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San Francisco by Richard Connema

High School Musical, Monkey Room
and Brighton Beach Memoirs


An Exuberant Production of High School Musical

Best of Broadway recently brought to the Orpheum Theatre the high energy musical High School Musical. You could call this Disney musical a squeaky clean Grease. The "kids" are terrific in their youthful dancing and singing. The energy from this large cast could light up San Francisco for several days.

High School Musical is not like the work of Sondheim or Rodgers and Hammerstein, but a musical written by many composers and lyricists, and it's all upbeat. The first act has a few excellent renditions of songs geared toward pre-teens and teenagers. Choreography by Lisa Stevens is very impressive, especially the dancers bouncing a dozen basketballs onto the stage directly in front of a dozen actors. This is a marvelous piece of theatrical business.

The plot is simple. Handsome jock Troy Bolton (John Jeffrey Martin) meets math brain Gabriella (Arielle Jacobs) during a karaoke contest while on a winter vacation. Gabriella transfers to Troy's school where the couple learns they are part of two opposing cliques whose members are not expected to socialize. Both try out for the school musical of Juliet and Romeo, much to the consternation of Troy's dad (Ron Bohmer) who is the basketball coach for East High School. Thrown into the plot are the evil egotistical twins Sharpay (Helene Yorke) and Ryan Evans (Bobby List) who have always starred in the school's musicals. Of course, in every Disney musical everything turns out okay.

High School Musical has some topical and relevant themes. One very good scene is the act one closer which has the contemporary number "Stick to the Status Quo" with classmates showing how they are inspired by Troy's action: one basketball player admits he likes to bake and dreams of making a perfect creme brulee while another admits to playing the cello. The rest of classmates forewarn them, "If you want to be cool, follow one simple rule, just stick to the status quo."

John Jeffrey Martin is an appealing Troy Bolton and he even looks like a basketball player. He has great vocal chops in his duets with Arielle Jacobs who is captivating as Gabriella. She has an adorable singing voice.

Helene Yorke and Bobby List are wonderful as Sharpay (named after the dog) and Ryan. Ryan, who looks like a young Kevin Bacon, really knocks the audience off their seats with his great full-of-life dance moves. Ellen Harvey, who plays the super art drama teacher Ms. Darbus, is campy. She reminds me of Eve Arden in the "Our Miss Brooks" television show. Rod Bohmer is effective in his role as the high school basketball coach. Shakiem Evans and Jelani Remy have great dance moves as Troy's buddies on the basketball team. Kudos should be given to the entire large cast of dancers and singers who make this an evening of fun entertainment.

Kenneth Foy's impressive reconfiguring set works very well with the high energy dance moves of Lisa Steven's choreography. The set transform easily from classroom to gymnasium to science lab to locker rooms.

High School Musical is the kind of show that can get pre-teens and teenagers hooked on live theatre. These future theatregoers will keep live theatre going. It's also nice that every night local students are invited to sit in the bleachers stage left to watch the last scene of the ebullient dancing and singing of the full cast.

High School Musical played through April 27th at the Orpheum Theatre. Best of Broadway's next production is A Midsummer Night's Dream opening on May 6 and running through June 1 at the Curran Theatre.


A Brisk Production of The Monkey Room

Monkey Room
Lauren Grace and Kevin Rolston
Magic Theatre is currently presenting the world premiere of Kevin Fisher's The Monkey Room running through May 4th. The 70-minute drama takes place at a university HIV research lab with monkeys being used as test animals. The lab is in danger of being shut down due to lack of funds. Dr. Neil Lewis (Robert Parsons) has been sent to the lab to determine whether their funding will be renewed. He gives Ava (Lauren Grace), the new head of the lab, just one year to find a breakthrough vaccine before her funding is cut.

Ava has geneticist Zach (Kevin Rolston) and young assistant Freda (Jessica Kitchens) to help her find a cure. Zach is more realistic about the project and he is thinking of moving on to the Johns Hopkins Center in Baltimore. Freda, who is new to the scientific world, doesn't want her career to end before it has commenced. She is a keyed up but scatter-brained research assistant.

Four of the chimps have shown no health consequences, even with repeated contacts to HIV. Ava shows that it works in a petri dish and on the monkeys but the main question is will it work on humans. Freda has made a mistake on several of the monkeys by injecting them twice, and that just might counter Ava's ideas. However, a human is needed to make her theory proof positive and she will take the risk.

The Monkey Room is not all scientific dogma since the budding sexual romance between Ava and Zach, and the confrontations between Ava and error-prone Freda keep the play interesting.

Lauren Grace is stoic and a little on the thorny side in her portrayal of the new head of the lab. Kevin Rolston is a very good Zach and gives the drama some comedy with his laid back portrayal of the character. Jessica Kitchens is very good as the hyper lab assistant. Robert Parson gives an excellent performance as the curt and bullying Dr. Neil Lewis.

James Faerron has devised a breathtaking meticulous lab room that is perfect in every detail. Bravo to Christopher Studley on lights and Sara Huddleston on the sounds of the unseen monkeys in another room.

The Monkey Room plays through May 4th at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Blvd at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-441-8222 or www.magictheatre.org. Coming up next is a new play by Steve Yockey, Octopus, opening on May 10 and running through June 8th.

Photo: www.davidallenstudio.com.


A Memorable Production of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs

Willows Theatre Company is presenting an excellent production of Neil Simon's autobiographical comedy Brighton Beach Memoirs. This is the first part of the playwright's trilogy which included Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound. The comedy drama is about 15-year-old Eugene Morris Jerome going through his teenage years living with his extended family all under one roof.

Eugene (David Beal) is going through the stages of puberty, and he has a strong relationship with his older brother Stanley (Aaron Wilton). The play shows the audience how the hard-working moral Jewish family lived during the summer of 1937 and how they managed to deal with family issues, money and relationships with each other.

Performances are skilled. David Beal is terrific as Eugene, the narrator of the story. He has high energy, great facial expressions and an acting capacity that is extremely professional. He has marvelous speech patterns and nuances when telling about the family.

Cindy Goldfield is phenomenal as Kate, Eugene's mother. She plays the mother as a very strong character who can handle the many problems of her family. Aaron Wilton as the old brother Stanley gives a winning performance. He can be very comical in a hilarious sex talk scene with Eugene and he also handles the melodramatic aspects without being self-pitying.

Cristina Anselmo as Blanche, the weaker sister of Kate, plays the role very well. She is entrancing when she realizes that she can be her own person by the end of the play. Shushig DerStepanian plays perfectly the pampered daughter of Blanche. Val Hendrickson gives a polished performance as the father of Eugene while Olivia Hytha is very good as the delicate younger daughter of Kate.

Bravo to Set Designer Tom Benson for an outstanding detailed set that includes a dining room, living room and two bedrooms upstairs in a middle class home. Robin Speer has designed authentic dress for the 1937 period, and lighting design by Robert Anderson is bright and cheery. Richard Elliott helms a heartfelt production of Neil Simon's play. The play closed on April 20 at the Willows Theatre, 1975 Diamond Blvd. Concord, California. Willows' Production of Altar Boyz is playing at the Campbell Theatre, 63 6 Ward St. Martinez through May 11. Their next production in the main theatre on Diamond Blvd is Dore Schary's Sunrise at Campobello opening on May 5 and running through June 8th.


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

- Richard Connema



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