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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Spring Awakening, Yellowjackets and
Much Ado About Nothing


A Bold and Gripping Production of Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening
Christy Altomare and Kyle Riabko
Tony Award winning Spring Awakening has finally come to the Curran Theatre and it was well worth the wait. This intense musical by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater is in town through October 12th.  This theatre is a perfect place to present the provocative musical.

Spring Awakening is a beguilingly dark musical tragedy based on German expressionist Frank Wedekind's landmark 1891 play.  The plot centers on a group of teenaged schoolchildren in a provincial German town in the 1890s as they stagger toward maturity in a repressive surrounding of double-dealing authority figures. What happens to them is still happening today in certain sections of this country as these kids are struggling to clasp the mystery of sexuality.  The musical contains taboos like teen pregnancy, abortion, homosexually, sadomasochism and masturbation.  This is a timely musical that some will hate while others will love.  I am with the latter; the musical is exhilarating, and this production features some of the finest singing and acting I have heard this year.

Spring Awakening captures first sexual desire with spellbinding honesty. Confusion stems from the fact that the parents and authorities refuse to discuss sexual orientation with the teenagers.   Duncan Sheik's score expresses the moods of the teenagers as they take a microphone from under their clothing or drag a stand-up microphone from the wings to sing. His melodies seem like formless rock by conventional musical theater standards, and Sater's lyrics are a little too esoteric.

The performers, led by Blake Bashoff  as the confused Moritz wearing what looks like an Eraserhead style of hair,   Christy Altomare as the susceptible Wendla,  Kyle Riabko as the self-centered radical Melchior and Sarah Hunt as vulnerable Martha, are terrific in performance, singing and acting. Each sings powerful, memorable songs from this seductive score, such as "The Dark I Know Well" sung passionately by Sarah Hunt as the girl who was molested by her father. "Don't Do Sadness" is poignantly sung by Blake Bashoff, playing a young lad who is going to commit suicide. Kyle Riabko is touching singing "Left Behind," and Christy Altomare beautifully sings "Mama Who Bore Me" at the start of the show.  The anthem of hopelessness, "Totally Fucked," sung by Riabko and the full company is electrifying.   "The Song of Purple Summer," the show's resounding closing number, is both mournful and enriching.

Angela Reed and Henry Stram give good performances in all of the adult roles, representing those who maintain oppressive control over the teenagers. The rest of the large cast is excellent in their singing and acting. There is a striking scene when boys discover they are homosexual. It's not the conventual way you would might see in a standard musical production.

The production features an onstage band lead by Jared Stein and onstage audience sections on both sides of the stage. Cast members sit among the audience and give closeness to the production.  Michael Mayer directs a fast-paced, powerful production.

Spring Awakening plays through October 12 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco.  For tickets call 415-512-7770 or go to www.shnsf.com.

Photo: Paul Kolnik


A Thought-Provoking Production of Yellowjackets

Yellowjackets
Lance Gardner and Shoresh Alaudini
Berkeley Repertory Theatre kicks off its 2008/2009 season with the world premiere of Itamar Moses's Yellowjackets. The drama takes place in 1994 in a Berkeley High School where there are racial divergences, rigid rules, bullying, drugs and a little romance.

Yellowjackets seems to be a work in progress, especially the first act with its subplots upon subplots. Some are not fleshed out and it becomes a hurricane of rapid scenes as the actors run on and off the stage. The first act is very powerful, leaving one mentally exhausted just watching. The brilliant young cast takes on many characters, including the adult teachers who don't seem to have a clue as to what is going on in the school. The first scene of a gang fight looks like West Side Story without the music. One of the teachers who tries to break it up receives a stab wound to the arm. Following the incident, there is a lot of intense preaching, some didactic confrontations and just a little humor. This act could be trimmed to make those subplots clearer.    

Yellowjackets is more of a character play rather than one with a central theme. Each character is piercingly drawn. The main plot is that the school will close down the school newspaper unless it conforms to rigid ideological demands. Other subplots involve a bully Guillem (Brian Rivera) who is terrorizing Trevor (Craig Piaget), a nerd, and Avi's (Ben Freeman) discussions with the staff of the school newspaper, "Jacket." He has long conversations with Latino Gwen (Adrienne Papp). She wants more coverage for their ethnic group activities. There is the bright and gifted graffiti artist, African-American student Damian (Shoresh Alaudini), who is perplexed about the school system. His confrontations with his older brother Rashid and his girlfriend Tamika (Jahmela Biggs) are top notch. The second act is much more polished and concise and needs no trimming.

