Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Souvenir, SF Follies and Waitin' 2 End Hell
A Wonderful Comic Performance in Souvenir
With her tone-deaf voice, Florence Foster Jenkins tantalized Manhattan music lovers in the 1930s and '40s in concerts at the Ritz Hotel Ball Room for charity events. She was a wealthy and self-absorbed society woman who actually thought she could sing, even up to high Cs. She had no clue that she was singing off key. Her rich friends who attended these concerts would never tell her that she sang like a cat in heat. The singer butchered each aria that she sang. I can imagine that the noble composers like Mozart, Verdi and Gounod were turning over in their graves when she sang their melodies. I had the dubious honor of attending her U.S.O. concert in 1944 at Carnegie Hall as a United States Air Force serviceman, and I can say the second act of this Temperley's play is very realistic.
Souvenir gives us a humorous and insightful look at the woman and her unusual career. Judy Kaye's performance is pure magic, capturing the singer's excruciatingly bad singing perfectly. Ms. Kaye is funny and, even at the end, one cannot but help feel sorry for the character. The scene where she is listening to her recorded voice singing Mozart's "Queen of the Night" aria is priceless ("I must say I'm quite pleased. Quite pleased. It has spirit. Con brio, molto vivace!"). There were times that I couldn't help but think of Patricia Ruthledge's Hyacinth Bucket in the British sitcom "Keeping Up Appearances."
The second act is a perfect re-creation of the 1944 Carnegie Hall concert. There is a succession of fragments from arias delivered in bad voice and outrageous costumes. When Judy Kaye comes on stage dressed in an angel outfit with white wings singing "Ava Maria," she brings down the house. The perfect sound effects by David Budries add realism in depicting that never-to-be-forgotten night.
Donald Corren's performance as Jenkins' friend and pianist Cosme McMoon is a just right balance to the crazy antics of the singer. He lands every droll line with excellent timing and great body language. His club style singing is a musically charming relief from the "cat calling" of Kaye's vocal cords.
R. Michael Miller has created a utilitarian set, and Tracy Christensen's costumes in the second act are a real hoot. Vivian Matalon's direction is excellent.
Souvenir plays through March 15 at the American Musical Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. Their next production will be the world premiere of Lillian Groag's adaptation of Christopher Logue's book War Music, opening on March 26th.
Fifteen young energy-driven singers and dancers on a small floor light up the show singing new lyrics to old standard tunes. Choreographer Kayvon Kordestani has created outstandingly tight ensemble numbers for the diminutive stage of the theatre. The show is packed with delightful teasing and clever songs presented by this sparkling group of Bay Area performers.
The rapid-pace, all-singing, all-talking, all-dancing production starts with the upbeat "Favorite Son" number from Will Rogers Follies with the whole cast dancing and clapping, and singing new lyrics about the city. This is a rousing opening that is quickly followed by a not-so-politically-correct history of the city that was originally called Yerba Buena ("It was a simple heterosexual place"). It starts with the annihilation of the Ohio natives by arriving Spaniards and winds up with a penniless couple from the Midwest living in the streets, as a bag lady, played realistically by Jujuana ShaRon Williams, croons "Cash Not Care." This same talented singer sprightly sings "We're In the Money" in another segment, parodying the dot com revolution. The dot com sequent has a great takeoff of "Rich Man's Frug" from Sweet Charity, danced excitingly by the cast.
SF Follies has something for everyone, including the history of the Gold Rush (with Christopher John Lindstrom running around like a naked gold minerdon't ask why), the '06 earthquake, the building of the Golden Gate Bridge and its sister the Bay Bridge, the hippie scene (the use of songs from Hair is effective) and the current situation with the BART shootings and tiger attacks at the SF Zoo. All of this is done tongue in cheek with a certain amount of seriousness behind the droll remarks.
Every diversified neighborhood gets a spoof, including the city itself with "Don't Cry For Me, San Francisco" ("the truth is I can't afford you") and neighborhoods like the Marina (presented to the tune of "Maria"), Noe Valley and Castro ("where everyone is a homo in the neighborhood"). Homosexuals get a nice lampoon about the marriages at city hall before the defeat of Prop 8. George Patrick Scott and Christopher John Lindstrom make a cute couple dressed in light blue tuxes getting married to song "Going to the Chapel."
San Francisco personalities get their share of parody also. Brett Hammon, who actually looks like Mayor Gavin Newsom, is smooth as the current mayor taking a young couple on a tour of the city sights. Brett has terrific vocal chops when singing the gleeful "Popular" with new lyrics ("I'm pop-u-lar in my Prada suit"). He has great charisma coming across to the audience.
