Lear

James A. Williams as Lear. All photos by Kevin Berne.

In one of Jack Nicholson’s lesser-known films, “About Schmidt,” he plays a retiring white-collar worker.  At his retirement party, his successor says that he will be in touch to call upon Schmidt’s expertise.  Of course, the call never comes.  Extending the treatise on transition of power, I had several friends and competitors during my international banking career who jumped from prime banks to lesser ones, drawn by bigger salaries.  They were surprised that their prestige declined and fewer invitations were on offer, even from business “friends.”  They didn’t realize the power of what is said on the business cards we carry. 

So it is with King Lear.  Although rigid and demanding undivided loyalty (sound familiar?), he plans his succession by transferring his properties to his daughters before his dotage, while retaining his title.  What he is oblivious to is that his properties were the primary source of the loyalty he received and the control he exercised.  His descent and conflict with his heirs and subjects commence.

Esteemed Black playwright Marcus Gardley received a grant to fashion a new translation of Shakespeare’s great tragedy “King Lear.”  In doing so, he largely retained the characters, plotline, and Elizabethan language form while updating archaic vocabulary and references.

Critically, Gardley moved the action from England to San Francisco’s largely Black Fillmore District in 1969, where jazz was king, and The Fillmore was known as “The Harlem of the West.”  It was a time of great social conflict and transition that included counterculturalism, the Vietnam War, the Black Panthers, civil rights clashes and advances.  The result of the Cal Shakes produced, Eric Ting and Dawn Monique Williams directed work is stunning – a compelling version that retains all of the gravity of the original while embellishing it with touches that enhance its modern relevance.

Lear is an imposing figure with gruff mannerisms, knee-jerk emotions, and a passion for vengeance.  James A. Williams portrays the king with consummate skill.  As Lear, Williams displays unflinching absolute authority as he divides up his estates.  At his urging, the king’s two older, married daughters, Goneril and Regan, obsequiously avow their unconditional love for their father to ensure their inheritance.  But when the youngest, the earnest Cordelia, says she can profess no additional love above that which she’s given all her life, Williams scowls and howls and his character dispossesses her from any inheritance or dowry.

Lear foisted the condition on his heirs that he spend 50 days in each of their households, but as they impose discomforting restrictions on his stay, he realizes his error in judgment.  The sycophants were dishonest, and the emperor has no clothes.  Here, Williams deftly displays incredulity with both plaintiveness and indignant rage.

Civil war will erupt, and Lear will realize, too late, that Cordelia, now married to the good Duke of New Orleans, was truly honest and loving.  Throughout the story, this theme of perception versus reality recurs, revealing how flawed our decisions can be when we fail to scratch beneath the surface to find the elusive reality.

Transposing a work to a new time and locale is a tricky exercise.  At one extreme, the goal is to overlay new visuals without disrupting the original narrative at all.  At the other, the viewer is totally transported to a new environ to the extent that the connection between the new and old work is merely symbolic (e.g., is “West Side Story” really just a remake of “Romeo and Juliet.”?).

Cast.

The author takes a somewhat challenging middle ground.  While preserving names and the bulk of the text, he adds framing devices including narration, extra characters, and musicians to imbue the piece with local color and Black experience.  Racially-charged incidents, like The Fool’s story about the Ku Klux Klan, are referenced.  As a result, the viewer may suffer ambiguity, sometimes processing the central action as in Middle Ages England, but then being mentally yanked into perceiving 20th century United States.  That said, this overlay produces stirring effects.

The action plays against Tanya Orellana’s appropriately functional two-story structure, while highlights are brought into focus by Scott Bolman’s striking lighting design.  As sheer entertainment, period music adds a delightful dimension.  Some songs are specifically relevant and delivered as stand alones, like “It’s a Family Affair” and “Stormy Weather.”  At other times, music accompanies dialog.

