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San Francisco by Richard Connema

No Child, The Ladies of the Camellias
and Peddling Rainbows


The Indefatigable Nilaja Sun is Fantastic in No Child

No Child
Nilaja Sun
The Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently presenting Nilaja Sun in No Child. This talented artist has written about the peculiar world of a public school in the Bronx in a fast-paced 63-minute solo show. Nilaja Sun plays all 16 characters. She portrays herself, hired to direct 10th graders in a play at Malcolm X High School, where the students have to go through security detectors each day. These raucous African-American, Latino and Asian teenagers who have never seen a live play will be performing in Timberlake Wertenbaker's Our Country Good.

In split second time, Nilaja Sun becomes each of the many characters. She uses her voice and body as a means of expression for the city's riot of ethnicities. This is an incredible feat on the part of this very talented actress.

The show opens with Nilaja looking like an elderly, decrepit janitor sweeping what appears to be the floor of the basement of the high school. Her voice and manner is fantastic as she says, "All the bathrooms on the third floor, they broke. Now, who's accountable for dat?" The janitor is quite proud of being the first African-American custodian to be hired by the school.

The artist's portrayal of the kids is brilliant. They are bored, angry and disaffected with their lives. They are fired up on Red Bull and looking to get out of the hood come hell or high water. Each character has a single suggestive gesture: Shondrika is trying to look like a model from Vogue; nervous Jose pulls at his shirt; Phillip can't really speak properly in any language; and a timorous fellow theater teacher, Ms. Tam, speaks in a mousy voice. There is overlapping dialogue that Nilaja amazingly accomplishes. It is a riveting performance by this marvelous actor.

Scenic Designer Narelle Sissons has reproduced the original Off-Broadway set. Lighting Design Mark Barton gives the stage a realistic feel, and the sound design by Ron Russell with clinking of bells and crowd noise is down to earth.

No Child runs through June 11th at Berkeley Repertory Theatre Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets, call 510-647-2949 or toll free 888-4-BRT-Tix or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Photo: Carol Rosegg


A Stylish Production of The Ladies of the Camellias

Off Broadway West is presenting Lillian Groag's witty The Ladies of the Camellias through May 31st at the Phoenix Theatre.

The Ladies of the Camellias
Barbara Michelson-Harder, Joyce Henderson
The Ladies of the Camellias premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1996 and since that time, with a revised and rewritten script, has played in many regional theatres. This is the first time San Francisco audiences have seen this intelligent and witty play. It is a fictionalized account of a meeting between Sarah Bernhardt (Barbara Michelson-Harder) and Eleonora Duse (Joyce Henderson), two of the greatest theatrical actresses of that period, at the Theatre de la Renaissance in Paris in 1897. Their caustic competition comes to a head when they choose to star in Alexander Dumas' The Ladies of the Camellias on different nights, each hoping to win greater favor than the other with the public. The playwright has written a very smart script about what could have happened when these two great ladies of the theatre meet.

Opening the show is stoop-shouldered servant M. Benoit (Graham Cowley) making haste to change the white camellias on the set to Duse's favorite roses. You know there is trouble afoot when this happens. Alexander Dumas (Richard Harder) enters and he is driven to mental anguish by the actresses' reading of the tragic heroine based on his past real life love Margarita.

Ivan (Vlad Sayenko), an anarchist, invades the theatre with a gun and a bomb. He threatens death to both Duse and Bernhardt unless his political allies are released from prison. Also becoming involved in the humorous word play are Gustave-Hippolite Worms (Nicholas Russell), Bernhardt's leading man Armand, and Flavio Ando (Randy Hurst) playing the role in Duse's version. A young actress who was supposed to play the maid in both versions becomes involved in this travesty.

The dialogue is sparkling with wonderful gems. When Bernhardt is confronted with playing opposite an actor named Worms, she goes overboard in theatrical temperament. When Dumas tells her about the Lady, he claims "I invented her," and Bernhardt replies very arrogantly, "No, you wrote her. I invented her." Even the Ukrainian gunman has sparkling lines as he tries to cope with the over-theatrical actors in what becomes a wonderful farce. The hilarious ending involves an actor (Chris Beale) playing Cyrano who comes onto the set dressed completely with false nose and bearing two swords. You have to see it to believe it.

Barbara Michelson-Harder gives a commanding performance, in white feather boas that virtually smother her, as the great Sarah Bernhardt. She is glamorous, ruthless and completely self-centered.

Joyce Henderson gives a dazzling performance as an intense Duse. She is a purely dramatic, theatrical woman with a piercing voice who reminds me of the great Ethel Barrymore. She delivers great zingers with a entertaining, severely styled accent.

Nicholas Russell and Randy Hurst are excellent ham actors. These two men are well paired. Their interactions with their respective leading ladies in the second act are hysterical (Hurst says to the anarchist, "If you shoot me, make sure you stay away from the face.").

Young Vlad Sayenko (originally from Ukraine and currently studying acting at Jean Shelton studio) is brilliant as the revolutionary Ivan. He gives an incredible performance with a strong theatrical voice. Needless to say, his accent is perfect.

