Saturday, September 7, 2019

A Special Bond Between Two Women of Words

HICK: A Love Story
The Romance of Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt



Written and performed by Terry Baum
Directed by Carolyn Myers

San Francisco Fringe Festival
Exit Theater, 156 Eddy St., San Francisco

Sept 5, 7, 8, and 12, 2019

“The love that dare not speak its name” finds voice in the letters between journalist Lorena “Hick” Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Playwright Terry Baum (who first performed this piece in 2014) IS Hick in this show. You’re right there with her in the New York newsroom of the Associated Press in 1932 when star “gal reporter” Lorena Hickok lands the choice assignment of covering the campaign tour of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his bid for the Presidency.

Terry Baum as Hick Photo: Bill Selby

In a gesture to give advantage to her fellow female reporters, Hick suggests to her editor that it would be a good idea to assign a female reporter to cover Mrs. Roosevelt. Instead, Hick herself is awarded that assignment, thus beginning a relationship with Eleanor that soon grows into passionate love.

Aware of FDR’s indiscretions, Eleanor maintained her position as his wife, and the two gave each other a wide berth when it came to personal matters. Eleanor was key in helping her husband land the Presidency while living as independently as anyone could in the public eye.

Baum dons the floppy hat, baggy clothes, and clunky shoes of Hick, a spitfire of a woman who was gifted with cojones and acerbic wit while realizing that she would always be on the periphery of social acceptance. It is Eleanor who triggers the romance with the reporter, a dream that Hick never imagined could come true.

The development of the love relationship is captured in over 2300 letters that reveal a range of emotion, passion, and tenderness between the two women, from coy fondness to outright “naughtiness.”

Loretta Janca as Eleanor Photo: Bill Selby

Baum bubbles like a giddy schoolgirl who learns that her “crush” is reciprocated. Her joyful exuberance fills the room, and the letter exchange between “E.R.” (Loretta Janca) and Hick suggests a wonderfully intimate inner life of a first lady who was often judged solely on a drab appearance that belied her colorful character. Realizing how deeply human, joyful, and sexual E.R. was is a fresh and delightful revelation.

As if waiting by the fireside for the next chat, the Narrator Tara Ayres colors the sweep of time with snippets of “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “Moonglow” and contextualizes events from the Great Depression to FDR’s inauguration to WWII, all the while highlighting the difficulty of sustaining a discreet bond between E. R. and Hick.

Terry Baum and Tara Ayres Photo: Bill Selby

The span ends in 1968, the year of Hick’s death, with Hick trying to decide what to do with the boxes and boxes of correspondence between her and Eleanor, “some of it good and some of it bad.” She ultimately decides to donate all to the FDR archives.

In an innovative and efficient way to establish the different worlds of the two women, the set is literally a pop-up, with enlarged handwritten letters on White House stationery on the left and various newspaper headlines on the right.

The energy of “HICK: A Love Story” is about a timeless and chaotic love that could barely be contained by the conventions of the time, and holds special relevance today. You will be rewarded with a warm and educational encounter with two women of words who briefly shared their life.

“HICK: A Love Story” by Terry Baum, directed by Carolyn Myers, at SF Fringe Festival, Exit Theater, San Francisco, September 5, 7, 8, and 12, 2019. Info: hick.brownpapertickets.com



Thursday, September 5, 2019

What Happens When You Leave the Movie Theater

The Flick


Chris Ginesi and Ari Rampy

Written by Annie Baker
Directed by Jon Tracy

Shotgun Players
The Ashby Stage, Berkeley

Until October 6, 2019

Playwright Annie Baker slows down the frame rate to follow three employees of a rundown movie theater called “The Flick” where movies are big  and everyday life is ordinary.

The audience sits in the dark as “movie music” fills the space. Our view is from behind the screen where blurry chiaroscuro shapes swirl in Rorschach shadows and light. End credits roll, the flickering projection lamp stops, and house lights come up to reveal a small theater that’s seen better days, with sad sconces tacked to dingy green walls surrounding rows of red seats. Popcorn is scattered all over the floor. Lighting, sound, and set design by Kurt Landisman, Kris Barrera, and Randy Wong Westbrooke, respectively, create a convincing small theater experience.

