Petunia’s Big Day – Streaming On Demand

Children experiencing everyday anxiety and stress have a fluffy new role model.  With her fuchsia skin and sky blue ponytail, Petunia (creator Laura Kay Clark) is a sweet relatable “Everychild.” Chatting with her friend Pumpkin Duck (puppeteer John Pickup; voice T.J. Bolden) she is excitedly picking out a jacket for her first day of school.  But before she can eat her chocolate chip pancakes, the Anxiety Monster (Christopher Isolano) arrives with his alluring backup troupe.  He conjures images of mean teachers and unfriendly classmates until all she wants to do is get back into bed.  Fortunately Mom (Renee Titus), who has regular doubts of her own, comes to the rescue with a series of mindfulness exercises. Petunia is only too grateful to learn new skills and even experiences the joy of passing them on to a new friend (Amanda Spencer). 

Petunia (Laura Kay Clark) confronts the Anxiety Monster (Christopher Isolano); photo provided by Party Claw Productions

After regrettably having to cancel in-person performances for safety reasons, New Ohio Theatre has made Petunia’s Big Day available On Demand.  The Party Claw co-production is warm from the first note, with the cast greeting us at the door and leading us through the auditorium accompanied by upbeat piano.  The book by Laura Kay Clark is based on her own Petunia’s Playhouse, an award-winning web series she created to give young children tools to better cope with the stress brought on by the COVID pandemic.  With the shift to an online format, this lively show can now be experienced by families around the country.

On Safari, the video streaming was very stable and the audio well mixed with just a slightly muted mic on Petunia.  While some of the opportunities for interactivity with younger audience members has been lost, the ability to see the details of the puppets (designed by Puppet Kitchen artist Eric Wright with additional puppets by designer Myra G. Reavis) and the fabulous touches in Petunia’s bedroom are improved from the cameras’ vantage points.  As directed by Christina Rose Ashby, Petunia is in a window above the tiled stage so that she and her human cast-mates can see eye to eye.  The brightly colored bedroom set designed by Reavis with its drawn-on doors and bed frame build on the musical’s storybook feel.  The company of six (Puppeteer Julia Fein also lends a hand… BOTH) ably delivers the serviceable songs by Billy Recce.  And there are still moments when a child at home can breathe along with the heroine or warn her of approaching Tummy Butterflies.  

Aimed at theater-goers aged 6-12, Petunia’s Big Day is childlike, but not childish. The demonstrated tools are practical and easy to apply.  It contains an important reminder that the practice of self-care isn’t only essential when there’s a virus circling. The common events depicted may even stimulate conversation about how to manage other uncomfortable emotions. 

Running less than half an hour, the production is streaming On Demand through February 6.  Tickets are $25 per household and can be purchased at https://watch.eventive.org/newohiotheatre/play/61d8bc1cc9d1230044fa7ff2.  You’ll have 7 days from the time of purchase to start watching, and 24 hours to complete your viewing.

Witness – Live Stream

Streaming multi-media production Witness arrives on our screens at a time when anti-semitism is on the rise in our country.  Incorporating material from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and employing live actors in a virtual space, the docudrama uses the journey of the MS St. Louis to explore the history of persecution of the Jews.  In May of 1939, the cruise ship filled with Jews escaping the Nazis was on its way to Havana.  According to museum records, of the 937 onboard, only 18 were granted visas.  The rest were turned away from both Cuba and the United States and sent back to Western Europe.  Conceived and directed by Igor Golyak, the work threads together the lives of those ill-fated passengers with stories of more recent Russian Jewish immigrants like Golyak himself as well as contemporary headline-making hate crimes.

Audience members are requested to arrive at the site ten minutes early dressed in period costume with drink in hand.  “Joining” the crowd on the ship is easy and a quick sound check ensures that you will get the full audio experience (or take a moment to reload the page.)  Dialogue is spoken in multiple languages and subtitled in English.

