Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Honey Brown Eyes, Spring Awakening and Lea Salonga


Riveting Production of Honey Brown Eyes


Nic Grelli and Jennifer Stuckert
SF Playhouse is presenting the West Coast premiere of Stefanie Zadravec's Honey Brown Eyes through November 5. This is a powerful drama about ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian civil war in the 1990s. The bizarre but boisterous comedy goes into a nail-biter of a play, with disastrous violence, then a much darker comedy, and finally a venture into unknown territory. The actors must be on their toes so as not to upset the delicate balance of the playwright. Ms. Zadravec has composed a type of conscience play for which this company has shown an affinity.

Honey Brown Eyes opens on two towns in Bosnia. It's 1992 and civil war is raging between the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat entities within the country. Visegrad is about to be overtaken and torched by Serbian soldiers. Dragan (Nic Grelli) is a wretched soldier who has found himself capable of brutality as well as compassion. He is following orders as he enters the kitchen of Alma (Jennifer Stuckert) to have her removed since the house is been torched. Dragan keeps a weapon trained on Alma as they wait for her daughter who is on his list as living there, though Alma insists she doesn't. He is also carrying out the "ethnic cleansing "of Visegrad's Muslim population and believes that Alma and her daughter Zlata (Madeline Pauker who alternates the role with Rachel Share-Sapolsky) might be Muslim.

Dragan believes he is seeing another faceless woman until he discovers their shared history. He was part a famous Serbian rock back in the 1980s and had a big hit called "Honey Brown Eyes." It was at that time that he met Alma through a brother who was part of the band. The soldier is now torn about his cruelty and his own humanity in a conflict of how to handle this situation. There is a brilliant confrontation between the two that keeps the audience on edge as to what is going to happen.

Nic Grelli and Jennifer Stuckert give outstanding performances. Both are successful in rising to the challenges of the script. Nic Grelli also shows tender restraint in the few affectionate glimpses into his character's kindness. Jennifer Stuckert creates an absorbing outline of a woman holding out bravely against the utter surrender of self-esteem. The scenes of Alma's captivity evoke terrifying uncertainty. Madeleine Pauker gives a great performance in the small role of the 16-year-old daughter.

Act two of Honey Brown Eyes takes place in Sarajevo where a Muslim freedom fighter Denis (Chad Deverman) finds refuge with an elderly Bosnian woman named Jovanka (Wanda McCaddon). She sees him as a surrogate for her grandson who is missing in the war. Wanda McCaddon is superb in the role of the old lady in her dowdy kitchen. The opening moments of the second act when not a word is spoken show a dazzling tour de force of silent acting as she busies herself about the kitchen. As she turns toward the window, a crack of automatic gunfire erupts, yet her face registers neither surprise nor terror. This violent moment is waved away by a little heave of disgust.

Chat Deverman gives a charismatic performance as the person who has just deserted the freedom fighters. He gives a solid picture of a conscript caught up in events which have not the slightest propensity. He shows the weight of all of the problematic decisions Denis has made through lost expressions of futility in a very touching performance. Also outstanding is Carlson Cooper who is Branko and a rough and terrifying Serbian soldier.

Bill English makes sharp use of the Playhouse stage with two versions of a detailed tacky kitchen in Bosnia. Toward the end of the play several bits of action occur simultaneously and never more than a few feet from the audience. Under Susi Damilano's sensitive direction, Zadravec's drama makes for an engrossing evening. She allows the devastated characters to reveal, in subdued exchanges, what they were before the nation broke down into armed camps. Brendan Aanes' realistic sounds of war and Miyuki Bierlein's costumes add to the depictions of the realities of war.

Honey Brown Eyes closes on November 5th at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org. Coming up next will be Tennessee Williams's Period of Adjustment opening on November 19th.

Photo: Jessica Palopoli


A Vibrant Production of Spring Awakening

San Jose Repertory Company recently presented a loftier piece of musical theatre to open its new season. This marked my first time seeing a regional production of Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's Spring Awakening, presented here by a skilled and ardent cast. The musical universalized its themes by juxtaposing provincial 19th century Germany with contemporary songs grafted onto a fairly faithful staging of Frank Wedekind's once banned 1891 play. Director Rick Lombardo made this a more personal production than the touring version I saw at the Curran last year. The touring company was more like a rock concert whereas Lombardo's production centered on the lives and emotions of the characters, played by an effervescent cast of young actors.

Spring Awakening is about the emotions felt by a group of teenage girls and boys and their sexual desires and social uncertainty. The musical confronts gushing hormones, masturbation, homosexuality, rashness and sexual abuse. Steven Sater, who wrote the book and lyrics, and Duncan Sheik, who wrote the music, have invested these young German students with traits of students you would find in today's high schools. The music is adrenaline-charged and the lyrics are very suggestive. The conceit is valiant, humorous and inviting.

