Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

War Music, High Spirits and Act a Lady

American Conservatory Theatre presents World Premiere Epic Drama War Music

Andy Murray and Cast
Jaques in As You Like It said it best ... "All the world's a stage/And all the men and women merely players/ They have their exits and entrances."  Shakespeare's words sum up American Conservatory Theatre's massive two and a half hour production ofWar Music. Lillian Groag has adapted and directed Christopher Logue's translation of The Iliad on the last year of The Trojan War.

One should know a little about the history of the ten-year war between the Trojans and Greeks to appreciate this production. There is Agamemnon (Lee Ernst) strutting about the stage barking orders to his troops and telling them, "It's good to be King."  We have the heroic Hector (Gregory Wallace) of Troy pontificating about the glories of war, a giggling Helen (Rene Augesen) surround by husky Trojan soldiers, a very laid back modern-day version of Zeus (Jack Willis) wearing a silk prize fighter's robe with "Zeus" in gold letters on the back. There is golden boy, great fighter Achilles (Jud Williford) who quarrels with Agamemnon.  We see Patroclus (Christopher Tocco) borrow Achilles' armor to go to war instead of his boyfriend (that does not end well for Patroclus).  Jud Williford plays the vain Paris like a Hollywood movie star.  There is an exciting well-played scene of Achilles returning to battle to avenge the murdered of Patroclus with the stage bathed in red light.

All of this overly long two-act drama is played on an almost empty stage with fantastic lighting by Russell H. Champa, with a large oval in the background that can be the moon, the sun and entrances of actors. Many of the long speeches are like Greek tragedy laments and dialogues on the Greeks and Trojans. There is even a brief soft-shoe, vaudeville gig by Sharon Lockwood and Lee Ernst. The gods played by Jack Willis as Zeus, Sharon Lockwood as Hera and Erin Michelle Washington as Athena might have come from Rodgers and Hart's Out of this World with their amusing patter.

The 13-member cast rise above the script and present some exciting scenes, with honors going to Andy Murray as a foot soldier who converses with a wooden dummy. Jud Williford is excellent as Achilles and as a very vain Paris, looking like a Hollywood movie star. Jack Willis almost steals the play with his laid back portrayal of Zeus. Gregory Wallace gives an articulate performance as Hector. Rene Augesen presents a sensual performance as Aphrodite and Helen.  Sharon Lockwood is entertaining as the sassy Hera. Christopher Logue's poetry springs to life when Charles Dean and Anthony Fusco narrate their long speeches about the war.

David A Moss, Nicholas Pelczar, Christopher Tocco and Eric Michelle Washington all give first class performances with great skill in the acting of Greek drama and tragedy.

Donald Ostling's extensive curved bow of a battlefield beneath a huge celestial disc is striking. Lighting by Russell H. Champa is spectacular, especially when the stage turns red in the battle of Achilles.  Beaver Bauer has devised excellent Greek and Trojan outfits, more on the order of the Desert War while the gods wear modern outlandish costumes that could come from a disco. Jeff Mockus' sounds of war are excellent.  The original pop and rock music by composer John Glover, recorded with a 9-piece orchestra, is a great asset. Daniel Pelzig has choreographed an exciting Marine marching scene in the second act relating to the current Iraq War. War Music is a gigantic undertaking for any regional theatre.

War Music runs through April 26th at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary St. San Francisco.  For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit  Their next production will Jose Rivera's Boleros for the Disenchanted opening on May 13th and running through May 31.

Photo: Kevin Berne

A Charming Production of High Spirits  

Megan Cavanaugh and Cast
42nd Street Moon brings to San Francisco a delightful souvenir from Broadway's Golden Age of musicals.  Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray's High Spirits was described as a "surefire musical smash" by the Associated Press when it played at the Alvin Theatre in 1964. Martin, a Coward aficionado, and Gray decided to make Coward's classic play Blithe Spirit into a musical.  The musical was very close to the original play, and the composer and lyricist just inserted songs to keep the plot moving along. Noel Coward was very pleased with the songs and the adaptation and he agreed to direct the show.  However, he was not particularly happy that Beatrice Lillie had been cast at the Madame Arcati, feeling she was trying to make her part into a one woman show. The conflict worsened during the Philadelphia tryouts and Coward said, "either I go or she goes." The producers did not want to lose the legendary Beatrice Lillie, so Coward left the musical and Gower Champion stepped as the director.

I saw High Spirits at the Alvin Theatre during the spring of 1964 with Tammy Grimes, Edward Woodward and the legendary Beatrice Lillie, and I loved the urbane score. Later that year I saw the London production at the Savoy with Cicely Courtneidge as the medium and Marti Stevens and Dennis Quilley (this was the renowned Ms. Courtneidge's last role in the West End. She also had problems with Noel Coward who "supervised" the musical and made her life a misery during the rehearsals).

High Spirits can almost be called a "chamber musical" since it has only four main characters and is set the living room of Charles and his second wife Ruth Condomine (Michael Patrick Gaffney and Maureen McVerry). Charles invites medium Madame Arcati (Megan Cavanagh) for a seance, during which the medium materializes Charles' first wife Elvira (Dyan McBride). Ruth, of course, is very unhappy that Elvira has come back into their lives and wants the ghost de-materialized. The big question in the musical is, who will gain possession of Charles?

The musical adaptation is very sophisticated, with some clever lyrics in such songs as "Home Sweet Heaven," sung very smoothly by Dyan McBride (has worked as a director, singer and actor) about the celebrities she has tea with in heaven. She puts a different spin on the role from other Elviras I have seen. Generally, the character is very harpy, but this actress softens those tendencies.

