REVIEW- VOLTA -Cirque du Soleil

Each Cirque du Soleil is an enjoyable night out to be sure and each that I’ve experienced so far (6 or 7 by now) typically contains many essential cirque components. The parts that make up the whole include high-caliber, vivid visual storytelling through its technical components, creativity and diversity of the acts that make up the entire show, the unique, custom inventive sets/vehicles for the necessary equipment for the stunts,  the individual skills and showmanship of the performers, the music, and the story itself. While each show has all of these, each tour has also typically REALLY excelled in one or two of these.  The bar is high and the ticket price substantial so the expectation is always that you’ll see at least one thing you’ve never seen before, be awed by the sheer athleticism of the acts and be enchanted/moved by the cohesive, complex, whimsical, almost frenetic, avant-garde, nearly impossible standard of vision that Cirque has earned. Sadly, Volta felt off brand and came up short.

I try not to let the little things taint an overall experience, but from the get go the inner mechanics of a disorganized machine were exposed. We were entirely too close to the sausage making view if you will.  Signage to the entrance was uniformly unhelpful, we were totally exposed to the elements as we waited at an unmarked locked chain link fence, the will call was INSIDE past the ticket scanning and security lines which seemed wholly illogical, and the doors were not open at 6:30 as we expected. It’s a big production with many moving parts even outside the tent, but the real magic and what Cirque usually does so well is hiding the how, obscuring the cogs and gears and making it special, seamless and look easy. A venue shouldn’t really pose that much of an issue if they’ve done their homework. The lesson here I think is a healthy reminder that there’s no autopilot for event planning, that mounting a tour still requires brilliance, proactive attention to detail and problem solving every step of the way. Just getting into the venue shouldn’t contribute to the overall sense of it being a chaotic “Circus” and not an intentional Cirque.

Once inside, we saddled up for a few more atypical surprises, and not in the good way. Some of the signature Cirque moments were missing and definitely missed this time around. The interaction with the audience during a traditional pre-show clowning was completely absent. For those not familiar with this component perhaps the void it left was not felt, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit cheated. It’s why we got there early to be completely frank. Sitting in anticipation (for NO clowning apparently), I also felt like the set was phoned in…it didn’t promise, explain or engage in anyway. It swayed in a nerve wracking way throughout in a shout out to the likely unintended theme of “unsupportive”…

The body is a well-tuned instrument and not unlike a musical instrument, I wonder if humidity and chill had any bearing on some of the acts being cut or not hitting their mark. Still, I don’t think I’ve ever felt like I should make excuses for a company that isn’t new to these types of tours and the challenges they present. I can’t recall seeing as many obvious blunders in any previous Cirque show. They were off and it got embarrassing in some places. Again, I don’t claim to think any of this isn’t extraordinary when it goes well, I just thought the successes would outshine any errors at the end of the night.

It really lost momentum after the first 30 minutes. For me the show was front loaded with 4 good acts and then a lot of not. The show overall felt noticeably skewed in the favor aerial acts and it felt repetitive, slow and unnecessary.

So what was good?

The Trampoline Act – This was the standout for me. It’s something Cirque has done in their shows before (Ovo I remember did a similar version) but this felt fresh, fun and the participants were clearly having a blast. Their joy was contagious and it was the act of the night that made me want to jump up on stage and give it a whirl! This is what the majority of Cirque SHOULD do throughout MOST of the show. At least that’s been my experience so far.

Unicycle – The chemistry of an unicyclist and his acrobatic counterpart was a genuine highlight and perhaps displayed the best storytelling of the night. They had the skill to back it up, but I was even more impressed by the emotion and non-verbal conversations occurring simultaneously.

Double Dutch – Pretty spectacular and rarely seen, this troupe brought energy and skill to the canopy stage and owned it. What’s more they didn’t even look out of breath at the end of it.

A roller skater who was not particularly advanced or even on stage that much also made the cut above the rest. I rather enjoyed the fluidity she embodied and her impish qualities. She glided about effortlessly and while her “story” seemed a tad forced I thought she mastered the space simply and effectively.

