Review: ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ has powerhouse vocals, timely resonance

Quasimodo (Alex Rodriguez) and Esmerelda (Alysia Beltran) in Bay Area Musicals' 'Hunchback of Notre Dame.' Photo by Ben Krantz

ONSTAGE When Quasimodo (Alex Rodriguez) and Esmeralda (Alysia Noelle Beltran) sit perched on a railing in the bell tower of Notre Dame looking down on Paris and sing “Top of the World” you can almost believe that this spirited pair will find true happiness someday in the City of Light. 

Their singing is so sublime and their friendship so touching that you, along with them, forget about all the obstacles they face in a city that rejects him for his physical deformities, her for being a Gypsy and their possible love because the all-powerful church forbids it. Rodriguez, as the eponymous stooped character Quasimodo, is outstanding. On stage, he dons a hunchback, smears his face, and proceeds to limp through the multi-storied set with an awkward grace. His duets with the vivacious Esmeralda are show-stoppers.

Rodriguez and Beltran are just two of the talented players that bring Victor Hugo’s classic tale “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to life at San Francisco’s Victoria Theater (through August 5). Clay David plays their enemy, the forbidding archdeacon Dom Claude Frollo, with a great command both of evil and thwarted desire. Members of the superb chorus deftly rotate roles as gypsies, soldiers, priests, and gargoyles.

Matthew McCoy, the founder of new nonprofit theater group Bay Area Musicals directed the show that features music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Peter Parnell created the script, based largely on Hugo’s original text, which he combined with the songs Menken and Schwartz wrote for the Disney movie. Though the voices are powerful, and the musical ensemble the Jon Gallo conducts on stage just behind the action is terrific, none of the songs are particularly hummable.

McCoy also designed the set, dominated by the cathedral’s rose window and huge bells that peal to signal the opening of the drama in fifteenth century Paris. It is the Feast of Fools,  the one night when all those considered undesirables and sinners are allowed to come out into the open, dance and revel until dawn. Their joyous dances and debauchery are led by Trouillefou Clopin, the king of the Gypsies, played with great élan by Branden Thomas.

Quasimodo, child of the authoritarian archdeacon’s wayward brother and his Gypsy lover, has been locked in the bell tower since birth. Frollo claims he only wants to protect the young man who because he is physically deformed, deaf and socially isolated, will be taunted and hurt by the people outside.             

Clay David as Frollo. Photo by Ben Krantz

When Quasimodo, egged on by his friends the gargoyles, escapes for the day to join the revelry, Frollo’s predictions come true: The hunchback is harassed and beaten and only saved from a terrible fate by the beautiful Gypsy dancer Esmeralda. She recognizes the kind and gentle soul beneath his distorted figure. He is smitten with her—but he is not the only one. Frollo is tormented by his lust for her. Captain Phoebus (Jack O’Reilly), an officer ordered by Frollo to suppress the Gypsies, also becomes enchanted by Esmeralda. She falls for him too, and, after he is stabbed in a fight, prevails on Quasimodo to offer him sanctuary in the bell tower.

Hugo wrote his timeless novel in 1831, but the story of people scapegoated for their ethnicity, marginalized for their poverty, and deemed “illegal” by narrow-minded authorities is sadly resonant today. As director McCoy says, “In a time when we are inundated with news that speaks of cruel, racial judgment and hateful conduct, I am so humbled to be presenting a story that teaches compassion, empathy, love and forgiveness. I feel certain that Hunchback is the right show, right now.” Seeing the play at the Victoria Theater in the heart of the Mission District truly underscores this point.

Hugo railed against the injustices of his time and was not afraid to name the villains – including the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, the monarchy and the military. 

Yet, despite the world that has conspired against them, Esmeralda and Quasimodo still sing with all their heart about the “Someday,” when “life will be fairer, need will be rarer and greed will not pay.”  Why their aspirations may not fulfilled is something that Hugo—and this marvelous production—force us to reckon with.

Through August 5
Various times, $40+
Victoria Theatre, SF. 
Tickets and more info here

An Asian American twist on the bourgeoisie, white wine included

The Donnelly Family in 'Two Mile Hollow.' Photo by Annie Wang

ONSTAGE A couple years ago Leah Nanako Winkler and her colleagues at Youngblood, a collective of playwrights under 30, were looking at the season for the Manhattan Theatre Club and they noticed the plays were similar in a familiar way.

“My friend said, ‘Oh my God, it’s white people by the water,’” Winkler said.

Winkler decided to try and write one of these plays, where rich families meet in their houses by the water and spill their troubles over white wine. The characters—the manic depressive brother, the imperious mother, the supposedly-plain-but-not-really sister and a maid or assistant who gets no character development at all—came easily to Winkler. They were so much a part of the zeitgeist that the first day she worked on it she wrote more than 40 pages about the Donnellys, a dysfunctional, Caucasian family whose son, a famous actors, brings his assistant home on a visit. 

“I knew all the characters—they’re archetypes at this point, and they’re kind of presented to us as normal people gone crazy,” she said. “They’re rich and white and their problems are not necessarily relatable.”

Winkler’s play, Two Mile Hollow, is playing at the Potrero Stage until July 15. Winkler made a big change to it since she first wrote it: Now all the members of the white family are played by actors of color, in what she describes as sort of a “mean ‘Hamilton.’”

Dramas about rich, white families are still very popular in New York, Winkler says. She had seen how lack of roles affected Asian American actors, and she didn’t want to be part of shutting them out.

“My Asian actor friends all go in and they’re all competing for one role,” she said. “It’s a travesty, and it doesn’t let actors do anything different. I didn’t want to perpetuate that.” 

In Two Mile Hollow, the characters do it all. They drink white wine, of course—and Scotch. They eat coq au vin and cake. They argue over who gets their dead father’s motorcycle. They break into song and a dance. They mispronounce words. They regret how the service at Jean Georges has slipped. They discuss gluten allergies. They have ideas for a Web series. They throw quotes from Tennessee Williams and Nathaniel Hawthorne at one another. 

