Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Kentucky Cycle, Christine Andreas and
Smuin Ballet

A Compelling Production of The Kentucky Cycle

Willows Theatre is currently presenting an ambitious production of Robert Schenkkan's 1992 Pulitzer Prize epic The Kentucky Cycle. This is nine short plays chronicling the changing fortunes of seven generations of the Rowen family over 200 years in the part of eastern Kentucky known as Appalachia.

Schenkkan's sprawling production first opened at Seattle's Intiman Theatre and then Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum where it received an enthusiastic reception. After playing the Kennedy Center to positive reviews, it opened during the winter of 1993 at the Royale Theatre in New York and played only 33 performances. Since that time the extensive production has rarely been seen.

Artistic Director Richard Elliott has shown great courage in presenting this ambitious production. He has assembled 22 very gifted actors to play various roles in this massive production. These actors bring life to an abundance of characters who struggle to retain the land they believe to be rightfully their own. As in the original, Elliott has split the six hour production into two parts, performed on different nights, and the complete work can be seen on some Wednesdays, with Part 1 at the matinee and part 2 in evening. (I opted for the one-day six hour production).

The playwright spins out the interrelated stories of three families, from the white man's conquest of the Cumberland frontier to the seizure of the land by Northern coal mining companies and the catastrophic impact on the land and its inhabitants. The drama approaches Greek tragedy in its scope and the depth of its examination of human interactions.

At the beginning of the drama, the central family patriarch is Michael Rowen (Tim Hendrixson), an Irish immigrant who, through violence and shrewdness, stakes out a piece of Cherokee land and takes a Cherokee wife (Letitia Trattner) who bears him a son, Patrick (Brady Woolery).

The adult Patrick (Andrew Merit) marries Rebecca Talbert (Tanaya Hurst) of the neighboring family who comprise the main characters in this chronology. The father Michael has sexual relations with a Negro slave Sallie Biggs (Gloria Belle), and son Jessie (Adrian N. Roberts) is born. Hence, the Biggs become the third family tree followed.

Part 1 has murder, infanticide, patricide and other forms of family betrayal. The Talberts gain ownership of the Rowen property as Michael and his family are forced to become sharecroppers on their own land. Part 1 ends during the early summer of 1861 when Jed Rowen (Cassidy Brown), great-grandson of Patrick Rowen, goes off to fight with the Southern army and also to seek revenge on Richard Talbert (Kurt Gravenhorst) for taking their land.

Part 2 opens in 1890 when "city slicker" J.T. Wells (Ryan Tasker) comes to the area as a storyteller. He really is a lackey for the Northern coal companies wanting to buy parcels of land for their "mineral rights." He smooth talks Jed Rowen into selling the land cheap. ("Some men rob with a six gun. Some with a fountain pen" — Woody Guthrie.) There is a Romeo and Juliet feel about the "Tall Tales" section that involves Jed's daughter Mary Ann (Tenaya Hurst), the boyfriend Tommy Jackson (Robert Campbell) and J.T. Wells.

"Fire in the Hole" takes place in 1920 and the Blue Star Coal Company now owns the land, and the Rowens are employees of the company. There are no sick or death benefits, the mines are unsafe and many persons die from cave disasters. Abe Steinman (Michael Moerman) enters the picture as a union organizer. A figure of the great union organizer Mother Jones (Letitia Trattner) appears as in a dream and the Union District is formed with Joshua Rowen (Cassidy Brown) as President of Local #16. The rest of the drama involves union vs. mining policies and the sleaziness that further poisons the families. It all ends in 1975 with the War on Poverty scene, which seems a little anticlimactic.

The actors throw themselves into the play to make for a powerful drama. It's hard to single out a mere few for bravos. Cassidy Brown is outstanding in all of the roles he plays in this huge undertaking. His soliloquy as Jed Rowen at the end of Part 1 is heartrending. He also gives a brilliant performance as the head of Local #16 in Part 2. Tim Hendrixson brings a self assurance as the central family patriarch Michael Rowen. His portrayal of the the Civil War raider Quantrill is a personification of evil. Brady Woolery is outstanding as the young teenager Patrick Rowen.

Ryan Tasker is very good as the smooth-talking storyteller in the "Tall Tales" section. Adrian N. Roberts gives good performances playing a multitude of characters, from slave to gunrunner to a union leader. Gloria Belle does a bang up portrayal of the slave Sallie and later as the wife of a miner. Diana Boos gives an authoritative performance as Mary Anne Rowen Jackson when the coal miners strike against the company. Michael Moerman is a stand out as the union agitator.

Richard Elliott has mastered the massive task of directing a large, energetic cast. The scenes run smoothly on Peter Crompton's set of large wooden rectangular blocks that change to a cabin in the Appalachian Hills. Robert Anderson's lighting design is impressive. Bravos to Fight Choreographer Tom Flynn for very realistic fight scenes.

The Kentucky Cycle runs through October 28th at the Willows Theatre, 1975 Diamond Blvd, Concord. For information and tickets visited their web site or call 925-798-1300. Their next production will be Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats.

Photo: Judy Potter

Christine Andreas Captivates the Audience at Empire Plush Room

Broadway star and Tony nominee Christine Andreas, who was recently seen here in the national tour of The Light In the Piazza, captivated the patrons at the Empire Plush Room this month with her unique vocal cords.

