Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, Bat Boy: The Musical
and Two Great Jazz Singers

An Infectious Production of It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues

Alison Ewing and James Monroe Iglehart
TheatreWorks is presenting the sizzling It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues through April 11 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. In a word, this production is terrific, with 40 songs and 7 singers telling the story of the blues from native African rhythms to the funk of Chicago blues. In between there are insightful narratives with great historical projections by Chad Bonaker on three large screens behind the performers. The photos range from the days of slavery to the great black artists like Josephine Baker, Bessie Smith and the wonderful Billie Holliday.  

Randal Myler has assembled seven wonderful blues singers for a great night of unrestrained music to rock the house.   They sing all manner of blues songs, including the Mississippi delta, bluegrass and hillbilly blues, and ending with the funky blues from the South Side of Chicago. One of the great bluesmen, Robert Johnson, is represented by three exciting numbers, including a showstopping "Cross Road Blues" sung vibrantly by "Mississippi" Charles Revel. This legendary singer is titillating in "I've Been Living with the Blues" and "I Can't Stop Lovin' You."  

C. Kelly Wright rocks the house with "Someone Else is Steppin' In" as she slinks about the stage like a tiger looking for a prey, singing   "I Put a Spell on You" and then turning sublime in "My Man Rocks Me."

One showstopper song follows another—from glitzy songs sung by James Monroe Iglehart like "Let the Good Times Roll" to a stylish blues singer like Michelle E. Jordon sassily singing "Please Don't Stop Him" and "St. Louis Blues." She poignantly delivers the classic Billie Holiday song "Strange Fruit," a disturbing condemnation of Southern racism in the '30s.

Allison Ewing gives a great twang to her voice singing the Appalachian folk song   "My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains" and later changes into a sensual chanteuse singing "Fever."

James Monroe Iglehart is down and dirty   singing "I'm a Blues Man" and "Child, Your Line is Dragging" with the whole cast in perfect harmony on the chorus.   Chick Street Man with his distinctive high pitched voice is smooth   singing "Rag Man," "Crawlin' King Snake" and "Black Woman." Tony Marcus is engaging   strumming his banjo and singing about the blues in bluegrass and hillbilly music with "T for Texas" and "Mind Your Own Business."

Costumes by Julie Engelbrecht are wonderful. The women trade their print dresses for sexy black velvet evening gowns and the men change their country baggy pants and suspenders to more stylish suits and hats in the second act.

Don Darnutzer's lighting sets a great fine shadowy mood and Cliff Caruthers does excellent work with the sound.   Randal Myler's direction is sharp and very fast paced, while Donald McKayle choreography bursts with energy. Even the well-known " Mississippi" Charles Bevel does a great shuffle to one of the songs.

It Ain't Nothin Like the Blues plays at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto through April 11th.   For tickets call 650-903-6000 or on line at Their next production will be Distracted opening on April 4 th at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View.

Photo: Mark Kitaoka

Bat Boy: The Musical is Alive and Well at Foothill College  

Robert Brewer
The Foothill Musical Theatre recently presented a bloody good production of Laurence O'Keefe, Keythe Farley and Brian Fleming's outrageous musical Bat Boy: The Musical. This marks the fifth time I have seen the campy musical, starting with the pre-Broadway run by the Actors Gang Theatre in Los Angeles with Deven May as the half boy-half bat from West Virginia. I saw the production again at the Union Square theatre in New York in June 2001 with Deven May again taking the role and Kerry Butler playing Shelley Parker.   The New York critics loved the show (John Lahr called it "the only play in the history of theatre whose hero ends Act 1 with a rabbit in his mouth and who moves on in Act 2 to an entire cow's head.")

Bat Boy entered regional theatre territory in 2002 and since that year, it seems every regional theatre in the country has presented it. O'Keefe's songs comprise the styles of of pop, rock, tango, gospel, country and even some rap.   The score is full of pulsating rhythms, and the lyrics have intelligent wit.

Bat Boy, inspired by a tabloid story, is about a half human/half bat living in a cave in West Virginia and the attempts by a dysfunctional family to civilize the poor creature before the bloodthirsty townspeople could get their hands on the beast.

Robert Brewer (Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, BATCC nomination for Merrily We Roll Along) is outstanding as the Bat Boy. He is humorous, very poignant and exciting to watch in an extremely physical central role. He has great vocal chops in "Let Me Walk Among You" and "Inside Your Heart."   He is hilarious in the My Fair Lady scene as he goes from guttural sounds to a proper up-market English accent, compliments of BBC tapes.

Lisa-Marie Newton (Befriending Shirley, A New Brain) gives a vivid performance as Meredith.   Her marvelously fashioned "A Home for You" and her duet with Shelley in "Three Bedroom House" are wonderful. Kateri McRae (The Pajama Game) is excellent as the daughter Shelley.   She has a flexible, tuneful voice in the duet. She also shows off her distinctive voice in the duet "Inside Your Heart."

Michael Rhone The Pajama Game, Urinetown, Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun) plays various roles but he is a hoot playing Pan in the wild "Children, Children" number in a costume that looked like it came from an American Ballet Theatre presentation of Afternoon of a Fawn, as the whole cast are dressed as animals doing naughty things to each other. He also shows another side of his acting abilities by playing woman reporter Daisy and then going into a butch role as Bud, a rancher. He sinuously executes each song he sings. Tim Reynolds (Ragtime, Brigadoon, Guys and Dolls) is very good playing Dr. Parker. He shows first-rate vocal cords in "Dance with Me, Darling and "Comfort and Joy."