Justin Howard and Chris Ginesi

The mess must be cleaned before the next show, and longtime Flick employee Sam (Chris Ginesi) is teaching 20-something Avery (Justin Howard) the ropes of sweeping up. Sam proceeds to move the mop through the back row, slowly and carefully, pushing the debris to the end of the row before sweeping it into the pan. Avery, a geeky and bespectacled black kid, scrawny and introverted, watches and does the same on his end of the aisle. These two move at a pace so slow we wonder if they will ever finish. They finally exit, and soon there is another end credit roll, rousing music, house lights up, and mops manned by the two. This Sisyphean routine is repeated again, film after film, day after day, month after month. At age 35 and still living with his parents, Sam (given a subtle sadness by Ginesi) lives in the stasis between wishing for something better and passive resignation.

Justin Howard, Chris Ginesi, Ari Rampy

Sam is drawn to Rose (Ari Rampy), the projectionist who works in the booth above and grabs zzz’s between screenings. The job neither contains nor defines her, and Rampy bursts with dance and joy with this character who moves so fast she’s oblivious to how stuck she is. Rose, Sam, and Avery form a prism of desires, dreams, and disappointments.

Justin Howard

Avery lives in a universe where film is all that matters. He reveres the endangered celluloid format because it captures the actual shadows and light of the moment they were filmed and are not manipulated as with digital. Howard presents an Avery who is withdrawn, intelligent, and keeps to himself. Movies are his world and his refuge from real world pain. When Sam coaxes him to play a “six degrees of separation” movie game, Avery grows silent as he scans the movie database in his mind, like a computer, without fun. He comes up with the correct answer every time, showing a heightened sensibility that amazes and intimidates Sam.

Justin Howard and Ari Rampy

Rampy sparks Rose with exuberance and curiosity, and although she’s good at her job she really just wants to have fun. Sam yearns for her and wishes she would teach him the coveted skill of projection, for it may mean advancement for him. But she is instead drawn to Avery who is about as responsive as a movie poster.

Ari Rampy, Chris Ginesi, Justin Howard

Sam, Avery, and Rose move with and against each other with no real movement or direction, yet we sense their yearning for connection. Avery is on a mission to save cinema. Sam is desperate, lonely, and resigned. Rose keeps moving at a pace too fast for self-examination. These three continue until the inevitable change happens: The Flick is sold to a mega theater company, and the employees become walking brand symbols wearing logo-emblazoned, ill-fitting polo shirts. Conformity and efficiency are the new normal, as shown by how quickly the new employee Skylar (Rob Dario) sweeps up the post-screening mess.

"The Flick" is not so much about characters as it is about movement through time and space. Progress happens, change is inevitable, and one’s life can move forward or wind up on the cutting room floor (an anachronistic reference in a world of digital efficiency).

Like a too-long cut of a film that the director could not bear to edit, "The Flick" challenges your patience. I felt ansty, wanting the characters to do something with their lives until I realized that the pace mirrors the humdrum of routine and weary monotony where one waits for the “good parts” to make it all worthwhile.


"The Flick" by Annie Baker, directed by Jon Tracy of Shotgun Players at the Ashby Stage, Berkeley, through Sunday, September, 2019. Info: shotgunplayers.org


"The Flick"

Photography by Ben Krantz Studio | @benkrantzstudio

CAST
Chris Ginesi Sam
Justin Howard Avery
Ari Rampy Rose
Rob Dario Skylar & Sleeping Man

PRODUCTION TEAM
Jon Tracy Director
Nikki Anderson Joy Costume Designer
Kris Barrera Sound & Video Designer
Helen Frances Wardrobe Supervisor
Linda Girón Assistant Director
Liz Johnson Production Assistant
Heather Kelly-Laws Stage Manager
Devon LaBelle Props Designer
Kurt Landisman Lighting Designer
Victoria Mortimer Costume Design Assistant
Adeline Smith Scenic Charge Painter
Caitlin Steinmann Master Electrician
Randy Wong-Westbrooke Set Designer
Elena Wright Intimacy Choreographer


Friday, August 16, 2019

"Somebody's Baby, Somebody's Child"

52 Letters

Regina Evans and Rashida Chase Photo: Scott Tsuchitani

Written and performed by Regina Evans
Vocals by Rashida Chase

Ubuntu Theater Project
The FLAX Building, 1501 MLK Jr. Way, Oakland, CA

Until August 25, 2019

By Christine Okon

"52 Letters" is more than a play.

