Ennio: The Living Paper Cartoon

Ennio Marchetto as Mona Lisa. All photos courtesy of Ennio Marchetto.

Paper ranks among humanity’s most ubiquitous, yet humble inventions.  But in the minds of solo performer Ennio Marchetto and his design partner Sosthen Hennekam, it becomes the stuff of dreams – two-dimensional costumes that clothe over 50 celebrities in his clever nostalgic production.  Mind you, this isn’t like routine printer paper, but uniquely-painted, industrial-strength stock that becomes the basis for paper art on steroids, contributing to a result of great hilarity.

“Ennio: The Living Paper Cartoon” plays at Club Fugazi, a generous gift by the family of the same name to the Italian community of North Beach early in the 20th century.  Formerly the home of the world’s longest running music (and comedy) revue, “Beach Blanket Babylon,” it is the perfect setting for this production.  Like its predecessor in the venue, it doesn’t aim for anything serious, and having a drink or two along with the nightclub-type entertainment totally fits the bill.

Adele, with Lionel Richie below.

In a fast-moving 60 minutes, mime comic Ennio provides cleverly curated cartoon characterizations of celebrities and lip syncs to songs, mostly recorded by the people portrayed.  The music is the songbook of our lives (if you’re middle aged or older!), including rock-and-roll, pop of various sorts, and rap.

Actually, this evolving concept has run for over 30 years in more than 70 countries, accumulating a number of local awards and a Drama Desk nomination for its Off Broadway run.  The show catalogs over 150 musical skits and associated costumes, and a mix-and-match selection takes place in organizing for each performance location, which creates continuing logistical challenges for soundtracking, costume sequencing, and, of course, remembering the skit order and all of the associated lyrics.

Bruce Springsteen

Each vignette requires a different outfit, resulting in frantic changes.  An occasional “wardrobe malfunction” occurs, but nothing of consequence, certainly not as titillating as Janet Jackson’s at the Super Bowl – although this performer does get a little naughty from time-to-time.  Some costume changes are done in the dark.  Many are on the fly, with Ennio wearing multilayered, tearaway constructions.  At times, the revelations seem like pulling rabbits from a hat.  Perhaps the most clever onstage transformation is when Queen Elizabeth II morphs into a different Queen – a toothy Freddy Mercury.

All of the routines are laughter producing, and you’ll know the words to most of the songs.  Everyone will have their own favorites.  I particularly liked “I Got You Babe,” in which Ennio portrays both Sonny and Cher in a double decked costume.  In another, the performer’s face fits into the painting of “Mona Lisa” to the music of “I’m your Venus.”  Also, he does a funny Adele medley that keeps getting disrupted by a phone call from Lionel Richey, as well as a windblown bowsprit scene of Kate Winslet in the movie “Titanic” with Celine Dion singing “My Heart Will Go On.”    But there are funny depictions and wonderful songs from Elvis, Barbra Streisand, Beyonce, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Tony Bennett, Marilyn Monroe, and many more icons.  In many of those representations, Ennio nicely captures the gestures and other trademarks of the artists especially well, from Tina Turner’s shimmy to Charlie Chaplin’s wobbling Tramp.

Celine Dion, with Kate Winslet below.

Honoring his Italian heritage, Ennio does go highbrow with music from four operas, but while the music may appeal more to the intellect, the performances certainly do not, and will be enjoyed by those who are not opera buffs.  Numbers are from Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Bizet’s “Carmen,” Brecht/Weill’s “Happy End,” and a very expressive and emotive aria, “Un bel di,” from Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”

In all, this production provides a fast-paced and unique reminiscence that still leaves time for a late dinner or snack in North Beach.  Have a good evening.

Can Can dancer.

“Ennio: The Living Paper Cartoon,” created by Ennio Marchetto, plays at Club Fugazi, 678 Beach Blanket Babylon (or Green) Street, San Francisco, CA through February 5, 2023.


Ellie Pulsifer, Christopher Swan. All photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

“The sun’ll come out – tomorrow.  Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there’ll be sun.”  That optimism in the face of adversity along with a complex and uplifting melody made “Tomorrow,” the signature song from “Annie,” iconic.  It also acted as a huge audience pull.  The 1977 Broadway musical towered with success earning seven Tonys and over 2,300 performances.  It remains one of the most produced musicals around the country, and is in the midst of yet another successful national tour, with a charming production that will please audience members of all ages.  It is brimming with laughs and lively music, yet it offers significant social commentary.

Sophie Stromberg, Vivianne Neely, Valeria Velasco, Kenzie Rees, Riglee Ruth Bryson, Bronte Harrison.

So, what makes “Annie” so popular?  Where to start?  Set during the Great Depression and opening in an orphanage with conditions straight out of a Charles Dickens novel doesn’t seem a likely starting point.  Along the way, the always hopeful heroine, Annie, must overcome challenges, starting with her nemesis, Miss Hannigan.  This mean and drunken orphanage matron is one of the great female comic antagonists on the stage, and she blocks every aspiration Annie can muster.

If the orphanage wasn’t bleak enough, the story shines the light of social consciousness on another sad byproduct of an often heartless society.  Annie escapes temporarily into a Hooverville.  For those who think that homelessness is only a contemporary phenomenon, there were hundreds of these shanty towns and encampments at that time, and the plight of the denizens derived from similar causes of the homeless today – joblessness, debt, eviction, and addiction.


However, in classic deus ex machina style, the secretary to Oliver Warbucks, the world’s richest man, appears at the orphanage to whisk away an orphan for a two-week Christmas holiday in the lap of luxury.  That fortunate foundling would be Annie, and this is the start of something good.