The delivery systems for almost all of the music are fascinating.  A luminous and talented Velina Brown provides much of the singing.  Designated as Black Queen, she appears like an apparition in a full-length, white, formal gown, serving various functions from narration to the dance of death.  One assumes that the crazy idea to combine a trombone and a standing bass as the two instruments to provide musical background came from the composer of the incidentals, Marcus Shelby.  What genius!  The twosome are spectacular in producing a jazzy Fillmore feel.

Political commentary in the narrative appropriately focuses on the Geary Expressway, which was built in the “60s as an urban renewal project with virtually no consideration of the wants of the affected people.  Its stated non-transportation goal was to eliminate blighted and crime-ridden areas.  However, it destroyed much of the vital Fillmore District; split what remained; and caused a diaspora of the Black community from the place they loved.

Regrettably, the author uses a little misleading shorthand in his narrative, blaming “the mayor” for the debacle.  Most viewers will be unfamiliar with the particulars. Joseph Alioto was mayor in 1969, but the project took place under the previous administration of George Alexander, who happened to have a fine civil rights record.  If there is a true villain with perhaps questionable motives, one might look into the history of Justin Hermann, then head of the San Francisco Development Agency.

In any event, Marcus Gardley’s “Lear” is phenomenal in conception and breathtaking in execution.

“Lear,” a world premiere written by Marcus Gardley and adapted from William Shakespeare’s play “King Lear” is produced by Cal Shakes in partnership with Oakland Theater Project & Play On Shakespeare and appears at Bruns Amphitheatre, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orindo, CA through October 2, 2022.

Antony and Cleopatra

Amina Edris as Cleopatra, Gerald Finley as Mark Antony. All photos by Cory Weaver.

How many people’s knowledge of ancient Rome is substantially defined by Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” possibly through reading it in high school or seeing the play or a film version?  Less famous, but more complex thematically, is what in modern parlance would be called Shakespeare’s sequel to that play.  In addition to the love story and political alliance of the title characters, “Antony and Cleopatra” continues the internecine political intrigues and battles, supplanting the Roman Empire’s First Triumvirate from the first play with the Second Triumvirate. 

Hadleigh Adams as Agrippa, Paul Appleby as Octavius Caesar, Elizabeth DeShong as Octavia, Gerald Finley as Mark Antony, Philip Skinner as Lepidus.

San Francisco Opera presents the world premiere of John Adams’ “Antony and Cleopatra,” a worthy achievement full of rapture for the eyes and ears from America’s most accomplished living opera composer.  Considerable dramatic tension arises with many escalating moments and painful conflicts in both intimate and grand contexts.  The interaction of the fractured psyches of powerful people playing on the world stage is a regrettably recurring one that lives today in a number of political environs.  Yet, several issues potentially detract from the new opera’s appeal, depending on one’s preferences and perspective.

The composer has been drawn to a wide array of histories as the basis for his librettos – “Nixon in China,” “Doctor Atomic,” and “The Death of Klinghoffer,” the last being notorious for what many consider its anti-Semitic tropes and its laxness toward terrorism.  No such controversy will accompany “Antony and Cleopatra,” but the subject is an interesting choice.

Amina Edris as Cleopatra (in orange).

An opera with the same title and source was composed by Samuel Barber with libretto by Franco Zeffirelli for the Metropolitan Opera House opening in 1966.  It was a spectacular flop, driven by bloated production values.  Though the music of these two operas is clearly unrelated, the significant similarity is that both preserve the Bard’s plotline and language as much as possible.  However, Adams wisely avoided experiencing Barber’s version to maintain complete artistic integrity.

The staging of this production deserves special note.  Mimi Lien’s set design under Elkhanah Pulitzer’s direction seems that it might be a little spare at first, because so little of the stage’s capacity is availed.  Only the front portion of the stage is used until an hour into the production, yet powerful images are created in a stunning setting.  As a primary motif, living dioramas are revealed through a seamed black wall that partly opens and closes as a camera lens aperture but with a square rather than round opening (though this effect is not well shown in production photos).  With David Finn’s stark lighting, characters visually pop for a compelling look.  Throughout, the angularity and contrast of the visual stage elements and the boldness of large group scenes create a darkly volatile sense befitting the narrative.

