Category Archives: SHN

South Pacific: National Touring Cast

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Very few musicals start in the middle of a love story. A meet-cute is customary with a predictable plot that follows. I loved South Pacific not because it was about another schmaltzy love story, but it was more about a woman’s journey in finding true love.

The song “Bali Hai” is sung to a soldier lonely for a woman’s company, but it’s a calling that stirs in anyone with a dream.

Bali Ha’i may call you,
Any night, any day,
In your heart, you’ll hear it call you:
“Come away…Come away.”

Your own special hopes,
Your own special dreams,
Bloom on the hillside
And shine in the streams.
If you try, you’ll find me

And who doesn’t dream of true love?

The main character, a self-proclaimed “cockeyed-optimist” Nellie Forbush, turns out to be a little less sunny than she says she is. Falling in love with the dashing Emile de Becque, she hardly flinches when he tells her that he’s killed a man when he was young, yet she can’t get over the fact that he has dark-skinned children. It’s an uncomfortable situation where it’s difficult to criticize her brutal honesty, and an audible gasp falls over the audience when she uses the word “colored”. (It’s hard to believe that there’s something that shocks modern audiences.) The story unfolds as she sees that she herself is the obstacle to achieving her own dreams. The story ends when she chooses love perhaps too late, and it’s a love that changes her into a better person.

In my first time ever seeing the show, I saw the wonderful national touring production that breezed through San Francisco last month at the Golden Gate Theater. Director Bartlett Sher presented a production with intelligence and a welcome layer of darkness contrasting the lush over-the-top romanticism inherent in the plot and music. Bari-hunk Rod Gilfry‘s “One Enchanted Evening” was a shining highlight, infusing the familiar song with a fresh and thrilling grandeur and a hefty dose of sex appeal. Carmen Cusack is a pleasant and spunky Nellie Forbush, and Keala Settle is a hilarious Bloody Mary in a portrayal of a gritty survivor in spite of her caricatured role.

Spring Awakening: The National Tour

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So much about this show has been written about before; if you haven’t read anything about this show, don’t let this be your only read on the show before you go see it. Based on a 19th century play by Frank Wedekind that was banned due to its controversial content, this Best Musical of the Year is as everyone describes – high energy, electrifying, edgy, sexy, and moving. These adjectives are relevant to the national touring cast as well, mostly because the cast is a strong one. However, watching it again on tour after having seen it on Broadway reminded me that even though this show can be transporting, it can be equally irritating. The saving grace of this show is that it is very very good at one thing, which lies in its ability to overwhelm and to pull the audience in their whirlwind of emotion. The rockin’ score helps, as does the amazingly visceral choreography by Bill T. Jones. Utilizing modern dance for a Broadway show can be perplexing depending on personal taste, but I found that through dance, emotion was embodied to an even deeper level than already told through metaphor and song. (This was already discussed in an earlier blog entry, where Matt had an understandable problem with the nipple circles.) Throw in controversial subject matter such as teen angst, sexual discovery, identity, frustration at being misunderstood, and an oppressive society, and you have a guaranteed a Broadway hit, and a guaranteed obsessive young fan following. The first time I saw this on Broadway, I loved it and felt high off of its energy and waves of emotion.

As time passed however and made more apparent the second time that I saw it, there is an uneven balance of the theatrical heart and brain of this show that lends an incomplete and confusing picture. The heart, or the spectacle, is obvious and good – the sweeping emotion, the music, the dance, the story. This show however, adds highbrow intellectual elements only seen in more esoteric theater, such as microphones taken out of coat pockets, a song playlist scrawled on the chalkboard in full view, and audience members sitting onstage for everyone to see. This Brechtian style adds a certain distance from the show and the audience member, as they serve as constant reminders to the audience that you’re still watching a show. As Wikipedia states, Brechtian theory is based on the idea that “a play should not cause the spectator to emotionally identify with the action before him or her, but should instead provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the actions on the stage.” This distant style never gels with this show that begs to envelop the audience in its emotional world, and instead, results in a disjointed big picture, and at worst, pretentious.

