Archive for the ‘Theater’ Category

“ART” and friendship at City Lights Theater Company

Serge (Jeffrey Bracco) and Yvan (Max Tachis) checking out the all-white painting in "Art" by Yasmina Reza. Photo by Mike Ko / siliconvalleydesigns.com.

ART is a Tony Award winning play (1998 Best Play) now showing at City Lights Theater Company in San Jose.  Directed by Veronica Drake and starring Kit Wilder, Jeffrey Bracco and (always my favorite) Max Tachis, it is both a very humorous and very French show.  Playwright Yasmina Reza is also known for the plays Conversations After a Burial, Winter Crossing, and God of Carnage, and to be honest, she is not my favorite playwright.  City Lights however has gathered a very talented cast and manages to pull off a show that had the entire audience laughing throughout.

Serge, Marc and Yvan have all been friends for many years until one day Serge buys a very expensive piece of art.  He is delighted with his purchase, and shows it proudly to Marc, who promptly calls it “Sh!t” and then loses his mind when he finds out that Serge has paid 200,000 francs.  Why is Marc so upset?  Because the painting is a 5′ x 4′ canvas that has been painted white.  All white.  And while you can see three very very light diagonal white lines and one white horizontal line on the white background, the painting is indeed, entirely white.

What follows is 90 minutes of Marc belittling and berating Serge, Serge feeling very hurt and offended by Marc’s opinions, and both of them having little patience for young Yvan who appears to take whichever side is easiest at the moment. They angrily debate whether the painting is actually entirely white, or whether there are shades of grey, yellow, or even red in it.  The arguments get more and more vehement, hurt and broken feelings rise to the surface, relationships within and without are questioned, and three friendships are soon on the rocks.

I have been awed by Max Tachis’ talent since I saw him starring in  Renegade Theatre‘s 9 Circles; he also voiced a character in The Smell of The Kill, and wrote the play Perishable, Keep Refrigerated which is still playing at Renegade Theatre Experiment (Hoover Theater) through September 27.  Nine Circles was a traumatic, cathartic performance, but here Tachis plays a more humorous role, and does it splendidly, with the most hilarious expressions and body language.  He is an amazing local talent we are all very lucky to have. Kit Wilder and Jeffrey Bracco inhabit their more serious roles very well also, playing well with the three very different character personalities.

This play is for anyone interested in how relationships form and unravel or how the ties that bind in friendships can also lead to great pain.  If you enjoy God of Carnage you will likely also love Art as they are very similar in tone, experience, and some themes.  It is a quick, fast paced show with no intermission, and the audience on opening night had an excellent time!

ART
Through October 19
City Lights Theater Company
529 South Second Street, San Jose

Serge (Jeffrey Bracco), Marc (Kit Wilder), and Yvan (Max Tachis) in City Lights Theater Company's production of Yasmina Reza's "Art," translated by Christopher Hampton. The show runs Sept. 18-Oct. 19 at 529 S. Second St. in San Jose. Details: cltc.org.

Serge (Jeffrey Bracco), Marc (Kit Wilder), and Yvan (Max Tachis); photos by Mike Ko/siliconvalleydesigns.com.

Water By the Spoonful at TheatreWorks

watershowflash

TheatreWorks, one of my very favorite theater companies, has an amazing show now playing through September 14.    Water By the Spoonful is a Pulitzer Prize winning drama by the Tony Award winning playwright of In the Heights, Quiara Alegría Hudes.  It combines drama and comedy as it works through the never ending trials of being an addict, specifically a crack addict.  In one of the two main storylines, we follow a calm, reasonable woman known as “Haikumom” as she runs an internet support group for a group of addicts.  Among the other members of the chatroom are “Orangutan”, a brash and caustic young woman who is lonely for human contact, and “Chutes&Ladders”, a man who has lost everything but is struggling to regain some sort of meaningful life and manage to stay sober with the help of his chatroom friends.

