ready to face consequences.

Meanwhile, another plot turn that enlivens the action is the love interest.  Evan has had a crush on Zoe, who didn’t know he existed.  But she happened to be the sister of the deceased, and Evan’s involvement with the Connor Project puts him into contact with her.  In a grass-is-greener move, Evan even insinuates himself into the lives of Connor’s rich but dysfunctional family.  His presence becomes a source for positivity for them, and they encourage him to continue the project, even though their relationship with Connor was fractious.

Anthony Norman (Evan Hansen), John Hemphill (Larry Murphy), Lili Thomas (Cynthia Murphy), Alaina Anderson (Zoe Murphy).

Each and every character in the play is flawed, making them all very real.  It’s easy to dwell on their deficiencies, but we want them to overcome their weaknesses and have happy lives in their families and communities, and to some measure, they do.  Perhaps tragic circumstances and even ill-guided actions often have positive consequences.  This is suggested by the show’s optimistic message delivered with one of its fine songs of hope, “You Will Be Found.”

“Dear Evan Hansen,” with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul and book by Steven Levenson, is presented by Broadway SF, and appears at Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco, CA through February 19, 2023.


Louis Reyes McWilliams (Jason), Harold Surratt (Montrellous), and April Nixon (Clyde). All photos by Kevin Berne.

In the hands of some, a sandwich may be a most humble joining of Wonder Bread with a plain and prosaic filler of any sort.  In another, it can be a sublime assemblage of aspiration and dreams.  Such is the aesthetic divide between most of the truckers who patronize Clyde’s Sandwich Shop in Reading, PA, and the unseen kitchen staff who fill their orders.

In “Clyde’s,” two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage has written what is understandably her most popular work, which was the most produced play in America in 2022.   The Berkeley Rep production exceeds every standard the script demands.  A comedy in which four diverse kitchen workers reflect on life’s experiences, it brims with humanity as the characters stumble over each other’s sensibilities on the road to reaching mutual understanding and common ground.  Each worker, however, shares a similar backstory.  Each has been imprisoned.  Clyde has also been incarcerated and hires only ex-cons.

Harold Surratt (Montrellous) and Cyndii Johnson (Letitia).

Now, dispose any preconceptions that you may have had about the eponymous owner of the café.  Clyde is black and female and vibrant.  At one level, she represents an archetype in entertainment – the over-the-top, breezy, sassy, flippant, self-centered woman who fills a room when she enters and never subdues to a level of naturalness or genuineness.  But she is far from innocuous.  She is emotionally removed, demanding, and hostile.  What’s more, her hiring ex-cons doesn’t represent altruism.  She knows that a prison record makes it hard to get and keep a job and that work is often a condition of parole.  She hangs a sword of Damocles over each of her employees to keep them in line.

At least while Clyde is running the front of the house, the kitchen workers are able to find relief from her oppression.  Rafael, a Latino, is a light-hearted and optimistic fry cook who tries to make time with Tish, a sandwich maker, who is a black, single mother with a special-needs child, and bears all of the associated burden.  A new arrival, Jason, adds another dynamic.  A surly young white man, with white-supremacist gang tattoos on his face, he initially disrupts the bonhomie, but as would be expected, he eventually opens up and evolves.  Interestingly, Jason is a holdover character from another Nottage play, “Sweat,” but with no clear rationale or connection.

The eminence gris is Montrellous, an older black man, who is part mentor and part mystery.  He sets the standard for the unique activity that keeps the kitchen group lively and challenged – striving to create the best possible sandwich, often relying on ingredients uncommon to the working-class world around them.  Rather than citing some of the attempts the characters make, I’ll describe the one I made on lunch break that could easily fit in their competition – roast beef with pickled ginger slices and fresh lemon thyme on focaccia, slathered with curried sour cream!

Wesley Guimarães (Rafael) and April Nixon (Clyde).

Clyde not only refuses to try any of the cooks’ concoctions, but is more concerned that they not experiment on her time and with her ingredients.  However, her disdain does not discourage the staff from their creativity and enjoyment.  Sandwiches have come to mean something significant to them, representing new horizons.  They approach each new attempt with enthusiastic anticipation, even though their optimistic expectation is sometimes not borne out.

Always the philosopher, Montrellous notes that a sandwich is a meal in the hand that can be customized in an infinite number of ways.  One can even argue that sandwiches symbolize democracy and freedom of choice.

The playwright also says something about people who have made mistakes.  These are all decent people who, but for poor judgments or actions that may have been split-second and atypical, would not be facing the uphill battle of overcoming the black mark on their name.

Louis Reyes McWilliams (Jason) and Cyndii Johnson (Letitia).

Berkeley Rep’s production, directed by Taylor Reynolds, completely pleases the audience.  We want these imperfect people to thrive.  Well designed and crafted, the situation and performances resonate, led by the very effective, if unpleasant, characterization of Clyde by April Nixon.

“Clyde’s,” written by Lynn Nottage, is produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and plays on its Peet’s Stage at 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA through February 26, 2023.

