REVIEW – Motown the Musical – Broadway San Jose

I’m not going to lie, going into Broadway San Jose’s Motown the Musical I thought there was a good chance I might be about 20 years too young to fully appreciate it. You’d think I’d be trusting enough by now, but clearly I still need reminding. You’ll be happy to know, I was wrong and once again theater and music demonstrated their innate power to bridge a variety of gaps and transcend generations (among other things.)

The audience was primed Tuesday night and their reactions became part of the show for me, making it even more enjoyable. All it took was a chord or a couple of notes before the audience let out a collective knowing and nostalgic gasp… THIS was their favorite… oh THIS one… no THIS IS THE ONE. The mere silhouette of sports-coated men or women striking powerful poses, set this crowd into an “I love this song” frenzy.  An introduction in the first few minutes to the evening’s Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson had the audience whooping and whistling like teens (which they/I were/am certainly not). I didn’t have the heart to tell them, it wasn’t REALLY Marvin and Smokey… but I soon found out that that fact made very little difference.

I can’t verify, but along with audible moans and sighs that peppered the audience during a soulful stripped down “Mercy, Mercy Me” I may have also heard the actual quivering of loins. I don’t think I was misinterpreting the signs that some of the ladies sitting nearby found themselves in a baby making mood after that particular performance; which is super weird because news flash –  its a song about pollution. But dammit, it was the sexiest song about pollution apparently ever sung. The original songs surely hold a power over people, but the cast tasked with singing them for this show, seemed to live up to all expectations.

To say our Mary Wells for the evening was a crowd-pleaser would be a gross understatement. She possesses the kind of vocal power that I bet notes dream being born from. Our Diana Ross gave a perky and convincing performance as well, both vocally and from an acting standpoint. Smokey brought it. Berry Gordy sold it. I enjoyed the entire ensembles colorful portrayals of real personalities.

The female harmonies in particular are so distinct in Motown, and we really don’t have anywhere near the equivalent amongst our modern Top 40. One of the reasons the music has surely survived and is still so revered, certainly is that unique, powerful quality. The background singers WERE the music. They were heard over a solo. They never felt like they were in the “background” to me and being reminded of that was an unexpected enjoyable take-away.

And, then there was young Michael Jackson. That’s a big name to live up to and our young actor nailed it. Dynamic, charming, charisma to spare and a voice paired with moves to match. I love seeing naturally talented kids bask in the glow of an audience and this kid was on fire, in his zone and loving the response. So many great moments, but the brief Jackson 5 scene was easily my favorite.

Along with supreme voices and great storytelling through acting, this show is one that makes it hard to not move in your seat. Indeed, this is a show that brings the “noise” and the funk and there was a lot of seat jive going on. The birth of boy band swagger, or MAN BAND Swag would appear to be Motown. Move over In Sync. Not so fast 98 Degrees. As if Backstreet Boys. If you weren’t already schooled in showmanship, our cast was ready to show you how it’s done. Oh, and they GOT IT DONE, AND THEN SOME. Great choreography and execution, no complaints at all there.

While a few original songs written specifically for the show serve only to tie the mostly overly-convenient and somewhat contrived plot device of a retrospective, the show moved so quickly, it didn’t bother me too much. Sure the structure is formulaic and a bit weak, but it really doesn’t detract noticeably from the star-studded song book which packs in a LOT of music and humor into 2 ½ hours.

While totally necessary to tell the story, and certainly key in demonstrating the power of music and the determination and bravery of Berry Gordy, the depiction of the racial tension is painful for me to watch; perhaps even more so in light of recent, very public examples, that we still have a long way to go to correct perceptions, practices, and injustices. While head-shakingly sad, this aspect of the show was certainly another example of why the music and the story remain so relevant.

Though the show was clearly about the music (and the fabulous band!) the spectacle was fully present and supported technically. Colorful lights, clever projections and a fluid set unobtrusively kept us aware of chronology and framed the talented cast as they moved from location to location and through time.  A golden hairbrush goes to those in charge of the wig design and care! Every coif and up do was kept 100% on point even during what seemed like some impossibly quick changes.