The first act uses as a framework the talent show that was an actual shipboard activity.  Against a beautifully rendered virtual environment created by Daniel Cormino, the production pulls us into the main room of the ship for a performance which blends vaudevillian entertainment with experiences of the real passengers.  Director Golyak allows the camera to wander as our eyes might.  Two women cleverly “figure skate” using their fingers in sand while recounting the Kristallnacht.  A man builds a house of cards while vividly describing the displacement of families.  After each one, the audience is asked to award one to four stars.  Throughout, the Emcee (Gene Ravvin) — seemingly the only character who knows he is in a green screen studio — uses slapstick humor to keep the energy flowing.  And Lady Liberty (Darya Denisova) selects the lottery numbers which summon the next participant to the stage.  It is an uneasy blend that is quite effective at times, particularly when the ghostly shipboard audience is in view. 

Gene Ravvin in Witness; Photo provided by The Arlekin Players

An audio-only second act crafted by Viktor Semenov is the most impactful, with members of the cast reading correspondence from the museum archive.  Audience members are encouraged to wear high quality headphones in order to experience the pull of the Binaural audio, designed to create a sense of 3D sound.  Studies have shown that people believe what they see over what they hear.  Deprived of visuals we have no option but to focus on the words of the people involved.

Staged primarily in the hallway of the ship, Act III takes place in the present.  The conversation is dominated by Leah (Lauren Elias) who is incensed about the growing calls for Jews to assimilate.  As someone who can’t be bothered to distinguish between a woman of Puerto Rican decent, a Somali immigrant, a first generation Palestinian American, and the first Black woman to represent Massachusetts in the House— the state in which all the characters reside — and who also discusses the current political backdrop while leaving out our historically significant Jewish Second Husband, she is a flawed spokesperson for her viewpoint.  A counterposition that the Oslo Accords were a lost opportunity is dispatched in a few sentences delivered by Joseph (Nathan Malin) without sufficient context to enlighten anyone who isn’t familiar with that 1993 event.  The most emotionally charged outlook is expressed by the Emcee who is trying to reconcile the view he has of himself as a true American with the ways in which he and his family are perceived by others.

An artful entry into the developing world of online theater, Witness hints at the future of the form.  It has important information to share, though the jarring shifts in tone of Nana Grinstein’s script result in a lack of cohesion.  It’s technically ambitious and unsurprisingly I encountered video glitches and broken links.  Those did not mar a generally involving experience.  What is truly disappointing is to be invited to join a conversation and find instead that one is attending a lecture, even if it is a well researched and reasoned one.  

Presented by Zero Gravity (zero-G) Virtual Theater Lab and Boston’s Arlekin Players Theatre, performances are scheduled through next weekend, January 21-23. Though played out in real time, the web-based show can be accessed from anywhere with a good internet connection.  Tickets are $25.  Running time is approximately 90 minutes with an additional 30 minute talk-back.  Visit https://www.zerogravity.art for more details.

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas – NYC and On Demand

In 1977, Jim Henson showed the world how expansive his unique puppets’ universe could be by developing a charming television special based on the book Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas by Russell and Lillian Hoban.  Well-meaning Emmet and his devoted and somewhat naive Ma are scraping by: taking in laundry and doing odd jobs around their town of Frogtown Hollow.  When they hear about a Christmas Eve talent contest, they each take a risk in order to try to win the $50 grand prize and buy a special present for the other.  

31 years later, the Jim Henson Company expanded Emmet’s world again by creating a live adaptation with iTheatrics.  Henson’s wondrous Creature Shop creatures performed alongside humans outfitted in imaginative woodland costumes.  With folksy songs by Paul Williams and a straightforward book by Timothy Allen McDonald and Christopher Gattelli, this musical production is currently playing for a reduced capacity audience at the New Victory Theater on famed 42nd Street.