Paul Appleby as Octavius Caesar, chorus.

A major artistic story accompanies the opera’s premiere.  The role of Cleopatra was written for Julia Bullock, who had to withdraw due to pregnancy.  Amina Edris stepped in, and with this performance she has solidified her ascent to the largest opera stages in the world.  Although she possesses and displays warm lyric characteristics in her voice, this role demands dramatic quality, which she delivers commandingly as she conveys conditions from courage to cowardice.

Cleopatra’s consort, the weary Mark Antony, has reached the shared pinnacle of power as a triumvir with Octavius Caesar and Lepidus, but Shakespeare’s Antony reveals feet of clay unexpected from an august personage.  In private, his lassitude and devotion to love life suggest a constitution psychologically unfit for the rigors of the highest leadership.  His judgment fails several times when confronting major decisions.  In response to a challenge, he disastrously agrees to battle Octavius Caesar at sea where Caesar holds an advantage, rather than on land.  The accomplished and versatile Gerald Finlay portrays the conflicted Antony with great emotional precision.  Vocally, he accomplishes what is required, but regrettably, the music and libretto don’t lend more opportunity for vocal bravura of which he is capable.

Alfred Walker as Enobarbus, Amina Edris (lounging and projected)

The action is supported by Adams’ score, which is written in modern fashion, with little interest in traditional melodic lines.  One exception is Cleopatra’s lament, in which a simple but touching tune can be heard played in single notes by one instrument.  However, Adams is a master of orchestration, and here, the score excels.  Often, multitudinous rhythms and phrases come from different instrument groups in quick succession, resulting in complex and driving patterns of sound in the background.  Eun Sun Kim conducts with conviction, maintaining orchestral precision through frequent tempo changes and demanding sequences.

Three consequences result from the composer’s trying to replicate the Bard’s intention in the libretto.  Even with surtitles, Elizabethan English can be difficult to digest, especially when it passes by quickly, so it is easy to miss some of the nuance of the story.  Further, despite its psychological and reflective elements, the text is virtually all conversational, leaving little opportunity for arias and less for ensembles which create more vivid music.  Finally, in Adams’ nod to thoroughness, the opera clocks in at almost 3 1/12 hours, which tests the limits for a modern opera.  What’s more, the action in the last half of Act 2 could be comfortably summarized in a couple of sentences, but it goes on considerably at the very time that fast pacing would be most appreciated by the audience.

Amina Edris as Cleopatra, Gerald Finley as Mark Antony.

One final issue is that the opera is set in the 1930s, offering shades of the Hollywood glamor and fascist depravity of that time.  This conceit does allow for the visual appeal of period newsreels projections and a more varied look in Constance Hoffman’s appealing and fashionable costumery, but the conceptual rationale is unclear.  Notwithstanding these subjective concerns, the work is an interesting addition to American opera and John Adams’ catalog.

“Antony and Cleopatra” with music by John Adams and libretto by John Adams from William Shakespeare and consultation by Elkhanah Pulitzer and Lucia Scheckner, is produced by San Francisco Opera and plays at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA through October 5, 2022.

The Marriage of Figaro

Maria Natale as Countess Almaviva, Deepa Johnny as Cherubino, Maya Kherani as Susanna. All photos by David Allen.

From the opening Indian folk dance involving courtship ritual, it is clear that this won’t be your father’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”  Indeed, the proceedings are transported to colonial India, which lends itself to another dimension of social interpretation of the text.  Shifting the time and place of operas from their originally defined setting is common, as new vistas unfold on old trails, provoking fresh thought.   Not all of these transfers work well, but Opera San José’s thoughtful transmogrification feels as natural and organic as if it were intended to be there.  It doesn’t hurt that the production exudes charm and entertains from beginning to end.

