Dreaming in Cuban

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Ortiz as Lt. Rojas (a patriot).

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

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

Don Giovanni

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christina Gansch as Zerlina, Cody Quattlebaum as Masetto.

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

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

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

Luca Pisaroni as Leporello, Nicole Car as Donna Elvira.

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

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

Etienne Dupuis as Don Giovanni.

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

“Don Giovanni,” with music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, is produced by San Francisco Opera and plays at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA through July 2, 2022.

Hadestown

(Foreground) Morgan Siobhan Green as Euridice, Levi Kreis as Hermes, Nicholas Barsch as Orpheus. (Above) Kevyn Morrow as Hades, Kimberly Marable as Persephone. All photos by T. Charles Erickson.

Certain classic stories have legs.  Orpheus and Euridice, one of the most famous stories from Greek mythology, is one that has been interpreted frequently into various forms of performing arts.  With themes that include fateful love, loss of faith, temptation, free will, and the cost of disobeying rules, it has broad appeal.

(Foreground) Morgan Siobhan Green as Euridice, Nicholas Barsch as Orpheus. (Rear) The Fates – Belen Moyano, Bex Odorisio, Shea Renne.

In the original myth, Euridice died from snakebite and was consigned to the underworld.  Under protection from the deities, Orpheus is allowed to retrieve her, but Hades issues the proviso that she walk behind him when departing and that he never look back.  Of course, he disobeys, and the price is that Euridice is returned to the underworld and that Orpheus will never see her again.  This theme of violating divine edicts recurs in literature, but at least in this case, the man takes responsibility.  Conversely, in the often misogynistic Bible, women are assigned guilt. Eve takes the rap for eating the forbidden fruit and causing the first couple to be evicted from Eden, and Lot’s wife (not even granted a name) is turned into a pillar of salt for defying the stricture against looking back at Sodom and Gomorrah as the cities burned.

From this play’s outset, it is clear that “Hadestown” will have a distinctive style.  Although the musical’s auteur, Anaïs Mitchell, comes from the folk world, she developed a unique musical amalgam for the show with elements from blues, jazz, and pop in addition to folk.  Her orchestration is as unexpected as it is brilliant in providing a magnificent background sound.  A seven-piece orchestra is dominated by strings with only one wind-blown instrument, though it adds surprisingly colorful accents throughout the score.  While the music is compelling, the lyrics are even better – penetrating and revealing with great clarity.  The storyline and overall production are equally captivating, making for a standing ovation theatrical experience.

Levi Kreis as Hermes, Kimberly Marable as Persephone.

When charismatic Levi Kreis, as the narrator Hermes, takes the stage at the “curtain-up,” he hushes the audience. The silence at that time and in other pauses during the performance is remarkable.  Then the blast begins, quite literally.  Audrey Ochoa’s powerful, slurred, bluesy trombone leads Hermes’ rhythmic railroad song “Road to Hell” that foretells the fateful path that the protagonists will take.  Those hot licks set the groove for the entire performance. This opening is followed by Euridice and The Fates “Any Way the Wind Blows,” about the disappearance of spring and fall, which is making life on earth hellish – a clear comment on climate change unique to this adaptation of the myth.

In the central love story Orpheus loves Euridice.  He is poor and downtrodden, yet optimistic.  As a fine musician, he claims that the song which he is working on will bring back the spring and win Euridice’s heart.  Nicholas Barasch portrays Orpheus, whose singing is distinguished by repeated shifts between a powerful countertenorish falsetto and a common tenor-baritone chest voice.  He carries off this pyrotechnic challenge with seeming ease.

Euridice is lured instead to Hadestown by Hades’ false promises in the stunningly contrasted duet “Hey Little Songbird.”  Kevyn Morrow is Hades, and he induces Euridice by dismissing her life as it is.  He does so in a jaw-dropping basso profundo that retains sonority in a range that is about as low as a human being can go, while conveying his character’s unrelenting menace.  Meanwhile, Morgan Siobhan Green is Euridice, and she sings with plaintive beauty as she is ready to give in, feeling that Orpheus, whom she has come to love, has failed her in her time of need.

(Foreground) Kevyn Morrow as Hades, Morgan Siobhan Green as Euridice, (Rear) The Fates – Belen Moyano, Bex Odorisio, Shea Renne.

The final principal is Persephone. Hades enticed her to become his partner because of his great love and willingness to make concessions to her.  Kimberly Marable sings Persephone’s signature “Lady of the Underground” with great power as she reveals that she can control the seasons.  Yet, she is a complex figure who will induce Hades to free Euridice from Hadestown.