Under Gattelli’s direction, the work makes full use of the New Victory’s space.  The beloved Henson Creatures add humor, with bits that also serve to break the story into bite-sized chunks easily digested by younger audience members.  The characters are all appropriately sweet including puppeteer Anney Ozar’s crusty old Mrs. Possum who shows a caring side while at her piano.  Even the members of the Riverbottom Nightmare Band are more mild bad boys than genuine hoodlums.  Likewise, the actors are warm and low key.  While newcomer Colin Trudell’s Emmet and Cass Morgan’s Ma ground the center of the story, it is LaVon Fisher-Wilson who kicks up the energy singing “Born In a Trunk” as Mrs. Mink, the Ma Rainey of Waterville. (She also takes on the role of Mrs. Squirrel whose puppet children perform the other show stopper, “Trust That Branch.”) 

Jiffy Squirrel, Skippy Squirrel, Nutella Squirrel, and Tiny Squirrel (Anney Ozar, James Wilson, Jordan Brownlee and Matthew Furtado) join Emmet (Colin Trudell) Photo Credit: Richard Termine

The entire look and feel of the show is in Jim Henson’s Creature Shop’s trademark style.  Anna Louizos’s set of dusky sky over rippling water, Matt Kraus’s soundscape of whispering winds, Gregg Barnes’s whimsical wardrobe and Melissa Munn’s clever make up design all work together to bring Emmet’s world to colorful life.

Like cocoa topped with marshmallows, Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas will warm up a wintery afternoon.  It is recommended for family members age 5 and older.  Tickets start at $25 and there are no bad seats in the house.  Proof of full vaccination is required for everyone over 12 (one dose for children 5-11) and face masks must be worn at all times.  A 72 hour On-Demand pass is also available for $25.  Although you may miss the electric charge of sharing the experience with strangers, with the four camera streaming version you get close-ups of those delightful puppets and sign interpretation and audio description are easily accessed.  Running time is 75 minutes live and 80 minutes on demand with a brief introduction and outro.  The production runs through January 2, 2022.  For more information and to purchase tickets visit https://newvictory.org/tickets-and-events/2122-live-performance-emmet-otters-jugband-christmas/.

Estella Scrooge – Streaming on Demand

A sophisticated entry in the field of holiday offerings, Estella Scrooge: A Christmas Carol With A Twist is a Christmastime musical with plenty of Easter eggs for Dickens fans.  The production was meticulously shot using green screen and video effects to blend a seasoned cast with eye-popping images.  The result combines the best elements of a Broadway show with a movie spectacular.

The story hits all the well-known beats of the classic about a miser who learns a lesson, but frames them in a way that is fresh and original.  In this reimagining, Scrooge is the CEO of Bleak House, a predatory financial company.  Their health insurance policies never pay out and their mortgages are designed for easy foreclosure.  The overworked and underpaid Cratchet makes an appearance in the form of Scrooge’s devoted assistant, Betty, mother to the sickly Tammy.  But in this instance, Estella’s journey to enlightenment begins when she returns to her childhood home of Pickwick.  She arrives unannounced on Christmas Eve in order to foreclose on a hotel that has been serving as housing for those in need.  The current owner is her old flame Philip “Pip” Nickleby.  When a snow storm strands Ms. Scrooge at his establishment, Philip and the other residents — who include the usual ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future — seize their opportunity to change “Esty’s” hardened heart.

Lauren Patton as Dawkins in Estella Scrooge

John Caird  and Paul Gordon flesh out the book to reflect the current socio-economic challenges that sadly echo those of Dickens’ time. Rising well above many modern musicals, Gordon’s score contains a wide variety of song styles, each well suited to the person who performs it.  The recurring ballad “Almost a Family” is a captivating earworm that eloquently describes the bonds that can form between people who are not necessarily blood relatives.  In “Trickle Down,” economics are showcased in a jazzy number.  And the Ghost of Christmas Past uses hard rock to hammer home her point.  Many of the lyrics are calls to other Dickens’ classics including Hard Times, Great Expectations, and A Tale of Two Cities

The production’s look has been skillfully retooled for the online world.  Caird’s careful direction helps mimic the sense of connection and of space you would get at a live performance.  Fanciful costumes provided by Somie Pak cleverly combine period with high fashion.  Hair and makeup make use of Dena Olivieri’s experience with SFX.  Production design by Zach Wilson fittingly fuses elements of realism and fantasy.  The green screen is high quality and the actors do appear as if on the set.  Some of the special effects add zest, though the work in the ghostly scenes is inferior and distracting. The sound is too low for a laptop and the work as a whole is probably better enjoyed cast onto a larger screen.

