REVIEW – Disgraced – San Jose Stage

All you theater pieces providing a pleasant escape from the angry buzzing clutter of real life and a temporary break from discouraged, rage-engaged, politically charged Facebook feeds, take a step forward. Ah-ah-ah, NOT so fast Disgraced at San Jose Stage. Nice try. I know you were written in 2006, but don’t think that little fact will allow you to hide amongst the “art for entertainment’s sake.” Laugh riot, fantasy-fueled, no-brainer you most certainly are not. Don’t you dare try to blend into the landscape. I see you there with your highly topical, thought-provoking, self-examining, shock and awe intensity. Your triggers and powerful parallels did not escape me. You cannot hide. Nor should you.

Indeed, with a script so timely (or STILL so timely) I had to wonder if my experience would have been different had I seen it 3 months ago, or even a week prior. This show raises and examines a lot of questions and is crafted in such an honest, tight way, that we don’t have time (or inclination) to struggle to make excuses or justify anyone’s actions. You have time to watch and feel in the moment as it unfolds, but not take sides – a difficult, but supremely effective structural device. It’s so evenly presented it feels in many ways like being on a jury, instructed to take in all the evidence at face value. Moments of intensity (at levels I rarely feel in theater these days) are made possible by the brutal trifecta of the well-written material, a current political environment that looms uncomfortably just below the surface of the depictions witnessed on stage, and talent that seems to comprehend their material exceptionally well.

This intimate cast navigates the modern material directly and with genuine nuance, not giving in to over acting or “acting” to be honest. The emotional arcs are well traversed by a cast with palpable chemistry and each character/actor has moments of strength and weakness. While all the performances satisfied, the actress playing Jory stood out as nearly flawless. She somehow managed to gift the audience access to a map – pinpointing each moment of her emotional evolution to an exact latitude and longitude. We got her. We knew exactly where she was coming from and I think unanimously enjoyed her journey.

Disgraced also give us another great San Jose Stage set complete with an exceptional lighting design, a suggestive and provocative sound design, and solid staging that flows as naturally as the dialogue does. The authentic realism threaded into every element of the technical design was totally appreciated. Among the technical components were two large challenges that needed to live up to expectation and couldn’t detract from the realist momentum of the production. One of two (I can’t give either away) definitely succeeded in a gasp-I- didn’t-see-that-coming kind of way. The other might have been a damn near impossible effect given the build-up, but it was certainly much better than I was expecting. Both were moments that were hard for theater, but would have been easy for film, which always ruffles my feathers. I like my theater to be written for the stage exclusively without hints of “wouldn’t this moment work better as a film?”

A good production though heavy and disturbing, Disgraced demands 4 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara. It’s eerie, provocative and a darkly relevant production that might change you. It will likely shed some new light on your own perspectives and prejudices. It will certainly cause some silence while you process and then conversation after experiencing it. Disgraced plays through February 26th, 2017 at the San Jose Stage in downtown San Jose.

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REVIEW – A Day in Holywood, A Night in the Ukraine – Palo Alto Players

Low on plot and high on shtick, Palo Alto Players’ production of A Day in Hollywood A Night in the Ukraine, is a truly peculiar, motley mix of old Hollywood tunes and vintage Marx Brothers. While maybe not the most mentally demanding, this light and silly shows certainly gives your brain a brief chance to relax from its likely state of political outrage. It’s not serious in the least except in its professional presentation, and it’s a show that as far as I’m concerned is in the right place in the right time.

For the first half, our ensemble ushered in a musical revue sprinkled with old Hollywood stories, slapstick and creatively presented, classic tap dance numbers. A talented cast delighted with their dance, amused with their acting and impressed with bonus musical skills. Packed with hummable tunes and toe tapping throughout, The Production Code number was a joy and a half, showing off some great tap skills (hardly ever seen these days.) Even the set design highlighted the humor, whimsy and nostalgic grandeur.

