Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Arabian Nights, Dame Edna—Live and Intimate in her First Last Tour and Ben Franklin in Paris

An Enchanting Production of Mary Zimmerman's The Arabian Nights

Ryan Artzberger and
Sofia Jean Gomez

Berkeley Repertory Theatre, in association with the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, is presenting a captivating production of Mary Zimmerman's The Arabian Nights, adapted from The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night running through January 4, 2009. The award-winning author of Argonautika and Metamorphoses once again charms the audience with some of the lesser stories told by Scheherazade (Sofia Jean Gomez) to King Shahryar (Ryan Artzberger).

Each day, King Shahryar picks a beautiful bride to marry. After making love, the king kills the young woman.  Scheherezade, the loving daughter of the king's household servant, is picked to be the bride for the night.  To save her life each night, she spins hypnotic tales of genies, jesters, thieves and kings with cliffhanger stories.  The king falls under Scheherezade's spell and she eventually wins the husband's heart.  There are wonderful tales of admiration, retribution and humor, and each time, love emerges triumphant.

The twelve cast members give fine performances as kings, robbers, lovers and comedians in many stories the beautiful and smart wife weaves with her magical powers. The stories reflect retribution for selfish deeds, and some reveal decency even in foul hearts.  One of the play's highlights is the opening of the second act with Sympathy the Learned, played brilliantly by Alana Arenas. The sharp, scholarly woman trounces each of Caliph Harun al-Rashid's (Barzin Akhavan) learned councilors in their particular fields of knowledge.

Two of the actors "wing it" in telling the story of thieves trying to outdo each other before a Sultan each night (on opening night, Evan Zes and Ramiz Monsef not only broke up the audience but the cast as well). Allen Gilmore shines as a vaudeville-type husband in an unplanned "ménage a six" satire straight out of old time burlesque. There is also a colossal fart skit that goes on much too long.

Sofia Jean Gomez is a standout as Scheherezade. Her alluring performance, with perfect enunciation as she tells the stories, is excellent. Ryan Artzberger gives a fine understated performance as the stern King Shahryar who finally falls in love with the storyteller.

Director Mary Zimmerman gives the audience a stimulating journey through these tales from the Middle East with a hint of modern dialogue that works well. Set Designer Daniel Ostling has devised a simple set with drop cloths that are removed at the start of the show to display an array of rugs, tables and pillows. The costumes by Mara Blumenfeld create a vivid colorful and successful Middle Eastern appearance.

The Arabian Nights plays at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre Trust Stage, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley through January 4th.  For tickets call 510-647-2949 or visit

The Berkeley Repertory Theatre's next production will be a new comedy by Sara Ruhl called In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play. It opens on January 30 and runs through March 15.


Dame Edna is Back in San Francisco

Dame Edna
Okay, possums, the flamboyant Australian harridan with a heart is back at the Post Street Theatre until January 4th. Let's face it, there are some who are impervious to her brand of humor and those who love everything this colorful drag queen does with audience participation. She actually calls her shows "events" since you never know what you are going to see when the "housewife superstar" goes on the stage. Much of her show consists of making fun of the audience with caustic wit, and it is great show for senior citizens since, as she says, "there's no plot they can lose."

Dame Edna is a drag queen Don Rickles, finding subjects in the front rows and overwhelming them with her scathing wit. She disparages their apparel, their homes and their occupations in the semblance of "caring and sharing" (when a lady revealed her age as 93, Dame said, "You look a lot order than that"). She gets audience members up on the stage to interrogate them and telephone their friends, has a "druid" wedding between a male and female, and hosts an "In Frisco Tonight" TV talk show with four unsuspecting audience members. The show can be a hit or a miss depending on those poor victims up on stage. (The night we saw it, several of those persons were complete duds and hence Dame Edna act faltered.)

Dame Edna's My First Last Show is a meditation on gender and post-election trauma.  It is basically the same show she did at American Conservatory Theatre ten years ago with some changes. She opens the show with a film biography of her life in Australia and about one halfway into the film it changes into things she did not wish the audience to see.  Dame Edna, dressed in an outrageous red sequined grown, comes storming out to pianist Andrew Ross shouting "someone sabotaged my tape."  We find out later that her problematic teenage daughter, played by San Francisco actress Erin-Kate Whitcomb, did the dirty deed.

Dame Edna is the supreme comic when it comes to one liners. She looks at the audience and says, "You've aged tragically, but I stay the same. It isn't fair." Dame looks up at the balcony and says they are the "nouvellement pauvre" (the newly poor) and ex-stock brokers.   She looks at the folks in the first five rows of the orchestra and says, "these are my possums." You know they will be the victims of her razor-sharp wit.

Dame Edna struggles for the name of the African village where she adopted a "chocolate baby," the place where Madonna gets her babies. No ethnic group or celebrity is spared. She takes on the Italians for passing off stale bread as biscotti and the Jewish who have the ability to make nail appointments. She takes a swipe at Tony Curtis, saying she saw him several days ago and he had on a strong cologne that smelled of formaldehyde. She tells the audience she brought a Christmas present for Sarah Palin, an Atlas, and sent it to the North Pole.

Dame Edna kids the gays about Prop 8. She believes Prop 8 will be defeated someday when gays will be able to marry their "Christmas trees." She talks about her son Kenny who lives in the Castro District and collects "old Broadway show albums" and has wonderful friends who love to crochet.  Once again, she sings "Friends of Kenny" with the mostly gay audience joining in on the chorus.