David Cates (recently moved to the Bay Area from Los Angeles) is engaging playing the butch Rick and then going into an ultra-feminine role as Lorraine. He is great in the rap song ""Whatcha Gonna Do." Todd Wright (five shows at Foothill) gives a good performance as Sheriff Reynolds. Sarah B. Griner, Monique Hafen and RaMond Thomas give good performances in various roles. RaMond Thomas has powerful cords on the rousing showstopping "A Joyful Noise."

Under Jay Manley's effective direction, the rest of the cast keep themselves busy with activity, using camp mugging to give a goofy appeal to the production. The young and vibrant chorus of Kevin Hull, Walter M Mayes, Brian Palac, Karyn Rondeau and Molly Thornton is first rate in song and dance, thanks to the energy-driven choreography by Spencer Williams. He also directs the live orchestra used in this production.

Bravo to Joe Ragey for using projections on a bat cave screen for changes of scenes.   They range from the Parker home to the some excellent projections of the bat cave. Julie Engelbrecht's costumes are excellent, especially those for the Bat Boy. Lighting by Kurt Landisman is effective and gives a good mood to the whole production, especially when the doctor is doing dastardly deeds to several characters.

Bat Boy ran through March 22nd in the new intimate Lohman Theatre, Foothill College, I-280 at El Monte Rd, Los Altos. Their next production will be Mel Brooks' The Producers opening on July 24 and running through August 14 on the Smithwick Stage of Foothill College. For tickets call 650-949-7360 or visit for more information.

Photo: David Allen

Two Great Jazz Singers In San Francisco Paula West and Nnenna Freelon

The sublime Paula West recently rocked the Rrazz Room with her singing standards from a contemporary point of view, while   Nnenna Freelon did a fabulous   one-night appearance at the Marines Memorial Club on behalf of the Bay Area Cabaret Series.  

Paula West was backed by a great quartet of George Mesterhazy on piano and her arranger John Wiitold on bass, Jerome Jennings on drums and Ed Cherry on guitar.   Ms. West has progressed over the years to be one of the nation's great classic jazz singers. She does not peddle a sexpot image or a gimmick to grab the attention of the audience.   She has the ability to make music that is both stylish and available. She sings with style, creation and even humor.   She always swings but never scats. All of the musicians who back her up know what they are doing, as they showed in her Rrazz gig with amazing solos.

George Mesterhazy and company opened the evening with a modern jazz arrangement of "Exactly Like You" with Mesterhazy playing an incredible solo on a melodica (an unusual keyboard that you blow through and sounds something like a harmonica). Each member of the group did fantastic solos in the upbeat song.

Paula West opened her session in honor of President Barrack Obama with a hopeful arrangement of Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil's "New World Coming."   In her unique style she sang Sonny Bono's "The Beat Goes On."   She was inimitable on Rodgers and Hart's "A Lady Must Live" and "I Wish I Were in Love Again." Her rendition of Cole Porter's "I'm in Love Again" was sublime.

The singer sinuously executed contemporary tunes like John Hartford 's "Gentle on My Mind," Lennon and McCartney's "For No One" and Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'." She was vibrant singing the folk tune "Oh Shenandoah" and inspiring singing the Civil Rights song of the '60s, Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" to complete her set.

Paula West and the George Mesterhazy quartet played through March 22nd at the Rrazz Room, Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason Street, San Francisco. Upcoming is the legendary Keely Smith who will be at the room for two weeks.   For tickets call 866-468-3399 or visit

The fabulous jazz singer Nnenna Freelon made her one and only San Francisco appearance at the Marines Memorial Club on Sunday March 8th before a full house of jazz fans. Backed by Joel Holmes on piano, Beverly Botsford on percussion, Adonis Rose on drums and Wayne Batchelor on bass it was a dynamic two hours of pure modern jazz and the beautiful voice of Nnenna Freelon. This artist has one of the best voices in jazz; it's pure and bright and capable of more shadings than almost anyone else's.

Ms. Freelon put a fresh new frame on a couple of Cole Porter standards. Her distinctive voice was marvelous in the unusual arrangement of Porter's "I Love You," with Beverly Botsford using every kind of metal chimes this side of Marrakech in the background. The singer was marvelously funky in Porter's "Get Out of Town."

Nnenna Freelon sang a soulful rendition of "Meaning of the Blues" and was great in a slow arrangement of "If I Only Had a Brain" from Wizard of Oz.   Her heartfelt rendition of Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" was awesome and I have never heard such a melodic sound coming from this artist as when she sang " America the Beautiful."

The singer told the packed house that "I have wanted to sing this next song in San Francisco for a long time," and she looked into the crowd that contained a lot of gay men and started to sing "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story.   The quartet played a torrid tribal beat when she sang "Body and Soul," and Adonis Rose on drums was terrific in a solo during the song. The marvelous quartet shined in a modern jazz version of "What Is This Thing Called Love." Nnenna also displayed sublime scat singing in "Sometimes I'm Happy."

Nnenna Freelon has a voice reminiscent of Diahann Carroll and Ella Fitzgerald. However, she finds ways to make the vocal improvisational art bend in her own matchless manner. She is a gem among jazz singers today.

Bay Area Cabaret will be presenting Judy Butterfield at 2 pm and Ann Hampton Callaway at 5 pm at the Marines Memorial Club, 609 Sutter Street, San Francisco on Sunday May 17th. For tickets call 415-392-4400 or visit for more information.  

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

- Richard Connema

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