REVIEW – Rock of Ages – Palo Alto Players

Somewhere in an alternate universe, there’s a Susannah who instead of thrusting mostly unsolicited critical opinions upon her local, theatre-loving audience, she hurls power ballads (and herself) upon a gaggle of drooling groupies. Somewhere (that is most definitely not here nor now) she isn’t a self-appointed princess, but rather a badass, reprobate Rock Star whose talent and mass appeal catapult her to the top of the charts (briefly) and the backseats of limos (even more briefly). However, for this plane of existence, at least for the time being, such Rock and Roll fantasies must be played out by others on the stage for her. Palo Alto Player’s Rock of Ages had the chance to be just such a dreamy trip through 80’s rock nostalgia, but unfortunately, it came off more like this wannabe Punk Rock Princess’ attempt at rocking out during her commute, than a polished production.

Let’s start with the fundamental issue of this show (and shows like it). The show’s structure is more challenging at its core than one might initially observe. Sure you have a compellation of songs that automatically appeal to a certain demographic (built in audience!), songs that have already proven popular (with an expectation set by the original rock voices), but underneath the big hair and tight leather pants, the songs of Poison, Pat Benatar, Whitesnake, Jon Bon Jovi and the like take incredible range, power and pitch, not to mention stamina for days, to perform. We make fun of perhaps the weak lyrical content (and certainly the glorious fashion choices) of this era’s musical idols, but contrary to popular belief, the 80s rock ballads are NOT easy to sing. Combine that with all the pageantry, choreography and comic timing required to appease a post-Hamilton musical theater crowd and you have a significant prescription to fill. It’s a musical about Rock and therein lies a nearly impossible Venn diagram – a show that lies securely in the infinitesimal sliver of overlap. It’s simultaneously new and old and it doesn’t take itself seriously, but it must take the musical component seriously if it wants to win over the crowd.

With this immense challenge laid out (heh, heh I said laid) before them, it was immediately apparent the cast wasn’t 100% up to it, at least not that evening. Opening night was undeniably rough – pitchy throughout, unfocused and low energy in parts. I can easily forgive a few stray notes and some breathing issues if the acting makes up for it, but in many places while ready to forgive, I didn’t get enough entertainment of any kind to balance out what I felt was musically lacking. While I very much enjoyed the Broadway touring version of this play several years ago (and admittedly the bar was consequently set quite high) I just wasn’t feeling this production. Not unlike the show American Idiot, I largely thought I’d prefer to see the original bands perform these songs, rather than listen to the musical theater take on them. I should have liked this show more, and I can only hope that voices were just tired and that a few days of rest will elevate this to the level I think the show deserves and certainly this cast is capable of.

This cast. It’s a hard-working ensemble and they sounded great together for the big finales, but they were required to do a lot of things, change a lot of costumes, play lots of characters, and it felt as though it was just too much in many cases. There seemed to be an awful lot of rush, stiffness and overall lack of chemistry across the board. Too much concentration on the technical execution of moves and lines and not enough emotional connection. They weren’t having enough fun yet with it and that uncomfortable edge showed. It was like the two times in my life I’ve actively tried to be sexy… I can walk through the motions, but ultimately, you’re getting Lucille Ball not Selma Hayek. It appeared a case of double threat pegs forced into triple threat holes. Wait… that didn’t’ come out right. What I meant was while some choices (and risks) were made and indeed worked, overall this show felt too big for this stage to handle and in many places too big for this cast.

Topping the list though for most unfortunate were the actor mics. Almost the entire show was garbled. A muffled, off, and almost echoey quality had me grimacing in frustrated anguish. If I hadn’t known just about every word to the songs, I don’t think I would have understood most of the show. I believe this is a sound engineer issue and I believe this can be fixed, so it may not be as big a detriment to enjoyment later on, but boy was it annoying on Saturday. It did get me wondering though if the actors were struggling as a result of this technical issue too and if so it certainly could explain the uncharacteristic musical shortcomings.

But there were bright spots in this production to be sure. The live band was fantastic, and the volume and balance were surprisingly fine despite the size and ratio of the stage and/to the house. It could have been a disaster, but instead it was mostly rad.

45 minutes into the first act, Stacee Jaxx makes his appearance and instantly the show got a much-needed injection of something far stronger than any legal substance I’m familiar with. He effortlessly sells his shirtless and terrifically brainless, rock legend swagger with aplomb. He’s a fresh breath of one-track-minded air with musical chops to match his distinct, well-crafted character. He successfully brought three dimensions to a two-dimensional dude. He also wins the prize for eliciting an audible gasp from me for a totally unexpected “dance” move in the second act. His “Wanted” number was a standout and if it hadn’t been for him, the show would have most certainly risked an intermission departure.