The Donnellys at dinner in ‘Two Mile Hollow.’ Photo by Annie Wang

Winkler wanted to give Asian actors a chance to be funny and physical and not just the quirky sidekick. She credits Ferocious Lotus theater company founder and director Lily Tung Crystal with the success of the performances, which drew big laughs on opening night. 

“I wanted to do a few things,” Winkler said. “Highlight under representation and toss up this tired narrative and at the same time have fun. Lily did an incredible of of grounding the performances.”

Winkler’s family moved from Japan to Kentucky when she was a kid. She got into theater in high school when she was thrown off the basketball team and went to a drama class with a friend to fulfill an elective requirement. Her teachers told the students theater was a place to try unsafe things. It made a huge impact on her, Winkler said. 

“I went from this aimless kid who wasn’t doing so well in school to someone who was passionate about something,” she said. “I don’t think I would have gotten out of Kentucky and had a career if it wasn’t for that.”

Winkler, whose plays include Kentucky, God Said This, and the upcoming Hot Asian Doctor Husband, went to Japanese class when she was in grade school. The teacher didn’t expect much of her because she was mixed, Winkler says, but when she assigned the class a personal essay, the teacher told her mother what a good writer she was. Writing became Winkler’s favorite thing to do. 

She decided to completely dedicate herself to that a couple years ago. She quit the full-time job as a personal assistant she’d had for years when a play of hers got to Off Broadway, so she could go to the daytime rehearsals. She had to give up her apartment and couch surf, but after trying for so many years to write plays, she wanted to give everything to it. When she was down to about $300 in her checking account, she started getting recognition, including a Mark O’Donnell Prize, a Jerome Fellowship at the Lark, and recently, the Yale Drama Series Prize.  

“It changed everything,” she said about the awards. “The only dream I ever had was to write for a living, and I thought as long as I can live extremely minimally, I can do it with full force. But I didn’t think it was actually going to work out.”

Through July 15

Potrero Stage, San Francisco
Tickets and more info here

The sheer audacity of ‘Angels in America’

Francesca Faridany (The Angel) and Randy Harrison (Prior Walter) in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of 'Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika.' Photo by Kevin Berne

ONSTAGE “Why is Angels in America still the most prominent story being told about AIDS?” asked a wonderfully provocative essay about the epic early ’90s play by Tony Kushner, as a critically lauded revival was being mounted on Broadway—and one was preparing to launch here, at the Berkeley Rep (through July 22).  

The essay delves into the racial politics—or rather lack of them—when it comes to the play’s two black characters, nurse Belize and Mr. Lies, and also lays out the number of good plays addressing AIDS that haven’t been similarly burned into our consciousness (unlike movies, which have given us constant community conversation fodder from the sappy Philadelphia to last year’s sublime BPM).  

I couldn’t help think about that essay as I strapped myself in at the Rep for the seven-and-a-half hour marathon of the play’s two parts: “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika.” (The length is really just a blip in our binge-watching era.) Despite its New York City setting and famous inaugural Broadway run in 1993, much of Angels was written just north of San Francisco, in the gay vacation stronghold of the Russian River area, and was commissioned by SF’s Eureka Theatre co-artistic directors Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone. It played here for a trial run, after debuting in LA and before moving on to Broadway. 

Benjamin T. Ismail (Louis Ironson) and Randy Harrison (Prior Walter) in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of ‘Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

Taccone is directing this revival, and the play itself turns out to be a love letter to the beauty and ideal of San Francisco, which stands in for heaven (although full of apocalyptic inequality, prophetically enough). So this return of Angels seems like a reckoning on home turf: How much relevance does this 25-year-old “Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” as the subtitle puts it, hold in an age when diversity, intersectionality, and social realism, at least thematically, are prized?  

Well, for one, holy hell: The political issues of the 1980s that envelope the characters in this brilliant production, from religious bigotry and conservative bullying to overmedication for mental illness and, yes, racial condescension, are just as pertinent and searing today—right down to the inclusion as a major player of Roy Cohn, aka Donald Trump’s lawyer-mentor (fiercely played here by Stephen Spinella, who originally played main character Prior Walter in the play’s Broadway debut). If anything the play is less a time capsule than a ripped-from-the-headlines episode of America: SVU

Aided by Taccone’s breathless yet sensitive direction, the heroic cast of eight turns this sprawling work—which follows a handful of human characters plus one particular angel through the cruisey bushes of Central Park and gilded offices of Washington to the North/South Pole and the afterlife itself—into a enthralling ensemble piece that whisks by, aided by an eye-popping, no-expenses-spared production utilizing moving platforms and lovely digital flourishes. (It also remains resolutely clunky when the script calls for it: Kushner’s divine machinations are rooted both in vaudevillian charm and doubts about technology. There’s good reason the angel struggles hilariously with her onstage flying contraption.)

Along the way, we plumb the depths of human betrayal and heights of ecstatic deception: a hyper-sensitive gay Jewish intellectual, Louis (Benjamin T. Ismael, nailing the type) leaves his HIV-positive lover, the Mayflower-descended visionary Prior Walter (a touching Randy Harrison) when he gets sick. Meanwhile, a Mormon housewife, Harper (Amaty Pitt, vibrant), is over-medicating herself in an attempt to overlook vital truths about her career-climbing husband (Danny Binstock, hunky). Slithery Reagan operative Roy Cohn, desperately hiding his AIDS diagnosis from the world, starts seeing the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who he helped electrocute for treason decades ago—but don’t think that means a change of monstrous heart is in order. 

