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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REVIEW – Cabaret – Broadway San Jose

I’ve seen Cabaret multiple times over the years and it’s always such a surprise to me. Not by the sexual content, that usually sticks out between viewings (no pun intended), but I still get caught completely off guard by the politics and the emotions that arise as a result of certain imagery and plot content.  As a girl who prides herself on her memory, the best I can conclude is that I’ve somehow chosen to exorcise a cerebral cleanse of the deplorable show content after each viewing. The problem is, in doing so I not only erase most of the plot, but edges of the other more pleasing elements are also snuffed out in the process. This may be a subconscious coping mechanism, but it also might be my brain’s way of playing to type and shrouding the memory of this show in deep, dark, metaphor. While I can’t remember if I’ve ever really “enjoyed” Cabaret, I will say I think Broadway San Jose has brought us a very intelligent, interesting, professional and visually compelling production worth a visit.

I was initially concerned that this intimate play aptly named Cabaret, which is often performed on a small stage or … yes, a cabaret, would get totally lost in the giant space of the Center for the Performing Arts. With the help of solid choreography, an expressive ensemble cast and a dual level set, there was no question in my mind that they skillfully scaled the production. That being said there were times when I was caught in limbo between the action in the upper (orchestra) and lower levels, which did create a bit of a fear of missing out scenario when the distance was too great to clearly take in both altitudes simultaneously. Indeed, this may have been an intentional choice – to create an ambiance of shadowed secrets and glimpses of activity furtively caught out of the corner of one’s eye. If intentional it worked, if not it was nothing more than mildly frustrating on rare occasion.

Perhaps the most interesting technical aspect was the lighting. In many cases it was used extremely well in transitions both physical and emotional. Light is used powerfully to create abrupt, harsh, stark, sterile statements and deliciously seedy, clandestine ambiance. I found it to be inconsistent though particularly in the first half. Again, this might be an intentional almost Brechtian choice, but I wasn’t at all enamored of the darkly rich hued pink and blue gels which obscured too much and seemed to undermine some of realism of this production. I suppose it could be argued that what is happening in the shadows should create a sense of missing out, but I wasn’t totally sure it was a choice.

Every other song in this show is a fantastic, hummable, entertaining number. The not as great side to that is,  if my math is correct, it leaves half the songs vanquished to the land of not-so-fantastic. Many of the songs that move the plot forward are actually not very remarkable, thus contributing to my Cabaret Recall Deficit Disorder or CRDD. Still you will be hard pressed to not smile upon realization that “oh yeah, this song is from this show!” as the couple of ladies behind me felt compelled to express loudly. Throughout the entire show. Seriously. Audiences, behave, we can hear you.

Clearly intentional and to a splendid end was our main gal Sally. The character of Sally Bowles is one I don’t always appreciate. Often times she self-deprecates with humor and dramatic stage flair, keeping us at a dismissive distance rather than showing us her real pain and allowing us to sympathize. Our actress in this production traverses a much broader and more meaningful arc showing a darker more depressive side without sacrificing any of the affectation and ‘perfectly marvelous” moxie that support the stage side of her character. Where I often feel Sally’s is superficially strong and comfortable with her circumstance, I thought it was admirable and a consistent choice to see far more weakness from her as we did here. Though ultimately a far darker, broken and more depressing Sally, it was for me, a fresher and more realistic and impactful interpretation.

Cliff was endearing and sufficiently irate when he needed to be and his chemistry with Sally felt appropriately unrestricted and simultaneously strained. They don’t actually get a lot of stage time to grow their relationship, so it always surprises me a bit how we get from A to Z so swiftly.

Ernst was my absolute favorite. I have to leave it at that. I can’t elaborate. Let’s just say he has an exceedingly well crafted slow burn that has a great pay off.

Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz just don’t get the best songs, but they performed them dutifully. They are redeemed by their heart-felt resolutions and again as with Sally, we see a much darker, less humorous, and more emotionally rewarding take with this couple.