Next to Stacee, the character of Lonny was the next most entertaining and prepared of the cast. He had a clear grasp of the camp and kitsch required for this show and he felt the most consistent. He navigated his narrator role and adlibbed with the audience well, creating an amusing and much needed rapport with us.

Rounding out the good, there’s some clever and well-executed choreography which was pleasing, and the set and props (wine coolers!) were legitimately outstanding. Lights which could have been super obnoxious were kept at an appreciated level befitting theater with a light concert flair. Projections added a layer of fun, but I did have trouble seeing them from house right. There were some phenomenal costuming choices too (how fun must that have been!?) though some seemed more practical and modest than perhaps period accurate.

Cursed with trying too hard in some places and not hard enough in others, it was a struggle to find Rock of Ages rhythm to rock out to this time. With strong potential to be an enjoyable rock and stroll down memory lane (and a gloriously camp, fist-pumping, head-banging, back-stage-pass kind of one at that) I was sadly, left flat. With all this show’s cons, the pros did still seduce me. Significantly better than the movie, and with the definite promise of improvement as the show gels, I’m comfortable bestowing a 3 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara. Rock of Ages plays through May 13th at the Lucie Stern Center in Palo Alto.

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REVIEW – Finding Neverland – Broadway San Jose

When you order spaghetti in a restaurant and someone asks “How’s your spaghetti taste?” typically the response will be something resembling, “Well, it tastes like spaghetti.” I mean, how do you describe it? Spaghetti is … spaghetti-y. Rarely does one rave about spaghetti … after all it’s just spaghetti. It’s pretty basic. And, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Occasionally, you might be at a really fancy place and think THIS spaghetti is gonna to be GREEEEAAAT. And, it’s not bad, but it’s also… not great. It’s comforting and familiar, but it’s maybe not as great as it was when you were a kid and it’s certainly not as great as you thought it would be this time; but it’s okay, because honestly, deep down, you know spaghetti isn’t likely to ever really impress you. The first few bites are tasty sure, but as you continue to consume it, you slowly realize maybe it tasted good because you were just hungry. There’s no denying that along with its carbatious warmth, there’s a layer of deceptively soothing nostalgia initially consumed along with those first few mouthfuls. But, ultimately you settle into the dish and generally resign yourself to commit to an experience that’s nothing fantastic and is by no means mediocre, but what ultimately boils down to an acceptable form of nourishment. You can always fill up on bread and wine to compensate for what it eventually lacks and focus on your good dining company instead. Spaghetti…you enjoy it… enough.

Last night’s Finding Neverland at Broadway San Jose was like Spaghetti. How was it? Well, it was Musical-y. I had high hopes (though not too high) that there would be a good story, good music and good production value. Musicals for me can admittedly be a challenge. While, I am totally the weird girl who starts singing random conversations or internal monologues at the drop of a dime, it’s not so easy when it comes to characters on stage breaking into song. They have to have a REASON in my book. The musicals that I’ve enjoyed the most have music that’s undeniably catchy and/or gorgeous and/or lyrics that are truly poetic, intellectually engaging, and essential for moving the plot along. I found the music in this show to be particularly weak and uninteresting, unnecessary with abrupt starts and repetition that seemed lazy to be frank. So much of it seemed to be filler and entire songs based on one single lyric with any significance or weight; watered down with too much sauce and not enough substance. There is literally a song full of nursery rhymes. And, I know I sound like a stuffy jerk when I say, what is the point of that? There were several songs that felt like they would have been far better served as just dialogue and not set to music. There was no emotional anchor to the majority of the show (though I felt actors in most cases were trying) and it felt an awful lot like this show was simply trying to ride on the coat tails of the original Peter Pan and even Peter and the Starcatcher (which is literarily layered, complex, and sentimental with its honest homage to its source material as well as its authentically imaginative original components.)

Aside from the flaws of the show itself, I was challenged with a number of the other production elements. The chemistry between characters felt dangerously flat to me throughout. The pacing was erratic too, with scenes dragging in places and rushed in others with little warning or transition. The sound or diction (or possibly both) made it hard to understand a good portion of the show and it was loud. The choreography was disappointing over all, the story was not nearly as fanciful, full of whimsy or as compelling as I was expecting given the themes of inspiration and imagination that are so central to the piece, and there were sight line issues on the far sides which further tested my appreciation.