It is a prayer, a poem, a cry, and an impassioned call to action to acknowledge a terrible wrong that is all too common yet invisible: the sex trafficking of young girls. Ubuntu Theater Project gives space to artist, activist, and poet Regina Evans to proclaim her message in a stage play that also won the Best of San Francisco Fringe Festival in 2013.

Like an angel of truth, a stunning woman (Rashida Chase) in a regal white dress and headdress enters singing “Motherless Child” with a deep and mournful voice that creates a sanctifying effect sustained throughout the play. Evans begins to tell the stories of young victims, each one “somebody’s baby, somebody’s child.”

Regina Evans Photo: Scott Tsuchitani

As a former victim herself, Evan uses her voice, body, and soul to convey her message, writhing and moaning as if reliving her own nightmare. Poetry flows from her like cleansing water from a deep, natural spring, immersing us in vivid and visceral descriptions of the degradation, suffering, and entrapment of young girls who are abducted, “processed,” and transformed into instruments of profit for their “handlers.” A real horror is how organized and collaborative traffickers are, smoothly moving girls like product from city to city, state to state, country to country. The recent exposure of wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein’s abuse of young girls made the news, revealing that the crime crosses all socioeconomic boundaries. But how many such stories remain invisible and unheard?

Regina Evans and Rashida Chase Photo: Scott Tsuchitani

Like a wise medicine woman who knows the path to healing, Evans traces the journey from the hell of slavery to the hope of renewal. This is her mission in life: to help young girls find their way back to themselves and society. Evans is the founder of Regina’s Door, a non-profit that helps trafficking victims learn new skills in retail and fashion, and she joins in the voices of other organizations dedicated to helping young victims.

Each performance of "52 Letters" is followed by a guest speaker from one such organization. For example, former victim Sarai Mazariegos tells us that “we don’t sit on our trauma,” meaning that the goal of the S.H.A.D.E. movement she founded is to help victims realize their power to “thrive, not just survive.”

Center: Sarai Mazariegostion of S.H.A.D.E Photo by Christine Okon

Many more organizations exist, and "52 Letters" urges us to not only learn about the reality of sex trafficking but to take action to help. In this way, theater can indeed be an instrument of change.


"52 Letters," written and performed by Regina Evans at Ubuntu Theater Project, The FLAX Building, Oakland, CA, through Sunday, August 25, 2019. , Info: ubuntutheaterproject.com/letters

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Come to This Cabaret

Cabaret


John Paul Gonzalez and Dancers Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Book by Joe Masteroff; Based on the play by John Van Druten 
and Stories by Christopher Isherwood; Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb

Directed by Susi Damilano
San Francisco Playhouse

Until September 14, 2019

By Christine Okon

I saw “Cabaret” about 10 years ago at San Francisco Playhouse in a powerful production that showed how joy could be decimated by encroaching, fascistic powers that be. “Good thing we’re not in Nazi Germany,” I thought naively ruminating on the history lesson of how a whole country changed.

How the world has changed, with our democracy threatened from within as never before. In San Francisco Playhouse’s current production of the musical “Cabaret,” a subtle pulse of apprehension about the growing swell of fascism before WWII beats with the fabulous music about the lives of people in “a city called Berlin in a country called Germany and it was the end of the world.”

John Paul Gonzalez and Dancers Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Like a thousand moths beating their wings madly before the light goes out, this “Cabaret” is rich with story, dance, and songs of dark irony and warm poignancy. The scenic design (Jacqueline Scott) transforms the theater into the decadent Kit Kat Klub where the devious-trickster Master of Ceremonies (John Paul Gonzalez) insists that you can “leave your troubles outside” because “in here, life is beautiful...”  The Cabaret Girls, Cabaret Boys, and emcee raise the heart rate with "Willkommen" to show they are “happy to see you..” Fosse-inspired choreography by Nicole Helfer and the live music directed by Dave Dobrusky spark every dance number, and all of the dancers are decadently precise in their movements.

Kit Kat Klub Dancers Photo: Jessica Palopoli

Clifford Bradshaw (a gentle and convincing Atticus Shaindlin) rides the train into Berlin where he hopes to make his mark as a novelist. He is befriended by the uber-suave, powerful German businessman Ernst Ludwig (Will Springhorn Jr.); with a smile on his face and ice in his veins, Springhorn embodies a dispassionate character who later turns dangerous.