In the other main story apart from the chatroom we have Eliot, a troubled Iraq war veteran who now works at Subway, and his cousin.  A woman in their family has passed away, and they are at the foreground of the stage as they work out the logistics of the funeral.

But what do these stories have in common?  Quite a lot, it is eventually revealed, and every character in the story has their own back story and a future to live as well.  There are many things happening in this play, and the great stage design really helps clarify where each character is at any time without confusing the audience.  The lighting and projections make it clear whether we are in an online or offline world, and we also get to see the hidden situations of each character.  It is an amazing, complicated work, and everyone involved in this show has done an incredible job creating a very touching and thoughtful production.

I found it interesting to discover later that Water By the Spoonful is part of a series called the “Elliot Trilogy”, portraying the coming of age of the young Elliot Ortiz. This explains a lot, as Elliot appeared to be such an important part of this show, yet his story was the least clear of any of the characters.  It is not that his story was incomplete, just that the others were mostly wrapped up (as tidily as a crack addict’s story can be wrapped), but Elliot’s background and future were not as clear to me.  This not only makes me want to see more of Elliot’s story, but necessitated some discussion with my guest after this show as we pondered Elliot.  There were several questions I had about Spoonful after, but in a good way; instead of a review, I wanted to write a literary essay about all the different layers at play here.  I wasn’t satisfied with the end result of every character, and that caused me to think about them after the show.  Any time I am left pondering and wanting to have conversations after a show, that is when you know theater has been done well.  This show captures such a range of emotions, and really enforces the value of family and community.  It also shows how, even if those can’t be had, just a bit of kindness and human contact can save a life.

Water By the Spoonful
TheatreWorks
Through September 14
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts

Theatre Round-Up: Season Openers

Are you as excited as I am for the 2014/2015 theater season openers?  There are so many amazing shows coming up, there is no excuse to not see at least one.  These are the shows we have our eyes on and will be reviewing most of them:

 

watershowflashWater By the Spoonful
TheatreWorks
August 20 – September 14

In this healing, Pulitzer-winning drama, strangers share secrets in a chat room for troubled souls, a safe haven for lives in recovery. A sensitive webmaster moderates this community, but in real life her relationships crumble. As living and virtual worlds weave together, the true meaning of family becomes apparent, proving that no one is above reproach—or beyond redemption. From the Tony Award-winning playwright of In the Heights.

 

2014-15_Rigoletto_524x412Rigoletto
Opera San Jose
September 6 – 21

A tale of innocence lost. A vengeance gone tragically awry. A deformed court jester wants nothing more than to protect his virtuous daughter from a licentious duke who seduces and then abandons her. Giuseppe Verdi’s famous masterwork, Rigoletto, leads us on a chilling whirlwind of revenge that has entranced audiences since its first performance.

 

perishable-posterPerishable, Keep Refrigerated
Renegade Theatre Experiment
September 6 – 27

What would you do if a time portal opened up inside your refrigerator? Would you be excited or scared? Would you tell anyone? Would you go through it? What if people from the late 1800’s came into your kitchen through the portal? What would you do? Find out with the WORLD PREMIERE of PERISHABLE, KEEP REFRIGERATED by Max Tachis and directed by Kathleen Normington.

 

BF-Postcard-v3-662x1024Big Fish
Palo Alto Players
September 12 – 28

In this whimsical fantasy set in the heart of Dixie, the charismatic Edward Bloom tells his son, Will, stories about his life – but these aren’t just any old stories, they’re mythic tales of impossible magic, complete with witches and giants. As Will prepares to become a father, Edward faces the final chapter in his life’s story. Will sets off on an epic journey of his own to uncover the truth about his father, and generations collide as the lines blur between fact and fiction. A feast for the eyes, as well as the heart, BIG FISH is a tender tribute to family and the magic of storytelling.

