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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Drowsy Chaperone, What You Will and A New Brain

A Delectable Production of The Drowsy Chaperone

The Drowsy Chaperone
Jonathan Crombie and
Nancy Opel

The national touring company of The Drowsy Chaperone has arrived at the Orpheum Theatre, much to the delight of theatregoers in the Bay Area. This is my second time to see the scrumptious musical and I was pleased to see that this production compares favorably with the Broadway presentation I saw at the Marquis Theatre in 2006. It has lost none of its joie de vivre.

The Drowsy Chaperone is a valentine for persons who love upbeat musicals with no hidden messages or who just want to have a fun night at the theatre. At the start of the show, we hear a voice say "I hate the theatre. Please, Elton John, must we continue this charade?"

Man in Chair is charmingly played by irrepressibly optimistic Jonathan Crombie. Whereas the original Bob Martin was tart, this actor plays the role sweetly. You want to take this poor guy who loves old musicals and hold him tightly. Man in Chair is the key element in this fast-paced musical since he warmly interprets the acted-out album with campy commentary. He tells the audience this musical will be about "mix ups, mayhem and a gay wedding" ("Back then," he swears, "it just meant fun."). He gives little side comments on the background and the fate of "actual" actors playing their roles. (He says the actor playing Aldolpho drank himself to death and was partially devoured by his poodles. "Oh not all of the parts.")

James Moye, who plays the great Latin lover Aldolpho, really goes over the top with the character's egocentric love of himself. He has a way of saying "whaaaaat?" that is wonderful. He is just as good as the original Danny Burstein in New York.

Andrea Chamberlain is bright and perky as Janet Van De Graaff. She does not hit you over the head as Sutton Foster did in the big number "Show Off." Andrea is wonderful as she feigns weariness from the spotlight only to devastate the audience with wonderful costumes and key changes.

Mark Ledbetter, who portrays the egocentric Robert Martin, has a great falsetto voice and he is so much in love with himself (Man in Chair says Robert was the smiling face on a toothpaste tube that contained cocaine as one of its ingredients for several years). Robert Martin and his best friend George, played by Richard Vida, stop the show with their fantastic dancing feet in "Cold Feets."

Nancy Opel is excellent as the titular chaperone. At the beginning she reminded me of Hyacinth Bucket from the British television series "Keeping up Appearances." She plays the role like a grand dame of the British stage, although just a little inebriated. What a pleasure to see Georgia Engel repeat her role as the woman who does not have a clue as to what is going on. Her little song, "Love Is Always Lovely," with her butler Underling (played well by Robert Dorfman) is charming.

Paul and Peter Riopelle are wonderful as the gangsters/cooks, straight off the vaudeville circuit and doing a bang-up rendition of "Toledo Surprise" at the end with Marla Mindelle playing Kitty. This airhead character is great with her squeaky little voice straight out of an early Warner Brothers film. Cliff Bemis is very good as the producer Feldzieg and has good dance moves. Fran Jaye as Trix the Aviatrix with a multi-octave range is powerful in the vocal department.

Gregg Barnes has created some very lavish costumes, especially those worn by Nancy Opel and Andrea Chamberlain. Set Designer David Gallo provides amazing lavish set pieces around the Man's dingy apartment. His set for the Chinese musical is outstanding. Casey Nicholaw has done a stupendous job directing and choreographing this delicious musical. This is the same team as the Broadway show.

The Drowsy Chaperone plays through August 17. For tickets call 415-512-7770 or on line at www.shnsf.com. Up next is the winner of eight Tony Awards, Spring Awakening.

Photo: Joan Marcus


A Delightful Evening with Roger Rees

What You ill
Roger Rees
Stage, film and television actor Roger Rees has brought his acclaimed, one man show What You Will to the American Conservatory Theatre to play through August 9th. This fine actor, who holds the Stratford Upon Avon record for playing Hamlet, regales the audience with wonderful doses of subjective material on William Shakespeare. Some are drawn from the writings of Charles Dickens, Voltaire, George Bernard Shaw and James Thurber. Some of the stories are from his own experiences as a novice member of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Rees's delivery is very laid back; at the beginning of the show, speaking about publishing Shakespeare's play, he notes with tongue in cheek, "Anyone could get published in those days." This artist establishes a blasť accessibility to the Bard's words. The actor is charm personified.

I saw Roger Rees at the Swan Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon in Hamlet many years ago. I also saw him in part one and part two of Nicholas Nickelby when it played in New York in 1982. Recently he has popped up in television series such as "West Wing" and "Grey's Anatomy."