The cast all seemed to have the vocal prerequisites, but not everyone seemed to hit the mark in the singing department. It very much seemed a case of good singers not singing their best that night. With just two lovely pianos providing the core musical accompaniment, staging that made use of aisles and the full height of the stage, and some initial echo in the mics, this may just have been an issue of not being able to hear themselves correctly. While a handful of less technically precise performances did create an unfortunate balance and consistency issue, ultimately there was so much else going for the show, it wasn’t an insurmountable obstacle.

I’m sure when you’re considering producing this show you look at obtaining a strong triple threat cast all around, but a Groucho for the second act is essential. It’s a high bar that history set and luckily, our Groucho is sheer perfection. His timing, impossibly rubber body and palpable rapport with rest of the cast and the audience was everything you’d want in a comedy. The second half runs the gamut from smirks and chortles to snickers and full-fledged laughter thanks in large part to Groucho.

Chico had a charm to spare and a mischievous smile that went on for days. Harpo was everything you’d expect too and the three had a chemistry that felt supremely fated. Madam P brought the house down with her stuffy, straight-laced, straight man/woman played expertly in contrast to the chaotic mayhem that whipped around her. Our lovers shone bright in their gloriously dim naiveté. It was an act that was over too quickly for me.

Indeed, this is an endeavor well worth the venture for a toe-tapping escape of much-needed laughter. 4 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a fun night with gimmicks galore and a throwback to the glamour days of cinema. A Day in Hollywood, A Night in the Ukraine plays through February 5th, 2017 at the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto.

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REVIEW – Kinky Boots – Broadway San Jose

High on pomp, sparkle and sass, Broadway San Jose’s Kinky Boots strutted into Downtown on Tuesday with the energy and attitude befitting the award-winning show. It’s a show of spectacle, timely reminders of acceptance,  and of course the kinkiest of boots and while a cohesive, talented cast appeared on the stage, the show certainly came dangerously close to my own personal threshold for over-the-top, cheerleady, rah-rah positivity. I love the message. We need the message. But, the vehicle for the message at times just felt like overkill to me.

My minor intolerance aside, the show was absolutely entertaining. There were a lot of highlights throughout and the character choices, vocal acrobats, and comic timing by the actress playing Lauren,  rated among my favorites. Her commitment to getting the laugh and telling her story really was a thing of beauty.

Speaking of beauty, Lola was undeniably delicious. Vulnerable and strength personified, he rocked the ballads as easily as the drag anthems. Our lead actor and his entire ensemble of Angels worked the brilliant fashion and the exceptionally clever and unique choreography down to  last sequin. As one who is impossibly heel-challenged and has had her land mammal card revoked many a time, I couldn’t help but be amazed that these men not only walked and danced in stiletto boots, but effortlessly  owned it. Not a bead of sweat, no shortness of breath, no stray notes, steps or lapse in attitude. Not even a wardrobe malfunction as they unabashedly, beautifully sashay in their skin-tight vinyl, beaded bras, and thigh highs.  Just gorgeous.

There’s excellent chemistry amongst the entire cast and they execute song, staging and drama across the board. Don wins us over with his testosterone marinated arc, George has some great scene stealing moments, and Charlie Price is sufficiently talented though his part seemed less well written than I think  it could have been.

The show’s score is composed of totally 80’s cheese, over the top boy band ballads and up beat synthesized dance music. While the lyrics moved the plot forward I was actually a bit let down musically. It wasn’t unpleasant by any means, just weaker and less memorable that I would have expected considering the talented the music and lyrics.

True, it was no standing ovation for me, but I think if you just brace yourself for the moral message overdose  you’ll find it a good, fun night out. 3 ½ jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a sexy, big-hearted, big-booted musical. Kinky Boots plays through Sunday, January 29th, 2017 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown San Jose.

