Tag Archives: San Francisco Playhouse

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.

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/.

San Francisco Playhouse Zoomlets: Deep dives into short works

Like many, I have been reflective on this pandemic anniversary. But I actually lost access to a favorite recurring theatrical event years ago when I moved to New York.  Monday night readings at the San Francisco Playhouse provided an opportunity to mingle with their welcoming creative team, the cream of Bay Area talent, and a passionate audience.  Some nights you got something like Lauren Gunderson’s historical drama Bauer, which went on to have full productions on both coasts.  On other occasions it was more like Remaking Pussycat, a loopy psychodrama by William Bivins that seems to have lived on only in my memory.  But these evenings always left me feeling deeply connected to a magical undertaking.  Plus there was an array of charcuterie and lots of wine.

SF Playhouse has worked hard to capture what was best about those readings with its Zoomlets: deep dives into the equivalent of first rehearsals of either a short play or a scene from a longer work.  Hosted by the company’s enthusiastic Artistic Director Bill English and attended by 300 unseen audience members, these online events are director-driven.  Ten minute cold readings are bookended by open conversation and informative exploration of the creative process.  I sampled three entries that represent the range of the selections by English and Producing Director Susi Damilano for their current library of 20 offerings.  I had to supply my own salumi and Malbec, but I could conjure up the sense memories of sitting in the darkened house at the Kensington Park Hotel.

There are 20 Zoomlets currently available to stream in the San Francisco Playhouse Library

Lee Cataluna’s Funeral Attire directed by Shaun Taylor-Corbett is the third in the Playhouse’s series by Indigenous playwrights.  Kalani Queypo and Román Zaragoza play rivaling half brothers who are assigned an unusual bonding ritual in preparation for their father’s memorial service. Darrell Dennis rounds out the cast as the funeral director trying to keep the atmosphere from getting too charged. Cataluna was responding to a prompt to write about a piece of Native attire and included inspiration from an altercation she had at her own mother’s funeral.  All you need to know to appreciate her unique cultural lens is present in the naturalistic dialogue, which you’ll experience a second time when the lead actors switch roles.  The team had previously worked together at Native Voices and the snappy ten minute comedy benefits from their comfort level with each other as well as everyone’s impressive timing.   

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles is two masterclasses stuffed into one rich hour.  The same scene is taken from two versions of the play: a poetic translation by Cornell University based classicist Frederick Ahl and a more modern dramatization by mistress of political theater Timberlake Wertenbaker.  The exuberant Carey Perloff provides critical background into the historical setting and the story you may only know from college lit class or Freudian psychology.  She then gives a textbook-worthy lesson in direction by prodding and guiding the excellent John Thompson and Steven Jones as they explore the characters of Oedipus and Tiresias in a key exchange from the beginning of this classic work.  Thompson shows particular restraint, balancing the King’s frustration with vulnerability.  Jones has the tougher job of creating a backstory for an aged soothsayer who has lived as both man and woman.  This is a must-watch for anyone who has avoided the Greeks out of fear that these pieces are no longer relevant.

You won’t want to see yourself in Aaron Loeb’s A Sure Cure Lure Story, but thanks to his honest writing you almost certainly will.  The friendships between A, a black woman (Cathleen Riddley), Sure, a white woman (Stacy Ross), Cure, a black man (Aldo Billingslea), and Lure, a white man  (James Carpenter) grow brittle as a simple request for empathy disintegrates into a cycle of appropriation, impatience, and entrenchment.  The first read is fascinating; the second is chilling.  Jon Tracy does a dazzling job in limited time, using vivid imagery to help his cast lean into their discomfort and adjust their timing and pacing.  Displaying extraordinary listening skills, the uniformly excellent actors override the limitations of Zoom, increase the sense of urgency and bring out the best in Loeb’s searing dialogue.  The pre and post discussions among the team members are funny and convivial.  I really wanted to go out with them for a beer, a beverage that plays a memorable supporting role.

A treasure trove for theater lovers, Zoomlets can be streamed free of charge from the San Francisco Playhouse site (https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/) or on their YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/SFPlayhouse).  All the actors have been paid and donations are encouraged to cover this valuable investment in their talent (https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/empathy-gym-memberships/).

[hieroglyph] – Streaming On Demand

Recent powerful productions including the film Promising Young Woman, the limited series Unbelievable, and the play What the Constitution Means to Me have strived to open conversations about our country’s seeming inability to effectively address violence against women.  All too often the aftermath of these crimes is focused on how to change the behavior of women (who should perhaps dress and act differently!) rather than the male perpetrators.  [hieroglyph] — a co-production of San Francisco Playhouse and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre currently streaming from the SF Playhouse website — explores our near-dismissal of rape culture specifically as it manifests in the Black community.  Inspired by true events that took place in the projects near her Chicago home as well as headlines made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, playwright Erika Dickerson-Despenza has crafted a work centered on 13 year old Davis.  Along with her father, the girl was evacuated by FEMA from New Orleans to Chicago while her mother has stayed behind. 

