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

Mothers of the Bride

Sandy Sodos as Beth, Francheska Loy as Hannah, Kalyn McKenzie as Liv, Caitlyn Lawrence Papp as Ginny, Kim Seipel as Kristy. – All photos by Mario Ramirez.

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”
 (French adage: The more things change, the more they remain the same.)  Many of the activities and anxieties associated with a bride-to-be’s preparation for her wedding have persisted across cultures and centuries.  Through most of history, those special moments have been shared between the fiancée and her mother.  Though in many ways, the key decisions are really intended to satisfy the mother rather than the daughter – a cause of much of conflict.

Starting with the latter 20th century, divorce, remarriage, and nonmarriage have become so prominent that the would-be-bride may have several significant women to share these charged moments with.  Or maybe none.  Yet those same consternations go on, right down to the decision whether to go through with the wedding.

Kim Seipel as Kristy, Francheska Loy as Hannah, Sandy Sodos as Beth.

Playwright Meghan Maugeri has plumbed this territory with a well-written play.  The bride-to-be has to deal not only with her birth mother and her stepmom, but the groom’s birth mother and step mom insinuate themselves into the scene as well.  It’s kind of an all-female version of “Modern Family” visits the bridal shop to select a dress.  Of course, a great deal unrelated to the dress selection is revealed along the way.

Perhaps Maugeri’s strongest suit is in differentiating the five characters.  Francheska Loy is Hannah, the young victim.  Despite her success as a young adult, she lacks confidence in her abilities and her decision making.  Not true of her tiger birth mother Kristy, played by Kim Seipel.  Highly self-indulgent, she is also a realist who knows that her own failures and serial marriages haven’t exactly set a comforting example for Hannah.  Meanwhile, stepmom Beth, who is portrayed by Sandy Sodos, exudes optimism informed by her devout Christianity.  Kristy and Beth are oil and water, and there is nothing too insubstantial for them to disagree on.  Though in fairness, the friction comes mostly from one side, as it is usually the implacable Kristy who tries to douse the effusive Beth.

Enter Ginny, an unreconstructed hippy and mother of the groom, portrayed by Kaitlin Lawrence Papp.  As an arch feminist and iconoclast, she is the biggest misfit in the bridal proceedings, as she never even married the groom’s father and rails against many of the traditions associated with weddings.  Finally, there is Kalyn McKenzie’s Liv, the groom’s stepmom who appears without invitation.  Her shallow, social-media-obsessed vibe belies her achievement as an accomplished attorney.  A trophy wife who is barely older than Hannah, Liv seems more a peer to her rather than a surrogate parent.  To validate the casting in a way, the real actors, Francheska and Kalyn, just happen to be engaged!

Sandy Sodos as Beth, Kalyn McKenzie as Liv, Caitlin Lawrence Papp as Ginny.

The fivesome engage in fairly predictable exchanges, but with some humor along the way.  They can be appreciated as representations of women you probably know and hopefully like. The play is not intended as a profound examination with deep meaning, but as a lighthearted slice of life.  It works on that level.

The most interesting element of critical examination concerns the acting affects of the players.  It is not clear whether their overall tone is driven by the actors themselves or by director Katie Hipol Garcia. Nor is it clear whether their interpretation is a response to pandemic conditions or is how they see the play in any case.  So, to mention my specific concern, it is overacting with exaggerated gesticulation and constant high-volume, emotive verbalization.  Pear Theatre is a very small house, but the manner of communication used could serve a very large one.  And the somewhat unceasing madcap style doesn’t allow for the special bits to stand out.

But are there ever mitigating circumstances!  Because cast members have unvaccinated children, extra precautions applied. This is the first play that I have seen since the re-emergence of live theater a couple of months ago in which the cast is fully masked.  We all know that much of our facial expression is hidden when wearing masks and that our voices are more muffled, so the desire to compensate is understandable.

Kalyn McKenzie as Liv, Francheska Loy as Hannah.

The other aspect of masking the cast is that it is realistic.  “Mothers of the Bride” is not a historic play from Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams or whomever else.  It is a world premiere, debuting in the here and now during the pandemic. Thus, it is a true time capsule.  If several women were meeting at a bridal shop in today’s real life, they would be masked.  Thus, the realism is compelling.

