Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Visiting Mr. Green
It has taken 4 years for Jeff Baron's play, Visiting Mr. Green, to come to San Francisco. This comedy-drama has played in many major cities of this country, and there have been productions in Germany and Australia. It has also been produced in Paris and Rio de Janeiro. The world premier was held at the Berkshire Theatre Festival on June 20, 1996, and it starred the incomparable Eli Wallach as Mr. Green. At this late date, according to the publicity release I received, this presentation is supposed to be its West Coast Premier.
Jeff Baron's script is packed with humor and pathos. Mr. Green, an elderly, retired dry cleaner, wanders into traffic on New York's Upper West Side and is almost hit by a car driven by Ross Gardiner, a 29 year old corporate executive. The young man is charged with reckless driving and given the community service sentence of helping Mr. Green once a week for six months.
The play starts out as a comedy about two men who do not want to be in the same room together, but turns into a gripping and moving drama as the men get to know and care for each other, opening old wounds they have been hiding for years.
Mr. Green is a cantankerous, disoriented 86 year old widower who is living in poverty in a New York City apartment, while Ross is a rich executive for American Express. Both are Jewish. Mr. Green still believes in traditional Judaism, while Ross is a non-observant Jew. Mr. Green is a packrat while Ross is a neat freak and a spendthrift. You might say we have another Odd Couple on our hands. The only difference is their ages. These two learn to coexist and also peel back the layers of their emotions to face their own demons.
The director, Arturo Catricala, has cast two of San Francisco's finest actors, Dean Goodman and Aaron Brace, in the two man play. Mr. Brace gives a remarkably sensitive portrayal as Ross, a man who at first is clearly annoyed that he has to make his visits to this elderly man, but comes to the realization that in Mr. Green, he may be seeing a future version of himself. Veteran actor Dean Goodman carries his portrayal of Mr. Green to unexpected heights in a stellar performance. He can convey volumes with the twitch of a shoulder or the raise of an eyebrow. Mr. Goodman is celebrating his 63rd year as a professional actor. He started with the original Seattle Rep Theatre in 1937, performed in major productions in Hollywood and New York City. In Canada he toured for five months in the role of Hamlet to rave reviews. Mr. Goodman says he should be perfect for the role since "this is the seventh elderly Jewish man I will have portrayed on stage".
On a stage about the size of two large living rooms, set designer Rob Vogt has assembled the detailed living, kitchen and dining area of a run down New York apartment. There is no stage separating the audience from the actors. You are able to see every mannerism of these two fine actors. This is a quiet, passionate play about human relationships that touched my heart. I highly recommend it. It has been extended to September 17th at the New Conservatory Theatre Center and it is being presented by the fast-rising Pride Company.
Tickets range from $13 to $23.
Coming up next will be The Velocity of Gary with Danny Pintauro. It opens on September 9th and runs to September 30. Following that will be Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi. Its run will be from October 11 to December 31.
A new company called Venus Rising Company has come from New York to the East Bay. It started in New York in 1996 where they presented several musicals Off Broadway. In 1998, they produced a critically acclaimed Kiss of the Spider Woman in Manhattan. Producing director Kevin T. Morales, a native of the East Bay, was approached by the Dean Lesher Regional Center in Walnut Creek to produce eight musicals in a two year period. Mr. Morales would use a mix of local talent and professional talent from New York. Their current production is an amazing and innovative On the Town, boasting a cast of 18 actors, twelve of whom are young professionals from New York.
The production has minimal staging with a cardboard set of the Manhattan skyline across the back of the stage, which is about the size of a standard living room floor. How the director successfully managed to have 18 actors singing and dancing on this small space is a wonder.
I was apprehensive about seeing this production since this is one of the first musicals I saw back in 44 or 45. Seeing the original with Nancy Walker started me on the road to loving musical comedy. I have seen several revivals, including the recent Broadway revival, and they just could not get the excitement or the period right. I thought how is this company going to do this on a small stage with a pianist? Well, I saw this production and all I have to say is this is a smashing musical with great singing and dancing on the part of a very young, talented cast.
There was so much excitement on stage that it became infectious to the audience. The choreography by Josh Walden was faultless. This young choreographer should go on to greater heights if this memorable production is any indication.
There is a pre-show with a talented young comic Noah Weisberg. He is seen as you enter the 120 seat theater sweeping the stage. He is in a sailor outfit and he ad libs with members of the audience, always keeping in character of a sailor in 1944. Before the overture, you hear the voice of FDR who says that a state of war now exist between Japan and the United States following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. All of this gets you into the mood of WW2.
The three sailors come out and sing "New York, New York". What a trio this is! Josh Walden, the choreographer, plays Gabey, Chuck Rae plays Ozzie and Rob Lewis plays Chip. All live in New York and have credits from Off Broadway plays. Without all of the trappings, you can see these three young men are in consent motion. All are astounding dancers and singers.
Nancy D'Addario plays the taxi driver who manhandles Chip with a timing that is New York perfection. She had a pure strong voice and she belts out "I Can Cook Too". She starts out by using a Mae West voice but that disappears as the musical progresses.
Natalie Cortez plays a fawn-like Ivy Smith. She is a beautiful dancer and she reminds me of the girl in the yellow dress in Contact.
The long dance sequences are both lyrical and balletic, with a strong sense of ensemble. It is superb dancing at its finest. Noah, who I mentioned earlier, has a show stopping number in the second act and is incredible in the song "I Understand". Lucia Scardino plays the drunken dancing mistress and she is outstanding in the role, playing it with just a light touch. Michael O'Dell was master of the keyboard.
Kevin Morales has done a bang up job directing this talented cast and I wish him every success in his future shows. I most certainly will be there to see them! The show closed on September 3. It had full houses at every performance.
Venus Rising will be presenting Assassins in February, 2001 and Pippin in April.