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REVIEW- Annie -Broadway San Jose

If you’re involved in theater in any way, you don’t make it to age 41 without seeing Annie a few (dozen) times. And, if you’re like me, each time you go you’re both reminded how “fun” the show is and also how risky the production is to attend if you have any sort of an aversion to the whiney, nasally, sing-songy vocal patterns that tend to inflict every cast of orphans. Annie has a bit of everything; history (shockingly relevant), catchy songs (duh), periodesque costuming (lovely in this production), a real live dog (woof), comedy and it has stood the test of time for very obvious reasons, but if you can’t handle kids singing like most kids sing, even if it carries a solid Broadway San Jose stamp of approval, you aren’t going to miss anything by missing this production.

I’m sure there’s a special place in hell for anyone who criticizes child actors – their job is after all NOT easy and they are kids– but as hopeful as I was that a big budget, Broadway touring company would come through with an Annie I didn’t want to send to her room, I wasn’t able to help but flinch during most of her solos. All the orphans I thought sang great as a company (Hard Knock Life was a highlight despite wanting to rap for some reason throughout it) but the stand alone voices drove me bonkers.

The 2-dimensional comic in some ways has more color and depth than parts of this version. The show kind of relies on Annie being adorable and spunky and her spark with Grace and Daddy Warbucks. I really enjoyed this version of Daddy Warbucks, but I felt somehow the relationship between he and Annie didn’t have enough time to develop or that the chemistry wasn’t quite strong enough. No sparks, not enough dramatic arc for him or with Grace really, but I was entertained none the less. Lily had the right idea with an over the top almost farcical approach, but next to a bit more subdued Rooster and a Miss Hannigan that seemed to fluctuate between mimicking Carol Burnett and trying to play an authentic alcoholic though-line, again the chemistry seemed off, rushed and inconsistent. Maybe Sandy the dog needed more stage time, but even he (she) seemed to be calling it in at times – opting to scratch an ear just as he broke the stage right-wing for a good 5 seconds before completing his cross. But, I guess you can’t teach old dogs new tricks.

The most enjoyable aspects of the performance surprised me quite frankly. I found the adult ensemble to be very entertaining with fabulous energy and comic timing well beyond the material they had to work with. Additionally, they were relatively skilled at transforming into multiple roles, a device I normally don’t buy in the least. This was helped along by great costuming and wigs, clever choreography and real commitment from the cast. The voices of the adults were all good, the dancing skills too, and the sets didn’t wow but did exactly what they needed to do. The sound and lights have very little challenges too and the orchestra was spot on.

Are kids going to like it? Sure. Will adults enjoy it? They will certainly be able to tolerate it for 2 hours and 15 minutes for their kid’s sake. Is it a good, family-friendly evening out that nurtures the little stars in your little ones? Yes. Was it something for me to write home about? I couldn’t help think this production fell flat in more ways than not. A slightly disappointing 3 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a show that came in below my hopes, but still sent me home fully dressed with a smile and humming many of the numbers. Annie plays through tonight (Sunday) at 6:30 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.

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REVIEW – Night Alive – San Jose Stage Company

San Jose Stage usually sets up a win for me, but The Night Alive, was sadly, not company I found much value in keeping. A play billed as a sort of modern Irish nativity play, I failed to find a ray of hope among the puddle of gloom or a connection of any kind to be honest. Steeped in metaphor, angst and disillusionment, it fell well below my expectations, even for one who can usually get behind a good brooding and depressive narrative. Theater for me is always kind of a blind date, and this one felt awkward, uncomfortable and ultimately disappointing. The set up was certainly there, but it turned out the majority of it for me was simply a turn off.

Imagine you arrive at one of your favorite restaurants. As you enter (looking pretty good and feeling great) the smell of familiar anticipation and delicious possibility wafts through the main dining room. A warm, romantic glow blankets the exquisite décor. Your table’s not too close to the other diners, the chairs are comfortable, the acoustics and room temperature are impeccable. Bonus: your favorite is on tonight’s specials! The “pregame” couldn’t be more inviting and to your satisfaction. And, then your disheveled and more-than-a-little-tardy date arrives. And… well… it all goes terribly wrong somehow.