The sprawling cast is uniformly terrific.  Betsy Wolfe’s Estella softens in both look and tone as she is confronted with the impact of the life she has chosen.  There is a sweet relationship displayed between Clifton Duncan’s caring Nickleby and his vulnerable residents, including Em Grosland’s delicate Smike and Lauren Patten’s punkish and very artful Dawkins.  The rest of the stand-out line-up includes Patrick Page, Carolee Carmello, Megan McGinnis, Adam Halpin , Sarah Litzsinger, Tom Nelis , Phoenix Best , David Bryant , Gabrielle Reid , Samuel Lee Roberts, Michael Francis McBride , Michele Lee, Kristen Faith Oei , Meg Gibson, William Youmans, Kevyn Morrow, Joziyah Jean-Felix , Brooklyn Shuck, Willow McCarthy and  2020 Tony Award Winner Danny Burstein as Estella’s great great great great grandfather Ebenezer.

The irresistible work of Charles Dickens has long made a good springboard, but not every iteration flies this high.  Estella Scrooge is a captivating family entertainment that couldn’t have returned at a better time. It is available to stream on Broadway on Demand (www.BroadwayOnDemand.com and Streaming Musicals (www.StreamingMusicals.com). A 48 hour rental is $14.99 (a more sensible price than the original $29.99).  The 2 hour runtime flies, though may make it unsuitable for very young children.

The Elephant in the Room

Some people who have suffered trauma shut themselves away to deal with their pain.  Melanie Greenberg chose to turn her experiences into a one-woman show featuring original lyrics and humorous storytelling.  Her solo piece, The Elephant in the Room, covers her very personal journey in search of her “tribe.”  Her twisted and often tortured path from severely depressed childhood to performance-oriented adulthood took her to a family of well-meaning Texan Christians, a sadistic psychiatric center, a rotation of therapists and medications, and a ceremony featuring Ayahuasca, a drink made from a psychoactive plant.  Though her story contains some chilling chapters, she delivers it very matter-of-factly.  Balanced with genuine warmth and uplifting song snippets, what could be deeply disquieting becomes quite entertaining.

Greenberg sings her well-crafted lyrics with precision.  The music is based on the Broadway shows that helped preserve her sanity and sense of humor over the years.  Knowledge of Chicago, Little Shop of Horrors, Grease and Little Mermaid would add to your appreciation of the work, but that is not essential for enjoying the tunes.  The actress/singer is to be admired for how well she organizes her reflections on an injurious childhood, the many appalling attempts at treatment, and a psychedelic trip gone wrong.  Though she returns to her memory of a captive elephant who was brought to a child’s birthday party as entertainment (the animal for whom the work is titled), she is really more like the proverbial fish out of water: perpetually treated as unsuited to traditional society.

Greenberg is joined onstage by her charming musical director and occasional contributor Bill Zeffiro, the winner of several cabaret awards.  Her director Joanie Schultz is also a close friend and may have consequently used too gentle a hand.  Greenberg’s stories are vivid and filled with distinct details, but many are told at the same energy level rather than given variation.  Sadly, no explanation is provided for Greenberg’s fanciful satin dress with a huge black sequence snake wrapping itself around her body.  The recorded performance was done with a single camera at an unusual angle and it could have used some more balanced sound mixing.  Even so, it was obvious that the show has promise.

