The Great Khan

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

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

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

Leon Jones as Jayden, Jamella Cross as Ant.

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

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

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

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

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

Velina Brown as Crystal.

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

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

Adam KuveNiemann as Mr. Adams.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greer Grimsley as Don Pizarro, James Creswell as Rocco.

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Claim

Soren Santos, Radhika Rao, Kenny Scott. All photos by Benjamin Krantz.

Stories define lives.  Humorous vignettes, accounts of accomplishments, chronicles of courage, tales of failure.  These windows into notable experiences form the perceptions that people have of themselves and the perceptions that others have of them.  Sometimes stories are not fully revealed.  Sometimes they change over time.  Sometimes the teller believes the revisions, forcing reality to the rear.  Overwhelmingly, these projections of self are harmless, even if somewhat delusional.  Only rarely do they determine the direction of one’s life.

In “The Claim,” Serge hails from Congo.  Now in the U.K., he seeks asylum.  In this farcical three-hander, the immigrant is interrogated by two British bureaucrats – a male who we’ll call A, and a female, who we’ll call B. The pair are intermittently distracted and consume valuable time with their own relationship sideshow while determining the fate of their charge.  The absurdity of the situations resonates with Americans as our country confronts unprecedented waves of refugees on our southern border as well as asylum seekers from Afghanistan as a result of our military departure from that country.

The play opens somewhat confusingly with exchanges and crosstalk between Serge and A that don’t seem to go anywhere.  Then, when B arrives, Serge’s competent communicating ability turns heavily accented with limited vocabulary.  When the light comes on, you realize that he is speaking his native tongue with A, and in his halting English with B.

Kenny Scott, Radhika Rao.

The interviewers seek to hear Serge’s story to determine his eligibility to stay in the U.K.  But how can one retell true stories that brought shame or pain?  Is it more important for Serge to tell the whole truth; or to share a partial truth that may be easier to digest; or to craft a hopefully unverifiable fantasy that is the kind of narrative that will win support?  Will the interviewers realize that they, too, embellish stories, or, as is common, will they set a different standard for those wishing admission to their club? 

The incompetence of the interviewers overwhelms their generally good intentions.  Their misunderstanding of a single incident and the translations from A to B takes them down a Kafkaesque rabbit hole leading to a succession of wrong conclusions that could steal Serge’s agency.  It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to conclude how often this must tragically occur in the real world.

Although the bureaucrats are mostly earnest and trying to be helpful, the baggage that they carry is also in evidence.  No matter how many times the immigrant asks to be called Serge, B insists on using his Congolese name, Sese, a testament to the British colonial mentality of disrespecting native people’s wishes.  The playwright excoriates the system of dealing with refugees and pointedly criticizes the bureaucracy’s unaccountability and anonymity by not providing names for the interviewers.

Kenny Scott, Soren Santos.

The acting of all three performers is superb.  In Kenny Scott’s dominating and charismatic portrayal of Serge, he radiates effusiveness when optimistic but can quickly turn conflictual when he realizes that he is misunderstood.  Soren Santos excels in his blithe cheerfulness as A.  He seems to live in another world almost oblivious to the facts that surround him.  Either that, or he’s on some interesting drug.  Radhika Rao effectively grounds B with a Type A personality – rule-driven, focused, and determined to accomplish her task.

“The Claim” explores only a small portion of the demeaning and frightening experiences that refugees endure.  In doing so, it provokes and entertains.  It is full of word plays and misunderstandings by all, though some of the situations and humor seem a bit extraneous.  Theatergoers who enjoy absurdism should find this very much to their liking.

“The Claim” is written by Tim Cowbury, produced by Shotgun Players, and is performed live at Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, CA through October 30, 2021 and on live-stream October 21 and 28.

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

Every Brilliant Thing

Lists.  Everybody makes them.  Often, lists can be reminders to take action – lists of things to do or groceries or activity schedules or guests to invite to a party.  But they also serve to keep records – to catalog checks written or music saved or household inventory.  My wife and editor, Karin, has listed virtually everything she’s eaten in the last 18 years, in print so small that few adults of a certain age can read it (it’s a long story!).

Duncan MacMillan’s award-winning, 60-minute, one-person play, “Every Brilliant Thing,” centers on a list reflective of obsessive compulsion.  The narrator/protagonist itemizes everything worth living for.  Remarkably, he starts the list at age seven.  As might be expected, what’s worth living for in the world of a boy includes things like ice cream, roller coasters, and the color yellow.

