Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

World Premiere of Bronte,
a Bold Historical Drama
Willows Theatre Presents a Sleek Production of Fiddler on the Roof

The Magic Theatre is presenting the world premier of John O'Keefe's long awaited literary drama on the Brontes. This is a sweeping tale of the three feverishly creative sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne and their decadent brother Bramwell. I generally do not like biographical plays and I find it hard to put a person's life from cradle to coffin in two acts. I also thought it would be really difficult to present the lives of the sisters and the brothers in the 2 hour 45 minute two act play. However, John O'Keefe has succeeded in presenting a bold and interesting play.

The playwright has delivered a vivid, harsh reality of the Bronte family. He has spun a wonderful yarn about the legendary British literary family. Growing up poor, as the children of a minister in the Yorkshire town Haworth, we see the Brontes as siblings playing fantasies games to escape their dark reality. They invent complex imaginary worlds after their father gives them toy soldiers. The sisters become queens or princesses of these fantasy worlds of which Branwell becomes the controller.

I will admit that the actors playing the children did a lot of screaming and running around - maybe a wee bit too much for this small theater. It would have looked better on a larger presidium stage rather then the three sided stage of the Magic.

About halfway into the first act, the actors exchanged children clothes and nightgowns for crinoline dresses. The clan grows into adulthood with childhood traits intact. They discover that their fantasies lead to writing fiction and poems. By the mid 19th century, the three sisters have worldwide acclaim. The sisters write under adopted men's names at first, but they finally have to reveal them selves as females to clear up a copyright problem. They become the toast of London literary society.

Branwell succumbs to a life of drink and debauchery since he is not successful in any of his endeavors. He becomes very impetuous after his disastrous love affairs.

The play runs smoothly from scene to scene and you follow the authors of "Wuthering Heights", "Jane Eyre" and "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" breathlessly. It does cast a powerful spell on the audience.

The actors are stunning in their roles, going from childhood to adults before your eyes. Natasha Kelly is very impressive as Emily. She is transcendently intense in her acting. Alexander Storm (yes that is her name) is very focused and magnetic as Charlotte. Sarah Overman, as youngest sister Emily, is deeply moving when she succumbs to tuberculosis. Branwell is played by newcomer Andrew Hurteau. He has a beautiful strong theater voice that would be great for a larger presidium type theater like ACT. Although his acting was superior, he did tend to shout quite a lot and was extremely energetic, almost to a fault. Michael Eliopoulous, also an up and coming actor, played a variety of roles and in each role he was an entirely different character. He was superb in all three roles. The father was played by Bay Area veteran actor Robert Parnell. He was outstanding.

The direction by Tony nominee Barbara Damashek was inspiring. Ms. Damashek was nominated for a Tony for the musical Quilters in 1985. She also composed the eerie music for the production. She has appeared to choreograph the play, having the actors move in a dancelike fashion to give the piece a sort of reality that lets itself to a blend of fact and fiction and blending the whole play into a compelling story.

The set is simple but effective. There are a series of oblong boxes that become everything from coffins to furniture. There is also a large white curtain that is sometime used a shadow play. The lighting is used quite subliminally to create a mood. This is one of the Magic's best plays and the O'Keefe play should play off Broadway some day. It runs until March 5th.

Fiddler on the Roof

The Willows Theatre of Concord, one of the San Francisco Bay Area's best regional theater group, is presenting one of the half dozen or so best musicals we have seen in the Bay Area over the past several years. It seems everyone has done Harnick and Bock's Fiddler on the Roof over the years; regional companies, colleges and even high schools are now doing Fiddler. It has played everywhere in the world. This ground breaking musical created in the 1960s was the last great masterwork of the period.

Fiddler opened at the Imperial Theatre on September 22, 1964 with Zero Mostel in the role of Tevye. We saw the musical in October of that year with a superb cast including Maria Karnilova as Goldie. It featured some young and rising actors who made their names in film and television. The production included Julia Megenes as Hodel, Beatrice Arthur as Yente, Austin Pendleton as Motol and Bert Convey. The musical ran for 3242 performances in New York. It was the longest running show in the history of American Musical Theater up to that time.

The musical scored big in London also where it opened at Her Majesty Theatre on Feb 16, 1967 with a young unknown Israeli actor Topol in the lead. Miriam Karlin played Goldie. Alfie Bass and Avis Bunnage eventually took over the roles. It ran a total of 2030 performances in London. Topol revived the musical at the Palladium in 1983. In New York Zero also revived the musical in 1967 and there was yet another revival by the New York State Theatre in 1981. A smash box office movie was also made with Topol. In fact, it still shows up from time to time on Turner Classics. I would not be surprise that another major revival will occurred in the next 20 years.

Fiddler traces the story of dairyman Tevye and his family in czarist Russia and the challenges to tradition they encounter as the world changes around them. It is told with wit and humor.

The Willows group has done a admirable job in presenting this musical. They have retained all the magic and majesty of the big production of the original musical, and director Andrew Holtz has added the intimacy in the lives of the village of Anatevka. The production numbers have been scaled down to good effect. It is now played to the front of the stage and it gives you a sense that you are part of the show. This is an emotional production.

Tevye is played by one of Bay Area's most experience actors. Joe Vincent is the Jewish father struggling to make his way in the shtetl of Anatevka. He plays the role with a more "human" touch where Zero Mostel and Topol played the role as a cartoon figure. He brings the character a sense of fervor. From the moment he pulled his milk cart in front of the interesting backdrop, Mr. Vincent filled with house with warmth and gentle humor. His eyes twinkled as he engaged in his one man joust with God and when he raised his arms to the sky in a Hasidic dance, he truly understood the rhythm of his movement.

Livia Genise, another Bay Area veteran, played Goldie. She offered up a lovely voice and no-nonsense practicality that made her character believable. She creates a more human character in Goldie. Stu Klitsner played the revolutionary Perchik and he allowed the audience to hear his lilting tenor on "Now I Have Heard Everything".

Joseph Harris created an abstract version of the village and it is almost cartoon-like. Costumes by Karen Knoll were authentic looking. The orchestrations were on the mark. The musical runs to March 11, 2000.


- Richard Connema

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