They spend the entire evening wingeing on and on about their dreary circumstances, making vague excuses for this and that, and – clearly not reading the expressions of shock and boredom on your countenance – they insist on peppering the one-sided conversation with totally inappropriate, cheap, crass passes at you. Without extending the slightest courtesy, they help themselves to sampling the food off your plate and wash it all down with an overindulgence of hard alcohol. Having dedicated far too much brain space to delegating any benefit of the doubt you could imagine to them, having tried over the slightly less than abysmal 90 minutes to manufacture some kind of rapport with and sympathy for them, one last move proves it has indeed been even worse than you initially thought. Not even a pathetic, passive-aggressive attempt at sharing the bill, they make one final transparent apology as they slink into the shadows of their own self loathing, leaving you to settle with the waiter. Was it you? Was it something you said? Did you miss something? Everything? The Night Alive, slowly but surely, turned into Night of the Living Dead and NOT in the awesome way.

This slice of life play was not unlike the 5 day old slice of pizza in my fridge; no easy way to salvage it, but still, you hate somehow to waste it. There was work that certainly went into it, but hard to see that past its shriveled, crusty, dried out appearance. I found my mind teetering somewhere between entertaining a quick nap and slapping this play squarely across the face, urging it to “Get a hold of yourself, man!”

While the talent was proven, the actors didn’t seem challenged in the least. All good, but none of them really giving me anything I hadn’t seen them do before or anything I was terribly intrigued by. The teeny-tiny smattering of humor hidden in this piece wasn’t enough to keep the mood or my interest intact. Once it was pretty much established that there were a lot of “holes” that were going to be left unfilled-in enigmas, I was disengaged completely. That climax could have already came and went, I was resigned to just waiting for my cue to depart.

Always a silver-lining in any venture, the set and props were a standout in this production. A beautifully plated dish with every detail perfectly combined to create the required dingy, disheveled and dated apartment. The saving grace of the evening was getting to focus on how perfectly disgusting the set and dressings were. How apt and maybe a bit metaphorical when I reflect on it now.

Truly, I’ve gone over and over in my mind why I couldn’t find anything particularly appealing about this play. I don’t really have a good answer aside from the chemistry wasn’t there, no love connection; no like connection. No doubt others will be more compatible with this play and perhaps it will leave a better taste in the mouths of those that can appreciate its vicious despair and not get sucked in to its bleak quagmire. Blame it on the rain. Blame it on 2016. No matter, an emo-infested 2 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a dark date that left me craving a Guinness and maybe a time machine. The Night Alive plays through December 11th at the San Jose Stage in Downtown San Jose.

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REVIEW – Geeks Vs. Zombies – The Pear Theatre

I spend what I’m sure most would consider an inordinate amount of time planning for the Zombie Apocalypse. This is not a concept (read: eventual presumed circumstance) that causes me any type of anxiety mind you, on the contrary; true preparedness affords you yoda-like calm even in even the most intense of post-election scenarios. Zombie experts all pretty much agree, it’s not a question of if, but when and at least I have time and a plethora of pop resources available to me to help inform my Z-Day plan. Given this pastime of mine, you can imagine that I sat down to the Pear Theatre’s Geek Vs. Zombies with an arsenal of “knowledge” and premeditated arguments ready to color my feeling about the show. I’m thrilled to report that a) no actual zombies sighting have been confirmed to date, and b) I found the show to be a delightful love letter to the flesh eating undead and the geeks who idolize them.