Melanie Greenberg is a gifted storyteller with a great deal to say.  She is worthy of attention, with infectious vivacity and a genuine sense of compassion for her struggling younger self.  Despite her casual manner, it seems likely that a certain amount of personal distancing is required to actually enjoy hearing the darker aspects of The Elephant in the Room.  The piece debuted at United Solo Fest at Theatre Row and is now traveling to other intimate venues.  The next performances are December 3, 10, and 17 at The Apple Tree Inn in the Berkshires, all the better to hunker down and continue the conversation with fellow audience members.  Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at https://www.sevenrooms.com/experiences/appletreeinn/the-elephant-in-the-room-7597649199.  Runtime is approximately 80 minutes.

Django In Pain – Streaming on Demand

A play about a young man so depressed that he wants to kill himself may not sound like an appropriate match for our national state of mind.  But the journey Antonio Vega and Ana Graham invite us to take in Django in Pain is a beautifully rendered one.  Filmed by Graham mid-pandemic on a cellphone, it features handmade puppets, with props and scenery fashioned from found objects.  And just like in the parable made famous by The West Wing, Vega has been down there and he knows the way out.  The 2016 election kicked him in the soul and the earthquake in Mexico the following year affected him more than he could comprehend.  But the time he found himself in COVID lockdown, he could hardly function.  An invitation to be part of a creative project — the one that resulted in this innovative work — is what motivated him to push away the mental cobwebs and seek help.

Performed on a clear desk by Vega and two visible puppeteers, the piece follows Django on a series of adventures. His suicide attempt is interrupted by an overexcited dog with whom he slowly forms a bond.  The playwright often interacts with his inventions, his inner monologue taking the form of an astute vulture.  While the story has gloomy themes, there are also absurdist images such as Django eating breakfast with a noose still secured around his neck.  These farcical elements prevent Django’s anguish from becoming excruciating for the audience while still honoring the character’s feelings. 

A scene from Django in Pain

Vega’s dialogue isn’t distinctive nor is it a particularly important element for success.  The visuals are what is essential to the narrative and they are inventive and impactful.  Many types of puppets are employed including Indonesian style shadow puppets and traditional stringed puppets.  The shadows are often as prominent as the characters and set pieces, well-representing the dark and lighter moods battling for attention.  As Django’s outlook brightens, so too does the palette employed.  Music with a Spanish flavor written by Cristóbal MarYán heightens the mood.  Headphones may improve your streaming experience.

Django in Pain serves as an important reminder of the powers of connection and accountability.  Whatever our circumstances, there is always an opportunity to develop our own story.  Originally commissioned by PlayCo, the production is streaming from 59e59.org as part of their Plays in Place series.  Runtime is 56 minutes including Vega’s introduction: essential for comprehending the ending of the play.  Narration is available in both English and Spanish.  $15 tickets are available at https://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/django-in-pain-streaming/ and can be used on demand through October 19.  Due to the intensity of the content, there is a viewer advisory.

F.I.R.E. – Streaming On Demand

To end their inaugural season, New Normal Rep is presenting the world premiere of F.I.R.E. by talented new voice Julia Blauvelt.  Pronounced just like “fire”, the acronym stands for Financial Independence; Retire Early, the ultimate goal of Hutch.  The hotshot accountant has landed his dream job at a prominent hedge-fund that comes with a summer drinks night and free pretzels in the break room.  The only young white male in the department, he appears to have been uniquely embraced by the executive floor and consequently can’t wait to get out and mingle.  He is the newest member of a diverse team led by the emotionally intelligent Shauna.  She brought the devoted Jazz from her previous job to add to the brilliantly inventive Noel and old timer Chris and she has since hired temp Penny, a mediocre actress with huge potential to be the best accountant among them.

It takes 30 minutes of a play filled with clever banter, great humor, and sly character development to get to the first reveal in the plot.  Someone has opened an off-the-books account to funnel money out of the company and Danika, to whom Shauna reports, needs the team to find the culprit.  A team member will have to be fired, and not in Hutch’s unique meaning of the word.  If they fail to get answers, she’ll simply have Shauna sacrifice Chris — the only family man among them.  Act Two moves more swiftly towards the ultimately satisfying conclusion.