With Warbucks’ war chest and connections at her disposal, Annie tries to find her parents, which engenders more issues – a child’s connectedness to biological versus adoptive parents; the effects of easy money on inducing illegal behavior; how wealth can influence government favoritism; and the clash between serving the needs of the working class versus captains of industry.  Yet many viewers, especially children, who will find this musical particularly appealing, can enjoy it simply for the engaging story and the lively staging.

Krista Curry, Nick Bernardi, Stefanie Londino.

The fun starts in the orphanage.  Seven talented young girls sing the lively “It’s the Hard Knock Life” in unison with bright shrieky voices, a high energy sound that only pre-teens can produce.  Later, the orphans show their dancing skills with high kicks, shimmies, and cartwheels. Whenever the waifs are on stage, they light it up, which, no doubt, keeps the kids in the audience involved. 

Of course, Annie gets most of the highlights with the touching and wishful “Maybe” in which she imagines reuniting with her long lost parents.  And then there’s “Tomorrow” which Ellie Pulsifer as Annie skillfully delivers, starting wistfully and with gradual crescendo, finishing like gangbusters.  The other memorable song is “Easy Street” in which Stephanie Londino as Miss Hannigan gets to display her notable gruff and growl.


The scene shifts frequently to Annie’s two weeks among the rich and famous.  In another fanciful sequence, she even joins Warbucks at a cabinet meeting with President Roosevelt, who apparently doesn’t have enough on his plate as he directs the effort to try to locate her parents. 

The plot of “Annie” is a bit jumpy with some superfluous scenes, and Warbucks talks of adopting Annie without much depiction of the motivation.  These are minor blemishes in a musical with enduring characters, memorable musical numbers, and a sense of socially conscious history.  Like most entertainments that draw from the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” this version contains many of the original signal elements.  Annie possesses curly red hair; in the end, she wears the obligatory red dress with black and white trim; Daddy Warbucks is billiard ball bald; and the biggest source of oohs and aahs enters Annie’s life – the scruffy orphan dog, Sandy.

Addison, Ellie Pulsifer.

“Annie,” with music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin, and book by Thomas Meehan, is presented by Broadway San Jose, and plays at San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose, CA through January 15, 2023.

Poetic Justice – When Art Is Everything

Julia McNeal, Charles Shaw Robinson. Photo by David Allen.

In the past, we exchanged letters – luxuriant, literate, thoughtful, compassionate missives.  They especially sparkled when crafted by artistic minds. Thomas Jefferson’s note to a correspondent attests the goal of clever and succinct erudition when he apologized, saying that if he had more time, he would have written a shorter letter.  As static as the notion of portraying two people exchanging letters on stage may seem, the theme has been successfully dramatized.  One of particular relevance, Sarah Ruhl’s “Dear Elizabeth,” reveals the loving relationship between poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, whose platonic amor spanned decades and distance, with little physical togetherness.

Premiering at San Francisco’s The Marsh, both of Lynne Kaufman’s plays, packaged together under the title “Poetic Justice – When Art is Everything” connect to “Dear Elizabeth.”  Like Ruhl’s work, the first play, “You Must Change Your Life,” reflects on letters – these between Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke and then military cadet and aspiring poet Franz Kappus.  The second, “Divine Madness,” takes poetic license in conceiving conversations between Robert Lowell and his ex-wife, book critic Elizabeth Hardwick, with cautionary entreaties of Elizabeth Bishop in the background.

With only a couple of props and a little blocking here and there, the production of both one-act, two-handers is virtually unstaged.  You won’t need to check your watch, as they are brief and engaging.  The performances are exquisite, with Charles Shaw Robinson playing the esteemed figures and Julia McNeal portraying the less known but also significant literary artists.

Which actor performs better is a matter of subjective criteria.  Robinson differentiates his portrayals more and looks highly convincing as both characters.  He excels as Rilke with his soft, cultivated German accent, suggesting a bit of ramrod intellectual arrogance, but betraying a history of suffering.  As Lowell, he seems more relaxed and naturalistic but with occasional fits of extremes, reflecting the Boston Brahmin’s bipolar disorder, which dogged Lowell throughout his life.

McNeal’s characterizations are less divergent, yet well differentiated.  Two anomalies mark her portrayal of Kappus in “You Must Change Your Life.”  Her character is a male teenager, which is not adequately clarified at first.   Her mature, feminine bearing, as well as references to the character being in the military in turn-of-the-century Austria don’t naturally mesh.  Yet, without mimicking a male youth, she makes the passionate depiction work nicely.  McNeal does not use a German accent, which perhaps she doesn’t feel comfortable with, or maybe Director Lauren English decided that two foreign accents would make the exchanges too taxing for the audience.  In any case, that conceit works well as well.  McNeal’s Elizabeth Hardwick conveys an approach-avoidance clash in her relationship with Lowell that she executes with sensitive frustration and attachment.

The very short Rilke piece, which serves as the basis for his most widely read work, “Letters to a Young Poet,” acts as the warm-up.  It lacks much topography or interaction, but the characters do engage the audience, and the messages resonate.  Rilke advocates living a Godly life “in ever expanding circles” and in helping others. His many deeply introspective and eloquent letters of encouragement to an unknown boy were clearly altruistic, but it is otherwise not clear how closely he heeded his own counsel.  In the parlance of philosopher Joseph Campbell, Rilke’s most important advice focuses on following one’s bliss.  In particular, he challenges Kappus to “Confess to yourself if you would have to die if forbidden to write.”

In “Divine Madness,” the two characters do interact organically and with greater animation. Conflict reigns as Lowell attempts to reconnect with Hardwick, having betrayed his ex in life and in literature, the latter being his Pulitzer Prize winning yet biased tell-all poetic tome, “The Dolphin.”  But his agendas are transparent, and Robinson effectively reveals Lowell’s manic side in the process. Hardwick parries his advances, but McNeal’s ambivalence shows that Hardwick’s love for Lowell still simmers.  Although no introduction is needed when this play follows the first, there is some confusion that could be resolved with a minor adjustment.  Lowell is not identified at the outset and is repeatedly referred to as Cal, which most observers will not know was the poet’s nickname.