This 1786 opera was the first of three collaborations by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte, as fine a composer and librettist team as has ever created opera – their other works being “Don Giovanni” and “Cosi Fan Tutte.”  Perhaps more than any other, “Marriage” is considered to be the finest comic opera ever written, if not the finest opera altogether.  Not only are Mozart’s musical powers at their peak, but da Ponte’s distillation of the book produces genuine comedy of many ilks – manners, sight, physical, verbal, mistaken identity, and more.  Further, he creates characters that we care about, and their foibles are well presented in a constantly moving narrative driven by thoughtful lyrics.

Zhengyi Bai as Don Basilio, Matthew Anchel as Dr. Bartolo, Tahanee Aluwihare as Marcellina, Eugene Brancoveanu as Count Almaviva.

The story line is somewhat complicated to summarize as convoluted subplots abound, but the dominant thread is the profound influence of hormones on humanity.  At its center is the droit de seigneur, the right of feudal lords to have sex with their female servants on their wedding night.  Figaro, the valet to Count Almaviva, is engaged to Susanna, the maidservant to the Countess.  Although the Count had previously renounced his right, he is quite taken by Susanna and has decided to re-enact it before she marries.  This causes consternation among many, especially the betrothed and the Countess.  Intrigue and hilarious machinations ensue.  Identities are swapped; refuge is taken in closets and behind skirts; and escape is taken by jumping out of a second-floor window.

One might wonder why Figaro is the title character of the work.  “Marriage” contains five major principals who are important to the plot and share significant air time and highlights.  Efrain Solis is a fine Figaro.  Generally cheerful, he is naïve about the motives of the Count, having no wariness as to why the Count would want the newlyweds to have a bedroom next to his.  Solis’ warm baritone and disposition suit the role well.  He renders Figaro’s arias, such as “Non più andrai,” with conviction but could use more power at the bottom of his range.

(Front) Efrain Solis as Figaro, Eugene Brancoveanu as Count Almaviva, (Left) Jesus Vicente Murillo as Antonio, Melissa Sondhi as Barbarina, Deepa Johnny as Cherubino.

Overmatching Figaro, Susanna possesses smarts and quick thinking, which comes in handy when having to outmaneuver the Count.  The delightful lyric soprano Maya Kherani plays Susanna.  While her tone was good throughout opening night, it seemed that she needed warmup time before her volume hit full stride.  By Act 3, her ethereal duet with Maria Natale as the Countess, “Sull’aria…che soave zeffiretto,” was sublime.   But despite the heavenly sound of the harmony, the countess was proposing a conspiracy to trap the Count in an indiscretion.

Natale displays easy power and a beautiful sound with her instrument.  She also excels in the tender aria “Dove sono” about the sorrow that the Count’s inconstancy has brought her.  Here and elsewhere, the comedy is set aside, and we feel sympathy for the plight of very humanized characters.

Maya Kherani as Susanna, Maria Natale as Countess Almaviva, Deepa Johnny as Cherubino.

The center of attention is the lascivious Count Almaviva.  Eugene Broncoveanu offers an imposing presence in the part, and he has the comic chops to show the silly side of the Count.  But what this artist brings to every role he plays is a house-filling baritone voice that always seems as if it’s produced effortlessly.

The fifth wheel in the opera is the also lustful Cherubino, one of the great trousers roles in opera.  Deepa Johnny is up to the challenge.  While Cherubino acts as a sidekick, he has some of the funniest situations, which Johnny handles with great aplomb.  What’s more, he (Cherubino)/she (Johnny) has two great vocal highlights, the rapid patter “Non so più cosa son” and the ever popular “Voi che sapete.”  Johnny is up to the vocal demands as well with a warm vibrato and big sound.

Maya Kherani as Susanna, Efran Solis as Figaro.

Apart from the fine cast, the other aspects that make the production work exquisitely are its attractiveness and cultural representation.  These successes are at least partially attributable to the fact that OSJ had many cultural resources to call upon, both creative designers and cast.  Set designs reflect the style of Indian interiors with scalloped arches and classic Indian decorative motifs.  Characters are bedecked in colorful saris and shalwar chemises.  And the cherry on top is a lively, colorful, stage-filling Bollywood-style dance as a closing number.