But, it wasn’t all lackluster and unfulfilling. There were some really lovely moments of magic woven in with stage craft (love me some glitter, y’all) and special effects. There were also some clever ways that the Peter Pan story (if you’re intimately familiar with it) were silhouetted and echoed in the visuals and book of the show. There is certainly undeniable vocal talent on the stage (even if I didn’t like what they were singling). The costumes were conceptually consistent and pretty to look at. There was some humor, some that even roused audible chuckles from me. I ALWAYS enjoy a real, live dog on stage, so there was that obvious highlight. It didn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth, it just didn’t leave much of a memorable one either.

Butternut Squash Ravioli in a Brown Butter Sage Sauce it was certainly not, but never-the-less an acceptable 3 out 5 jewels in the review tiara for a show that satisfies enough to not be disappointing, but simultaneously, like spaghetti, seems to go down a lot better with good company. Finding Neverland plays through Sunday April 22nd at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts. 

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REVIEW- CRYSTAL -Cirque du Soleil

I’m a hockey girl. As a warm-natured, anti-winter, native Californian and a former competitive swimmer with an allegiance to water in its’ natural liquid state, admittedly it doesn’t make logical sense; but it’s the truth. One might assume that my affinity for the puck would directly translate to a love of all things skatey. Indeed, I can see how one might conclude that figure skating and/or recreational ice skating would also be my thing. This is an incorrect assumption. I have no love of any kind for skating that doesn’t involve something teal and/or sharkish. If there isn’t a Stanley Cup Playoff eventually involved, I’m epically uninterested. Honestly, if asked to describe my own personal hell, an eternity of ice skating would have to rank supremely high on the list. It’s right up there with telemarketing and being hangry. I make no apologies for my position and it’s for this reason that I entered the Shark Tank to see Cirque du Soleil’s CRYSTAL, with some significant trepidation. While I do love a Cirque show, I was exceedingly dubious (but also tremendously curious) about CRYSTAL. In addition to my none-too-complex feels on the whole ice skating sitch, my previous experience with a Cirque arena show wasn’t memorable aside from the recollection that the intimacy of the custom tent was very much missed. I’m happy to report that this problem has been obliterated in this latest iteration. And, yes… I don’t know why I ever doubted. The show has everything a girl like me needs to forget the sting from an 8 game winning a streak Sharks loss to St. Louis the previous night, and then some. Mad skating and acrobatic skills, big scale technical wizardry, a compelling score, visual design bad-assery, poetry and even some hockey.

With the whimsy of Alice in Wonderland, wrapped in a fleece, lightly scented with hints of Frozen, folded in a layer of Narnia, coated in the essence of a Django Reinhardt song, infused with a generous dose of X Games gravity-defying adrenaline, dipped in a Bar mitzvah, sprinkled with a dash of 80’s music video and a smidge of So You Think You Can Dance, stuffed inside an undiscovered graphic novel by Picasso, blended with Parisian Fashion Week, with equal doses of pinball, calligraphy, humor and Young Adult Romance, CYSTAL is fresh, fun, damn near miraculous and quintessentially Cirque. Extra points for a red headed, day dreaming, misunderstood, establishment-busting, authorial heroine! They don’t just put Cirque on ice, they create an entire world with a story that has ice and skating at the very center of it. While it does have a tad more kitsch than I might have liked, it’s far less gimmicky than I expected for a show that has to fill much bigger spaces and harder, more structured venues.

Everything is up to Cirque standard in this show, skating (literally) that line between risk and relief. Nowhere than at a Cirque show are you almost as excited about watching an act than you are when it is over. It was a sweaty palm kind of night. The suspense of the stunts is first rate and what I’ve come to expect from Cirque shows with plenty of the requisite audible, “Shut ups!” “No Ways!” “Dudes” and “What’s?” blurted throughout. But, I had to keep reminding myself that what they were accomplishing took it up an additional notch just due to the fact they were doing all of it ON ICE. Juggling… but ON ICE. Balancing on people’s heads… while skating, in skates and… ON ICE. Swinging on a trapeze…in skates… OVER ICE. Running, dancing, pratfalls, flips, handstands all… ON ICE, PEOPLE. There were blades near faces y’all. They may make it look effortless, but I’m certainly never of the opinion that it is. If Olympic skaters can fall in a 4 minute routine with 1 -2 people on the ice, how is it that 40+ seem flawless over the course of 2 hours with any number of death-defying stunts occurring as a cornucopia of Timberlakean Superbowlery simultaneously blows it up technically. To be frank, how the exquisitely beautiful sets pieces get moved around safely is a show worthy of one’s attention and respect all on its own. Just that could make the show and I’d be fine. Okay, okay, full disclosure, exquisitely beautiful set pieces moving  AND Khal Drogo’s younger, less-dead-but-just-as-shirtless-younger-brother, on a trapeze in the second act executing some flawless feats of strength and grace with his partner. Let’s make sure we keep that part too. Forget Jagger, his moves were bold, unexpected and previously unseen despite nearly a dozen cirque shows under my belt. And, ON ICE. I even forgave him for his man bun, it was that awesome.