The single set has a somewhat-worn New Orleans nightclub look with wrought-iron balcony lace and plantation shutters above, plus elevated platforms on either side of the stage for the split seven-piece orchestra.  Since much action takes place in venues other than the club, the show might seem semi-staged.  And since most of the principles are attired in dressy clothes, it may even look like a concert version.  But the effective use of high-contrast lighting and darkness; movement; and other costumery stimulate the viewer’s imagination to fill in the blanks.  One example of a symbolic look is the depiction of dreary underground laborers in dirty work clothes, trudging on a rotating stage lit only by miners’ head lights and a few dim swinging lamps.

It seems that many theatrical works these days can be seen through a political lens, and particularly as a comment on Trumpism, whether intended by the respective playwright or not.  There is no obliqueness in “Hadestown.”  Act 1 closes with “Why We Build the Wall” which could not be a more explicit indictment of Trump’s border wall efforts.  The lyrics given to Hades are especially damning: “The enemy is poverty; And the wall keeps out the enemy; And we build the wall to keep us free.”  In Act 2, Orpheus and Hermes’ “If It’s True” condemns the institutionalized lying by Trumpians (“And it isn’t for the few; To tell the many what is true”) and the cheating that benefits the rich against the poor (“ ‘Cause the ones who tell the lies; Are the solemnest to swear; And the ones who load the dice; Always say the toss is fair”).

Nicholas Barasch as Orpheus.

“Hadestown,” with music, lyrics, and book by Anaïs Mitchell; developed with and directed by Rachel Chavkin; is produced by Broadway SF; and plays at the Orpheum Theatre; 1192 Market Street; San Francisco, CA through July 3, 2022.

The Pajama Game

Tiana Paulding, Nicholas Yenson, Tony Conalty, Daniel Thomas, Ashley Garlick, James Mayagoitia, Katherine Stein, Tosca Maltzman, Nicole Tung. All photos by Ben Krantz.

Two sides with clashing interests stand apart.  A young man and a young woman on the opposing sides fall in love.  No, it’s not Romeo and Juliet or the Hatfields and the McCoys.  The interests are economic; the time is the 1950s; and the place is a factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  It’s “The Pajama Game,” which won the 1955 Tony Award for Best Musical and enjoyed a three-year Broadway run.  42nd Street Moon has produced a charming rendition of this underappreciated, yet flawed, property.

Workplace romance is fraught with challenges.  Some romances are hidden from view.  Some may be characterized as sexual abuse.  Some have repercussions at the office, especially if the couple splits.

In “The Pajama Game,” Sid comes to the “hick town” from Chicago to become the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory Supervisor, a management position.  He becomes smitten with Babe, a worker who heads the Union Grievance Committee.  Workers are seeking a 7 ½ cent per hour raise that competitors have adopted.  This specific issue is the barrier between the two getting together.  Babe’s token resistance to falling for a man who is not a worker fades, and they become an item.  But eventually they split over an incident related to labor protests.  However, this is a ‘50s comedy, and it ends pretty predictably on all counts.  Meanwhile, we are regaled with middle-American practices and mores of the period, from company picnics to stamp collections.

Ben Jones, Ashley Garlick.

Along with the expected humorous situations, some of the notable tunes work well in framing the narrative.  At the opening on the factory floor, “Racing with the Clock” deals with time-and-motion studies to speed production that became popular during the era.  Although the song is chirpy and clever, it wasn’t well projected by the girl’s chorus on opening night.

The dreamy and beautiful “Hey There” is one of the two songs from the show to become a pop standard.  It deals with Sid’s ruminations over early rejections by Babe.  Ben Jones does a fine acting job as Sid and has a strong and wonderful voice, but in the first rendering of this great song, he didn’t project well either.  Fortunately, that was never an issue afterward.

Another crowd pleaser is a duet between Sid and Babe, portrayed by Ashley Garlick, who also brings great acting chops and voice to the stage.  The song is ‘There Once Was a Man,” which affirms their love for each other.  Its lyrics are totally appropriate and the tune is very catchy, but the strange thing about it is that the musical idiom is Western with fast-traveling patter and great upward-leaping vocal glissandos.  It sounds like it comes out of the Frankie Laine songbook, and you anticipate whip cracking and yeehaws at any time. 

Tony Conaty, Renee DeWeese, Nicholas Yenson.