I was surprised overall how fast this show moved and how fun it was. 4 ½ out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for a quick paced, jam-packed, lightly historical look back on some damn entertaining music from musical icons. Motown the Musical plays through Sunday, June 26th, at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown San Jose.

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REVIEW – The Wild Party – San Jose Stage

The Wild Party may well be the illegitimate musical bastard that resulted from a drunken orgy between Cabaret, Three Penny Opera, Bonnie and Clyde, Chicago and a snuff film. Full of appalling, damaged, depraved, and generally vile, predatory characters, it doesn’t take long to determine that you’re probably not going to “like” many of these party guests; that while there’s humor and certainly some sexy that’s brought to this dark, debaucherous table, the lovefest is probably not going to extend past the “4th wall”. That being said, like cleaning under your fingernails, it’s a bit repulsive in nature, but the end results is ultimately strangely satisfying. The sooner you stop thinking these characters could all benefit from an infinity of therapy sessions or that more than a few of them would ever contribute positively to society, the sooner you’ll enjoy the raucous ride of theatrical amphetamines that is San Jose Stage’s The Wild Party.

This play is bold, occasionally shocking and at times even possibly arousing. There’s a dirty, rebellious decidedly necessary immorality that runs through it; what really equates to a very basic, fundamentally human thread. As I‘ve already mentioned, these are unlikable, twisted… let’s just call it like it is… pretty effed up people. There’s not a seemingly legitimate or even genuine attempt to justify many of the choices these substantially flawed and in some cases tortured souls make. It’s also totally not important that we like them in order for use to care about them. Well, some of them. And, when I say care, I mean just a little, JUST enough. Arguably they’re not “good” or even “nice” people, but they are by no means flat. They’re written with sufficient dimension and I think played with even more layers than the text and music probably suggest.

It’s a show musically mixed with prohibition age jazz, torch songs, and advanced, contemporary musical theater components. It’s also a very… belty score, with occasional discord and quite a bit of yelling which I felt was definitely too loud and too abrasive at times. The band (who masterfully executed the challenging range and extreme pace changes of the score) was definitely too loud and as was much of the singing which combined for an effect that felt too extreme for the intimate space. Like the characters, I’m not sure I liked all the music, but it entertained, told a story and made no excuses. Certainly the sound challenges can be worked out over time, and in so doing I’m sure will highlight the tremendous strength and skill of the actors rather than detract from the excellence of the production.

Our cast of actors do a tremendous job with the dysfunctional make-up of the play, giving in almost all cases, a vivid depiction of real people (even though they are rhyming and singing on a stage). Burrs is genuinely frightening and simultaneously magnetic. His rage juxtaposed against his clowned gaze was suitably disturbing. His pipes and commitment to the character clear. His sickening co-dependency with Queenie was convincing on every level. It’s these kinds of roles and performances that make me hope there was not an OUNCE of typecasting… and that I’d sincerely be nervous to run into the actor in a dark alley.

Queenie was a role made for this actress, who has played many great roles on this stage and others. I’d rank this performance as one of her best. She’s confident and powerful on stage and her legs certainly as the script dictates, possess their own sphere of influence.

Kate was performed with a special balance of self-destruction and moxie. Her plight was underscored with a special self-deprecating humor that the actress had a very secure handle on. She is well-intentioned and simultaneously a siren of self sabotage, her arc is interesting and well-defined. Where she could have gone pathetic and victimized, she owns her flaws and unapologetically schemes to a predictable end.

Black was sincere and had the presence to pull off the role, but I would say I didn’t personally buy the requisite chemistry with Queenie to create the means that justified the end. The understanding, bond and portrayal of the Burrs/Queenie disaster was perhaps just too intense for me to commit fully to a Black/Queenie pairing be it for show or for real.

