The Lion King

Gugwana Diamini as Rafiki. Photo by Joan Marcus.

An old maxim notes that it’s best to begin at the beginning.  In the case of “The Lion King,” its beginning may be the best received by an audience ever.  The character Rafiki, a mandrill, sings the goosebump-producing “Circle of Life / Nants Ingonyama” that introduces African voice, thought, music, motion, and rhythm.  Meanwhile, the parade of absolutely stunning human-puppets-as-animals walks the aisles and fills the stage, becoming the most remarkable anthropomorphic array imaginable.  At the opening number’s end, the applause at this performance was deafening.

“The Lion King” is one of the most honored and awarded Broadway musicals of all time.  Despite the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is the biggest grossing ever.  Playing in San Jose on its third national tour, it largely replicates the Broadway production, topping the charts on every dimension – scenic; music and sound; choreography and movement; story line; and performance.

Circle of Life. Photo by Brinkhoff-Mogenburg.

But if there is one incomparable distinction, that goes to the fantastic costumes.  Director and Costume Designer Julie Taymor rightfully won Tonys and most every other grantor’s awards in both categories.  In the distinctive style used for most of the animals (lions mostly excepted), the human puppet’s body apparel suggests the animal, but the performer’s face is exposed, while the caricatured animal’s face is suspended on a tether above and in front of the performer’s, allowing the viewer to sense both the actor and the animal character.  The precise movements by each animal also distinguish and amuse – the elongated stretching of the cheetah; the bugged eyes and dangling tongue of the lasciviously ravenous hyenas; the clacking beak of the hornbill; and the particular shifting of the heads of the lions when they communicate.

Darian Sanders as Simba. Photo by Deen van Meer.

The plot is one that appeals to adults and children as well.  King of the lions, Mufasa, is killed under confusing circumstances, and his only son Simba feels the responsibility for the death.  Instead of facing his people, he escapes to the jungle.  Only when Simba becomes a young man does he return to confront his demons and his uncle, Scar, who unrightfully ascended to the throne.

The narrative works particularly well, because of the moral issues it contains.  Musically, the show opens and closes on the same theme, the circle of life, on how we can never have or do everything that we wish, but we can find a place that can leads us to fulfillment.  It is also about the cycle of life – of the inevitability of death and of regeneration.  When Simba cries that his father is gone, he is told to look into the water. It is through that reflection that he realizes that his father lives on in him.  It is also about courage, loyalty, love, environmentalism, and a need for balance in the world, which makes room for animal predator and prey.

Lionesses Dance. Photo by Deen van Meer.

In contrast to what could be considered preachiness in treating with moral issues, plenty of humor lightens the mood.  One of Simba’s buddies in the jungle is Pumbaa, the warthog, who suffers from chronic flatulence.  There are numerous jokes about “gas” that kids find funny – and maybe adults as well.  Even the villain, Scar, provides humor.  Effete, obnoxious, and sarcastic, he becomes a laughable character.

Of course, the music can’t be ignored.  The use of African lyrics and tunes and the pounding of batteries of large drums add locational feel, while many songs drive the plot forward.  Finally, the most memorable piece from the show speaks both to the romance of Simba with Nala and to greater realms – “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?”

Darian Sanders as Simba, Kayla Cyphers as Nala. Photo by Deen van Meer.

“The Lion King,” with music and lyrics primarily by Elton John & Tim Rice and book by Roger Allers & Irene Mecchi, is presented by Broadway San Jose and plays at San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 South Almaden Blvd., San Jose, CA through August 21, 2022.

Coraline

The Other House. All photos by Cory Weaver.

Along with her parents, 11-year-old Coraline has moved to a new home, and she faces going to a new school.  She hates the healthy, but gloppy, soup that her father routinely makes for lunch.  She’s bored because it’s raining, and she’s not allowed outdoors when she’d like to explore the garden.  What’s more, the neighbors are weird and call her Caroline, much to her displeasure.  Of course, she’s annoyed, petulant, and implacable.  Like many children, she showers the blame on her parents.

In time, Coraline passes through a special door that acts as a devise like the rabbit hole in “Alice in Wonderland” or the tornado in “The Wizard of Oz.”  She enters an alternate world, a house that is identical to her real house, but with parents who accede to her every wish and tell her how much they love her, unlike her real parents, they say.

Kendra Bloom as Coraline, Efrain Solis as Father.

Based on the award-winning 2002 novella by Neil Gaiman, composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Rory Mullarky have crafted an opera that mirrors the creepiness of the novella and the animated film of the same name.  West Edge Opera offers superb voices and orchestra, fine staging, and clever, fanciful costumes in a scintillating production of this enticing work.

The success of this opera hinges on the performance of Coraline, whose role dominates.  Although one might expect the part to go to a lyric soprano, Kendra Broom is a mezzo with considerable dramatic vocal cred that fits the part completely, as tension dominates the girl’s experience.  Broom’s voice penetrates the venue with clarity and accuracy.  Having the look of an ingenue and gesticulating with a child’s mannerisms, she embodies the character extremely well.

Stephanie Sanchez as Mother.

In Coraline’s real world, Stephanie Sanchez as Mother is involved with her but strict.  Efrain Solis as Father is charming but absorbed with his work as an inventor.  Both artists are gifted as singers and actors.  When Coraline moves into the alternate world, the same performers take on the roles of Other Mother and Other Father, but their faces appear like ragdolls with buttons for eyes.  Other Mother tells Coraline that she can always have anything she wants, and the only exchange is that she must allow her eyes to be replaced by buttons.

Stephanie Sanchez as Other Mother.

Much of the thematic material concerns children’s values and perceptions of the world around them.  Children’s appraisals of their parents can be harsh.  But when Coraline realizes that the price of living with the Other Parents is giving up her eyes, she begins to grasp that the grass is not always greener on the other side and initiates action to extricate herself from their grip.