 

Art2aArt
City Lights
September 18 – October 19

What would you pay for a white painting? An all-white painting? With gut-busting hilarity and biting poignancy, ART tells the story of three men whose years-long friendship is put to the test when one buys an all-white painting by a trendy artist at an exorbitant price. As Serge, Marc, and Ivan square off over the canvas, lines are drawn, sides are taken, and the bonds that tie each man to the others are stretched to the breaking point. Only a pointed act of self-sacrifice can save a friendship from destruction — proving that there is, indeed, a limit to what one might pay for “art.”

 

marcario1Macario
Teatro Visión
October 9 – 19

Often compared to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the parable-like story features three spirits who attempt to persuade a poor working man (Macario) to reflect on his choices when he comes into the fortune of having a full turkey to eat. It is a work steeped in magic and history that has become part of the fabric of Mexican culture. The play is set in old Mexico, but its themes are universal and just as relevant in the United States today — especially in these tough economic times.  MACARIO incorporates culturally vibrant music and dance to create a visually exciting spectacle and celebration of the Day of the Dead.

King Arthur visits City Lights Theater in SPAMALOT

 

King Arthur (Ken Boswell, in crown) has a jolly old time with the folk of Camelot

City Lights Theater Company has gone ambitious this summer as it presents the comedy extravaganza Monty Python’s Spamalot!  This is one of my favorite shows because it’s just so irreverent and complete fun.  There is nothing serious in this show, there are no deep hidden meanings, and there is so much going on at any and all times that glitches are guaranteed to happen every single night… and it is always fun and hilarious to see how these professional performers manage to overcome the unexpected.  When you are in need of a show that is strictly fun entertainment in its purest form, Spamalot is the one to see.

The show recreates many scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with a lot of Broadway mixed in.  You will see killer rabbits, and cows tossed from the ramparts, the Black Knight receives a flesh wound or four, and included in the show is the one thing the film is missing: a plethora of dancing girls.  The story is of King Arthur’s search for a team of worthy knights who will help him on his quest to find the Holy Grail.  On the way they must all avoid the plague, find a nice shrubbery for the Knights Who Say Ni, and rescue a Damsel in Distress Prince Herbert.  Watching the film first is not necessary, so if you have been deprived of the Monty Python movie experience, rest assured you will still have a rollicking great time (and then go rent the film for gosh sakes, why haven’t you seen it yet??).

Almost all the actors play multiple parts, requiring many costume changes, and there is constant choreography and singing.  There is a lot of acting and singing talent required to put this show on, and stage and set work behind the scenes that is unimaginably difficult.  City Lights does a tremendous job with their smaller theater and budget, so that you don’t miss a thing and an amazing time is had by all.  Kudos to director Jeffrey Bracco for pulling off this amazing feat so well, and to Jennifer Gorgulho for managing to choreograph an incredible number of constantly moving people.

Spamalot is running through August 31, but shows have already started to sell out, so get your tickets now before you miss it.  And before you get to the theater, stop off at Psycho Donuts for their special Spam Wellington Donut, a savory creation filled with layers of Spam and mushroom duxelle.  This surprisingly delicious treat was served at the Opening Night Gala along with mead from Alderin’s Meadery and catered food from Cafe Stritch A big thanks to all these companies for supporting City Lights Theater Company and local theater!

 

Monty Python’s Spamalot
Through August 31
City Lights Theater Company
529 South Second Street, San Jose

Main Stage Ticket Pricing:
Adult: $30
Student: $17
Educator: $17
Senior: $25

THE GREAT PRETENDER a Must-See at TheatreWorks

 

Great Pretender4_KevinBerne

TheatreWorks is presenting another amazing show as the opener of their 45th season.  This is the world premiere of The Great Pretender, by David West Read, and I have no doubt this original show will be playing many theaters in the future.

Mr. Felt is the host of a televised puppet show for children.  He works with a puppet child named Francis, a puppet pony named Carol and a couple other friends.  In the opening we get to see them put on their puppet show of craft making, which goes on just long enough to make me wonder if the entire play was going to be a child’s puppet show… but soon enough the theme music fades out and we head a few months into the future.  Mr. Felt’s wife, the puppeteer for Francis, has passed away, and someone new is needed to replace her.  We soon meet Carol, the puppeteer for Carol the Pony (and the most terrible human on the planet), another puppeteer Tom, and newbie Jodi, who grew up with the show and wants more than anything to be a part of it.