Ernst takes Cliff under his wing and finds him a place to stay at the run-down boarding house of Fräulein Schneider (Jennie Brick). In many ways, the real story of "Cabaret" is the story of Fräulein Schneider, an ordinary German woman way past any semblance of youth, who must “learn how to settle” for what she gets, bemoaning that “it will all go on if we’re here or not / So who cares? / So what? / So Who Cares?”

Jennie Blick and Louis Parnell Photo: Jessica Palopoli

If you wonder how a “whole nation” could support Hitler, consider Fräulein Schneider’s choice between resistance and resilience. Jenny Brick brings a fullness to Fräulein Schneider; even the ill-fitting wig is in character to present a woman just trying to keep it together. Fräulein Schneider is courted by the sweet Jewish fruit vendor Herr Schultz who woos her with gifts of sweet Italian oranges and other delights. Louis Parnell is a lovable Schultz, and as the two grow in love for each other we root for them as they begin to choose happiness over loneliness.

One of the tenants is Fräulein Kost (a lithe and strong Mary Kalita). She has many visitors, mostly sailors, who are all somehow “related.” Although Schneider clucks disapproval, she must look the other way or else lose the rent money. Kost shows up later as the dangerous arm candy of Ernst as he sports a swastika armband. She sings the rousing nationalist theme “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” as well as a loving “Heirat”  but also casually informs Ernst of Herr Schulze’s religion. Things turn ugly and the audience is filled with dread as arms are raised in the Nazi salute before intermission.

At the Kit Kat Klub, Cliff meets Sally Bowles, the British expat headliner of the cabaret show. Melissa WolfKlain creates an energetic Sally with a strong, moving voice that brings a lot of heart to the role. It's exciting to watch her lead the Kit Kat Klub dancers in a knockout, acrobatic "Mein Herr" complete with teetering chairs and floor-slapping. When Sally sings the final song "Cabaret," it is not as a joyful invitation to fun, but a sad, ironic reference to just the opposite. Watching WolfKlain in this scene is like watching a wounded creature dying, robbed of hope, and trapped in a stillborn dream.

Ambiguity and contradictions thread through the story. So many things hang in the balance between male-female, neighbor-enemy, trust-suspicion, poverty-wealth, compliance-power. This "Cabaret" taps into a dark desperation that transcends its time to convey the fear and  uncertainty of living on the brink of change.

"Cabaret," Book by Joe Masteroff; based on the play by John Van Druten and Stories by Christopher Isherwood; Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb, directed by Susi Damilano, San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco, through September 14, 2019. Info: sfplayhouse.org

CAST
Jennie Brick* as Fräulein Schneider
John Paul Gonzalez as Emcee
Carlos Guerrero as Victor
Mary Kalita as Fräulein Kost
Melissa Wolfklain* as Sally Bowles
Zachary Isen as Bobby
Jean-Paul Jones as Texas
Nicole Helfer* as Frenchie
Louis Parnell* as Herr Schultz
Atticus Shaindlin* as Clifford Bradshaw
Will Springhorn Jr.* as Ernst Ludwig
Zoë Swenson-Graham as Helga
Shaun Leslie Thomas as Max
Joe Ayers as Rosie

*Member, Actor's Equity

CREATIVE TEAM
Susi Damilano  DIRECTOR
Dave Dobrusky MUSIC DIRECTOR
Nicole Helfer  CHOREOGRAPHER
Jacquelyn Scott  SCENIC & PROPERTIES DESIGNER
Abra Berman  COSTUME DESIGNER
Michael Oesch  LIGHTING DESIGNER
Teddy Hulsker SOUND DESIGNER
Laundra Tyme  WIG DESIGNER



Saturday, July 27, 2019

Dreamscapes of Mortality

Escaped Alone and
Here We Go


By Caryl Churchill

Directed by Robert Estes

Anton’s Well Theatre Company 
At Thousand Oaks Baptist Church, 1821 Catalina Ave., Berkeley

Until August 3, 2019. (Thursdays-Saturdays, with additional performance on Wednesday, July 31, all 7:30) 

By Christine Okon

Robert Estes, director of Anton’s Well Theatre Company, has chosen to produce two of Caryl Churchill’s later short plays "Escaped Alone” and “Here We Go" because they “so acutely chart our shared future.”

