Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Smuin Ballet, Debbie Reynolds and Sony Holland

Smuin Ballet Presents a Glorious Revamped The Christmas Ballet

Aaron Thayer
Once again, San Francisco's own Smuin Ballet celebrated a program of magnificent eclectic dance with classical ballet, tap, swing, jazz and pop in the 2007 edition of this festive treat. After the untimely death of Michael Smuin, Artistic Director Celia Fushille-Burke is now helming the company. However, the spirit of Michael Smuin lives on with the sixteen-member company continuing the tradition to provide first rate ballet entertainment to San Francisco.

The Christmas Ballet was once again divided into "The Classical Christmas" as act one and after a brief intermission "A Cool Christmas" with music ranging from Peggy Lee to Willie Nelson singing holiday hits.

Act one opened with the glorious sounds of Bach's "Magnificat," featuring a first class sound system and large slides of Renaissance paintings. The complete company, dressed in white, performed an exquisite dance to Bach's stirring music. The ballet sequences flowed effortlessly to music by Palestrina, George Frideric Handel and Jakob Handl, as well as traditional Christmas carols.

Vanessa Thiessen was inspirational in the established "Zither Carol." Jessica Touchet, Robin Cornwell and Olivia Ramsey found an engaging lyricism in choreographer Celia Fushille-Burke's lovely ballet to the music of Jakob Handl's "Resonet in Laudibus." There were ethereal dances, such as the women of the company moving to the traditional "Veni, Veni, Emmanuel." They linked arms and they bowed their heads, which gave a jubilant heart to the music.

Koichi Kubo was outstanding in the Spanish carol "Riu Riu Chiu." His lighter than air footwork and his elevations were fantastic. "Licht bensh'n (Candle Blessing)", to time-honored klezmer music, began with Susan Roemer dancing alone to a steaming clarinet and then suddenly a quartet of yeshiva students came out, dancing with masculine bravado a hora around her. Erin Yarbrough-Stewart and Aaron Thayer were brilliant in in the lovely "Noel Nouvelet" pas de deux dance devised by Amy Seiwert.

Erin Yarbrough-Stewart and Shannon Hurlburt with company in George Frideric Handel's "For Unto Us a Child is Born" were inspiring. Both were superb in their graceful dance moves. Outstanding was the lively "The Gloucestershire Wassail." This featured the free moving company of dancers, and it was fascinating to watch their superior footwork in the piece. The first act ended with the glorious "Jauchzet Frohlocket" with music by J.S. Bach. Robin Cornwell's footwork was exquisite in her opening solo and then followed by all members of the company making it a magnificent end to the Classical Christmas segment.

The second act was really a "cool Christmas" with the dancers in bright red outfits opening with the stunning "Christmas By the Bay," a new work with music by Clark Sterling and Nolan Gasser and sung by Tim Hockenberry. Vanessa Thiessen and Aaron Thayer with company were incredible, dancing while projections of San Francisco were flashed on a scrim in front of the dancers. A showstopper was Ikolo Griffin, dancing and twirling a stick to "Drummer Boy" with a vocal by Lou Rawls. The whole company cut a rug and jived to "Winter Weather" with songs by Peggy Lee, Art Lund and the Benny Goodman orchestra. This was straight out of the Broadway musical Contact.

"Baby It's Cold Outside," the Frank Loesser song sung by Ray Charles and Betty Carter and danced by Olivia Ramsay and Ikolo Griffin, was real cool. "I Pray On Christmas" was a swinging romp featuring Jessica Touchet and Shannon Hurlburt with Harry Connick Jr. singing his own song. Amy Seiwert's choreography channeled the Broadway style that Michael Smuin loved so dearly. Robin Cornwell vamped it up with men of the company giving her gifts on "Santa Baby." Eartha Kitt never sound better on record as Robin slinked across the stage with the longest feathered boa in captivity (40 feet).

Matthew Linzer made a good Elvis with his hips moving for the women of the company in "Blue Christmas." Once again the "Droopy Little Christmas Tree" tap dancing by Kevin Yee-Chan, Aaron Thayer and Ethan White was hilarious. The campy fun tropical "Christmas Island" to the singing of Leon Redbone with the head of a shark chasing all of the dancers off stage was amusing. One of the big highlights of the evening was Shannon Hurlburt tap dancing Irish style to The Chieftains "Bells of Dublin" and a group of male dancers joining him Riverdance-style in "Belles of Blackville Reel." "Pretty Paper" sung by Willie Nelson accompanied Erin Yarbrough-Stewart and Ethan White in a beautiful pas de deux with ribbons flowing from their hands.

"Cajun Christmas" danced by the company was reminiscent of Agnes De Mille's Rodeo ballet while Kevin Yee-Chan; Matthew Linzer playing two little boys tossing presents to the traditional "Greensleeves" were very cute but it seemed to be a filler for the dazzling final number when the whole company danced to Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas." The dancers were all dressed up in vibrant reds, and "snow" fell down, not only on stage but on the audience as well. This was a great way to start the Christmas holiday.