Michael Patrick Gaffney (Coco, Finian's Rainbow, Li'l Abner) plays the elegant Charles exceptionally well.  His up-market English accent is perfect and he sounds just a little like the great Noel Coward himself. He has a fine voice on "If I Gave You," a duet with Charles' wife Ruth, and one of the show's loveliest ballads.  Maureen McVerry (The Student Gypsy) usually plays splashy roles, but embodies the cool and scheming Ruth and sings with lucidity and power. She excels in the song "Was She Prettier than I?".

Megan Cavanaugh (best known as Marla Hooch in the film A League of Their Own and has appeared in many television shows) is a real hoot as Madame Arcati. She reminds me of Margaret Rutherford playing the role of master of the Ouija board.  Her duet with the board in the droll "Talking to You" is a tour de force of comedic timing and strong singing.  She is hilarious when singing "Something is Coming to Tea" with the rest of the cast joining in the festivities.

Rena Wilson (The Student Gypsy) as the perky maid Edith gives an animated performance. Rudy Guerrero (SFBATCC winner in 2007 for Pippin) as Dr. Bradman sports a very good entertaining English accent and once again plays the bongo drums in one number. Kathleen Dederian (Plain and Fancy) is effective in the role of Mrs. Bradman. Derek Travis Collard (recently moved here from New York where he played in Treaty! The Musical at the Lucille Lortel Theatre), billed as the "Forever and a Day" Singer, has good vocal chops on his song (in the original production, this number was a voice on a gramophone record). The rest of the cast, Giana DeGesio, (A New Brain), Carly Ozard (The Golden Apple and her one woman show Bitter and Be Gay!) and Justin Torres (recently in I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change at Ray of Light), are good playing the "beatniks" and "inner circle."

Under Greg MacKellan's excellent direction and Tom Segal's choreography on the small stage, the ensemble capably navigates the songs and dancers.  Dave Dobrusky on piano gives first-rate backup.

High Spirits is a relaxed living room musical adaptation of a drawing room comedy with no superfluous pretenses. The musical closed on April 12 at the Eureka Theatre, 415 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Currently running is a co-production of a workshop musical called Shadows of Pompeii, through April 26. Following that is Maureen McVerry in Wildcat May 7 and through May 24th.

Photo: Robert Millard

A Motivated Production of Act a Lady

The New Conservatory Theatre Center is presenting Jordan Harrison's sly production of Act a Lady through April 26th at the Decker Theatre. This is the kind of comedy that is popular with audiences who frequent the theatre.

Act a Lady was first shown at Louisville's Humana Festival of New Plays in 2006 where it received positive reviews from the critics.  Since then it has played in various cities, including Cleveland and Seattle.  This is a farce of bizarre proportions involving a group of country folks putting on a play in a small town in either western Ohio or eastern Indiana.  It is an amusing and silly exploration of gender roles set as a play within a play during the prohibition days in 1927.

Every year, a group of amateur actors presents a classic play to the townspeople of the community.  This year they will present a French classic that could have come from the pen of 17th century playwright Jean Racine with a little of 18th century Richard Sheridan thrown in for a campy production.  The group hires a very butch director from Chicago who looks and acts like Eric von Stroheim directing a 1920s silent movie. She demands that the males play ladies and that they should "act like a lady" in the play within a play."

Three serious thespians discover that, while sartorial choices may indeed make a man, these choices can also make difficulties for their relationships with women, other men and the local Women's Temperance Society. Playwright Jordan Harrison also throws in their alter-egos in the form of a doubles on stage. They begin to find themselves exploring their own inner beings once they start to wear women's costumes.  There is just too much of this in the second act and there is confusion between reality and fantasy.

Act a Lady has excellent actors to present a good night of entertainment.  They all have very good western Ohio accents that I could identify with since I was raised in that part of the state.

Michaela Greeley (History Boys, Based on a Totally True Story) is wonderful as the very butch director Zina.  She sports an accent that is part Frau Blucher and part Marlene Dietrich, wearing an equestrian outfit with high leather booths and a crop.  She steals the show.  Benjamin Pither (A New Brain, Wilde Boys) gives a lovely, poignant performance as a man who does not realize he is gay. Scarlett Hepworth (Farm Boys, Peddling Rainbows) is excellent as the born-again Christian who believes that the gender bending will upset the proper order of things. She even plays the accordion, singing a clever little song about her God-fearing morals.

Glen Kiser (Men in Uniform) is hilarious as True, the local ladies man, playing the part of Countess Roquefort in drag. Harry Breaux (In Gabriel's Kitchen, Men In Uniform) puts a lot of enthusiasm into the fiendish role of Lady Romola. Laura Morgan (debut with the NCTC) is delightful as Lorna, who has a questionable connection to Hollywood.

Costumes by Jessie Amoroso are outlandish, with high wigs and large silk hoop skirts from a 17th century farce.  Dennis Lickteig's direction is good, especially in the scenes involving the play within the play with the actors' over-extended acting.  The set by Hunter B. Jameson is very good with a stage in the background for the French farce.

Act a Lady runs through April 26 at the Decker Theatre in the New Conservatory Theatre Center located at 25 Van Ness near Market Street, San Francisco.   For tickets call 415-861-8972 or visit  Coming up will be Terrence McNally's Some Men opening on May 29th.

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

- Richard Connema

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