Caldwell Tidicue (Mr. Lies) and Bethany Jillard (Harper Pitt) in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of ‘Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

Throw into all this is a swath of gorgeously poetic writing, political outbursts, bitingly humorous interventions from a heavenly Empyrean in disarray, Soviet speeches, Hebrew prayers, nuclear meltdowns, a goofy twist on “A Christmas Carol,” and a nosy mom from Utah, and it’s all a sublime rollercoaster through America’s psyche, informed equally by rage, wonder, and theatrical chutzpah. Nothing is impossible in this play: psychic connection (characters appear in each others’ dreams/hallucinations), astral projection, jolting glossolalia, bold prophecy, absurd reversals, achingly tender mercies, angelic orgasms, and even, most unspeakable of all at the time the play was written, surviving AIDS. In Angels in America, the main plot device is the sheer audacity of Kushner’s boundary-erasing imagination.      

And yes, despite Kushner’s continued tinkering throughout the years, both the surreal travel guide Mr. Lies and the pivotal character of Belize, the no-nonsense nurse who saves the day, still technically fall under the category of Magical Negro, allotted no real trajectory or backstory, a device for the other characters to grow through. (In fact, as I was noticing that the only real detail of Belize’s history in the play is that he was Prior’s ex-boyfriend, I realized how much Kushner left out of the play, including the hovering specter of how almost all of the characters were surely infected with HIV.)

I will say that the fact that the characters are played by the incredible Caldwell Tidicue, aka Bob the Drag Queen (squee!)—known to many from RuPaul’s Drag Race, but long a formidable force on the NYC scene—brings both believable humanity to Belize and inside-knowledge surreality to Mr. Lies. (You can’t be a drag queen and not know how to to work a fabulous outfit and outsize personality.) Belize did not seem more caricature than person; he seemed fully aware of, and enervated by, the way society/this play shoved him into a few acceptable, stereotypical roles.

One scene in particular plays so sharp nowadays: At a coffeeshop meeting, Louis drones on endlessly and neurotically (he too is a stereotype) to Belize about current politics, talking both over and for Belize. Tidicue’s face expertly telegraphs the frustration and fatigue a black person can feel in such liberal “conversations,” and Belize’s ultimate refusal to be spoken for felt profound, even as, of course, it ultimately fell on him to educate someone on the limits of their experience.

Caldwell Tidicue (Belize) and Stephen Spinella (Roy Cohn) in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s production of ‘Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

When Angels in America came out in 1993, I had buried three close friends, been loudly kicked out of my doctor’s office after asking about STD prevention, and was prepping my best friend for the inevitability of both his legs being amputated “due to complications from HIV/AIDS” (a phrase almost talismanic in its thrice-removedness from the horror at hand). I was 23. I was also living in Detroit, cordoned off by geography and economics from the roiling protests of ACT-UP in the big cities, the gritty artistic uprisings in downtown NYC. 

When I heard about the play—because the pre-Internet gay grapevine was in full effect on this one—the idea that an epic, hyper-poetic, quasi-religious manifesto that spoke essential truths about contemporary gay life (including the racism) could break records and score multiple Tonys was almost alarming. Are you kidding? It wasn’t until I moved to San Francisco that I got my hands on a copy of the script. At first I, like many of my friends, was upset that there wasn’t more gay stuff in it. In an era of so much silencing about our plight and rights, we wanted this historical work to be ours and ours alone. 

Seeing the play 25 years later, I realize that this was a necessary reaction for the time, but also a demand that would have tethered the universal reach of this work to the earthly realm of narrow sociological disquisition. (Mush like the fate that befell Boys in the Band, also now on Broadway.) Kushner’s most audacious trick was to centralize one of the rawest moments of gay existence in a timeless story of heaven, hell, and all that lies between.   

Through July 22
Berkeley Rep
Tickets and more info here. 

Comedian Gina Yashere rides the ‘up’ elevator to stardom

Gina Yashere. Photo by David Burgoyne

ONSTAGE Growing up in London, Gina Yashere never considered a career in comedy. She came from an academic family, and her mother had specific careers in mind for her kids: doctor, lawyer, or engineer. So Yashere became an engineer, building elevators for Otis, at London’s Canary Wharf tower. After a few years, she took the summer off and was volunteering for different charities. One was doing a fundraiser, looking for singers and poets and other performers. 

“I wrote what I thought was a play for my friends and me,” she said. “It turned out it was comedy. And the reason I knew it was comedy was people pissed themselves laughing.”

Yashere decided to take six months to try comedy before going back to a full time job. She never returned. After becoming a standup and TV star in the UK, she came to the United States to slay on Last Comic Standing, where she made it to the final 10. She appeared on Def Comedy Jam, The Tonight Show, Comedy Central, and now she’s the British Correspondent on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

One person wasn’t thrilled about Yashere’s career path at first—her mom. 

“She was not happy,” Yashere said. “She said, ‘You’re a leaving engineering to be a clown?’ Then I got on TV and everything changed.”

Yashere’s mom even goes to some of her shows now, such as the one above, at the Apollo. And Yashere travels all over the world, selling out 2000 seat auditoriums. On July 8, she’ll be performing at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley with Shea Suga and Karinda Dobbins. 

Local comedian Lisa Geduldig is producing the show and she’ll be the MC. She’s known Yashere since bringing her out her for the 10th Anniversary of Funny Girlz: A Smorgasbord of Women Comedians in 2008. Geduldig also co-produced Yashere’s Laughing to America at San Francisco’s Brava Theater in 2012.

“She has an amazing stage presence and she tells it like it is. I feel like she could do hours and hours of comedy,” Geduldig said. “She does this routine about health care and how she could get in an accident and have her leg severed and she could buy two first class tickets—one for her and one for her leg—and fly to England to have her leg reattached and it would be cheaper. The audience really laughed. She’s so relatable. She’s not staid, and she doesn’t do the usual stuff.”

In her act, she just talks about her life, Yashere says. She’s always done that, she says, but over the years, she’s gotten more comfortable with it.  