Director Heather Arnson does little to help with the pacing of this psychological whodunit.  While she interjects camera movement and makes the presentation visually interesting, she doesn’t seem to have given enough guidance to her fine cast.  Without the action that would be included in a live staging, there needed to be more variation in the dialogue to follow the build up of numbers-oriented incidents and consequences.  Instead, the energy present in the lines is muffled, and the performers are kept at a fairly constant hum.  Aaron Matteson infuses Hutch with the same high voltage boom throughout.  And though clearly capable of much more, Ella Dershowitz keeps Penny’s intelligence and the essential nature of her character clouded with a Valley Girl drone and nervous hair twirling.  These two characters who could be opposing swirling vortexes are firmly anchored like two metal poles with the rest of the cast hung between them.  Carol Todd’s appearances as Danica are at a constant boil, though that might be fitting as a woman who often repeats her origin story.  Jeffrey Bean is given some opportunity for breadth beyond fuddy-duddy through Chris’s phone calls with his unseen wife. Shauna also has story outside of the office, which Kierra Bunch leverages in the latter half of the piece.  (Her explanation of how work works is priceless.)  Jazz has one dramatic moment that Nathaniel P. Claridad uses to best advantage.  And Nygel D. Robinson brings appropriate warmth and smoothness to Noel, though he too could obviously provide more range.  

Kierra Bunch, Ella Dershowitz , Aaron Matteson, Nygel D. Robinson, Nathaniel P. Claridad, Jeffrey Bean in F.I.R.E.; Photo by Dora Elmer

As with the other NNR offerings, the production is enhanced with a virtual contiguous set that makes the characters appear to be in different sections of the same room.  This one is designed by Edward T. Morris complete with simulated florescent lighting, modern room dividers, and a city view.  The ensemble is well outfitted by David Woolard with the men all in shades of blue and grey, the two managing women in black, and Penny in the sole pop of red.  The sound by Lindsay Jones — who also provided transitional music — is unevenly mixed and Hutch is particularly difficult to hear.

While the entire creative community continues to struggle with the consequences of a global pandemic, it is promising that that New Normal Rep has presented an entire season of quality streaming theater not as a substitute of anything but rather as its own art form.  F.I.R.E. is a satisfying example of what can be achieved within the confines of Zoom boxes.  This production streams through October 20 at NewNormalRep.org. Runtime is an hour and 47 minutes with a brief intermission.  Tickets are $25; $10 for students, educators and theater professionals, and can be purchased on the company’s website.

Starting Here, Starting Now – SF Playhouse and On Demand

Closing out the San Francisco Playhouse’s 2020-2021 season is Starting Here, Starting Now, comprised of 24 songs with lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr. and music by David Shire.  The lively and upbeat musical review was originally created to save the Manhattan Theater Club’s then-new nightclub space.  The songs are taken from shows that either never got produced or closed prematurely, so they have that familiar-yet-not feel.  Maltby directed the original production while Shire shored up the work with newly created connective tissue.  Performed in this instance by a cast of four (one more than the original production) the show is an often humorous exploration of relationships of various dimensions, some made modern with a gender-bending twist.  Each piece is sung in character — though those change throughout — so they require solid actors to make them work.  Equally important to their success is the jazzy trio, placed behind them right on the stage.

Directed by Susi Damilano with choreography by Nicole Helfer, this incarnation moves breezily along for 90 minutes not including intermission.  Though the cast members are all seasoned performers, it is Keith Pinto who demonstrates the most strength from his perfect articulation of rapid lyrics to his physical antics and sincere engagement with the audience.  He elicits laughs in We Can Talk to Each Other and knowing nods in I Don’t Remember Christmas. Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who won the Tony Award for his turn as Angel in Rent, provides a gentler and more touching tone in solos including A Girl Should Know.  Rinabeth Apostol adds bad ass energy in I’m Going to Make You Beautiful and several duets.  Melissa Wolfklain rounds out the ensemble with quick wit, though she sometimes missed a note. (She sings my favorite in the line-up, Crossword Puzzle.) 

