Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Midsummer Night's Dream,
Curse of the Starving Classes
and Coco

A Bold and Sexy Production of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Archana Ramaswamy and
Joy Fernandes

Best of Broadway is currently presenting the North American premiere of the Dash Arts production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. If you are a purest on Shakespeare plays, this two-hour and thirty-minute spectacular is not for you. It also will help if you know the story of the Bard's classic. In the program there is a fold-out sheet with a synopsis of the machinations of Demetrius, Lysander, Hermia and Helena, and of Peter Quince's amateur acting group as they are preparing their version of the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe to the Duke of Athens. I noticed on opening night two women in front of us were following the story by reading the fold-out sheet.

The Dash Arts production has been a smash hit in the United Kingdom and India, and now American audiences are getting a chance to see the unusual production of Shakespeare's comedy. The cast consists of 23 dancers, musicians, actors and performers from a diverse range of locations and backgrounds. The production is performed in English, Tamil, Malaysian, Sinhalese, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi and a little Sanskrit. About 35% of the play is in English. However, most of the funnier and more significant lines are Shakespeare's own. The exaggerated body movements of the actors make the meanings clear.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is sexy, raunchy, sensational and spectacular. It is Shakespeare for the young audiences; they should love it. There is magic and fascination that you sometimes don't see in the Bard's plays. The actors climb ropes from the rafters and there is a pseudo boxing ring where the four young lovers become confused as to who loves whom. The extravagant dances are erotic, with three musicians playing strings, percussion and wind instruments, conjuring up dazzling and atmospheric sound. Stay for the very last scene, after the audience applauds the actors, since they really cut out with fantastic upbeat choral work of modern interpretations of Indian music. It is almost Bollywood in nature.

Shanaya Rafaat's Helena is zealous, untamed and playful while Joy Fernandes is the strangest Bottom I have ever seen. He is verbose in his egocentric speech, yet strangely compelling as a donkey. Archana Ramaswamy is a sexy fox as Titania. At one point she curls up in a womblike bower created out of red silk, which opens up as if she has been reborn in the second act. Ajay Kumar is a most boisterous Puck.

Dash Art's production must be the most original version of the Shakespeare's classic since the Peter Brook production in 1970. A Midsummer Night's Dream plays through June 1 at the Curran Theatre, Geary Ave, San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-512-7770 or visit Coming next to the Curran is Tuna Does Vegas opening on June 17 and running through June 28th.

Photo: Tristram Kenton

American Theatre Company Production of Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class is an Overall Excellent Production

Nicole Lowrance and Pamela Reed
The Great American dysfunctional family reigns supreme in Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class, on stage at the American Conservatory Theatre through May 25th. Sam Shepard is one of America's greatest playwrights, and he uses a rich mixture of free verse poetry, finely tuned reality, and symbols in his works. It sometimes takes a little while for the drama to heat up, but once it does, it is heightened drama. This early Shepard play is no exception.

Curse of the Starving Class takes place in a run down farmhouse somewhere in California, and it centers on the dysfunctional Tate family. There seems to be a curse on them, as everything they touch turns to crap. The play opens on Ella (Pamela Reed) frying bacon (I could smell the bacon from where I was sitting) for her own breakfast and commiserating about the lack of food in the house. She is the personification of a run down person in her hair curlers and beat up bathrobe. Her laconic son Wesley (Jud Williford) goes into a long soliloquy of sentence fragments and repetition about how his drunken father Weston (Jack Willis) beat down the door trying to get into the house. The daughter, Emma (Nicole Lowrance), enters the kitchen with her farm project on how to cut up a chicken for frying. However, someone has boiled and eaten her chicken and there is hell to pay. Wesley pees on the cardboard displays to tell her she should be doing greater things with her life. Didn't I tell you this is one strange family?

Many things happen in this two-hour and thirty-minute drama, including Ella selling the land and house to a shifty lawyer Mr. Taylor (Dan Hiatt) and land speculator Mr. Taylor (Dan Hiatt). Weston is doing the same thing, selling the land to devious bar owner and loan shark Ellis (Rod Gnapp). Thrown into this crazy mix are California Highway Patrolman Malcolm (Craig Marker) and two hoods, Emerson (T. Edward Webster) and Slater (Howard Swain). It all makes for entertaining theatre.

Pamela Reed, who played Emma in the 1978 New York Shakespeare Festival premiere, is marvelous as the exhausted, unfilled, sluggishly self-indulgent Ella. She is completely cut off from her children and she constantly goes to the empty refrigerator to see if there is any food inside. Jack Willis dominates the stage every time he appears, with long dissertations on Weston's life. He finds real depth in the character as a drunken father trying to get his life straight.