“Mothers of the Bride” a world premiere written by Meghan Maugeri is produced by Pear Theatre and plays on their stage at 1110 La Avenida; Mountain View, CA, through September 12, 2021.

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


Alfred Walker as Scarpia (lower left) and chorus. All photos by Cory Weaver.

Has any other opera been so strongly associated with the birth and rebirth of a grand opera house and its resident company?  From its inception by founder Gaetano Merola, San Francisco Opera has had a love affair with the works of Giacomo Puccini.  To debut the opening of the War Memorial Opera House in 1932; to reopen in 1997 after the renovation necessitated by the Loma Prieta earthquake; and to mark its return to audiences in 2021 after the pandemic hiatus, the company has turned to the same Puccini masterpiece, the dark and glorious “Tosca.”

The audience was enthralled just to be back in the opera house, appreciative that the company and government authorities found protocols to permit the return to live performance.  Although no social distancing requirements applied, the audience was fully vaccinated and fully masked, substantially eliminating the risk of Covid-19 transmission.

As expected, the company offers a strong rendering of this classic, albeit, as a remount of its stellar 2018 production. Per the composer’s intent, it takes place in Rome during the Napoleanic Era, lavishly staged with independent sets for each of the three acts.  Though impressive, the visuals offer nothing new to SFO regulars.  But the artists are new, and this season opener marks the conducting debut of Eun Sun Kim in her role as Music Director of San Francisco Opera.

Ailyn Peréz as Tosca, Michael Fabiano as Cavaradossi.

What is it about “Tosca” that endows it with near universal appeal?  There have been naysayers who find the action and music of verismo to be too violent and vulgar, but they are now few.  To begin with, this is a mature and confident Puccini in the follow up to his equally renowned “La Boheme.”  The opera’s dissonant, ominous opening salvo of the Scarpia theme announces the tragedy to come, while the ensuing score resounds with rich melody, haunting leitmotifs, and several memorable “greatest hits” arias.

To complement the music, “Tosca” possesses intense drama anchored, nay, dominated by three archetypal characters.  Ailyn Peréz plays the title role of Floria Tosca, a great singer who lives for art and love.  This character offers unusually broad scope for interpretation, and Peréz uses her natural youth and charm to make Tosca delightfully coquettish, inducing uncommon and welcomed levity into Act 1.  Michael Fabiano plays her lover, the courageous hero Mario Cavaradossi, a painter in a church, surreptitiously involved in a political movement revolting against Rome’s current government.  Finally, the antagonist is Scarpia, whose very name resonates with evil.  As Chief of Police, his pursuit of enemies of the state comes with the territory, but his methods are foul.  For one, he looks to gain sexual favors from Tosca in return for releasing Cavaradossi from arrest and probable execution.  Alfred Walker’s facility for an ambiguous countenance allows him to depict Scarpia’s unctuous allure as well as his callousness and depravity.

Conductor Kim exacts full measure from the 68-piece orchestra, which fills the house with rich sound. Although the overall production satisfies extremely, the one weakness is that the principals do not always compete well with the orchestra.  That is not the case with Fabiano, who is always clearly audible and even overpowers with controlled anguish when called upon.  His nicely-tuned vibrato shows well in the beautiful Act 1 love letter to Tosca and Mary Magdalena, “Recondita armonia.”  At the end, he brings the house down with his mournful rendition of the fabulous “E lucevan le stelle,” as he contemplates death by firing squad.  This beloved aria’s distinctive quality comes in part from the lead-in melody being carried by an evocative oboe, while the tenor provides counter support until given his turn.

Alfred Walker as Scarpia, Ailyn Peréz as Tosca.

Peréz possesses a beautifully lyric voice that sometimes gets lost at lower volumes.  Conversely, when singing forte, her voice turns dramatic and penetrates with ease.  Happily, she conquers her signature aria “Vissi d’arte” to a quieted house in Act 2, tenderly and with great confidence as she pleads with Scarpia to free her from the misery that he has caused.  She and Fabiano deliver both power and beauty in their final duet.  Noteworthy is that while Puccini included rare full or partial duets, he avoided the artifice of large ensemble numbers in this opera.