In addition, the characters and themes stray dangerously to being trite. Characters in the show are simplified to borderline caricatures – the jock, the spaz, the hot girl, in a world where all the boys are horny, all the girls are victims (whether their childhoods have been too hard or way too easy), and all the parents just don’t understand. Themes can be simple and powerful, but these themes – teens being misunderstood, desiring to be understood (“Touch Me”), and all parents are the same – at its heart is an uninspiring cliche that merely tells teens (albeit in a very pretty and powerful way) that other teens are going through the same thing, with no answers or revelations revealed in the process. I rolled my eyes when the term, “parentocracy” was actually said out loud, and had this urge to tell these teens, “The good news is that puberty doesn’t last!” There’s something unsatisfying about this show which ends on an ambiguous yet hopeful note, as an extra step in reasoning should have been included for this show to feel complete.


Kyle Riabko and Blake Bashoff

None of these comments take away anything from the stellar touring cast. As an ensemble they were outstanding, but the two Broadway imports – Kyle Riabko as Melchior, and Blake Bashoff as Moritz – were the strongest performances in the show. Riabko plays the self assured Melchior with a forceful strength that belies his smaller size; original cast member Jonathan Groff had the advantage of a larger more commanding presence, yet Riabko’s take is just as convincing. Bashoff portrays Moritz as a boy going through puberty filled with an unending high strung nervous energy endearing in his confusion and struggles, yet heartbreaking as he fails to come to terms with himself under society’s harsh spotlight. Christy Altomare rounds out the leads with her sweetly curious Wendla. Steffi D is a singing powerhouse, but her hard edged bitter style portrays Ilse as a character more resentful of her abusive childhood, which is very different from the original Ilse, Lauren Pritchard’s free loving commune living character who had absorbed all the hurt in the world. Like most national tours, this cast plays up the more comedic portions, particularly the subplot with the puppy love romance between Andy Mientus as Hanschen and Ben Moss as Ernst. The national tour cast successfully preserves the spirit of the original show.

As I was watching this show, a fellow blogger Patrick’s quote came to mind, which sums up my feeling about this show:

Every performance has a certain appeal to the senses, but once that immediate sensation fades into memory the intellectual underpinnings of a work become more obvious, and when they fail, you can end up feeling more frustrated and angry than you were at first.

This also explains why I loved it the first time that I saw it, and was more bothered by its rational aspects the second time around. It’s not that I don’t love it, and in fact, I would happily recommend it to a lot of people because the good parts about this show is mindblowingly amazing. But there are things about it that are still frustratingly irritating. It wasn’t surprising to see that on SFist, the comments about this show are highly polarized. I know there are going to be a lot of people who love it, and others who will be bothered by it, either at that moment or a year later, such as myself.

Spring Awakening plays at the Curran Theater through October 12


Any thoughts about this show? Opinions? Anyone else think that if Melchior had been 30 years older, uglier, overweight, with a ski mask, everyone would see the sex scene as rape, as he convinces Wendla with phrases such as, “Is it wrong… to love?” and “It’s just me!”?? And who the heck is Marianna Wheelin?

On My Radar

It’s going to be a late night at work today – I’m just going to jot down some things down while I’m waiting for my protein gel to run.

  • I just saw the documentary Suzanne Farrell – Elusive Muse – my two word review: absolutely riveting. It’s hard to obtain (I believe it’s technically out of production) but rent it from Blockbuster. I always thought that sometimes ballerinas of days gone by looked a bit dated, no matter how amazing they were, most likely due to my “modern” eyes that are used to seeing things in a certain style. Suzanne Farrell proves me wrong, as she is just as uniquely ravishing as any ballerina dancing today.
  • Lots of things starting up in the Bay Area – Berkeley Rep is back with Yellowjackets (check out their free “tastings” and other events that precede their shows), ACT presenting Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll with a stellar cast, and Spring Awakening‘s national tour makes its stop in SF.
  • Movie theaters are hoppin’ these days. Rent, the musical that defined a generation, closed on Broadway this weekend, with its final performance being aired in movie theaters on Sept 24-28. Also, The Met: Live in HD returns this year with even more live performances – I’m especially looking forward to Richard Strauss’ Salome, airing in October, after reading about it in Alex Ross’s book, The Rest is Noise. It sounds hauntingly entrancing.
  • SF Symphony storms in with Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and a Leonard Bernstein program next week in preparation for their performance at Carnegie Hall’s season opener which will be aired on PBS.
  • Due to demand (I know, I can’t believe it myself) on a blog related note – I added an option where you can subscribe for email updates, on the right column of my blog (scroll down). Check it out.

