Thursday, January 31, 2019

A Bitter and Exquisite Revenge

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Mrs. Lovett (Heather Orth) and Sweeney Todd (Keith Pinto) 

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler

Hillbarn Theatre

Foster City, CA
Until Feb 10

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Hillbarn Theatre, that little gem of Broadway on the Peninsula, has mounted a winning, razor-sharp production of Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 Grand Guignol musical about a spiritually lacerated man obsessed with serving  revenge upon his tormentors. (The story of Sweeney Todd first appeared in the Victorian penny dreadful “A String of Pearls”.)

Directed by Joshua Marx, this  production brings us to Fleet Street in 18th century London where survival from poverty and injustice is the name of the game.

Mrs. Lovett (Heather Orth) and Sweeney Todd (Keith Pinto)

As Sweeney Todd, Keith Pinto compresses the anger, obsession, and hatred that simmered when he was falsely sentenced to 15 years of prison, torn from his wife and baby daughter by the lascivious “pious vulture of the law” Judge Turpin. With his gaunt frame, sunken eyes, and poignant voice, Pinto creates a very scary Sweeney indeed, and we are afraid of him and for him. When later he caresses and dances with his razor, the effect is chilling yet exuberant.

Sweeney meets the gleefully opportunistic, larger-than-life Mrs. Lovett who becomes Sweeney’s partner in crime and, she hopes, love. Heather Orth captures the Cockney piemaker’s bustling resourcefulness and sinister motives with both humor and fear. Their relationship is as toxic as the foul stench from the evil deeds that lead to a “City on Fire,” powerfully sung by the ensemble members as they weave in and out of the audience. The scenes depicting ordinary London folk, soldiers, or asylum inmates are elevated by the sharp choreography and direction of the talented ensemble.

More pie! Mrs. Lovett (Heather Orth) and Ensemble

Sondheim’s songs deepen the motive of each character in Sweeney’s path, and the cast does not disappoint. Jaron Vesely as Sweeney’s only friend Anthony Hope fills the space beautifully with his love for Sweeney’s daughter Johanna (a sweet Jennifer Mitchell) who is trapped like a bird in a cage by the lecherous and callous Judge Turpin (a frighteningly commanding Chris Vettel).  Turpin’s “bom-bom-bom” duet with Sweeney’s whistling about “Pretty Women” during the final “shave” is viscerally chilling. Ross Briscoe brings a touching vulnerability to the innocent Tobias who naively promises to protect Mrs. Lovett (“Not When I’m Around”) and later goes mad when he discovers how the meat pies are made.

Mrs. Lovett (Heather Orth) and Tobias (Ross Briscoe)

The theater’s small size puts the audience close to the actors, intensifying the pressure cooker of emotions. Lighting (Pamila Z. Gray) and scenic  design (Ting-Na Wang) create an appropriately ominous mix of light and shadows. One thing did not really work, though. The animated sketch projected on the backdrop like a thought balloon while Sweeney sings the mournful “there was a barber and his wife..and she was beautiful” was distracting and unnecessary, competing with the mental image created by the lyrics.

Nevertheless, Hillbarn Theatre’s production of Sweeney Todd will resonate long after you leave the building, and you may find yourself singing “attend the tale” as you lift your razor high.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
HIllbarn Theater
1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City, CA 94404

Keith Pinto* - Sweeney Todd
Heather Orth - Mrs. Lovett
Chris Vettel* -  Judge Turpin
Ross Briscoe - Tobias
Jesse Cortez - Pirelli
Juliette Green - The Beggar Woman
Jennifer Mitchell - Johanna
Sam Nachison - The Beadle
Jaron Vesely - Anthony

ENSEMBLE (Alphabetical Order)
Kyle Arrouzet, Karen Atlhoff, Juan Castro, Ryan Courtin, Ronald Houk, Danny Navarrete-Estassi, Elana Ron, James Schott, Molly Thornton, Catherine Traceski, Rachel Witte,

*Denotes Actors’ Equity Association

Director -  Josh Marx
Music Director & Vocals - Rick Reynolds
Costumes, Hair & Makeup - Y. Sharon Peng
Scenic Design - Ting-Na Wang
Lighting Designer - Pamila Z. Gray
Properties Designer - Phyllis Garland
Master Carpenter - Paulino DeLeal
Sound Designer - Brandie Larkin

Photos by Mark and Tracy Photography

Saturday, January 26, 2019

When We Were Young and Unafraid of the Courage to Choose


When We Were Young and Unafraid

Agnes (Stacy Ross) and Mary Anne (Liz Frederick) Photo: Jay Yamada
By Sarah Treem 
Directed by Tracy Ward

Jan 17 – Feb 9
533 Sutter St (@ Powell)
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 798-CMTC (2682)

Reviewed by Christine Okon

The Custom Made Theatre Company’s production of Sarah Treem’s When We Were Young and Unafraid hops the time travel bus back to 1972, when society was reverberating from the upheaval of the 1960s and bubbling in the froth of nascent ideas and ideals. 

It’s a time when rules suppressing women’s right to choose her life and work path were being questioned (Roe v. Wade came a year later), and women themselves were raising clenched fists to take action. In When We Were Young and Unafraid, each of the four female characters must make choices and take action.

The setting is a somewhat shabby rustic kitchen on a remote island off the Washington State coast.. We meet Agnes, the middle-aged proprietor of a bed and breakfast that looks innocuous enough until we learn it’s a stop on a sort of underground railway for abused women fleeing domestic violence. 

Stacey Ross brings us an Agnes full of strength, wisdom and resolve; her homey baking of pumpkin cardamom muffins belies the radical person she really is, someone who continues to take great risks to help free women from a life of abuse. Agnes is the motherly guardian of Penny, an ambitious and intelligent young woman (played with bright energy by Zoe Foulks) who’s trying to find her way in the swirling confusion of her age and era.