As the narrator ages, his values evolve and his intelligence expands, but he persists with the list.  He decides that what is worth living for should be both wonderful and life affirming.  And the list becomes populated with items that are more complex – defined by phrases rather than objects – like “The fact that there is a song somewhere that is perfect for the time” or “People who can’t sing but either don’t know it or don’t care.”  These recitations are often humorous and nostalgic, as we reflect on the things we appreciate in our own lives.

So other than the obvious revelation of the narrator’s quirky passion and his maturation process, how does this content constitute material for a play?  A parallel narrative arc intertwines events in the narrator’s life.  Most importantly, we see the depressive burden of being a child with a suicidal mother.  But we learn over time of his relationships with his music-loving but distant father, his wife, teachers, and analysts.  Some vignettes are particularly illuminating such as discussions of Johann Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and the Samaritans “Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide.”

What distinguishes the play is the theatrical conceit of structured audience involvement.  Attendees read out items from the list and play counterparts to the narrator in mini scenes.  To facilitate this device demands an actor with skills beyond the script.  Fortunately, William Hodgson, Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director of Oakland Theater Project (formerly Ubuntu), is just the man for the job.  He exudes the necessary charm, empathy, and quick wit, as he prompts and cajoles participation with great aplomb.  He is directed by his partner-in-crime, Michael Socrates Moran, who shares the same OTP titles as Hodgson.

William Hodgson. Photo by Colin Mandlin.

A necessary consideration in reviewing a theatrical piece of this sort is to assess whether audience participation enhances or detracts from the drama.  “Every Brilliant Thing” would certainly work as a straight forward one-person show.  It would be more focused and intense with the possibilities of its seeming deeper, darker, more poignant and penetrating, but at the risk of being flatter in the wrong hands.  Conversely, audience participation yields spontaneity, with every performance being a little different.  It may feel less oppressive, more cathartic, and even uplifting.  Which format works better depends on what the individual is looking for in a theatrical experience.

“Every Brilliant Thing” is written by Duncan MacMillan with Jonny Donahoe; produced by Oakland Theater Project; and plays at Flax Art & Design; 1501 Martin Luther King, Jr. Way; Oakland, CA through October 31, 2021.

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

Lizard Boy

Kirsten “Kiki” deLohr Helland, Justin Huertas, William A. Williams. All photos by Kevin Berne.

Origin stories are as old as, well, human origins.  Societies, governments, clubs, and all manner of organizations craft stories to honor their legitimacy.  These myths tend to be self-serving glorifications that often stretch the truth and sometimes create legends out of whole cloth.  The brilliant and imaginative “Lizard Boy” origin builds on the slaying of the dragon responsible for the 1980 Mount St. Helens volcano eruption.

Rarely has this reviewer attended a play with less enthusiasm.  Traveling, I hadn’t slept in my own bed in a week; drove hundreds of arduous miles that day; rushed from an afternoon party in Big Sur; and would have to unload the car after driving another hour when the play and reception were over. What’s more, expectations were not favorable as the play’s profile falls outside of the wheelhouse of a traditional theatergoer on a number of criteria – a seeming appeasement to youth culture targeted at attracting a younger audience; comic superhero fantasy motif; a small cast (three hander); a contemporary “new musical;” online-arranged gay dating encounter.

Kirsten “Kiki” deLohr Helland, Justin Huertas.

Suffice it to say, my predictions were wrong on all counts.  With “Lizard Boy,” youth is served and age is respected.  This is a big tent musical that will please anyone with an open mind and a caring heart.  The auteur, Justin Huertas who wrote the book, music, and lyrics, and who plays the lead role, has fashioned an absolutely riveting theater piece that pulsates with emotion and extracts enormous empathy.

In many ways, the play unfolds like “A Day in the Life,” as the action compresses into less than 24 hours.  Huertas plays Trevor, who has escaped his past into the anonymity of the big city – Seattle.  His loneliness prompts Trevor to seek connection through the gay social networking site, Grindr.  Linking up with the heavily hormonal yet sensitive Cary, played in a dorky and lascivious manner by William A. Williams, their clumsy relationship sets off in fits and starts.