The central trio is the anxious misfit Moritz (Miguel Cervantes), the good student Melchior (Jason Hite), and Melchior's sweetly curious girlfriend Wendla (Eryn Murman) who materialize as full characters. Naïve Wendla constantly asks her mother (Cindy Goldfield) sexual questions, and her narrow-minded mother refuses to answer. Melchior takes an anti-authority stand that makes the two adult teachers (Todd Alan Johnson and Cindy Goldfield) very upset; however, he is hiding within his own doubts. Moritz is a bundle of fears and continually second guesses his own actions, beating himself up for opportunities he has missed.

The ensemble, along with Sonya Tayeh's strong energy-driven choreography, gelled with heartfelt acting, great voices, flawless musicians, energetic technical elements, and enthralling staging, making this a triumph. Eryn Murman, of the Broadway company, was an incandescent Wendla, conveying her "Mama Who Bore Me" plea for basic sexual information with vital appeal. Jason Hite was charismatic as the knowledgeable and driven teen rebel Melchior. He distilled the character's arrogance in "All That's Known." His sensitivity after a friend's suicide in "Left Behind" was powerful. He also rocked singing "Totally Fucked" along with the whole cast. Romance bubbled with sensual electricity through the lovely consummation scene in the second act.

Miguel Cervantes gave a strong performance as the suicidal Moritz struggling to keep up his school work and plagued by "sticky dreams." He embodied the socially awkward kid who fears he'll never catch up, with the angry song "The Bitch of Living" and "Don't Do Sadness." Cervantes could have overplayed this role but he kept the character in check in a fascinating performance. Cindy Goldfield and Todd Alan Johnson skillfully handled all of the adult roles. They were constantly reinventing characters with slight changes in posture and voice.

Kristen Majetich, who played Martha, brought a rare energy and antagonism to her song of sexual abuse, "The Dark I Know Well." Joshua James, captivating as the handsome seducer, and Manuel Rodriguez-Ruiz, as his easily influenced prey, were standouts in a humorous homoerotic duet. There was standout work by Zarah Mahler as the fallen Ilse, especially when she delivered her lovely ballad "Blue Wind." M. Lowell Abellon, Ernestine Balisi and Monique Hafen gave consummate performances in their respective roles.

The supporting cast was excellent, not only in the acting department but with strong vocal cords.

John Iacovelli designed an impressive set with spectacular videos of rural scenes by David Lee Cuthbert, who also handled the lighting. Dolores Duran-Cefalu led a tremendous rock band that did not overpower the singers, and Steven Schoenbeck controlled the crispy, clean sound design. Rachel Myers' costumes were outstanding as the characters wore the high-buttoned jackets and breeches that German students would wear in 1891.

Spring Awakening closed on September 25th at San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Their current production is Joe DiPietro's The Last Romance running through November 6. For tickets call 408-367-7255 or on line at www.sjrep.com.


Lea Salonga in San Francisco

Tony Award winning Lea Salonga recently delighted audiences at the beautiful Venetian Room of the Hotel Fairmont atop Nob Hill in San Francisco. Due to popular demand, this wonderful singer did 90-minute performances on September 17 and September 18. She was radiant with her rich, creamy voice, singing songs from her Broadway and film appearances along with standards such as "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "The More I See You" and "Orange Colored Sky." Lea Salonga also broke the fourth wall, telling wonderful stories about growing up in the Philippines, her roles in Miss Saigon and Les Miserables, and being the voice of Princess Jasmine in Aladdin as well as Fa Mulan in the two Mulan films from Disney. Disneyland bestowed the honor of "Disney Legend" upon her this past August.

I first saw this stylish chanteuse in 1989 in London where she played Kim in Miss Saigon, then in the role of a Chinese immigrant in the reinterpretation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song at the Mark Taper in Los Angeles in 2001.

Lea Salonga is widely known for her ability to belt an expressive Broadway ballad, but what was striking was the interpretive skill she brought to standards by a variety of composers, starting with a perky arrangement of "Orange Colored Sky" and segueing into "The More I See You" aided by the fine playing of musical director Larry Yurman on the piano. She was most appealing when she relaxed and sang a sweet, low-key rendition of "How Do You Keep the Music Playing" and "How Deep is the Ocean?". The vocalist was sprightly belting out the country style "Travel Melody," singing part of the song in Korean. She talked about traveling to many cities for the current cabaret series and how tequila fixed everything after a night of entertaining audiences. Ms. Salonga showed her sensual side singing about her relationships and going into "There's Nothing I Wouldn't Do" and with "Nice Work If You Can Get It."

She was sublime singing a Filipino love song in her native language of Tagalog. She related a story that occurred to her after she won the Tony for Miss Saigon. She got a call from her agent asking if she could audition for a Broadway musical. She replied, "of course." Ten minutes later the agent called back and said "They don't want an Asian for the role." She bounced back with self-esteem and sang Sondheim's "Everybody Says Don't" and continued on her journey through life. She delivered this song as a burst of pure boldness. She showed that she could leap over every barrier. She ended her program with "There'll be Time," segueing into "The Journey" from her album Journey So Far.

Bay Area Cabaret's next series will feature Tony nominated actor/singer Peter Gallagher bringing Songs and Stories to the Venetian Room on October 22. For tickets please call 415-392-4400 or visit www.bayareacabaret.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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