“The Marriage of Figaro” conceived by its creators reveals class differences and their consequences in a Spanish, but rather generic European, setting.  So, why colonial India?  By depicting the Count and Countess as British, new subtexts emerge – relationships between Imperialists and subjects, which in this case also corresponds to white versus brown.

Cast.

An alternative treatment could have been to make the nobles Indian.  Indian royalty did exist, and the social distinctions among Indian castes were profound.  However, Silicon Valley is home to many of South Asian heritage.  They come from different religions and origins (as do the cast and the creative team).  Launching a production sensitive to all of the potential intraregional issues probably would have been a greater challenge than going with the colonial angle.  In any case, this production engages and delights even more than this reviewer’s previous experiences with this great opera.

“The Marriage of Figaro,” with music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte is based on the play “La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro” by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais; is produced by Opera San Jose; and plays at the California Theatre, 123 South 1st Street, San José, CA through September 25, 2022.

Moulin Rouge! The Musical

Austin Durant and cast. All photos by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade.

To witness an audience so totally primed and pumped at a city’s very first performance of a live musical is quite remarkable.  After all, “Moulin Rouge! The Musical” is not (yet) a cult classic like “Rocky Horror Show.”  And it wasn’t just the din of howling at the first familiar uplifting rock-and-roll song, or the first stirring can-can dance.  Even the shower from a confetti wand and hippy (i.e., the body joint, not the counterculturist) posturing produced paroxysms of enthusiasm from the youth dominated crowd.

And then there was the curmudgeon among the assembled.  Sometimes a theater goer attends a performance expecting to grit his teeth and suffer through mindless eye and ear candy that is a bad fit for his interests.  Indeed, the old guy resisted the first assaults on the senses.  But it wasn’t long before he appreciated why this work won 10 Tony Awards.  Its production values are top flight; the mix of music has broad appeal; the story engages, despite its stock elements; and all categories of performance in this touring show are first rate.  In a word, it sizzles.

Conor Ryan, Courtney Reed.

The appeal of the show draws on the naughty titillation of the fin de siècle cabarets that emerged in the steamy Montmartre district of Paris, where the working set, bohemians, and the demi-monde (the upper class who go slumming), sat side-by-side.  The Moulin Rouge marked the spiritual epicenter, where the can-can was originated and danced by courtesans.  The great artist from that period, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, patronized the scene, and his paintings promoted its seamy but seductive attraction.

With that backdrop, this story tells of a young, penniless songwriting American, Christian, who falls in love with Satine, the star of the show – no surprise there.  Conflict derives from the financial distress that the Moulin Rouge suffers.  Its savior is a rich Duke, but there is an extra price to pay.  He insists that his personal relationship with Satine be part of the package of saving the nightclub.

The entertainment in the show comes from many sources other than the plot.  As a jukebox musical, songs play a vital and nostalgic role.  Sixty or more appear, and they constitute the songbook of our lives, drawing from many decades and many genres including rock, pop, r & b, jazz, and even opera.

Conor Ryan, Gabe Martinez, Andre Ward, Austin Durant.

Some songs are pretty much full renditions and may recur, such as the thematic “Lady Marmalade” (Voulez vous coucher avec moi?), “Your Song,” and “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”.  Others are in medleys, and some are amusingly sampled in quick succession with phrases from songs serving as dialog.  But what makes the music work so well is that the arrangements are appealing and delivered by fantastic voices and a fine orchestra.

Some of the performers are outstanding stylists as well, especially Conor Ryan, as Christian, who rode every emotion convincingly.  Although it was by no means his most significant contribution, he even made a snippet from the super treacly “Sound of Music” have character.  And speaking of characters, his straggly hair deserves special mention as it added heft to his acting by draping down his forehead and being flung back into place in tormented moments.  His love interest, Courtney Reed’s Satine, doesn’t have quite the range of demands placed on her, but she sings in a traditionally beautiful voice.