Starting Here Starting Now Cast sings “I Don’t Believe It”; Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Costume designer Rachael Heiman has wisely outfitted the cast elegantly in pure white, the better to project whatever is needed as they move swiftly from character to character.  The set designed by Heather Kenyon has a touch of nightclub flair, especially as lit by Kurt Landisman in an array of rainbow shades.  The musical trio, under the musical direction of David Dobrusky on piano with Amanda Wu on bass and Russ Gold handling percussion, is top notch and well suited to sharing the spotlight.

Like aural chicken soup for your tired soul, Starting Here, Starting Now goes down easy and leaves a warm feeling behind.  There is no twisted plot to follow or deep roles to keep straight, just pleasing harmonies, light movement, and plenty of charm.  It is playing at the San Francisco Playhouse at 450 Post Street in San Francisco with strict COVID-19 protocols in place ( https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/covid-safety/. )  It is also available to stream online, which is how I was able to enjoy it all the way in New York City.  Tickets are available for either format at sfplayhouse.org for performances though October 2.  In-person tickets are $30-$100; with access to the On Demand video starting at $15.

Shakespeare in the Park: Merry Wives

The Merry Wives of Windsor — Shakespeare’s only play that centers around everyday working folk — is a wonderful selection for the Public Theater’s 2021 offering.  This production arrives after a difficult stretch which renewed awareness of our neighbors and neighborhoods.  For this rendition, the location has been dropped from the title and the spouses in question have been moved to South Harlem.  There, Farai Malianga engages with the audience as a congenial street drummer.   After a quick lesson in African diaspora, he ushers in the local residents who will share their story.  Layabout John Falstaff has grown weary of his VR light saber and nutrition-free snacking and is ready to get out and mingle.  He has his eye on Mmes Ekua Page and Nkechi Ford, two close friends with husbands of means. Even his wooing is lazy and he sends the exact same love letter to them both.  Thankfully they are clever bad ass women who know how to handle themselves.  Ekua has the additional responsibility of finding a suitable match for her beautiful daughter, Anne.  She has her heart set on the prestigious Doctor Caius, while Mr Ford has selected Slender, a sweet but rather simple young man.  But like her mother, Anne has a mind of her own and her lover of choice is not negotiable.  

Jacob Ming-Trent as Falstaff and Susan Kelechi Watson as Madam Ford in Merry Wives

Saheem Ali’s staging takes advantage of the Delacorte’s airy space, filling it with the vibrant energy of his enthusiastic ensemble.  Jacob Ming-Trent is a total joy as a noisy, brash, and notorious-in-his-own-mind Falstaff.  His journey via laundry basket has never been funnier.  There is such warmth and charm in his performance, one feels a bit sorry about his treatment at the hands of far wittier Wives.  Susan Kelechi Watson’s Madam Ford grabs attention with her fabulous moves while Pascale Armand’s Madam Page is a commanding and calculating conspirator.  Both employ West African accents which add flavor though may present a challenge for unaccustomed ears.   Shola Adewusi as Mama Quickly and David Ryan Smith as the dapper doc make the most of their two dimensional characters with their impeccable timing.

Ghanaian-American writer Jocelyn Bioh has condensed Shakespeare’s comedy to a brisk 110 minutes and spiced up the language with modern slang and appropriate cultural references from jollof rice to Dreamgirls.  Upbeat musical cues by composer Michael Thurber as well as Dede Ayite’s brilliant outfits set off with hair and wigs by Cookie Jordan punch up the energy.  Stagehands outfitted as sanitation workers work speedily to redress the backgrounds.  The colorfully rendered settings by Broadway vet Beowulf Boritt  include a hair braiding salon, laundromat, family clinic and walkup apartment house, though nothing tops the natural beauty of the park itself, revealed in its natural splendor for the final scene.