I enjoyed the score though it wasn’t consistent and the lighting was very well done. The costumes were interesting, but not up to the usual standard if I am honest.

The main character’s story arc seemed weak, confusing and incomplete. Maybe if the other components had supported it more it would have felt like less of a cop out. The final act, one that I was most looking forward to and one that may have helped give the story some more closure was cut. No trick bikes on ramps, regrettably. I’m not sure if that was intentional or due to an injury, malfunction or time challenge, but the end felt abrupt and awkward for sure.

As much as I hate to say it, I’m not a Volta fan. Others might enjoy it plenty, especially those that are new to the experience, but for me just  3 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a less than spectacular spectacle that didn’t measure up to the name or expectation. Volta plays at the Santa Clara County Fairground in San Jose through March 24th.

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PREVIEW – Cinequest Film & Creativity Festival – Princess Picks 2019

It’s here, it’s here (almost!) The countdown to CINEQUEST and no sleep has begun!  It’s nearly time (March 5 – 17, 2019) to see some fantastic films as part of some of the most enthusiastic audiences you’ll ever find. My film guide is highlighted, my screeners are queued up, my Cinequest app has populated various film viewing permutations into my mobile phone calendar; I’m primed and planned and I’ve picked as I do every year, a relatively arbitrary list of films that I’m excited about based entirely on my perusal of the festival guide. In no particular order, here are the Princess Picks!

Behind the Bullet

In reading the description for Behind the Bullet I was reminded how one’s own opinions and prejudices can be changed with thoughtfully produced and authentically informed art. I came across the podcast Ear Hustle https://www.earhustlesq.com/ last year and it had a profound effect on me. Recorded from inside San Quentin, the podcast covers incarcerated life in an honest, often surprisingly humorous, and deeply personal way and for me the result was a truly revolutionary perspective shift.  It was here that I first learned about reformative justice.  I’m expecting to be surprised, educated, moved, angered, motivated and probably a whole lot of other things with this film which deals with the aftermath of gun use in a myriad of situations. I think this really promises to be a fascinating film and one generating a lot of that engaging, post-film conversation that we love about Cinequest.  The kind of dialogue we overhear and can’t help but insert ourselves into.

The Family in Transition

What would I do in “their place” is a great question to ask yourself about any film’s topic. How would I react in this situation? How would I LIKE to THINK I would react, versus what I would struggle with and what would I be likely to actually do. Can you even fathom being in a certain situation? One of the most powerful tools of film (and any art) is letting you into someone’s life when it is quite literally a life you  can’t imagine. Supporting a spouse who is finally able to realize publicly they are transgender and make that transition with the full support of their partner is a riveting topic of which I honestly have no real perspective on. I’m enthralled by love that is so deep it transcends outdated, but certainly ingrained societal “norms”. I love that love exists this beautifully. I can’t envision feeling so trapped and then having the opportunity to be free. Every year it seems there is one film that just emotionally guts me and this one I think may take the prize for those happy as well as those tears of unnecessary struggle and injustice.

Lake Over Fire

I’ve said it many times; the Norwegian sensibility is something that really just speaks to me. I have no idea why and I’ve stopped trying to hide my bias. Some of my absolute favorites from Cinequests past have indeed been from this country and so at this point I don’t even really bother defining what other reasons I am looking forward to a film for if it’s from Norway. I will in the case of Lake Over Fire offer this image.

This still being used for the films promotion is as they say; everything. It kills me. I am dead.  All of the things you guys. It’s hilarious and perfect in all its ridiculous and meticulously detailed glory. This is probably the film I’m most looking forward to and I really hope it’s as good as this one frame.

The Extraordinary Journey of Celeste Garcia

 

Things Susannah likes. Comedies. Cuba. Aliens. It’s a bizarre trifecta, but they all happen to play a key role in this film, and sometimes that’s all it takes. Added bonus for female leads and the promise of a deeper message/meaning/purpose than laughter. This was an easy front runner and one of 6 possible films I selected for my Birthday Cinequest  screenings (in which I try to find films with a wide appeal for friends to come to in “honor” of my birthday which falls within the festival each year).  How can it possibly go wrong?