It is the time of the annual Monster Fest, and when Cary asks Trevor to take his makeup off, Trevor’s reality is revealed.  He wears none.  He developed lizard scales from being splattered by the blood of the Mount St. Helens dragon that he slayed as a five-year old.  So the subtext reveals the suffering of those who look or act differently, including those of minority ethnicity and those in any way disabled or disadvantaged.  Both young men feel dispossessed and seek acceptance and simple human compassion.

Justin Huertas, William A. Williams

The third character is the super-antihero antagonist, with cover as a singer named Siren.  Portrayed with sexual allure and provocative maleficence by Kirsten “Kiki” deLohr Helland, she stomps and slithers in a skin tight red costume.  But because of their shared past at Mount St. Helens and her designs, Siren represents a threat to Trevor’s future.

The play works for a number of reasons.   First, it is hard not to care for the characters, particularly Trevor, who is trapped in a desultory existence through no fault of his own.  His pain and earnestness are palpable throughout, especially as he sings “Nobody Wants You.”  The dilemmas that the characters face are convincing and expressed eloquently, in large part through the music.  Not only do the charming and thoughtful songs propel the narrative, but the segues from dialogue to song and from one voice to another are uncommonly organic.  Along with the humor, the hand offs are exquisitely timed by all of the performers.

The music itself falls in the folk-pop-rock genre and is melodic and oh so listenable.  It is totally acoustic, with the dominant instruments being – get this – cello, ukulele, and guitar.  (Sidebar – when Seattle Rep commissioned Huertas to write a musical, which he had never done before, the single condition was that he play the cello in it!).  Collectively, the instruments act as another character, and in a fight sequence, they are simultaneously played and used as weapons.  The composer finds incredible two-and-three-part harmonies in ensembles as well as soaring solos to display Helland’s powerful pipes.

William A. Williams, Kirsten “Kiki” deLohr Helland, Justin Huertas.

For those who expect visually descriptive sets to fit the plotline, looking at a stage more suited for a rock concert might seem a little disconcerting at first.  And some of the songs are even done in a “stand and deliver” storytelling style.  But what can I say?  It all works.  We have the imagination to fill in the blanks where necessary.

The structure of the play is playful.  It seamlessly flashes back and forth in time, and some contemporaneous sequences flash between Trevor with Siren and Trevor with Cary.  The one thing that could stand improvement is that the conclusion becomes a little extended and confusing.  The minor flaw in no way undermines this powerful entertainment.

“Lizard Boy,” with book, music, and lyrics by Justin Huertas, is produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and plays at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA through October 31, 2021.

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

Shout! The Mod Musical

Jamie Gussman as “Yellow Girl,” Heather Mae Steffen as “Blue Girl,” Christina Bolognini as “Orange Girl,” Melissa Momboisse as “Red Girl” and Amanda Le Nguyen as “Green Girl.” All photos by Steve Stubbs.

The ‘60s were a memorable decade of change.  But years ending in zeros are rarely true inflection points.  Many political historians point to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963 as the inception of that decade.  President Lyndon Johnson was able to enact his and Kennedy’s agendas for civil rights and poverty into law; political parties were realigned with Southern Democrats shifting to Republican in rejection of civil rights advances; and the U.S. commitment to the Vietnam War swelled irreparably.  Social historians note the impact that the Beatles had starting several weeks later.  The ensuing British Invasion brought with it new music, lingo, hair styles, mores, and more.  And the youth culture that began with Elvis Presley and Rock and Roll in the mid ‘50s exploded to become a dominant social and economic power.

“Shout! The Mod Musical” is a musical revue of the ‘60s shown through the experiences of five young adult women living in London, as conceived and curated by three American men (of course)!  The songbook draws from tunes of the era, predominantly those popularized by English songbirds, especially Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark (“Wishin’ and Hopin’” and “Downtown” for starters.)   The South Bay Musical Theatre cast brings strong voices, deft comedic skills, and great enthusiasm, resulting in a fine entertaining evening.  Don’t expect the significance or sophistication of Sondheim or Hammerstein, but for those old enough to remember, it’s a frothy retreat into nostalgia.  Younger people will get a slice of life snapshot of what it was like back in the day.

The show lacks a story arc.  Whatever narrative glue is largely provided by the women writing letters to an advice columnist at “Shout” magazine, with spoken replies coming from the unseen columnist.  The characters lack names but are identified by a particular color, which is dominant in the various outfits that each wears and relates to their behaviors.  Orange, performed by Christina Bolognini, is domestic; Red, played by Melissa Momboisse, is a mess of youthful contradiction; Blue, portrayed by Heather Mae Steffen, is poised and beautiful – and she knows it; Green, rendered by Amanda Le Nguyen, is slutty; and Yellow, characterized by Jamie Gussman, is loud – and therefore, probably American!

