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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Evie's Waltz
and Rita Moreno

A Moving Production of Joe Turner's Come and Gone

Joe Turner
Teagle F. Bougere
Berkeley Repertory Theatre is presenting August Wilson's African American epic Joe Turner's Come and Gone at the Roda Theatre through December 14. Delroy Lindo, who was the original Harold Loomis, has assembled a great cast of actors in this poignant production. I first saw the classic play at the Ethel Barrymore with Lindo, and Angela Bassett as Loomis's wife, Martha. Since then I have seen several productions of the heartrending play.

Joe Turner's Come and Gone is a stimulating, optimistic blend of history, mystery, myth, music, bawdy humor and an enduring faith in life. This is the second play in Wilson's ten-play 20th century cycle. The time is 1911, just one generation removed from slavery. Unforgettable characters come and go in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse ($2 a week with meals) run by Seth Holly (Barry Shabaka Henley) and his wife Bertha (Kim Staunton). There is the charming mystical ju-ju man Bynum Walker (Brett Jennings) who still believes in African spirituality. Also in the home are Jeremy Furlow (Don Guillory), a charismatic guitar playing, womanizing teenager looking for the right woman; shy, conventional Mattie Campbell (Tiffany Michelle Thompson); and impertinent, good-time Molly Cunningham (Erica Peoples). Rutherford Selig (Dan Haitt) is the only Caucasian, a peddler whose grandfather was a runaway-slave hunter. He can still find people if there is a need.

Herald Loomis (Teagle F. Bougere), who has spent seven years illegally enslaved on a chain gang run by plantation owner Joe Turner, comes to the boardinghouse with his young daughter Zonia (Nia Renee Warren, alternating with Inglish Amore Hills) looking for his wife who disappeared while he was working at the plantation. He is a preacher who has seizures and visions. The blues song "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" features prominently in the second act.

Barry Shabaka Henley convincingly plays Seth Holly the owner of the boardinghouse. Kim Staunton is believable as the wife of Seth, though one could wish to see more of her in this two hour and 30 minute drama. Brent Jennings is very good as the voodoo priest and healer Bynum Walker. However, there are times when he mumbled his lines in the first act the night I attended. Don Guillory is wonderful as the virile and vigorous Jeremy Furlow. He has a great theatrical voice and his enunciation of August Wilson's poetic words is perfect. Outstanding is Teagle F. Bougere as the menacing Harold Loomis. His commanding voice rings throughout the theatre. His soliloquy on his vision of bones at the bottom of the sea (prefigures Gem of the Ocean) is powerful. Nia Renee Warren is charming as daughter Zonia.

Dan Haitt, sporting a West Virginia accent, brings the busy, scruffy entrepreneur Rutherford to life. Tiffany Michelle Thompson as Mattie, Erica Peeples as Molly, Keanu Beausier as Reuben, and Kenya Brome as Martha Loomis give effective performances.

The first act occasional drags somewhat by its slow and methodical pace; however, the second act moves very quickly, thanks to Delroy Lindo's vital direction. Scott Bradley has created a cozy boardinghouse set with an extended staircase and a sketch of the cityscape in the background. Reggie Ray's costumes are authentic apparel for the period. Lighting by William H. Grant III is excellent. Sound Designer Cliff Caruthers' work is uneven, especially with the dialogue of Barry Shabaka Henley and Brent Jennings in the first act. It sometimes becomes very difficult to hear their conversations.

Joe Turner's Come and Gone runs through December 14th at the Roda Theatre of the Berkeley Repertory Company, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Mary Zimmerman's The Arabian Nights is currently playing on their Thrust Stage.

Photo: kevinberne.com


A Smart and Taut Production of Evie's Waltz

Evie's Waltz
Darren Bridgett and Marielle Heller
Magic Theatre's second production of the season is Carter Lewis's cat and mouse play, Evie's Waltz, running through December 7th. For 90 minutes, the audience is held spellbound by this rigid thriller performed by three brilliant actors. The tense plot has to be a nightmare for parents who are raising children in fear-laden, post-Columbine and post-9/11 America. (Shakespeare says it best: "I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the anciently, stealing, fighting." )

Clay (Darren Bridgett) and Gloria's (Julia Brothers) sixteen-year-old son Danny (not seen in the play) and his girlfriend Evie (Marielle Heller) purchased a handgun online. They brought the handgun to school and both have been suspended. The disturbed parents have invited Evie's mother Sandy to dinner to discuss matters. Evie shows up with traces of blood on her neck. She tells them her mother is too drunk to make it and she has come in her place. We soon find out that Danny, who has been grounded, is not in his upstairs bedroom. He has escaped from the house and is now lying in the nearby woods with a hunting rifle and scope aimed at the patio where the dinner is taking place. He takes a few shots at plates on the patio walls, shattering them. What happens in the next 70 minutes keeps the audience in apprehension.