As with every cirque show, they pace it well, mixing frenetic, over stimulating, chaotic speed with slower, more gentle acts, and it’s typically these “slower” acts that I find less compelling. Between the gravity defying feats and slapstick clowning, there are a few numbers that highlight skating (the non-hockey kind) and it was in these moments I felt the music REALLY saved it for me. A mix of 4 ethereal, covered pop songs and the kind of transformative, international, ambient original live score (sometimes even played over orchestral and vocal tracks) that we’ve come to know and love from Cirque, had me head bobbing and top tapping throughout. I actually looked up the album on iTunes (no dice) thinking it would be a great score to write, drive and/or fall asleep to.

The musicians too were TOP notch, nimbly moving from style to style and also executing skating moves. Yes, they were all skating. I mean come on, MUSICIANS ON ICE YOU GUYS! All four of the live musicians were extremely talented and entertaining, though I had a definite soft spot for the violinist; an impeccable performer in every sense of the word. He easily navigated duets with piano, clarinet and electric guitar as well as killed it on a variety of solos.

Sound mixing is extremely difficult and doubly so in an arena setting. Engineering it was an enormous challenge and while the volume and balance of the music components were overall excellent, there were spots of the spoken narrative that were unintelligibly garbled from where I sat. In the end I don’t think I lost too much and in some ways the audible narrative (what I could hear clearly at least) seemed to undermine the typically abstract and more interpretative storyline present in a normal cirque experience; almost spelling it out and dumbing it down perhaps in an attempt to make it a bit more accessible. No biggie one way or the other, but a noticeable misstep in my opinion.

Cirque has always been on the forefront of using, customizing and in some instances creating great tech to tell the best story in the best way. There’s some pretty stunning geekery in this show and while being treated to a special post show talk back, I acquired some most excellent nerd insights or nerdsights, one of which was a crash course in a  spotlight tracking system called BlackTrax (so effing cool). With an already exceptional use of lights and projections (28 serious projectors I might add) mapping out complex and gorgeous luminous illusions on a scale of such magnitude that my jaw hurts from all the dropping, gasping and smiling, this behind the scenes look at something that addresses my own geek needs, was especially lovely.

I imagine a lot of “problems”  arise during the creative construction of a show like this and how thinking big poses many challenges. The refusal to settle for anything less than the vision of your imagination is something Cirque does impeccably, and I wish a lot more industries and individuals would adopt it. We’re in an age where impossible is virtually nonexistent and limitations are only a matter of time and money. It’s to the organizations credit that they find or make a way to achieve the highest caliber, most magical result. So much of that magic making tech is invisible to an audience (intentionally so) and I admire the show all the more for the many moving parts we don’t necessarily realize are moving or were moved to make the finished experience.

Nerdsight bonus – one of the lead skaters was accepted into Engineering School at NYU and got the CRYSTAL cirque gig the same week. She chose to run away to the ice circus, because she freaking could. I love the message that clandestine tidbit sends and the fact that it embodies that layered, collaborative crossover at the core of cirque.

I think those who sing the praises of the figure skating blade will particularly enjoy this production, and those who’s adoration for skating revolves around a crush on SJ Sharkie will still be impressed and entertained with CRYSTAL. Splurge for the center floor section seats if you can (Section 105-109, rows 3 -20 are brilliant!) Bring a sweater, get to your seat at least 20 minutes early and see this show before it closes. 2018 has started off pretty rotten for me on a personal level, and these types of restorative, beautiful experiences, exceptional examples of what humans can achieve when they work together, take on a particularly sweet, scintillating sheen especially when contrasted against those dark shadows. A well-deserved 4 1/2 sparkling jewels out of 5 in the review tiara, for a superbly done, highly entertaining, high-tech spectacle… ON ICE. Cirque du Soleil’s CRYSTAL plays only through this Sunday, April 1, 2018 at the SAP Center in Downtown San Jose.