“I’m pretty much a better version of myself,” she said. “I was always original, but now I have more freedom. Before I wasn’t that personal, and it was like ‘Where can I get the laugh and I need jokes,’ but now it’s all from a place of truth.”

Coming to the United States was a dream of Yashere’s as a little girl, and now she loves living in Brooklyn and the energy of New York with its outdoor music, museums and culture. The move has been great for her career, she says. 

“If you do well in America, you do well all over the world whether you’re a singer, actor, or comedian,” she said. “In England, I was quite well known, but coming here has taken my cache up a level.”

It certainly hasn’t hurt her cache being on the Daily Show. It was a job she didn’t need to audition for.

“Being a comedian takes me all over the world, so I’ve known Trevor for years,” she said. “We bump into each other in Australia and South Africa. When I moved to New York, we were chatting and he said they were looking for new correspondents, so he texted me to come on the show and cover the British stuff.”

She says she looks forward to the show at Freight & Salvage.

“I love performing in Northern California—the audience is a bit smarter and interested in the world at large. That’s why I shot my stand up special at Brava,” she said. “In LA, the audience wants to be in TV or movies themselves, and they’re looking for the best camera angle.”

July 8, 7pm
Freight and Salvage, Berkeley
Tickets and more info here 

Seeing Red: SF Mime Troupe is making it a socialist summer

Members of the Mime Troupe's new 'Seeing Red' go back to the (socialist) future.

ONSTAGE As someone who grew up watching San Francisco Mime Troupe productions, I can tell you that there is a right and true way to view them. This basic checklist includes a multi-generational group of friends, a variety of beverages, picnic blanket, sunshine (not too much; partial clouds are fine as long as temps hover around Bay Area medians), a forgiving nature when it comes to cornball humor, and a willingness to temporarily exchange outrage over the year’s political atrocities for laughter. You may forgive yourself for the break away from Supreme Court headlines on your computer screen, traded in for the free, en plein air park viewing experience has been designed to re-charge your capacity to resist.

Hence the silliness. “Realism is anti-revolutionary,” explains Rotimi Agbabiaka, who co-wrote the script with troupe veteran Joan Holden for Seeing Red, this year’s Mime Troupe summer show offering that opens its run on July 4th at Dolores Park. “Realism really enforces the status quo.”

But the Mime Troupe plays have never been in danger of being too real. Their power lies in ridiculous characters, unlikely plot twists, and of course, the cast’s periodic bursts into song. In a Skype interview in late June with 48 Hills, Agbabiaka and Holden spoke about where Seeing Red found the potential for revving audiences’s solidarity motors (the 1912 US socialism heyday) and the ups and downs of locating one’s art in an institution with a 59-year legacy of setting dissent to musical theater. The conversation that emerged gives one a good idea of what its like to carry the weight of a heavy creative legacy.

Given the rough-hewn atrocities of the Trump era, it may be no surprise that the collective chose time travel as Seeing Red’s fantastic liberty. The plot revolves around a Trump voter who is spirited back in time to a moment in US history when socialism was hitting hard. Eugene Debbs won seven percent of the votes for president. The Wobblies were igniting strikes across the country. The focus on the proactive reaction to familiar economic inequalities was chosen to shore up audiences’ spirits and get them thinking outside the two party system for political answers.

They had a completely grand and ambitious vision for society, for fundamental change,” says Agbabiaka of the socialists of the era. “They wanted to make a society that’s run for the benefit of regular people who are the ones who are working their asses off to build this thing.”

Holden and Agbabiaka both found their first professional job in theater at the Mime Troupe, separated by a period of 53 years. Holden was first recruited as a scriptwriter back in 1967, when the troupe was R.G. Davis’ company rather than the collective it is today. She was the group’s resident scribe until 2000, when she set out as a freelancer, at one point adapting Barbara Ehrenreich’s influential book Nickel and Dimed for the stage.

Agbabiaka linked up in 2010 when he was cast in a play, skipping his MFA graduation ceremony to make the drive to Mime Troupe headquarters. He has called San Francisco home ever since. “The Mime Troupe was what brought me to San Francisco, and what in many ways has kept me here,” Agbabiaka says. This is his first stab at writing a Mime Troupe production, though he scripted a successful, autobiographical solo show in 2016. 

For Seeing Red, Holden and Agbabiaka went through an extensive research process, reading up on both history and modern day Trump voter concerns (the protagonist of Seeing Red voted for The Donald, though by the time she joins us, she is feeling uneasy about her pick.) The thought of so much reflecting on the past for present-day inspiration led me to asking the two about their own reality working in a radical arts organization in a San Francisco that perhaps, has seen more progressive times. Was this time travel for clarity a meta reference? Were there drawbacks to operating within such a legacy organization?

Holden responded by mentioning audience expectations, hardened over time — possible roadblocks in the troupe’s ability to bring fresh flavors to the stage. The antidote she’s found has been confidence in her own artistic strengths. “You’ve got to trust that and nothing else. You can’t let your critical judgement and your fears guide — that’s a conservative force. You have to trust your imagination.”

But the up side to working within the historic theater group is pronounced. Superlative cast and crew members are one plus, says Agbabiaka. Holden gets straight to certain material realities in her explanation of the perks of being a Mime. “Owning the means of production,” she says. “We bought this building with three city lots in the Mission for $55,000. You don’t get to do that anymore. I often think that the building is salvation.”

The company is well aware of its responsibilities to do its own legacy proud. In Seeing Red, the troupe want to raise the urgency of solidarity, the necessity of living the revolution through joy, the arts, through doing the things that keep us thriving. “We’re against Trump, we’re against ‘them,’” says Agbabiaka. “Where do we begin to talk about what are we for, what kind of society do we want to live in, what kind of world do we want to live in?”