The Bra

While classified as a “post-modernist interpretation of Cinderella” (a phrase I love in and of itself and a concept I can totally get behind), I think what caught my eye about this film’s premise is that it declares upfront that it’s a slice of life film. That’s key going into a film as your adjust expectations about pace and the overall action arc. Expectations can help to make or break a film I think and I appreciate that I feel like I’m set up for a journey (train!), in a foreign land (Azerbaijan – gotta love the places film can take you physically as well as metaphysically) with heart and laughs (it’s a bra instead of a glass slipper, that’s funny, people) but also maybe not giant shifts or epic revelations. Simple is sometimes still layered and impactful and I feel like this is a trip I’m going to be charmed by. I’m looking for this one to be a thematic “unexpected” audience favorite.

Broken Places

I’m trying desperately to find a place for this film in my schedule. Any time a filmmaker commits to decades of filming a single project or topic, I have to back that up. It’s really the epitome of commitment to one’s art and the result is often times so unexpected (there’s that theme again) and engaging. It’s also a privilege and the ultimate education to get to “live” a generation and learn from its lengthy passage inside of two hours.  I’m optimistic this is going to be a lovely, uplifting film despite its topic (the effects of childhood trauma) and title. I think there are silver linings everywhere and that humans are more amazing, adaptable and hopeful than perhaps we get credit for sometimes. This could prove a redemptive and revealing look at how the hardest parts of life can be the most empowering and not always the most devastating.  Cause and effect with a psychologists look at metamorphosis through an artist’s lens is an intriguing lure.

The Chaperone

This film is one that I expect will have a larger distribution and opportunity to see on the small screen, but it’s also the kind of film that I think will be beautiful on the big screen. It’s the kind of film I always fancy  I’d like to make if I were a film actress. The fashion of the era and the willful young rural girl getting an education in a metropolitan city is an escapist cup of tea I like to drink from as often as I can. It’s a plot that’s not original, but it’s one that works well when individualized and paired with a clever, consistent vision and high-caliber talent across the board. I’m taking my 80 year old mom to this one for sure as it’s an equal generational pleaser I’m guessing.

The Fare

One of the biggest challenges for actors, filmmakers and audience alike is a film with very few or perhaps a single location. The focus becomes almost entirely on script content and nuanced acting. Double that difficulty when we add in a device like “repeating the same initial encounter.”Cabbie and fare meet over and over in a “Twilight Zone” kind of encounter that plays out in a fantasy/romance genre. Fair enough…I’ll bite, I’m interested to see how the filmmakers take this daunting task and frequently explored framework and make it unique.

The Silver Branch

Private and public struggles are a hot topics facing much of the globe. Who owns a coast line or beach? What are the pros and cons of privatizing open space?  How does the essential economy of tourism succeed without disrespecting the environment, inhabitants and history of a place? It’s black and white to some and a world of gray to others.  It’s an increasingly more problematic problem and a discussion that’s not nearly “done”.  I think there’s something ironic, meta and almost counter intuitive about sharing the beauty of a landscape on film when it’s one potentially at risk of being spoiled by outside awareness. This is the dilemma surrounding a lovely Irish landscape at the center of The Silver Branch. How to protect and nurture without over exposure is challenge so many face. I don’t expect to have concrete, specific feelings sorted or questions fully answered at the end of this film, but it’s an important discussion to play out relevant to life in our current world. This could nab one of the most teachable and unsettling/unresolved moments of the festival for me.

Travel Ban: Make America Laugh Again

I maintain that stand-up comedian along with ambulance driver in San Francisco and janitor at the Venice, Italy train station are the hardest jobs I’d never want. I’d greatly admire the craft of building jokes and this film promises an additional layer of complexity and intrigue by adding in a highly topical and polarizing political element.  Will lines be crossed? Will I feel uncomfortable or freed by the humor and topics? This may be a angering challenge or it may be a passport to a time when it was okay to laugh about a lot more things.  Maybe a much needed healing release in our divided, frustrating, embarrassing times. I will most certainly take the risk on this one.  I’ll get the perspective from the 80 year old mom on this one as well, because while humor can be a connector, I think generational perspective from someone with less of a filter these days will be additionally enlightening.