Act 2 opens with the memorable “Steam Heat,” a song and dance trio.  Its lyrics are of the generic “I can’t live without your love” sort that is superfluous.  Its context is contrived, and the dance style is wildly different from other dances in “The Pajama Game.”  However, this happened to be Bob Fosse’s first show as a choreographer, and the good news is that this number is the first to demonstrate many of his later trademark characteristics – bowler hats and gloves, sloped shoulders, dangling arms, and rhythmic stomps.  Led by Gladys, who is portrayed by choreographer Renee DeWeese, the dancing is a real showstopper that is stunningly performed.

“Hernando’s Hideaway” is about an invitation-only club where lovers could meet in secret.  Such a refuge probably didn’t exist in small midwestern cities, but it does serve as a suitable venue for a furtive meeting between Sid and Gladys, who is the boss’s secretary and Hines’s (the time-and-motion engineer) girlfriend!  The halting tango perfectly fits the ambiance of a candlelit sanctuary.  And it is another enjoyable song that became a pop standard.

In addition to the good performances by the lead couple, the other major roles are well acted.  Daniel Thomas, the producing company’s Executive Artistic Director, is Prez, the union head, who keeps failing to get the workers’ raise and who also has an eye for Babe.  Nick Nakashima receives the most laughs as Hines, who worries about work and has a jealous streak.  And Jesse Caldwell bounces to and fro, as he plays both the greedy boss, “Old Man” Hasler and empathetic Pops, Babe’s father, who is trying his best to get her married off.

Tracy Camp, Nick Nagashima.

Through the disarray in story elements, “The Pajama Game” is still charming, and it is fun to see.  Production values, including several other dance numbers and skeletal instrumental support, are consistent with 42nd Street Moon standards.  Theatergoers who welcome revivals of earlier musicals, a niche that the company serves well, will particularly enjoy this experience.

Although “The Pajama Game” may not come across as an expressly political play, it was written when over 300 entertainers were still blacklisted as a result of House Un-American Activities Committee investigations.  The central clash is certainly a classic between capital and labor.  “Old Man” Hasler, the factory head, is played unsympathetically for his dishonesty and for his rigid rejection of a workers’ raise when the factory is doing extremely well.  Further, he repeatedly refers to anyone who supports the raise or acts to slow production as a communist.  This is a clear jab by the musical’s creative team at right-wingers who make flagrant, unfounded accusations and reject the notion that those outside their fraternity deserve rights and comforts.  Sadly, this scapegoating philosophy and the practice of pejorative and unjustified labeling has had a troubling resurgence in today’s world.

Ashley Garlick, Ben Jones, Jesse Caldwell.

“The Pajama Game” with music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell, and produced by 42nd Street Moon, plays at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA through June 19, 2022.

Beehive: The ’60s Musical

Constance Jewell Lopez, Arielle Crosby, and Erica Richardson. All photos by Kevin Berne.

In an implicit nod to the growing marijuana and hallucinogenic drug culture of the decade, David Crosby famously said that if you can remember the ‘60s, you weren’t there.  Fortunately, for most of us who lived through it, that is a canard. Half a century later, memories from that era are distinct and intense.  It was a time of social and political upheaval, in which music played a profound role.  And for the first time in history, most music of the day was targeted at, purchased by, and performed by youth.

Our religion was Top 40 radio, 24/7.  Before contemporary music was pushed more into silos, we called our music rock-and-roll, but not in a narrow sense.  It included associated youth culture idioms like rhythm-and-blues, doo wop, girl groups, crossover country, and pop, as well as older genres such as show tunes, instrumentals, and blues.  And in this new and changing environment emerged new styles of female singers.  In days past, women had fronted Big Bands and sung solo pop music, but singers and songs were largely prim and proper.  This new wave was largely driven by strong women and by music with earthy themes that were alien to previous decades.

Ashley Cowl and the Cast.

“Beehive: the ’60s Musical” honors that decade and the women who made their music a big part of the shifting scene.  Center REPertory presents this musical revue with high energy and a joyful spirit.

From the terrific acapella medley that opens the show, it is clear that the cast of six young women are all talented vocalists.  What surprises is that those same voices that create ethereal harmony in some of the ensemble numbers can also wail and belt it out in solos that call for a diva’s intensity.  They also display the choreographed movement and dance of the time, all the while looking the part, especially clad in the go-go dancer costumes with the white latex boots.  Oh, and they’re well-backed by an all-female rock band.

The early part of the show is about the early and mid-‘60s.  Rock era girl groups dominated and were largely Black and largely teenagers who were high school friends.  The genre had gathered steam in the late ‘50s.  In 1960, a breakthrough came with the first girl group number one Billboard hit, the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.”  As with all of the material, the cast does a great job of providing a version that is both reminiscent and in their own style.  They also swing and sway and shake and shuffle through “Be My Baby,” “Sweet Talkin’ Guy,” “Walking in the Rain,” and more.  With well over two dozen songs, every audience member will have their own favorites.