Mr. Felt (Steve Brady) watches skeptically while Jodi (Sarah Moser) tells Tom (Michael Storm) and Carol (Suzanne Grodner) about the pants she made herself

My friend and I were excited to see this show because PUPPETS, and also the line “Contains Mature Language”, and how can you miss with that combo?? But PEOPLE.  This show made me almost cry.  Well, perhaps I did actually cry a little, or maybe there was just a lot of pollen in the theater.  I certainly wasn’t the only one in the theater with sniffles.  The Great Pretender isn’t just a puppet show, it is about Life, and Death, and Friendships, and realizing who your Family is when you have no one.  It also made me laugh hysterically.  It touched me on so many levels, in a way that many other shows have not.  But what did I expect? This is TheatreWorks, and they have consistently presented the best of the best for the last year I have attended.

The production is not actually for children as there are mature language and situations, and also, the character of Carol should not be anywhere near children, haha.  But teens would be fine, and other than that, everyone should go see this amazing show immediately.  I don’t think we have seen the last of David West Read, and The Great Pretender is absolutely headed for the big time.

The Great Pretender
Through August 3, 2014
TheatreWorks
At Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto

 

Local Theaters you should give a try

No, the death of the San Jose Repertory Theatre does not mean an absence of theatre in San Jose.  Not only are there more theaters than I can keep up with, they all produce spectacular shows that will amaze you.  In fact, looking at this list you almost wonder how the SJ Rep will be missed (it will).  Take a good look at what is in store for the summer, get some tickets for your family, and maybe even see if your employer might be willing to give a donation to the theatre of your choice.

And if you have any tickets to a canceled SJ Repertory show, almost all of these theaters have expressed an offer to trade your ticket for one of theirs.  If you see something you’d like to attend below, give their office a call and ask.  The theatre world is a community, and they consider their audiences part of the family.

Here, in alphabetical order, are some theaters you should be giving a shot this summer.  This list is by no means complete.  There truly is an endless opportunity for theatre in the South Bay.

 

Broadway San Jose

Broadway San Jose brings traveling Broadway shows to the area, and they are some of the best musicals you will see in town.  They are always AMAZING.  Jersey Boys begins July 15th, and in August get ready for Wicked!  Obviously you need to get those tickets ASAP.

 

.

.

 

 

Children’s Musical Theatre

CMT has a full summer schedule, and never be fooled into thinking this is a “kid” theater.  These are professional productions all the way.  In line this summer are Oklahoma!, Side Show, and Disney’s Jungle Book.  Personally, I think Side Show sounds really interesting and might try to get to it myself.

 

 

 

 

City Lights Theater Company

CLTC is playing The Language Archive through June 29, and on July 24 get ready for Monty Python’s Spamalot!!

CLTC is a great theater with an abundance of talent.  I know I mentioned the lack of A/C when I was last there, but I have never been uncomfortable there any other time.  Definitely give them a chance, I know you won’t be disappointed!  Again, this is a rare theatre that runs in the black, and it should continue to be supported.

 

 

.

 

Dragon Productions Theatre Company

Tomorrow is the last night to see Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, and then Take Me Out begins in July.  They recently opened in their brand new theater, which is much larger than their old space and very comfortable.  Redwood City is not far, and this theater is worth the short trip.

.

.

.

.

Hillbarn Theatre

Hillbarn has long been one of my favorite local theaters, even though I have not reviewed there in awhile.  It is in Foster City, but it’s always easy to get there for evening shows because the drive from San Jose has little traffic!  Their musicals are simply the best.  They are on break for the summer, though they do have SummerStage for kids, and on August 28 they return with Funny Girl the musical!!  Let me also state that this theatre has some of the nicest people in the industry working there.

