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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REVIEW- CRYSTAL -Cirque du Soleil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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REVIEW- The Little Mermaid – Broadway San Jose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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REVIEW – The Many Faces of Farce – Stanford Repertory Theater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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