Monique Hafen Adams, Constance Jewel Lopez.

To give a little context to the musical era, some commentary is provided about social and political movements in the decade – civil rights, women’s rights, and Viet Nam.  In a departure from the music formula, recognizing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the girls sing a poignant version of “Abraham, Martin, and John.”

The latter part of the show covers the latter part of the decade and even cheats into the ‘70s.  It focuses on the electrifying female performers of the era – Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, and Grace Slick.  But the most rousing performance is a rendition of “Proud Mary,” replete with fringe dress and the trademark stomp and shimmy of Tina Turner.

Elizabeth Curtis.

“Beehive: The ‘60s Musical” is thorough entertainment, with no higher order aspirations.  Director and Choreographer Dawn Monique Williams has effectively guided this production to its objective, and the performers (Monique Hafen Adams, Ashley Cowl, Arielle Crosby, Elizbeth Curtis, Constance Jewell Lopez, and Erica Richardson) hold up their part of the bargain.

Not within the control of CenterREP, the script could benefit from a little more elaboration on the social scene of the ‘60s and more identification and discussion of the artists associated with the songs.  Also, the song selection would benefit by replacing add-on numbers like “Academy Award” and “The Beehive Dance” that temporarily deflate the energy of the nostalgia.

Despite these minor bumps in the road, those who are drawn to this material should find it a pleasant experience.

“Beehive: The ‘60s Musical” is created by Larry Gallagher, produced by Center REPertory, and plays at Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek, CA through June 26, 2022.

Cats

The Cast. All photos by Matthew Murphy, Murphymade,

“Cats.”  It’s really a different breed of – cat.  On its opening at London’s West End in 1981, its radical, never-before characteristics created an immediate buzz.  Its cast is fully anthropomorphized.  It is sung-through in the fashion of grand opera.  Its lyrics are based on poems for children by a Nobel laureate in literature.  Except for a few moments, its diverse choreography and movement is non-stop.  And a plotline is largely lacking, with each song acting as its own separate drama.  Finally, marketing of the musical relies on the visual of the cat’s-eye logo rather than promoting the performers or posting pull-quotes from reviews.

Who could predict that such a musical would set performance records for both the West End (21 years) and Broadway (a mere 18 years)?  But innovation doesn’t put butts in seats.  So, what propelled “Cats” to immortal fame?

Michelle E. Carter as Jennyanydots, Lauren Louis as Demeter, Chelsea Nicole Mitchell as Bombalurina, Kayli Jamison as Jellylorum.

Spectacle!  As the world’s first megamusical, “Cats, and this touring production” fills the eyes and ears with delight.  The scenic design is phantasmic with brilliant shifts in lighting; use of billowy stage smoke; a large seemingly levitating disk; and a very detailed set.  The stage is often filled with two dozen performers adorned in resplendent cat costumes of various ilks.  There is a fluffy, fat, black cat, and a shapely white cat with shaggy legs, and a sleek gray cat, but there are mostly a variety of distinctive striped cats.  They move around the stage almost continuously, crawling and writhing, and best of all, dancing, and doing it quite well.  There are many elements of modern dance, but also fine ballet, particularly by Mistoffelees, with stunning leaps and spins, and even an energetic rat-a-tat tap number led by Jennyanydots.

“Cats” composer Andrew Lloyd Weber pens an eclectic mix of background styles to complement the poetic lyrics.  Except for perhaps the Jellicle theme, few of the tunes stand the test of memory, though the music is effective and often uplifting, fitting the situations of the songs well.  But with “Cats,” Lloyd Weber began a strategy of creating a single tune that could be lifted out of the context of the storyline and pushed for Top 40 music commercial success, thus promoting the show.

Tayler Harris as Grizabella.

That song is the luminous “Memory.”  Although the situation of the haunting and melancholy song is about Grizabella’s separation from the tribe of (fictitious) Jellicle cats and a plea for acceptance, the neutral lyrics make it a universal.   Trevor Nunn’s alluring adaptation of T. S. Eliot’s poem is even superior to the original, creating a very special meter and rhythm that enhances the words and makes the music sing.  The achingly beautiful song closes Act 1 and is reprised in different ways in Act 2.  Happily, the final rendering by Grizabella with a little harmony assist from Sillabub, is a showstopper, because the previous ones on opening night were not memorable.