 

.

 

Opera San Jose

This is the company that taught me opera is fun.  Yes, it is FUN.  And I never would have dreamed the line of friends I have who want to join me at the opera.  My vacation forced me to miss their closing show this year, but I can’t wait until September 6 when Verdi’s Rigoletto begins!  San Jose is truly lucky to have such a treasure trove of talent at Opera SJ, from their performers to their set designers.  I’ll not stop urging you to try the opera until I know for a fact that every single one of you has attended at least one show!

.

.

.

 

Palo Alto Players

I just started attending their performances this year, and they have been some of the most enjoyable shows I have seen, full of some of the best talent.  The Farnsworth Invention is playing now through June 29, and it has already received notice from Aaron Sorkin, the playwright himself.  The PA Players are worth the cost of a subscription.

 

 

 

 

 

The Pear Avenue Theatre 

Pear Avenue is one of the tiniest theaters I have ever been in, but they show that size does not matter.  Their production of Death of a Salesman was by far one of the best shows I have been to.  On June 20 they begin Pygmalion, and after next season they will be in a brand new theater that will give them even more room.  I am truly excited for them.

 

.

 

 

Renegade Theatre Experiment

A theatre more people should know and be talking about.  On summer break right now, DO NOT MISS the September World Premiere of Perishable, Keep Refrigerated, written by Redwood City’s own Max Tachis and directed by my favorite theater director Kathleen Normington.  There is one thing you can always count on: when you see a show directed by Kathleen, you will be thinking about it and talking about it for weeks after.

.

.

 

San Jose Stage Company

Currently on The Stage is Bonnie & Clyde, and you can’t get much better than that.  Wait, yes you can because it’s a MUSICAL!!  Through July 27.

.

.

.

.

 

South Bay Musical Theatre

I have never been to this theatre, but perhaps we should all check it out!   Tonight is their last show for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and September 27 they return with Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate.

 

.

 

 

TheatreWorks

Another theater I just started this year, they blew me away with their holiday production of Little Women the musical.  I have seen the most consistently professional and talented performances from this company, and they are currently my number one favorite theatre.  Now playing through June 29, Sondheim’s Marry Me a Little.  Without even seeing it I can tell you it’s a can’t-miss!  And then they immediately begin their next season on July 9 with The Great Pretender.  Always worth a trip to Palo Alto!

 

City Lights inadvertently presents allegory for the closing of The Rep

Theater audiences all over the Bay Area went to see fantastic, thoughtful, hysterical, amazing shows and musicals last weekend.  We came home looking forward to seeing the next shows, or acting or producing the next shows, and many of us contemplated our reviews of the weekend.  And then we sat down Monday to do our work.

And at 10:30am we received the press release in our In-Box:

San Jose, CA. June 11, 2014 – San Jose Repertory Theatre announced today that it has ceased operation as of Monday, June 9, 2014. 

This news came as a shock to most, even those of us who had heard whisperings and warnings, I mean it’s THE SAN  JOSE REP, it’s been downtown for over thirty years, well longer than I would bet most of the valley’s employees have lived here.  In Silicon Valley years, The Rep has been here FOREVER.

It was a heart break for me.  I have years of history with The Rep.  I have sat in almost every seat of their audience, I have played in the pit, I have introduced films and interviewed filmmakers and actors on the stage.  I have brought dozens of dates to see shows and had a close group of friends I loved to share tickets with.  I introduced my own children to theater at The Rep, and as adults I am proud to know that they attend theater on their own now, without being dragged by their mother. I have many memories of drunken shenanigans in and around the theater.  The Rep did not always produce my favorite shows, but they were always my favorite theater.