While I’d say the overall plot arch wasn’t entirely original or wholly unpredictable, the dialogue is natural, funny and so packed with geek references/homage that I pretty much fangirled all over the theater (sorry, my bad). With a Kevin Smith kind of clever, supported irreverence and a healthy dose of dorm room one-uppery, the banter flows and paces enjoyably. Sure there are some crass jokes, language some might find tasteless or unnecessary, but I thought the commitment to the world of the characters permits it all. Plus I’m not a little bitch when it comes to four letter words or dick jokes. I imagine those on the outside of (many) inside jokes would be justified in scratching their heads at 3 people audience right finding it hard to catch their breath from laughter, but those are also the kind of people that would probably put baby in a corner. It should be noted as well that hearing “Salacious [B.] Crumb” uttered on stage was kind of a religious experience. I feel the world could totally benefit from more, non-ironic, completely legitimate, accurate descriptive mentions of Jabba the Hutt’s slave Jester. I feel in this moment THAT’s what would make America great again, people. Take note world leaders, I think the writers are on to a lot of things here. With verbal and visual gags galore, it’s important to also acknowledge there’s heart served up with those braaaaiiinnsss and that brief-but-key and intentionally present sentimentality is brought to life (or back to life?) every bit as much as the joking by a cast of talent clearly enjoying itself.

Indeed, not only was the source material 10,000% amazing, but the handling of it, especially by our fantastic four (Loomis, Wallace, Blair, and Macready) was charming, natural and oozed with chemistry. The casting achieved evil genius status as our loveable anti-hero quartet raised the bromance bar, demonstrating some serious Geek Squad goals. There’s a Stand by Me kind of bond among the boys/men/man-children/dorks, and their honest rapport is depicted with the balance of both bold, over-the-top and understated, subtle choices. Based on performance alone, if THEY are the last four guys left to repopulate the human race after the Z.A, it’s all gonna be totally copacetic. Our tour guide Milo’s deadpan is certainly something you’ve seen if you frequent Bay Area Theater and the delivery really couldn’t have been more perfect for this show. The entire ensemble possesses and executes courageous comic timing and I appreciated a grounded yet perky performance from our omniscient entity.

The soundtrack easily warranted its own bow at curtain call setting tone and expectation even before the show started. Harvey Danger, Muse, Beastie Boys, Lord of the Rings, this is pretty much the playlist I’m going to queue up in my own Jeep after that first Zombie sighting. Speaking of first zombie sighting, without any spoilers, MOST ACCURATE MOMENT EVER. Totally spot on realistic reaction. One of many favorite moments, executed so perfectly it felt like 4K 3D with Dolby Surround Sound. I may have audibly yelled “Yes.” I can neither confirm nor deny.

Technically this show didn’t need much and that’s mostly what they settled on. The set was simple but certainly functional, the fight choreography did what it needed to, and the makeup was in no danger of fooling anyone there was a real zombie infiltrating the cast. Costumes were perfectly “normal” (10-1 most of the actors brought their own outfits in what may have been a little bit of totally awesome type casting) and there were some oddly designed or executed lighting, but none of that detracted too much from the wit, snark and geekalicious performances.

In glorious summation, my take-aways from this production were ample.

1) Validation for 90% of my own Zombie Survival Plan – I’m on the right track

2) A much needed laughter ab of steel workout (look out Thor).

3) Realization that my beloved 80’s just can’t get a break

4) A two hour break from thinking about anything aside from how much I felt a part of this conversation

I know this isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of brains, but I personally adored this show and found it to be exactly what I needed on a Saturday night. Jabba no doubt would let Salacious live to jest another day. At the very least, if you’re a sci-fi inclined, video gaming, zombie film-loving, comic book aficionado and/or identify as a card-carrying geek, I feel confident you will find this time even better spent than a LAN party. No cheats and no codes, level up and assemble to the Pear! Geeks Vs. Zombies scores 4 ½ jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a silly (and let’s face it, empirically informative) romp, ripe with clever phrasing, pleasing performances  and  topical/contemporary humor. Geeks Vs. Zombies play through December 18th at the Pear Theatre in Mountain View.