Penny (Zoe Foulks) and Agnes (Stacy Ross)
Photo: Jay Yamada

Things seem to run like clockwork until Mary Anne arrives, a vulnerable young woman bearing the victim’s badge of a painful black and blue shiner.  Liz Frederick brings a depth of character to this woman who, although abused, is strong in her own mind and will.

Agnes accepts Mary Anne and lays down the rules: Mary Anne needs to stay hidden upstairs until her face heals; she needs to promise Agnes that she not call her abusive husband without telling her first. But Mary Ann has the strength of a survivor who’s been through the mill. She is strong by the rules she is familiar with in the game of “win the man,” even if it means suppressing one’s own voice and individuality. When she overhears Penny’s anguish over not winning the attention of the star football player, Mary Ann coaches Penny in the rules-- to wear a dress, fix her hair,  act interested only in the guy--in other words, to become a wind-up doll of feminine guile, a strategy that Mary Anne has lived by for years.  

Much to her dismay, Agnes fears that Mary Anne will sway Penny from her path toward college and self-actualization. Her attempts to control arise from love and experience at having seen so many young women’s lives ruined; her passion to help women get abortions had led to revocation of her nursing license. 

When Hannah, a self-reliant and self-assured lesbian comes looking for work (she can fix anything) at Agnes’s door, she is at first turned away but nevertheless persists. Renee Rogoff is a badass Hannah who takes no crap as she celebrates womynhood, her strong will a real match for Agnes. 

There is one guest at the B&B: the clueless, nice-guy Paul (played with a gentle befuddlement by Mark Hammons), looking like a lanky and confused Glen Campbell with long sideburns and polyester shirts as he tries to keep pace with the women who are straining at the leashes of their own lives.

Agnes (Stacy Ross) and Hannah (Renee Rogoff)
Photo: Jay Yamada

As an intense visit to those changing times, When We Were Young and Unafraid stirs the batter of how love is defined, the who, what, why and how of love in action, and the compromises that must be made.  

Of special delight, especially to the baby-boomer crowd, were the snippets of songs by Joni Mitchell, Crosby, Stills Nash and Young, and other beats of the 70s. Costume designer Coeli Polansky must have had a lot of fun foraging in vintage clothes stores to achieve that authentic 70s look. 

This play is an engaging study of how change is made in fits and starts, and not with a single smooth broad brush upward stroke toward enlightenment. With strong productions like this, The Custom Made Theatre Company is getting better and better at finding the heart of a play and putting it forth to the world -- with a lot of heart and limited funds.

When We Were Young and Unafraid
by Sarah Treem

AGNES: Stacy Ross*
PENNY: Zoe Foulks
MARY ANNE: Liz Frederick
HANNAH: Renee Rogoff
PAUL: Matt Hammons

*Member, Actors Equity Association

Director - Tracy Ward
Scenic Designer - Bernadette Flynn
Costume Designer - Coeli Polansky
Lighting Designer - Haley Miller
Sound Designer - Jerry Girard

Monday, January 21, 2019

August Wilson's Life Lessons

How I Learned What I Learned

Steven Anthony Jones as August Wilson (photo: Kevin Berne)

By August Wilson
Directed by Margo Hall
Featuring Steven Anthony Jones
In partnership with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and Ubuntu Theater Project

Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA

Jan 10 – Feb 3 2019

How I Learned What I Learned is August Wilson’s last play and an invitation to sit and visit with the Pulitzer Prize-winning raconteur as he regales us with stories about his life as a young writer in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Directed by the esteemed Margo Hall, Steven Anthony Jones steps into the soul of Wilson to recount the life and career of the playwright who magnified the voice and form of the African American experience via his American Century Cycle, a series of plays that include Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Jitney, Fences and others.

Steven Anthony Jones (photo: Kevin Berne)

In front of a wall of paper sheets, Jones dips and swaggers into the well of stories, memories, beliefs, and jokes that became the rich reservoir for Wilson’s creativity. He talks about his mother Daisy Wilson who insisted on respect at all costs,citing the time she won a washing machine in a contest but refused to accept the used model she was offered. The lack of, yearning for, and ultimate winning of respect are threaded throughout his plays. He tells us where he fits on the continuum of an African American history that is rife with societal discrimination, cruelty, and suppression, often adding his brand of humor and satire. “My ancestors have been in America since the early 17th century. And for the first 244 years, we never had a problem finding a job.”

Wilson’s stories are rich and poignant, like the time white patrons of a diner misinterpreted the signifying banter of a group of African American guys as troublemaking, something that has not changed much over the years. Or how he joined a group gathering on the sidewalk outside a jazz club to relish the sound of  John Coltrane may have been “background music” to the well-to-do patrons inside but whose spirit floated over the club audience to deliver a message to real audience.

Steven Anthony Jones (photo: Kevin Berne)

Jones as Wilson is amiable enough to put the audience at ease, and although on opening night there were a few nervous missteps, he carried the evening to a standing ovation.

Performed on the Marin Theatre stage, this play is as static and engaging as a Ted talk but not as intimate as a club experience. Jones delivers Wilson at a distance, and it would be interesting to see the show at the other venues planned by  the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and Ubuntu Theater Project in February and March.

How I Learned What I Learned
By August Wilson

August Wilson: Steven Anthony Jones
Stage Manager: Liz Matos

Director: Margo Hall

Scenic Designer: Edward E. Haynes, Jr.
Lighting Designer: Stephanie Johnson
Costume Designer: Katie Nowacki
Sound Designer: Everett Elton Bradman
Properties Designer: Rachel Hurado, Liam Rudsill

Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA 94941-2885
Phone: 415.388.5208