But I had a review to write, one that was very difficult to write for many reasons.  I had heard great things about City Lights Theatre’s production of The Language Archive and had really looked forward to seeing it.  But due to a scheduled vacation, I had to see the Sunday matinee when our temps were in the 90s and the theater had no air conditioning.  It was difficult to connect to the actors because the theater was so uncomfortable.  I was able to pay attention to the show, but in a distracted way, and I could not drum up any excitement except for getting back to my air conditioned car.  This is a terrible scenario in which to review a show fairly.  So I found myself in the position of feeling sort of mediocre about the show, but knowing it was likely only due to one very hot day since my fellow reviewers loved it, and feeling my normal pressure to want to get people to the theater no matter what, now with the added pressure of knowing the biggest theater in town just went bankrupt.

At the same time, feeling like I was in mourning for a lost friend, and trying not to feel anger towards a very wealthy valley who I felt had let the Arts down.

The Language Archive, playing at City Lights through January 29, IS a great show.  It’s about language and relationships and the care needed to keep them alive.  I sat here thinking tonight how the character of Mary treasures her ages old sourdough starter.  She told of how she had to feed it, pay attention to it, never forget about it or take it for granted, so that more warm, nourishing bread could be made from it, and it would never die.  The show is about George, a linguist who documents dying languages.  As stated in the show, any language needs more than one person speaking it in order to survive; if no one cares for them, the languages die.  George’s marriage to Mary needed the attention that the sourdough starter received.  When George could no longer speak the language that Mary needed to hear, the marriage died.

And sitting here thinking about that show I realized this is very much an allegory for the demise of The San Jose Rep, isn’t it.  No theater can survive on ticket sales alone, many don’t realize this.  Theaters require entire communities to not just attend, but to donate.  The San Jose Rep had an operating budget of $5 million.  I don’t have $5 million.  You likely don’t either.  But when you think of all the businesses in San Jose, all the wealthy businesses (who do indeed contribute money to our community), and the wealthy CEOs who live here (and also donate to the community)… Five million dollars seems like it could easily have been covered between allllll the businesses who reside here, don’t you think?  San Jose simply cannot keep crying that no one knows who we are, where we are, that we are not a neighborhood in San Francisco, if we cannot even keep our own local Repertory Theater open.  And like it or not, theater and the Arts really does fall on local businesses to survive, whether we’re talking about San Francisco or New York or a tiny middle America town. Or San Jose.

But the blame cannot just be put on our local businesses.  Theater is a very complicated business, full of catch-22s and the need for good shows that cost money that doesn’t come without big shows that cost money.  Karen D’Souza has written an excellent article for the Mercury News which points to several of the various factors that went into the closing, and wonders if perhaps San Jose isn’t just due for a different sort of Arts environment.  I would never oppose different, as long as the Arts do not die altogether.

But San Jose does have many, many smaller theaters that many locals haven’t even heard of.  City Lights is a great little theater and it somehow operates in the black.  Hopefully that’s not just due to their lack of an air conditioning bill, LOL (I JOKE! I JOKE!).   And they are one of many theaters that not only put on outstanding productions on a regular basis but are accepting tickets to The Rep’s canceled shows for their own shows.  Theater is a community, and they support each other like a family no matter what.  We should try to support them back.  Like sourdough starter, the Arts require all of us to feed it, pay attention to it, never forget about it or take it for granted, so that it will never die.

Baseball fans flock to GAME ON at the San Jose Rep.

Let’s do full disclosure first, shall we?

1)      My interest in baseball on a scale of 1-10 is 0.

2)      My knowledge of baseball is maybe a 6.

3)      My interest and knowledge in fantasy leagues is 0.

Please don’t run me out of town or take away my citizenship.  I’ll happily cook up party food for every night of the World Series if you like, just please let me read a book during the game.

And I promise not to serve you bugs.  Or DO I????

That said, baseball fans think Game On is a home run.  Set in an upper class home in Los Altos (is there any other kind?) the story is framed by a televised game between the San Francisco Giants and the LA Dodgers.  Local fans are so serious about baseball that I heard several in the audience exclaim they were having panic attacks during the play by play for the game.  But the main storyline is about two men who desperately need financing for their new venture, the use of insects as a protein. This is a real thing, and I actually know more about the trend towards eating insects than I do about baseball.  But in real life as in the show, the hard part is convincing the American public that insects are good for you and tasty too.