Cast.

Two other actors stand out.  Austin Durant is the owner of the cabaret, Harold Zidler, outfitted like a ringmaster at a circus.  He plays the flamboyant majordomo with élan but also displays a fine baritone voice as well.  The crippled, bittersweet Toulous-Lautrec is portrayed by André Ward, and it is a shame that we don’t get to hear more of his smoky-mellow bass-baritone voice.

What makes the musical lively, however, is its overall ambiance.  Of course, the club itself is bedecked in cathouse red, highlighted by heart-shaped neon lights with additional dramatic lighting when called for.   It creates a lively staging for the flashing flair of the colorful can-can skirts and other striking costumes.  Other sets offer backdrops for diversity, from the promenades by the fashionable set on the Champs-Élysée to the performance preparations in the dark, monochromatic rehearsal space.

Courtney Reed, David Harris.

And then there’s the dancing.  Movement fills the stage and creates excitement, and there’s plenty of excellent choreography and execution, both in period and modern styles.  It all adds up to contribute to an evening of fine Broadway-style entertainment.

“Moulin Rouge! The Musical” with book by John Logan; based on the movie “Moulin Rouge” written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce; and with music and lyrics by various composers, is presented by BroadwaySF and plays at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco, CA through November 6, 2022.

this much i know

Anna Ishida, Rajesh Bose. All photos by Kevin Berne.

Some eras are dominated by particular motifs that seem to wash over everything.  So it is that some observers of Jonathan Spector’s brilliant new play on cognitive illusion will unconsciously tap into the allegory of the persistence of Trumpism.  Spector draws on the research of esteemed psychologist Daniel Kahneman who notes how difficult it is for people to process information that doesn’t conform to existing biases, i.e., even though we know that we embrace falsehoods, we reject the truths that are right in front of us.  “this much i know” addresses cognitive illusion along with issues concerning how we make decisions; how we change our minds; and what we are responsible for in a riveting, fast-paced narrative that entertains and provokes to the fullest.

The playwright has cobbled together three seemingly unrelated stories and interlinked them to elucidate his rhapsody on cognitive illusion and responsibility.  Two have factual situations as the kernel of their narratives.  The third may or may not relate to a specific incident known to the playwright, but in any case, it is an exemplar for bad things happening to good people.

Kenny Toll, Anna Ishida.

In one vignette, Harold, a doctoral student in psychology, seeks a dissertation advisor for his proposed research concerning H. G. Wells’ “The Time Machine,” in which he has ideas about Wells’ motivation for creating the races of the Eloi and the Morlocks.  Problem is, Harold has been shunned by other faculty as he carries the baggage of having been raised by a prominent white supremacist.  What’s more, this professor, Lukesh, is Indian.

In another sub-plot, Lukesh is married to Natalya.  One day, she suffers a tragedy, and like most men would, Lukesh tries to comfort her the best he knows how.  However, his best misses the mark from Natalya’s perspective, and his behaviors fit a pattern that she resents.  Her reaction creates a barrier in their relationship.

The final component focuses on Svetlana Stalina, Joseph Stalin’s daughter, who defected to the United States during the Cold War.  Natalya’s Russian grandmother, who had been a childhood friend of Svetlana, had died under questionable circumstances during Stalin’s rule.  Natalya wants to find out why someone closely linked to the dictator’s daughter would die suspiciously.

Rajesh Bose, Kenny Toll.

Rather than presenting the stories sequentially, they are artfully interwoven into 60 scenes of everchanging venues.  Tanya Orellana’s clever scenery to represent this variety is abstract – a wall of white squares with compartments that open to reveal everything from tea service to paintings.  The wall also serves as a fine canvas for other visual elements. Cubes, whose designs echo the wall, pass as various furnishings.