Rasta Thomas’ Bad Boys of Dance

This weekend, I made my way through wine country to see Rasta Thomas and his “Bad Boys of Dance” perform in Sonoma County. Admittedly, I came in with a few expectations – stellar reviews by the NY Times in their performance at Jacob’s Pillow last year, as well as having seen Rasta Thomas on TV and video, with his amazing powerhouse style and extensions. I’ve been a fan of his for a while, and was really excited to see him dance. In short, the show was both what I expected as well as including the unexpected.

First off – every single guy on stage was exploding with talent. There is no weak link in the group, and every single one of them is a stellar dancer. From Robbie Nicholson with a wonderful lyrical sensibility (my personal favorite) to Craig Derosa (from “So You Think You Can Dance”) with an infectious sense of fun and a strong fluidity to the simply hot Anthony Colantone, these guys had sex appeal to spare, with an edge and a very masculine power that appealed to everyone. Add in a dollop of humor, in addition to great dancing, and you’ve got a group of crowd pleasers that everyone went crazy for. The best part was, these guys could really really dance. And Rasta Thomas was everything that I thought he’d be; I wished most that I could have seen him dance more.

The program was a mix of dances, mostly powerfully masculine and thrilling, with a good dose of silliness thrown in as well as a few gems. My favorite piece was Braham Logan Crane’s “Ghost of Things to Come”, which quieted down the audience from the craze of the sexy previous pieces of silly teasing guys and gave the dancers a chance to delve into their movements onstage. This was the piece that showcased beautiful dancing the most, lovingly styled and emotionally moving, with Jason Parson’s “Maps” a close second, which showcased the dancers’ introspective side, which was a welcome respite from the craziness, although you could feel the audience getting restless during these quieter moments. Twin brothers Martin and Facundo Lombard broke up the evening with a jaw dropping hip hop and an improv tap piece.

I couldn’t help but to make the connection with this dance company and the reality tv shows that are dotting the cable channels these days. The biggest difference is, these guys can REALLY dance. I still hold to the fact that really good dancing is going to be the best thing that reel in future audiences to buy dance tickets, and if anyone can do it, these guys really can. This company would be great to introduce newcomers to dance (many of the audience seemed to be newcomers to dance, from what I could tell), and I’d much rather watch these guys dance on tv for an hour than most of the tv dance shows – I could especially do without the random alliterating judges.

There’s a lot to be said about dancing for your audience. The audience seemed to be filled with locals who loved the tricks and the stripteasing the most. The audience went crazy for these guys, especially during the silly fun pieces, even bordering on chaos as even during the quiet moments, people kept on whistling and making noise. During the opener Rasta Thomas and Ashley Canterna’s “LOL (Laugh Out Loud)”, when the guys onstage started rolling around on the floor with inflatable dolls in their arms, it crossed a line in my mind that was hard to salvage after that point. As the piece progressed, my seatmate whispered to me, “When in doubt, shake your butt!” to which I replied, “Or imitate women! Or take off your shirt!”

In short, these dancers are amazingly talented dancers with more than enough sexy charisma to be ambassadors to seduce non-dance audiences into theater seats. I still can’t help thinking though, is it too much to want to see Rasta Thomas dance Lubovitch’s Elemental Brubeck or Othello one day? I realize that this is completely my own personal preference. Perhaps someday, although he’s so hard to catch onstage. But he seems to be genuinely happy doing what he loves to do, choosing to dance the dances he loves to dance. And audiences love him! And he was still worth the drive out to Sonoma County to see for the first time, live. That’s more than many dancers can say, not to mention the unreachable dream of many dance companies.