The answer, for some, this summer will be splayed out on the grass at the — always free! — Mime Troupe shows as Seeing Red travels around the greater Bay Area. Consider it your political duty in trying times. “I’ve always thought comedy was revolutionary,” says Holden. “It is a willingness to free your imagination.”

Opens July 4, 2pm, free
Dolores Park, SF.
Continues through September 9 around the Bay Area. 
More info here

Hattie McDaniel’s pioneering, tumultuous life—in song

Vickilyn Reynolds as Hattie McDaniel. Photo by Alisa Banks

ONSTAGE What most people know about Hattie McDaniel is that she was the first African American woman to win an Oscar, for her outstanding performance as Mammy in “Gone With the Wind.”

What most people don’t know is that because the 1939 Oscars were held in the segregated Ambassador Hotel, she was seated at a table at the back of the room, near the kitchen. It took a special request from producer David O. Selznick to allow McDaniel to sit at his table up front where she was able to join her co-stars Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable.

This, and many other lesser-known facts about the life of Hattie McDaniel, were revealed with great humor, pizzazz, and poignancy by Vickilynn Reynolds in her one-woman musical show Hattie McDaniel: What I Need You to Know, which just finished up a limited run at Southside Theater.

With an original score, enhanced with a couple of numbers by W.C. Handy (“St. Louis Blues”) and Charlie Chaplin (“Smile”), Reynolds became McDaniel in an engaging performance. The youngest daughter of former slaves, she was the 13th child in a family that excelled at music and theater. On her way to stardom, she had plenty of hard knocks (the early deaths both of her brother Otis, who encouraged her to sing and dance, and her beloved first husband; several husbands who were abusive or unfaithful; petty jealousies from other performers) and, always, the vicious color line that barred her from many stages despite her astonishing artistry.

Reynolds’ vocal range is nothing short of amazing—delivering with equal flair tender ballads, sultry jazz and humorous songs. Her “Dis, Dat, Deez, Dem, Dey” is a witty and clear-eyed look at the white entertainment industry’s arrogant expectations of black performers. And her gospel rendition of “Father Divine,” complete with rhythmic tambourine accompaniment, makes you want to get up and dance—or praise the Lord.

The script is frank about those who helped and hurt McDaniel along the way. Her supporters included Paul Robeson, Clark Gable and Bing Crosby. She credits writer Sherwood Schwartz with hiring her as the first African American woman to star in a network radio show, Beulah. The part had previously been played by a white man!

Reynolds also revealed those who tried to bring her down, including Walter White, then president of the NAACP, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which hounded her along with other prominent black performers.

McDaniel was determined to play all her roles—even the confining ones of maids and servants—with dignity and compassion. As she stated in her Oscar acceptance speech, she had a profound desire to be a credit both to “her race and to the motion picture industry.”

Reynolds was thrilling to watch as she fluidly moves from exuberance to melancholy. The stage set by Byron Nora, who also directed the show, also transports you from a homey living room to a flashy nightclub with a minimum of fuss, and costumes by Mylette Nora do the same.

Though the production had only a weekend run at San Francisco’s Southside Theater, given the excellence of the performance—especially Reynolds’ powerful and elegant singing—hopefully, it will return. Try to catch it when it does.

Blasting off from the Catskills in ACT’s ‘A Walk on the Moon’

Alison (Brigid O’Brien) and Ross (Nick Sacks) in ACT's 'Walk on the Moon.' Photo by Alessandra Mello

ONSTAGE There should be more tummlers 

A Walk on the Moon (at ACT through July 1), brings you right into the world of Jewish summer vacationers in the Catskills—where overworked husbands toil in the city all week, clocking their time on Route 17; women play mah-jongg and fantasize about life without men; and teenagers chafe at having to do the same old thing, especially when Woodstock is happening right next door.

Still, what really characterized the Catskills were the tummlers—those guys with the corny, slightly off-color jokes who knew everyone and kept the activities going. In this show, there’s only one (Vincent Randazzo, who also plays the larger role of Irv, one of the weekend husbands) and he makes just a brief appearance.

But, genug, enough already, there’s plenty to keep this show going, especially the gorgeous voices of the lead singers—Katie Brayben, Jonah Platt, and Brigid O’Brien—and all the singers, in fact.

This is the world premiere of A Walk on the Moon, a musical adapted by Pamela Gray, the screenwriter of the 1999 movie of the same name, and directed by Tony Award-nominee Sheryl Kaller.

It’s a good choice of movie to be transformed into musical. Composer Paul Scott Goodman (Bright Lights, Big City) and choreographer Josh Prince (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) skillfully use music to highlight the gaping generation gap at the core of the story.  The 30-something parents dance swing and ballroom, while the teens thrill to rock-and-roll.  Teenage guitarist Ross (Nick Sacks) even creates his own folksy protest songs, leading Alison (the bright, full-throated Brigid O’Brien) to fall head over heels for him in her first crush.

Watching the moon landing live on TV in the Catskills in ‘A Walk on the Moon.’ Photo by Alessandra Mello

A Walk on the Moon is set in 1969, against the backdrop of the war in Vietnam, the women’s liberation movement, and a country still reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy a year earlier.  Amidst the turmoil, everyone seems to come together—at least in front of their television sets—to celebrate Neil Armstrong’s “one giant leap for mankind.” Even at Dr. Fogler’s Bungalow Colony, where the generations are fiercely at odds.

Scenic designer Donyale Werle evokes the Catskill resort with just the right combination of shabby and haimish. The tiny cabins with the rollaway cot in the kitchen and the webbed lawn chairs stacked on the front porch contrast perfectly with the abundant greenery and starry, starry night. The dazzling lighting design by Robert Wierzel also does tricks with contrast: the colors of the patriotic Fourth of July fireworks are transformed into a psychedelic light show at Woodstock—and both pale in comparison to the luminescent moonshine and twinkling stars.

