Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical and
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

Also see Jeanie's reviews of Rich and Famous and Les Misérables

A Stunning Production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical

Jessie Mueller and Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
The Curran Theatre was rocking on opening night with Jessie Mueller and a talented cast in the new Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Broadway previews begin November 21 for this bio-musical that features tunes from the singer-songwriter's canon. With a book by scribe and filmmaker Douglas McGrath the musical follows King's early life from her Brooklyn childhood through her career as a songwriter for major music acts like The Drifters and The Chiffons. Beautiful draws upon a catalogue of songs penned by King and her writing partner/husband Gerry Goffin as well as from the songbook of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

There's a lot to like in this production, including the appealing and striking Jessie Mueller as Carole King. Although the plot doesn't live up to the songs, there is no denying that this score is some kind of wonderful. It includes a wide-ranging catalog of pop hits from the '60s and '70s that you will be humming when you leave the theatre. There are many jukebox musicals that try to capture the light musical entertainment of Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia!, but few thrive with as much stimulus as Beautiful.

The plot focuses on the first decade of King's career, from the lightning courtship of Gerry Goffin (Jake Epstein) and the breakout hit with "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," through the often troubled marriage and her solo blockbuster album "Tapestry." At some points the first act gets lost in the Brill Building at 1650 Broadway where songwriting teams like King and Goffin face off with the likes of Cynthia Weil (Anika Larsen) and Barry Mann (Jarrod Spector). Hits are cranked out in record time in this tune factory headed by Don Kirshner (Jeb Brown). During this fast-paced act the audience sees and hear songs made famous by pop artists like the Shirelles and The Righteous Brothers performed by a dazzling ensemble cast. The first act builds to a peak with Little Eva's novelty hit "The Loco-Motion." The choreographic highpoint for the evening is the Mann-Weil song "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" sung by actors playing the Righteous Brothers.

There is more drama in the rapid and pretty compelling second act, but it still needs work. The marital breakup is well depicted and King moves into writing on her own. We hear the glory of Mueller's renditions of "It's Too Late" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." The piece de resistance is her lovely delivery of "Beautiful" which ends the two hour fifteen minute riveting production.

Jake Epstein gives an outstanding performance as songwriting partner and troubled husband Gerry Goffin. Anika Larsen is vibrant with dynamic vocal cords as Cynthia Weil and the magnetic Jarrod Spector plays her partner Barry Mann. Jeb Brown gives an invigorating portrayal of the head of 1650 Broadway, Don Kirshner. Liz Larson gives a fine performance in the small role of Carole's mother Genie Klein.

Derek McLane has designed a splendid set of speedily moving platforms and panels that reach up to the second tier to summarize the pop nostalgia. It's a bright and resourceful set. Steve Sidwell's arrangements include retro and contemporary sounds skillfully played by Jason Howland's twelve-member orchestra.

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical plays through October 20th at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 888-745-1799 or visit Coming up next for SHN will be Peter and the Starcatcher opening at the Curran Theatre on November 5 and running through December 1 and The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess at the Golden Gate Theatre opening on November 10 and running through December 8th.

A Shrewd, Savage Production of Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

(Craig Marker, Gabriel Marin and Will Marchetti
Photo by Jessica Palopoli
Playwright Rajiv Joseph has become very popular in Bay Area theatres. We have seen his Animals Out of Paper, at San Francisco Playhouse in 2009 and currently at San Jose Stage; TheatreWorks presented his North Pool in 2011; and Tide Theatre Company will be presenting his Gruesome Playground Injuries this month. San Francisco Playhouse, now entering its second decade of featuring cutting edge plays, is presenting the clever and ferocious comedy Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo through November 16th. It is focused on the effects of war on the young men in Iraq. These soldiers are little more than children who are plunged, poorly equipped, into the chaos of battle and a totally foreign culture. The two-hour drama is more of a ghost story than a war story.

This Pulitzer Prize finalist is the story of Tom (Gabriel Marin) and Kev (Craig Marker), two United States Marines stationed at the newly liberated Baghdad Zoo. Tom makes the mistake of offering a snack to a tiger (Will Marchetti) in a cage with results that leave the soldier without a hand. Kev shoots the tiger dead and the tiger's ghost (Will Marchetti) tells the audience "I get so stupid when I get hungry."

The ghost of the Tiger meanders around the burning city as a nomadic philosopher, wondering audibly how a loving and compassionate God might be the author of his own hopeless nature. Also in this provocative play is Uday Hussein (Pomme Koch), resuscitated as a manifestation sent back to torture his former gardener Musa (Kuros Charney), who is now working as an Arabic translator for the American forces.

Bengal Tiger can be considered a realistic metaphorical fantasy about the playwright's miniature vision of the bedlam that reigned in Baghdad shortly after the invasion of Iraq. It struggles, on occasion, to find a narrative drive, especially in the rather bewildering and overly reflective second act, but the humane and gifted direction by Bill English keeps events on a human scale. He directs the two hour production with stunning subtlety with a flawless cast of Bay Area actors.

Will Marchetti plays the tiger with stunningly deadpan humor that controverts the haunted look in his eyes. He does not wear a Simba-style costume; he walks upright more like a war refugee than feline. He is a philosophical but bewildered figure that happens to be speaking from the afterlife. ("It used to be, 'Why am I here?' Now it's 'Why aren't I gone?'.) He beautifully haunts the trouble Kev, who melts down in one frightening, paranoid rampage at the home of two Iraqi women. Craig Marker superbly plays to dimwitted perfection the man/child marine Kev. He interchangeably bellyaches and makes ridiculous boasts about the prowess he is yet to prove.

Gabriel Marin gives a wonderful performance as the marine Tom. He gives animosity and sedated humanity to the character who returns to Iraq after acquiring an artificial hand. In the second act, there is a scene involving Tom about masturbation that is absolutely hilarious. Kuros Charney gives a beautiful heartfelt performance as Musa, the soldier's translator. He is haunted by the ghost of Uday Hussein played intensely by Pomme Koch who is flaky, funny and utterly chilling as he struts around toting the head of his brother Qusay. He plays the role like a 1970s lounge lizard. The cast is rounded out by Livia Demarchi playing Hadia a prostitute and Sarita Ocon playing a leper. Both give splendid performances.

Bill English has devised a specular set of rolling desert sands and a garden of hanging topiary animals. Dan Reed's violently expressive lighting and Tatjana Genser's evocative costumes make for a beautifully atmospheric staging. Steven Klems' all-enveloping sound design is excellent.

Bengal Tiger at Baghdad Zoo plays through November 16th at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, 2nd floor of Kensington Park Hotel, between Powell & Mason, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-677-9596 or visit Coming up next will be John Patrick Shanley's Storefront Church opening on November 30th.

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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