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REVIEW- The Little Mermaid – Broadway San Jose

I don’t consider myself a true fanatic about many things; 3-legged black cats, armadillos, dinosaurs, Jason Statham, REALLY good Crème Brulee… that’s about the sum total of things I throw a parade for. Oh and redheaded, singing MERMAIDS! Hear me out… you have to understand something. I mean really understand. As a redhead who spent far too much time singing to herself underwater during a competitive swimming career that lasted from age 5 to 18, as a girl/adultish-type woman who has always considered herself a princess for no real reason, and has spent countless hours collecting things she finds on the ground (despite the continual, gentle suggestions of others to please “not pick that up”), Ariel is kind of my spirit animal.  When The Little Mermaid film came out in 1989 I was 14 and it was life changing. Never before had any Disney princess “spoken” to me before, but there I was up there on the screen. It was perfect. Okay, okay, okay, sure she’s not the most intelligent or empowered of heroines. If you look too close yes, she’s a bit of a whiny hoarder (albeit it a romantic whiny hoarder). We all have to overlook the somewhat troublesome fact that she falls in love with the very first human she sees, yes. Admittedly, the story-line took a back seat to the new style of animation at the time and she was more of a soft launch to the new Disney feminist shift we started to really see with Belle, but come on, how great is ARIEL!? Are you getting my point? Basically, we go into Broadway San Jose’s production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid with the highest of expectations and also incredibly high stakes. My biggest dread was that my childhood would be publicly dismantled in front of an audience of 2,000 people. Sadly, nightmares were realized. Send flowers and glue as I try to piece back my life post show.

Let’s start with the talent which can make or break a show in many cases regardless of any other obstacles or highlights. In a word; mediocre.  Ariel had a good voice and was perky in the right ways, but couldn’t hold the whole show up herself. Ursula spoke most of her songs and I wasn’t impressed with her all-over-the-place Carol Channing/Drag Queen/homage to the film character rendition. Prince Eric was okay I guess, the chef – just okay, Triton on the weaker end of acceptable, Sebastian inconsistent and low energy, Scuttle was fine-  but I find his character to be annoying which was made even more so by adding in a pointless song for him – the daughters were mostly unintelligible, and the ensemble looked tired and board for the most part.

Moving on to the show itself… now, I’m familiar with the edits that usually need to occur when a book or film is translated onto a big Broadway stage. While I don’t LIKE it, I understand for certain reasons, additions or deletions are a part of mounting a show. What I don’t need is 10+ new substandard songs (absolutely not the-otherwise-amazing-Alan-Menken’s best work) plus a number of reprises that do NOTHING but screw up the pacing and make it too long. As I already discussed, it’s not a terribly complex plot, we don’t need it all explained to us, it’s really pretty self-explanatory. KIDS understand it. I don’t need everyone to get their own internal monologue song. I just don’t. Less is more in this case, WAY LESS. The ultimate irony of that last sentence’s source is not lost on me, believe me.

The overall presentation of the substandard material was the most appalling of the evenings letdowns. The “big” production numbers in the first act, arguable the most well-known and anticipated number, Under the Sea had maybe a dozen, unidentified creatures on stage and a couple of poorly made fish puppets. The ensemble looked and moved more like birds at Carnival meets Vegas than anything this card-carrying member of the Monterey Bay Aquarium has ever seen. The show at this point, seemed to take a colorful, but totally cheap turn toward the abstract a la cirque du soleil instead of a truly enchanted, imaginative one. The single exception and honestly the best thing about the entire show were the colossal jellyfish puppets that appeared all too briefly. Their scale and the attention to texture and flow felt exactly right for about 7 seconds. They grasped the imaginative potential the show and there’s no doubt in my mind I would have liked the show had that kind attention to detail and creativity been applied to even half the production. I’ll be looking into ordering myself one of those for my underwater themed bedroom. You think I’m kidding. I’m as serious as a Portuguese Man of War.

Rivaling the disappointment of Under the Sea was the scarce and minimalist approach to Kiss the Girl. Besides Sebastian, Scuttle, Eric and Ariel, there were NO OTHER animals on stage. Not a single frog, turtle, cricket… not a puppet, person or effect…nada! This had me screaming inside my head…how are they making all that music and where the hell is all the romantic lagoon ambiance!? WHERE IS THE MUSIC SUPPOSED TO BE COMING FROM?! WHAT IN THE NAME OF ALL THINGS SACRED IS GOING ON!!!?

Skipping to the end of the play now, pardon my language but WTF. The last 20 minutes my jaw was stuck firmly in the open position as I watched a swirling sea of “its all gone terribly wrong” play out in front of my aging eyes. Rushed exposition replaced any semblance of storytelling and it was as if they all of a sudden realized that adding in so many additional, mediocre, unnecessary songs was making this children’s show WAY too long. Really? This wasn’t apparent after 90 minutes when we finally approach the intermission and Ariel has JUST GOTTEN LEGS!? The result was worse than having your Lifetime Achievement Oscar speech cut off by the orchestra. The mad dash to the end did no favors to the production and it needed a serious electric shock  at that point even Flotsam and Jetsam couldn’t provide.