In Every Generation

Cindy Goldfield as Valeria, Olivia Nicole Hoffman as Yaya, Sarah Lo as Dev, Michael Champlin as Davide (Nonno), Luisa Sermol as Paola (Nonna). All photos by Kevin Berne.

“Mah nishtanah, ha-laylah ha-zeh,mi-kol ha-leylot”  (Why is this night different from all other nights?).  This invocation, spoken by the youngest capable person at the dinner table at seder, is perhaps the most famous and evocative sentence in Judaism.  Not only does the ritual that follows those words reflect on the traumatic history of the Jewish people, but it speaks to their very existence.  So begins playwright Ali Viterbi’s poignant, insightful, and sweeping, yet frustrating “In Every Generation.”

The riveting Act 1, or Part 1 in the playwright’s specification, takes place in present time at the Los Angeles home of an esteemed, female professor at UCLA, Valeria Levi, who has divorced her former husband, a rabbi, caught in flagrante delicto with another woman.  The family celebrates seder.

Valeria is joined by her parents, Paola and Davide, WWII refugees from Italy.  The father survived a concentration camp but is now without speech, in the advanced stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease).  Two young adult women fill out the table.  Daughter Yael, or Yaya, studies at Yale and is home on break.  The eye catcher in this scenario is Dev, the older daughter.  Why?  It happens that she is adopted, and Chinese by birth and appearance.

Cindy Goldfield, Sarah Lo.

The animated table is full of love and arguments.  As Valeria simply notes, Jews argue.  All of the discussions relate to Judaism in one way or another.  At the same time, each topic has corollaries in other groups.  Or at least, non-Jews can empathize with the contrasting positions.  The passionate differences demonstrate the multiplicity of thought within the community.

Some issues reflect differing degrees of reverence and religious practice, with Valeria being among the least worshipful in the family.  Even though the talented Cindy Goldfield’s Valeria prepares the seder feast for the others, she still insists on having her Diet Coke and comfort food.  Not surprisingly, Dev conveys the strongest commitment to religion, as often happens with converts.  Yet, the devout and dutiful Dev, as portrayed by Sarah Lo with an occasional sense of differentness, will confront her nagging curiosity about her origin and the isolation of being an outsider within outsiders.

A never-ending discussion about Judaism is whether it represents ethnicity or religion.  The sad truth is that the decision on that point is more often made by those hostile to the community, and invariably to the detriment of the adherents.  Friction arises between the daughters on Jewish identity, even though Yaya, played by Olivia Nicole Hoffman with intellectual confidence but physical insecurity, behaves in a very secular manner.  While not meaning to discriminate or denigrate the adopted sister, Yaya suggests that Dev fits in a different category, without the same baggage as ethnic Jews.  But then she uncorks the unexpected.  She relates a study about predisposition toward anxiety and trauma that the children of Holocaust survivors might experience, with interesting insights into the nature versus nurture conflict.

Luisa Sermol, Michael Champlin.

The discussions in Part 1 keep the audience in rapt attention, and the performances are spot on.  Production defects concern communication.  Because of the direction that some actors face, some audience members cannot hear them completely.  And with the frequency of overlapping talk by characters and the occasional use of both Italian and Hebrew, numerous attendees felt they were missing a lot, even though supertitles appeared with most of the foreign language spoken.

While Act 1 / Part 1 takes place in real time, it reveals history and relationships with reasonable depth.  In Act 2, the playwright attempts to convert the remaining stage time into an epic built around seder celebrations.  Three scenes, or parts, cover radically different periods. 

The first scene after intermission, Part 2, is a flashback to 1954, when Paola and Davide are recent arrivals in the United States, and suffer through the scarcity and sparseness of the new immigrant experience. The situations they cope with are touching and relatable.  However, they don’t really set up a strong context for what had occurred in Act 1.  But the actors deliver the goods.  Luisa Sermol steals the stage whenever she is on it.  Flippant and dismissive as the nonna in Act 1, she is now young, earthy, and saucy.  Michael Champlin, the dying and voiceless nonno in Act 1, is an anxious and guilt-ridden survivor of Auschwitz in this part.

Sarah Lo, Olivia Nicole Hoffman.

Part 3 flashes forward to a highly dystopian year 2050.  This episode continues the message from Act 1 and depicts the further divergence between the sisters.  Given today’s growing and overt white supremacy movement with increasingly brutal racism, antisemitism, and victimization of immigrants, it offers a chilling potential reality.  The whole scenario is disturbing and unpleasant to think about but can’t be dismissed.

This apocalyptic vision tragically suggests that the coming depravity is driven not only by its perpetrators, but also by the victims’ inability to muster the wherewithal to confront it for the existential threat that it is.  Unfortunately, history does repeat itself.  A case in point is the dramatization of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel “It Can’t Happen Here” which was performed at Berkeley Rep in 2016.  Among its reviews, some prominent ones dismissed the plot as unrealistic to apply to this country because of our history and systems.  Within weeks, the sad unravelling of American democracy began.