Heather Mae Steffen as “Blue Girl,” Christina Bolognini as “Orange Girl,” Amanda Le Nguyen as “Green Girl,” Jamie Gussman as “Yellow Girl” and Melissa Momboisse as “Red Girl.”

Essentially, the show is an amalgam of skits full of the expected tropes, with music that often ties to each mini-drama.  Not all work, but most produce the desired laughter.  In one, a Paul McCartney groupie, Gussman, repeatedly stalks her prey, and even combs his trash, coming away with – you guessed it – his broken comb.  In another favorite, characters are silhouetted against a back screen with Le Nguyen appearing as James Bond in “Coldfinger,” a takeoff on – well, you get it.  One recurring pastiche is several scenes that borrow directly from “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In,” with music, action, and lights coming to a stop except for one spotlighted character who delivers a funny bit. 

Several pantomimes, also spotlighted against an otherwise dark stage, work nicely.  My favorite is Steffen’s reacting with increasing dejection to a disembodied man’s deep voice telling her how her skin is being ravaged by age.  But in the end, she blossoms with hope and glee when the speaker offers the solution of purchasing his skin cream product.  Of course, much of the advice given is tongue-in-cheek.  An example is the reply to Momboisse’s sad but funny letter in which she declares herself ugly.  The response is that there are things that are worse than being ugly – like being French.

The performers are quite convincing with their English accents, and overall have strong mid-range singing voices.  As the performance proceeded, I found myself changing my mind on which artist had the best voice, which is a good thing.  I might go with Bolognini.  While the songs were well sung, raising the keys on some of them would have created more brightness and urgency in their voices, but perhaps the tradeoff would be a loss of power.  Otherwise, they do a pretty resolute job within the limits of the material.

The creatives play a large role in the success of the production.  Lee Ann Payne not only directs with a lively touch but choreographs a ton of movement and the dances of the day like the twist and the frug.  Debra Lambert’s masterly musical and vocal direction includes harmony arrangements of the many ensembles as well as conducting and playing keyboards.  Also, Y. Sharon Peng captures the period look of hair, makeup, and costumes, though more of the daring signature looks of Carnaby Street and Vidal Sassoon would work nicely.

“Shout! The Mod Musical,” created by Phillip George, David Lowenstein, and Peter Charles Morris with music written by numerous composers and produced by South Bay Musical Theatre, plays at Saratoga Civic Center, 13777 Fruitvale Ave., Saratoga, CA through October 16, 2021.

Victor Cordell
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association

Working : a Musical

The cast – Linda Piccone, Jomar Martinez, Ray D’Ambrosio, Eiko Yamamoto, Izetta Fang Klein, Jason Mooney, Mai Abe in “Something To Point To.” All photos by Henry Wilen.

Few authors or media personalities from the last half of the 20th century are more associated with the common people in America than Studs Terkel.  So broad were his credentials that he was inducted both into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame and the African American Writers Hall of Fame, despite being the heterosexual son of Russian Jewish immigrants.  Terkel’s hometown beat was a great laboring town, Chicago, the City of Broad Shoulders.  From a lifetime of communing in his community and across the country, he produced powerful oral histories based on interviews, particularly “Working” (1974) and the Pulitzer Prize winning “The Good War” (1985).

Though the 1978 Broadway run by the musical based on “Working” was brief, a 2012 revision has enhanced its appeal to regional theater.  Just imagine some of the changes in the workplace in those 34 years, such as the role of computer-based technology, outsourcing, employee mobility, evolving expectations for performance, and growing gap between haves and have-nots.

Although the music in “Working” isn’t memorable, it works.  Lyrics are poignant and collectively build a balanced view of working life that hits the mark. With an ensemble cast of seven enthusiastic and convincing performers, Palo Alto Players offers a production that touches on all the right emotions – expressing and eliciting joy, sadness, pride, anger, and reflection on what our country is all about. 

Waitress Linda Piccone, customers Mai Abe, Ray D’Ambrosio in “It’s an Art.”