Erin-Kate Whitcomb (nominated for nominations from the SF Critic Award for several productions plus a number of Dean Goodman awards) seems lost as the dysfunctional daughter Valmai dressed in an orange prison suit. She attempts to sing one number that is supposed to be funny, but it goes over like a lead balloon.  The ending where Dame Edna throws out gladioli to her fans goes on much too long and one soon tires of this ending to the show. Finally, when all the flowers are in the hands of the first five rows, they sing the Australian gladiola song. That group seems to be having fun while the rest of the audience just waves their hands back and forth. After Dame Edna bows, the audience starts to leave the theatre. But there is yet another film and a surprise guest on stage. This is not done very well since it confuses the audience who are about to leave.

Dame Edna—Live and Intimate in her First Last Tour is playing at the Post Street Theatre, 450 Post Street, San Francisco through January 4, 2009. For tickets please call 415-771-6900 or visit

Coming up next at the Post Street Theatre is the international sensation, Burn the Floor, opening on January 30 and running through March 15th.


An Interesting Production of Ben Franklin in Paris

42nd Street Moon Company is presenting the Sidney Michaels and Mark Sandrich Jr. 1964 musical, Ben Franklin in Paris. During the winter of 1964, I saw Robert Preston, Susan Watson and Ulla Sallert in this show at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. I remember the Michael Kidd-directed musical had a large cast all dressed in gorgeous costumes of King Louis XVI's court in 1777. There were chandeliers that came from the rafters and a hot air balloon ascension in this opulent production. Surprisingly, there was little choreography from Michael Kidd. (It is interesting to note that the Playbill cover showed Robert Preston in modern dress rather than being dressed as Ben Franklin.) Ben Franklin in Paris ran only 215 performances and received mixed reviews. It received only one Tony nomination, for Sidney Michael's script. Surprisingly, Robert Preston was not nominated—even the legendary Preston could not draw strong crowds, and the show closed in May 1965.  There were a few revivals by regional companies but then it disappeared until Greg MacKellan and Stephanie Rhodes decided to revive it here.

Mark Sandrich Jr's score is melodic, and many of the songs remind me of a typical 1960s Broadway musical. The lyrics by Sidney Michaels fit the storyline.  And the two best songs are written by Jerry Herman. Although not credited in the original program, he admitted years later that he "ghost wrote" the songs "Too Charming" and "To Be Alone with You" for the producers of the show before it reached New York.

It takes a lot of chutzpah to present this lost musical, and the company has put together an interesting production of the historical musical.  Director Todd Nielsen from Southern California has assembled a good cast of singers to present the story of Benjamin Franklin in Paris during the years 1776 and 1777.  The director has even tried to somewhat represent a hot air balloon ascension just by the cast singing the rousing "A Balloon is Ascending."

Ben Franklin in Paris is a fictionalized account of Franklin's (Jackson Davis) adventures in the French capital, where he seeks support for the Colonies' war against England and recognition of the country as an independent nation. He enlists the aid of an old friend, Madame La Comtesse Diane de Vobrillac (Stephanie Rhoads), a confidant to Louis XVI.  There is also a subplot of Ben Franklin's grandson Temple (Andrew Willis-Woodward) and a budding romance with Janine (Jennifer Ekman). Also involved in this historical production is famous French playwright Beaumarchais (Tony Panighetti), the Spanish ambassador Pedro Count de Aranda (Victor-Alexander Tapia), a spy in the Parisian household of Franklin named Jacques (Tom Orr), and King Louis XIV (Benjamin Kroll). You don't really have to know the history of the period to follow Franklin's appeal for arms for the colonists.

Sidney Michael wrote an intelligent book full of Franklin's sayings and witty remarks ("I invented bifocals because I thought a man should be able to see the girl in his arms at one and the same time as her husband coming in at the far door"). It is a better than average book for a 1960s musical.

Jackson Davis and Stephanie Rhoads give polished performances as Franklin and the Comtesse. Their voices blend harmonically in "To Be Alone with You" and "Too Charming." Jackson Davis does a charming rendition of "I Invented Myself" backed rhythmically by the chorus, while Stephanie Rhoads has delightful vocal chops when singing "How Laughable It Is."

Andrew Willis-Woodward, a staple of the 42nd Street Moon productions this year, gets a chance to show his talent in portraying the grandson Temple.  He has pitch perfect resonance in the song "What Became of Old Temple" and joins the cast in the rousing "Half the Battle" and "I Love the Ladies."  Jennifer Ekman gives a touching performance as Janine Nicholet and she has a charming voice singing, "When I Dance with the Person I Love."

Victor-Alexander Tapia gives a winning performance as the Spanish Pedro Count de Aranda.  He is especially good in the drunken scene with Ben Franklin.  Tony Panighetti gives a wonderful upbeat theatrical ham performance of Beaumarchais.  Tom Orr once again is perfect as several characters, especially when he camps it up as a French artist. Seventh grader David Kelii Kahawaii is enchanting as Benny, the youngest grandchild of Franklin.

Michael Cassidy, Giana DeGesio, Grant "Buzz" Halsing, Rob Hatzenbeller, Benjamin Knoll, Christopher M. Nelson and, Chelsea Nenni don't disappoint either, with each member playing well-suited to his or her part. Once again, Dave Dobrusky gives great back-up on the piano and harpsichord.  Choreography by Todd Nielsen is strong and very appropriate to the period of the musical. Tom Orr also designed a minimal set which includes an excellent square metal bucket for the hot air balloon.

Ben Franklin in Paris plays through December 14th at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St, San Francisco.  For tickets call 415-255-8207 or visit  

The company's next production will be Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray'sHigh Spirits opening on March 19 and running through April 12th.

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

- Richard Connema

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