Ms. Andreas, with her husband Martin Silvestri at the piano, started the 85-minute presentation called Love Is Good with a smooth, soft rendition of "Fly Me to the Moon" and segued into "They Say It's Wonderful." The artist showed a warm, vivacious soprano voice in these arrangements. She sailed into show tunes like "On a Clear Day" and a murderously amusing "To Keep My Love Alive" (A Connecticut Yankee) before moving smoothly back to contemporary pop songs like Hoagy Carmichael's "The Nearness of You."

The singer-actress talked about her trip to Italy and about her husband, who is of Italian decent, and then went into an enticing rendition of Mary Chapin Carpenter's "What If We Went to Italy." Martin Silvestri joined her on Lerner and Loewe's "I Remember it Well" from Gigi. The duet was poignant and affectionate, teasing and wonderfully funny. The artist reminded me of the great Edith Piaf when singing "I Love Paris," before segueing into "La Vie En Rose."

Ms. Andreas talked about being "released" from the cast of Peter Allen's flop musical Legs Diamond; however, she remained good friends with the composer until his death. She lovingly sang for us Allen's "Love Don't Need a Reason" and then went into a poignant rendition of "Cover Me," composed by her husband. As she became a star playing Eliza Doolittle in the 20th anniversary Broadway production of My Fair Lady, she sang "I Could Have Danced All Night" with a superlatively polished finesse.

Having appeared as Marguerite St. Just in the original Broadway production of The Scarlet Pimpernel, Ms. Andreas poked fun at the Frank Wildhorn/ Nat Knighton musical. She drolly talked of the slashing and cutting of the show so it lasted another year on Broadway. She ended the session with her signature song, the exquisite "Storybook" waltz from The Scarlet Pimpernel. Martin Silvestri's arrangement is different from the over-amplified orchestra of the original cast recording. For an encore she sang a new song written by her husband: "Is This the Way to Love." Christine Andreas is one classy woman.

Christine Andreas closed at the Empire Plush Room on October 14

K.T. Sullivan is currently at the Empire Plush Room 940 Sutter Street, San Francisco in The Ladies of the Silver Screen. For tickets call 866-468-3399 or visit

An Eclectic Night of Smuin Ballet

Kevin Yee Chan and Vanessa Thiessen
Smuin Ballet Company, the Bay Area's internationally acclaimed dance company, returns to the Palace of Fine Arts without the magnetic Michael Smuin who passed away in April. However, Smuin Managing Director Dwight Hutton says the company will remain true to Michael's vision, using his unique artistic expressions. Many of the ballets will be "smuin-esque." The company will retain its title as a "guerilla ballet group" and obtain the best dancers in the nation under the helm of Celia Fushille-Burke. The ballets will continue be part classical, part Broadway and part original.

The diverse Fall/Winter program starts with the world premiere of "Objects of Curiosity," with choreography by Smuin protégé, program resident choreographer Amy Seiwert. It opens with individual spotlights on male dancers, and most of the dance moments are athletic. The scene changes to classical dance by eight members of the company, all in yellow gold, doing interweaving patterns and hand-offs in this Asian diversion to a score by Foday Musa Suso and Phillip Glass.

Michael Smuin's Duettino is a delightful bon bon to the music of Giuseppe Verdi. Jessica Touchet and Koichi Kubo are enchanting in their pas de deux. Koichi Kubo, a new member who danced with the Colorado Ballet from 1991 thru May 2007, is brilliant in his solo. There is an intrinsic casual manner in the way Kubo lifts himself in the air. Touchet is captivating when she shows her characteristic bounciness to a sprightly scherzo of Verdi's music.

The company pays homage to the late Michael Smuin when they present his sober, iconic Stabat Mater with music by Antonin Dvorak. Vanessa Thiessen and Aaron Thayer are outstanding in their restrained classical pas de deux while the rest of the company is convincing in this tribute to the great master of ballet.

The sixteen members of the company turn to the light hootenanny of country western music in the energetic Reinin' in the Hurricane. Ex-Smuin dancer Kirk Peterson did the choreography in 1994 to the music of Gene Autry, Cole Porter, David Byrne, Randy Travis and k.d. Lang. This down home ballet starts out with photographs of bulls on the screen. This goes on a little too long and one gets very tired of looking at a lot of bulls and listening to Gene Autry singing "Don't Fence Me In." The screen goes up and a lone cowboy, danced superbly by Kevin Yee-Chan, comes sashaying in against a backdrop of a western sky. His dancing is sinuously executed as he sails about the stage. The whole cast does spectacular masculine dancing that is a combination of Agnes De Mille's "Rodeo" and her work in Oklahoma!, and Eugene Loring's "Billy the Kid." Susan Roemer and Olivia Ramsay are entertaining, dancing to the "Wallflower Waltz" and Robin Cornwell whoops it up as Big Bone Gal. Courtney Hellebuyck and Shannon Hurlbert are provocative in their pas de deux in "Big, Big Love." The whole cast is exhilarating in the final number, to a fantastic arrangement of "Don't Fence Me In" that almost sounds Spanish.

Smuin Ballet Company closed at the Palace of Fine Arts on October 14th. However, the company will be dancing this program at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek on February 8th and 9th, in Carmel at the Sunset Center March 21st-22nd, and at the Mountain View Center for the Arts February 20 - February 24th. For more information go to or call 415-495-2234.

Photo: Matthew Felton

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

- Richard Connema

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