Bite Me

It’s been a while since there’s been a good Vampire Comedy, a niche genre that along with Zombie comedies I don’t think you can have too many of…IF they are done “well.” The only way you know if they are done well (enough) is to go see them when they’re made. Bite Me is maybe not the most original title, but it’s one of my favorite phrases at any volume, so I’m cautiously optimistic that this film will be just the right combination of camp, substance and good production values to avoid being relegated to cult status exclusively. And, one of the best things about Cinequest is if the film ends up being not so great, it’s made greater than it would be because you‘ve an audience that won’t let it get away with it. Plus there’s a pub crawl and a passionate filmmaking crew around this, and I love to support creative pride as much as I can, even if it ends up not being something I can really sink my teeth into.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS – A.K.A.  THE SHORTS:

Every year I make sure to see at least 3 of the shorts offerings. It’s always a treat to get to see so many stories told in so many ways in a single sitting. These films are short on time but long on lasting impression.  My picks I make a point of squeezing in typically include Animated, Comedy and Docs, and this year is no exception.

Silent Cinema – Buster Keaton

Every year I’m genuinely thrilled to experience the epic beginning of film, surrounded by the best accompanist your generous donations can buy and the gorgeousness that is the California Theatre.  It’s a culmination of all that is right. Preservation of talent, physical film, music, architecture. A perfect storm of awesome cinematic geekery and craft. This year, super excited to see some of Buster Keaton’s work. This one is also a bring your mom to Cinequest date for sure.  Aside from the weekly silent film offerings in Niles which are great but VERY intimate, you really don’t get this type of opportunity but once a year.

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REVIEW – Something Rotten – Broadway San Jose

As I sat down to Broadway San Jose’s Something Rotten on Tuesday I had only the very slightest sense of what I was about to see. While I rarely prime my experience with research or perusal of the music and libretto to make sure I don’t stumble upon spoilers, I was particularly in the dark (ages) this time. Aside from knowing it was a type of a “Shakespearean musical comedy”,  I was coming into it blind. As it turned out, I couldn’t have likely adequately prepared myself for the glorious night of theatrical hilarity bestowed on me if I had tried.  Ignorance in this case I think was additional bliss as the show’s anything-but-rotten fun, easily exceeded any expectations I could have possibly mustered.

I declare this show to be one of the best examples of self-referential satire I’ve ever seen, and undoubtedly the most enjoyable I can recall. Indeed, I was coaxed into lengthy periods of extreme cheek fatiguing grinning and prolonged giggling throughout, with plenty of effortless large laughing cycling through as well. I know a show is good when I can silence the inner critic and forget to mentally note my likes and dislikes. This show easily distracted me and herded me joyously into the moment for the vast majority of its 2 1/2 hours.

A truly ridiculous plot stuffed fat with farce and physical humor, I found myself unexpectedly marveling at the depth of content and the highest level of artistic achievement simultaneously on display. What I so enjoyed about this production was just how well it mocked and honored that which it mocked! It’s a fabulously sharp and successful instance of meta that doesn’t lose or alienate you in the jokes as this type of structure so often does. If you didn’t know a single thing about Shakespeare and/or musicals I think you could very well  still be supremely fond of this show. It’s fundamentally a highly entertaining spectacle stacked with enormously talented artists on stage and behind the scenes; but the more you know about the Bard and Musical Theatre, the richer and more endearing the show is. I unabashedly embraced its genius and thoroughly adored it.

The score is pleasantly hummable. The songs are SMART and numbers like the show stopping “A Musical” are so packed with puns, parody and brilliance that it left me literally agape and wishing we could rewind and see it again and again. That number is worth the price of admission alone. Genius lyrically and I’m sure there was far more than I was able to catch going on musically as well. The plot is so much fun and while not every song was a winner in my book, overall I really found it to be fresh, face pasted and enchanting.