By now there’s very little shock to the shock value when it comes to the free and fluid sexuality of the show, but I will say it’s particularly pronounced, raw and raunchy in this production. The M.C. was just what he needed to be as the ring master to the sexual circus and he demonstrated consistently he was comfortable with everything he was tasked with; vocally, dramatically, and from a choreographic standpoint. Don’t expect Joel Grey, but don’t expect Alan Cumming. He’s a twisted and lovely bundle of bawdy all his own, just as he ought to be.

Costuming wasn’t my favorite, but I do think it was appropriate…which is  amusing given that most of it is on the more inappropriate side of the spectrum…which just happens to be appropriate. All that to say it’s not pretty, but it shouldn’t be.

The orchestra was great and I particularly enjoyed the fact that our Kit Kat girls and boys swung both ways – that is to say they got to play in the orchestra on top and be a part of the action down below. You can take that pretty much any way you want, they would. And do. 😉 There was some volume, balance and/or tinny issues with the MC’s Mic in the first half, and it all seemed a bit loud at first, but by the second half the problems had disappeared.

My mind will have likely hijacked all recollection of this show by tomorrow, but if you’re a fan of Cabaret, I think you’ll like the deep direction this production takes. If you’re unfamiliar with the show or it’s not your favorite, I think you’ll still find it mostly entertaining and perhaps like me, more frighteningly relevant viewed through today’s modern lens so influenced by a global political environment that doesn’t seem so removed at times from 1930 Berlin. 4 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a classic musical caught somewhere between pleasurable, satirical, comedic burlesque and unforgiving historical drama. Cabaret plays through Sunday, June 11th at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.

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REVIEW – The Memory Stick – San Jose Stage

There are a few things I don’t like. I don’t like doing dishes. I don’t like mean people. I don’t like eggplant or olives. I don’t like hangnails. One of the things near the top of my don’t like list is feeling stupid. It’s a thoroughly unattractive trait (right up there with humming to movie scores…inside the theater, I know, nobody’s perfect) but I’d argue that along with a thirst for knowledge and a sincere curiosity, the drive to not look stupid on any topic, has served me well in some cases. While I often attend a play having intentionally done NO research, there are certainly shows where it would behoove me to have read notes or look up some key events or people in order to simply follow along. I don’t like when a show is dumbed down with condescending, extraneous exposition, discrediting its audience, but equally frustrating is when the perspective of the play makes a lot of assumptions about the level of education of its audience on central themes to the play. The Memory Stick was a play that probably made sense to some people, but I got hung up on huge gaps in information, felt lost, possibly alienated, and ultimately lost interest.

On the plus side, this is a highly stylized piece and despite content issues, I appreciated the storytelling style. From the standpoint of oral traditions key to the cultures depicted, it made sense. Dream/vision sequences, shared lines, a corps chorus almost at times and special attention to cadence and poetic/lyric rhythm worked for me. In fact, this structural choice helped to draw parallels for me where other devices (or lack thereof) did not. I wasn’t bothered by the delivery of lines or the acting, but rather what was not said.

It seems to me if you’re drawing parallels or want the audience to, they need to have some reference points to start with. Some tent poles if you will. As it was, I perspired a lot and came up short with regard to a clear vision. This was a journey with no revelation at the conclusion, no questions answered and actually uncertainty as to what questions might have even been asked.

I’m a 42 year old, college educated American, which admittedly, might not mean as much as it used to, but I’ll tell you, even after reading up on Chelsea Manning, The Easter Rebellion, and James Connolly, I still felt stranded, and in disagreement with what I THINK (strong emphasis on think) the message of this play was. There’s a “betrayal” that I think is being touted as an act of heroism, but the impetus for this act initially is a money-making scheme. Its more complex than that for sure, but I had to work too hard to figure out if there were protagonists or antagonists in the current day plot. I feel most certain that I missed the point or happen to be too distanced in perspective to understand/agree, but the “heroes” of the present day plot don’t seem to function according to their “lights” as perhaps the historical figures referenced do.