The ensemble each get their time to shine be it in song, dance or both and it shines particularly bright for Madelaine True, who is kind of show-stopping every time she opens her mouth. Eddie and Mae got my vote for most likely to succeed despite some obvious anger management issues on the part of Eddie.

The highlight for me was easily the most appropriately inappropriate choreography I’ve seen to date and some of the best I’ve seen in a long, long time. Creative, sexy, provocative and stylish, it worked to tell the stories and not just fill time. It was unabashed, intentional, gritty, indeed crass at times and yet seemed perfectly in sync with the character choices. It set an expectation and did not hold back. I’m not ever a fan of a dream ballet, and while this production maybe has more of an opiate-laced dance interlude, it was one of the more perfect moments for me of the show.

The set design was impactful even before the show starts: a functional, aesthetically pleasing, layered, metaphorical set that did more than hint at the sexual heat driving the players and the personal cages that restrained and restricted them. Along with clever staging, effective lighting and edgy costuming the technical elements struck a perfect chord of textured, uninhibited taboo and criminal sensuality.

This is a trigger happy production (in all senses of the word) and if you’re at all sensitive or squeamish about topics such as sexual violence, promiscuity, graphically simulated sex acts, adultery, drug use, physical abuse, rage issues or guns, consider yourself adequately warned. Short of nudity, essentially every “line” was either crossed upon the initial downbeat or perhaps was exiled from the shows inception. All the prudish disclaimers aside, a deserved 4 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for the unquestionably ballsy and aptly named “Wild Party.” Leave your morality and judgement at the lobby and just accept your role as voyeur to this impressive dose of decadent degeneracy and wicked wantonness. The Wild Party plays through July 17th at the Stage in Downtown San Jose.

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REVIEW- Disney’s Newsies – Broadway San Jose

Dude [dood, dyood, doooooooooooode] – interjection – 1. an expression of shock, approval, sympathy, or other strong feeling. 2. The word Susannah used approximately 137 times during Broadway San Jose’s production of Disney’s Newsies, because OH MY GOSH IT WAS SO FREAKING AWESOME. Prior to Tuesday I was able to count the number of standing ovations I have given on one hand. Dude, this show, this cast, this crew, this set (OH MY GOSH THIS SET IS UNREAL!) got me on my feet for the sixth time in my entire life. Just get your ticket already, DO IT, it will put a smile on your face.

I love this cast. Dude, like, I really love them. I want them to perform every show I see from now on. Chicago? Yes. They could do it. Othello? I bet I would like it if they were cast. Spring Awaking? That one too. Death of a Salesmen?  I’d probably pay double. Seriously, can we make this happen? Can someone get on that, please? If not, can I just put them all in my pocket and pull them out for parties? They’re the best. Not a single cast member phoned it in. Each of the ridiculously talented, impossibly well-cast actors performed flawlessly and were clearly having a blast while doing so. They are present, contagious, charming, charismatic, and down right mesmerizing . Every one of them (that needed to be) was a bonified triple threat. Jack Kelly – exquisitely brash and rustically dashing. Katherine – a quintessential juxtaposition of slightly conflicted demur trailblazer and romantic independent social rebel. Each of the newsies individual and committed to their totally believable characters. Pulitzer – a delicious villain if ever there was one. Even Mr. Jacobi and Hannah nailed their one liners memorably. Everyone counted, everyone mattered, everyone delivered. There wasn’t a single weak link and everyone got to shine with the enthusiasm of a child that just realized they want to be on stage in front of an adoring audience forever!

