REVIEW- CRYSTAL -Cirque du Soleil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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REVIEW- The Little Mermaid – Broadway San Jose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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REVIEW – The Many Faces of Farce – Stanford Repertory Theater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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REVIEW – The Toxic Avenger – San Jose Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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