Ailyn Peréz as Tosca, Michael Fabiano as Cavaradossi.

Scarpia’s most significant vocal moment is shared with the chorus in the booming Act 1 conclusion, “Te Deum (Tosca)” with his expressive repetition of the heroine’s name against the chorus’s religious praise to God.  Walker’s tonality is pleasant, but more commanding power would deliver the plaintive emotion of the piece better.  Otherwise, he does demonstrate his character’s dominance and rage quite well.

“Tosca,” composed by Giacomo Puccini with libretto by Giuseppe Giacoso and Luigi Illica is produced by San Francisco Opera and appears at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA through September 5, 2021.

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

Eugene Onegin

Sara Jakubiak (Tatyana) and Lucas Meachem (Eugene Onegin). Production photos by Curtis Brown

The indelible mark of the Russian soul is stamped on the operas of even the most Europeanized of 19th century Russian composers. Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” falls in that camp with its pathos revealed in rich, melodious music. Not to mention that it competes perhaps with Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” as Russia’s most important opera, both for its artistry and its cultural connectedness. Santa Fe Opera has overcome Covid obstacles to produce a vivid and highly rewarding production.

The opera derives from Pushkin’s novel of the same name, a revered literary masterpiece. The narrative, composed entirely in verse, reveals a panoply of social themes including love, honor, social hierarchy, and convention. Tchaikovsky’s musicality characterizes the Romantic Era, with emotional melodies supported by lush (not having used that word in my last three reviews, I’m now entitled!) orchestration that stands on its own thanks to the composer’s inestimable talent with instrumental composition. Haunting leitmotifs and beautifully turned musical phrases occur throughout, though at times they seem a bit repetitive. Whole passages introduced by Lensky’s aria and Tatyana’s letter scene in Act 1 recur repeatedly.

Lucas Meachem (Eugene Onegin), dancers and Wise Fool New Mexico.

The plot line deals with the tragic side of romance, but as with librettos of many other operas, significant moments sometimes occur with little prior development. Nonetheless, “Eugene Onegin” not only represents the greatness of Russian opera but is one of the fine representatives of the whole operatic idiom.

Director Alessandro Talevi marshals the creative team to give a look that blends traditional and modern elements. Contemporary set design generally calls for each venue in an opera to be separately represented, yet, oddly, Tchaikovsky’s stage concept called for no scene changes, embracing visual simplicity. The versatility of Gary McCann’s formal interior derives from moveable furnishings, while a steeply raked exterior to the rear adds appealing contrast carpeted with golden fall colors. Costumes of the principals are traditional. Those of the dancers and spirit animals are gaudy, colorful, and highly sequined with full face-and-headress covers, some with Dia de los Muertos themes that would certainly be foreign to Russians.

Sara Jakubiak (Tatyana).

The title character Onegin acts as the antagonist in the story by engaging in a senseless duel with a dear friend and in rejecting Tatyana’s love overtures. Despite the opera’s title, she is the central character in Act 1, dominating the stage and commanding the emotional involvement of the audience. She also exercises control over Onegin in the final sequence of the opera.

Tatyana is performed by Sara Jakubiak, who shimmers with dark vocal hues and rich tremolo. Rising to the occasion, she delivers the 13-minute letter scene soliloquy in which she pours her heart out to Onegin on paper, demonstrating total command and conviction. In this pivotal aria, the motifs and the insistent and incessant chases between flute and other wind instruments contribute to an ethereal delight.

Dovlet Nurgeldiyev (Lensky) and Lucas Meachem (Eugene Onegin).

Onegin exemplifies the idle rich and all that they represent. The arrogance and lack of empathy that they embody are well captured by baritone Lucas Meacham. Tatyana’s attraction to him is indicative of the draw that men of power and place possess despite their character shortcomings. Onegin’s crassness shows through in his pathetic excuses for rejecting Tatyana’s early advances in contrast with his slavish infatuation when she becomes a princess. Meanwhile, Jakubiak transitions convincingly from the naïve, rustic ingenue to a noble’s wife. Meacham is a dynamic force as Onegin, displaying power, agility, and tone. In the final duet between Onegin and Tatyana, both Meacham and Jakubiak demonstrate consummate emotion, vocal fireworks, and control.