The show itself had a beautiful combination of everything you could ever want in a show.  Drama, comedy, a swell of pride for a cause, a bit of history, BROOKLYN, romance (WITH BRILLIANT CHEMISTRY), plot twists, tension, stunning harmonies, a kid with some serious moxie, theater inside jokes, gender equality, civil disobedience, a set to make your head spin (HAVE I MENTIONED THE SET!?), and all in less than 2 1/2 hours which FLEW BY! This is also a dance show with numerous powerful, high-quality production numbers from the get go. The choreography isn’t weird, archaic, recycled choreography either, oh no, its exciting, fresh, creative, fun and in many cases totally manipulative of gravity. The synchronicity was impossibly tight, fluid and packed with emotive storytelling. The material and style is so well suited to the skills of this cast it just looks effortless. And, how they move in their costumes without a rib, slip or cap falling off is a miracle in and of itself.

Now… this set I speak of. It’s not just me. It’s award-winning, but this geek was afraid she would set the sprinklers off  as a result of her brain exploding. A million and one high fives please for both the set and lighting designers as well as our skilled-beyond-belief Stage Crew. Let’s hear it for IATSE people (and the cast members that help with scene transitions too). Seriously. There are literally 85,000 things that could go wrong in this show with all the moving pieces, projections and bodies flying about, and absolutely zero margin for error. The stage pictures that are created as a result of the genius design are awe-inspiring and damn near tear inducing. Aside from 1, ONE, chair falling off a table… I saw NO errors. And I was looking. I’m king of a jerk that way. I mean I don’t WANT there to be errors, obviously, but it’s live theater and inevitably stuff happens and its nice to see how a cast and crew reacts when things do go wrong. Frame that call book, give the stage manager a raise, the exceptional technical execution was in a league of its own.

Even the audience was in synch and stellar. On time. Polite. Dude, not a single cell phone out during the show (THANK YOU!). If we had had our way we wouldn’t have stopped clapping for 10 minutes after the first dance number, which not unlike the opening episode of Breaking Bad, you kind of wonder HOW CAN THEY SUSTAIN THIS KIND OF INTENSITY… and then they totally do it again and again (and then some) for 2 more hours.

Standing O aside, other personal milestones this show has accomplished include only the second ever INTERMISSION TWEET OF AMAZEMENT, more CAPITAL LETTERS in a single document than I have ever used before (and I write a lot of yelling emails), as well as the admission that I would TOTALLY SEE THIS SHOW AGAIN. So… for what it’s worth, clearly I was impressed with this one. In case that hadn’t been made clear at this point.

It was an absolute pleasure to be in the theatre on  Tuesday. My admittedly high expectations were met and exceeded many times throughout this production. DUDE; 5 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for an absolutely fantastic production of what  I wish I experienced every time I went to the theater. The bar has been raised. Newsies plays through Sunday, May 15th at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown San Jose.

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REVIEW – Too Much, Too Much, Too Many – Dragon Productions Theater Company

It’s taken me a few days to process Too Much, Too Much, Too Many. That’s a good thing mostly. I like plays that make you think. But, it’s a play that touches on themes that are hard. That’s also good in this case, but hard none the less. Plays that upset me are not ones I usually enjoy, but this one might qualify as an exception. As we deal with an aging population and one that sees the devastating effects of diseases of the mind and memory that we can’t yet cure, these cathartic plays are cropping up more and more. Coping plays. These are personal, far too-close-to-home themes for me to be honest… and thus the emotional barrels are fully loaded coming into this production. That predisposed emotion both validates and artificially amplifies an experience I think; but I suppose every life experience has that potential – to move you more or to repel you further from the moving reality witnessed from the dark of an audience.

It’s at first a disjointed play. Abrupt. A staccato presentation almost until a good third of the way into the first act. This seems partially intentional in its effort to authentically represent the key themes. What we know and what we think and what is repeated and what is clearly missing, all plays a part in the pacing and the style of the storytelling.

There were a few parts that were seemingly unpolished or awkward though, perhaps less deliberate. There were some lapses in generally good chemistry between the 4 characters, some staging that was obscured, and a few minor sight line challenges disappointed here and there. The music, though nice, seemed primarily anachronistic as well; neither clearly narrating nor transitioning, neither ambient nor serving as a clear memory for the play. And, I wasn’t sure of the location to be honest. There’s mention of Midwest cities and a drive, and it’s clear it’s a small town, though accents seem almost southern. Not sure it mattered, but it nagged at me for a spell. This play requires a bit of patience, it’s a bit frustrating at times, but the bright moments are absolutely priceless and well worth being there for.