This cast is one of the funniest and comically proficient that I have seen, anywhere. Timing is superb and every last member of the cast backs up their acting with wining vocals and moves.

Nick Botttom is a power and a presence while still maintaining a real and relate-able protagonist. He gets the job required of him done comically, dramatically, musically and physically. He’s likable and certainly earns his applause.

Nigel’s dreamy, pining poet is essential and well performed, but the sincerity and earnestness of his character provided fewer opportunities for comedy than his counterparts (at least for me). He’s perhaps the most unoriginal/clichéd character – which works obviously in the structure of spoofing Elizabethan trends. There has to be more of a straight man I guess in every play for contrast, but I can’t fault his apt performance.

Our soothsayer who’s name I’ll withhold out of respect for the particularly amusing joke it is part of, is an absolute riot. By far my favorite. Committed, commanding, charismatic, and an honest to god triple threat. He clearly also enjoys the spotlight and the glowing warmth that comes from a genuine love of performing which accompanied his hilarious delivery, was a charming bonus.

Portia is a casting dream and in the hands of someone less talented I could totally see this part being unmemorable. Her delightfully chirpy, Kristin Chenowethian perk came through while all the vocal agility, rich tone and expression was carefully nuanced and uniquely hers. She owned it in all the right ways without giving her ingénue any unnecessary rough edges.

I love the idea that Shakespeare is a bit of a snakey, jerk and I really hope the actor playing him isn’t. I’d be really happy to believe that all the cringing and squirming that resulted from every one of his self-stroking, insecure, whines was due to superior acting and not any kind of type casting. He’s obnoxiously written on the page and double so on the stage and I kind of loved to hate the little terd.

Bea, Nick Bottom’s wife, has an endearing and timely feminist flair to her character as well as a through-line planted firmly in the tradition of the Bard, and she impresses with comedy and pipes in spades.

Brother Jeremiah is an unexpectedly innuendoed Puritan who prompts some of the night’s biggest laughs.

The rest of the supporting cast and ensemble really hit their marks musically and perfectly nailed the dance, making it look all too easy.

Technically the set was complex, but transitions were swift and felt as unencumbered as the laughs. The overall staging was equally as steeped in wit and mockery as the writing, and in fact every component really embodied and committed to that objective. It really seemed as though everything is made funnier somehow in this show because of the attention to technical details.

A perfect example of this technical satirical elevation was the costuming (which was gorgeous with its quirky, anachronistic textures and hues) working in perfect comedic synchronicity with the movement. Wardrobe elements like pronounced, loosely-worn, bustle pillows are particularly effective in accentuating the silly when combined with intentionally spring-loaded  dance moves; the ups and downs providing an extra visual punchline. Choreography was an element I wouldn’t have thought coming into the show would have been as important (or as outstanding) as it was. I found myself really digging what they’d done and appreciating the collaborative excellence of the production.

Sound tends to be difficult in this space and with all the moving parts of a tour, but I was pleasantly surprised with the volume and mixing for the most part. With the exception of having challenges understanding the words to the opening song, a few of the full chorus parts and the balance seeming a bit off during “Will Power” the sound appeared pretty good.

I was thinking how this show channeled the best parts of The Book of Mormon, The Producers, and Monty Python and I was amused to discover after the fact,these are the EXACT shows that have been used to describe and market Something Rotten. I’d add in a bit of SNL (those random, experimental sketched filling in the 12:55 am slot), hints of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and a dose of college freshman English class if a wanted to sum up the genre more completely. It’s a fun ride and one I’d see again for sure. An enthusiastic 4 ½ jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a ludicrous, light and lovely lampoon with over-the-top comic mayhem  and  an extremely intelligent, exquisitely layered, ingeniously crafted, and superbly performed musical. Something Rotten plays through Sunday 2/3/2019 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown San Jose. 