Rasta Thomas presents “The Bad Boys of Dance”

Jolene’s Best of 2007 list

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Best performance of the year: Two shows come to mind -

I spent as much space in a scary moment in Joshua Bell’s show than the more positive aspects of the show, but thinking back in 2007, Bell’s fresh and innovative take on a beautiful yet overfamiliar piece really brought it to life, and it shines in my memory as one of the best performances of the year. Two runner ups, in two pieces that really stand out just because they were so fun: Miami City Ballet’s “In the Upper Room” and SF Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Best male performer of the year: Raul Esparza in Company, Herman Cornejo spicing up a random collection of pieces at ABT’s first program at Cal Performances in the Le Corsaire pas de deux.

Best female performer of the year: Felicia Fields in the Color Purple, Lea Salonga as Fantine in Les Mis.

Best new discovery of the year: Miami City Ballet

Best regional production of the year: My discovery of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre was a great one, in which I still feel the effects of the quietly moving ripple that was after the quake. Another fun one was Expedition 6, at a much smaller local theater. Just wondering how many more local gems remain to be discovered?

Best performance event in a non-traditional theater venue: Project Bandaloop at Orange County’s Fall for Dance on the outdoor walls of the OCPAC.

Favorite televised theater event: Mark Morris’ Mozart Dances on PBS

Biggest theater obsession: Jersey Boys

Most anticipated performance for 2008: Company on PBS, watching Alvin Ailey for the first time, SF Ballet’s 75th anniversary season, esp the New Works Festival and Giselle!

The Color Purple Tour

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Before I saw this show on Broadway, it was hard for me to relate to the story of The Color Purple since I really had nothing in common with the main character – the main character grew up destitutely poor, was molested and abused – but I’m glad that my sister made me go see it. I saw it on Broadway the week after LaChanze won the Tony for Best Actress, and completely fell in love. I’m usually not emotional at shows, but

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for some reason, this show hits a harmonic on my heart and sets it off in a dangerous way. This show left me in embarrassing body-wracking sobs and moved me in ways that no other show had ever done before. It’s always made me wonder about its effect on me, and my scientist mind makes me think things like, ‘If I listen to the soundtrack, would that also make me cry? What about The Color Purple is sufficient to make me cry?’ And with this viewing, I think I found the answer – what makes me so emotional is that the orchestration and the music is so well written. When Celie has her baby and is singing her first and only song to her newborn baby, the song she sings actually embodies a mother’s cry. You can even see how Celie’s song is affecting her body, as if she is singing with her whole body, heart, and soul.

It also has some of the funniest moments ever staged, thanks to the unbelievable performance of Felicia Fields. From the first moment when she struts across the stage that makes me laugh, she solidified in my mind, that really great supporting actors are the actors that completely inhabit their roles, and are really hard to replace (other examples: Jack on Will and Grace, Jon Gallagher Jr. in Spring Awakening). I’m still upset that she didn’t win the Tony award that year. Her role as Sophia encompasses the funniest lines of the show, as well as the most rousing, as well as the most heartbreaking. It’s a huge journey her character takes at every performance.

And when I saw that Felicia Fields was on tour, I knew I would have to buy a ticket. And I did.

For me, the standouts of the show weren’t the stunt-casted LaToya London (from American Idol) or Michelle Williams (from Destiny’s Child), although both of them were very good. It was Felicia Fields, with her breadth of acting and who always brings down the house with “Hell No!, and Jeannette Bayardelle as Celie. Bayardelle was a bit of a surprise – granted, when I saw LaChanze, I wasn’t particularly moved by her performance (perhaps she was overshadowed by Fields in my mind?), but Bayardelle was really a force to be reckoned with. Her powerhouse voice brought down the house, from the moment she cried to her baby to the moment she stands up to her husband. (It seems a bit unfair to Michelle Williams, but Bayardelle’s voice completely overshadowed Williams’ singing voice during their duets).