Victorian Skull Illusion

“Escaped Alone” brings to mind the Victorian image that shows either two women talking or a skull, depending on how it is viewed. Church presents a bifurcated reality of chit-chat among old friends against graphic descriptions of apocalyptic devastation and horror.

The audience waits in a small outdoor garden; there’s a waterless fountain and hummingbirds cruise the red flowers on the bushes.

Three women--Vi (Jenn Lucas), Sally (Jan Carty Marsh), and Lena (Susannah Wood) enter, sit down, and begin to engage in the ordinary, friendly banter of old friends. A fourth woman, Mrs. Jarrett (Marsha Van Broek), joins the group but seems uncomfortable. She faces the audience and describes an appalling and terrifying scenario of death, violence, and destruction; this is what the world has come to.  She then joins the other women in their conversation about daily routines, gossip, and pleasantries. All four sing The Beatles’ "Help," united in giddy familiarity with a tune from their youth until Mrs. Jarrett describes more horror, and the personal, bizarre crises of the women are revealed.

Sally is extraordinarily paranoid about her cat and is heading for a breakdown. Another talks fearfully about gunshots. All are traumatized somehow, yet they shift back into mundane chatter mode. To Churchill, images are visual morphemes to be interpreted as one would try to make sense of a strange dream.

Sound effects (e.g., meowing, explosions, or guns firing) were distracting and should have been used sparingly, if at all. Still, “Escaped Alone” reminds us of how easy it is to become inured to the global horrors we are exposed to every day.

Jenn Lucas & Jan Carty Marsh in ESCAPED ALONE Photo: Jay Yamada

After a brief intermission, the audience moves indoors for the next play,  “Here We Go.” The title alone connotes either enthusiasm or resignation. There are three scenes, each a study of the experience and reality of death and dying.

The first scene presents eight mourners at a post-funeral party chatting about their lives and reminiscing about the dearly departed man, who wanders among the crowd unseen yet wanting to participate. As each mourner steps forward to state how and when they later died, we are put on Churchill’s time-space continuum where past, present, and future are blurred, and existential finality underscores the most ordinary conversations.

Abe Bernstein in HERE WE GO Photo: Anton's Well Theatre Company

In “After,” a dead woman fretfully ruminates on death, dying, the afterlife and the meaning of existence but receives no answer. Words, even if philosophical, are empty in a vacuum.

The last scene, "Getting There," is the most moving and beautiful, with no words at all.  A caretaker in scrubs (Jan Carty Marsh) assists an old, frail,  woman (Alison Sacha Ross) in a hospital gown. The woman has long, flowing, gray hair, and she is tiny, almost melted away. Her body language denotes intense pain. The caretaker combs the woman’s hair and gives a sponge bath in a routine that is repeated a few times during the scene. Although the caretaker is simply doing her job, the patient relishes the act as a delicious, tactile respite from suffering and a moment of connection with another living being. When the caretaker moves across the room, the woman reaches forward in longing as if begging for the moment to last longer. Gradually, the caretaker becomes more involved and exhibits fondness, and the emotional intensity is profound and visceral. The two actors become one entity of empathy, and their interaction is remarkable to observe.

Both "Escaped Alone” and “Here We Go" are contemplations and meditations rich with images, talk, and the simple gift of presence, making for a quiet yet disturbing night of theater.


"Escaped Alone” and “Here We Go" by Caryl Churchill, directed by Robert Estes of Anton’s Well Theatre Company, at Thousand Oaks Baptist Church in Berkeley. Through Saturday, August 3, 2019. Info: antonswell.org



Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Translating the Language of the Heart

The Language Archive



By Julia Cho
Directed by Jeffrey Lo
Lucie Sterm Theatre, Palo Alto

Until August 4, 2019

By Christine Okon

Here’s a sobering fact from UNESCO: of the 7,000 living languages in the world, more than half will be extinct by the end of the century. In urgent response to the dilemma, many people dedicate their lives to the study and preservation of such languages.

In Julia Cho’s “The Language Archive,” George (Jomar Tagatec) is a linguist so immersed in the study of dying languages that he is oblivious to his wife Mary’s (Elena Wright) attempts to communicate. These two are not the kind of people who finish each other’s sentences, and it seems that one's signal is the other’s noise. For example, Mary leaves little desperate notes for George and cries continuously in her unhappiness, while George is befuddled by her actions. How did these two ever get married?