No plot line drives “Working,” rather it is episodic – a thematic musical revue with songs from several composers and limited dialog to enhance the vignettes.  These are stories of people prosperous and poor that paint a picture of American society through the occupations of its denizens.  Working people are honored, especially essential workers.  Unmentioned in the musical, but evident to lovers of the arts, is that the performers and creative people behind these artistic endeavors are the essential workers of our national culture.

Typically, the first criteria in assessing a person is what work they do, which sadly leads an observer in the song “Millwork” who sees a book in a laborer’s pocket to ask with surprise “Oh, do you read?”  One motif of work that is emphasized is the need for recognition and pride.  This is often depicted as doing something that everyone can’t do or having results to show from your effort.  You feel the self-esteem in “The Mason,” a song in which a stone worker boasts that what he builds will last forever.  You understand the skyscraper structural steel worker taking pride and being known for the courage to work in high places and producing tangible results.  You know that the firefighter possesses bravery and has tales to tell of saving people from fiery death.

Eiko Yamamoto, Linda Piccone, Izetta Fang Klein, Mai Abe in “Cleanin’ Women.”

At the other extreme are those who work in those “just” jobs like just a laborer.  One number that will tug at the heartstrings is “Just a Housewife,” a lament about how boring the work is and about always being defined by relation to others – someone’s mother, someone’s wife.  Worse yet is the denigration in the media that makes housewives feel small.  But the script flips for being just a waitress in the funny, bouncy “It’s an Art.”  This hash slinger has an attitude like Flo from “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”  She views herself as a down-home philosopher and table-top artist who educates diners, considering her diners as spectators.  So maybe it’s not such a bad occupation if you have the right skills and approach it in the right manner.

There are too many interesting stories to tell them all.  But two countervailing themes can be sensed throughout.  The sad side of opportunities lost is expressly addressed in the song “If I Could’ve Been.”  But many workers who suffer menial jobs possess dignity and accept fate believing that the payoff from their labor will come in future generations as revealed in “Fathers and Sons.”  A philosophical coda concerns the notion that workers deserve acknowledgement and that contributions to success come from many, not few.  Wouldn’t it be fitting if every building publicly listed every person involved in its construction and every person who ever worked in it?

Jomar Martinez as a caregiver, Eiko Yamamoto as a nanny in “A Very Good Day.”

“Working” moves quickly and holds the attention from beginning to end.  It contains great insights into the conditions of work and the psyches of workers.  The production is well directed by Patrick Klein, and the visual elements from varied costumes (R. Dutch Fritz) to industrial set (Scott Ludwig) and dramatic lighting (Abby May) work well.  One weakness is the sound system.  On opening night, sound clarity suffered considerably in songs with multiple singers.  In addition, artists lost sound in their microphones briefly several times.  Acting is effective throughout, as the actors understand their roles and interact well with one another.  Singing sometimes stands out but other times is a bit wanting.

“Working,” adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso from Studs Terkel’s non-fiction book “Working” with songs by Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead, Stephen Schwartz, and James Taylor, is produced by Palo Alto Players and plays at Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA through October 3, 2021.

Victor Cordell
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association

Starting Here, Starting Now

Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Rinabeth Apostol, Keith Pinto, Melissa WolfKlain. All photos by Jessica Palopoli.

Love is all around in “Starting Here, Starting Now,” a musical revue of over 20 songs, each one an independent vignette about life.  San Francisco Playhouse offers Susi Damilano’s well-directed, high-energy rendering of this 1976 compilation of Maltby and Shire songs.  The winsome foursome of Rinabeth Apostol, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Keith Pinto, and Melissa WolfKlain warble and hoof their way through the evening with verve and enthusiasm in a concept and score with both strengths and weaknesses.

The musical revue is an odd hybrid appealing mostly to lovers of theatrical musicals and of music in general.  Its history dates to the late 19th century with the typical characteristics in contemporary times being a series of songs by the same composer(s); dance and other movement to add theatricality; and the absence of dialogue and overarching storyline.

Most successful musical revues ride on the coattails of at least a smattering of beloved songs.  The music sometimes derives from theatrical musicals as with “Side by Side by Sondheim,” but more often, successful ones come from the world of popular music, like “Smokey Joe’s Café,” “Ain’t Misbehavin'” (conceived by Maltby in 1978),” and “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”

Rinabeth Apostol, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Melissa WolfKlain.