Another moral in the opera that would inform Coraline’s own bravery is a story that she tells about Father.  When the two of them were attacked by wasps, Father shepherded Coraline to safety.  Despite suffering 39 wasp bites, he returned to the swarm to retrieve the eyeglasses he had dropped.  Although Coraline was impressed with his bravery in protecting her, he noted that he wasn’t brave then as he did what he had to do.  He was brave in returning for the glasses, despite the threat, as that involved a conscious decision.  The message is that bravery cannot exist without fear.

Jazmine Olwalia as Miss Forcible, Krista Wigle as Miss Spink.

But Gaiman’s symbolism is not accidental and plumbs darker territory.  Other Mother’s pandering to Coraline’s wants; her manipulation of Coraline’s perceptions; and the condition of removing her eyes point to the sinister practice of mind control that is fundamental to cultism.  This motif occurs throughout Coraline’s time spent in the other world and is amplified by her meeting the Ghost Children who have been abducted by Other Mother.

Turnage’s music is in the modern idiom, but largely tonal, especially the instrumental portion conducted by John Kennedy.  The orchestral balance gives wind instruments more favor than many operas, which provides a sharper tone.  There are occasional unexpected turns in style with shifts in rhythm, but that is in keeping with changing situations and characters that Coraline meets.

Efrain Solis as Other Father, Kendra Broom as Coraline, Stephanie Sanchez as Other Mother.

The opera is enhanced considerably by the visual elements in the production coordinated by Director Tara Branham.  Jefferson Ridenour’s set mixes prosaic packing boxes with large hanging sheets of plastic and eye-catching props such as colorful teddy bears.  A door that can spin on wheels is used to facilitate looking into the real versus alternate house spaces, but sometimes it is not immediately clear which side the players are in.

While Christine Crook’s costumes in the real world are distinctive and appropriate, they sizzle in the other world with bright colors and unusual textures.  Combined with Ridenour’s set, the overall look of the other world is a kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria. Each character’s face is completely covered in gauzy material with comic-book facial features attached.  As a result, the audience does not see the facial movement of the singing being produced.  The outcome may seem a little disconcerting, but it absolutely adds to the menacing ambiance intended.

Ghost Children, Kendra Broom as Coraline.

“Coraline” is the American premiere of the opera composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage, with libretto by Rory Mullarky, based on the novella by Neil Gaiman, produced by West Edge Opera, and plays at Scottish Rite Center, 1547 Lakeside Drive, Oakland, CA through August 7, 2022.

Ariane & Bluebeard

Philip Skinner as Bluebeard,
Renée Rapier as Ariane. All photos by Cory Weaver.

Frenchman Paul Dukas’ 1907 opera “Ariane & Bluebeard” possesses compelling music and a libretto rich with symbolism and open to varied interpretation.  Although advocates for the opera included many prominent composers of the day, its success was limited from the outset, and it has failed to find a place in the repertory.  Plausible explanations exist.  One is that it was drowned out during its infancy by two operas that competed in a similar space from more eminent composers.   Like Debussy’s “Pelléas and Mélisande” from 1902, it used a Maurice Maeterlinck libretto that was also based on one of his plays.  Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” in 1911 was based on the same primary inspiration as Dukas’, “Le Barbe bleu” by Charles Perrault.  Another explanation is that Dukas being partly Jewish, discrimination played a role.  In subsequent times, the argument is that artistic directors’ comfort levels inhibit taking risks on less familiar properties.  Happily, West Edge Opera does not fall in that category, and it presents a scintillating interpretation of the highly worthy “Ariane & Bluebeard.”

Sarah Couden as Nurse,
Renée Rapier as Ariane.

Librettist Maeterlinck was associated with the Symbolist literary movement that confronted the prevailing naturalism with message-associated allegory. The many symbolic representations in this work begin with the music which is robust from the opening note and softens over the course of the opera.  In the story, Bluebeard has had five wives.  The presumption is that he has killed them all, but he has actually imprisoned them in a windowless cellar.  This darkness is represented by the loud, harsh music which ultimately turns to light as the women are released from their imprisonment.

Accordingly, the early part of the opera also contains an uncommonly low tessitura delivered by only three principal voices.  The extremely dominant and hugely demanding role throughout is that of Ariane, portrayed by mezzo Renée Rapier, whose voice is exquisite with a great deal of singing in the lower range.  The other major, flawless, and low range vocal contribution is from Nurse, sung by contralto Sara Couden.  Title character Bluebeard has a great deal of stage time to display his vanity, his dominance, and perhaps his insecurity, yet his singing role is very small.  However, when called upon for a bottom range baritone vocalization, Philip Skinner delivers.  Each of these three are magnificent, and similar attributes can be applied to all three.  How many times can you say deep, warm, resonant, powerful voice?

Renée Rapier as Ariane (center), Alexa Anderson as Mélisande, Sharon Shao as Alladine, Silvie Jensen as Sélysette (top). Candace Johnson as Ygraine, Taylor See as Bellangère, Sarah Couden as Nurse (bottom).

Despite warnings, Ariane becomes Bluebeard’s sixth wife.  He bequeaths her seven door keys to rooms that hold his treasures.  She may use the six that are silver but not the one that is gold.  Unlike previous wives, Ariane has no interest in the silver keys, but Nurse uses them to reveal rooms full of glorious gems – sapphires in one, rubies in another, and so on.  Only the last elicits any reaction from Ariane with her aria “O mes clairs diamants!”  (“Oh, my clear diamonds!”).  Such a sequence could prove visually dramatic, even using projections.  Sadly, the colorful display that would be revealed by an outpourings from a wall of doors is invisible (except figurative projections of diamonds).  This vision is left to the imagination of the viewer in this production.