Let’s talk tech for two seconds; most notably, the fact the scenery was almost entirely two-dimensional, flat and unimpressive. Laughable in some places, actually. Such a missed opportunity. From the 8th row I could see every wire, wheel and scenery edge. What little craft there was on stage was sadly overshadowed by visible flaws and mechanics including a few visible mic packs, panty lines and scenery framework/ reinforcements. The lighting was sloppy and amateur. Much of it looked unintentional and the opening projections during the overture were in fact nauseating. The costumes in some respects might have been the best technical feature and yet there was very little vision and consistency with the design. It was functional over fanciful in most places and it should/could have been both.

Here’s a touring show. It presumably has a budget. Community theater companies have done this show already, so really, we expect a creative over-the-top spectacle for this tour in this space. It’s been a number of years since The Lion King wowed us on stage (not mind you with the story as much as with the genius visual interpretation and innovative craft used) and there’s been plenty of time to give us something equally fun and creatively visual.  For a generation accustomed to CGI, its helpful (and maybe essential?) to let ingenuity and/or technology assist in storytelling, especially at the prices you pay for this type of show. This show missed the boat entirely in that regard. Except those jellyfish. Thank Poseidon for them.

So… maybe my opinion is just too biased in this instance. Maybe the fact I’m having an existential crisis is clouding my judgement too much. Maybe this story is more dated than I recognize. Maybe the edits ruin the original innocence and value for me. I know I’m harsh and in the moments I was able to separate from my own horror/dismay and observe the rest of the audience, they were laughing, clapping, and enjoying it. If you aren’t attached to the movie, if you’re under about 10 and if you can resist comparing it to other Broadway Disney shows like The Lion King, I suspect this could be an enjoyable night out.  Sadly, for me I was drowning in wave after wave of uncontrollable criticism and dissatisfaction from beginning to end. Just 1 ½  jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for an underwhelming production, devoid of the magic one would expect from Disney and Broadway San Jose. Disney’s The Little Mermaid plays through October 1st at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown San Jose.

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REVIEW – The Many Faces of Farce – Stanford Repertory Theater

It should be noted that Chekhov and I have an on again, off again relationship. Well, it’s more of a Chekhon, Chekhov again. And, really it’s mostly Chekhov. I’ve tried. I’ve seen multiple productions of multiple plays over the last 20 years with various degrees of talent and budget, from classical to modern interpretation and I always feel like I’m missing something. It’s bleak and repetitive and depressing and repetitive and I feel like I should appreciate it more, yet I can’t seem to leave satisfied. But just like eggplant and dating, I keep trying it in case it’s just not been prepared or matched to my personal liking and that one day I’ll leave the theater having had a revelation. Stanford Repertory’s production featuring 3 shorter Chekhov pieces and what was billed as a “cutting edge piece” based on Meyerhold’s 1935 production of the same Chekhov pieces, gave me hope to keep trying, but still had me briskly leaving the scene.

Stanford knows its tech and in that regard all aspects were there despite a very ambitious ¾ stage layout only a couple rows deep on the sides of a general seating house. Their staging accommodated for varying views a lot better than I anticipated, but still there were definitely some long and drawn out moments where unseen facial expression from my perspective (I was sitting behind most of the actors) were getting big laughs and leaving me frustrated. Costuming for the first half was (not unlike eggplant) pretty to look at and certainly suggestive of a non-modern era.

The Bear started off strong. Solidly matched acting from the small cast of 3, they played the humor of the scene which in this play was undeniable. Farce not satire, and while it took me a few minutes to warm up to the melodrama, ultimately it won me over. My hopes raised we had achieved, albeit brief, a Chekhon!

The Proposal started with promise, but before it was half over it did nothing but confirm my suspicion that the playwright and I should not order dessert and just split the bill. Whether the blame lay with the pacing of the acting or that of the play/jokes which dragged, I couldn’t exactly say, but not unlike a SNL sketch used mostly as filler at the end of the show, it seemed to go on and on and ultimately overstay its welcome. I didn’t feel the stakes demonstrated at the level needed to see the humor in it. I admired our female lead’s facial plasticity, and the dry sternness of her father, but it wasn’t enough to, pardon the pun, keep me engaged. Chekhov.

The Anniversary…well… chock it up to lost in translation or just what is now considered cliché, but I was longing for intermission by this point. There were a few bright moments from the women of the cast, but the whole premise of the piece was just not up to snuff of the first piece or the potential of the second. This is what I would typically consider as a full blown CHEKHOV. Way off.

