Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Smuin Ballet and Celtic Yuletide

Also see Richard's reviews of Ghost Light, God's Plot and Food Stories


A Heartwarming Production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical

Big League Productions brought in Dr. Suess' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! to the Golden Gate Theatre for the Christmas season. This charming musical with book and lyrics by Timothy Mason and music by Mel Marvin has been around since its debut at the Minneapolis Children Theatre in 1995. The musical played at the Foxwoods Theatre in New York during the 2006 Christmas season and again at the St. James Theatre in 2007. It has been playing in limited run engagements during the festive season in such cities as Hollywood, Omaha, Dallas and Toronto.

The current version is based on the Jack O'Brien original and has been restaged by Matt August with energetic choreography by Bob Richards (original choreography by John DeLuca). The colors were bright and brash, and the Whos, the residents of Whoville, very high-spirited. The Grinch was wonderfully played with great gusto, hilarity and polish by Stefan Karl who is best known as the villain Robbie Rotten on the Nickelodeon TV series "Lazy Town."

This is a family musical and, judging from the opening night audience, the kids not only loved it but the parents had a good time as well. Stefan Karl was a delight to watch and you could say he was very "grinchy." The misanthropic meanie vamped and snarled yet he found softness in scenes where Cindy-Lou Who loved him in spite of his skullduggery.

Stefan got great support from Bob Lauder as the narrator/dog Old Max. Instead of a simple narrator he is now a fatigued traveler taking a final look at his memories before he picks up his bag and head on his way. Lauder had a powerful voice singing such songs as "The Time of the Year" and "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch."

Young Max was enthusiastically played by Seth Bazacas. Serena Brook as Mama Who and Brance Cornelius as Papa Who were attractive playing their roles with strong vocal cords. Rebecca Prescott as Grandma Who and Ryan Knowles as Grandpa Who were excellent in their roles as well. Bailey Ryon (alternates with Clara Young) was outstanding as Cindy-Lou Who. She was adorable, looking and sounding like a little Baby June.

Robert Morgan deserves credit for crafting the oddly shaped Who clothes that looked like bright Christmas ornaments and allowed the large cast to dance. The sets by John Lee Beatty looked like something out a Dr. Seuss book.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! played at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco through January 1.


Smuin's Ballet Company Brings Christmas Cheer to San Francisco

San Francisco had four major holiday attractions this year to bring joy and cheer to the Bay Area. They were the American Conservatory Theater production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the San Francisco Ballet Company production of The Nutcracker, the Big League Production of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical and the annual Smuin Ballet production of The Christmas Ballet. Once again, the sterling ballet company put San Franciscans in the right frame of mind for the holidays.

The company featured young, energetic dancers performing a particular style of dance that was part classical, part contemporary, with innovative partnering. The Christmas Ballet was divided into two acts. The first act was "The Classical Ballet" in which the talented group appeared all in white. They danced to music from Bach, Palestrina, Handel, Prokofiev and traditional carols. The second act was called "The Cool Christmas" and the company threw out all the stops with Christmas trees dancing, hula girls, a Lindy Hop and some great tap dancing by Shannon Hurlburt.

Artistic and Executive Director Celia Fushille revised and revamped this year's program. Act one opened with the inspiring sounds of Bach's "Magnificat" on a top grade sound system with large slides of Renaissance paintings. The screen rose and the company performed an exquisite dance. Premier dancer Robin Cornwell came onto the stage to delicately dance to the traditional "Zither Carol."

The dancers were waiflike as the company performed movements to the traditional "Veni, Veni Emmanuel" and Bach's "Jauchzet Frohlocket." The traditional "Gloucestershire Wassail," deliciously controlled by the company with a trio of paired dancers, was mesmerizing to watch as groups jollily hopped about the stage with a festive air. One of the most popular dances was "Licht Bensh'n (Candle Blessing)," with Susan Roemer dancing alone to a sweltering clarinet and then suddenly a quartet of yeshiva students came out with their manly bravado dancing the hora around her. John Speed Orr excitingly danced the Spanish Christmas Carol "Riu Riu Chiu." Erin Yarbrough-Stewart, paired with Shannon Hurlburt, was glowing in Handel's "For Unto Us a Child is Born." "Sleigh Ride," with music from "Lieutenant Kije Suite" by Prokofiev, had been added and was danced vividly by Mallory Welsh and John Speed Orr, Erica Chipp and Jonathan Powell. Erica Chipp and Darren Anderson did a beautiful pas de deux to Palestrina's "Hodie Christus Natus Est."