The diamond vault reveals the door that can be opened by the gold key, which leads Ariane to the dark chamber that houses the former wives.  This courageous action is analogous to the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden story from the Bible.  Like Eve, Ariane is forbidden only one thing, yet that is the one that she yearns for.  The traditional interpretation of the Biblical tale is that Eve yielded to temptation, but like Ariane, the willingness to defy the restriction represents self-actualization and the pursuit of learning and independence.  Happiness and fulfillment cannot be given, as by the six silver keys, but must be taken, as by the gold key – or by the forbidden fruit.  Without the defiance of the stricture, Ariane would have no way to open the world to the wives, as Eve would have no way to give Adam and herself, as well as the humanity that followed, a meaningful reason to live.

Richard Mix and Joachim Luis (Chorus), Douglas Mandell as 2nd Peasant, Wilford Kelly as 3rd Peasant, Chung-Wai Soong as Old Peasant.

Even before the wives come into view, Ariane and Nurse are greeted by the strains of their anxious ensemble “Les cinq filles d’Orlamonde,” (“The five maidens from Orlamonde”) which begins the lighter overall musical tone, as most of the wives are sung by sopranos. The wives have not attempted to escape, as their fear has led to inaction.  Bluebeard has forced Ariane to join the wives, but her determination will lead them to the light.  Ariane is not only concerned with challenging patriarchy and liberating the wives but in liberating Bluebeard from his impediments as well.  The malaise of the wives and the eventual reconciliation with Bluebeard reflect the condition of minorities and women in societies who are subject to discrimination. Majority populations often fail to realize that lifting the underprivileged, or allowing them to lift themselves, results not only their betterment, but the betterment of all of society.

“Ariane & Bluebeard” possesses a compact narrative and melodious music that are lifted by outstanding voices.  Expansive blocking, which uses all of the stage and more, includes a chase scene on foot that extends into the lower gallery of the house.  One clumsy aspect of the production is the use of the same core staircase as in “Julius Caesar” but with different decorative framing.  While it offers a smooth egress in the other opera, players in this one unceremoniously stagger up and down the structure, even stumbling.  A clever aspect of the staircase is that it disassembles into pieces that characters lounge upon.

Renée Rapier as Ariane, Silvie Jensen as Sélysette, Alexa Anderson as Mélisande, Sarah Couden as Nurse (back and above), Sharon Shao as Alladine, Philip Skinner as Bluebeard, Candace Johnson as Ygraine, Taylor See as Bellangère (front).

The Jonathan Khuner conducted orchestra provides a full, clean sound for Dukas’ music. Together with the other elements, the result is a totally enjoyable experience.

“Ariane & Bluebeard” composed by Paul Dukas, with libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck as adapted from his play which draws from the literary tale ” Le Barbe bleu” by Charles Perrault is produced by West Edge Opera and plays at Scottish Rite Center, 1547 Lakeside Drive, Oakland, CA through August 6, 2022.

Julius Caesar (Giulio Cesare in Egitto)

Shawnette Sulker as Cleopatra, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Julius Caesar. All photos by Cory Weaver.

Although Julius Caesar ranks high as a memorable political and military figure in history, he is probably most remembered for Shakespeare’s creative reenactment of his brutal assassination than for his accomplishments.  Handel’s 1724 opera masterpiece “Julius Caesar,” dealing with Caesar’s victories in Egypt in 48-47 B.C.E. shortly before his return to Rome and death in 44 B.C.E., may be considered a prequel to the theatrical masterpiece.   And while two great leaders die in the process of the opera, Caesar is not one of them.  West Edge Opera’s production presents a cast of superb vocalists; a wonderful supporting orchestra conducted by Christine Brandes; surprisingly interesting choreography; and visual power through simplicity.

Their production of “Giulio Cesare in Egitto” (being the Italian title) marks the peripatetic company’s inauguration of their new home for the 2022 festival season, the Grand Auditorium of The Scottish Rite Center in Oakland.  Unlike some of their repurposed past venues, this one is designed for performance, with proper acoustics; is physically stunning, including a production-appropriate classic colonnade on the circumference of the high walls; and possesses permanent seats with perfect sight lines in sloped rows (which WEO habitués will appreciate!).

Glenn Healy as Curio, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Julius Caesar.

Quest for power drives the plot.  Members of the informal First Triumvirate, Caesar and Pompey, vowed to share power.  Betrayed, Caesar led an army to Egypt to defeat Pompey.  However, the latter was killed by Ptolemy, who, with his sister Cleopatra, ruled Egypt as a puppet state of Rome.  Despite his conflict with Pompey, Caesar was devastated by the wanton murder.  Meanwhile, Ptolemy tries to eliminate Cleopatra, as she and Caesar fall in love.  Both lovers vow vengeance, but their claims are superseded by Pompey’s widow Cornelia and son Sesto.

Opening night performance did not begin auspiciously as it seemed that some performers’ voices were underpowered for the size of the house, but it turned out that they were just not warmed up.  In due time, all were fully audible and mostly in good voice, mastering the heavily decorated Baroque trill associated with music of the time.  This opera presents modern casting challenges as two of the major roles were written for castratos.  If males are used in those parts, countertenors are the modern-day substitute, but they are a rarity, and it is fortunate that WEO was able to attract Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Caesar and Cenk Karaferya for Ptolemy.  Cohen showed well on the hunting aria “Va tacito,” which is also significant for the prominence of the French horn.  Handel was one of the first opera composers to use horns in the orchestra, and the solo by the brass instrument in this aria is believed to be the first in all of opera.

Shawnette Sulker as Cleopatra, Jasmine Johnson as Nirena.

Other highlights include two duets, each showcasing two voices in beautiful contrast.  Caesar and Cleopatra share a set piece toward the finale.  Soprano Shawnette Sulker as Cleopatra dazzles here (and throughout, especially her Act 2 aria).  The other duet pairs Cornelia and Sesto in “Son nata a largrimar.”  Mezzo Katherine Pracht sings Cornelia, while mezzo Sarah Coit, in a trousers role, portrays Sesto.  While all of the principals were well received by the audience, the mellifluous and clarion Coit received the biggest support.