A common thread in the two plays, as suggested by the umbrella title, concerns sacrifices in pursuit of art.  But is it that obsessives become artists or that artists become obsessive?  In any event, dedicated artists can be both rapacious and needy, putting their own concerns above those of the ones that they purport to love.  A probably unintended connection that extends well beyond these two poets is that famous and well-respected individuals often deviate from norms and ideals in what the mainstream would view as negative ways, whether through psychological problems, sexual nonconformity, abusiveness, or addiction.

In short order, playwright Lynne Kaufman offers enticing insights into two contrasting, important modern poets, and the simple production succeeds through fine acting.  This compact but impactful taste of familiarity fully satisfies on its own, while many attendees will want to learn even more about these fragile artists and their robust literary works.

“Poetic Justice – When Art is Everything,” a world premiere written by Lynne Kaufman, is produced by The Marsh and appears on their stage at 1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA through January 29, 2023.


Britney Coleman (Barbara), Will Burton (Adam), Isabella Esler (Lydia) and Justin Collette
(Beetlejuice). All photos by Matthew Murphy.

Ghosts.  Dancing skeletons.  A giant toothy snake from Hell, like Saturday Night Live’s land shark on steroids. “The Handbook for the Recently Deceased.”  When the title character gleefully tells the audience that this is a play about death, he’s not kidding.  Fortunately, it’s all in good fun, and there is plenty of it in this delightfully camp musical adaptation of the highly successful 1988 comedy-horror film.

For those hoping for a repeat experience of the film, fear not.  Minor details are changed.  The owners of the creepy Connecticut country home die from electrocution rather than a car accident (easier to stage), and the interior decorator becomes a real estate investor, but macht nichts.  All the essential features remain, down to the hilarious use of retro calypso songs popularized by Harry Belafonte, “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jump in Line (Shake Senora).”

Kate Marilley (Delia) and Jesse Sharp (Charles).

The premise is that after their deaths, Adam and Barbara want to keep their home for themselves, but it has been purchased by real estate developer Charles.  He moves in, accompanied by his gloomy Goth daughter, Lydia, who mourns for her deceased mother, and the ditsy Delia, whom Charles hired as a life coach for Lydia.  Delia also happens to be Charles’s mistress, and Lydia doesn’t like her at all.

Enter Beetlejuice, a demon from the Netherworld who conspires to re-enter the world of the living, using Delia, Adam, and Barbara to help him.  Meanwhile, these three become willing accomplices, relying on Beetlejuice’s Netherworldly skills to get Charles to abandon the house.

Isabella Esler (Lydia), Will Burton (Adam) and Britney Coleman (Barbara).

The success of the play hinges on a sensational performance by the actor playing Beetlejuice, and Justin Collette succeeds in spades.  Looking like a dirty, deranged convict in oversized clothes; with the wild gesticulations of a marionette gone mad; and the sandpaper voice of Harvey Fierstein, Collette is hysterical.  His lasciviousness is limitless (beware if you are offended by an abundance of X-rated profanity).  He supplicates and bamboozles to accomplish his goals, and his frequent breaking of the fourth wall yields great connection with the audience.

The rest of the cast is totally professional, as expected from a Broadway touring show, but two performers stand out.  Isabella Esler, who happens to be from San Jose, plays in her first ever professional performance, and remarkably, in a lead role.  She captures Lydia’s darkness nicely.  Interestingly, though dressed in black with all of the Goth trimmings, her makeup looks more ingenue, which allows for a more sympathetic characterization and the ray of hope in her personality.  She also displays a strong and versatile singing voice.

Justin Collette (Beetlejuice) and Tour Company of Beetlejuice.

Kate Marilley matches Collette’s over-the-top comic chops as Delia.  She mixes new age, self-help, sex pot, clueless, vibrant, needy, metaphor-spewing and more into one tremendously energetic and humorous performance.

The general storyline is a proven entity, and it works in this format.  With virtually nonstop schtick, no dead spots slow the action, but conversely deeper feelings about the characters or situations don’t have a chance to develop.  Several vignettes may seem superfluous, like the Miss Argentina from the Netherworld; the Girl Scout who has come to sell cookies; the game show with the team of skeletons; and the multiplying Beetlejuices, but each works as entertainment that fits the ghoulish theme.  Other diversions include metatheatrical references and a good chunk of social commentary that resonates with the audience. The catchy music contains lyrics that almost always reveal and propel the narrative.

Karmine Alers (Juno), Tour Company of Beetlejuice, Jesse Sharp (Charles) and Isabella
Esler (Lydia).

The rest of the creative side works in exemplary fashion.  Despite the many shifting venues required, the sets are appealing and convincing and the changes handled with dispatch, usually while brief scenes occur in front of the curtain.  Diverse costumery sparkles, and choreography is brisk.  Come one, come all, and if you want to be in the in crowd, don’t be afraid to dress in black and white stripes.

“Beetlejuice” with music and lyrics by Eddie Perfect, book by Scott Brown and Anthony King, and based on the movie of the same name, is presented by SF Broadway and performed at the Golden Gate Theater, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA through December 31, 2022.

Little Shop of Horrors

Phil Wong as Seymour. All photos by Kevin Berne.

Okay – let’s cut straight to the chase.  The unique chronical of “Little Shop of Horrors” is laugh-out-loud funny; the music is foot-stomping energetic; the production is superb; and the performances are great.  Did I miss anything?  If you see this TheatreWorks production and disagree, check with your physician to make sure you have the pulse rate of a sentient being.