What may surprise about “Starting Here, Starting Now” is that the whole roster of songs predates the later Broadway successes of the composers.  They are salvage from musicals that folded “out of town” or that never made it to any stage!  Though they are professionally crafted, only a couple have had an independent life outside of the stage and soundtrack recordings, so the warm and fuzzy ah-ha moments of familiarity are lacking in the whole show.

At its outset, the show had modest success in Manhattan dinner theaters, but over the years, it has benefitted from revivals, demonstrating its draw.  One attraction to producers is that with a cast of three performers and an orchestra of three, it can be produced almost in a piano bar setting. Since characters are unnamed anyway, SF Playhouse expanded the cast to four, an excellent decision that adds balance, diversity, and heft.  An audience appeal of the score is that each song is a mini-drama – often poignant, sometimes emotional, and all sharing truths about relationships.  The stories are told with literate thoughts and lyrics, and the music is pleasant.  Perhaps true to life, more episodes concern the pain than the joy.

Melissa WolfKlain, Keith Pinto.

The songs weren’t written with the idea of being compiled, so they don’t act as a pure life cycle of love and loss (or everlasting bliss).  There is however a general flow from the excitement of first meeting with “I’m a Little Bit Off,” in which a person tries to control emotions but can’t resist the feeling of love, to breakup, with the lament “What About Today?” when the person is consoled that things will be better tomorrow, but the hurt is today.  A few numbers fail to connect well with the theme.

Ensembles that work well include the cynical “I Don’t Believe It” when listeners doubt the veracity of couples who publicly promote their loving bliss, and “One Step,” a tap dance number. Each performer has showcases as well.  Apostol is Charo-like sassy as a cosmetician in “I’m Going to Make You Beautiful,” and WolfKlain is quizzical and distracted by thoughts of love in the clue-driven “Crossword Puzzle.”  Pinto takes a humorous turn as a clown, while Heredia is reflective as a girl! Each artist has a sweet spot in their singing range, but they are all a bit uneven, and sometimes the vocals seem that they could be stronger if the key were transposed.

Keith Pinto, Rinabeth Apostol, Wilson Jermaine Heredia.

Unlike most revues, this one also demands acting out the songs, and on this count, the artists excel, making the drama work.  Dance and blocking choreographed by Nicole Helfer provide visual dynamics.  Heather Kenyon’s set design is simple, nightclub handsome with Music Director Dave Dobrusky center-stage rear at the grand piano flanked by a percussionist and a bass. It should also be noted that in deference to changing times, the gender associations have changed significantly from the original, to include gay couples and songs sung by the opposite gender intended.

Many preferences in life are a matter of taste.  Lovers of musical revues who like the cerebral and the discovery of unfamiliar music and lyrics will appreciate this production.

“Starting Here, Starting Now,” a musical revue with lyrics by Roger Maltby, Jr. and music by David Shire is produced by San Francisco Playhouse and appears on their stage at 450 Post St., San Francisco, CA through October 2, 2021.

Victor Cordell
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association


Christopher Bengochea, Nikki Einfeld. Photo by Vero Kherian.

Opera simply is not supposed to be this much fun.  There are few comic operas that maintain intense humor throughout – Gianni Schicchi may be an exception.  Scalia/Ginsburg not only shares that rare comedic perch, but it is informative almost like no other opera.  That is not to say it is a great operatic composition, but most opera goers would find Composer/Librettist Derrick Wang’s one-hour confection distinctive, entertaining, and evocative.

As most informed Americans would know, Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were judicial titans representing the opposite ends of the political spectrum.  Scalia, a conservative originalist, believed that the Constitution should be denoted by its meaning at the time it was written, and that granting rights that were not included in that document was unconstitutional.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg represented rational minimalism which builds slowly on existing precedent, but she also believed that certain rights related to gender, gender preference, and race are unalienable even if not specified by the Constitution.

Yet these philosophical opponents were dear friends for whom the rapidly fading maxim of American Democracy, “We are different.  We are one.” applied.  Their most known common bond was their mutual love for opera.  They also came from immigrant communities that suffered discrimination – Ashkenazi Jewish for her and Sicilian for him (the same as my wife and me!)