Director Mark Streshinsky’s instincts for the look of the production work wonderfully.  Scenic Designer Liliana Duque Piñero’s fixed set comprises of one fixture – a large, fanciful, angular staircase structure that narrows as it rises.  Otherwise, props and moveable furniture, such as a bed, luminarias, and potted plants, decorate the stage as needed.  The spareness works particularly well for the period of the action, like a Greek drama that is set in ancient times.  Ron S. McCan’s mostly contemporary, mostly black costumery and Pamila Gray’s highly variable lighting fill out the appearance of the staging.

Katherine Pracht as Cornelia (above), Sarah Coit as Sesto.

Choreographer Marcos Vedoveto offers two striking ensemble dance numbers.  One near the finale is a nicely designed and executed conventional ensemble.  For moves, think the Bangles song and dance “Walk Like an Egyptian” or Steve Martin’s parody on Saturday Night Live.  The other number occurs on a darkened stage in which four dancers surround the love bed of Caesar and Cleopatra.  The dancers wear see-thru capes with several strings of small light bulbs, perhaps symbolizing stars, that emanate from the necks of the garments.  The modern dance moves with the light arrays create a captivating scene.

Cenk Karaferya as Ptolemy (front).

One decision will displease a fair portion of the audience.  As a result of the characterization of Ptolemy as a flamboyant bisexual (I think) with a boy toy entourage, there is a good deal of low brow humor.  Surtitles use modern jargon including references to people as assholes and worse.  Truly, this opera can be slow and repetitive in parts with frequent da capo set pieces (having an A-B-A song structure), so a little spice doesn’t hurt.  The problem is that farcical humor becomes hard to contain to the places it is intended.  Some in the audience become conditioned to laugh and do so at the wrong times, which can break the spell for those who are focused on the drama.

Katherine Pracht as Cornelia, Michael Parham as Achilla.

This opera is one of the finest from the Baroque era, with excellent music, fine characterizations, and meaningful conflict in the context of historically significant events.  As expected, West Edge Opera provides a professional quality production.

“Julius Caesar” (“Giulio Cesare in Egitto”) with music by George Frideric Handel and libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym is produced by West Edge Opera and plays at The Scottish Rite Center, 1547 Lakeside Drive, Oakland, CA through August 4, 2022.

Follies

Carlotta (Cindy Goldfield), Solange (Jill Slyter), Stella (Caroline Louise Altman), Phyllis (Maureen McVerry), and Sally (Natascia Diaz). All photos by Jessica Palopoli.

Reunions promise joyous revelry with nostalgia for days of old; reestablished contacts with friends from the past; and the memories of younger ages.  Yet the froth belies a potentially dark underbelly.  Some of the revelers will seem as vital as in their youth, but others will have aged before their time.  Some will have succeeded in life by whatever measures, while others will have failed.  And though many friendships will be rekindled, historic clashes and other unpleasantries may re-emerge.

After some success as a lyricist, as well as writing the music for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” Stephen Sondheim decided to undertake only projects in which he would write music and lyrics.  The works that followed in the early Sondheim musical style received massive Tony Award recognition – “Company” (1970), “Follies” (1971), and “A Little Night Music” (1973).  The lavish and expensive-to-produce “Follies” earned 11 Tony nominations and won seven, but was a box office disappointment with barely 500 performances on Broadway.  Yet, the show became a classic.  San Francisco Playhouse has taken on the challenge of producing this massive and demanding project.  The result is a worthy rendition of a great American musical.

Sally Plummer (Natascia Diaz), Buddy Plummer (Anthony Rollins-Mullens).

Clearly mimicking the Ziegfield Follies, the reunion is of Weismann Girls and their spouses, some three to four decades after their glory.  In this metatheatrical play, the event takes them back to the theater in which they performed.  Now crumbling and slated for demolition, the setting symbolizes the marital relationships of the two central couples in the narrative, both of which are on the brink of collapse.

Ben became a successful politico in Washington, but his childless wife, Phyllis, has become disillusioned and sarcastic.  Buddy, an oil equipment salesman in Phoenix, had been Ben’s good friend.  Sally, his somewhat neurotic wife, has driven Buddy into affairs largely because of her dissatisfaction with her station in life.  Meanwhile, after all these years apart, Sally still carries a flame for Ben which threatens to ignite at the reunion.

Benjamin Stone (Chris Vettel) and Phyllis Stone (Maureen McVerry).

An affecting flashback device in the play involves younger versions of the four main characters often appearing on stage to re-enact the past, highlighting the passions and mistakes of the young.  The actors playing the youthful parts in this production match the present-day actors nicely, so the conceit generally works very well.  There are complications, however, particularly when characters from different time periods interact.

Apart from the intimate and often contentious exchanges involving the two couples, a completely different, mostly bubbly and upbeat vibe takes place in scenes with the other party goers.  Sondheim created a large number of secondary roles.  Indeed, several highlight songs are sung ably by various supporting players in this cast.  A number of these numbers are pastiches of music from the earlier era including memorable songs like the bouncy “Broadway Baby” (Hattie); the Valentine to a city “Ah, Paris” (Solange); and the wistful “Who’s That Woman?” (Stella), as well as the show-stopping survival anthem “I’m Still Here” (Carlotta).  But the climactic crux of the show is delivered by Phyllis with the thoughtful discourse on dividing lives with divorce, “Could I Leave You?”  Guess!

Carlotta (Cindy Goldfield), Solange (Jill Slyter), Dimitri Weismann (Louis Parnell), Theodore Whitman (Rene Collins), Emily Whitman (Eiko Yamamoto).

Choreographer Nicole Helfer’s numerous arrangements add to the lighter side of the action.  Perhaps the most lively piece in the play is the stage-filling dance tied to “Who’s That Woman? (Mirror, Mirror).”  Five of the Follies alums are joined by an equal number of sequined and feathered “Ghosts of the Follies Past” for a ten-women tap number that is vigorous and highly entertaining.

