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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Cats, Based on a Totally True Story and Zero Hour


A Different Version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats

Willows Theatre Company is presenting a different version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, running through December 30. The original Cats opened at the New London Theatre on May 11, 1981 and ran for 8949 performances. The American debut was at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York on October 7, 1982; it ran for 18 years and 7485 performances.

I have seen ten productions of this "watershed" musical, from the original in London with Elaine Page and Brian Blessed to the American premiere with Betty Buckley, and other productions in London and New York, plus Los Angeles and San Francisco. I also saw a production at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna during the fall of 1983.

I thought I would never want to see another production of Webber's catty musical in my lifetime, but I am glad to have changed my mind for Andrew F. Holtz's energy driven production at the Concord Theatre, which features young and talented dancers and singers.

Cats
Jonathan Spencer and Cast

Holtz has made some changes with the approval of the Really Useful Company; however, not one word or song is missing from this creative two-act show. The junkyard has been changed to an academic setting. Ms. Grizabella (Barbara Grant), who is both a cat and an elementary school teacher, is about to retire as head of the Jellicle School of Feline Divinity. Before she leaves for greener pastures, the current and former students throw her a big party in the private ballroom. Most of the cast do not wear cat costumes but do wear upper masks relating to cat faces.

Cats' overture and "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats" starts out with a bang. The rousing, energetic dances do not feature catlike moves, but the cast of 40 are exhilarating to watch with some terrific new choreography by John Butterfield and Dan Uroff. There is no spoken dialogue but a rapid-fire series of 21 musical numbers and ensemble dance numbers set to T.S. Eliot's light verse. The high energy musical staging by Andrew F. Holtz is very striking in its originality and variety.

Barbara Grant is wonderful as the older Grizabella, while Brandy Collazo shines as the young Grizabella. Their beautiful rendition of "Memory" is sublime, with Collazo hitting the high notes. Stu Klitsner is splendid as Old Deuteronomy. His song, "The Ad-Dressing of Cats," is elegantly sung. Klitsner also plays Gus, singing with a striking voice, "Gus the Theatrical Cat," while Ron Picket as Growltiger, the amusingly self-important blimpish pirate, and his amour, played by Rena Wilson, act out the campy "Growltiger's Last Stand." Wilson has exquisite vocal cords when singing "Bustopher Jones" along with the distinguished voices of Ron Picket and Jessica Raaum.

Outstanding are Herbie Raad as Rum Tum Tugger in a sexy tiger outfit, singing like a swaggering rock star "The Rum Tum Tugger" song and 15-year-old Daniel Lachman as Mistoffelees, the mystery cat with dark powers, doing some great slight of hand tricks. Ricardo Rust as Mungojerrie and Mary Raad as Rumpleteazer are a delight with their "Rumpleteazer" song. Kenneth Scott gives a topnotch performance as Skimbleshanks with the company joining in on his song.

Aisha Gearig, Stefan Miller, Morgan Lindstrom, Cabrina Lett, Drew Fowler, Mary Kalita, Brian Sterling and LeNeac Weathersby are all exceptional as various cat characters. Also on hand are eighteen of the most darling kids playing Jellicle's Kittens.

Andrew F. Holtz has painstakingly cast the actors playing the various cats. It shows in the work of the superb singer-dancers whose performances are full of life, making this a pleasant theatrical experience. Mariana Cassia-Rowland's scenic design of the ballroom in the school is excellent. Robin Speer has designed some colorful outfits; some are part cat and some part human. The small fry wear regular clothes. Andrew F. Holtz is also the musical director of this charming production.

Cats plays through December 30th at the Willows Theatre, Willows Shopping Center, Diamond Ave, Concord. For tickets call 925-798-1300 or online at www.willowstheatre.org. Their next production will be Jesus Christ Superstar opening on January 28 and running through March 2nd.

Photo: Judy Potter


Based on a Totally True Story Is a Nice Friendly Play

Based on a Totally true Story
Benjamin Pither and Steve Budd
New Conservatory Theatre Center is currently presenting the pleasant and chatty Based on a Totally True Story, a semi-autobiographical comedy by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. The playwright is best known as one of the writers of HBO's acclaimed series Big Love and a comic book writer for DC Comics. He is currently writing a horror screenplay for Warners titled The Night People. His projects are mentioned (under different names) in this fast-paced two-hour play with one intermission.

The dialogue has that New York gay ring about it that made the comedy so popular last year at City Center, Stage II. As in all New York based plays, there is a liberal sprinkling of Manhattan landmarks, like Orso's and Balthazar restaurants. The play is full of clever dialogue, especially coming from perky Ethan Keene (Benjamin Pither), who is under pressure from DC Comics to change the storyline of "Flash." To make matters worse, he has pressure from neurotic Hollywood agent Mary Ellen (Micheala Greeley) about a screenplay he presented to her about a man who emerges from the sea to commit murders in order to reclaim the life of a brain-damaged boy (in real life, Aguirre-Sacasa's play The Muckle Man). However, the somewhat obsessed agent keeps changing the plot lines to make our hero's life a living hell.