Now. We get to a very experimental, organic, modern, meta piece written and performed by the entire cast in modern clothes and no 4th wall. I’ll say straight away, I can totally respect the creative collaboration required to assemble such an experience. It’s intent I recognize. The combination of history and mimicking Meyerhold’s structure while adding in a brave, almost Brechtian element to the production, I fully understand. But, the end result…felt like a theater game, a tad pretentious, and missed the mark for me. This is a piece where I imagine the process of creating it held far more value than the end product. This was art for artists more than audience, and that’s totally okay. It’s just not, for me, very suspenseful or entertaining. I appreciate that it was built very authentically, and I know what it wanted to say, I don’t believe they actually said it though. The take away for me here was a good history lesson, albeit a bit unexpected and abstract. The cast and Stanford Rep are better than any part of this production. 2 ½ Jewels in the review tiara for a play that had potential, but not enough pizazz to Chekhov a win. The Many Faces of Farce played through August 27th at the Nitery Theater on the Stanford Campus.

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REVIEW – Lord of the Flies – A Theater Near U (at the Pear Theater)

Full disclosure: I never read Lord of the Flies. It’s quite possible I was supposed to, but I don’t recall ever doing so. Perhaps it was not in the curriculum, or more likely, my own unintentional display or reckless rebellion. What I do know somehow, without experiencing this book first hand, is the basic story line and the cautionary tale type themes it explores. I’m an optimistic realist by nature; always hoping for the best in any situation, while simultaneously and cynically understanding and expecting our gross limitations as a species. It’s because of this personal philosophy perhaps that the stage adaptation of Lord of the Flies, being performed by A Theatre Near U, and now playing at the Pear Theater, doesn’t exactly grab or resonate with me. It seems overly predictable, resolved from the beginning, and shows us the dark we already know about ourselves without shedding real redeemable light on anything. It appears I have the talking conch, so I’m compelled to elaborate and perhaps in the process shed a bit of light myself.

Let’s be clear here. The kids on this stage – the young men acting these roles – are not short on talent by any means. They are capable and committed. They genuinely stand out individually and work as an ensemble. They are asked to perform some pretty bizarre and emotional extremes and they all do so passionately, seriously, and in many cases very well. Any one of these young gentlemen could go on to hone their full potential and have a fruitful acting career. The talent is not in question, more so I think this script adaptation, and perhaps the fundamental challenges of doing a stage production of this story, may well be.

I really don’t know if this script knew what it wanted to be. It wanted to be linear in places, but it refused to hint for the most part at a clear passage of time. At times it was jarring and abstract. I wasn’t sure I got enough of a sense of realism to look at it as real, but felt when it went to an almost performance art level of absurdity, it was too easy to just disengage and dismiss as random. I kept thinking I didn’t see or hear enough innocents initially in order to allow myself to be moved by the tragic, inevitable, savage decline. It seemed too short a distance traveled from deserted to deranged, to narrow an arc to build the essentially deep, layered characters and then the necessary attachments to them.

Additionally, the pacing wasn’t appealing or really very helpful in the storytelling at all and may well have been the single most lethal killer on the stage. It seemed to be on fast forward at the beginning and then dragged on unnecessarily. After climaxing too early it got too comfortable and repetitious in its hazy, dizzying, hallucination for me to emote much on behalf of the situation.

There is a consistent flair for the dramatic in this production that’s exhibited not only in the acting and staging choices, but the lighting, sound and choreography as well. Again, it’s done whole-heartedly and the boys do not hesitate to play the drama, but so much of it seemed misplaced or drawn out. I was missing any significant semblance of who these boys were before they were thrust into what they ultimately become or reveal themselves to be. I wasn’t given the opportunity to know them soon enough to have the traits serve as the strings necessary to pull me through the mire of abstract and over-exaggerated passages.

The set was basic and functional, providing clever layers and levels, but so much of the action seems so precarious (actors on the edge of a significantly raised platform, holding sharp objects as a blackout transitioned them to the next scene for example) that I was distracted more by the possibility of actual danger than that of any sinister plot developments.

There were small choices made that I liked and several I disagreed with, but I could also see why they were made and that counts for a lot. There was cohesiveness and consistency in the staging and tech that certainly saved this script in places, but perhaps some different directorial choices could have picked up the slack  for what the script lacked even more.

Overall, while Lord of the Flies didn’t fly for me,  I want to applaud the choice, the opportunity, and the effort of this production more than the finished product. I do so with a 3 ½ jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a beast of a play, and certainly a noble attempt and an important opportunity for this tribe of wild boys. Lord of the Flies plays through August 5th at the Pear Theater in Mountain View. 