It is still curious that “Follies” didn’t register with audiences at the outset, as it is extremely literate and innovative with a lively score full of memorable songs.  However, the narrative presents several hurdles that could cause the audience to shy.  In particular, each main character is despondent for a different reason, and it’s hard to root for any of them.  The counterbalance of the cheerier party sequences involves many characters which confuse and give the play a bit of a split personality.  Finally, when it seems that the show should be about over, there is a sequence of four scenes.  Each is a “folly” for a lead character in the manner of a Weismann Follies skit that seems inorganic.

Young Ben (Cameron La Brie), Young Phyllis (Danielle Cheiken), Young Buddy (Chachi Delgado), Young Sally (Samantha Rose Cárdenas).

Director Bill English does a fine job in pulling the pieces of this production together with over 40 performers and production techs, including five stage managers – not to mention the additional creative team.  English and co-designer Heather Kenyon’s front-stage and back-stage sets is another great asset to the show.  At opening, performances and voices were a little variable in much of Act 1 but were largely redeemed by Act 2.  Similarly, the orchestra lacked proper tuning when it was on its own for the overture, but that defect was not noticeable when the instruments accompanied singing.  Taken as a whole, the production is a delightful crowd pleaser and a credit to the company’s success in presenting important musicals from the past.

“Follies” with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Goldman is produced by San Francisco Playhouse and plays on its stage at 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA through September 10, 2022.

Nan and the Lower Body

Christopher Daftsios, Lisa Ramirez, Elissa Beth Stebbins, Jeffrey Brian Adams. All photos by Alessandra Mello.

Who knew that the Pap smear was actually named after somebody?  Playwright Jessica Dickey takes us on a somewhat factual, somewhat fanciful journey that occurs at Cornell University in 1952.  Dr. George Papanicolaou has devised the landmark test for cervical cancer, and he is welcoming Nan Day to assist in his further research into women’s health issues.  While that may seem like pretty dry material for theatrical entertainment, the playwright injects sufficient conflict and complication among compelling characters, and the actors provide brilliant performances.  The result is a rousing world premiere success, full of poignancy and humor.

The play opens with Dr. Pap addressing a classroom – the audience.  The content of the lecture is unimportant, yet those brief moments absolutely hook the viewer.  There is no waiting to get involved with the story line.  In character as Dr. Pap, actor Christopher Daftsios appears unlikely to exude confidence and exhibit outstanding comic timing, but he brims with enthusiasm and turns words that would be humdrum on the page into comic thunder.

Elissa Beth Stebbins as Nan is a suitably focused and serious young woman who has the courage to know when to draw lines, even though women at that time had little leverage at work or at home.  What Dr. Pap had not realized in hiring Nan was that she has a trailing spouse (decades before that concept received critical mass).  Her husband, Ted, is a minister, and he is in a make-do situation but is looking for a permanent position.

Christopher Daftsios, Elissa Beth Stebbins.

This story touches on many themes that are as relevant today as they were in 1952, accentuated by the recent and regressive Supreme Court decision on reproductive rights.  The play is about women’s place in the world – their rights, their health, their careers, and their relationship with men.  It also concerns other groups that suffer discrimination, specifically immigrants from non-Anglo populations.  Dr. Pap relates how he suffers insults, being cast as a dirty Greek.  In his case, that disdain ties into another form of rejection.  Even scientists, who seek truth and look to push back the boundaries of knowledge, can resist breakthroughs by interlopers that don’t conform with the received wisdom.  So it is with Pap’s discovery and his colleagues’ refusal to accept him as an equal.

On the light side, the play pokes fun at society’s discomfort in speaking about clinical matters when they involve sex.  In his opening classroom lecture, Pap blurts out “Vagina, vagina, vagina” just to desensitize the students.  He is also mischievous, as he likes to see people squirm at the word, and he uses it several times in conversation with Ted, to the latter’s dismay.  Later and on separate occasions, Nan and Pap’s wife, Mache, regale Ted with the threatening word.  Rather than becoming accustomed to it, Ted’s discomfort only increases as Mache talks about her vagina being a private little place where she could hide things and nobody would know!

Jeffrey Brian Adams, Elissa Beth Stebbins.

One interesting clash between the two male characters is the difference in their beliefs and practices concerning women’s equality and rights.  Dr. Pap argues that women are superior because humans are birthed and produced with material provided by the woman.  In practice, he shows his feminism by selecting Nan, who was the only female applicant for his assistantship.  He even suggests that she could become his partner in research if she remains at his lab.  Yet, while he says that Mache, played by a sometimes imperious and mysterious Lisa Ramirez, has completely shared with him throughout their marriage, some of her unexplained actions and vibes suggest that she maybe doesn’t feel an equal.

Ted is charmingly portrayed by Jeffrey Brian Adams as a jocular and uncommonly liberal minister for the day.  His position on women’s station says that women’s birth function should be set aside and that they should simply be considered equals.  Yet when it comes to the fork in the road on whose career takes precedence, he opts to promote his rather than Nan’s.  Of course, this begs the question – does this suggest that he doesn’t really believe in gender equality, just because he wants to advance his own career?  Clearly, one of them will have to “win,” and why shouldn’t it be him?  More broadly, how is a zero-sum game between equals resolved?

Lisa Ramirez, Christopher Daftsios.

The latter part of the play is largely a soliloquy, an epilogue conducted by one of Nan’s granddaughters.  Its message is one that so many of us miss in our unmindful and self-centered youth, while our parents and grandparents are still living.  How many of us have realized too late that they witnessed history and had stories to tell about themselves and the very different world around them in the decades before?  The greater regret is that when we fail to unlock the lessons from the past, it makes us less prepared to confront the challenges of the future.

For this production, Director Giovanna Sardelli’s whole design team is female.  All of the contributions work well, but special recognition goes to Nina Ball’s scenery comprised of two detailed movable sets.  The one glitch in the performance is that the female cast voices are not strong enough to carry the house when not facing toward the audience. 