The musical is full of interesting and distinctive characters whose cat lives map onto human ones.  Each is portrayed with great skill, as if the performer benefits from a collective unconscious of the role having been played thousands and thousands of times all over the world.  Every theatergoer will have their own favorite cat.  There is the wise Old Deuteronomy, the gigantic and respected leader of the Jellicle cats.  Maybe it’s Gus, the Theatre Cat, whose doleful appearance hides a past as a star revealed in his nostalgic reflections.  Or maybe the colorful orange-striped Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser, the roguish pair of thieves who ransack houses.

Indalecio De Jesus Valentin as Old Deuteronomy (above) and cast.

“Cats” is an audience pleaser, especially attracting younger people to the theater.  Akin to “Rocky Horror Show” a cult of “Cats” lovers exists that see the show multiple times, and their enthusiasm does add to its ambiance and appreciation.  The show has its detractors, largely because of the lack of continuity and cohesive narrative.  Its signature song seems to spring out of nowhere.  And though the performances are totally professional on the whole, there are occasional weak links.  But its assets make “Cats” a unique theatrical experience worth the price of admission.  The current touring production carries on a tradition that will have legs for a long time to come.

“Cats,” with music by Andrew Lloyd Weber and lyrics based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T. S. Eliot, is produced by Troika Entertainment, presented by Broadway SF, and plays at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA through June 5, 2022.

The Sound Inside

Tyler Miclean as Christopher Dunn. Denmo Ibrahim as Bella Baird. All photos by Kevin Berne.

A relationship staple in the catalog of dramatic themes is that of professor and student.  Traditionally, the professor is a man who takes sexual or emotional advantage of a female student, but that formula has diversified in recent decades.  Perhaps a theatrical watershed was David Mamet’s 1992 two-hander “Oleanna,” which reflected the sea change in universities’ policies in adjudicating teacher/student harassment claims.  Previously, the professor had been assumed, or at least treated, as truthful and innocent, and the student was hung out to dry.  Under new rules at many institutions, a professor was assumed guilty until proven innocent in a harassment accusation from a student unless contact was in public places.

These policy shifts were part of major realignment of the power structure between professor and student.  Abetted by new technologies, professors became more accessible and were to be responsive at virtually any time.  Because of a new emphasis on students’ evaluations of teacher performance, students would hold a stronger hand than ever before.  In this environment, Adam Rapp has also written a two-hander, “The Sound Inside,” a taut relationship drama that takes on characteristics of a mystery or thriller.

Denmo Ibrahim as Bella Baird.

Bella Baird is a tenured professor.  Portrayed with supreme skill and compassion by Denmo Ibrahim, she introduces herself to the audience as a teacher of undergraduate creative writing at Yale University.  Ultimately, we learn that she is 53 years old and never married; loves her job; had a modicum of success writing published fiction; and is enamored of speaking and writing in lengthy, wandering sentences that she cautions her students to avoid.

Christopher Dunn, deftly played by Tyler Miclean, is a Yale freshman.  His outerwear is a thin filling-station jacket that will be his only protection in the dead of winter, but when questioned about it, he demurs, noting “I’m from Vermont.”  Bright and highly literate, his mind and tongue are quick.  He reveals his brashness when responding in class to a tract in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.”  Unlike his modest classmates, he announces “Someday, I’m going to write a great moment like that.”

Christopher appears at Bella’s office without notice.  In addition to ignoring the university’s appointment scheduling software, the near Luddite doesn’t use email or social media, and while he has a computer, he composes on a manual typewriter.  Though his self-indulgent behavior disrespects the professor’s authority, he is inspired by her teaching and writing, and she appreciates his nimble thinking and lofty goals.  He is also writing a novel, and she is transfixed by both the youthful ambition and the clever narrative he has devised.

Tyler Miclean as Christopher Dunn.

So begins a relationship outside normal boundaries, meeting at her office, at restaurants, and at her home.  Rapp writes exchanges that are frank, and Miclean often snarls Christopher’s crass and fractious comments.  Conversely, Ibrahim displays delicacy as she weighs the consequences of censoring him and perhaps snuffing his spontaneity and their connection.   Several threads beyond their writing define the bonding.  They share appreciation of James Salter’s “Light Years” as well as “Crime and Punishment” and its evil but complex and somewhat redemptive main character, Raskolnikov.

But they are also loners, and Christopher confronts Bella by asking why she doesn’t have any friends.  She admits that she stopped liking people, and Ibrahim is completely convincing in her depiction of Bella as resigned, but adjusted and happy in her skin.  Miclean is disquieting when exposing Christopher’s angst.  Also antisocial, but somewhat unstable, he goes ballistic when Bella insists that following rules is important even in the relative freedom of academe.  Despite their shared interests and long time together, when Bella asks Christopher for a favor that could only be expected from a true intimate, he responds, “But you even don’t know me.”  And the truth is that she doesn’t know the most basic of things about him, such as his middle name.