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REVIEW – Mary Poppins – Hillbarn Theatre

When it was announced that Hillbarn Theatre would produce Mary Poppins, I must admit I flinched a bit. It’s a pretty iconic entity and it traditionally requires significant budget and space to pull off a relatively complex production. Additionally, you have a film (not to mention Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke) to compete with in terms of overall expectations. It’s a huge risk (for which I always support a company for taking) and one I looked forward to seeing. While the theater has succeeded in some large, spectacular shows in the past, this endeavor for me posed too many obstacles to buy into fully.

With a few exceptions, the talent in this production was up to the task. Overall, clearly very well cast. Our Mary Poppins looks, acts and sounds the part to a tee/tea! Our children, Jane and Michael Banks steal the show with their comfort in and commitment to their characters. Mrs. Banks had substance and wit and vocally satisfies. Mr. Banks wasn’t maybe I strict and rigid as I’d expect (which made his arch a tad weaker) but I enjoyed 2nd act Mr. Banks a lot. I wanted more charm and mystery in Bert, but he handled the fun and challenging choreography well and his Bank Chairman was enjoyable. Katie Nanna and Robertson provided some sweet comic timing and slapstick as did a stellar dog puppet that graced the stage multiple times. Mrs. Andrews possesses the most formidable set of pipes on the stage and the rest of the ensemble was solid all around.

Now that we’ve had our spoonful of sugar, let’s address the medicine in the room. Flight. I imagine OSHA, our litigious society and the like have quite ruined flying for audiences and theater companies on any kind of a budget. Surely though, there must have been another way to achieve Mary and Bert’s flight in a way that was less … ridiculous. It took longer to hook and unhook Bert and Mary on stage than I think they actually spent flying. The rigging was loud and visible. It wasn’t a case of pretend you didn’t see the wires, it was awkward and distracting. The hooks for the rigging disrupted the otherwise lovely costuming in many occasions and in the end the bang was more of a wimper with regard to that particular effect. If Mary and Bert had to fly (and I suppose many would say it would have been a bigger letdown had they not) I think it would have behooved the production to make different choices. Employ illusionists, magicians, engineers, imagineers, think outside that box however you have to, but I emplore the theater world to solve this problem for productions in seasons to come. Personally, I’d have much preferred to see the theater make fun of the fact that it had some flight limitations by using puppets (shadow or otherwise) and a clothesline over the approach they took. The alternative low tech solution might be cheesy, but at least they would be intentionally so. While maybe it didn’t bother the children in the audience, I just couldn’t “suspend” my belief when it came to the suspension.

Aside from flight, the biggest challenges for me with this show came down to matters of balance. The orchestra (while I fully appreciate their quality of playing) was far too loud from where I was and mics seemed to complicate matters for most cast members. Indeed, the actors seemed to struggle to hear themselves and each other over the volume in numerous places and tempos even went astray at time.

Additionally, balance (or lack thereof) impacted how sets were used in this unique theater space. While it never ceases to amaze me how entire sets can appear out of nowhere at this theater, there were many short scenes and long scene changes. The problem wasn’t in the quality of the sets (they were fun and functional), but the interruption in flow. While perhaps a novelty at first, the elaborate changes grew cumbersome and dragged on before the end of the first act.

While the spirit of the Mary Poppins story is whole-heartedly infused and the talent mostly present, I left feeling the choices (and maybe this particular show, full stop) were just too big an undertaking for this theater at this time. In a case of one step forward, two step back, it just had too many things that detracted from the things that were done well.  While I was hoping for a more magical evening, even if it meant stripping down some of the technical tricks to fit the space, the result is a slightly less supercalifragalistic 3 out of 5 jewels in review tiara for what ultimately felt like a more amateur production in many ways than Hillbarn is known for. Mary Poppins plays through December 18th at the Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City.

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