Speaking of lights, lighting and use of space were good and the set, sound, props and costumes were all at a professional level, but technically this play also has some odd ambiguities and discrepancies. Use of projections specifically in some instances seemed congruent and helpful, in others it honestly felt like an error and a distraction.

This is an Irish play and the best I can figure, more time was taken to detail “American” history than Irish history or more contemporary references to help that audience. The references to Wounded Knee felt the most fleshed out, explained, and for me the most interesting. Perhaps because I recall a bit of it from High School, perhaps because it’s just a dramatic piece of our history capable of stirring conflicting emotions, or maybe because it started to erect those desperately needed tent poles. I suspect it was the most intriguing to the original perspective (the playwright) and was assumed to be the least commonly known to the Irish audience. Meanwhile anyone ignorant of Irish History, details of military occupation/conflict of the last decade and the specifics of various WikiLeaks was left to die on the battlefield. That ignorance while not pretentious or probably intentional, was distracting and clearly, painful for me. Without an intermission to google the bejesus out of stuff to try to cram for the test, or unhelpful notes in the program, my thirst for engagement dried up.

I wanted to applaud the attempt, but the failure to connect made that exceedingly difficult. I wasn’t particularly moved, enlightened, or… entertained for more than a few moments. I tried. I did. Honest. Still, I’ve got to place some of the blame on the piece itself. 2 ½ jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a show that certainly had merit in concept and gets partial credit for  style, but felt incomplete, forced and static while loudly proclaiming me Jon Snow and reminding me that I know nothing. The Memory Stick played through 4/30/2017 at the San Jose Stage in Downtown San Jose.

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REVIEW- Matilda, The Musical – Broadway San Jose

The first time I heard the score  from Matilda, the Musical I unabashedly teared up. As a girl/Princess who clearly has some challenges with this thing they call adulting, and  conflicts with conforming to a world which sometimes demonstrates a complete lack of imagination and fairness, it spoke directly to me. As a girl with an affinity for layered complexity cleverly disguised as simplicity, the themes, lyrics, and colorful, weird musicality both wooed me and broke me open. I love every square inch of this show and this production.  A year in the waiting from announcement to audience, I was so thrilled this show proved to be everything I had hoped for visually and that I got to see it in my city of San Jose.

While the sound balance and diction is exceptional in this production, it would behoove you to take Broadway San Jose up on their brilliant offer of grabbing a lyric sheet in the lobby either before or after the show (or look it up online). These words, the masterful combination of Roald Dahl’s strange mental concoctions and Tim Minchin’s gorgeously “off” sentiments are all at once kooky and brutally honest normalcy, wrapped in anthems and ballads alike. Perfectly tempered with absurd wit and deep poignancy this show cheerfully explores darkly morbid topics and appears to be an encyclopedia of forgotten obvious things we clearly need to state over. The struggle of having the tools, the support, esteem, time, and love needed to survive being a child not to mention an adult flow effortlessly from scene to scene. It points to how fragile we all are and yet what immense powers we all can access when we need them. It’s a wholly important message for our youth and for the generations raising and teaching them. The power of a teacher and a parent; the influence of grown-ups, the responsibility they have. It’s a beautiful vehicle for the discussion of fairness, defining absolute truths, and encouraging independent thinking. A wonderful  expedition into the need for support and structure without the negativity of limits and restrictions.

Perhaps no other show in memory has reminded me how truly powerful direction can catapult a show from good to great. Lovely staging motifs operate in sync with clever design and it’s that devil in the details that really enhance the visual mischief of this show. A banner doesn’t just get removed; it gets danced of with a flourish! Repetition, mimicry and adorable panache infused into every entrance and exit connects and calls back to lessons as well as lets us in on the secrets with foreshadowing. With surprises around every corner, if you blink you’ll undoubtedly miss hints or jokes. Impossibly unique and ridiculously universal, I love how from top to bottom this musical practices what it preaches, breaking all the rules just enough. Cast a man as a woman, have “learning” be a sin, have it break the 4th wall (well), have it start the second act before the house lights are out, be silly over-the-top, but still be so relatable it hurts.