Tyler Miclean as Christopher Dunn, Denmo Ibrahim as Bella Baird.

As is appropriate in a play focused on literature, Rapp endows his characters with erudite language and astute metaphors.  This is good news for theatergoers who appreciate language as a blessing and a gauge of civilization, but maybe bad news for the marketability of the play.  Many prospective theater goers could find the perceived pompousness and dark elements, including existential threats, as intellectually satisfying but not entertaining as such.  This is unfortunate, because the play is compelling and unpredictable from beginning to end, covering a wide range of human issues.  And if the reader thinks they know the story from this review, think again.  This is but an introduction to a dense and provocative 90 minutes of taut and memorable drama.

Marin Theatre’s production of “The Sound Inside,” masterfully directed by Jasson Minadakis and with two outstanding performances, meets the highest theatrical standards.

“The Sound Inside” is written by Adam Rapp, produced by Marin Theatre Company, and plays on its stage at 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley, CA through June 16, 2022.

The Quality of Life

Ted Barker as Neil, Sindu Singh as Dinah, CJ Smith, Bonnie DeChant as Jeanette. All photos by Grizzly De Haro.

More and more, the United States is becoming a house divided – blue states versus red states.  Profound differences in fundamental values, from civil and women’s rights to gun control, rupture the connective tissue of the body politic.

Jane Anderson’s “The Quality of Life” depicts this schism within a family, and it feels even more pertinent today than at its premiere in 2007.  How “today” are family rifts resulting from moral/religious differences as well as the loss of virtually all material possessions due to a California home being consumed by wildfire?

Altarena Playhouse’s production of this biting drama, directed by Katina Psihos Letheule and with set design by R. “Dutch” Fritz, is outstanding.  An amazing foursome of wonderfully-cast actors deliver remarkable and memorable performances to a provocative script that especially resonates with Bay Area audiences.

Sindu Singh as Dinah, CJ Smith as Bill.

While the term quality-of-life registers with most people, its ambiguity derives from the fact that each person’s criteria for it will differ.  Despite the hardship associated with Jeanette and Neil’s losing their Berkeley hills home, the playwright may be suggesting that the involuntary return to nature dictated by their current situation has regenerative and other benefits.  Although some aspects of quality-of-life may be difficult to measure, most will be physical attributes such as number of sunny days a year or availability of public transport.  But the socio-political differences between the two couples in the play also suggest that the emotional effect of being in an environment with people of like thinking is important.

Dinah and her husband Bill have suffered a tragedy, and Dinah feels it would be a good time to get away from their home in Ohio and reconnect with her Bay Area cousin, Jeanette.  Meanwhile, Jeanette and Neil are living in an off-the-grid yurt on their charred property.

The reunion reveals love and conflict within and between the couples, each pair with their resolute philosophical views of how life should be lived.  The playwright exposes a raft of issues to contemplate – faith, ecology, life cycles, renewal, bonding, and letting go.  She endows her characters with distinctiveness, particularly in the nature and strength of their moral convictions.

Tension is continuously palpable from the opening scene when Bill shows his disrespect of Dinah by leafing through the newspaper while she tries to engage him in conversation.  But throughout, humorous asides cool the temperature and keep the taut, serious drama from being depressing. 

Bonnie DeChant as Jeanette, Ted Barker as Neil.

In large measure, the play is comprised of four character studies.  Central to the narrative is Neil, whose body is failing him.  An appropriately ashen Ted Barker exudes confidence as a professor who believes in his rational judgment and relishes intellectual exchange, even though his mind is made up on most issues.  He may even goad an opponent just for fun.

Jeanette is portrayed poignantly by Bonnie DeChant, as one who looks and acts like a maturing hippie.  She’s earthy; she’s confident; and she’s reconciled to the loss of the physical representations of the couple’s 29 years of memories, instead displaying as art the remains of cameras, glass, and window frames mangled by 2000° heat from the fire.

Sindu Singh is Dinah, and the actress beautifully captures her somewhat subservient and timid but sincere and generous nature.  She actively seeks guidance from Christ and usually follows Bill’s lead, but she is not happy with the new congregation that they’ve joined and is committed to helping Jeanette.

Bonnie DeChant as Jeanette, Sindu Singh as Dinah, Ted Barker as Neil.