Jomar Tagatac and Elena Wright Photo: Alessandra Mello

When the last two remaining speakers of the dying language Elloway agree to visit from a far-off and unspecified country, George looks forward to fulfilling his research by capturing their conversation in their native language. He is surprised when his guests Resten (Francis Jue) and Alta (Emily Kuroda), an old married couple, bicker about trivial things in English because, as Alta explains, “it is the language of anger.” Jue and Kuroda are as funny and practiced as an old vaudeville team as they shake up George’s, and our, expectations. Costume designer Noah Marin must have had a lot of fun dressing Resten and Alta in the motley and colorful items of clothing from a far-away land.

Francis Jue and Emily Kuroda Photo: Alessandra Mello

George, upset that his study is straying from protocol, tries to steer his subjects toward his ends. The concept of love is brought up, with George fretting in “analysis paralysis” while Resten and Alta define their bond as simply not being able to imagine living without the other person. Cho’s poetric gifts infuse “The Language Archive," illuminating how language gives voice to the heart. 

The give-and-take and sad breakdowns of communication form a delicate cat’s cradle among the characters. George thinks compiling a CD of “I Love You” in dying languages will win Mary back, but she leaves him to nourish an unfulfilled longing for her own life and passion. George’s assistant Emma (Adrienne Katori Walters) is his work-wife of sorts and strives to demonstrate her love by learning Esperanto, his favorite language. Torn by conflicting but unexpressed feelings, Tagatac delivers a heartbreaking portrayal of a man who cannot even communicate with himself.

L-R Elena Wright, Jomar Tagatac, Francis Jue, Emily Kuroda, Adrienne Kaori Walters
Photo: Alessandra Mello

Justifiably exuberant with winning the 2019 Regional Theatre Tony Award, Theatreworks Silicon Valley begins its 50th season with this play. Even though “The Language Archive” has ingredients for a perfect production: superb cast, smooth direction by Jeffrey Lo, an evocative and versatile set (Andrea Bechert), poignant music and sound (Sinan Refik Zefar), it was hard to connect with the characters except for Resten and Alta, who seemed to be the only ones who had self-awareness. The beautiful image of Resten and Alta after death becoming  “two trees whose leaves whisper to each other all day long” lingers long after the play ends, hinting at what real communication is all about.

"The Language Archive" by Julio Cho, directed by Jeffery Lo, Theatreworks Silicon Valley at the Lucie Stern Theater, Palo Alto, through August 4, 2019.
Info: theatreworks.org or call (650) 463-1960

CAST
George  Jomar Tagatac
Mary  Elena Wright
Emma  Adrienne Kaori Walters
Alta and others  Emily Kuroda
Resten and others  Francis Jue

CREATIVE TEAM
Playwright  Julia Cho
Director  Jeffrey Lo
Scenic Designer  Andrea Bechert
Costume Designer  Noah Marin
Sound Designer  Sinan Refik Zafar

Friday, July 12, 2019

This "Hairspray" Has Bounce and Shine

Hairspray


Cassie Grilley and Company Photo: Ben Krantz Studio

Music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, book by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan; based on the 1988 film of the same name by John Waters

Directed by Matthew McCoy

Bay Area Musicals
Victoria Theater, San Francisco

Until August 11, 2019

By Christine Okon

Long ago, my mother would take me to get a wash, set and styling for next to nothing at the local beauty school. The student would grab her can of Aqua Net hairspray as I squeezed my eyes shut and held my breath as the ssshhhh buzzed around my ears, and small sticky droplets hit my neck.  Hairspray was the essential, bubblegum fix for the instant glamour of beehives, bouffants, and big hair.

Bay Area Musicals (BAM) has launched a high-powered, fun show with the musical "Hairspray.”  Under the direction of Matthew McCoy, BAM performers, in any show they put on, always exude commitment and enthusiasm, and this show is no different.

"Hairspray," set in 1962 when times were about to be a-changin’, follows the sweet and “pleasingly plump” teenager Tracy Turnblad (a big-haired and bubbly Cassie Grilley) as she celebrates her life in Baltimore, “where every day is an open door,” and dreams of meeting and marrying Link Larkin, the handsomest dancer on the Corny Collins (a slippery and suave Scott Taylor-Cole) after school dance show. Tracy and her best friend Penny Pingleton (a remarkably versatile Melissa  Momboisse) squeal and wriggle as they watch the show on the small black and white television in the Turnblad living room. With her “radio and hairspray,” Tracy can take on the world, which indeed she does.