Three outstanding actors comprise the cast.  Each plays a central role along with a number of smaller parts.  Rajesh Bose is Lukesh.  He embodies the professor he plays, as he often pontificates to the audience as a self-satisfied and entertaining lecturer to his class.

In his didactic mode, Lukesh illuminates the underlying psychology behind the characters’ thoughts and actions, which brings clarity to the subtext in an organic fashion.  For example, he avows that people are predisposed to accept whatever they hear as truth (which is why falsehoods are so often peddled by unscrupulous politicians who know how sticky lies are).   He also teaches that all persuasion is self-persuasion, and that when one’s beliefs are directly confronted, the normal response is to become defensive rather than receptive. 

Rajesh Bose.

Anna Ishida represents the quietly suffering Natalya, overshadowed and underappreciated, with understated intensity.  She also portrays Svetlana, trampled as well, but in different ways.  Trained by her father to be demonstrative, she is privileged because of her birth, but she feels more like property than a person.  She seeks the independence to speak her own thoughts.

Finally, Kenny Toll conveys the internal conflict that Harold faces with controlled animation.  He also plays several, often smiling and ebullient Russian men with thick accents as counterparts to the women.  As Harold, he bears resentment that the sins of his father devolve upon him, as he begins to question the beliefs that he was raised with.  It is mostly through this character that the playwright raises the issues of complicity, agency, and change.

The crux is this. To what extent or until what point in life can a person be held responsible for beliefs and actions that may later be repudiated?  For those who were raised in an enlightened environment, there may not be sufficient appreciation of the consternation one faces when abandoning the accepted wisdom and social network of their upbringing. 

Anna Ishida.

Kudos to Director Josh Costello for the masterful orchestration of the many moving parts of this complex production.  It is remarkable that a world premiere night could go off so smoothly with such a multitude of ways it could go wrong.  Appreciation also goes to the whole creative team, including Lighting Designer Jeff Rowlings, Sound Designer James Ard, and Projection Designer Maxx Kurzunski.  The latter’s videos of picture portraits of characters who speak like drop-chin marionettes add a little extra levity to the proceedings.  Of course, the ultimate admiration is for Jonathan Spector’s script which is a commanding amalgam of intense instruction and captivating entertainment.

“this much i know,” a world premiere written by Jonathan Spector, is produced by Aurora Theatre Company and plays on their stage at 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA through October 2, 2022.

Xanadu

Jason Kimmel as Sonny, Annie Hunt as Kira. All photos by Dave Lapori.

Dial X if you’re looking for a good time!  Remember the salacious messages from the past scrawled on the walls of telephone booths and public toilets?  Serious theater goers may have something else in mind when attending a play.  They may be looking for provocative or intellectually weighty.   But every once in a while, a good time does the trick, and “Xanadu” scratches that itch.

The successful 2007 musical is based on the 1980 film of the same name, which bombed with critics and audiences.  Yet, the film’s soundtrack, which is composed by Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne and frequent Olivia Newton-John collaborator John Ferrar, and performed by O N-J and ELO, went double platinum.  What’s more, the film became a cult classic, especially with Newton-John fans.

For those not familiar with the work, including this writer, the plot is fanciful.  Clio is one of the mythical Nine Muses of Olympus, the inspirational demigoddesses of arts and sciences in ancient Greece.  In Venice Beach, California, six of the nine sisters are depicted in a chalk mural by a starving artist, Sonny Malone.  When the sisters come to life and descend from the mural, Melpomene and Calliope mischievously play a trick on Clio that will cause her to break the rules set by their father, Zeus, and presumably result in harsh punishment.

The Muses: (back row) B Noel Thomas as Melpomene; Brian Conway as Calliope; (middle row) Osher Fein as Erato; Annie Hunt as Clio; Brieanne Alisa Martin as Euterpe; (front row) Isai Centeno as Terpsicore. 