Finally, while CJ Smith is probably a really nice person, he performs the dogmatic, inflexible Bill to a T.  Bill believes rigorously in his own righteousness and in the Christian path.  He questions whether non-believers can possess morality without having a guidebook for direction.  He is also troubled by the life style of Jeanette and Neil, especially pot smoking.  And as a prototype of today’s clannish conservative politician, there is no problem on earth that he can’t find a way to blame on people of persuasions different from his.  Like Dinah, he does have a giving side, but it derives from intrusion and dominance, not altruism.

As time passes, incidents arise that both bind and divide and raise more questions.  Why do tragedies sometimes promote division rather than unity?  What constitutes the sanctity of life?  Is God responsible when bad things happen to good people, or does God even exist?  Tempers flare and alliances are challenged.  In the end, Bill offers Dinah an avocado tree, and the open question is – “What will it take to grow an avocado tree in Ohio?”

“The Quality of Life” is written by Jane Anderson, produced by Altarena Playhouse, and plays on its stage at 1409 High Street, Alameda, CA through June 26, 2022.

Hat Matter: Thoughts of a Black Mad Hatter

Michael Wayne Turner III. All photos by Colin Mandlin.

The world of wardrobe fashion and fad changes endlessly.  Consider men’s dress jackets alone – from time to time, the mode has been two-button, three-button, thin lapel, wide lapel, double breasted, Nehru, unstructured, and more.  But in the 21st century, dressing up had already fallen into secular decline, then exacerbated by the pandemic and an accelerated rate of work from home.

Yet, pockets of contrarianism exist.  An exemplar of an atypical commitment to fashion is a self-proclaimed Black Dandy – Michael Wayne Turner III, the Black Mad Hatter.  To him, stylish dress is not only an aesthetic preference but a sociological statement of defiance.

In this one-man show, Turner is surrounded on stage by his own wardrobe.  While he tinkers with his clothing for much of the hour of the performance, the title of the show is still somewhat of a misnomer.  Fashion is clearly central to his personality, and the script reveals his personality.  However, he discusses fashion a bit, but sartorial matters act as a springboard for his storytelling and socio-philosophical thoughts.

And spring he does.  Turner is a veritable whirlwind of motion as he regales the audience with his own words – a series of many vignettes delivered variously as prose, poetry, and hip-hop-like lyrics.  They are an amalgam of social commentaries that he delivers with electrical charge.  His enthusiastic emotionalism and provocative thoughts induce audience involvement in a lively call-and-response atmosphere, often associated with African-American religious services.

The author/performer’s dominant and most emotive theme concerns race, which elicits the most vocal response from the audience.  He begins by asking the question “What do you think?” which deals with the issue of the great racial divide, the prejudice in the perceptions of White people about Blacks.  It prompts the thought, why is it that so many people and societies identify by color of skin.  In a more specific account, about the tragic and lawless practice of lynching, he honors the Billie Holliday popularized song “Strange Fruit” with his own ruminations.

Turner also looks at the macro issue of economics in the piece “What’s wrong with the world?”  He presents the humanist argument that much of the poverty and fault in the world derives from the vast concentration of wealth and resources in the hands of few self-interested individuals.  The imbalances cause fractures in all institutions in society including government, education, and justice.  Of course, these dysfunctions lead to further racial disparities.  At the other extreme, Turner includes personal stories from the very special relationship of a newborn with its mother to the first time he experienced getting beaten up – because of mistaken identity.

On a line-by-line basis, the text of “Hat Matter:…” is dramatic and compelling.  Audiences will find much to cheer and reflect upon.  Some tracts may seem stream of consciousness and disjointed, but overall, the language is colorful and riveting, and the thoughts are profound.

“Hat Matter: Thoughts of a Black Mad Hatter,” written by Michael Wayne Turner III, played on the stage of Oakland Theater Project at Flax Art & Design, 1501 Martin Luther King Way, Oakland, CA in May, 2022.

Pique Dame

Michael Boley as Hermann and Rhoslyn Jones as Liza. All photos by Otak Jump.

Few classical composers can claim a substantial portfolio in both instrumental music and opera.  In the United States, Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky is best known for his distinguished ballet music, “The Nutcracker,” “Swan Lake,” and “Sleeping Beauty,” as well as great symphonic pieces such as his “Symphony No. 5,” and “Piano Concerto No. 1”.  Tchaikovsky also wrote 11 operas, several of which remain immensely popular in Slavic countries.