From its humble beginnings as a bargain basement budgeted B-film by Roger Corman in 1960, the cult favorite “Little Shop of Horrors” mutated into a Broadway musical after other iterations.  This production is set in San Francisco Chinatown, which allows the addition of a little local color on the stage, though nothing is changed in the text.

Nick Nakashima as Orin.

With its prologue and the orienting song “Skid Row (Downtown),” the audience is already hooked on a propulsive soundtrack and expecting that two hours of relentless entertainment will follow.  Alan Menken’s music and Howard Ashman’s lyrics stand on their own, but they add little lagniappes to many numbers with a sampling of period songs as well.  The refrain of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” and the iconic guitar riff from The Knack’s “My Sharona” are the most obvious, but you wonder how many others the composers had fun coyly slipping in?  Do I detect a hint of “Beauty school dropout” from “Grease” or Dan Hill’s “Sometimes, when we touch” and more?  Or is it an illusion?

The opening numbers and several others are delivered by a trio of young women whose character names are Chiffon (portrayed by Alia Hodge), Crystal (Naima Alakham), and Ronette (Lucca Troutman).  For those familiar with ‘60s pop/rock music, perhaps you’ll see a naming theme!  You’ll also experience the sounds of a bluesy, doo wop, girl group on steroids.  They act as a Greek chorus, but you’ve never seen one with divas having such sass and attitude along with vocal skills to growl and howl with the best of them.  And they shake their booties as well.

The basic premise is that Seymour (Phil Wong), a nebbish who works in Mr. Mushnik’s (Lawrence-Michael C. Arias) failing florist shop on Skid Row, inadvertently fosters a plant akin to a gigantic Venus fly trap.  He names the plant Audrey II, after Audrey (Sumi Yu), the other employee in the shop, whom he secretly loves.  The plant grows and grows and becomes such an attraction that the florist business booms, and Seymour becomes a celebrity.  The problem is that Audrey II’s growth was initially promoted by  the accidental dripping of Seymour’s blood onto the plant.  As a result, Audrey II develops a taste for human flesh, and as it grows and acquires language and singing abilities, so do its incessant and hilarious demands to “Feed me.”  So, how do you satisfy an insatiable carnivore?

Lucca Troutman as Ronette, Alia Hodge as Chiffon, Naima Alakham as Crystal.

The hapless Seymour, beset by one challenge after another, cuts a sympathetic figure whom you hope will get things right.  A wonderful talent as a comic, Wong even manages to get laughs with simple reaction looks in a 425-seat house.  But he sings surprisingly well also.  In a secondary plot, Orin (Nick Nakashima), a narcissistic dentist becomes Seymour’s nemesis, not just because he is Audrey’s boyfriend, but because he is sadistic and abuses her.  Nakashima plays Orin with flamboyant glee, seemingly channeling, in look and style, a misogynistic Andrew Dice Clay.  He forever inhales nitrous oxide and laughs like a giddy hyena while flailing around, fitting for the threat he represents.

Scenic Designer Christopher Fitzer’s revolving set highlights a strong staging effect.  Of course, the unique star is Audrey II, who starts as a table top plant and grows large enough to capture two human beings in its vast, craving, red fur-lined mouth, with a lewd, dangling tongue.  Brandon Leland acts as the puppetry manipulator and the powerful pipes of Katrina Lauren McGraw as the savage and flesh lusting voice.  All of the production pieces are adeptly coordinated by Director Jeffrey Lo.

Sumi Yu as Audrey, Phil Wong as Seymour, Lawrence-Michael C. Arias as Mr. Mushnik.

For those looking for some deeper meaning in the narrative, “Little Shop of Horrors” can be viewed as a slam on capitalism as cash register ring becomes an obsession, or perhaps a repudiation of the gentrification of traditional neighborhoods as the shop renovates to serve a customer base outside of its home turf.  Certainly, the abusive relationship of Orin toward Audrey could be viewed in light of toxic masculinity.  The viewer can make those inferences, but in all likelihood, the author was just looking to tell a funny story with a bit of spine-tingling horror to distinguish it.  It works.

“Little Shop of Horrors,” with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken, is based on the film of the same name by Roger Corman, and plays at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA through December 24, 2022.

Wuthering Heights

Liam Tamne as Heathcliff, Leah Brotherhead as Catherine. All photos by Kevin Berne.

A great many of today’s theater goers are “of a certain age.”  They (ahem – we!) may have first experienced the original source material of Emily Brontë’s novel “Wuthering Heights” as a physical book in paper and ink as a teen or young adult.  Most of us stage lovers cut our teeth on the silver screen, and our touchstone is the unsurpassable classic 1939 black-and-white film.  Lawrence Olivier commanded the screen in an idol-making performance as the handsome, brooding Heathcliff, and the beautiful, conflicted Merle Oberon engendered our obloquy for making a mating decision based on the social standing of birthright rather than true love.

In my early years, I wondered why re-makes are made.  I finally realized that it was rarely because the producers thought that a new version would be better, but that it would be different and would reach a new audience while making money, of course.  So it is with Adaptor/Director Emma Rice’s stage interpretation of this tale of star-crossed love.  This rendering must be measured by a very different yardstick than traditional versions.  By a calculation based on contemporary sensibilities, Rice’s innovation succeeds in providing a multifaceted entertainment executed with top rate professionalism.

Jordan Laviniere as Leader of the Yorkshire Moors (center).

Although this Gothic novel is grounded in drama, the current version is flippant – a totally accomplished stage version that plays largely for wows and belly laughs.  At first, it seems like it may be too silly.  The opening sequence, when a Mr. Lockwood arrives at Wuthering Heights in the Yorkshire Moors during a storm, is so farcical as to be over-the-top.  For instance, the visitor is held horizontally by other actors to simulate the effect of gale-force wind.  Happily, the play settles into a merely raucous, but sustainable tone.  Although many diversions are on display for entertainment value and to demonstrate irreverence, the narrative is pretty faithfully revealed.