The sisters cause Clio to fall in love with a mortal, Sonny.  As a result, Clio, hiding her identity; adopting the name Kira; and donning roller skates and leg warmers, joins Sonny on his quest to convert a dilapidated theater into a rink for roller disco, which peaked as a fad around the time of the action.  Various divertissements occur.

What makes “Xanadu” fun is its light-heartedness and tongue-in-cheek humor based on ridiculously unrealistic happenings.  It’s camp.  It’s kitschy.  It’ll make you smile a lot and laugh out loud.  To make silliness work for 90 minutes is not as easy as it may seem.  Director Scott Evan Guggenheim finds the right pacing and tone to make it happen.

The other string to the play’s bow is the lively music that any who are familiar with the work of ELO and O N-J will enjoy with great nostalgia.  The score includes “Magic,” “Evil Woman,” “Strange Magic,” “Have You Never Been Mellow?,” “Xanadu” and more, which is particularly surprising and welcomed for those who don’t know what music to expect.

This musical requires a top-notch performance of the central role of Clio/Kira.  That comes from Annie Hunt, who echoes the Olivia Newton-John performance in the film with an outstanding singing voice, the requisite Australian accent, and considerable chirp and charm with a super-high likeability factor.  Having a fine natural appearance, the one area of improvement would be to make her wholesome look pop, which is faded compared to her sisters when viewed from the audience.  Her dirty blond hair (brunette in these rehearsal photos) would stand out better if it were pure blonde, and her subtle lipstick and makeup could stand to be more dramatic.

Cast members. Partial view of house, skyline, and parking garage from stage.

Meanwhile, Sonny, well portrayed by Jason Kimmel, is somewhat knowledge-challenged, dolty, and naïve, but he does possess vision and persistence to make his roller disco dream a reality.  If there is a message in the play, it is Kira’s observation about the human spirit when witnessing Sonny’s fortitude, that “Humans know they’ll die, but still they strive to create.”  Kimmel’s singing voice didn’t impress at the outset, but he displayed a very nice tenor instrument by the time of his wonderful duet “Suddenly” with Hunt.

Any interesting plot requires an obstacle to overcome, and that is in the person of Danny Maguire, the initially fast-talking, obnoxious, and overbearing owner of the Xanadu Theater.  Though it is due for demolition the next day, he agrees to let Sonny renovate it and become his 25% partner, if Sonny can complete the work by that night!  Great guy, that Danny.

What softens Danny, played effectively by Jim Ambler, is that he sees in Kira a lost but never forgotten love from his past.  Ambler has a very good baritone voice.  His most memorable number is “Whenever you’re away from me” a duet with Hunt that includes a fast scat jazz interlude and finishes with a soft-shoe pas de deux

Jason Kimmel as Sonny, Annie Hunt as Kira.

The hoofing by Kira and Danny is one of several attractive dances of various sorts, including some on roller skates, choreographed by Shannon Guggenheim.  The other creatives add dimensions to the production, especially Costume Designer Julie Engelbrecht, who oversees many costume changes in different styles reflecting different periods.  Engelbrecht also designed the set.

Comments about the venue.  The Bay Area offers some significant outdoor theater.  There are amphitheaters with all-weather seating, like Cal Shakes.  There is any spot in any park that can hold a mobile stage for San Francisco Mime Theatre, and where the audience can spread out on the grass.  And there are site-specific settings for We Players, where instead of scenes changing on the stage, the audience moves from one location to another as scenes change.  Their “Romeo and Juliet” at Montalvo was spectacularly fitting, and one for the ages.

San Jose Playhouse has a new formula – performing on the roof of a parking garage with a vista of downtown buildings.  But the audience relaxes on indoor theatrical seats that are organized in socially-distanced clusters.  It’s a nice variation that even provides validated parking in the same building.  The atmosphere of the setting adds to the overall fun.

“Xanadu” with music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar and book by Douglas Carter Beane, is produced by San Jose Playhouse and plays on the rooftop of 3 Below Theaters at Second and San Carlos Garage, 288 South 2nd St., San Jose, CA through September 11, 2022.