The story follows Pearl (Katie Brayben) and her rebellious teenage daughter Alison who are locked in conflict over, well, everything. Alison bristles at being confined in the traditional family resort, proclaiming, “It’s the summer of ‘69 out there, it’s the summer of ’59 in here.”

(Molly Hager), Rhoda (Monique Hafen), Eleanor (Ariela Morgenstern), and Pearl (Katie Brayben) get together for an afternoon of mah-jongg in ‘A Walk on the Moon.’ Photo by Alessandra Mello

Pearl tries to keep up appearances, dolling up for the weekend when her husband Marty (Jonah Platt) will arrive, fixing tuna lunches for her son Danny (Elijah Cooper) and trying to persuade Alison to confide in her.

Unbeknownst to those around her, including her family and her close women friends, Pearl also feels confined. Inspired by the moon landing, she secretly desires to explore and discover something new, perhaps her own inner self. She deeply regrets “what might have been” had she not become pregnant as a teenager and given up her dreams of being a reporter. Her longings transform into dangerous reality when she falls for Walker Jerome (Zak Resnick), the traveling salesman with his van full of cheap blouses and seductive tie-dye T-shirts.

To her daily chores, she adds hiding her trysts with the Blouse Man from her mother-in-law Lillian (Kerry O’Malley).

Brayben (who won an Olivier Award as best actress in a musical for her role in Beautiful) has a stunning voice that seems to shimmer in the moonlight when she sings of breaking out of her conventional role as wife and mother.

Several of the minor characters also add zest and talent to the cast. Notable among them is O’Malley, who sees and hears many things that others (especially Pearl) would like to keep hidden. She tells the future by reading tea leaves and Tarot cards, and her warm relationship with her grandchildren Alison and Danny provides respite from the family conflicts. O’Malley’s solo is particularly moving when she reveals her own lost dreams.

Cooper plays Danny with little brother perfection, down to being thrilled by a frog in a shoebox and the rare opportunity to sing “The Name Game” about Chuck. And Nina Kissinger, as Myra, Alison’s Orthodox friend who must wear long sleeves and can’t even think about kissing a boy, is especially delightful when she sheds her restrictions and sneaks off with Alison and Ross to Woodstock.  Afterwards, she tells Alison that she’s not allowed to talk to her ever again—or until she’s married or dies, whichever comes first.

The script is sprinkled with familiar Yiddishisms: Bobbe (grandmother) and Tateleh (pet name for a little child), knishes, and plenty of “shtups,” capped off with Pearl singing a hilarious bluesy version of “I got the I-Shtupped-the-Blouse-Man Blues!” But, unfortunately, the Yiddishkeit underscores the major flaw in this production: inconsistency of the accents. 

Like the rye bread ad says, you don’t have to be Jewish to have a Brooklyn accent. But anyone who’s spent time on the East Coast will wince at the lack of authentic accents, especially when Pearl proclaims (without one), “And I live in Flatbush!” (The accents of several of the ensemble, especially O’Malley’s, were spot on.) It may be tolerable for a San Francisco theater audience, but the show would benefit from a little more dialect training if this play is headed to Broadway.  

A few more appearances by the tummler might also help do the trick.

Through July 1
Tickets and more info here

Swimming through teen girls’ intense friendship in ‘Dry Land’

Grace Ng plays Esther in Shotgun Players' 'Dry Land.' Photo by Ben Krantz Studio

ONSTAGE Grace Ng played Wilhelm, the lead, in the Shotgun Player’s recent production of The Black Rider. So when the theater held auditions for its current play, Dry Land (through June 23), she decided to try out even though she had scheduling conflicts: her brothers were both graduating on the East Coast, one with a PhD from Harvard and the other from medical school. (Ng herself was considering going to grad school for theater, and wanted to take a break before starting.)

After auditioning, she got a call that night to tell her she got the part. Patrick Dooley, Shotgun’s artistic director, called the next day to see if she could work out the conflicts in her schedule.

“He said, ‘We want you for Ester,’” Ng said. “I said yes, and I totally don’t regret it.”

Dry Land is set almost entirely in a girls’ locker room in suburban Florida. Ester and Amy (played by Martha Brigham) are teammates on a swim team. Ester is hoping for a college scholarship and Amy wants to get through an unwanted pregnancy. Ruby Rae Spiegel wrote the play when she was 21 and a student at Yale.

Dry Land has gotten a lot of attention, with the New York Times describing it as “tender, caustic, funny, and harrowing often all at the same time” and Berkeleyside calling the Shotgun production “honest, meaningful, and intense.”

In the play, Amy enlists Ester’s help in trying to terminate her pregnancy in ways she read about online. “Punch me” are the first words spoken, by Amy asking Ester to punch her in the stomach. The intensity doesn’t let up from there. 

Ng said when she first read the script, it felt very fast-paced.

“It was kind of surreal, but the dialogue felt very real,” she said. “It’s like a whole high school relationship packed into an hour and thirty minutes.”

Ng says she likes playing Ester, the serious, lonely swimmer looking for a scholarship and wanting some attention and validation from Amy.

Martha Brigham as Amy and Grace Ng as Ester in ‘Dry Land.’ Photo by Ben Krantz Studio

“There’s a lot I really enjoy, sharing the complexities of womanhood and how much is expressed without being spoken,” she said. “I think about the relationships we went through in high school, and how much harder it was to deal with not being able to express ourselves as we do now as adults. It’s still hard now.”

Ng says both the best and most difficult thing about doing the play is how demanding it is.

“I like how much energy and focus it requires of me—it takes all of me,” she said. “You have to be in a good headspace before the play. It begins with a boom, and you have to carry that from start to finish. You’re establishing a high pace from the very beginning.”

The cast members have spent a lot of time discussing what happens in the play, particularly a harrowing scene that involves blood and suffering.