Michelle Williams made for a very sexy Shug Avery, and she is an amazing performer; her rendition of “Push Da Button” brought down the house. What was lacking a little lacking was in her quieter singing moments, especially compared to Jeannette Bayardelle during their quieter duets. LaToya London made for a great Nettie, although her part was too small for her to truly shine.

Overall, what a great show. Go see it if, like me, you didn’t really want to see it. And let me know if it has such an emotional impact on you, maybe I’m just an anomaly.

Currently playing at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco. Check the website below for tickets and the rest of their tour.

The Color Purple Tour

More shows coming up this week: Berkeley Rep’s After the Quake, and either The Tosca Project (which I blogged about previously, a collaboration between ACT and SF Ballet), or the Miami City Ballet, a company that I’ve always wanted to see perform Balanchine. I really can’t decide between the two!

Looking for Fall

Happy Friday, everyone.

I am not like a lot of people – I get really exhausted towards the end of the week because I usually pack my days and weeknights with activity. Then usually I stay in on Friday (watching TLC’s What Not to Wear in my pajamas), cooking dinner, etc. before I’m up and rearing to go on Saturday morning.

And thank God, theater season is back! The summer doldrums are slowly drying up, and lots to look forward to.

  • SF Symphony tickets now on sale! Go get yours now, here. The season opens with the Opening night gala on September 19, with the beautiful Renee Fleming.Ticket prices make it impossible for me to attend (ranging from $130 – 250), but the program is absolutely fabulous, with a good mix of classics and contemporary (Copland, Ravel, Adams, Puccini, and Prokofiev). Galas should be extravantly decadent, not modest! This one is.

© Berkeley Repertory Theatre. All rights reserved.

And, because it’s a Friday (for no other reason, of course), I’m going to post the following below. Hey, it’s tied to Avenue Q, which is closing at the Orpheum this Sunday. (It also reminded me of a comment Jen made yesterday on this blog.)

Avenue Q, National Touring Cast

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Forgive the PG nature of this ad, which I believe is from London

Something big IS here! The national touring cast of Avenue Q is here at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco. It’s such a great show, and the touring cast completely rises to the task, and this is coming from someone who saw the original Broadway cast! That’s always something I’m wary about, worrying that the touring cast won’t compare to the OBC. But this show is so funny, and sweetly touching, and the touring cast delivers.

Rewatching it again made me realize how well this musical is written. The lines are so funny, and surprisingly smart. (“Is her name Purpose?”) Who would have ever thought that the Bad Idea bears founded Scientology? Another fun aspect was watching two of my friends experience it. My friend kept on hitting me as she was laughing uncontrollably, and loved Christmas Eve the best.

My favorite parts are when the humor is used to add a poignancy to the “aww” moments. It adds a depth to the moment, and makes the audience members dwell and emphathize on that moment a bit longer. The ability that the puppets have to make you laugh, as you feel their pain, reflects great writing. I watched “Fantasies Come True” with fresh eyes, and while I was laughing at Nicky’s “Come hither” beckoning to Rod and Nicky telling Rod, “You look like David Hasselhoff”, it made it that much sadder to find out all that was all a dream. Also, “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” still remains one of my favorite ambivalent love songs of all time.

I had heard mixed reviews about Kelli Sawyer as Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut, but she was great. I feel like “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” is a litmus test for performers playing Kate Monster, and hers was genuinely touching. (I didn’t understand it though, when the audience members laughed at the line, “There’s a fine, fine line, between love/ And a waste of time”). A standout for me was Christian Anderson, pulled directly from the Broadway cast. His talent really comes out in emphasizing the differences between the multiple puppets he handles, from Trekkie Monster, to the Newcomer. (Did Rick Lyon play the newcomer in the OBC? I thought John Tartaglia handled the Newcomer, but I may be wrong.) Jennie Kwan was on for Minglie Chen as Mrs. T/Bad Idea Bear and others, and did a great job. She did a very sexy Lucy the Slut when she was handling it (as Kelli Sawyer voiced it), mirroring Lucy the Slut’s sexiness with her own body language. Angela Ai portrays a very strong, slightly masculine Christmas Eve (I feel like Ann Harada had a characteristic cuteness to the original character) but her accent came off easier than Harada, although Harada was a better belter. I loved Harada’s long sustained, um, note, in “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (in Making Love)”.