Lensky, sung by Dovlet Nurgeldiyev, is given some of the finest music in the opera. His aria, leading into the duel with Onegin, is among the most memorable. Harking dolefully back on his life and love for Tatyana’s sister Olga and foreboding a tragic end, his lustrous and pure tenor voice is wondrous.

Santa Fe Opera overcame many Covid-19 related obstacles to put on this fine production. While losing their initial castings for the two key roles because of visa restrictions, their replacements could not have been finer. Because of staging restrictions, the rousing Polonaise is danced in the round by the Wise Fool New Mexico dancers rather than as a stage-filling formal couples dance as would be true to the music’s roots. Contemporary dance movements also distinguish the pageantry, but the dancers lacked the precision necessary for a performance of this importance.

Magnificent 2,000 seat Santa Fe Opera House, from outside Orchestra Right. Among stunning features, note open sides, suspension for roof, curved acoustic arc ceiling to direct sound, baffles (seven white vertical features on poles) to diffuse wind.

Finally, there is an only-at-Santa-Fe-Opera-House modification. Public health restrictions determined that the chorus could not appear on stage. For those who are not familiar, the stunning opera house is open to nature on the sides, so temporary seating for the chorus was built outside of the orchestra-left seating, facing the audience from the side. I can’t speak for those in other locations, but from my seat on the center-left aisle, the sound of the chorus has never been more immediate and thrilling. Incidentally, choristers are “apprentices” who are accomplished artists that often sing principal roles in this and other opera companies. Thanks to Santa Fe Opera for finding a way to bring their wonderful opera productions back to their astounding edifice.

“Eugene Onegin,” composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky with libretto by the composer having contributions by Konstantin Shilovsky and based on the novel of the same name by Alexander Pushkin, is produced by Santa Fe Opera and is performed at the Santa Fe Opera House, 301 Opera Drive, Santa Fe, NM through August 26, 2021.

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

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Reed Luplau (Puck). All photos by Curtis Brown.

William Shakespeare has served as inspiration to myriad artistic accomplishments. His plays act as the basis for numerous operas, most notably those of Shakespeare admirer Giuseppe Verdi who composed “Otello,” “Falstaff,” and “MacBeth.” Other successes include Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Thomas’s “Hamlet.” But unique in the canon is Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Although the play is condensed by half and otherwise edited, this opera is the only one that is in the repertoire and preserves the Bard’s own words in his own language. Santa Fe Opera acquits itself well with a delightful rendition of this complex, overstuffed, but eternally charming literary masterpiece set to opera. A lion’s share of credit for its success goes to auteur Netia Jones, who not only directs, but designs scenery, projections, and costumes.

Shakespeare’s frequent conceits include mistaken identities, confused love matches, supernatural interventions, play-within-a-play, and multiple plot lines, but “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” embraces them all, and more. Several threads are interspersed and overlapping throughout the narrative that may cause confusion to the uninitiated.

Nicholas Brownlee (Bottom), Matthew Grills (Snout), Patrick Carfizzi (Starveling), Brenton Ryan (Flute), Kevin Burdette (Quince).

Britten’s music is in the modern idiom without a hummable aria to be found, but it is very listenable. Given the various threads of the story, he assigns different instrumentations and styles to each. The craftsmen are introduced with the earthiness of low trombone slurs and boomps. The fairie royals awaken to low strings moaning, but otherwise, the fairie world is one of high pitched pizzacatos largely delivered on period instruments such as the celeste and glockenspiel as well as percussion.

The story takes place in the Athenian forest. The role of the forest is portrayed by a single fake tree, growing out of a grand piano – of course! But because of the Santa Fe Opera House’s unique ability to drop the back wall to reveal the beautiful New Mexico mesas behind, a real woods is viewed early in the opera. The largely black and white set is simple, but the use of it is complex. Several trap doors are employed to various effects; artists make their entrances rising up from below and behind the stage; and active projections cover a large “obsidian disk” and the stage floor.