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REVIEW – The Toxic Avenger – San Jose Stage

Do you remember hearing about that Musical Theater orgy between Little Shop of Horrors, Urinetown, and Hairspray that happened at a Bruce Springsteen concert? Well, probably not, mostly because I made it up just now as an illustrative device, but also because last time I checked (and I check often) Musical Theater pieces can’t actually make out let alone do the nasty. But, the alternative fact of the matter is, that this bizarre alleged occurrence resulted in very fortunate-at-least-for-me consequence. That’s right; a new musical was born just 242 months later (the proper gestation period for an illegitimate bastard musical) and that musical is The Toxic Avenger, currently playing at the San Jose Stage Company.

Now, here is a list of things that are inherently funny to me.

  • Any lyric that rhymes cranium
  • Costume quick changes
  • Hairbands
  • Blind librarians
  • Repetition
  • Making your own sound effects
  • Politically incorrect jokes
  • Repetition
  • New Jersey
  • Jackets with fringe
  • Repetition
  • Monsters
  • Really campy special effects
  • Pratfalls
  • Making fun of art forms with the actual art forms you are making fun of
  • Extremely geeky video game references
  • When something goes wrong on stage and actors nearly crack up but then keep going and/or improvise
  • Gratuitous displays of machismo or physical prowess
  • Repetition

This also happens to be a list of things that The Toxic Avenger has. This play and production oozes thick campy goodness (way better than the movie, or at least what I remember of it) that infects the crowd in such a lovely, goofy and uninhibited way. It was so easy to love. So easy. Like I was a slut for this show and if you know me, well…the red hair is totally misleading, a red-herring if you will, which is to say I don’t get down for just any show. You won’t see me at any musical theater orgy. If that were even a thing. Which I already said it wasn’t. But I digress. It didn’t try to be anything it wasn’t and what’s more it’s so at home with these skilled actors and talented band at the Stage. It felt fun and free and like it could run every day for months and still feel fresh and enjoyable.

I’ve seen 3 of these actors frequently over the years and I can say 2 of them put on the best performance I have ever seen them do. Other actors that ever have to play these roles can suck it because they were perfect and you can’t improve perfection. The other one is pretty much always great, but certainly this show has some additional requirements from the stamina standpoint there are met with flying colors. The other two actors I had never seen before and I would marry them/hire them to hang out at my cube at work just for the hell of it in a New York… sorry New Jersey Mutant, sorry, minute.  True, I can only pay them in sugar-free candy of indeterminate age that I find in miscellaneous work cabinets, but they seem like they’d be up for it for arts sake. They’d be guaranteed applause and I know that pays the bills, so, the offer is out there, you know, if this doesn’t work out.

Comedy is hard (no really, it is…wait.. not like that, get your mind out of the gutter!) and while it’s clear the talent was a natural, phenomenal fit to the material, there was intentional, creative, thoughtful staging and choreography that really elevated the production. This show is not a throw away, the songs are difficult and the timing has to be spot on and I think it was very clear just how much of a collaborative effort this was and how much of  a difference that made.

I’d also like to thank whoever decided to do a show with an intermission. I needed time to breathe from the laughing. I would also recommend trying the special My Big French Boyfriend being served at the bar. You only need one, and not on an empty stomach.

My only challenge was it’s a relatively small space and this is a loud show. The balance made it hard to hear the words at times, but overall the tech was up to spec and while not all the music was my style or even all the notes nailed, the humor most certainly was classic Princess and executed superbly!

To be totally honest I thought I was on a bit of a break with the Stage. The majority of this past season hasn’t totally impressed me and I felt like I was falling out of synch with their ultimate trajectory. The memories of the good times were being overshadowed by depressing, confusing and less entertaining memories and I had been seriously considering re-evaluating my relationship. I hadn’t planned on doing a review for this show at all, but, just like our freaking puck-tease hockey team, all it takes is a performance like this to suck me right back in to the happy place. This show was so in their wheel house in every aspect of the production, it felt like make up sex. I’m assuming. I’ve been told that stuff is awesome. This was my favorite San Jose Stage production since The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity in October of 2013 which I still smile about.

IN SUMMARY! This is a hilarious production. A fun, fun, fun, fun and did I mention fun night out. Go. The Toxic Avenger (I hardly know her) gets a ridiculously joyous 4 3/4 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a show that just lets you laugh, and groan, and cheer and gasp over really ludicrous things. Be pro ludicrous, see this show. The Toxic Avenger plays through July 23rd at The Stage in downtown San Jose.

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