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REVIEW – On Your Feet – Broadway San Jose

Broadway San Jose’s On Your Feet; The Emilio and Gloria Estefan Broadway Musical, exploded in to San Jose Tuesday with a spectacle and a half of dizzying lights, electric hip-twisting dance, percussions for days, proper diva vocals, and a story that was both informative and entertaining. Foot- tapping throughout appeared a standard audience requirement as was the humming of tunes post-performance with some patrons finding it impossible not to sing along DURING the show. While the display didn’t get me on my feet at the end, there’s no denying that this is an entertaining night and yes, ultimately… (spoiler alert) the rhythm got even  me.

Now, I’m a child of the 80’s and while I never owned a Miami Sound Machine album, I didn’t frequent dance clubs of any kind, and I never saw them in concert, I was legitimately surprised by the number of songs I knew and knew WELL; proof that you can’t deny the power and presence of this chart topping, cross-over, woman-fronted group.  The music alone is justification for this new artistic treatment. Add to that the love story and the immigration story and you’ve got a plot even more worthy of this stage. The story IS good.  It is also, in this case, a very loud one.

Indeed, the biggest challenge of the production for me was the volume. Ridiculously loud. The only show I can remember being louder in this space was American Idiot. So… yeah… it unfortunately destroyed a lot of my love for this show despite the band, cast and production values being largely impressive. On the list of unexpected things I discovered about myself while sitting in the audience – my love of Congo drums seems genuinely limitless. I could not get enough of the beats – I just wish they had been taken down several decibels.

Our Gloria is outstanding. Her voice is excellent and her moves are solid. She appears to be having a great time (as does the entire ensemble) and is 100% believable as her real life counterpart in sound, attitude and looks. Emilio has wicked moves too, lovely chemistry with Gloria and I loved his character choices and delivery. That said, I felt the songs his character was given weren’t great (or that necessary to be honest) and his voice – while strong and rich in tone – appeared to have less range than was required to fully compete with Gloria’s powerhouse vocals. Gloria’s mom was extremely likable even as a less likeable character and I thought her portrayal emphasized a dynamic, intense complexity rarely depicted on stage. Not a definitively good or bad, black or white type of supporting role, but rather a character that takes us on a significant journey of change that never once unbelievably betrays the roots of a character’s emotional foundation or upstages the lead focus.  It should be stated that this is a very pro grandmother show as abuelita is a major fan favorite. She brings a lovely, light, and humorous element to the show and is relatable and excruciatingly charming.  The rest of the cast is a hardworking ensemble who delight in their many roles and (I know this will sound super weird/wrong) who also thankfully look like people with dance skills that just happen to go up to 11 and not like dancers costumed and directed to look their parts. This ensemble’s star dance status didn’t conflict with the realism of the era, the stories being told, or the dramatic and comedic requirements of any of their multiple characters.

Not only was the talent there, the choreography was creative and contagious. Movement plays an integral part in this show to the point of it becoming its own character. It effectively supports all the parts of this story emotionally as well as culturally and in some scenes seems to transmute into colorful backdrops serving a more practical purpose as backdrop.  There was a clear and appreciated distinction between the dances performed in production/concert numbers and when it was being used to enhance the ambiance, emulate a mood or move the story forward in some way.

This detailed and intentional distinction was also made in costuming  which was exceptional; perfectly replicating famous looks from 80-90’s album covers/TV appearances in addition to whisking us away to 1950’s/60’s Cuba. Were it not an egregious violation of theater etiquette and a basic crime punishable by death in some states, I would have started a Pinterest Board in real time for all the awesome looks created through the show’s clothing and accessories (hair and hats). Visually great fun and maybe my favorite part!

Projections and scenery seamlessly transitioned us from various locations and times and this transportive quality (achieved by all the technical elements) in combination with the music definitely had me wishing for an onsite travel agent at intermission to help book a Cuban vacation or at the very least opportunity to sign up for local Rhumba/Mambo/Salsa lessons.