They actually had samples of (deep fried?) insects in the lobby before the show started.  I did not try them.  I said I had knowledge of the idea, not that I had ingested any bugs.  However, my guest did try one of each of the four samples, and she said one of them definitely tasted “just like corn nuts.”  So there ya go.

Back to the show.

At just 90 minutes with no intermission, it is a fast paced show with only a few characters but non-stop conversation.  It starts out with tons of laughs about the game, the players, and their fantasy league, but due to my lack of knowledge I had a difficult time following much of it.  Eventually we hear about the company the two main characters are trying to get funded.  And finally we realize that while the buddies really believe in their cause, they also desperately need the financing for their own personal reasons, and the show’s tone gets a little darker.

There are a lot of laughs about the bugs, and there is a fantastic food fight later in the show that released a lot of the building tension and got the comedy back on track.  There are many references to local areas, but using “South Bay”, “Menlo Park” and “Redwood City” as punch-lines will not likely work outside of Silicon Valley.  This local audience was privy to the inside jokes however, and appreciated all the humor.

It felt a little to me like the playwright had a few too many ideas he was trying to cram all into one show, and the dependence on a local audience will prevent the show from being a national hit. But this local audience certainly appreciated and related to all the ideas and situations presented and everyone appeared to be having a fantastic time.  I definitely recommend the show if you are a baseball fan, and if they are still serving insects at the Rep, I heard the toffee mealworms over ice cream are delicious.  YOU should totally try them.

GAME ON
San Jose Repertory Theatre
Through April 19

Don Bugito’s edible insects

“Once On This Island” feeds the soul at TheatreWorks

The first thing you’ll notice upon entering the Lucie Stern Theater is the beautiful stage decoration.  Even the wall lights have been turned into overflowing fern pots.  You are immediately immersed in a rainbow of rich island colors and no detail is left out.  Sit down and get ready for a joyous 95 minute trip to the Caribbean.

Once On This Island tells a story of the people of Haiti, the “jewel of the Antilles.”   After a terrible storm, a little girl is very afraid and the island people tell her a story to cheer her up.  What follows is a magical, mythical fairytale set to bouncing happy music and tremendously invigorating dancing.  It is the story of little orphaned Ti Moune (Salisha Thomas), blessed and cursed by the gods, who struggles to discover her place in the world and the meaning of her life.  We are taken for the ride with her, meeting island gods, learning some of the French history of Haiti, and discovering the magic of music and dance.  It’s a story of racism, classism and humanism.  The cast is made up of beautiful, talented actors whose skin tones range from the darkest chocolate to the brightest cream, and that is integral to the story.  It is a true ensemble cast, with no player more or less important the another, and they each bring something so special, individual and important to the story.

The stage is amazing, and the props, costumes and hair are equally fantastic.  The flood is an aquatic beauty, the rain dance is a visual masterpiece, the set lighting is deep and saturated, and the costumes… well, I need one of those frog hats.  Hair ranges from natural beauty to the most handsome braids, and it’s all very impressive.

But the magic is in the music, singing and dancing.  We are treated to soaring ballads of love and loss, and joyous songs that make you want to jump out of your seat and move. At one point there is a graceful ballet, and then it is replaced by a soulful island dance of life and spirit, and you suddenly realize the island dance is the one you want to perform, every day and every night, for the rest of your life.

It’s a visual treat, it’s medicine for the soul, it makes you happy to be alive.  And it will make you want to go home and dance, and dance, and dance.

.

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND
Through March 30
TheareWorks
Lucie Stern Theatre
Palo Alto

Madama Butterfly brings magic and tears to Opera SJ

Last weekend I was lucky enough to see Opera San Jose’s tremendously entertaining production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, starring one of opera’s most dastardly villains: Lt. BF Pinkerton.