The story is divulged in flashback.  The brutish Heathcliff was abused by an adoptive family after the death of the kind head of household.  Despite stepsister Catherine’s fractiousness, she and Heathcliff love one another, but because of his low status, she marries the landed Edgar.  Unhappiness ensues for all.

Leah Brotherhead as Catherine, Liam Tamne as Heathcliff.

The scene is set with action playing out on a bare stage having open wings.  Minimal props, such as a free-standing door set, are wheeled in as needed.  Actors wear an omnium gatherum of mostly contemporary rags (literally, as well as figuratively).  As a plot device, a Greek chorus characterized as The Yorkshire Moors helps advance the story.

Consistent with the abstraction of the staging, animals are represented through puppetry operated on sticks by actors.  Snapping skulls represent dogs, and flopping books act as birds.  Another conceit used to humorous effect is portable blackboards.  Why, you ask? The family histories are so convoluted and the deaths of characters so frequent that the visual notations in chalk help the viewer keep a scorecard.

A band of several, mostly string players, is scattered around the stage periphery throughout.  Ian Ross’s always interesting original music helps propel the plotline.  With an eclectic mix of British folk, pop, and other influences, it acts as a major driver in enlivening the feel of the production.  Unfortunately, much nuance that the lyrics would provide is lost as they are often indecipherable.

Sam Archer as Edgar, Leah Brotherhead as Catherine.

Performances, including acting, singing, and dancing, are superb.  However, many actors play multiple roles, so keeping characters straight is challenging.  As Heathcliff, Liam Tamne cuts a striking figure.  Swarthy and charismatic, he dominates his scenes as a sneering tiger of a man, relentless in his goals and contemptuous of obstacles.  One curious affectation is that his voice is often Indian accented.  And though a romanticized possible backstory suggests that Heathcliff may have been a lost young prince from an exotic land like India or China, he arrived in Yorkshire at an early age and would certainly have lost any previous accent.

Leah Brotherhead portrays his counterpart, and she stomps the stage as well.   Her Catherine is no shrinking violet, but rather is demonstrative and tempestuous.  The actor’s high energy extends to singing also, and Brotherhead possesses a dark and gruff vocal instrument that is put to good use.

Emma Rice’s distinction has arisen from innovative, subversive, and often inauthentic interpretations of literature.  She is no stranger to Berkeley Rep, having imported and directed other productions, “The Wild Bride” being a personal favorite.

Leah Brotherhead as Catherine, Liam Tamne as Heathcliff, Jordan Laviniere as Leader of the Yorkshire Moors.

For those wanting something akin to past experience, be forewarned, this is not your father’s “Wuthering Heights.” To open Act 2, Heathcliff even breaks the fourth wall to ask, if not taunt, the audience with the question, “What did you expect?”  This prompts the reflection that personal enjoyment often derives from how experience compares with expectation.  Audience members who are unfamiliar with Brontë’s novel, as well as those who do know it but are willing to take a deep dive into a radical revision of “Wuthering Heights,” should find this a highly engaging evening.

“Wuthering Heights” is adapted by Emma Rice from the novel by Emily Brontë, presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and plays on its Roda Stage at 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, CA through January 1, 2023.

Orpheus and Eurydice

Jakub Józef Orliński as Orpheus, Meigui Zhang as Eurydice, dancers as earlier versions of principals. All photos by Cory Weaver.

It would be a pretty good wager to bet that the reader has never seen a serious opera open with, or even contain, a break dance which includes balancing and spinning on one hand – much less that the dance is performed not by a professional dancer, but by the title character!  This unique skill performed by Jakub Józef Orliński, as Orpheus, is merely the beginning of a San Francisco Opera production spectacular in all of its creative aspects.  Despite individually simplistic staging elements, their combination results in a striking visual experience to support the notable operatic creation. 

Christoph Willibald Gluck’s contributions to opera extend beyond the merits of his individual operas.  Like Richard Wagner a century later, Gluck conceived an intellectual framework that changed the opera landscape.  Though his published formulation for reform followed the debut of “Orpheus and Eurydice,” this opera had applied the changes he would later prescribe.  It would stand as the great transition work between Baroque and Classical period opera. And while “Orpheus and Eurydice” certainly stands the test of time, it does have some issues.

Jakub Józef Orliński as Orpheus.

Among simplifications and elimination of restrictive conventions, Gluck specified the end of the da capo aria with stanzas in the a-b-a format, which totally repeats the first stanza, giving scope for vocal ornamentation to display the singer’s virtuosity without otherwise adding dramatic or musical value.  Also, rather than wearisome harpsichord accompaniment to recitatives, Gluck supported these less melodic tracts with full orchestra.

Notwithstanding these reforms, Gluck’s musical foundations were laid in the past.  He continued Baroque melodic idioms, and while he avoided the a-b-a form, he did use recurring musical phrases frequently.

The Orpheus myth has been the basis for dozens of operas, but no plot could be more simplified than Gluck’s, another reform objective of the composer.  He minimizes the number of principal roles to the three essentials, the title characters plus Love (aka – Amore).  No subplots.  No diversions between point A and point B in the story line.  The narrative is reduced to: Eurydice is dead; Love tells Orpheus how to retrieve her from the dead; he fails to heed Love’s stricture that he not look back at her during their passage from Hades; Eurydice dies again.  But as happens in some other versions of this classic, a Hollywood ending yields eternal happiness. 

Nicole Heaston as Love.