The material is not the only part of the equation that is an appropriate match to this moment.  While much of the venue is seated at full capacity, sections are reserved for those who prefer to remain masked and distanced.  A fleet of volunteers help everyone find their place quickly and enforce protocols as needed.  The touchless program is accessed using a QR code on the seatback.  

The entirety of Merry Wives is a celebration of life, tolerance, and togetherness.  It is a love letter to New York and New Yorkers and a wonderful excuse to share a belly laugh in a crowd after a long stretch in isolation.  In particular, it is a fitting tribute to the residents of Seneca Village, the 19th Century Black community that lived on the land that is now occupied by Central Park.  Performances have been extended through September 20.  Visit https://publictheater.org/productions/season/2021/sitp/merry-wives/ for free ticketing information.

The Song of the Summer – SF Playhouse and On Demand

Robbie (Jeremy Kahn) is colliding with fame rather than experiencing a gentle brush with it.  Similar to Robin Thicke and his “Blurred Lines,” Robbie’s catchy “Bad Decision” (written in our world by Max Vernon and Helen Park) is a hit that is being met with charges of plagiarism and backlash for what some perceive as “rapey” lyrics.  Unlike Thicke, who brashly defended himself (and was ultimately fined millions of dollars and served with divorce papers), Robbie internalizes every boo from the audience.  In deep need of a mental break, he has ditched his upbeat manager, Joe (Reggie D. White), and taken a multi-motivated cab ride to his hometown of Pottsville.  His return engagement begins with his devoted music teacher, Mrs. C. (Anne Darragh), who shares headlines from the nearly 12 years since he moved to the west coast.  He is her success story and she serves as a surprisingly insightful mother figure.  She also has an adopted daughter, Tina (Monica Ho), who was once Robbie’s best friend with ambitious dreams of her own.  But Joe has visions of sold-out tours and five album deals and won’t leave his star act alone with his memories for long.

Lauren Yee’s The Song of the Summer —a romantic comedy with music — is certainly lighter than her breakthrough Cambodian Rock Band and might better fit this moment when audience members are trepidatiously returning to theaters.  Robbie and Tina have the lively chemistry of many odd couples. Robbie’s meandering decision-making is sheathed in luck while Tina’s more directed path has taken many unplanned hairpin turns.  Kahn in particular is a believably awkward and loving teen in flashbacks.  But though the playwright reveals the roots of Robbie’s self criticism and esteem issues, she only gives us the briefest whiff of his potential to climb out of the pit and blossom.  It’s a frustratingly thin resolution to Robbie’s genuine problems and our mostly enjoyable 90 minutes with him.

Mrs. C. (Anne Darragh*) and Robbie (Jeremy Kahn*) © Jessica Palopoli

Director Bill English employs his usual skill in developing all of the relationships.  Quieter connections are never overshadowed with comedic business.  His scenic design is equally artful in bringing small-town warmth and eccentricity to the visuals.  Mrs. C’s worn, skirted furniture fits her as well as her housecoat by costume designer Stephanie Dittbern.  And one can practically smell the beer and cigarettes in the tacky karaoke bar.  Projections by Teddy Hulsker slowly snap into place, filling out the setting.  The exception is a distracting and seemingly unnecessary hobo bag that constrains Tina’s movement in the critical final scenes.  

San Francisco Playhouse is thoughtfully offering this work On Demand as well as a live performance.  However, after serving up several beautifully filmed productions, this is delivered as a back-of-the-house live stream.  Whatever benefit is gained from the sense of immediacy is greatly offset by jerky camera work and flawed audio that loses many of Ms. Ho’s more intimate lines.   

The Song of the Summer is a good natured if slight diversion.  In-person performances at 450 Post Street in San Francisco have reduced audience capacity and safety protocols in place. The on-demand video stream will be available throughout the run which ends on August 14, 2021.  Tickets for either version begin at $15 and can be purchased at https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020-2021-season/the-song-of-summer/.