“Nan and the Lower Body,” a world premiere play written by Jessica Dickey, is produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, and plays at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1301 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA through August 7, 2022.

The Drowsy Chaperone

Cast. All photos by Eric Chazankin.

In the lonely solitude of one’s own living room, the imagination can take flights of fancy.  The “Man in Chair” is a Broadway musical devotee who places the soundtrack album of his favorite musical on the turntable.  To his amazement, not only does the music and dialogue from a musical that he’s heard but never seen come through the hi-fi, but the musical’s action takes place right there behind him in his drab apartment!  This is the conceit of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” a fictitious musical from 1928.  Sonoma Arts Live takes on this frothy concoction and delivers a production that bubbles with delight from curtain’s (figurative) rise to fall.

The opening premise of the fiction is that Janet van de Graaf and Robert Martin, played by the charming and talented pair of Maeve Smith and Stephen Kanaski, are to be married on the day that the musical takes place.  The reality of the show’s evolution is that “The Drowsy Chaperone” began as a spoof of old musicals that was performed at a stag party for a real engaged couple with the same names as the characters in the show.  Got that?

Tim Setzer as Man in Chair.

Several hilariously delivered plot turns drive the action.  Janet’s drunken chaperone, played with great panache by the redoubtable Daniela Innocenti Beem, is charged with ensuring that the groom doesn’t see the bride before the ceremony.  While Robert doesn’t see Janet, he does kiss her, not knowing it’s her, and that becomes the basis for the bride wanting to call off the wedding.  While this causes some consternation, that’s fine with two gangsters acting as bakers, as they are charged with finding a way to stop the wedding.  It seems that their boss is an investor in a show that stars Janet, and it would probably flop without her.  Meanwhile, unlikely couples instantly fall in love, so that there may be more than one replacement wedding that day.

As is probably already apparent, this send-up is rife with tropes from musicals.  Songs with ridiculous lyrics and dance numbers appear for no real narrative reason, but they do entertain and showcase talent.  Beem belts out in Ethel Merman fashion, and Smith shows tremendous soprano range, hitting the high notes.  Kanaski and Jonathen Blue, who plays George, the anxious best man, show fancy feet and flair with an entertaining tap dance number.  Other stock characters abound as well, including a licentious Broadway producer and his untalented but otherwise appealing chorine girlfriend; a haughty matron and her very proper butler; and a narcissistic Latin lover.

Stephen Kanaski as Robert Martin, Maeve Smith as Janet van de Graff.

The play-within-a-play is an ensemble piece with many performers getting to show their stuff, and the few rough edges in performance, which there are, can be permitted.  The one character that must be spot-on is the unnamed Man in Chair who narrates and communes with the audience.  The actor portraying this role is a fail-safe choice, Tim Setzer, who is phenomenal.

Setzer totally inhabits the character as he lounges in his easy chair wearing house clothes with clunky slippers.  His one passion is his love for musicals, and he is knowledgeable about many aspects of them.  His apartment is chock-a-block with related albums and books.  A sluggish and reclusive type with little going on in his life, he chronically suffers from the blues.  Although a gentle personality and generally amiable, dolefulness and sarcasm frequently seep through his soft smile.  The actor speaks directly to the audience as if confiding in us. He makes us feel comfortable with him and interested in what he has to say.  Oddly, despite this being his favorite musical, he issues a lot of criticism. But through it all, he makes us laugh.

Daniela Innocenti Beem as The Drowsy Chaperone.

Those viewers who loved listening to records and lived through the age of vinyl will recognize clichés from the old days, like lifting and setting the needle arm to select a track and the anticipation brought about by the static that precedes the track.  In one funny sequence, that many of us can relate to, Man in Chair plays the same section of a song over and over trying to decipher the lyrics.

Director Michael Ross has done a fine job of marshaling his resources in this production.  Two aspects of stage artistry particularly contribute to creating a period feel.  Rebecca Valentino deserves note for the bulk of ‘20s costumes that provide the overall look, and Liz Andrews’s choreography, including dances of the era, add to the feel.  Music directed by Sherrill Peterson backs singers admirably, but on several occasions on opening night, the band overpowered even singers with very strong voices.  Overall, this dip back into time offers an enjoyable time spent.

“The Drowsy Chaperone,” with music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison and book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar is produced by Sonoma Arts Live and plays at the Sonoma Community Center, 476 East Napa Street, Sonoma, CA through July 31, 2022.

La Belle et la Bête

Jean Marais, Josette Day (screen top), Hadleigh Adams, Vanessa Bacerra (screen below), Nicole Paiement (live). All photos by Cory Weaver.

The black and white images in highly contrasted lighting glisten like ebony onyx and silver pearls.  Enchantment virtually leaps off of the screen as the title characters conquer near insurmountable challenges and ultimately endear themselves to one another and to the audience.  Such is Jean Cocteau’s enchanting 1946 film “La Belle et la Bête.”

In Philip Glass’s adaptation of a trilogy of Cocteau films to opera (the others being “Orphée” and “Les Enfants Terribles,” both previously produced by Opera Parallèle), the composer saved his most imaginative treatment for this most uncommon love story.  To preserve the spellbinding charm of the source and the visual magic that can only be produced electronically, the movie is projected over the stage, while the soundtrack is stripped.  Instead, Glass’s original musical score and libretto are performed live under the backdrop of the electronic images. But the four singers appear variously in the flesh and on the screen.  The resulting hybrid is a unique and captivating performance experience.  A triumph!

Panorama, including Nicole Paiement, orchestra.

The story itself is better known to most from the Disney film and stage musical versions, both of which were wildly successful.  The substance of any version is similar, an admixture of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Cinderella,” and “The Frog Prince.”  Belle’s father inadvertently triggers the plot conflict by picking a rose for her from the Beast’s garden.  The Beast condemns the old man to death, unless the latter sends one of his daughters to live with him.  Of course, Belle consents, and so begins the rocky road between the title characters, slowly resulting in understanding, followed by empathy, and culminating in love.