Rees starts the 95-minute evening with the malapropisms of student essays from the Internet, such as "Romeo and Juliet are an example of a heroic couplet" and "The Bard was famous for his plays during the horse and buggy days." He talks about Shakespeare's critics, such as Voltaire who called the plays "dung heaps" that played only in London and Canada. D.H. Lawrence called Hamlet a "repulsive" character what with all of his "sniffing and poking at his mother." Particularly funny is the hilarious story taken from James Thurber's "The Macbeth Murder Mystery" wherein an American woman really finds Lord and Lady Macbeth not guilty of murder.

The talented actor shines when he gives his "muse of fire" from Henry V or the wonderful "rogue and pleasant slave" soliloquy from Hamlet. He calls a soliloquy a conversation with one person. He even plays a chatty old Nurse from Romeo and Juliet with a country style accent. He sets each of the speeches and a Shakespeare sonnet very cleverly and he slides oh so easily into these roles.

Rees talks about his apprenticeship with the Royal Shakespeare Company where he and Sir Ben Kingsley both started out as non-speaking spear carriers. He talks of his friend Dame Judi Dench who said "the best moment of playing Juliet is the nanosecond when they offer you the part." He tells a wonderful story about Sir Donald Wolfit, whom I saw several times as Lear in England during the 1950s.

Those who loves Shakespeare or theatre at all should not miss the opportunity to spend a pleasant evening with Roger Rees.

What You Will plays at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco through August 9th. For tickets please call 415-749-2223 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Photo: David Allen


An Absorbing, Cutting-Edge Production of William Finn's A New Brain

A New Brain
Richard Wenzel, Pat Christenson, Benjamin Pither, Rona Sidiqqui, Cameron Weston and Lisa-Marie Newton
The Custom Made Theatre Company is presenting the rarely produced A New Brain through August 16th at their theatre on Mission Street. Who would ever think to write a musical about brain surgery? William Finn wrote the score for the autobiographical musical (he himself had an emergency of arteriovenous malformation) in 1998. James Lapine wrote the fascinating book for the 90-minute one-act musical. You don't have to be a brain surgeon to enjoy this captivating look into the life of Gordon Schwinn, a hard working songwriter composing children's songs for a television show featuring a character named Mr. Bungee, and his harrowing experience of brain surgery and the healing power following the operation.

A New Brain is an uplifting, funny and adult musical about finding the light at the end of a very dark tunnel and appreciating those who patiently greet us at the other end. All of the songs are exceptionally character driven. Each depicts and identifies the characters involved with Gordon. There is a strong amount of gospel, Motown and do-wop type songs, including a wonderful, uplifting song sung vigorously by the chorus which features the lyric "You gotta have heart and music/heart and music get along."

I first saw the production at the Mitzi E. Newhouse at Lincoln Center during the summer of 1998. A young Kristin Chenoweth played the waitress and Nancy D. while Malcolm Gets headed the cast as Gordon Schwinn and Penny Fuller played his mother. The last time I saw William Finn's remarkable work was approximately nine years ago when the New Conservatory Theatre Center did a concert version. It was a pleasure to see it again.

This production of the one-act musical is exceedingly well sung by an excellent cast who captures the intricate melodies of composer Finn. Outstanding is pianist Rona Siddiqui who plays the complete score beautifully. Benjamin Pither (Wilde Boys, Totally True Story) is excellent as Gordon. He brings a great likeability to the character. Pither sings the score exceptionally, giving a harmonious reading to "I Feel So Much Spring" at the end of the production.

Pat Christenson (Ruthless! The Musical) as Gordon's mother catches the sadness in "The Music Still Plays On" and then turns a complete about face in comically observing the "Family History" of Gordon's weak genetic traits. She turns to anger in the song, lashing out about her son's brain problem by singing "Asshole ... where's his fight and vigor?"

Cameron Weston (Annie Get Your Gun, Dirty Blonde) is especially preppy with great vocal chops in "I'd Rather Be Sailing." His duets with Pither in "Just Go" and "Time" are melodically sung. Mr. Bungee is played amusingly by Richard Wenzel (Slavs!). He gives a bouncy rendition of "Be Polite" and is very energetic portraying the obnoxiousness of the children's television favorite "bullfrog." David Fierro (The Odd Couple, A Midsummer Night's Dream) as the overweight nurse is very good launching into a song about being "Poor Unsuccessful and Fat." Lisa-Marie Newton (Red, Hot and Blue) is a vocal standout as a homeless woman, especially when singing the challenging "Change." Leah S. Abrams (co-founder of Custom Made Co) as Rhoda, Giana DeGeisco (Bat Boy, the Musical) as the waitress and Charles Evans (Cabaret, She Loves Me) as the doctor all have very good vocal chops.

Marci Ring's set design is a bare stage with a hospital bed on a platform in the middle. Brian Katz helms a smooth, fast-paced production that is sure to delight anyone who loves modern musicals.

A New Brain plays at the Off Market Theatre, 925 Mission Street, San Francisco through August 16th. For more information visit www.custommade.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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