Yellowjackets boasts a superb cast of young actors taking on various roles of students and teachers.  Outstanding is Ben Freeman who plays Avi, the paper's editor in chief. His diction is flawless and his actions as hyper-student are galvanizing. The war of words between Avi and Gwen, his sometime girlfriend, is passionate. The confrontation in the second act about racial injustices with Alexa (Amaya Alonso Hallifax) is electrifying. Shoresh Alaudini is riveting as Damian. Jahmela Biggs as Tamika and Craig Piaget as Trevor give striking performances. You just can't help feeling sorry for Trevor as he is being bullied by Guillem, played forcefully by Brian Rivera. Alex Curtis, Lance Gardner, Kevin Hsieh and Erika Salazar are outstanding in their respective roles.

Annie Smart has designed a very interesting set that consists of a locked 10-foot-high chain link fence at the back of the stage. Behind the fence, a huge graffiti painting covers the back wall. Costumes by Meg Nellie are spot-on for the 1990s.

Yellowjackets has been extended through October 19th at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley.  For tickets, call 510-647-2949 or toll free 888-BRT-Tix or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.  Their next production will be August Wilson's  Joe Turner's Come and Gone opening on October 31st.

Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com


A Slapstick Production of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing
Christopher Maikish, Khamara Pettus, Linnea George, LeAnne Rumbel, Cat Thompson and Darren Bridgett
Marin Shakespeare Company concludes their season with one of Shakespeare's most enduring and exhilarating plays. Much Ado About Nothing is a romantic comedy that follows two pairs of lovers: Claudio and Hero and their comic counterparts Benedick and Beatrice. This production helmed by Robert Currier is played for laughs, especially the antics of Benedick played by Darren Bridget and Beatrice played by Cat Thompson.

I have seen many productions of this idealistic comedy but this is the wildest version yet. Much Ado About Nothing is set in the romantic period between the 1920s and 1930s and features live performances of several original tunes written especially for the production by Marin Shakespeare Company sound designer Billie Cox.  The production also has the musicians on the stage, with Linnea George on violin, Terry Rucker on guitar and Mick Berry on hammered dulcimer and drums. They interact with the actors throughout the production.

Robert Currier's production is exemplary in all details.  There is a lot of slapstick between Darren Bridget and Cat Thompson. Both actors are standouts and provide much of the production's best comic moments. Bridget plays Benedick as a bundle of inconsistency, his haughtiness and wit battling his various neuroses and romantic idealism for control. In an attempt to conceal his presence from his friends, he resorts to coming into the audience and sipping wine from an unsuspected spectator.   It is a hilarious scene and he brings down the house with his antics.  In one scene, Cat Thompson walks around with a half gallon bottle of gin, drinking very liberally from the bottle. These two actors bring an implausible, spontaneous chemistry to their sparring, emotional relationship.

There is also a madcap scene with the bumbling constable Dogberry, played hilariously by Michael Ray Wisely, in the second act. His little troupe of law enforcement officers are strictly out of a Monty Python sketch.  Christopher Maikish's Claudio is wonderful, a shy, inexperienced boy genuinely horrified at what he sees as Hero's betrayal.  He even sings a melancholy love song in the second act. Khamara Pettus as Hero has very little to do in this fast-paced production; however, she gives a lovely performance as the daughter of Leonato.  Christopher Hammond is admirable as Leonato. William Elsman gives a commanding performance as Prince Don Pedro of Aragon.. Ryan Schmidt manages to give the one-dimensional villain Don John a clinically depressive motivation for his actions on stage.

The supporting cast consisting of LeAnne Rumbel, Linnea George, Terry Rucker, Brian Tryborn, Mike Berry, Michael A. Berg, Josh Attias, Steven Scot Bono and Len Pettigrew doesn't disappoint either, with each member playing well suited to his or her part.   The whole production ends with the cast doing a jazzy Charleston, written by Billie Cox.

Bruce Lackovic has designed a nice little set with vine-covered framework in the center of the stage. Costumes by Michael A. Berg remind me of male outfits that one would wear in operettas like The Student Prince. The women's costumes have a soft, sexy look about them. There are hints of the 1920s and '30s in the female apparel.  A tango in the second act is choreographed by Cynthia Pepper.

Much Ado about Nothing plays through September 28th at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, 1475 Grand Ave, Dominican University, San Rafael.   For tickets, call 415-499-4488 or visit www.marinshakespeare.org for more information.

Photo: Morgan Cowi


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

- Richard Connema



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