And, the brightest of the bright was the character of Rose. How she is written and performed is indeed the standout of the production. There is genuinely heartbreaking, beautiful poetry in her speech and her story and the delivery is impeccably poignant and enthralling. She is balanced, devastating, and humorous and the entire audience breathed in her complete circumstance effortlessly. She is a tribute to love and to loss and we could not take our eyes off her. She slays this performance any way you slice it.

Emma is troubled and distant as is requisite for her journey and her performance and her arc definitely warm to you along with the rest of the play. Our Pastor is likeable, sweet, and a lovely counterpoint to Emma’s closed off, calculated, sabotaging demeanor. James is confusing at first to be sure, but it becomes clear why that’s the case as we progress.

I’m always interested to see a play I’ve never seen before and in this case never even heard of before. At its core, it has some challenges, but overall once we invest, once we let down our guards and let it in, the performances and the message in the prose do present silver linings, resolution that is both sorrowful and sweet, and a play that is supremely liberating. 4 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for a strangely romantic and painfully sentimental piece sure to resonate with many. Too Much, Too Much, Too Many plays through April 10th at the Dragon Theater in Redwood City.

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REVIEW- The Comedy Club – Cinequest Film Festival

I’ve often said (the question comes up more than you’d think) that among the jobs I would never ever want are ambulance drive in SF, Brain Surgeon, and Stand Up Comic. After seeing The Comedy Club, I can’t possibly omit Comedy Club Owner from the list. This film first and foremost brings forth a huge respect for and need for a ginormous (overdue) Thank you to Tom Sawyer. Thank you Tom (and Carolyn and Michael) for your dedication to making Cobbs Comedy Club the success and joy it was for so many years. It also garners a big thumbs up to David Schendel the producer, director and cinematographer of the film, who tells the story of a true Independent so completely and in such an entertaining way.

Having spent most of my life doing various (read: all) jobs in the theater, I know that there’s an art to everything and that success often times comes from a largely unseen support group and the intuition of others guiding the “stars.” This film was a fascinating look at the man (and some of the other folks too) in the shadows of the SF comedy scene in the early 80’s and continuing on through the present. Cobbs Comedy Club was a rite of passage of sorts growing up in the Bay Area and a visit to Cobbs not only meant a chance to see great, stand up (up & coming as well as headlining comics) it also meant you’d graduated to the 21+ comedy clubs. There’s certainly a pride that swelled up in me from the first clip of this film, that the Bay Area was so influential in the comedy movement and I was able to witness that first hand (in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.)

This is a really well put together film (2 different editors over the at least 3 years of post-production), with priceless vintage comedy footage, recent interviews from comedy icons, and frank conversations (that resonated deeply) about how difficult it is to make (any) art when the need to make money dictates and the corporate monsters so difficult to compete with breathe down your neck. How can you compete in a world that thrives on stomping out the little guy, how can you survive as a creative?

Tom clearly commands industry-wide respect from the comics he helped break, helped elevate, and just plain hired and the documentary highlights how the art of laughter is not as easy as you’d think. With so much angst, tragedy and  challenge surrounding the world of comedy, this narrative could have so easily gone dark, but I loved that instead it kept positive while still remaining very real. There’s a lot of heart with the humor in this film (which took years to complete) and I think the quality of this film is due in large part to the shared creative trait of “sticking to it.”As David discussed in the talk-back after the final scheduled screening today…sometimes you have to wait for the “right” end of the story, and the end of this story didn’t come where we thought it would (or  where they had told their original funders it would.) The film ends perfectly though, and gives me hope that places where the craft of stand up is honed and not just manufactured can still exist. A venue and home where a young comic has some guidance and collaborative mentors and where an established comic can get back to their roots, reinvent and recreate themselves. A comic, like any artist (and perhaps more than any other?) needs a safe place to experiment in order to bring their best art to their audience. It benefits us as an audience to foster the right environment for growth and success.