When you have two strong, educated, feminist women in the audience of Madama Butterfly for the first time, you can expect a lot of crossed arms, raised eyebrows, and smirks.  But though the story of an American lieutenant – who believes wives can be as changeable and temporary as the screens in his Japanese home – is barely tolerable, the opera as a whole is gorgeous, tragic, emotional and an auditory blessing.

The story:  Lieutenant BF Pinkerton signs a 999 year lease on a house in Japan that (Bonus!) comes with a free geisha wife!  Even better, the lease is also sort of month to month, and Japanese divorce laws are subject to the whim of a husband, so it’s a win-win deal for Pinkerton.

Not so lucky is sweet young Madama Butterfly, who has fallen in love with her husband and believes this is a till death do them part situation. Unfortunately, Pinkerton has other ideas, and already plans to get a “real” wife when he ships back to America.  Sweet 15 year old Butterfly, to Pinkerton, is merely a “toy” for sex while he’s in Japan, and there is a lot of talk of “breaking her wings” and pinning her for display purposes.  Nice.

Even better, Butterfly gives birth to Pinkerton’s son after he leaves for America, and during the entire three years he is gone she believes he will return to meet his son and they will be a permanent family.  On the contrary, Pinkerton plans to return to Japan with his new American wife, and take the child from Butterfly to raise as their own.

Without giving away the ending, you can assume it follows the typical line of opera tragedies.  However, I have learned that the last few seconds of Opera SJ’s show, which brings a swift karma payment to Pinkerton, was added for this production.  I don’t know how opera purists feel about this change, but for me it made the whole story much more palatable.

I have always known I am very lucky to be able to see all these opera productions for the last several years.  This show, however, I felt truly privileged.   The music and singing is beautiful perfection as always, but in Act II Madame Butterfly sings “Un Bel Di” (One Beautiful Day), and it was a magical experience.  I have never felt that before at the opera, but Cecilia Violetta López made me feel I was present for something important.  By the end of Act III López is singing with tears in her eyes, and they were still present during the standing ovation at the end.  Cecilia Violetta López, having previously charmed me as Leila in The Pearl Fishers, has earned her place in this company, and should be considered a huge benefit to Opera SJ.

Resident tenor James Callon is a perfectly awful BF Pinkerton (in the best way possible) with an amazing voice as usual. Lisa Chavez and Zachary Altman (Suzuki and Sharpless) are spectacular as the only two characters who speak any sense.  And special mention goes to an actor who really deserves mention: Sammy Tittle as Butterfly’s son.  Sammy is quite young and the part requires him to be on stage for much of the show.  He was a quiet scene stealer because he was so absolutely perfect.

There are many visual treats in this production.  The main feature of the set is a changeable lighted screen at the back of the stage.  This provided an impressive opening when the curtain went up.  The screen was lit with giant red and white stripes, and the figures of Lt. Pinkerton and friends standing at attention in uniform set the scene and mood immediately.  Later in Act I Madame Butterfly and her friends and sisters appear in their full geisha costumes and make-up, and gorgeous multicolored parasols.  But while there were some individual scenes that stood out, I was underwhelmed by the stage setting as a whole.  I have seen some drop-dead stage designs at Opera SJ before, and I was really looking forward to being immersed in a gorgeous Japanese setting.  On the contrary, I was not.  However, this is a minor disappointment in what quickly became one of my best experiences at the opera.

I am open about not knowing anything technical about opera, but I know entertainment and a great show when I see one.  Not only is this show now one of my favorite operas I’ve seen so far (and by now I’ve seen quite a few), but some scenes moved me in ways I’ve never felt before.  It’s a show that is suitable for both opera experts and opera newbies.  It’s a show you should not miss.

Madama Butterfly
Opera San Jose
Through March 2nd
California Theatre

 

Terms of use | Privacy Policy | Content: Creative Commons | Site and Design © 2009 | Metroblogging ® and Metblogs ® are registered trademarks of Bode Media, Inc.