Jud Williford portrays the son Wesley as a young adult who is not all there. He walks about the house completely in his birthday suit in the second act. His peeing on Ella's project brings down the house. It's a first class performance. Nicole Lowrance is brilliant as the unsettled teenager Emma. Her flights of fancy as she expounds on her "romantic" future life show exceptional acting from this young actress.

Dan Hiatt is convincing as a shifty lawyer who sold drunken Weston worthless desert land and is now trying to romance Emma out of their farmland. Ron Gnapp as the local bar owner and loan shark is ideal with his genial menace of the character. T. Edward Webster and Howard Swain are very believable as the two hoods in the second acts. Craig Marker has a small but showy role as the highway patrol officer in the second act.

Director Peter DuBois keeps the pacing smooth and fast throughout the production. Loy Arcenas has designed a wonderful farm set that evokes the quandry of the family farm. The kitchen looks like a wreck, the house is surrounded by trash, and the yard itself is barren. It looks like the perfect trailer trash set. Lydia Tanji's costumes are late '50s farm outfits, and Japhy Weideman's lighting is spectacular, especially the blue sky sunsets.

Curse of the Starving Class runs through May 25th at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets, call 415-749-2228 or visit Their next production is John Ford's Tis a Pity She's a Whore opening on June 5th and running through July 6th. The Young Conservatory will be presenting the world premiere of I'm Still Standing, a celebration of the music of Elton John at the Zeum Theatre starting May 31 and running through June 21st.

Photo: Kevin Berne

A Stylized Production of Coco

Andrea Marcovicci and Nina Josephs
42nd Street Moon Productions has resurrected a musical that has not been seen in thirty years: the stylish Coco, with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by André Previn. It marked Mr. Previn's first and only score for a Broadway musical.

During the winter of 1969 I was fortunate to see the legendary Katharine Hepburn as Coco at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. The musical had a respectable run of 329 performances. I was overwhelmed by her magic and charisma, and I almost forgot about the score. I even forgot about the rest of the cast, which included George Rose and René Auberjonois (however, I could never forget his big number, "Fiasco"). Danielle Darrieux took over the role and I when I went back to see the show again, I discovered the charming score. Ms. Darrieux just did not have the box office power to keep the show running. Ms. Hepburn did a brief tour, and Ginger Rogers took the musical for a summer stock excursion. After that, nothing was heard of it until Greg MacKellen of 42nd Street Moon brought the pleasant-sounding Coco to life.

André Previn's score is charming; it is reminiscent of those little known musicals of the '50s and '60s. Alan Jay Lerner's lyrics are clever and sophisticated. The musical was made for Katharine Hepburn's limited singing voice and all of the dialogue was centered on Ms. Hepburn's great performance. It would be very hard for any singer today to fill the legendary actress's shoes. However, Andrea Marcovicci is very good in acting the bitchy and lonely Coco Chanel, and she makes the role her own. She has the class and style of the famous dress designer.

When singing, Andrea Marcovicci is aware of the tempo and timing behind her phrasing in many of the songs. Her rendition of the title song is dramatically poignant, and she does good rapping on the fast-paced "The Money Rings Out Like Freedom." She is jaunty with her high kicks in the upbeat "Ohrbach's, Bloomingdale's, Best & Saks."

Nina Josephs (SFBATCC Best Actress in a Musical in 2007) is marvelous as Noelle Forrestier, especially on "A Brand New Dress" (San Francisco will unfortunately be losing her as she is going to Los Angeles in July for work in films). C. J. Blankenship (Carousel, Dreamgirls, Oklahoma!) as reporter George Guerin gives a refreshing performance. He has good vocal chops in "Let's Go Home" and in a duet with Nina Josephs, "A Woman Is How She Loves."

Tom Orr (Mack & Mabel, Li'l Abner and his own Dirty Little Showtunes) gives an over the top hilarious performance as the fey Sebastian Baye. He flies about the stage when singing the entertaining "Fiasco." Michael Patrick Gaffney (Li'l Abner, Minnie's Boys) is very good as the lawyer Louis Greff. Tom Reardon with his sturdy singing voice gives a nice rendition of "Gabrielle." The models Lisa Hensley, Casi Maggio, Juliet Heller and Beverly Viljoen are adroit in their roles. Sandra Schlechter and Sean Patrick Murtagh are effective in their small roles.

Michael Horsley gives good back-up on the piano, and choreographer Jayne Zaban has designed elegant moves for the fashion show models and the dance number for buyers' song. Ellen Brooks has 89 lighting moves, which is a great asset to the two-hour and thirty-minute production. Director Mark D. Kaufman keeps the action moving swiftly.

Coco runs through May 11 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-255-8207 or visit Their next production will be Peddling Rainbows, a revue celebrating E.Y. Yip Harburg. It starts previews on May 15 with an opening on May 17th. Cole Porter's Out of This World opens on June 5th.

Photo: David Allen

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

- Richard Connema

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