With such an economic tale to tell and 80 minutes to fill, the aria lyrics may not be repeated identically as in the a-b-a format, but conceptually, they are.  For the first 50 plus minutes, Orpheus is the only principal on stage except for a brief visit from Love.  He is so distraught about his loss, that he is constantly pining away.  What is remarkable is that the librettist de’ Calzabigi could find so many ways for Orpheus to express his lament.  Fortunately, OrIiński is a world class countertenor whose presence and vocal quality carry the day with considerable vocal and visual support from the chorus.

Musically, the opera is of its time, 1762.  The modulations from Baroque format make it more listenable to those who tire of the incessance of earlier style.  “Orpheus and Eurydice” does contain one particularly memorable aria, Orpheus’s final lament, “What will I do without Eurydice?”  which OrIiński delivers with great passion.

The countertenor voice is unnatural in its harsh falsetto character and high tessitura, though OrIiński handles it admirably.  Conversely, the sopranos, Meigui Zhang as Eurydice and Nicole Heaston as Love both possess mellow instruments, and the ranges of their singing parts display the warmest qualities of their voices.

Jakub Józef Orliński as Orpheus, chorus.

But as talented as the performers are, the creative design team distinguishes this production.  Director Matthew Ozawa relates the stage components to contemporary resonance, and his minimalistic aesthetic delivers a powerful and lush sensibility.  With Yuki Nakase Link’s sharp and everchanging lighting against set designer Alexander V. Nichol’s black back wall, the solid-colored, satin-like material of Jessica Jahn’s simply styled costumes visually pop as if a fashion show for colors.

Orpheus’s red and Eurydice’s blue outfits stand with distinction, but Love displays the real eye candy.  Not only does her yellow-gold costume sizzle with its brightness and contrast to the black backdrop, but her entrance is a dramatic swing down from the fly, and beneath her trails a drape of perhaps 20 feet of the same material.  Now that’s a real fashion statement!

Another strong visual element is Rena Butler’s choreography.  Orpheus and Eurydice are each replicated by three dancers wearing costumes in different shades of their respectively assigned colors to represent different stages of the couple’s relationship.  The many dances are evocative, stylistically dominated by the herky-jerky motions of Orpheus and the sensuality of Eurydice.  The chorus’s movement and posturing add another dramatic element, as does their monochromatic sea of color, whether white or black, but often altered in appearance by colored lighting.

Principals and chorus.

Although conflict dominates the action of the opera, Gluck offers a positive overarching outlook.  He posits the magical power of music and the heroic nature of the musician.  And though the possible price of giving in to temptation is clear, he demonstrates his belief that suffering grief will ultimately be rewarded with happiness.  Let’s hope he’s right!  In the meantime, we can obtain much happiness by enjoying this sterling production.

“Orpheus and Eurydice,” composed by Christoph Willibald Gluck with libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi is produced by San Francisco Opera and plays at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue through December 1, 2022.

Kinky Boots

[Overview – After a pandemic pause, the American Theatre Critics Association resuscitated its annual fall conference in New York City in November 2022. It represented an opportunity for theater critics to share new insights into what is happening in the theater world nationwide; to renew acquaintances; and to catch a few plays in the heart of the theater universe. Karin, my wife+editor, and I were fortunate enough to attend four plays in diverse theater categories. They are “A Delicate Balance” (Off or Off-Off Broadway classic drama),”Where We Belong” (Off Broadway world premiere solo performance), “Kinky Boots” (Off Broadway musical revival), and “Kimberly Akimbo” (new Broadway musical moved from Off Broadway). Incidentally, the definition of the category Broadway refers to size of house, specifically capacity of 500 seats or more. 100 to 499 seats is classified as Off Broadway, and smaller is Off-Off Broadway.]

“Kinky Boots”

Christian Douglas as Charlie, Callum Francis as Lola. All photos by Matt Murphy, MurphyMade.

Traditional industries in advanced economies collapse with regularity. Usually decline is accompanied by sad stories of displaced workers who lack job skills or mobility to secure a comfortable future. Occasionally, repurposing obsolete assets succeeds not only in saving jobs, but the whole ecosystem in which they occur. Doesn’t sound like grist for humor, does it? But British writers Geoff Deane and Tim Firth turned the idea into a rollicking comedy movie, “Kinky Boots,” and book writer Harvey Fierstein and composer and librettist Cyndi Lauper have transformed it into a highly successful Broadway musical which is now receiving a resounding Off Broadway revival. The audience howls to the humor and roars to the high energy music and dance.

Briefly, the conflict begins with Charlie, played by an empathetic yet insistent Christian Douglas. The young man inherits a shoe factory in small town England that is on the brink of bankruptcy, unable to compete with lower quality and cheaper foreign products. Prompted by what he observes in London as a poorly served market niche that is forced to buy products that can’t take the stress of weight and heavy activity, he decides to fully redirect production to this niche and to hire a user as a designer and consultant.

Still sounds pretty dry? Well, the product is gaudy, thigh-high boots, and the market is drag queens! The designer is Lola, a wildly flamboyant denizen of the dark who had escaped the socially conservative sticks for the friendly confines of cosmopolitan London. To Lola, a boot is not merely an accessory to walk in, it is 2 1/2 feet of tubular sex, and in red, it represents not only sex, but danger. And, oh, that stiletto heel – as she sings, “The sex is in the heel!” Needless to say, Lola’s appearance in staid, working-class Northampton causes quite a stir.

The Angels.

Conflicts abound. Charlie loves chic and sassy Nicola, but factory worker Lauren loves Charlie. Many clashes result from the baggage that Lola carries with her as one with a lifestyle that offends many. Don dislikes Lola because of what she represents and resents having to make the new product. Lola and Charlie clash over product design and promotion. She wants to use actual drag queens to model the product, but he insists on using professionals. Although her father trained her as a boxer (which is relevant to the plot), Lola’s coming out became a source for rejection. Lola laments how her father never saw the best in her in “I’m not my father’s son.” But even Charlie shares the common thread of not following the path that his father hoped for. Although they didn’t create the characters, is it fair to say that some of the success of the musical comes from Fierstein’s identification with Lola and Lauper’s with Lauren? Anyway, as you might expect from an uplifting experience, there are happy resolutions.