The creativity of the show is perhaps no more apparent than with the most inventive and original choreography I’ve seen in any show I can recollect. The way it was integrated into the scenery and prop design was a glorious puzzle to behold. It was funny, beautiful, emotive, rebellious and so specialized, there were moment of genuine awe that took over my jaw when dance and movement were concerned.

Many a well written show has been ruined by a cast not up to the task, (I have walked out of West Side Story more than a few times), but this cast is joyous and proficient. The kids in particular are clearly the cream of the crop and even more evident is that they’re executing every move, beat and take with committed earnestness and bliss. More talented than any production I have seen of Annie or Billy Elliot these kids (and adults) are tasked with making very difficult things look easy and exceptionally easy things appear herculean. I’d take every single one of them home for a tea party (this from a Princess who prefers the company of three-legged cats and pit bulls to most children these days).

Aside from entertaining, Matilda, the Musical succeeds in reminding me about the craft of theater; about the individual and collaborative efforts that take place to make art. It reminds me how FUN and what a pleasure creating and performing can be. These loud phosphorescent, wild caricatures and these whispery, gossamer souls we see on stage are rare and it’s a privilege to be able to bring them to life in the world that has been carefully imagined for them. It makes me proud to be part of this profession and it’s the precise show I’d recommend for kids interested in theater. THIS is the attainable, achievable, goal.

A rebellious, resounding 5 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for a beautiful, hilarious, imaginative, inspirational experience with sincere heart, huge talent and moving messages. What a joy, what an opportunity, what a lovely way to spend a few hours. Consider this to be necessary mischief. Matilda, the Musical plays through March 12th at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.

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REVIEW – For Grace – Cinequest

Perhaps I’m too enamored of a well-made documentary, but I find the contrived documentary a tired device when not done well. My general rule is if you’re going to break that 4th wall, it better be for a very specific and effective reason. It ought to be an imperative, consistent choice that assists in cultivating audience focus and not actively impeding it. For Grace is an earnest film with a unique story that unfortunately seems to get buried by an overly forced format and a too present camera.

While there are some lovely visual shots that allow us a peak at the intimacy we want more of and use of silences that speak volumes are rewarding, the dialogue feels improvised and hesitant instead of fresh and authentic, further muddling the journey and losing us along the way. While these characters are played by a compelling cast and I applaud the inclusion and resolution of the film, I just wish it had been put together with a more cohesive, compelling, and a more personally palatable frame.

I’m frustrated by this film because I genuinely like the message and arc of the film’s plot, but I feel the positives have to fight too hard to be seen and heard through the clunky meta style. The superficiality of the delivery undermines the momentum and impact the story could have. I kept being pulled out of the moment and wondering if this could have worked better as an actual documentary or a closed, straight dramatic narrative. My answer each time I asked came back with a resounding yes.

While I can award an E for effort and intent, I can’t be as supportive for execution I’m afraid.  A 3 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for a good film caught in an awkward purgatory of genre. For Grace has 5 more Screenings at Cinequest.

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REVIEW – Momento Mori – Cinequest

Haunting, informative, suspenseful and cleverly constructed, Momento Mori is a hard to watch, but impossible to turn away from documentary film. What could have easily been a clinical, invasive and/or dry film is made captivating with particularly smart editing and considerate camera work. These tremendously personal stories of organ donors and recipients are intertwined with the fascinating technical and logistical world of organ donation and the vehicle in which they are delivered didn’t disappoint.

Well-paced and appropriately untidy in its conclusions, there’s a natural flow to this film.  Time is of the essence and the urgency of each minute that passes and the painful eternity of each minute spent waiting is captured perfectly. Like the seamless beat of a heart, it doesn’t linger too long on any one thread or skip about abruptly. We have just enough time to digest the magnitude of the situation unfolding in “real time” and still remain objective, preventing emotional consumption. We’re invisible flies on the wall, observers skating the precipice of life and death.