Gloria and Emilio are from the get go portrayed as strong individuals who inspire each other deeply. Their passion and goals are irrefutably aligned resulting in power couple status, and while there’re moments of inequality or perceived inequality (Emilio can be kind of a hard-ass at times and Gloria takes some time to come into her own and stand up to those in her life who push and pull her), I think ultimately we see they take turns driving their singular vision. Yes, there is a lot of machismo on display (admirable, funny and a tad uncomfortable in places) and Emilio certainly skates the line between pushing someone to be their best, supporting them and celebrating their talents and using someone or pushing them TOO far but in the end there is nothing but love fueling that fire.

Particularly enjoyable was the demonstration of the mutual love and stubbornness of this couple and how they navigate the music industry together. Similar to Beautiful and Memphis, the themes of how to shake up, skirt around, stand up to, and overcome a plethora of no’s and conservative thinking  that plague the music industry are good reminders that talent does not equal success and there is a serious craft to producing/getting produced. The scenes of them on-the-scene are some of the most memorable moments of the show for me and where we really see how well they are matched.

Showcasing fierce ambition, genuine tenacity, passion, and strength of an emotional, physical and spiritual nature, this show is way more layered than I expected it to be and I appreciated that. I hate to beat a dead Congo drum, but I just wish the story weren’t told so loudly. In the end, the good was good enough to overlook all of the smaller flaws hidden in the pacing and completeness of each characters’ arc, I just hope the volume and balance issue was a fluke and a one time issue. So, “Here We Are”… 3 ½ jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a high energy, victorious, up beat look what it takes to achieve the “American Dream” told with talent that turns the beat around and on its damn head more than a few times. On Your Feet plays through October 14th at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown San Jose.  

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REVIEW – The Revolutionists – Town Hall Theatre Company

There’s a lot of subtext when we talk about Community as it pertains to theater. Indeed, there can be the suggestion of air quotes associated with this particular descriptor and in some cases, community attaches a meaning decorated with gentle excuses (due to budgetary and talent constraints) and the setting of less-than-professional or even-less-than entertaining, expectations. Community Theater sometimes celebrates the journey more than the end product. The phrase maybe praises people’s artistic endeavors and “puttin’ on a show” over the quality of the art itself. It’s a bit of an elephant in the room and while not always wholly inaccurate it certainly has an unjust dismissive quality about it and doesn’t apply to all theaters or all of their productions. In the case of the Town Hall Theatre Company in Lafayette and their production of The Revolutionists, the space, company and the production embrace the highest, most positive definition; professional, relevant, enjoyable, witty, intelligently crafted and an overall fantastic experience from start to finish.

The theater experience often begins when you walk through the door (or even earlier) and as I arrived, I was delightfully greeted by a lobby of volunteer musicians cheerfully playing show tunes and a veritable seniority of patrons-of-a-certain age congregating amidst a smattering of cabaret tables. A variety of younger patrons assembled by the bar chatting also taking in the pre-show entertainment. I was drawn in by the sweet mix of friendly faces and the great care to create a space of inclusion and engagement. Decorations, themed activities, even the plaque of acknowledgement of the donors responsible for saving trees via a hand dryer installation in the restroom was charming. This isn’t a wholly unique set up I hear you say, and you’re right, but it felt different and it felt especially lovely. The attention to details in the shape of the experience was perfect and that attention was absolutely carried through to the show itself.

The stage is simultaneously quaint and quite striking. Tucked in the upper floor of an historic building, the stage is intimate and comfortable and feels a bit like a clandestine loft where magic and mysteries are stowed for eons. I imagine it’s a challenging space to work with on some levels too, but the production team really rose to the occasion and were creative and smart with their tech and stage direction. I was a bit in love with the way the actresses interacted with the mirrored element of the set design, and the costuming felt appropriate and appealing, as did the lighting and the sound design. Technical elements were for the most part very well done, cohesively setting the proper mood and ambiance without upstaging any performances. The metaphorical angles and confinements represented in set, lighting and costuming were all very much appreciated.

