Category Archives: On Demand

Mr. Saturday Night on BroadwayHD

Launched in 2015 by veteran producers Stewart F. Lane and Bonnie Comley, the intention of online platform BroadwayHD is to replicate the Broadway experience for those who do not have access to the Great White Way.  Added to initial listings like She Loves Me are now hundreds of shows including family favorites like Kinky Boots and classics from the Royal Shakespeare Company.  The service provides a comfortable entry for those who don’t want to gamble $125 per person to introduce family members to the theater as an entertainment option.

Their latest addition is Mr. Saturday Night, a musical comedy starring the always amiable Billy Crystal who also serves as Executive Producer.  Filmed live at the Nederlander Theater on August 31, 2022, the production is based on Crystal’s self-directed 1992 movie of the same name.  It follows the career of Buddy Young Jr., a fictional Borscht Belt comedian who rose to stardom hosting a Saturday evening television variety show.  His reputation in tatters after an on-air incident, he is now performing before disengaged nursing home residents.  But his mistaken inclusion in the “In Memoriam” portion of the Emmy’s brings him much needed attention from a surprising source.

Whether this offering leaves you kvelling or plotzing will depend in large part on the level of admiration you hold for classic comics such as Phil Silvers, Totie Fields and Buddy Hackett.  (Thanks to YouTube, this admiration needn’t be restricted to those of a certain age.)  The revised script by Billy Crystal, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandel doesn’t solve the problem of the original film and Buddy remains a character that is hard to like much less root for.  However, Mr. Crystal’s live performance allows the audience to bathe in his suburb timing and delivery.  In his hands, even the broadest of jokes makes it easy to admire the craft even if it’s not your preferred style of humor.  It should be noted that some of the material is quite blue and may not be suitable for younger family members. 

Crystal has surrounded himself with a terrific, energetic cast.  Shoshana Bean lends her soaring expressive voice to the role of Buddy’s struggling daughter, Susan, while Randy Graff brings deep dimension to Buddy’s loyal-to-a-fault wife Elaine.  The reliable David Paymer reprises his Oscar nominated performance in the more stereotypical role of jealous brother, Stan.  Jordan Gelber, Brian Gonzales, and Mylinda Hull do a lot of heavy lifting playing several roles apiece and giving variation to each.  While the charming Chasten Harmon overflows with warmth as Annie Wells, a young and exuberant agent trying to help Buddy rise again.  In a wonderful twist on the original casting, the adults play their teenage selves.

The company of Mr. Saturday Night; photo by Matthew Murphy

As is true with most streaming productions, the show has two directors.  Tony winner John Rando handled the stage production and Matthew Diamond translated it for the home screen.  Sometimes presenting camera angles that would not be seen by a live audience, Diamond— who previously directed The Wiz Live for NBC — employs a style more similar to a television show than a recreation of a theatrical experience.  But this is a musical that relies more on exchanges among two or three characters and less on big production numbers.  Clever projections by Jeff Sugg that enhance a set designed by Scott Pask are well incorporated by the camera work.  And Diamond’s more intimate framing allows home viewers to observes details such as the framed photo of Crystal and his Comic Relief cohorts on the walls of the Friar’s Club set as well as enjoy the moving facial expressions of the entire ensemble.  There are also moments when the live audience is included in a shot and their enthusiastic responses are contagious.  Putting the end credits over individual actor’s faces is a nice touch.  Uptempo music by Jason Robert Brown with lyrics by Amanda Green supply enjoyable interludes in the storytelling.  The players’ annunciation is excellent, but there are easy-to-read captions available.

Though modestly produced by Broadway standards, Mr. Saturday Night is lifted by Billy Crystal’s generally appealing performance.  And the central theme of second chances is given unusual spin.  Runtime is two and a half hours, though Act II is clearly marked if you need a stretch break.  Exclusive to BroadwayHD subscribers, this production was made possible by a special arrangement with Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures.  Visit https://www.broadwayhd.com to sign up for a special holiday offer of $99.99 for one year (available through December 8) or dip your toe in their stream for $11.99 a month.  The fees make it possible to offer the entire catalogue ad and interruption free.

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Lavender Men – Los Angeles and Streaming

Taffeta, one of three characters in Lavender Men, describes what we are about to see as a “fantasia”.  The piece explores a personal chapter in the life of Abraham Lincoln as filtered through the mind — indeed the entire body — of playwright Roger Q. Mason.  In 1860, Lincoln mentored a young law clerk, Elmer Ellsworth.  Ellsworth went on to help Lincoln campaign for president.  He eventually made history of his own when he became the first Union casualty of the American Civil War, killed while removing a large Confederate flag from the rooftop of a Virginia inn.  That the men admired each other and became good friends is well documented.  In Lavender Men, Mason speculates that the two meant much more to one another.