Many questions are answered as to why Danny has become a sharpshooter who could easily be one of the killers of Columbine school children. We see the living style of Clay, Gloria and Sandy (who is not present in the drama) who have contributed to the psyche of the two teenagers. One soon develops sympathy for these two confused teenagers.

Julie Brothers is perfect as Gloria. She delivers fragile and tart responses in Gloria's confrontations with Clay. She superbly forces the audience's attention as she depicts the restrained contradiction of a middle-aged woman. You begin to see her bitter sarcasm as one of the reasons for Danny's rebellious actions. Darren Bridget is outstanding as Danny's troubled father, who has read too much psychology on non-judgmental parenting and believes he can diminish his son's decision to take this vicious path. He provides the perfect foil for the sarcastic wordplay of his wife.

Marielle Heller is spellbinding as Evie. She captures the youthful audacity and tender susceptibility of a teenager in love. Her war of words with Gloria over Danny is a tour de force of realistic acting, crackling with emotion that is mesmerizing. Any parent of teenagers will feel the tension between these two fine actresses.

Loretta Greco's direction is smooth, and she keeps the action flowing at a crucial and riveting pace. Erik Flatmo has designed an excellent set of an outside patio with a screen of woods behind. He has also installed a sizzling grill, and you can smell the food cooking. Lighting by York Kennedy is dazzling and adds to the tension with a filter that duplicates the scope of a rifle. Sara Huddleston's sound design is terrific, blending gunshot sounds with a Strauss waltz for a creepy effect. Fumiko Bielefeldt has designed the perfect teen-age rebel outfit for Marielle Heller, complete with Desert Storm Army pants.

Evie's Waltz plays at the Magic Southside Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Blvd at Buchanan St, San Francisco through December 7. For tickets, call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org.

Photo: www.davidallenstudio.com


Sexy and Young at 77 years is the Fabulous Rita Moreno

The charismatic Rita Moreno recently entertained audiences at the Rrazz Room through November 23rd. This superb, multi-award winning artist mesmerized the audience in the state of the art room at the Hotel Nikko. Her show called Little Tributes is a collection of classic and Broadway show songs. Her openness and candidness with the audience is delightfully accomplished. She not only still has a great voice but her dramatic ability on each song is engaging.

Without an introduction, Ms. Moreno walks onto the stage wearing an off-white pants suit and commences a 12-song set backed by the incredible trio of pianist Russell Kassoff, percussionist Ted Sommer and bassist Andrew Higgins. There are wonderful inside stories along the way about her appearances at the Café Carlyle in New York.

The singer immediately quickly launches into an upbeat arrangement of Kander and Ebb's "Broadway My Street" from 70, Girls, 70 and then segues into "Breezing Along." She tells the audience what it means to turn 77 and admits, "I can't ever tell my fans that I'm middle-aged." She certainly doesn't look, sing or act her age. Rita Moreno still has a youthful countenance when singing and acting those songs. She goes into the buoyant "But Alive" from Applause.

She briefly talks about Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin's Lady In the Dark and the legendary Gertrude Lawrence, and sings the haunting "My Ship" oh, so sublimely. There is also the beautiful "Aranjuez" with the moving melody of Joaquin Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. Rita Moreno calls the song "Crystal Fountain" with lyrics by Guy Bontempelli. This rendition is pure joy.

She salutes Peggy Lee with a humid voice singing "Black Coffee" and a seductive version of "Fever." She slithers onto the piano like a sexy cat and finally ends the song lying prone on top of the instrument. She tells the story of an 81-year-old man she met after her performance of this song at Café Carlyle. He said to her, "In my next life I would like to come back as a piano." She goes comically over the top singing, with chewing gum in her mouth, "Class" from Chicago.

Pianist Russell Kassoff shares the spotlight in an extraordinary arrangement of Irving Berlin's "I Love a Piano"; Kassoff plays Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" while the chanteuse sings Berlin's song. This shows that Rita Moreno is not only a great singer but a great actress. Continuing with Broadway shows, the songstress talks about Harold Arlen and beautifully sings the Arlen gem, "I Never Has Seen Snow," from House of Flowers with potent lyrics by Truman Capote.

The captivating singer tells a little known story about the classic song "Over the Rainbow." Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg had trouble with lyrics of the song, especially the last phrases. They went to Ira Gershwin who gave them the uplifting final sentences for the song. Rita played the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard several months at the Adelphi Theatre in London and treats us to a passionate "New Ways to Dream," then "With One Look." She concludes with a lithe Spanish Christmas song from her native Puerto Rico called "Aguinaldo," which includes a fantastic drum solo by Ted Sommer and the other members using maracas.

Ms. Moreno returns for an encore singing the rousing "Here's to Life" by Phyllis Molinary and Artie Butler.

There are few cabaret artists who can deliver a song like the indefatigable Rita Moreno. She played at the Rrazz Room. Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason Street, San Francisco. Call 866-468-3399 on visit www.therrazzroom.com for information on upcoming shows.


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

- Richard Connema



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