“Kinky Boots” offers a light-hearted escape triggered by the brashness of Lola, played with great verve and sung with a striking voice by understudy Nick Drake. But what brings the house down at their every appearance is the Angels, a dancing and singing crew of four drag queen friends of Lola. They rev up the house as they shimmy and shake in sexy synchronicity.

Callum Francis as Lola

Although the show can be appreciated as simply an attractive diversion, the creatives are clearly going for more. Shared values come to the fore in romantic relationships as Charlie and Nicola grapple with what goals in life that they can agree on. The importance of community and shared experience weighs on the workers as they sacrifice in hopes of seeing a new vision to fruition. And certainly, core messages concern diversity and acceptance as Lola and her friends seek to have mainstream people understand that they are who they are, and that they deserve to be embraced by society, just as anyone else.

Throughout the story. Lauper’s bouncy and melodic music along with Director and Choreographer Jerry Mitchell’s lively dance provide emotional propulsion. It all culminates with the togetherness of the iconic and elevating “Raise you up.” “Kinky Boots” pleases audiences and in particular, inspires a younger generation of patron to appreciate what the institution of musical theater has to offer.

Danielle Hope as Lauren, Christian Douglas as Charlie.

“Kinky Boots” with book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper is based on the movie of the same name written by Geoff Deane and Tim Firth, and is performed at Stage 42, 422 West 42nd Street, NY, NY through November 20, 2022.

Kimberly Akimbo

[Overview – After a pandemic pause, the American Theatre Critics Association resuscitated its annual fall conference in New York City in November 2022. It represented an opportunity for theater critics to share new insights into what is happening in the theater world nationwide; to renew acquaintances; and to catch a few plays in the heart of the theater universe. Karin, my wife+editor, and I were fortunate enough to attend four plays in diverse theater categories. They are “A Delicate Balance” (Off or Off-Off Broadway classic drama),”Where We Belong” (Off Broadway world premiere solo performance), “Kinky Boots” (Off Broadway musical revival), and “Kimberly Akimbo” (new Broadway musical moved from Off Broadway). Incidentally, the definition of the category Broadway refers to size of house, specifically capacity of 500 seats or more. 100 to 499 seats is classified as Off Broadway, and smaller is Off-Off Broadway.]

Victoria Clark as Kimberly, Justin Cooley as Seth. All photos by Joan Marcus.

“Kimberly Akimbo”

From the time that Victoria Clark steps on stage at curtain rise, it becomes a “you had me at hello” moment. The immensely talented and highly decorated senior citizen enacts the conceit that she is Kimberly Levaco, a 15-year-old suffering from progeria, the rare, rapid-aging disease. The disease ages her at four or more times the normal rate, and the life expectancy is 16 years, so most likely, her expiration date will soon arrive. Clark captures the affect and behaviors of a teen with great precision, and her buoyancy and optimism in the face of inordinate bad fortune puts a smile on your face and a hole in your heart.

Bonnie Milligan as Debra.

Geeky and looking like she could be the grandmother of her peers, Kimberly doesn’t have a lot going for her. She would love nothing more than to experience for a single day how normal people live. Apart from not fitting in socially because of her physical weirdness, her family is wacko.

Her mother Pattie, played by the perky Alli Mauzey, is a narcissistic hypochondriac who wouldn’t know how to prepare a meal. Both of Pattie’s hands and forearms are in casts, making any activity difficult. In one sequence, Kimberly feeds Pattie. With visual tongue in cheek, it appears that mother is feeding daughter rather than vice versa. To top things off, Pattie is pregnant, although there is a high likelihood that any child that Pattie and Kimberly’s father, Buddy, spawn would also suffer progeria. But that’s another story.

Alli Mauzey as Pattie, Victoria Clark as Kimberly.

Portrayed as well-intended but shifty by Jim Hogan, Buddy is a heavy-drinking wastrel whose pride and main source of supplemental income is winning bets that he can put a whole mango in his mouth. Guess who’s the real adult in the family. One funny vignette has Kimberly expressing romantic interest in new friend Seth. In his protective fatherly mode, Buddy says that she better be careful not to get pregnant, to which erstwhile aged teenager Kimberly replies “Dad, I went through menopause four years ago!”

And then there’s Aunt Debra. An inveterate grifter, she’s served time. When Kimberly’s parents moved, they kept their new address secret from Debra. Of course, a grifter will always find a way, and an effusive and brazen Bonnie Milligan acts her craftiness and evasive nature with great flair. The final major character is Seth, played by a form-fit Justin Cooley as a bubbly loner with an anagram passion. Like Kimberly, he has had to overcome poor parenting to find his own way in the world.

Geeky choristers Nina White, Michael Iskander, Fernell Hogan, Olivia Hardy.

In the adaptation of this play to a musical, composer Jeanine Tesori has drawn diverse arrows from her rich musical quiver that has produced music for “Fun Home,” “Shrek,” “Caroline, or Change,” and many others. The overall music tenor is upbeat and youthful, but there are also reflective moments such as Seth’s ruminations about being a “Good Kid,” without much benefit. David Lindsay-Abaire, Pulitzer Prize winner for his drama “Rabbit Hole,” has adapted his kooky but highly insightful story and added incisive and revealing lyrics to songs. (Disclaimer – This reviewer and his editor were fortunate to attend an informative and entertaining panel discussion with Tesori and Lindsay-Abaire as well as Bonnie Milligan and Justin Cooley shortly before we saw the performance.)