The fast moving script, developed in Skylight Theater Company’s resident playwrights lab, covers many themes and styles.  Taffeta proposes that she take Abe and Elmer back in time to reexamine their relationship.  She will take on the role of “everyone else” including a young soldier, a cleaning woman, Mary Todd Lincoln and even a tree near a swimming hole.  Black, large, boisterous, and proudly queer, she is everything the two men are not, opening up plenty of space for conversation about oppressed voices throughout our history.  Themes of body image issues and social biases are explored, though the main plot always returns to a heartfelt love story.  

The play works best when it is self-aware such as when a character questions what is currently being taught in classrooms.  Mason seems to be using personal experience to deepen the emotions of the storytelling, which also makes the viewpoint very specific.  Their haunting voices literally make themselves heard in Taffeta’s ears.  The work does an admirable job of showing the imperfections of Lincoln’s legacy, but there are missed opportunities to connect those events more tightly to today’s political and social climate, particularly as that relates to Lincoln’s own party.  

Director Lovell Holder, who has been attached to the production since a reading at New York’s Circle in the Square, has brought out an intensity in all three actors.  His staging makes great use of a relatively small space and every speck of furniture.  The company has wisely hired Seth Dorcey to direct and edit the streaming version so that the flow translates for home viewers and harnesses the power of the enthusiastic live audience.  The set designed by Stephen Gifford uses a wardrobe as the main doorway so that Abe and Elmer literally go into and out of the closet throughout.  The backdrop includes some wonderful detail — a photo of Frederick Douglas, a paste-up of Lincoln — but nothing that distracts from the terrific performances.  Like a proper fantasia, there is original music by David Gonzalez which smooths the transitions ranging from burlesque to gravitas with cello played by John Swihart.  The shifts in mood are further supported by Dan Weingarten’s atmospheric lighting. Erin Bednarz’s sound design also incorporates some well-timed gun shots.  

Pete Ploszek, Alex Esola, and Roger Q. Mason; Photo credit Jenny Graham

Swirling in Wendell Carmichael’s glorious skirts and bonnets, playwright Mason portrays their unique creation, Taffeta, as bold yet self critical, wise, but with lessons to learn.  The chemistry between Pete Ploszek’s Abe and Alex Esola’s Elmer is electric.  The two maintain connection as they move through time — now, then and never — while manage Taffeta’s coaxing, interfering, and micromanagement.  This renders the tightly choreographed slo-mo love scene superfluous and, with Taffeta as a witness, cheapens what had felt genuine.  

Lavender Men is an engaging and emotionally charged look at pages from history you think you know.  It is currently playing at the Skylight Theater at 1816 1/2 North Vermont Ave in Los Angeles.  It is also available On Demand which is how I was able to enjoy it in New York City.  Run time is 95 minutes with no intermission.  Seats for the live show are $23 – $80.  Showtimes are Saturday 8:30pm, Sunday 3:00pm, and Monday 7:30pm.  The virtual experience is $28.75 for a secure link good for 72 hours.  Tickets through September 4 are available at https://skylighttheatre.org/program-lavender-men/.

Our Daughters, Like Pillars – Boston and Streaming

Playwright Kirsten Greenidge understands the impact of order: birth order, marriage order, and trying to keep order.  In her family drama Our Daughters, Like Pillars, she explores the significance of order in three full acts, allowing her characters to leisurely reveal their affecting histories and conflicting hopes for the future.  

This was my third viewing of a Huntington Theater play made possible by their digital insurance policy.  These offerings are not films, but rather live capture of a singular experience using 10-12 cameras.  While nothing can replicate the energy of sharing a performance with an in-person audience, The Huntington’s digital works offer quality productions to those who remain unable to sit in a venue with strangers.  All three had exceptionally clear audio. My first of these was the darkly funny Teenage Dick, energetically directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel with a first rate cast.  This stream was later shared with the Pasadena Playhouse for an extended run.  Next was Toni Morrison’s devastating The Bluest Eye gorgeously adapted by Lydia R. Diamond.  Director Awoye Timpo’s swirling camerawork allowed home audiences to better view the characters’ movements around a stage poignantly shaped like a chopped tree stump.  With Kimberly Senior’s traditional proscenium staging, Our Daughters, Like Pillars uses more expressive close-ups than shifting angles, but it never loses pacing. 