Dave J. Abrams and Company Photo: Ben Krantz Studio

This musical beats like the heart of a teenage girl dancing to songs, joys, challenges and triumphs. From beginning to end, the stage is full of action and surprises with dance numbers that keep on coming. You feel that sweet anticipation for the next 45 rpm to drop down the spindle rack and hit the turntable.

Jon Gallo and musicians adeptly travel the musical allusions that range from doo-wop, girl band, surf, and Trudy’s favorite: rhythm and blues and soul, which Corny Collins plays once a week on “Negro Day” when local black kids take the floor.  As lead dancer Seaweed J. Stubbs, Dave Abrams lights up the stage with his moves, flips and grinds in “Run and Tell That.”

Sarah Sloan and Lauren Meyer Photo: Ben Krantz Studi

When Tracy asks innocently why Negroes can’t dance every day with the white kids, she unveils the racism and snobbery of the show’s producer Velma Von Tussle (Sarah Sloan) who, with her equally vacuous and pink-chiffon-dressed daughter Amber (Lauren Meyer). will stop at nothing to do the white, er, right thing to protect the status quo. It’s as if she were using the show’s sponsor “Ultra-Clutch Hairspray” to keep flyaway hair, times, behavior, rules and mores in place.

Tracy’s eyes and consciousness are widened by Motormouth Maybelle (Elizabeth Jones), a “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” black woman in shimmering blue lame and sequins (cheers to costume designer Brooke Jennings). When Jones belts out “I Know Where I’ve Been,” I felt as if I were at a leap-to-your-feet church celebration.

Elizabeth Jones Photo: Ben Krantz


With “Welcome to the 60’s,” Tracy urges her mother Edna Turnblad, who has not left the house since 1951, to take chances. Scott DiLorenzo fills out Edna’s housedress adequately but needs to create a more convincing mother-daughter bond of affection.

Although the miking had problems opening night, BAM brings another fun night at the theater. When the audience leaps up to join the actors in the final number “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” everyone dances out the history lesson that teaches that for true change to happen, “just to sit still would be a sin.”

"Hairspray" by Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, directed by Matthew McCoy of Bay Area Musicals at The Victoria Theatre, San Francisco, through Sunday, August 11, 2019. Info: bamsf.org

CAST
Cassie Grilley, Tracy Turnblad
Melissa Momboisse, Penny Pingleton
Scott DiLorenzo, Edna Turnblad
Kamren Mahaney, Link Larkin
Elizabeth Jones, Motormouth Maybelle
*Dave Abrams, Seaweed J. Stubbs
Kennedy Williams, Little Inez
Paul Plain, Wilbur Turnblad
Lauren Meyer, Amber Von Tussle
Sarah Sloan, Velma Von Tussle
Scott Taylor-Cole, Corny Collins
Bonnie Lafer, Prudy Pingleton/Others
Kim Larsen, Principal/Male Authority
Stephen Kanaski, Brad
Ronald James, Fender
Emma Sutherland, Brenda
Brendan Looney, Sketch
Claire Pearson, Tammy
Steven McCloud, I.Q.
Peli Naomi Woods, Detention Kid/Dynamite
Smita Patibanda, Detention Kid/Dynamite
Chanel Tilghman, Detention Kid/Dynamite
April Deutschle, Detention Kid
Carlos Carrillo, Detention Kid
Zoe Hodge, Detention Kid
Ajay Prater, Detention Kid

*Appears courtesy of Actor’s Equity Association   

ARTISTIC TEAM
Matthew McCoy, Director/Choreographer
Jon Gallo, Musical Director
Leslie Waggoner, Assnt. Choreographer
Cat Knight, Stage Manager
Andie Fanelli, Assnt. Stage Manager
Lynn Grant, Set Designer
Brooke Jennings, Costume Designer
Eric Johnson, Lighting Designer
Anton Hedman, Sound Engineer
Jackie Dennis, Wig Designer
Matthew McCoy/Cat Knight, Prop Designers
Richard Gutierrez, Wardrobe Master
Stewart Lyle, Technical Director

ORCHESTRA
Sonja Lindsay, Trumpet
William Berg, Woodwinds
Adam Hughes, Guitar
Kyle Wong, Bass
Dominic Moisant, Drums
Jon Gallo, Keyboard/Conductor