The final part enacts a seder in 1406 BCE, shortly after the Jews have escaped from Egypt.  All of the other Jewish-centric vignettes possess universalisms and dramatic impact.  Many viewers might find this tale a bit self-indulgent and lacking in drama and connectedness.


In sum, “In Every Generation” has much to say, and says much effectively.  However, this reviewer feels that as a theatrical production, the scope of the narrative overreaches and the plot points are not cleanly aligned. Nonetheless, it entertains and provokes.

In this era of political correctness, word police, and ad hominem attributions, I would like to say something about my own bona fides.  I am a Christian-reared, half-Sicilian who has rejected organized religion.  My wife of 50 years, who is also my editor, is a secular Jew.  We both feel extremely supportive of the other’s community.  Anything in this review that may be construed as unsympathetic to Jewish identity and its people’s right to live peacefully and autonomously is incorrect.

“In Every Generation,” written by Ali Viterbi, is produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, and plays at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA through February 12, 2023.

Slow Food

Damion Clark as Stephen, Peter Marietta as Peter, Kimberly Ridgeway as Irene. All photos by Grizzly De Haro.

Foodies worldwide know slow food as a contemporary movement that rejects mass produced, low nutrition, low diversity, loaded with unhealthy ingredients fast food.   Playwright Wendy MacLeod has adopted the same words but applied them with a different twist in her comic play.  All of us have had that restaurant experience in which we thought the food would never come.  In this case, the cause is not a lost order or long prep time or overtaxed restaurant staff.  It is willful delay by the server from hell.

While this three-hander lacks a grand, compelling comic or dramatic arc, it does offer a number of observations into the human condition.  Somewhat like a television comedy show skit on steroids, it stretches into 90 minutes.  But with nimble direction and excellent acting, the laughter is almost continuous, so it makes for an entertaining, light-hearted theatrical experience.

Irene and Peter, played convincingly by Kimberly Ridgeway and Peter Marietta, are newly empty nester professionals from New York who are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary with a trip to Palm Springs.  Arriving late in the evening, starved and exhausted, they are finally able to find a Greek restaurant that is still open and taking orders.  Stephen, the insidious server with his own agendas, is portrayed with great flamboyance by a yappy, petulant, and sometimes confrontational Damion Clark.

The particular venue of this play is special to the Altarena Playhouse Artistic Director Katina Psihos Letheule, who directs this production and designed the simple but appropriate and appealing set.  Not only is she of Greek extraction, but she also grew up in a family in the restaurant business.

The acting style of the play is consistent throughout – one manic shred short of sheer farce.  Yet how the characters interact is not.  Many relationship matters arise between Irene and Peter.  Some are routine marriage-management issues.  Others are surprise revelations and problems.  But they are situations that many couples face in full measure.  The exchanges between the employee and the customers are not realistic.  The kernels of Stephen’s actions toward them will be familiar to anyone who frequents restaurants, but the extremes to which he takes them is definitely off the deep end.  Happily, it all works compatibly.

The gist of the plot is that despite Irene and Peter’s desperate desire for food and drink as soon as possible, Stephen manages to stifle their efforts in every conceivable way, bringing a new meaning to the term “denial of service.”  As Peter says, “This is not service.  It’s a hostage situation.” 

For example, Peter wants a Sam Adams beer and had even ordered one from another server before he and Irene sat down.  But as it is coming to the table, Stephen sends it away, insisting that their orders are his responsibility.  Not only does he demand that Peter consider a local brew instead, but he doesn’t relent until the couple has sampled it.

Meanwhile, whenever Stephen is away from their table, the couple furtively conspires to problem solve to defeat his obstructions.  Should they appeal to his vanity by being obsequious or flirting?  Should they take a bread basket from a table that hasn’t been cleared?  Should they try to purchase a beer from the bar and hide it from the server?  Should they bail and (God forbid) go to McDonalds?

There are a number of direct and indirect messages associated with the exchanges among the characters concerning hierarchy of jobs.  Many would-be actors wait tables, and many white-collar workers waited tables as a temporary job, maybe during college.  But Stephen asks himself aloud why he still serves meals after 20 years.  So, in his despair, he seeks solace by lording over restaurant patrons and claiming to have responsibilities beyond serving, such as running the front of the house and guiding a renovation of the restaurant, both of which appear to be fanciful.

In Stephen, Clark plays a really juicy role that is written for belly laughs, and he extracts audience reaction well.  Ridgeway and Marietta are more like straight men (people?) in more ways than one.  They often counterpunch with wry commentary, but they show their comic chops like pros as well, delivering their lines with crisp timing.

In the end, it’s all kind of much ado about nothing, but wasn’t that a successful comedy as well?

“Slow Food,” written by Wendy MacLeod is produced by Altarena Playhouse, and plays on its stage at 1409 High Street, Alameda, CA through February 19, 2023.