The narrative has endless interpretations and is replete with symbolism in its objects, from mirror to white horse to key.  The overarching moral of the story is about inclusion and acceptance for what a person is inside.  OP recognized the broader implications of this theme and hosted a recent panel discussion connecting the story to LGBTQ and ethnic issues.  This could not be more timely as the Republican party’s culture war rapidly reverses rights of transexuals; treats homosexuality as a deviance that is to be corrected; victimizes immigrants from minority communities; and vilifies legitimate protests of racial injustice such as Black Lives Matter, while turning a blind eye to white supremacy.

Hadleigh Adams, Vanessa Bacerra.

Like the composer, OP thrives on innovation.  Director and Production Designer Brian Staufenbiel and his creative staff have masterfully combined elements, resulting in smoothly coordinated, multifaceted artistry.  The performance of the opera sometimes results in sensory overload, and it can be difficult to absorb everything at once.  Endless original projection arrays exhilarate. The one constant is Cocteau’s film, with its light and darkness and its luminous leads, Josette Day and Jean Marais.   Meanwhile, the delightful live lead characters, Vanessa Becerra as La Belle and Hadleigh Adams as La Bête, sometimes appear videoed on a screen below the film screen; sometimes are live on the stage; and other times sing in the darkness of the vomitorium (yes, that is a real word!).   If there is a formula behind the whys and wheres of these manifestations, I didn’t figure it out.  The omnium gatherum male and female singers, Eugene Brancoveanu and Sophie Delphis sit in costume with the orchestra for the greater part.  All four singers are superb in their roles.

Philip Glass draws on numerous sources for his musical inspiration, and in many ways is an unconventional modern composer.  His score of “La Belle et la Bête” is attractive, full of mystery, menace, and lush beauty.  The orchestral lines of repetitive structures pulse with insistence throughout, provided by repeated keyboard pizzicato or percussion or even wind instruments.  They reflect specific sounds such as horse hooves or clock chimes as well ambient drive. 

Panorama, including Hadleigh Adams, Vanessa Bacerra, Nicole Paiement.

Conductor Nicole Paiement leads the orchestra with boundless energy and the absolute precision required to synchronize all of the moving parts of this production.  The orchestra of a mere seven pieces – three keyboards, three woodwinds, and percussion maps onto the Philip Glass Ensemble for which many of the composer’s works have been designed.  The fullness of the sound produced belies the size of the orchestra, and both synthesizers and winds mimic sounds of a great variety of instruments from strings to brass.

For the patron who is accustomed to the extravagance of fully-staged opera, this clever, mixed entertainment might seem a bit eccentric.  But it is a totally engaging, artistically valid, professionally mounted, and highly compelling production.

“La Belle et la Bête” with music and libretto by Philip Glass; performed to the movie created by Jean Cocteau; and based on the story “Beauty and the Beast” written by Jean-Marie Leprince de Beaumont; is produced by Opera Parallèle and co-presented by SF Jazz; and plays at SF Jazz Center, 201 Franklin Street, San Francisco, CA through July 17, 2022.

Dreaming in Cuban

Mary Ann Rodgers as Celia, Anna Maria Luera as Lourdes. All photos by Cheshire Isaacs.

Although the ostensible theme of “Dreaming in Cuban” receives a fairly direct reference in the play, the title relates to how nightdreams, daydreams, and memories, even those of half-truth and fabrication, inform our character and how we lead our lives.  But this is far more than a dreamscape.  Cristina Garcia, who has adapted her 1992 National Book Award finalist novel into a world-premiere play, delves into a number of stock motifs and stock character types, but in a vivid, imaginative, and entertaining way.  The story, which takes place in Havana and Brooklyn in 1979-1980, reveals a family with four determined women of Cuban ancestry; representing three generations; living in two countries; and sharing one common condition – zero male partners impede their personal pursuits at this point in their lives.

The plot centers on the widow Celia, the abuela, or grandmother.  A civil law judge in Cuba, she remains wed to the revolution and all it represents. Her ardor for Castro’s communism may have been a compensation device for her loveless marriage to Jorge, who even had Celia institutionalized for a time in hopes of eradicating her lingering affection for a past lover.  Though Jorge has passed, his spirit often appears as a vision to Celia and her two daughters, adding an element of mysticism that is accentuated by the spare staging and Director Gary Graves’ fine use of accent lighting.

Natalie Delgado as Felicia, Steve Ortiz as Jorge (a spirit), Eric Esquivel-Gutierrez as Ivanito (Felicia’s son).

Celia’s rigid adherence to political principal at the expense of family is matched by daughter Lourdes, who escaped to the U.S. shortly after Castro’s ascent.  Goal oriented and severe, she owns a successful bakery in Brooklyn.  Aptly named Yankee Doodle, it reflects Lourdes’ super-American values with a near pathological disdain for communism that is often associated with Cuban emigrees.  When she finally meets her mother face-to-face for the first time in two decades, the political divide is palpable as both see every human transaction through the lens of politics.  The interaction is more like two welterweight boxers feeling each other out and then releasing flurries of punches, rather than the loving reunion of mother and daughter.

Lourdes’ daughter Pilar was two years old when her mother took her from Cuba.  (Note that this fact and more map onto the playwright’s own personal history.)  Consistent with the theme of one generation rejecting the values of the preceding one, Pilar romanticizes Cuba and yearns to visit her abuela, whom she feels will provide the love that she misses from her mother.  Like many teens, however, she fails to appreciate that Lourdes has stepped up for her in important situations.  And like many who claim memories of earliest childhood, Pilar holds to beliefs that really represent images of desire rather than realities.

Thea Rodgers as Pilar, Eric Esquivel-Gutierrez as Max (who works at bakery).