The Christmas Ballet played at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Howard at 3rd, San Francisco through December 23rd. The Fall-Winter program of the group will be coming to Walnut Creek's Lesher Center for the Arts starting February 8th and 9th and then to Carmel as the Sunset Center on March 21st and 22nd and finally to Mountain View Center for the Arts on February 20 through February 24th. For more information on this program go online at

Debbie Reynolds Still is Hollywood Royalty

The indestructible Debbie Reynolds recently played the Herbst Theatre for a one night only gig. This seventy-five-year-old lady still has the moxie to capture an audience with her wonderful insightful stories, jokes (some good and some bad) and amazingly good singing voice. She captivated a full house of her fans on December 7th.

After a brief introduction she appeared wearing a sexy two-piece sequinned outfit, slit up the left leg with a jacket open at the front. She started by saying a simple "Hello, good evening," and her musical director of twenty-two years, Joey Singer, and her drummer of many years, Gerry Genuar, vamped a melody. She looked at the first three rows consisting mostly of gay men and said I doubt if the slit will upset you guys.

Debbie went into a rendition of Cole Porter's "From This Moment On." She still has great vocal cords singing the upbeat song. She then talked about being on a gay cruise ship where she told some great joke (e.g., "Two gay guys throw down a woman in an alley and the third one does her hair").

This legendary artist joked a lot about Eddie Fisher ("I understand he lives here and can be seen in a lot of bars"). There were good zingers about both him and Elizabeth Taylor. She also told the younger members of the audience, "You probably don't know me, I am Princess Leia's mother."

Debbie did a wonderful impression of Zsa Zsa Gabor, talked about marrying Nicky Hilton and had a few zingers about her grand niece Paris. She went off stage and came back looking and singing like Barbra Streisand. She looked and sounded astoundingly like Ms. Streisand.

A large movie screen was pulled down to show scenes from her films and there was a long sequence of "Good Morning" from MGM's Singing in the Rain and another long great dancing scene from The Unsinkable Molly Brown. After the screening, which included a scene from The Tender Trap, she said Frank Sinatra was a good kisser and that "I married the wrong singer."

Debbie sang "Grandpa," a song done by the Judds. It is very touching to hear those wonderful vocal cords coming from this Hollywood legend. Ms. Reynolds walked off the stage momentarily while the audience enjoyed bloopers from Warner Brothers films. They included some hilarious off screen remarks from James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and others. Debbie returned in a striking red sequinned dress and sang a few bars of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." She went into a medley of Judy Garland songs and sang the classic "The Man That Got Away." The crowd went wild in her homage to Judy and when the clapping and yelling went down, she said, "Well, I have done everything but my one hit." She then went into "Tammy" and left the stage to thunderous applause.

Classy Sony Holland at Yoshi's of San Francisco

Sony Holland
An elegant Sony Holland captivated the audience at the brand spanking new Yoshi's of San Francisco on December 11, with great back-up by Charles McNeal on sax, Seward McCain on bass, David Rokeach on drums, Jeff Buenz on guitar and Benny Watson on piano.

Sony Holland is a Minnesota native who moved to San Francisco in 2003 and has been playing the Bay Area's top jazz venues to great success. She rightly holds the title of San Francisco's own chanteuse. I caught her in the past at the AIDS Charity Benefit where she sang only one song. It was a pleasure to hear the cool sounds in her own program of songs ranging from Rodgers and Hammerstein to her own husband Jerry Holland.

Sony Holland is becoming the female Tony Bennett with her stylish arrangements. Her voice reminds me of an early Julie Christy with a touch of Nancy Wilson. Hers is a smooth and sophisticated voice. The 80-minute gig was laid back with very little talking. She segued into songs effortlessly; members of the quintet had their own solos on some of the songs.

Dressed in a short beige/white dress she immediately went into Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Shall We Dance" from The King and I. She softly sang her composer and lyricist husband's "Polk Street Bar" and then hypnotically sang Harry Warren and Mark Gordon's "At Last." The gifted singer gave a soft rendition of Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington's "The Nearness of You" with Charles McNeal giving out a mellow sax solo.

Ms. Holland announced that the next songs would have a Latin beat and she introduced Jeff Buenz on guitar. Rodgers and Hammerstein's "It Might As Well Be Spring" had that melodious South American beat and was swiftly followed by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Newton Mendonca and Normal Gimble's "Meditation." She finished with her husband's "San Francisco High."

Sony Holland introduced a new song written by her husband Jerry Holland called "As You Are" with her velvety, sensual vocal cords. Paul Simon was saluted with the soulful "Bridge over Trouble Waters" and "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover." There is a lush quality to her voice as she sang Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood." Members of the quintet broke out with a jazzy version of the song. She did a classy rendition of Ewan MacColl's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." The chic singer ended the session with her husband's "A Man In Manhattan."

Sony Holland came out for two encores: John Mandel and Paul Francis Webster's "The Shadow of Your Smile" and a swinging arrangement of J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie's "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town."

Yoshi's of San Francisco is a beautiful 408 seat nightclub with just perfect sight lines and sounds. This club at 1330 Fillmore Street is probably the most elegant club on the west coast.

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

- Richard Connema

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