Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Emma, Sweeney Todd and Heartbreak House

A Charming and Enchanting Production of Emma

Timothy Gulan, George Ward and
Lianne Marie Dobbs

TheatreWorks presents their 50th world premiere production, Emma, with appealing melodies, lyrics and book by Tony-nominated Paul Gordon (Jane Eyre). Gordon has brought to the stage one of literature's most delightful heroines, sung and played superbly by Lianne Marie Dobbs.

Emma is a merrily snobbish, self-appointed matchmaker who firmly believes that she can match any couple for matrimony. However, many times she is completely off target. Emma takes orphan Harriet (Dani Marcus) under her wing to make a proper match for this socially inferior child. However, Harriet pines for low-born Mr. Robert Martin (Nick Nakashima). Emma also tries to organize a romance between Harriett and the town preacher, Mr. Elton (Brian Herndon), that fails. Emma continues to meddle in love affairs, much to the disapproval of her life-long friend Mr. Knightley (Timothy Gulan). She is clueless as to her own feelings, even when flirting with Frank Churchill (Travis Poelle). All of her good intentions misfire, leading to a whirlwind of comic complications and true love.

Paul Gordon has successfully appropriated the three sections of Jane Austen's book into an enchanting musical. He has an understated knack for writing outstanding melodies. Many are passionately poetic, such as "Emma" and the comical "Mr. Robert Martin." One can hear a Sondheim mode in several of the songs, such as the complex "The Conviction of My Indifference," "The Recital" or "This is How Love Feels." "Humiliation" is an unforgettable song about Harriet's touching, comically recurring feelings when no one asks her to dance at the ball in the second act. Gordon's treatment of the material is fantastic. The songs just flow into the action of the characters throughout the two-hour and 30-minute production.

Lianne Marie Dobbs is enchanting as Emma. She plays the role saucy and sunny and has a voice that is captivating. Timothy Gulan portrays Mr. Knightley as a cynical character when it comes to Emma's matchmaking efforts. He has superb, powerful vocal chops when singing the impassioned love song, "Emma." Travis Poelle plays Frank Churchill as an ego-driven character. His duet with Emma in their rendition of "Home" is rousing.

Dani Marcus is outstanding as Harriett Smith. She has a wonderful babyish voice and her rendition of "Mr. Robert Martin" is poignant and even comical to a point. Suzanne Grodner is delightful as the good-natured chatterbox Miss Bates. Nick Nakashima is wonderfully naïve as Robert Martin. Brian Herndon plays Mr. Elton as an unctuous individual. George Ward gives an amusing performance as the ever-complaining Mr. Woodhouse.

Laurie Strawn, Richard Frederick, Alison Ewing, Mindy Lyn, Danielle Levin and Sean Patrick Murtagh don't disappoint as each member plays well-suited to his or her part.

Production values are extraordinary, with Joe Ragey's set of door frames, warm hearths, stone fences, chairs and table smoothly moving from the wings to the stage. Steven B. Mannshardt's lighting is first rate, and Fumiko Bielefeldt's period costumes are gorgeous. There is a four-member chamber orchestra under the direction of William Liberatore perched on a balcony; they supply fine support for the singers. The choreography of Mary Beth Cavanaugh in the ballroom scene is attractive. Through Robert Kelley's direction, the action is played out seamlessly on the bare-bones set.

Emma plays through September 22 at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center, 500 Castro at Mercy, Mountain View. For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit

Their next production is Golda's Balcony, opening on October 3 and running through October 28 at Mountain View Performing Arts Center.

Photo: David Allen

A Razor Sharp Production of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd

David Hess and Judy Kaye
American Conservatory Theatre opens its 41st season with John Doyle's Tony Award-winning re-imagining of Steven Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. I have seen this magnum opus at least ten times, including the 1979 original with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou. I have seen revivals in Los Angeles, London and San Francisco, including the recent concert version with Patti LuPone and the San Francisco Symphony. Portland Opera Company made it into a modern opera with Karen Morrow playing the role of Mrs. Lovett several years ago.

John Doyle's version plays like no Sweeney you have ever seen before. The superb production will knock your socks off. The production is a scaled down version of this masterwork, presenting a dazzling nine-person cast, all of whom play at least one instrument while performing on stage. This is a wonderful, fresh version of the musical; it is not gimmicky or camp. There are sharp sounds of Sondheim's music and lyrics that make for an exciting night of musical comedy theatre.

Judy Kaye plays Mrs. Lovett differently from others I have seen. She is not a comical made-up character but a smart, no-nonsense business woman. She plays the role deliciously as a vulgar but wounded woman who has known hard times. It is an inspired performance. She is splendid in the mock-lamenting, hilarious "Worst Pies in London" and her lighthearted, ghoulish rendition of "A Little Priest."

David Hess gives a riveting performance as the impassioned Sweeney Todd. His pitch perfect powerful voice is astounding in the duet with Judy Kaye, "A Little Priest." He has a lush and appealing baritone voice and sings the role with all the fervor it requires. He becomes frightening as Todd proceeds to become demented in the second act.

Edmund Bagnell is magnetic as Tobias. He is a standout among the vocally strong cast. He has superb vocal chops when singing "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir," which borders on a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song. He gives a touching, plaintive rendition of "Not While I'm Around." When not in a scene he plays the violin and becomes very involved in every scene in the masterpiece.

Lauren Molina is enticing as the innocent Johanna, and Benjamin Magnuson who portrays Anthony gives a sterling performance. Both sing ardently and purely with their thrilling voices. Magnuson sings "Johanna" passionately while Molina has a bright and chirpy soprano voice in the duet "Kiss Me."

