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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Bronx Tale, Rock 'n' Roll and Irma La Douce


An Intriguing Evening with Chazz Palminteri in A Bronx Tale

A Bronx Tale
Chazz Palminteri
Chazz Palminteri has brought his one-man show to the Golden Gate Theatre for an absorbing evening of storytelling about growing up in the Bronx in the 1960s.  His tale of the New York Italian neighborhood with its behavioral riches appeals to my Italian side and growing up around an Italian neighborhood in Ohio. However, we did not have such colorful Damon Runyon characters with lively names where I was raised.

A Bronx Tale takes Palminteri from age nine to seventeen, when he learned about more about life than most children do at that age. His childhood stomping grounds are at the corner of 187th and Belmont Avenue, and the two men in his life are his hardworking father who drives a city bus and Sonny, the local capo who is determined to protect and educate the kid with street smarts. The wise guy gangster names young Calogero Lorenzo "C" because he gave him a "C" note for not ratting on him about a shooting in front of the young boy's house. Calogero witnessed the shooting and his interaction with the police and locals brings a new world of change to the young lad's life. Sonny believes that any person who works for a living is a sucker while Calogero's father has no use for a slime bag like Sonny.  Through Sonny, young Calogero is allowed in on craps games and he takes more money home than his moralistic bus driver father.

Colorful characters abound in this fascinating 90-minute one-act piece.  There is Eddie "Mush," Frankie "Coffeecake," Jo-Jo "The Whale," Jimmy "Ten to Two" and Rudy "Ice," who owns the local bar next to his house. All of these wise guys hang out at the bar and, with Sonny's protection and guidance, Calogero becomes the most popular kid in the area.  Palminteri has command of the stage at all times and has a wonderful ability to impersonate each of the 18 difference characters at a moment's notice.

A Bronx Tale contains a wealth of anecdotal material but never strays from its forceful dramatic center which challenges the influence of the boy's hardworking, highly principled father against the attraction and power of the local mob strongman.  Calogero is king of the hill with the group of local lads in a social club made up strictly of Italians, but he still maintains his education. This takes place at a time when black neighborhoods were edging close to Italian turf. Calogero fancies a black girl in his school and the climax turns violent.

A Bronx Tale gives the audience a glimpse into the macho culture of the "wise guys," with their polished suits, swaggering and wigwagging, heavy Bronx accents, gambling and drinking, constant swearing and the music of Dion and The Belmonts. It is a tour de force of excellent acting.

A Bronx Tale plays through October 19th at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco.  For tickets call 415-512-7770 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Photo: Joan Marcus


Excellent Acting and Good Production Values Shine in Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll

Rock 'n' Roll
Manoel Felciano and Summer Serafin
American Conservatory Theatre presents the West Coast premiere of Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll in a co-production with Boston's Huntington Theatre. This is the first post-Broadway presentation of the British playwright's fascinating drama.  Stoppard has been regarded as characteristically English but he was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937 and left there a year later. The émigré had strong feeling about his native country during the Velvet Revolution that took place in that country between 1968, when Soviet troops moved to the Czech border alarmed by the liberalization of Czechoslovakia under Communist leader Alexander Dubeck, and the 1990 fall of Communism.

Rock 'n' Roll is the story of Czech emigrant Jan (Manoel Felciano), who leaves his idealistic life as a Cambridge University political student life with an interest in the intricacies of the ancient poet Sappho.  He returns to Prague just as the Russians suppress the 1968 Prague Spring revolutions. Jan's life in the repressed society and his association with the Czech rock band "The Plastic People of the Universe" are presented through the playwright's intellectual words. The group's appearances spark police violence and there is a ban on their performing for the pubic.  We follow Jan's trials and tribulations through the Communist downfall in 1990.

Anyone without a basic grasp of Czech politics is likely to be lost in the intricacies of the arguments presented. It also helps to know a little about Sappho. Tom Stoppard does not over explain these arguments so it is hard for the audience to grasp what is going on in the first act.

Rock 'n' Roll has cross-cut scenes that are akin to film scenes. Holding forth in the Cambridge scenes are Max Morrow (Jack Willis), Jan's professor and hard liner Marxist, and his wife Eleanor (René Augesen), who is an academic specializing in the writings of Sappho. She is slowly succumbing to cancer. This is Stoppard's obvious metaphor for the crumbling of Communism, and her Sappho tutorials on Eros as an irrepressible spirit are in direct opposition to her husband's Marxist ideas. 

Rock 'n' Roll is an intellectually stimulating two hour and forty-five minute drama covering two decades of Czech politics, rock and roll history, political argument, family drama, cultural history of the hippie movement, the fighting of cancer and, yes, even a love story—a lot of ideas for a drama, but Stoppard makes it work.

Manoel Felciano, René Augesen and Jack Willis are superb in their roles, and Carey Perloff's masterly direction is first rate.  Each scene flows smoothly between Cambridge and Prague, thanks to Douglas W. Schmidt's marvelous sets and Robert Wierzel's exceptional lighting.  Costumes by Alex Jaeger are perfect for the periods, both in England and Czechoslovakia.

Anchoring the richly embellished story, Manoel Felciano (nominated for a 2006 Tony Award for playing Tobias in Sweeney Todd) as rock fanatic Jan is charismatic. He shows scrupulously calibrated changes during the 20-year period, both in appearance and voice.  René Augesen is superb as Eleanor in the first act and then as Eleanor's daughter Esme in the second act.