Renaissance man Wang is a former lawyer who has crafted a libretto built around the judicial opinions of the protagonists.  Presumably evidencing the composer’s own political bent, the bigger barbs are targeted at Scalia, whose behavior is largely defined by his frequent grandstanding, intemperate criticism, and name calling of his colleagues when in disagreement.  In the operatic equivalent of Dan Ackroyd’s berating Jane Curtin long ago with “Jane, you ignorant slut!” on SNL’s “Point/Counterpoint,” Scalia repeatedly mansplains Ginsburg with “You don’t understand the Constitution!”  Christopher Bengochea captures physical appearance and self-indulgent fatuousness of Scalia that works like a charm.  Although his tenor voice lacks matinee-idol lyric quality, the more dramatic tone suits his role extremely well.  And when required to quick sing and patter the high notes, he is up to the task.

Meanwhile, the focus on Ginsburg deals more with her achievements and her arguments for equality.  Nikki Einfeld is Ginsburg, and she matches Benochea in characterizing the persistent and beloved RBG.  Einfeld possesses a fine coloratura instrument, and she puts it to great use in several demanding passages.

To add vocal dimensionality and depth to the proceedings, the composer creates a spirit in the spirit of The Commendatore from “Don Giovanni” who arrives to act as a judge of judges. Not surprisingly, this role calls for an authoritative bass, and Kirk Eichelberger provides the answer most effectively.  This Commentator pillories Scalia for professing constitutional originalism, which should be agnostic with respect to the outcomes it produces, yet with his sophistry, it seems to always result in politically conservative votes and opinions (Bush v. Gore?!?!)

So, what about the score?  In the service of broad comedy, it works extremely well.  The original music is pleasantly melodic, and it integrates nicely with the borrowed.  Beyond a pastiche, it is more a mash-up with snippets from “La Traviata,” “La Boheme,” “Der Rosenkavalier,” and several others.  Einfeld as Ginsburg even delivers a delightful bluesy aria with a nod to “Carmen.”  While the comforting familiarity of these tracts makes us smile in recognition, they act as demerits in considering the noteworthiness of the overall score.

The libretto illuminates for those less familiar with thoughts of the two great jurists, though there are also unembellished references to case laws that won’t resonate with most of the audience.  The lyrics are crisp and clearly articulated by all three artists.  Another mixed blessing is the conspicuous use of heavy rhyming in sequences, so that the words themselves are funny as well as the situations that they represent, but they can also seem a bit kitschy.

A final note about this production is Peter Crompton’s scenic design, which is quite impressive for an opera with only two performances.  Greek columns, desks, and a podium appearing like richly colored cherry wood convey the grandeur of the Supreme Court, and full back wall projections add a variety of content and looks to open up the stage.

Although the opera premiered in 2015 when both justices were still alive, sadly, they are no longer with us.  Wang amended the score after Scalia’s passing, adding a moving finish in recognition.  Karin, my wife and editor, and I were fortunate to see RBG at Santa Fe Opera in both of her last two years visiting one of her, and our, favorite escapes.  There was magic in the air when the unlikely small, frail-looking, old woman was around.  She is missed.

“Scalia/Ginsburg” with music and libretto by Derrick Wang is produced by Solo Opera and plays at Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek, CA through September 12, 2021.

Victor Cordell
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association

The Winter’s Tale

Regina Morones, Cathleen Riddley, Phil Wong, Sharon Shao, dane troy, Victor Talmadge, Dean Linnard, Safiya Fredericks. Photo by Jay Yamada.

Shakespeare’s infrequently produced “The Winter’s Tale” is often characterized as a “problem play,” meaning that its tone is inconsistent – sometimes dramatic with psychological overtones, sometimes comic with mystic qualities.  But this play has more problems.  It lacks the gravitas of the Bard’s greater works; the text is bereft of the many memorable aphorisms and quips that we relish in other plays; pre and post intermission acts radically differ in disposition; and indeed, viewers will differ on whether Acts 4 and 5 are to be comprehended as real or apprehended as imagination.  To the great credit of Director Eric Ting; to adapters of the play Ting and Philippa Kelly; and to the company itself, Cal Shakes has solved the problem with a highly rewarding and entertaining production.

After the long Covid-19 related absence, it was a great pleasure to see Cal Shakes return to the wonderful outdoor Bruns Amphitheatre.  Yet, as a matter of full disclosure, this critic should note anticipating this production with trepidation and bias.  Attending over 100 plays a year, my mantra is never to leave a play at intermission based on an apparently weak storyline, because the plot twists in the second half may fully redeem the first.  I’ve never left a play at intermission more than once a year.  A performance of “The Winter’s Tale” in 2016 by the vaunted Oregon Shakes prompted such a departure.