Martha Brigham as Amy and Grace Ng as Ester in ‘Dry Land.’ Photo by Ben Krantz Studio

“It’s so emotional every night, but we’ve had so much time to unpack it with the table work and the rehearsal,” Ng said. “We’ve had a month and a half of talking about it.”

Younger people seem to appreciate the play, Ng said.

“At an audience preview a teenage boy got up and gave a standing ovation,” she said. “He was just clapping really loudly. I’m glad we can share stories with teenagers that are so closely resonating with them.”

The director of the play, Ariel Craft, says she loves working on a show that broadens the idea of female-driven stories.

“This is a story about two women’s journey to self discovery that really complicates how we think about women,” she said. “It includes cruelty and violence, which are a part of any human’s experience, but usually not portrayed as part of women’s experience. It thrills me to pieces to get to do this show.”

Through June 23
Shotgun Players, Berkeley
Tickets and more info here

Stephen Spinella: Playing Trump and Reagan’s lawyer in ‘Angels in America’

Stephen Spinella as Roy Cohn in 'Angels in America.' Photo by Kevin Berne

ONSTAGE Twenty-five years ago, Stephen Spinella won two Tonys playing main character Prior Walter in the Broadway debut of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.  In the iconic, two-part, seven-hour play, which took on Mormonism, Reaganism, AIDS and climate change, Spinella played Prior. His boyfriend, Louis, leaves him when he shows advanced symptoms of AIDS, and Prior becomes a sort of unwilling prophet, visited by an angel. 

Spinella’s grad school friend, playwright Tony Kushner, wrote the role for him, and the actor says he admires Prior, who he calls sharp and smart and funny. For the revival of the play at Berkeley Repertory Theatre (through July 22, directed by Tony Taccone, who first commissioned the play at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre), Kushner called Spinella to ask him to be in the Tony and Pulitzer-winning play again. This time, however, it was in a much less lovable role: that of real life lawyer Roy Cohn, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel and a mentor to Donald Trump. Spinella didn’t really want to take the role at first—partly because of other commitments in New York where he lives with his husband and dog, and partly because he wasn’t sure if he could pull off playing the other character in Angels in America who gets AIDS, and dies soon after. 

“I didn’t think I could do the dialect it requires and I had Ron’s [Leibman, who played the role on Broadway with Spinella in 1994] performance in my head so much. And there’s so much anger, which is not my automatic go-to place,” said Spinella, sitting in the courtyard of the Berkeley Rep. “I hate acting in hospital beds. I hate being behind that desk in the beginning of the play.”

But finally Spinella started to see a way into the role. 

“With Roy, it’s a straight line to death and it became important for me to represent the dismantling that so many people went through, the bodies completely coming apart because of the disease,” he said. “To show the horror of that without making it a horror show.”

In the play, Roy instructs his doctor to say he’s dying of liver cancer. He mentors a younger lawyer, Joe, a closeted Mormon Republican. Joe is married to Harper, who takes handfuls of Valium. She and Prior show up in each others’ fantasies/ hallucinations. (Harper: “I’m a Mormon.” Prior: “I’m a homosexual.” Harper: “Oh. In my church we don’t believe in homosexuals.” Prior: “In my church we don’t believe in Mormons.”)

Spinella says the hardest scene for him to do was at the end of the first part, where Joe tells Roy he can’t take the job in D.C. Roy arranged for him, and Roy feels abandoned and heartbroken. Spinella has been reading about Roy, including the book Citizen Cohn by Nicholas Von Hoffman, and he says one thing the author writes about is how sentimental the lawyer was.

“Reagan was at an event, and he mentioned him from the dais, and Roy wept for 45 minutes,” he says. “Incredibly he’s a really sentimental guy. I wanted to do that. There’s a wonderful film called Downfall about Hitler. And one of the things you see about Hitler is how deeply sentimental he is about the German volk. You know, these guys, that sentiment is part of who they are. They need that binary. They’re sentimental about these things because they hate these other things so much.”

When he was first doing Angels in America all those years ago, Spinella said they had no idea how big the play would become, and thought maybe if they were lucky and it did really well, it would transfer to the Public Theater in New York. 

“That was the furthest reaches of our ambition,” he said. “The idea that you would do a two-evening play on Broadway about homosexuals and AIDS and Roy Cohn and Mormons and angels was just preposterous. It was ridiculous—we didn’t even think about it.”

Caldwell Tidicue (Belize) and Stephen Spinella (Roy Cohn) in ‘Angels in America.’ Photo by Kevin Berne

Some of the audience reactions still stick with him, says Spinella.

Like when they were first doing it at the Eureka Theatre and some members of the audience were wildly appreciative, while some seemed to revolt at its length (although they ended up staying for the whole thing). He remembers opening night in Los Angeles where he says it was like the audience “lost their minds” with the applause and screaming at the end going on and on. Then there was a memorable performance in New York during Gay Pride Week, the 25thanniversary of Stonewall, and the Gay Olympics in New York. 

“It was like the harmonic convergence of all gayness in New York City, and we had got to the theater and the line was down the block and around the corner,” he said. “The audience was like 95 percent gay people. In the part when Prior shows Louis the lesion he’s developed, it was the most painful silence I have ever heard in my life. It was devastating.”

With Trump in the White House, some of Cohn’s lines have particular resonance.

“I say in the play, ‘I have helped make presidents,’ Spinella said. “Now it has more meaning.”

Spinella says some of the lines about the Reagan family, for example “Little Orphan Patty” to refer to his daughter, which got huge laughs in the 90s, still gets them from people who remember Reagan. But there’s a reason this play is still relevant all these years later, he says. 

“Tony tells really, really good stories,” he said. “The emotional connection to the play, because of the AIDS crisis has dissipated, it doesn’t carry the weight it did in 1994 when we were doing it on Broadway, but the story is great, and I think people are really responding to the story.”