The narrative includes sequences that derive from the main characters’ traits, such as Kimberly’s presenting a science project with Seth on her disease or applying to the New Jersey Make-a-Wish Foundation, hopefully for a visit to Disneyland (represented by the charming song “Make a Wish”.) Her parents’ ineptness is endless, and even when they try to do the right thing, they don’t have the skills or the perseverance to make it happen. Kimberly’s dreams go unrealized.

An otherwise unrelated thread involves a Greek chorus of four geeky schoolmate choristers needing money to have costumes made for a competition. But Debra has a scheme that would satisfy Kimberly and the choir group’s needs. However, the playwright’s endorsement of the outcome of the plan introduces moral turpitude that may create a sense of discomfort in some of the audience.

That said, the play has a heart of gold. It recognizes the need for friendship, even among fractured people, and the importance of seizing the day. No one gets a second time around. It tells its story with great compassion and in an entertaining and involving manner. Apt music and dance produce tremendous audience enthusiasm that ensures this winning production will enjoy a great run and an esteemed position in the constellation of Broadway musicals.


“Kimberly Akimbo” with book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesori, is performed at Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, NY, NY on an open run.

Where We Belong

[Overview – After a pandemic pause, the American Theatre Critics Association resuscitated its annual fall conference in New York City in November 2022. It represented an opportunity for theater critics to share new insights into what is happening in the theater world nationwide; to renew acquaintances; and to catch a few plays in the heart of the theater universe. Karin, my wife+editor, and I were fortunate enough to attend four plays in diverse theater categories. They are “A Delicate Balance” (Off or Off-Off Broadway classic drama),”Where We Belong” (Off Broadway world premiere solo performance), “Kinky Boots” (Off Broadway musical revival), and “Kimberly Akimbo” (new Broadway musical moved from Off Broadway). Incidentally, the definition of the category Broadway refers to size of house, specifically capacity of 500 seats or more. 100 to 499 seats is classified as Off Broadway, and smaller is Off-Off Broadway.]

[Addendum – We were originally scheduled to see Suzan-Lori Parks’ new “Plays for the Plague Year,” but because of covid cases in their cast and staff, the performance was cancelled. Happily, The Public Theater was able to substitute this alternative premiere production which delivered a fruitful evening.]

Madeline Sayet. All photos by Joan Marcus.

“Where We Belong”

Regrettably, many Americans blithely refuse to acknowledge the many blemishes in our country’s history, both officially as a government and informally as a society. As a result, we fail to learn from our mistakes. Among our most egregious acts as a country has been our mistreatment of Native Americans, including genocide. Probably the height of hypocrisy has been the abrogation of treaties with various tribes. These and many other abuses can result in feelings by the Native American population of not belonging to the main and of being conflicted in loyalty, as European-Americans have seized their land, suppressed them, and worse. And, of course, many Americans still don’t get it, or don’t want to get it, perhaps because acknowledgement does not conform with their sense of national image. It becomes embarrassing, inconvenient, and expensive.

Against this backdrop, writer, performer, and educator Madeline Sayet has written and acts in a one-person show, “Where We Belong.” The playwright comes from a mixed background of Jewish and Mohegan (known by many as Mohican) and identifies with the latter. Despite displacement and loss of population, her tribe’s roots and reservation remain in Connecticut.

The play covers much ground but explores two major themes. The more common, universal, and expected one concerns the loss of indigenous language, which resulted from U.S. federal policies that insisted on assimilation by native tribes. In school and government work environments, punishment was typically meted out for speaking in native languages. This theme has been explored in other theatrical work. Although James Fenimore Cooper’s “Last of the Mohicans” was apocryphal, the Mohegan language shrank to near extinction. Sayet shares stories about trying to reconstruct spoken language from documents and the challenges of resuscitation without native speakers to intone the words.

The more distinctive and personal story derives from the playwright’s love of Shakespeare. An avid student of The Bard, she was accepted into a doctoral program in the United Kingdom. Sayet was particularly attracted to Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and especially the character Caliban. Parallel to the experience of Native Americans, Caliban’s territory was invaded by foreigners, and he was subjugated by the interloper. Sayet began her studies in London with enthusiasm and expectation, but one aspect of her participation disillusioned her. There was something about the way that others connected the relationship of her being Native American and succumbing to the attractions of Shakespeare as being her acceptance of Anglo superiority, which was a notion that she rejected, and which would influence her future direction.

Sayet acknowledges that her stories were not intended to be a play. However, she presents and weaves the stories with great confidence. But rather than constituting a cohesive narrative, they act as an interesting collection of related vignettes. Despite the conviction of her presentation, the pacing is somewhat pedestrian for much of the show. However, the latter third contains considerable spark with drama and animation, coordinated by Director Mei Ann Teo.

The performance is aided by uncommonly stunning production values for a solo performance. Production and Lighting Designer Hao Bai’s earthen serpentine on the stage floor symbolizes the Trail of Life with its ups and downs as well as the people who are met along the journey. A rumpled but reflective backdrop shows the distortions that we all witness in life but process inaccurately. Constellations of lights and mobile bars of florescents, along with Erik Schilke’s powerful sound design and composing stimulate the senses and enhance the experience.

The messages of the production are what is expected from one who is trying to promote respect and dignity for all peoples, particularly Native Americans. The content of the show is a bit preachy, and to a large extent, Sayet is preaching to the choir. The theater industry is in the forefront of trying to recognize American indebtedness to the original stewards of the land, and its audiences are among the most committed to diversity and mutual esteem. At the same time, these stories should be told. Hopefully, they will touch potential converts, and good will come from them.

“Where We Belong” is a world premiere written by Madeline Sayet, produced by The Public Theater, and plays on its stage at 425 Lafayette St., New York, New York through November 27, 2022.