The Smuin Ballet's crowd pleaser is always the second half of the program, which is a series of vignette dances to the music of modern day composers and singers. This year was no exception, with songs were provided by Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Eartha Kitt and Willie Nelson. Susan Roemer danced sumptuously to "Santa Baby" with the sexy voice of Eartha Kitt, and Robin Cornwell, paired with Jonathan Powell, bopped sensuously to Frank Loesser's "Baby It's Cold Outside" with the voices of Ray Charles and Betty Carter.

There were many great highlights, from Jonathan Mangosing, John Speed Orr and Jonathan Powell exquisitely dancing to Robert Sund's "Oh, Holy Night" to a recording of Mahalia Jackson to Christian Squires enchanting the audience with his solo to "Little Drummer Boy." One of the audience favorites, "Droopy Little Christmas Tree," with Shannon Hurlburt, Jared Hunt and John Speed Orr dressed completely as lighted Christmas trees, charmed the audience. The mirthful "Christmas Island" with a surfer played by Darren Anderson and one smart shark was still in the repertoire. The company smoothly transferred from solo turns and interconnected dancing like "Christmas In New Orleans" with the voice of Louis Armstrong and "Sugar Rum Cherry," which was the real strength of the company.

Tapping was great with Erica Chipp and Mallory Welsh teaming up for cheerful Hollywood-style numbers. Shannon Hulbert's wonderfully lithe solo to "Bells of Dublin" was captivating. The last scene was gorgeous with the cast dancing to Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" with "snow" falling on the stage and the audience, which got everyone into the spirit of the season.

The Christmas Ballet played through December 24 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street. San Francisco. The Smuin Ballet will be presenting their Spring Program at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts April 27 through May 6. For tickets call 415-556-5000 or visit www.smuinballet.org.


An Irish Christmas with Michael Londra in Celtic Yuletide

With little fanfare, Michael Londra, star of PBS' Beyond Celtic and lead singer of Riverdance on Broadway, brought his show into the Marines Memorial Theatre in San Francisco. Celtic Yuletide included Owen Barrington (2008 Senior Men's World Irish Dance Champion) and Riverdancer alumnus along with other splendid Irish step dancers. This beautiful, laid back evening included guest artists, the international recording performers Sephira who are known for their lilting voices and their mastery of the violin. There was also a grand 11-piece world class Irish orchestra with true Irish instruments.

The show opened with an exciting Irish step dance by Owen Barrington. Michael Londra, who hails from County Wexford, talked about the Christmas holiday season in Ireland, especially the country's special day called St. Stephen's Day on December 26th. He sang the lovely "Wexford Carol."

Celtic Yuletide also had audience participation as we learned the Gaelic words for "Hello" and "How are you," plus how to say "Happy Christmas" ("Nollaig shona dhuit") in the Celtic tongue. Michael Londra not only sang Irish carols but warbled an exquisite rendition of "Danny Boy" for the Irish in the audience.

The six Riverdancers led by Owen Barrington brought their own style of dancing and they showed daring athleticism in their exciting movements. The two sisters known as Sephira did an exquisite rendition of J.S Bach's "Sheeps May Safely Graze" and later sang the song from Pulp Fiction, "Misirlou." Outstanding was Caitlin Warbelow from the Irish orchestra knocking out the lively Irish jig "Pretty Girl Milking a Cow" that made you want to get up and dance along.

Celtic Yuletide played through January 1 at the Marine Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter Street, San Francisco.


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

- Richard Connema


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