Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay


Born Yesterday
Sonoma Arts Live
Review by Jeanie K. Smith | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's reviews of 110 in the Shade and Vanity Fair


David Abrams and Melissa Claire
Photo by Eric Chazankin
A timely piece about corruption and politics, Garson Kanin's classic comedy Born Yesterday deserves some fresh attention in these contentious times, and gets a credible airing in the current production at Sonoma Arts Live. It's also a story of a woman's awakening to her own power and potential, and Melissa Claire starring as Billie Dawn makes the transformation both believable and fun to watch.

Junk king Harry Brock (Ken Bacon) brings his mistress Billie Dawn (Claire) with him to Washington D.C., where he plots to bribe congressmen to pass legislation that will benefit his business. When Billie's rough edges get in the way of his schmoozing Senator Hedges (Dan Monez), Harry hires journalist Paul Verrall (David Abrams) to give her enough learning to converse without embarrassment. But Billie's education begins to unravel her relationship with Harry, as she realizes how corrupt he is and that his businesses have illegal foundations that run counter to the ideals of democracy.

There's a sweet love story as teacher and student are clearly attracted to each other, developing into a full-blown romance. Verrall also gives Billie respect and understanding she has never had from Harry, or from herself. It's truly a new "Dawn" as the sun rises on Billie's self-awareness and appreciation of her rights as a woman, an American citizen, and a human being. While the politics in the 1946 play can feel dated and simplistic at times, Billie's transformation never gets old, and her character still charms.

Claire and Abrams have lovely soft chemistry together, allowing the initial attraction between Billie and Paul to blossom quite naturally. Their scenes are definite highlights in the show, serving the important story arc of Billie's metamorphosis. Bacon as Brock has the requisite gruffness and vocals of one used to command and control, but often seems lost in the text; and, despite his declarations of love for Billie, we never see it.

Richard Kerrigan as Harry's henchman Ed delivers world-weary, but the drunken act sometimes gets in the way of volume and timing. Dan Monez as Hedges makes for a thoroughly believable petty senator whose greed and vulnerability add up to perfect prey for Harry's plans. Matt Farrell, playing Harry's hapless enslaved cousin, could go even further with flunky kow-towing. The rest of the ensemble does fine with mostly small roles, although their stage business sometimes distracts.

Director Carl Jordan misses the sharp timing needed for some of the comedy to land, and characters too often talk over each other in ways that obscure exposition. His direction of duet scenes fares much better than that for scenes with the full ensemble. There are touches of business that are jarring, as when the shoeshine boy puts shoes on the table, or the maid flicks ashes in the flowers. But overall the story comes through, especially in act two.

Jason Jamerson's scenic design nicely captures detail for an upscale hotel in 1946, but one can't help wonder about the strange window in the upstage wall. Janis Snyder's costumes are spot on, especially where Billie's flamboyant outfits are concerned, and Erik Weiss's properties ring true to period. Sound design by Steve Dietz supplies fun music of the era for scene changes, but distracts badly during the action, as with the Sibelius that goes on far too long. Bill Ferguson's lighting serves well, although some transitions seem off-cue, happening too early or too late.

Quibbles with the production will no doubt abate as the show settles into its run. It's still an enjoyable outing, with relevance for today's troubled times as well as delightful performances and a play that promotes love and liberty.

Born Yesterday, through May 12, 2019, at Sonoma Arts Live, Sonoma Community Center, 276 East Napa St., Sonoma CA. Tickets $28.00-$40.00 can be purchased online at www.sonomaartslive.org or by phone at 866-710-8942


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