Ethan has moved in handsome lover Michael (Brandon Finch), who is an arts writer for The Village Voice and is writing the great American novel. Their relationship is joyous at first but is now bumpy, with both men choosing different paths to success. There is even a subplot involving Ethan's father (Steve Budd) who is breaking up his wife after thirty-three years of marriage. How can one person handle all of these stresses? That is what this rapid-paced comedy is all about.

Benjamin Pither (Wilde Boys, Urinetown the Musical) is excellent as the hyped-up narrator and hero of the comedy. He addresses the audience in short, quick sentences, like a Woody Allen character. There are many monologues given by this engaging young actor.

Brandon Finch (Wilde Boys, My Fair Lady) gives a solid performance as the cool and more stable lover Michael. One can see that these two are not going to be lifetime partners.

Micheala Greeley (The Ghost of Mary Malone, The Death of Ayn Rand) is hilarious as the over-the-top Hollywood agent who says, "Honesty is an overrated virtue." She plays the role with feverish intensity and reminded me of some of the Hollywood agents I knew when working in films.

Steve Budd (Reckless, The Tribute) is excellent as Ethan's young looking father. He makes the character very believable and funny. Rounding out the small cast is Brady Boyd (Taming of the Shrew, Dead Man Walking) who is very good in various roles, such as the hip editor of DC comics and Apple Boy, a hunky Hollywood screen actor looking for his first big chance.

John Dixon's direction is energetic and he keeps the action moving smoothly from scene to scene. He also added a little "what happened to the characters afterwards" explained by each member of the cast. Josh McDermott has devised a nice little set with a skyline backdrop and a brick parapet wall.

Based on a Totally True Story plays at the New Conservatory Theatre Center through December 16th. For tickets please call 415-861-8972 or on line at www.nctcsf.og.

Photo: Lois Tema


Jim Brochu is Zero Mostel in Zero Hour

Zero Hour
Jim Brochu
New Conservatory Theatre Center recently presented the remarkable Jim Brochu as the celebrated Zero Mostel in Zero Hour. The wonderful actor gave an extraordinary appearance as the legendary actor of Fiddler on the Roof, Rhinoceros, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the original Max Bialystock in the Mel Brooks film The Producers.

Brochu not only looks like Zero Mostel, with two-tone beard, combover bangs and familiar facial expressions, but he becomes the actor I knew before, during and after the McCarthy hearings. The multi-talented Brochu is brilliant as the motor-mouth comedian who continuously rants through the two-act production. He shows Zero's wonderful overexcited volatility along with his marvelous quick wit.

The two-hour play begins in Zero's Manhattan art studio in 1977 as the actor is preparing to play Shylock in a play called The Merchant. A New York Times reporter comes to interview him (the reporter is the audience). The actor takes over the interview and starts to ask the reporter questions. From there on we get a grandiloquent mix of tirades, jokes, deviations and lamentations on his life. Zero is the master of contradictions: he is loving, bighearted, infuriating, polite and sentimental during the interview. His sentimental self comes out when he talks about his very close actor friend Philip Loeb, who committed suicide after being questioned by House Un-American Activities Committee.

Zero talks briefly about his childhood, his early career as a nightclub comedian, his disastrous first marriage and long-lasting second one with Kate. He talks about his mother-in-law, to whom he spoke only eighteen words for five years (two of the words were "fuck" and "you"). There are some great stories, including one about his close friend Sam Levine who did a number that involved a bank loan and parking his car that is absolutely hilarious. There is no love lost between him and Jerome Robbins since the choreographer named names during the McCarthy hearings (during the rehearsals of Forum he called the man "loose lips" but said the "little weasel" was a genius).

He displays his bitter fury when talking about the McCarthy Hearings when many careers were destroyed. He sums up the hearings as Communist = Liberal= Jew. The artist talks about how he crushed his left leg just when his career was staring to revive after a decade of being blacklisted.

Zero was the third choice to play Pseudolus in A Funny Way Happened on the Way to the Forum. He loathed the role but could not refuse since it provided a huge salary. He hated with a passion The Producers film, which featured his his best known film role. He said looking at the movie he looked like a bleach whale. After the film came out, people would come up to him and say "Oh you were the fat guy in musicals."

Zero Hour, which won the Ovation Award for the best play last year in Los Angeles, is heading to New York where it will play Off-Broadway. The one man drama closed on November 25.


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

- Richard Connema



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