Graham Cowley is wonderful as Benoit, who likes to talk in short sentences and phrases. His has a perfect English theatrical accent like the late British actor Bernard Miles. Richard Harder gives an excellent performance as Alexander Dumas. Chris Beale gives a great over-the-top performance as Cyrano in the last minutes of the charming play. Karen Anne Light plays the aspiring actress delightfully.

Joyce Henderson has cleverly directed this bon bon with an experienced hand, style and panache. Special mention should go to the stunning costumes by Hemihar and excellent lighting design by Colin Cross. The complete ensemble does a great job of producing a detailed 19th century drawing room in this intimate three-sided theatre.

The Ladies of the Camellias runs through May 31 at The Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason Street, Suite 601, San Francisco. For tickets call 800-838-3006 or visit www.offbroadwaywest.org.

Photo: Joy Dutta


Peddling Rainbows is Something Sort of Grandish

42nd Street Moon Company recently presented the world premiere of Peddling Rainbows, a revue celebrating E.Y. "Yip" Harburg's poetry and songs at the Eureka Theatre. Bravo to Artistic Director Greg McKellen for creating this great tribute to the lyricist I considered a friend while working on the film Finian's Rainbow at Warners.

Harburg was probably one of the greatest American lyricists who ever lived. He was often known as "Broadway's social conscience." He wrote hundreds of lyrics for songs for Broadway and Hollywood films. He was the Stephen Sondheim of his day, with clever lyrics like "Something Sort of Grandish" to Burton Lane's melody in Finian's Rainbow.

A good example of his excellent lyrics would be: "Love a little, sin a little / pay the game and win a little / only to lose /Listen to the money jingle / isn't it a funny jingle / ending with blues" from Ballyhoo of 32 or the brilliant lyrics for the obscure song "Down with Love" from the 1937 show Hooray for What?

Seven very talented singers under the superb direction of Tom Segal do the late lyricist proud, singing 48 songs that he wrote with various composers. Tom Segal keeps the revue rolling along at rapid speed, not only having the singers sing solo songs but putting them in duets, trios and quartets with remarkable dexterity. Each of the singers is a star in their own right.

The show opens with Scarlett Hepworth singing Harold Arlen's "Fancy Meeting You," then the whole company segues into Arlen's "The Merry Old Land of Oz." Immediately, a quartet sings Jerome Kern's "Can't Help Singing" and then the company comes together with Harold Arlen's "I Love to Sing-a." There are many songs from Burton Lane's Finian's Rainbow, Harold Arlen's Bloomer Girl and Jamaica, and even songs from the infamous 1951 musical, Sammy Fain's Flahooley. There are songs of political speaking, such as Jay Gorney's "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," Arlen's, "The Eagle and Me" from Bloomer Girl, and biting song called "Leave de Atom Alone." There are songs of unmitigated hope like Burton Lane's "There's a Great Day Coming Manana" from Finian's Rainbow and of course the famous melodic "Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz. Of course there are songs of love and sex, especially the sensual "Salome" and "Never Trust a Virgin" done with without music ("A virgin is always on the verge so don't trust a virgin").

Susan Himes Powers (2007 SFBATCC Award for Best Actress in a Musical) is wondrous singing such songs as Jule Styne's "Let's See What Happens" and Sammy Fain's "Here's to your Illusions." Her duets and trios with the cast are sinuously executed.

Scarlett Hepworth (Wit, The Shaker's Chair) has great vocal chops in many of the duets, especially the Philip Springer comic song "Saroyan," and she is supremely inspirational in Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow."

Andrea Brembry (Menopause the Musical, Lady Day is sublime singing Harold Arlen's "Happiness is a Thing Called Joe" from Cabin in the Sky and genuine in her rendition of Vernon Duke's "April in Paris."

Maggie Elizabeth May (Flora the Red Menace) is crowd pleasing in the jesting song "Salome" with the men of the group, and the harmonious "Look to the Rainbow."

Bill Fahrner (many 42nd Street productions including Mack and Mabel) has musical dexterity in the sophisticated Jule Styne song, "Panache." He also sings new words for the Jay Gorney classic depression song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" which came out "Brother, Can You Spare a Buck?" relating to the economic crisis that this country now faces. He also sings a great rendition of Burton Lane's "If This Isn't Love."

Peter C. Sroka (member of the Golden Gate's Men Chorus) is powerful singing the original classic version of "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" and he is also blends nicely with Fahrner and Hepworth in Harold Arlen's "C'est la Vie."

Alexander Nee (a junior at Palo Alto High School, will be attending the Cherub Theatre Arts program at Northwestern this summer) is absolutely astounding in his duets, trios and quartets. This sixteen-year-old has a melodiously energizing voice. His voice is pitch perfect and he has the stylish moves of a good professional singer/actor. His duet with Sroka on Harold Arlen's "The Money Cat" is first class. He does a bang up rendition of Burton Lane's "When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love" from Finian's Rainbow.

42nd Street Moon Production should do a show of this caliber celebrating a composer or lyricist every year. It is a shame this was a limited run.

Peddling Rainbows closed May 25th at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street. San Francisco. Their next production is Cole Porter's Out of This World opening on June 5th and running through June 29th. For tickets call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstreetmoon.org.


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

- Richard Connema



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