Other luminaries get nicely skewered, like Patty Hearst in a song sung nicely by Tenaya Hurst, "(I Get By) With a Little Help From My Friends." Jessica Payne is entertaining as Jan Wahl and Dianne Feinstein. While playing Ms. Feinstein, she joins in a "Charlie's Angels" fantasy with Congressional cohorts Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi. Mandy Wilczynski and Jenna Davi are first class as the female politicians. Ryan McBrearty is hysterically funny singing a takeoff of Gilbert and Sullivan's "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General" ("I am the very model of a modern city meter maid"), posed as an omnipresent parking meter cop. Tiffany Joy in a Latino version of "Hot, Hot, Hot," George Patrick Scott as the wildest dancer you will ever see in Swan Lake, Erica Gerard as TV anchorwoman Wendy Tokuda, and Millie DeBenedet and Jepoy Ramos are all excellent in their various roles.
Sometimes the singers are over-miked for the intimate stage and the lyrics do not come out clearly. However, over time this minor problem should be cleared up.
SF Follies ends on a wonderful nostalgia bita lovely piano rendition of "I Left my Heart in San Francisco" playing in the background of flickering black and white footage of many of the events and characters of the past. No commentary, just the tinkling of the piano. It is eloquent moment. The final bit of wistfulness we feel about our city is that, even with its liabilities, we still believe it is our city and we love it.
Bisceglie's SF Follies plays at Actors Theatre, 855 Bush Street, San Francisco through April 15th. For tickets go to www.sffollies.com.
Photo: Ryan Montgomery
Waitin' 2 End Hell is a two hour and twenty minute reaction to Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale. The drama is about a battle between the sexes in a confrontation to the finish with no holds barred between Dante (Alex Morris) and his wife Diane (Pjay Phillips). Dante is a handsome and intelligent parole officer who loves his wife and children. He believes in the "old fashioned" style family, where the male is head of the household and should be honored as such. Diana is an up and coming businesswoman making twice as much as her husband. She is part of the new Women's Movement in which some women are no longer just wanting equal power, but retributive dominance. The couple has been married for twelve years and there is a lot of squabbling between them about who is really head of the house.
William A. Parker's drama opens at an anniversary celebration for Dante and Alice who look like a happy and loving couple. They are an inspiration to the married Angela (Charisse Loriaux) and Alvin (Michael Wayne Rice) and a stimulus to steadfastly unmarried Larry (Michael J. Asberry) and Shay (Natasha Noel). However, things certainly take a turn for the worse for the "happily married" couple after the guests have departed. The audience gets sharp exchanges between the couple, and you know the marriage is doomed.
Waitin' 2 End Hell also has captivating monologues spoken by the friends of the couple throughout the drama. There is a wonderful conversation between the male friends about the black male experience in theatre, including the character of Othello in Shakespeare's plays and dominant male characters in the Old Testament of the Bible. These male friends still believe in male dominance over the females.
Alex Morris (Fences plus many network television appearances) is outstanding as Dante. His powerful voice rings throughout the theatre and Dante's confrontations with Diane, played fiercely by Pjay Phillips (Smoky Joe's Cafe), are riveting. There is even a little bit of Othello thrown into the drama near the end.
The supporting characters are well played by stunningly talented actors, especially Michael Wayne Rice (has played in many cities in this country) as Dante's longtime best friend Alvin. Michael J. Asberry is very droll as the male chauvinist Larry who loves to quote the Bible.
Natasha E. Noel (Radio Golf, Seven Guitars) is marvelously sensual as the man-hungry Shay. Charisse Loriaux (two seasons at Oregon Shakespeare Festival) as Alvin's wife Angela is appealing as the only non-black individual (a Filipino-American) in the mix. ("In my culture, a woman finds honor in a good man," to which Shay says "Yeah, well maybe in your culture they got men worth honoring.")
The cast is superbly directed by Buddy Butler. Robert Broadfoot has designed an excellent reproduction of an upscale living and dining room. Rose Plant's costumes show Dante's wife to be a successful businesswoman. Lighting Design by Matthew Royce is an asset to the fierce battle of words between Dante and Diane. David Hines has devised a good sound system for this very large auditorium that usually does not host legitimate plays.
Waitin' 2 End Hell played through March 1st at the P.G. & E. Auditorium, 77 Beale Street at Market, San Francisco. For more information on this theatre group go to www.lhtsf.org. Next, the company will co-produce Tracy Scott Wilson's The Story. It opens at SF Playhouse on March 18th and runs through April 25th. For tickets, call 415-474-8000 or visit www.lhtsf.org.