Despite the difficulty of casting Russian language opera, two are present in the American repertoire, “Eugene Onegin” and “Pique Dame” (“Queen of Spades” in English).  Although the former premiered 11 years earlier than the latter, they share the same DNA, including source material derived from Alexander Pushkin.  Thematically, both involve military officers, unconsummated love, lethal gunfire, and untimely deaths of principals.  Musically, their haunting Russianness draws on folk music, sharing similar idioms and phrases, yielding common overarching sound adorned with uncommon poignancy.

Jonathan Beyer as Prince Yeletsky, Jason Beaman as Chekalinsky, Matthew Lovell as Surin, Kiril Havezov as Tomsky, Michael Boley as Hermann.

Gaming occurs in numerous operas, usually to create an ambiance or to elaborate a main character’s character, sometimes as an addictive personality.  In “Pique Dame,” gambling acts as the central metaphor of casting one’s fate to the vagueries of chance.   Uniquely, the title of the opera is represented by one symbol-laden playing card.

Hermann, a seemingly virtuous but poor army officer, often visits the casino with friends but only as an observer.  Upon falling in love with Liza, he finds that she is the granddaughter of the Countess and therefore above his station.  Dedicating his life to becoming rich enough to marry Liza, he learns that the Countess extricated her way out of extensive gambling debts by betting on an irrefutably successful sequence of three numbers.  But that supernatural bestowal carried threatening conditions.  In his obsession to learn the sequence, Hermann’s morality is compromised, and Liza questions whether he still loves her or is only interested in the money or the quest itself.

A suitably doleful Michael Boley portrays the desperate Hermann.  In a role that challenges in vocal complexity, he also sings in every scene.  From his first significant set piece, the aria leading to a duet with his friend Tomsky, “I don’t even know her name,” Boley displays both range and power.  Early on at opening night, his voice seemed to lack full melodiousness, but it sounded richer as the evening progressed, and he redeemed himself well.

Maria Kaganskaya as Polina, Rhoslyn Jones as Liza, chorus member.

As the object of Hermann’s affection, Liza is played by Rhoslyn James.  With some exception, the tessitura of Liza’s part in early scenes is middle range, which plays well to James’ big, round vocalization in that realm.  Her duet with Polina, “Tis evening, the edges of the clouds have darkened” and her ambivalent aria about loving two men “But why these tears?” both demonstrate her easy power.  Range demands increase later in the opera, leading to her beautiful rendition of Liza’s evocative signature aria in Act 3, “Ah, I am worn out by grief.”

Tchaikovsky is at the top of his opera game in “Pique Dame.”  His plaintive and phantasmic sound, often relying on the reeds and large strings, suits the ghostly elements of the script.  The story line compels as we see Hermann’s obsession take hold, and considerable tension created.  The principal action is complemented by orchestral interludes and extensive use of chorus.  To make the setting more exotic to then contemporary audiences, the composer moved the action back to the 18th century.  In a gesture to classicism and particularly Mozart, he not only mentions that composer by name, but he includes a pastiche pastoral play-within-a-play, “The Faithful Shepherdess,” which also includes a fine female duet.

Laure de Marcellus as The Countess.

Producing this opera is among the many courageous decisions by General Director and Conductor José Luis Moscovich to extend the repertoire of his audience.  This production offers a delightful experience and everything an attendee of regional opera should expect.  That said, there are certainly pluses and minuses to note.  The secondary principal cast members, too many to mention, uniformly meet or exceed expectations.  Most had appealing and sometimes surprisingly strong voices, and they offered many highlights, as Tchaikovsky spread the wealth around.  The choristers have room for improvement, but they convey the music and the tone well.  Kudos to the large number of women, men, and children for participating in a work with considerable choral content that must be learned by most singers as nonsense syllables.

On the design side, Peter Crompton has established an excellent and efficient scenic formula for West Bay Opera productions that includes multilevel forestage; extensive projections as side walls and backdrops; and a few sticks of movable furniture.  These sets are handsome and make the staging appear complete. A number of projections are used, but in some instances, they fail to reflect the spaces they are supposed to represent – bedroom and barracks scenes, for instance.  Abra Berman also deserves a nod for capturing an appropriate look and for the sheer volume of costumes required for this production, which alone ornament the stage with a period appearance.  One exception is that the outer tunics of the military outfits lack appropriate decoration or distinction and thus don’t capture the feel of dress uniforms.

Women’s and Men’s choruses.

As indicated earlier, this is an opera that opera lovers will love.  It is a deserving production that can be thoroughly enjoyed.

“Pique Dame,” composed by Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky with libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky, after a novella of the same name by Alexander Pushkin, is produced by West Bay Opera and plays at Lucie Stern Community Center, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA through May 29, 2022.