In the light of art institutions closing and the recent shuttering of long time creative-based, non-profits, I think it’s even more important to support our arts. Top of mind, this translates certainly to support for the filmmakers (for telling the stories we don’t always see, enriching our lives on so many levels), the film festivals that showcase their work,  the comics themselves and the comedy curators like Tom Sawyer, that work their magic off the stage. We need laughter. We need release. This world is too heavy for our fragile humanity without a steady stream of good, hearty laughs. The Comedy Club at its core illuminates a side of Comedy that is essential and yet I wager even to those that love comics, might not know about. That in my book is a win. Indeed, unless we are prepared to live in a world without them, it is up to us to support the arts “early and often”.  4 1/2 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara! Oh, and don’t forget to tip your wait staff. Mic drop.

***  With no more scheduled screenings,  I can only hope that you can catch this film (especially if you’re a local and a lover of the Bay Area comedy scene) at encore day (fill out those surveys)… or at another screening somewhere.

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REVIEW – Here Come the Videofreex – Cinequest Film Festival

Day 6 of Cinequest and I came across a real gem! Here Come the Videofreex was JUST what I needed at the end of a Monday; an absolute treasure of a film with a loveable band of radicals at the center of it. With a wonderful narrative and some absolutely priceless video tape footage from the late 60’s and early 70’s, this film really has it all. It had me laughing, it got me angry, it was sweet, a bit sad and overall it was a truly fascinating story told in a compelling way. Both a palpable history lesson and an endearing, nostalgic account of how an adorable, determined, clever, group of bohemian video artists set out to collectively pioneer a new medium during a tremendously tumultuous time of our history, it’s balanced and well-paced. There’s an innocent sincerity about this film that I genuinely loved and my only challenge was, due to the shaky camera clips that dominate this feature, I found myself quite motion sick for the last part. I’ll definitely need to catch that last 20 minutes again with some fresh eyes/stomach. A delightful 4 ½ jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a brilliant look at how media has been shaped with the “help” of access to the handheld video camera, and so much more. Here Come the Videofreex has one more scheduled screening Thursday, March 10th at noon.

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My Golden Days is a film that will have you wondering if all French teens in the 80’s had such sophisticated, complicated, dramatic upbringings replete with insanity, pretension, unfounded confidence and the juggling of copious open relationships. It’s also a film with enough smoking to give the audience emphysema, abundant nostalgia, copious lingering profile shots and abrupt, unabashed declarations of desperate contradictory love and hate, occasionally delivered directly into the camera lens. 4th walls? Please, they are so gauche.

The film of observations (rather than lineally structured recognition, reversals and revelations) also had 1/2 a dozen or more sub plots that seemed to trail off unresolved; fading into the urban Parisian landscape. The amount of independence, lack of structure and degree of trouble these youths are exposed to is certainly entertaining in its own rite and the sound track was an unexpected, outstanding highlight. While not Avant Guard or even overly abstract exactly, there are some experimental cinematic things going on here and it definitely told a relatively unique story in a relatively unique way.

This is a film that you smile while watching, half because of its eye-rolling ridiculousness and half because it probably has substantial truth layered into it and you might be a bit jealous you didn’t grow up ½ as cool as these kids. Indeed, when the plot presents something seemingly terribly implausible, you may well be moved to throw up your hand, tilt your head back and exclaim “Ah Europe!” It’s just so quintessentially French and there’s reason to embrace it just for that aspect.

There are no more scheduled screenings unfortunately, and I’m not certain Western audiences will choose it as an encore favorite, but if you get an opportunity to see it, and you don’t take it too seriously, it’s worth a look. 3 ½ jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for an arty teenage romp.

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