This is a regional premiere and I know there are other companies already set to produce this play in their seasons. The opportunities to catch it will be plenty (and you should see it whenever you have a chance), but I have to emphasize you will be hard pressed to find such a perfect cast when it comes to comic delivery. First impressions are so important, and I bought every take, every bit of timing and every expression (be it subtly nuanced or farcically exaggerated) without hesitation when it came to the funny. The casting is fantastic, and it was lovely to watch a tight ensemble of women present well-crafted, intentional, thorough characters. It’s a misconception by some (and a travesty if you ask me) to believe that funny can’t be sophisticated. I’d argue that true wit is perhaps the most sophisticated of our human traits/experiences. There are genuine laughs throughout this show based not only on smart writing but on extremely talented execution. This is the type of comedy, in my experience, that you can guide and enhance, but you really can’t teach. It’s inherent and all 4 ladies possess it in spades. They are listening to each other, they are respecting strong, meaningful choices and it really works. The words, the deeper connotations of the text and these brilliant choices are resonating in real-time without coming off as preachy, jarring or trite. That is a feat. These women are masterfully telling a story that is all at once past, present and future. It is feminine, and it is not. It is simple and rich and bold and silly and poignant and fierce and contemporary and timeless. AND, it is freaking funny. If you know me you know I love to laugh, but I’m stingy on actual laughing; you have to work for it. This show from page to stage legitimately earned my laughter.

That I laughed a lot during this show, in and of itself might be “enough” for a visit to Lafayette, but this is particularly significant given that I typically feel that meta theater (plays within a play, an over abundance of theater industry “inside jokes”, structure based on theatrical process etc.) can be more than just kind of annoying. Meta can feel super alienating for those not as familiar with the behind the scenes practices, terminology and in this case history as well as theater history. I personally don’t like sitting in an audience that feels more divided and lost than unified. Meta (even when I’m on the “in the know” side) is a trend I find tiresome if not done extremely well. Luckily the skillful dealing of this show’s prominent meta elements resulted in no major theatrical derailment.

Indeed, this is a love letter to the process of playwriting (among many other things), and admittedly a pretty clever homage much of the time. There are a few forced, excessively self-indulgent, and predictably formulaic moments to contend with in the script, but it’s mostly consistent to form and ultimately makes sense. The most challenging and least successful parts of the production were the more dramatic moments and I honestly couldn’t tell if this was a slight script weakness or the actors struggled a bit with how to transition to the more emotional realm. Their performances of the serious sections (which make up a small minority and fall mostly in the second act) weren’t poor by any means, just noticeably less confident I think. This is a very timely play. Frighteningly so. On so MANY levels. It’s a play that will generate conversation, particularly among women I think, but not at all exclusively so. It’s an important piece, but it’s also so well done and such a fun time. At the end of the day, we have a lot of opportunity for deep, intelligent, moving and disruptive arts experiences which mirror so closely our own real turmoil… sometimes it’s REALLY nice to have the vehicle that delivers hard truths, philosophies, and declarations be so cathartically humorous.

One more note on the experience here as a whole. In an impossibly cute and epically defining move that really tickled me, a volunteer with complimentary cups of cold water walked the aisles at the very top of intermission. It’s a little thing perhaps, but I have NEVER seen this done. This was going the extra mile. This was knowing their audience. This was also just pure kindness, and it makes a huge difference. I’m not part of this specific community, but I felt like it immediately and that is meaningful, especially in today’s charged political climate. It’s also a pertinent theme in the show that’s explored. It’s fascinating to observe (both on and off stage) that at times of great division and even revolution, we see simple acts of kindness and solidarity take on an invaluable significance and the most comforting camaraderie materialize from perceived thin air.

As a native Palo Altan, I’m a tad embarrassed to say I initially had to look up where Lafayette was located. Ashamed further, I discovered it’s practically next door to Pleasant Hill where I have close family. Triply abashed I am to say that I’ve spent 35 years or more attending theater and never stepped foot in this adorable and dynamic space. That changed last week and I am supremely happy it did. I will absolutely be returning. Well worth the drive (and even a bridge toll should you geographically require that expense) an unchallenged 4 ½ out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for this truly witty, germane, thoughtful, and unexpected refreshing theater experience that proudly puts the “commune” as well as the “come on in” in community. The Revolutionists plays through October 20th at the Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette.

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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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