Jack Willis gives a commanding performance as the diehard Marxist.  Max's confrontations with his wife Eleanor and Jan are terrific in their exciting complexity. Summer Serafin is excellent playing the flower child daughter Esme in the first act and later Alice, the hip daughter of the older Esme. In two scenes, Delia MacDougall gives an entrancing performance of Lenka. Jud Williford as the committed dissident Ferdinand gives a satisfying performance, while Anthony Fusco as British journalist Nigel and James Carpenter as Communist leader Milan shine in small roles. Filling out lesser roles are Nicholas Pelczar, Natalie Hegg and Marcia Pizzo, all of whom are effective.

Rock 'n' Roll runs through October 18th at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.  ACT's next production is Jane Anderson's Quality of Life opening on October 24 and running through November 23rd.

Photo: Kevin Berne


An Entertaining Production of Irma La Douce

The charming French musical Irma La Douce has returned to the stage after a long period of time due to problems between the original French authors and the bitterness of the English translation.  Greg MacKellan has gone back to the original idea of presenting it as an intimate musical with 11 singer/actors, and he has made it work.  He also had the major problem of finding someone to take over the complicated lead role of Nestor when popular actor Steve Rhyne had an accident just three days before opening. It was like a scene out of Warner Brothers musical 42nd Street : the very talented Kyle Payne (Oh My Godmother), who was playing small multiple roles, came in and, in three short days, memorized the script and performs all of his numbers perfectly. Bill Fahrner has taken over Payne's previous roles.

Irma La Douce and I go way back to my days in the England in 1958. I had seen a private film showing of the French version that appeared in Paris in 1956 and watched how the English decided to make this a full-blown musical. Many of us put money into the production and on opening night at the Saville Theatre it was great success.  The Americans finally made it a more elaborate musical in 1960 when it played at the Plymouth Theatre, later transferring to the Alvin Theatre for a total of over 500 performances.  The last time I saw the musical was in 1978 in Los Angeles where the San Francisco-Los Angeles Civic Light Opera did a revival starring Priscilla Lopez and Larry Kert.  The company known as "Musicals Tonight" will present the eclectic musical on October 14th at the McGinn Cazale Theatre in New York.

Marguerite Monnot, who wrote music for Edith Piaf, has provided an ingenious and very French score. It is unlike any music that you would hear from Broadway shows of the 1950s and '60s. The English lyrics by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman from the French Alexandre Breffort have a fairy tale aura. Even the very lively "Dis-Donc" (English translation is "I say, how about that") gets the body moving to its upbeat melody.

Greg MacKellan has assembled a splendidly versatile cast who high-spiritedly act out the story. One could say of the plot of a ménage trio, "c'est formidable!"

Kyle Payne (Oh My Godmother) gives an amazing performance as the law student Nestor and the rich old man Oscar.  He has a full range voice in "Our Language of Love," "Wreck of a Mec" and "The Bridge of Caulaincort." Alison Ewing (Broadway, first national tour and Paris production of Cabaret plus the Folies Berger) stands out as prostitute Irma. She has a sweet voice in "The Bridge of Caulaincourt" and "Our Language of Love," and is very soulful singing "Irma La Douce". She even looks and walks like a sexy French "poule."

Bill Fahrner (many 42nd Street productions) gives an outstanding performance as the narrator Bob-Le-Hotu and he has taken over the small roles that were assigned to Kyle Payne.  He does a delicate rendition of "Valse Milieu" (referring to a part of Paris where the underworld is known as the "milieu") at the beginning of the musical and is very brisk in "That's A Crime" aided by Payne and the mecs.

The "mecs" (pimps) are wonderfully played and sung by Michael Barrett Austin (many 42nd Street productions) as Peril-Le-Noir, Nick Nakashima (Emma, The Golden Apple) as Frangipane, Victor-Alexander Tapia (Jekyll and Hyde, City of Angels, student at S.F. Conservatory of Music) as Roberto and Justin Torres (performed at Hillbarn, TheatreWorks) as Jo Jo. Their backup in the choral work is very energy driven. DC Scarpelli (She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof) is effective as the Inspector.  Rudy Guerrero (2007 SFBATCC winner for supporting actor in Pippin) returns to the stage after a year's absence as Polyte-Le-Mou the French capo who handles the "grisbis" (French underground for money) of the group.  He is first-rate in the role and even plays the bongo drums and a triangle in one musical sequence. Completing the cast is newcomer Robert J. Cowan (Anchorage, Alaska, Master's student at the S.F. Conservatory of Music) shows excellent moves as the dance captain. He also has a very pleasing voice in several numbers.

Choreographer Linda Posner managed to get some lively and energetic dance numbers onto the small intimate stage.  She has cut down the big dance number in "The Freedom of the Seas" and just has the mecs do more pantomime than dance. The penguins have been cut from this production.  Once again, Dave Dobrusky on piano and by Nick DiScala on reeds provide good back-up for the cast. One can only wish they had a French accordion player to give it an added French flair.

Irma La Douce plays through October 12 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-255-8207 or visit at www.42ndstmoon.org.   Their next production is George Gershwin's Girl Crazy opening on October 23rd.


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

- Richard Connema



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