This film stirs up so much admiration for the strength of the subjects, such awe for any surgeon that calls any transplant “routine” and such compassion for the realities of all involved. How far we’ve come and yet how much chance still seems to influence outcomes is a humbling juxtaposition explored from start to fishing in this film. Philosophical and Scientific, Momento Mori receives  4 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for a truly interesting film that skillfully balances its lens between observer and participant and successfully steers clear of bias, giving a fair and in the moment portrayal of a modern fact of life…and death…and the hope of new life. Momento Mori has 4 more screenings at Cinequest.

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REVIEW- Charley’s Aunt ’66 – Douglas Morrisson Theatre

Every so often I see a show that I’m relatively certain I’m the last on the planet to see. Such is the case with Charley’s Aunt which until last week I had somehow missed despite being assured it is frequently done. I feel slightly less embarrassed at this oversight due to the fact that The Douglas Morrisson Theatre has mounted a new adaptation that no one had seen up until opening weekend. Though miraculously unfamiliar with the original play, Charley’s Aunt ‘66 is indeed quintessential farce with a plot that is simple and predictable enough to understand the appeal. While I can’t speak to how it holds up to the original exactly, I can say there was much to chuckle about and be amused by in this version.

Locally made for local audiences the script hosts a plethora of tailored, geo-located joviality, poking fun at local rivalries and taking on a self-deprecating air at times. Placing it in the Bay Area and in the 60’s is a fun and colorful palette both politically and visually and affords the play additional liberties and opportunities for humor.  The 1966 date stamp made it easier to explain away any out dated/traditional farcical components that the playwright (for plot reasons) likely wasn’t able to change or use to emphasize a timely political point. It’s a production that uses all the heightened comic tools in the arsenal of farce (repetition, asides, malapropisms, repetition, grand gestures, repetition etc.) but still surprisingly nuanced in places. Some of the joke don’t land or try a bit too hard (some inside theater jokes teetered on the too-meta-for-me-side) but in general this is cast with exceptional delivery that make it work.

It’s the cast that is perhaps the most difficult to describe here.  There’s a district comedy dynamic I haven’t seen in a really long time working serious magic on the stage. Their presentations are charming, highly-stylized, and enjoyably physical. With elements reminiscent of Commedia dell’arte, Vaudeville, and  even The Three Stooges, the physical paired exceedingly well with the cleverly written/well-paced banter. In the scores upon scores of shows I see in the Bay Area, I saw takes, choices, and exchanges I had NEVER seen before. I’m a hard sell and I was caught off guard by how funny this show was in places. Subscribing to the age-old comic format of louder, faster, funnier and fueled with fantastic facial expressions and perfect pauses, every last member of this cast seemed to be enjoying themselves and that joy of craft was visible to the audience to an endearing end.

I’d be hard pressed to think of a show where the sound and light design played such an integral part of the play’s humor. Expertly executed by astute board ops, the gimmick was, well, gimmicky, but easily embraced. There’s a method to the madness and once you get use to the theatrical devices and accept them as part of the farcical nature, it’s easy to really enjoy and respect this piece. Costuming as you can imagine is also full of flare – literally and figuratively. There was some gratuitous de-shirting – though no one was complaining, at least not within earshot. The set did its thing (as I find it always does marvelously at this theater) and while it took a long time to get to what we know will be a tidy and satisfying solution, I  genuinely liked the look and feel of this show.

It’s a confounding, intriguing, motley little beast this show, and quite a likeable one from where I sit. An obvious collaborative group effort, truly its success attributed to all the artists on both sides of the stage. Rich with rapport and wit, despite a few challenges, this is a genuinely light and amusing show. A lively 4 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for a refreshing romp, firmly situated in the “campy” zone and complete with a superbly committed cast and production team. Charley’s Aunt ’66 plays through March 5th at the Douglas Morrisson Theatre in Hayward.

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