Safiya Fredericks, Craig Marker, dane troy. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Like many Shakespeare comedies, which this play was classified as in Shakespeare’s First Folio of 1623, the title tells nothing of the play’s content.  Pre-intermission (the original’s first three acts) takes place in Sicilia, whose King Leontes has hosted his childhood friend Polixenes, now King of Bohemia, for some months.  Queen Hermione is due to deliver a baby, and with no evidence, Leontes obsesses in the belief that Polixenes is the father.  Uniformly, Leontes’ advisors and even the Oracle at Delphos insist that he is wrong in his claim.  The king’s self-indulgent obstinance leads to multiple tragedies.  It’s been hard to view any play in the last several years without seeing it through a Trumpian lens, and this is no exception.

Despite an opening couples dance number that connects tenuously with what follows and the on-stage action being somewhat pedestrian, the drama in this realization is quite compelling.  The tension created starts with a cast of nine superb veteran actors who are among the Bay Area’s finest and who bring out rich interpretations of their characters.

Craig Marker is Leontes, who after a touching opening scene with his son, becomes one of the more venomous characters in the Shakespeare catalog.  Marker plays Leontes one notch below crazy and with extreme jealousy, irrational distrust, and insatiable vindictiveness.  Fearful of the king’s station and rancor, his counselors ultimately kowtow to his pettiness. Sadly, does this seem real-life familiar?

Cathleen Riddley, Phil Wong, Dean Linnard, Craig Marker, Victor Talmadge. Photo by Kevin Berne.

A charismatic Safiya Fredericks as the put-upon Hermione is more than equal to her counterpart.  Her insistence of innocence convinces the audience, but not Leontes.  Her turn to rage during her trial is equally believable.  All of the actors play multiple roles, and after intermission, Fredericks becomes (get this!) Polixenes, and partly in wacky disguise – but that’s another story.

The need for great acting in this version is magnified by the spareness of the staging.  Designer Tanya Orellana’s stage for Sicilia is virtually vacant except for a number of poles with long lights at the rear.  The costumes of the Sicilians by Ulises Alcala are eclectic/contemporary, but all in black and white, adding to the colorless austerity.

The great thing about “The Winter’s Tale” is that if the Sicilia part doesn’t work for you, just wait.  Except for many characters carrying over, all played by different actors, the “Bohemia” part is practically a different play.  In this version, a sign is even displayed saying “A New Play – by King Leontes,” signifying the adapter’s determination that the segment to follow is a figment of Leontes’ imagination.

Sharon Shao, Cathleen Riddley, dane troy. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Sixteen years have passed, and as proper and achromatic as Sicilia appears, Bohemia is correspondingly garish.  Costumes are bright and fanciful.  A colorful, old-timey traveling theater stage caravan centers the set.  The mood is bright and the plot focus is on the pending nuptials of a shepherd’s son and a foundling girl, who unbeknownst to all is the abandoned daughter of Leontes.  Farce replaces realism.

While holding to the playwright’s story, this adaptation of Acts 4 and 5 intersperses modern songs that add bounce and familiarity for the audience.  Shakespeare would probably roll over in his grave if he heard rock/pop songs like “The Time of the Season” and “Love Shack” in his play, but they certainly please the crowd.  The whole segment is full of fun, but it is also discombobulated by gaps in delivering the story and elongated by inclusion of the gratuitous musical numbers.

Which brings us back to the problem.  Is this great Shakespeare the way it was intended?  No.  Is this finely crafted entertainment that depicts a different treatment of a classic that is instructive and enjoyable in its own right?  Yes.  And on that basis, this is absolutely the right way to see this play that otherwise might disappoint.

As a final point, the director provides the cast with a mix of roles that he assigns to each actor.  Not only do the varied roles give each performer breadth in their individual performances, but the spotlight shines on all with remarkable equality, and they deserve it.  The actors not previously mentioned are Dean Linnard, Regina Morones, Cathleen Riddley, Sharon Shao, Victor Talmadge, dane troy [sic], and Phil Wong, who also serves as music director and factotum.

“The Winter’s Tale” by William Shakespeare is adapted by Eric Ting and Philippa Kelly, produced by California Shakespeare Theater and plays at Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda, CA through September 26, 2021.

Victor Cordell
San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
American Theatre Critics Association