Her old life ripped away from her, Davis is struggling with her studies and seems unusually anxious. Concerned that she’s endangering her chances of securing a good college education, her father Ernest enlists the help of her favorite teacher Miss T.  Art is the only subject in which Davis is excelling and he hopes Miss T can encourage the talented teen to put that energy into academics.  Instead, Miss T shares her concerns that through her art, Davis is attempting to communicate a trauma for which she literally has no words.  (The play’s title is enclosed in square brackets, used to indicate that an outside voice is imparting information left unclear by the speaker. ) The pictures of women and street scenes of her old home are peppered with symbols.  When their secret is revealed, it is simple and yet devastating. 

Jamella Cross and Khary Moye in [hieroglyph]; photo by Jessica Palopoli

The Equity production was fully staged at the San Francisco Playhouse and filmed using three cameras with Zoom in mind and under the guidance of two COVID compliance officers.  Assuredly directed by Hansberry Artistic Director Margo Hall with choreography by Latanya D. Tigner, the drama is paced with rising urgency.  Hall’s steering of the quick changes of mood is cleverly color coded by costume designer Regina Y. Evans, who wraps Miss T in a radiant palate while signaling Leah’s comfort with her own body with soothing tones and relaxed fit.  Dickerson-Despenza’s dramatic device of muttering in one’s sleep as a way of filling in backstory isn’t nearly as impactful as the use of projections (created by Teddy Hulsker) to share Davis’s impassioned pictures.  Headphones are highly recommended in order to better feel the anguish evident in Everett Elton Bradman’s searing soundscape.

Jamella Cross provides the vulnerable Davis Hayes with the shaky defenses of a typical teen.  In a moment of particular tenderness, she clutches a teddy bear while trying to hide the alcohol on her breath from her concerned father.  Her delicacy is nicely balanced by the bubbly confident energy of Anna Marie Sharpe’s buoyant Leah.  The pivotal role of Miss T is beautifully rendered by Safiya Fredericks, who has to navigate the tightest emotional turns of the four.  While Khary L. Moye as Ernest Hayes is left holding the space for men who must confront the fallout from their own toxic masculinity.  The skillful performances bring authenticity and connection to a script that occasionally overruns its banks.  There are four vivid descriptions of rape, similar only in their level of disturbance.  The tidal wave of horrors risks drowning the audience in pain and potentially depresses their ability to fully respond.  (The playbill provides contact information for appropriate agencies for those who need to talk.)

It is heartening to see two fabulous production companies collaborating to provide a homebound audience with thought-provoking content.  And despite its relentless gut punches,  [hieroglyph] fulfills the mission of continuing to build community one play at a time. It runs 98 minutes without an intermission and is streaming On Demand at https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020-2021-season/hieroglyph/ through April 3.  Tickets ($15 – $100) can be purchased from Lorraine Hansberry Theatre at lhtsf.org or from San Francisco Playhouse at sfplayhouse.org. 

The Jewelry Box (Streaming)

Though The Jewelry Box is the story of one particular little Black boy buying a Christmas present for his mother, by distributing this production online the San Francisco Playhouse has given us all a gift.  Holiday season brings up a range of emotions; never more so than in the middle of a pandemic when we are likely isolated from the people with whom we’d most like to celebrate.  This warm, human, and utterly heart-melting play is performed and co-written by Brian Copeland, who’s Not A Genuine Black Man still echos in my mind despite the dozens of solo shows I’ve seen since.  Though there are storytellers who depict their assortment of characters with more physical distinction, Copeland has a singular flair with language and the ability to paint vivid and lasting images with his words.  Moreover, he has a fantastic sense of humor and periodically draws on his stand-up experience to share a little secret with the audience as his adult self.  

The Jewelry Box covers an early chapter in Copeland’s life, but it stands complete on its own.  We’re in 1970s Oakland where a six year old Brian has spotted a wooden jewelry box he knows will make his Mom smile.  His family had been forced to move four times in a short period and personal possessions had been left behind at each stop.  He sets out to raise the $11.97 he needs to purchase the box, showing himself to be a tiny but mighty entrepreneurial spirit.  We get to meet many of his neighbors — some more understanding than others — sketched out in detail with the colors filled in by mixing Copeland’s artistry with our own imagination.

David Ford directed the original production for The Marsh Theater.  The intimacy of this project makes it well suited for the streaming environment where San Francisco Playhouse’s Artist Director Bill English did the editing.  For this rendition, English balances mimicking the theater experience with more intense close ups. No set is necessary as Copeland builds his own landscape with some sound effects and lights fully focusing the picture.  The choice of a slightly baggy primary colored striped shirt makes it easy for Copeland to embody his much younger self.

No reflection on all those theaters who will once again stage A Christmas Carol or A Child’s Christmas in Wales, but the San Francisco Playhouse deserves praise for finding such an appropriate fresh offering for this unique holiday season.  Class and race play important supporting roles in The Jewelry Box, evergreen themes that have taken on renewed significance.  Two COVID compliance officers kept Copland and the production team safe and a brand new Equity agreement made it possible for this to be seen online for a limited time.   The final screenshot is a long “Heroes List”: a visual reminder that now more than ever we need to pull together and keep the performing arts healthy as well.  The only element I dearly missed was the laughter of my fellow audience members.  But I know for certain it was there.

The on-demand video stream of The Jewelry Box is available through Christmas day.  Single tickets are $15-$100. Call 415-677-9596, or visit https://www.sfplayhouse.org/sfph/2020-2021-season/the-jewelry-box/.    Subscriptions in support of the San Francisco Playhouse season may also be purchased.