The touring cast on its own stands well, and delivers a great show. However… going back to cruising Youtube for videos on the original Broadway cast, I was struck with how animated the puppets come alive in the OBC’s hands. It’s all in the tiny details, such as the way that Kate Monster’s hair swings a little more in the hands of Stephanie d’Abruzzo, and the puppets’ bodies seem to extend a little bit more animatedly in John Tartaglia’s hands. I remember when I chatted briefly with John Tartaglia (the original Rod/Princeton), he was very clear on the fact that he was a puppeteer first, before he is a singer or an actor. I really respect the idea that the original Broadway cast were puppeteers first, where it was priority that the puppets come alive on stage, more than the puppets having a stellar voice. I’m sure this trend was too hard to maintain in replacing the OBC (how many people with degrees in puppeteering are there, that can perform these roles at Broadway quality?), but I love how it started that way.

See for yourself!

Oh, and for the record, I am SO Kate Monster.

“I’m kinda pretty
And pretty damn smart.

BRIAN
You are.

KATE MONSTER
Thanks!
I like romantic things
Like music and art.
And as you know
I have a gigantic heart
So why don’t I have
A boyfriend?
F$ck!
It sucks to be me!”

This fun show is playing through this Sunday. Go see it!!

Rod

In honor of Avenue Q‘s presence in San Francisco, here’s a really cute Playbill interview with Rod, the closeted Republican senator puppet. Click here to see what his special skill is (removable nipples?), his worst stage mishap, and to find out more about Rod.

Full given name: Rod. I have no last name, in the tradition of Cher.”

Avenue Q plays at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco only until September 2. Be sure to get your ticket for this hilarious show! Click here for more info.

Xanadu, and a dash of Purple

Xanadu is coming to SF! Seriously, talk about suspicions rising when I first heard what this musical was about – disco roller skating Greek muses saving hunky guys in dorky socks? (Reminds me of my reaction to Pirate Queen when I heard about it – a musical with river dancing??) But with the most gushing review I’ve ever read in the NY Times and trusted recommendations, this show has piqued my curiosity. If I were to go to NY anytime soon, this would be first on my list of musicals to see.

Cheyenne Jackson and Kerry Butler in Xanadu

Kerry Butler, with Jackie Hoffman (first one on the left)

Also, The Color Purple tour tickets are available for sale. Coming to the Orpheum Theater, it features my favorite original Broadway cast member, Felicia Fields (who should have gotten a Tony, IMO) as the hilarious and heartbreaking Sophia. The rest of the cast is a stunt casting extravaganza – Michelle Williams (of Destiny Child’s fame) is playing Shug Avery, and LaToya London (from American Idol) is playing Nettie. I suppose they’re hoping that their stunt casting streak is going to hold up, with the casting of Fantasia Burrino as Celie on Broadway.
I have to admit, I wasn’t at first thrilled about seeing this musical on Broadway. I thought it’d be a long drawn out melodramatic Oprah show with music. And, after all, what do I have in common with Celie, who grew up poor and abused? On top of that, tickets were so darn expensive; it’s one of the few tickets I’ve bought at TKTS, where I paid a whopping 3-4 times more than what I usually pay for lottery/rush tickets. But, despite expections, there’s something so universal about the show, which sweeps you up in Celie’s life story. It sounds so corny (in the worst Oprah show sort of way), but there’s something so genuine and earnest about watching someone struggle to overcome great odds and to see people really fight for themselves in adverse circumstances. Embarrassingly, I’ve never cried so much during a show, and I’ve also never been so emotionally moved. Go see it! I’m so glad it’s on tour. The SHN website also has a podcast on behind the scenes for The Color Purple.