Through July 22
Berkeley Rep
Tickets and more info here

Heaven’s Gate reverberates in mystical coming-of-age tale ‘Barn Owl’

From 'Barn Owl.' Photo by Robbie Sweeney.

ONSTAGE Playwright and actor Evan Johnson’s drag queen alter ego, Martha T. Lipton the Failed Actress, is one of the most delightfully surreal performers in SF nightlife, leading her audience in nutty yet ultimately deeply touching live acting exercises and vocal rehearsals that always bring the house down.

So it’s exciting to see Johnson produce a full-fledged stage work, Barn Owl (Thu/31-Sat/2 at Counterpulse), that seems to expand on the radical inclusivity (and nuttiness) of his Martha T. Lipton personality—even though he had to withdraw from life in the spotlight to get it written.

Barn Owl centers on the young Harmony, “whose Mother leaves earth on a UFO with 37 other members of Heaven’s Gate. Raised in Northern California by Uncle Al, Harmony works to reframe life’s challenges and transcend their circumstances in an effort to connect with a deeper calling.” The play, featuring an intergenerational cast and some dazzling multimedia effects, aims to blur lines of “gender, rationality, and narrative form to provide a theatrical glimpse into the greatest mysteries of the universe.” 

“I went away to Santa Barbara reconnect with my creative self after nine years in the city—I was just exhausted,” Johnson told me. “I started looking into different modes of performance to refresh what I was doing, and channeling came up—I came across these New Age, enlightened guru-type cult figures, connecting with something cosmic, bigger than them, spreading this ‘message to humanity.’ I thought that would be a fun writing exercise, writing like you’re telling the whole world something important but maybe baffling to most. I gave myself the character Harmony: She was trying to tap into a divine source, and through that process of writing that way, the play grew.

From ‘Barn Owl.’ Photo by Robbie Sweeney

“I also had a lot of mystical, serendipitous things happen while I was writing, one of which was meeting this beautiful barn owl at the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum, at a show called ‘Eyes in the Sky.’ I had just written about a barn owl appearing at the window of this character, so it was an eerie coincidence, because who expects that much barn owl in one’s life? It became representative to me of how following our own line of curiosity can lead us to strange places, and if you let yourself go, cosmic mysteries can come through you.

“The Heaven’s Gate group was such a wild, wacky phenomenon,” Johnson said. “People who believed that dogma, that approach to life, were very interesting to me, especially how they viewed their body as a vehicle—and how they had all these elaborate plans laid out in a very structured manner. It started being a fascination for me, which grew as all these mystical things were happening in my life. When I came back from Santa Barbara, I started teaching improv to seniors, and I found their energy as an ensemble so inspiring to me, I wanted to incorporate some of that in the play. I decided that Harmony was in touch with a group of cosmic elders on the other side of the veil, drawing her to the Mount Shasta energy vortex as a means to heal from trauma.”

OK, that’s a lot! How does the story unfold? “Harmony’s mother leaves to join the group Heaven’s Gate,” Johnson said. “She’s one of the people that lays down her life to cross over and travel the galaxy in a UFO. Of the people who ‘exited’ this way, two of them did not leave video testimonies like the others, which was intriguing to me. I wanted to create a fiction around these people who somehow felt they didn’t need to explain their choice. Mommy in the story is a fictional composite in the story, and gives us a personal entryway into the group.”

What kind of research did Johnson do to tell the Heaven’s Gate story? “I read Benjamin Zeller’s book Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion, which was very insightful. I talked to someone who knew a Heaven’s Gate member. I talked to a UFOlogist and an E.T. liaison who works with galactic energies for a living. I talked to a gentleman who is a commentator on the cable program Ancient Aliens, who advised me on Joseph Campbell archetype stuff, like  the symbology of the owl. I read Aleister Crowley and his dramatic rituals, a lot of sacred alchemical texts. I was reading books that were channeling Pleiadians by Barbara Marciniak, like Bringers of the Dawn….

From ‘Barn Owl.” Photo by Robbie Sweeney

“It was all kind of compounded by the fact that the election results had just come in, the splintering of all these communities, the infighting and polarization of everything. It felt so off the mark—like, what is up with the human race, what are we doing here, what’s not working? It was a fun role to play when I could sit down and start writing and be delivering this kind of lesson that New Age literature was imparting, to be a messenger.”

How does all that work dramatically? “Harmony is a kind of messenger, but there’s real human fear and tragedy that the Heaven’s Gate group is both escaping and in a way propagating, sweeping everything from life under the rug of this New Age vocabulary. There’s a real tension there. If you’re always talking about your higher self, and your higher vibration or consciousness, if you’re only looking to be around others like you, moving to Mount Shasta to be part of a spiritual community…What are you ignoring or avoiding?”

“My collaborator Teddy Hulsker works as a sound and projection designer professionally in theaters throughout the Bay, and I tapped him right away,” Johnson said. “I told him, I’m doing this show about aliens, and multiple realities, dream sequences, metaphysical sequences, cosmic elders in robes… So we’ve really developed the visuals and sonic landscape of the show. And there’s music! Teddy has written some songs and plays guitar, I play a djembe, I have a full on Northern California realness drum circle moment. I’ve been playing the djembe since I was 11, my mom taught African dance since I was about five. I was raised doing samba parades in Humboldt.

“So the real California woo-woo mystique I’m familiar with definitely comes through,” Johnson continued. “Sometimes when I talk to people, I’m like, don’t you know that Mount Shasta is an energy vortex, and that the Lumerians are an advanced civilization that live in the lost crystal city of Telos? Doesn’t everybody know that? But I guess obviously not, and obviously not everyone agrees with that, but there’s lore there. And although I don’t want to say that any one belief system is better than another, I hope the play at least opens up the question of, what do you believe?”

Counterpulse, SF.
Tickets and more info here.