Celia’s other daughter, Felicia, missed escaping to the U.S., but like Lourdes, she rejects the Cuban political system. Having suffered traumas, she is emotionally fragile.  But Celia considers Felicia a non-conformist, and despite the mother having suffered incarceration herself, she visits a similar punishment upon her daughter.  Putting love of country and its political system before love of family, Celia has Felicia committed to an indoctrination camp in hopes of changing her political philosophy.

The cast is led by Mary Ann Rodgers as Celia, who captures not only the abuela’s dogmatism, but also her wistfulness and loneliness as she revisits unsent letters to her Spanish lover from before her marriage.  Anna Marie Luera ably conveys the often deficient humanity of the fiery Lourdes as she pursues objectives with little regard for unintended consequences.

Steve Ortiz as Lt. Rojas (a patriot).

A lively dynamic occurs as the action shifts back and forth between the U.S. and Cuba, yet there are occasional lapses in narrative pacing as well as acting and timing of interaction.  But there are also several significant events and clashes among characters that bristle with dynamic tension.  The plethora of themes that are explored, particularly concerning the various conflicts of values, yields a provocative theatrical piece that is nicely rendered with great sensitivity.

“Dreaming in Cuban,” a world premiere written by Cristina Garcia, is produced by Central Works, and plays at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley, CA, through July 31, 2022.

Don Giovanni

Etienne Dupuis as Don Giovanni, Luca Pisaroni as Leporello. All photos by Cory Weaver.

The sky is fiery ashen orange, reminiscent of the foreboding atmosphere in the Bay Area from the 2021 California wildfires.  Fortunately, this post-apocalyptic vision comes not from nature, but rather from the opera stage.  Fittingly, San Francisco Opera sets the tale of the morally failed title character in a time of environmental and societal collapse.  This is “Don Giovanni” in what could be future America.

Before the pandemic, San Francisco Opera decided to package Mozart’s three greatest Italian-language and Italianate-style operas, “Marriage of Figaro,” “Cosi Fan Tutti,” and “Don Giovanni”” into a trilogy.   They also happen to be his three collaborations with the great librettist Lorenzo da Ponte.  The common thread of the adaptations is not just that they take place on American soil, but literally on the same plot of earth.  For the first installment, it was a Revolution-era home that in the second had been converted into an exclusive club in the 1930s.  In the final opera in the series, the stately Greek Revival edifice is crumbling in the dystopia of the year 2080.

(top to bottom) Amitai Pati as Don Ottavio, Adela Zaharia as Donna Anna, Soloman Howard as The Commendatore.

The dark comedy “Don Giovanni” holds a place as one of the greatest operas ever composed.  In the hands of a world class company like San Francisco Opera with a great orchestra and the ability to attract some of the best artists to grace the stage, the production is as musically rich as it is professionally performed.

Based on the oft-told Don Juan legend, the title character is a womanizing libertine of low moral character, whose only positive trait is his charm, which acts as the fuel for his ability to seduce and rape women with lies and abuse and betray his loyal manservant, Leporello.   Among the latter’s less dangerous chores, he actually keeps a log of his master’s thousands of conquests, revealed in the servant’s humorously-delivered signature aria “Madamina, il catalogo è questo.”  The Don and Leporello are Etienne Dupuis and Luca Pisaroni respectively, and both give apt portrayals with powerful vocals spanning the bass-baritone range.

Christina Gansch as Zerlina, Cody Quattlebaum as Masetto.

Mozart himself loved women, and da Ponte’s libretto offers three very satisfying female roles of fairly equal importance.  Although their incidents with Don Giovanni are unrelated, the women’s paths cross and they become collaborators, like a posse hunting down a perpetrator.

Adela Zaharia is Donna Anna, whose steely determination to identify and punish the killer of her father, the Commendatore, is a key driver to the action.  Her clear and concise voice reaches its heights in Act 2 with a beautiful coloratura in “Non mi dir,” when she tells her suitor, Don Ottavio, that she is not ready to wed quite yet after the recent tragedy.  As Donna Elvira, Nicole Car shares her dramatic vocalization in two ensembles with Don Giovanni and Leporello, “Ah! chi mi dice mai” and “Ah! taci ingiusto core.”

Christina Gansch plays Zerlina, who as a peasant is relegated to lesser treatment.  However, she is vocally equal to the other female victims, and she shares with the Don the most memorable music in the opera, the classic duet “Là ci darem la mano.”

Luca Pisaroni as Leporello, Nicole Car as Donna Elvira.

This staging of “Don Giovanni” is problematic.  On the one hand, it can be accepted as random design and virtually ignored, since the captivating music and complex drama can still be fully appreciated.   On the other hand, Director Michael Cavanagh did conceive this as the last piece in the American trilogy.  But other than abundant damaged remains of U.S. flag motifs, nothing seems especially American.  And although the costumery is supposed to symbolize the repurposing of haberdasher leftovers in this grim futuristic world, that notion doesn’t come across unless the viewer has read the director’s intent.  Further, when an orchestra appears on stage, gray-wigged players are in period European uniforms, which is confusing given the time and place of the action.

Separately, the treatment of the Commendatore is undramatic at the outset but stunning at the end.  The performer, Solomon Howard, is not made to look old and distinguished, and rather than having some stage time, perhaps as an apparition to establish the sense of the character and situation, he simply descends a staircase and promptly gets killed, making the whole action seem perfunctory and insignificant.  Conversely, at the closing, a 24-foot high bust of the Commendatore moves slowly upstage to dramatic music, as clever lighting morphs the ghostly sculpture.  A ragged chasm down the center of its face splits open, and a fiery inferno appears in the divide.  Quite a spectacle!

Etienne Dupuis as Don Giovanni.

As previously noted, it is easy to quibble about the strengths and weaknesses of the production design, however, the bones of this opera will always stand tall, and the fine cast and orchestra deliver a fine experience.

“Don Giovanni,” with music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and 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 July 2, 2022.