For those who vaguely remember their high school reading of the play, the emphasis of the craftsmen’s rehearsal and performance of the play-within-the-play may surprise. In this production, that is quite fortunate, because one of the highlight roles goes to Bottom, and bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee clearly stands out in a large and high quality cast. His voice exudes both power and warm resonance. Plus, he acquits himself agreeably as an actor with his self-serving bumptiousness, as he even demands to act both Pyramus and Thisby in the craftsmen’s drama. In the comic elements, SFO favorite, the versatile Kevin Burdette as Quince displays burlesque-like chops that prompt some of the biggest laughs. Yet, except for the Romeo-and-Juliet-like death scene (played for laughs!) which signifies that true love never runs smooth (!), this whole diversion does not connect well to the overall exposition.

Teresa Perotta (Helena), Duke Kim (Lysander), Michael J. Hawk (Demetrius), Adanya Dunn (Hermia).

The motivation of the fairies’s narrative is a marital spat. Their Queen Tytania is performed by Erin Morley, whose voice sounded cloaked at the beginning, but who then delivered nicely on the high notes and the coloratura passages. King Oberon is Iestyn Davies who conquers the challenging countertenor voicing. Oberon enlists Puck to secure a magical flower juice that will induce Tytania to love him again. However, Puck botches his assignment, and she awakens from the potion to face Bottom as a donkey (or ass – get it?) rather than Oberon, so her love is humorously misdirected.

Choreographer Reed Luplau plays the non-singing Puck, and is the second stand out. Bedecked in an eye-catching lime green outfit, he slithers on the ground and often drops from the tree, when the audience doesn’t even know he’s there. It’s magic! The love potion he administers is represented as blotches of India ink. Luplau’s dancers, who also slither in reptilian fashion, and pop in and out of manholes like prairie dogs, wear striking costumes of ice white covered with black blotches that add to the black and white color theme. The dancers’ black face masks fit the costumery completely. They also act as a reminder of the raging pandemic with the new delta variant that induces their use by non-principals in the company.

With mention of the pandemic, this is as good a time as any to commend the Santa Fe Opera for offering this wonderful summer season to a socially distanced audience, which appears to be at its restricted capacity. Thanks to the audience as well for the seemingly total compliance of masking within the gates of the House and during the performances.

Dancers (Fairies).

Finally, onto perhaps the central and most remembered plot line concerning four young lovers. They are all performed by apprentices – sopranos Teresa Perotta and Adanya Dunn, tenor Duke Kim, and baritone Michael J. Hawk. Each sings admirably, and their voices meld beautifully in their lyrics-challenged, but musically pretty quartet. The latter three are wonderfully lyrical, but Perotta’s dramatic voice as the scorned, yet caring and forgiving Helena is the most memorable.

Hermia’s father insists that she marry Demitrius, but she loves Lysander, who she runs away with. Helena, loved by neither man, becomes a magnet to both when Puck again errs in administering the love potion. But all is eventually righted, and to borrow from the title of another Shakespeare comedy – “all’s well that ends well.”

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” composed by Benjamin Britten with libretto by the composer and Peter Pears after the play of the same name by William Shakespeare is produced by Santa Fe Opera and plays at Santa Fe Opera House, 301 Opera Drive, Santa Fe, NM through August 25, 2021.

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

Lord of Cries

Jarrett Ott (John Seward on left), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Dionysus in center in gold) Matt Boehler (Van Helsing on right). All photos by Curtis Brown.

John Corigliano’s first opera “The Ghosts of Versailles” was such a daunting and unpleasant experience that he vowed never to write opera again. That commission from the Metropolitan Opera premiered 30 years ago. However, his life partner, opera composer Mark Adamo, persuaded him to reconsider when Adamo offered to write the libretto. The felicitous result is “The Lord of Cries,” commissioned by Santa Fe Opera. The company has delivered a stellar production of the exciting opera with a cast of exceptional voices.