Katrina Yaukey has a bell clear voice as the preening rival barber Pirelli while Benjamin Eakeley has a mellifluous voice as The Beadle. Keith Buterbaugh is exceptional as Judge Turpin and adds an extra sinister atmosphere to his lusting of "Johanna." His duet with David Hess in "Pretty Women" is outstanding. Diana DiMarzio gives a scary, haunting performance as the Beggar Woman, and John Arbo is effective in the role of Jonas Fogg.

Production values are supreme in this imaginative production. It looks like a theatrical box that one might see in an insane asylum during the French Revolution period. A rudimentary coffin is used as various objects throughout the two-act, two-hour and twenty minute production. There is a towering bare plank wall with a mad miscellany of objects that mean nothing to the production. John Doyle's set design is the same as in the New York Production. Richard G. Jones' stark white and blood red lights are amazing. When Sweeney goes on a killing spree, the sanguinary red lights up the stage and characters pour buckets of blood from one receptacle to another. The sound design by Dan Moses Schreier is awesome, with a screeching sound piercing the ears when Sweeney cuts a throat.

Sweeney Todd starts its national tour here, and plays through September 30th at the American Conservatory Theatre, 450 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-439-2473 or online at

A.C.T.'s next production will be N. Richard Nash's The Rainmaker opening on October 25 and running thru November 25th.


A Long, Stylish Production of George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House

Michael Winters and
Allison Jean White

Berkeley Repertory Theatre opens its 41st season with George Bernard Shaw's Heartbreak House. One must be an aficionado of the Irish playwright's work to really appreciate this very long, talkative production of his 1917 comedy drama that borders on a Chekhov play. It has been called "a fantasia in the Russian manner on English themes." This production looks like a Masterpiece Theatre production that one could see on PBS (however, the BBC did a cut-down 140-minute version in 1977 that was superb).

Heartbreak House is a three-hour caper through the minefields of romantic entanglement just prior to opening of World War I. The controversial socialistic views expressed by Shaw's main character Captain Shotover are the playwright's political views. The comedy drama was discouraged by the press during the war and Mr. Shaw postponed the production until 1920.

The play centers around Captain Shotover (Michael Winters), an eccentric poet, retired seafarer and inventor who is reluctantly hosting a weekend house party at his Sussex estate on the eve the war Guests include larger than life characters: the capitalist Boss Mangan (David Chandler), the social climbing Ellie Dunn (Allison Jean White) and the extravagantly bohemian couple Hesione (Michelle Morain) and Hector (Stephen Caffrey) Hushabye.

While I'm a great Shaw fan, I found this production in spots to be very tedious. My feelings echoed what two characters ask in the second act: "When is this going to end?" and "What's the point of this?" However, there is an excellent cast of actors, especially Michael Winters as Captain Shotover, to talk about Shaw's socialistic feelings.

The overlong second act starts out with explosively funny dialogue as Elle and Boss Mangan conflict with each other's romantic escapades. This hilarious scene includes the hypnosis of Boss while Elle and Hesione confront each other about romantic idealism versus the practicality of everyday life with a partner you do not love. The final scene (where some companies have their second intermission) takes place on the veranda of the estate with much talk about capitalism and socialism. It ends with an explosion that symbolizes the start of the war.

The excellent cast sports fine up-market English accents and all are very good in their roles. Michael Winter plays Captain Shotover with the greatest of ease. He was born for this role. He is autumnally breezy in a full white beard and tattered peacoat. He plays the elderly character with a bad temper, insulting the house guests with some wonderful zingers. The Captain's point of view becomes a commentary on the action of the drama.

Michelle Morain is marvelous as his sister Hesione Hushabye. She gives an enthrallingly outspoken performance with a no holds barred candor to the entire house. Her farcical gestures and manner of speech are beautifully obtained.

Allison Jean White gives a passionate and chic performance as the solid Ellie Dunn. Susan Wilder plays Hesione's long absent sister Ariadne. She adds a marvelous flair in her portrayal of the upper class self-important sister. She is the model of upper class mannerisms and the haughtiness of the British aristocracy of the period. Michael Ray Wisely is entertaining as Ariadne's immature upper-class brother-in-law. Stephen Caffrey is excellent as Hector, an over-the-hill Lothario who loves to tell fantasy stories about his adventures.

David Chandler gives a complete over-characterized portrayal of Boss Mangan. It is almost a parody of capitalism when he stuffily talks about how to do business in the democracy. He is straight out of a Dickens novel. Lynne Soffer's performance as the ill-mannered maid is excellent. Chris Ayles enlivens the scene with his perfect performance in the second act as a burglar with scruples. Matt Gottlieb gives a classy performance as Mazzini Dunn, Ellie's truly naïve father, the most sympathetic character in the play.

Annie Smart has designed an elegant set of Captain Shotover's nautical themed living room with ravishing design elements and a curved window in the background. Hanging from the rafters are stuffed gulls, sea turtles and smiling crocodiles. The lighting by Alexander V. Nichols is fantastic and impressively changes in the background to match the atmosphere as day becomes night. Anne R. Oliver's costumes are wonderful with artsy gowns, colorful vests, an exquisite Chinese robe, tail coats and turbans.

Heartbreak House plays through October 14th at Berkeley Repertory Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley. For tickets call 510-647-2949 or toll free 888-4-BRT-Tix or visit

Their next production is Haruki Murakami's After the Quake opening on October 12 and running through November 25 on the Trust Stage.

Photo: Kevin Berne

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

- Richard Connema

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