The story revolves around the three Shaw sisters who are vacationing in a house rented by oldest sister Lavinia (Seldes-Kanin fellowship winner Nikkole Salter) and her husband.  What should be a celebratory time of togetherness turns increasingly tension-filled as Vinny becomes progressively more controlling of her siblings and their mother.  Having felt isolated during the first year of COVID, Vinny’s vision is to have the entire family under one roof on a permanent basis.  But though she tries tactical cajoling, needling guilt, and outright manipulation, that goal is not shared either by people-pleasing middle sister Octavia (Arie Thompson) or youngest Zelda (Lyndsay Allyn Cox) who has only just taken her first steps towards independence.  We gain a deeper understanding of the siblings through their mother Yvonne (Lizan Mitchell) and their stepmother Missy (Cheryl D. Singleton) who are each given profound fourth-wall breaking monologues.  Race and class play important but smaller roles in the script.

Lyndsay Allyn Cox, Arie Thompson and Nikkole Salter; Photo by T Charles Erickson

While the spotlight is clearly on the women — by turns strong and brittle — it is the two men who supply the softness.  Genuine light shines from Julian Parker’s Paul King, Zelda’s casual conquest living by his wits who gets caught up in the whirl of family conflict. And Postell Pringle portrays Vinny’s husband Morris with intensity as he tries to rein in his wife’s darker, more destructive instincts.  The set by Marion Williams includes several levels which provides a feeling of movement to the dialogue-heavy drama.  The family is tightly contained, with the outside world intruding only through the ringing of a telephone.  Costumes by Sarita Fellows add essential color and flow while Jane Shaw’s sound incorporates music from Prince to Sam Cooke.

At 3 ½ hours including two 15 minute intermissions, Our Daughters, Like Pillars, indulges in the kind of rolling storytelling rarely seen since March 2020.  It is playing at the Huntington’s Wimberly Theatre in Boston through May 8 and On Demand through May 22.  Prices range from $25 – $99.  For tickets and information visit https://www.huntingtontheatre.org/plays-and-events/.

Tiger Style – Arkansas and Streaming

In Mike Lew’s Tiger Style, Albert Chen is the congenial, underperforming younger brother of Jenny, a first rate doctor with a third rate love life.  The 30-something Chinese Americans share the burden of navigating the chasm between being born in Southern California yet being viewed as exotic in the case of Jenny or muted as Albert is. They vow to get out of their boxes even though they have no experience in out-of-the box thinking.  What they lack in rebellious nature, they make up for in their bond to one another.  But is “you and me against the world” enough of a force to create change? Certainly the characters swing for the fences, going all the way to another country in search of the right tools.  Act II takes place primarily in Shenzhen, China where they have familial roots.  While the tone expectantly shifts, the direction of that shift is surprising and the work veers towards farce.  

Director Chongren Fan expertly steers the action through the varying beats.  The stage is triangular, with two sides often hosting different scenes.  The set by Chika Shimizu incorporates multiple doors and revolving walls that help us move quickly to each location.  These pieces take on a mood elevating function in the more physical Act II.  Simple elements define each location: a Beyoncé quotation over Jennifer’s couch, a chaise in the therapist’s office, and a wooden bar and chairs in the parents’ home. Costume design by YuanYuan Liang is similarly stripped down, with an Oscar the Grouch T-shirt and matching plaid jackets helping to define characters.  Sparkling fabrics make their arrival in the second half of the play when the siblings’ outfits also undergo subtle changes.  While these likely began as budgetary requirements, the effect helps to draw parallels between Jenny’s and Albert’s American lives and their experiences in China.  They are essentially living in the same apartment with the same “baggage.”  Yi-Chung Chen’s light design includes chase lights around the floor tiles which cleverly add definition and sense of place.

Brandon Ruiter, Brian Kim McCormick, and Eileen Rivera perform well in multiple roles, but with little differentiation.  The impact of this creative decision puts the weight of success squarely on the shoulders of the two central characters.  The appealing Hyunmin Rhee plays Albert with warmth and charming bewilderment while the sharp Stephanie Shum finds heart at the center of the frustrated Jenny.  The dynamic between them has the perfect balance of friction and affection.  Making the most of Lew’s nicely crafted banter, the two actors bounce off each other in genuine rhythm that functions as a metronome holding the disparate tones of the work together.  

Stephanie Shum and Hyunmin Rhee in Tiger Style at TheatreSquared; Photo by Wesley Hitt

Tiger Style begins boldly as an exploration of cultural inheritance and racial profiling.  It’s a heavy lift for a generally light script that concludes with physical comedy and word play.  The experience is certainly enjoyable, but lacks some of the lasting impact of Lew’s Teenage Dick.  Performances run through April 10 in the West Theatre at TheatreSquared, 477 W. Spring Street in downtown Fayetteville, Arkansas.  Tickets range from $20-$54 and can be purchased at  theatre2.org.  As an alternative, a 24 hour digital pass starts at noon on your chosen day which is how I was able to enjoy the work all the way in New York City.  Live runtime is 2 hours and 15 minutes (1:54 when streamed without intermission.)

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.

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.

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.