“The Lord of Cries” is an unusual melange of two literary works written two millennia apart. The more recent is Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” which has been used as the basis for operas before, but none have entered the repertoire. Adamo concludes that Stoker must have known the other contributing piece, Euripides’s “The Bacchae.” Despite their divergent natures, the two share commonalities that are unlikely to be random. “The Bacchae”’s Dionysus exerts religious control over Thebes. “Dracula” antagonist Dr. John Seward exercises life control over the inmates of the Carfax Asylum as well as ownership of Carfax Abbey. Dionysus and Dracula both use disguise and are supported by violent women – the Bacchantes for the former and the Three Odd Sisters for the latter. Finally, in each source, a character in a crazed mental state mistakenly parades a decapitated head, not realizing it is someone dear to them.

Three Odd Sisters: Leah Brzyski (Agave), Rachel Blaustein (Autonoe), Megan Moore (Ino).

The story of the present opera takes place in Victorian London at the fearsome time of Jack the Ripper. In Adam Rigg’s somewhat simple scenic design, back walls are aflush in pink-orange, and the stage is studded with lampposts, reflective of the era. Rather than traditional black, they are of the same coloration as the walls, creating a less conflicting canvas for Chrisi Karvonides-Dushenko’s varied and often distinctive costumes. Adam Larsen’s projections enhance the backdrops and provide revelatory lupine shadows in the denouement.

Distinguished countertenor Anthony Roth Constanzo is Dionysus, who travels over time and space and becomes Dracul, The Count. He intends to reclaim the glade on which stands Carfax Abbey, now under the control of Seward. Dracul vows to punish those who do not accept his ownership over the property. This role was written for Constanzo’s voice, and it couldn’t be a finer fit. His range and versatility of voicings with considerable dark edge is remarkable, and he is adept in handling the androgonous nature of his characters.

As Dracul’s obstacle, Seward is obstinate. Jerrett Ott portrays and sings Seward with equal authority. Decisive and demanding in his public persona, he repeatedly defies demands to forfeit the property to Dracul, despite evidence of a deed of ownership that the stranger holds. A long soliloquy reveals Seward’s insecurities and his passion for Lucy, wife of inmate and childhood friend Jonathan Harker, who has learned that Dracul is coming. The doctor’s role also calls for great vocal range, and the baritone conveys rich tone and powerful emotion.

Kathryn Henry (Lucy Harker), Jarrett Ott (John Seward), David Portillo (Jonathan Harker), Matt Boehler (Van Helsing).

Vocals are demanding throughout the cast, with most artists required to be both lyrical and highly emotional, and an appropriate tremulousness occurs in the voices of several. Kathryn Henry, a member of the Apprentice Program, was a late stand-in to take on the important role of Lucy, and her performance is indicative of how outstanding the apprentices (misnamed?) are. She is equally adept at the mellifluous and the harshly dramatic voice in her ecstasy duet with Seward and her screaming soliloquy. David Portillo, the tenor playing Jonathan, captures the character’s terrified mindset with high pitched howling.

A controversial element in “The Lord of Cries” is the use of a narrator, orated with gravitas by Kevin Burdette. Many feel that telling what has happened rather than showing it weakens drama, but that is not always true. In the Victorian era of backstreet murders, newspapers spread the word (and the fear), so the use of a “reporter” in these circumstances works well. And there are plenty of bristling moments in the sung portions otherwise.

Robert Stahley (Captain).

Overall, the vocals are captivating without being memorable except for their shrillness. The ominous orchestral music excites. Rather than provide countermelody or a continuous flow of thematic musicality, the orchestra amplifies emotions with great crescendos and emphasizes the harshness with shimmering, screeching, and clacking that work well in the horror idiom.

The plot line is clever and interesting, and this is an eminently enjoyable opera. Nonetheless, the story is somewhat convoluted and often jumps to new developments without sufficient preparation. Major cuts would be welcomed. The shipboard scene concerned with Dracul’s arrival in London is unnecessary. Seward’s well-delivered introspection could be abbreviated as could a couple of two-character scenes which are also quite repetitive and slow the action. And though a matter of taste, the gore and horror could be more accentuated to make it more chilling.

“Lord of Cries” composed by John Conigliaro with libretto by Mark Adamo is produced by Santa Fe Opera and plays at Santa Fe Opera House, 301 Opera Drive, Santa Fe, NM through August 17, 2021.

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