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Review: “1776” at American Conservatory Theater

September 27th, 2013 Comments off
The cast of "1776" at A.C.T. (photo: Kevin Berne)

The cast of “1776” at A.C.T. (photo: Kevin Berne)

West Coast Contributor Heather Cassell gets a musical history lesson at A.C.T.’s triumphant staging of 1776.

Politicking is an American tradition that is comical, dramatic and suspenseful—and ever since Sherman Edwards put music and lyrics to Peter Stone’s narrative 1776—musical as well.

Audiences are roaring with laughter at the puns and satire throughout this staging about the founding of our nation, which kicks off the American Conservatory Theater’s 2013 – 2014 season.

San Francisco theater goers packed the seats at the Curran Theater last Friday proving this popular three time Tony-award winning lyrical romp through the days leading to our nation’s independence is just as relevant and revolutionary today as it was when it originally appeared on Broadway.

The original production ran for more than 1,200 performances on Broadway and picked up three Tony Awards. A critically acclaimed revival appeared briefly on Broadway in 1998, starring TV favorite Brent Spiner as John Adams.

John Hickok (John Adams) and Abby Mueller (Abigail Adams) in "1776" at A.C.T. (photo: Kevin Berne)

John Hickok (John Adams) and Abby Mueller (Abigail Adams) in “1776” at A.C.T. (photo: Kevin Berne)

A.C.T.’s revival of the musical on a major stage is once again winning acclaim. Tony Award-winning director Frank Galati leads a cast of 15 actors to create an engaging and rousing historical musical that is a true delight, even for the passing historical buff.

In an amusing way 1776, reveals often-unknown facts about the compromises made by our original Congress and the distain for John Adams by many politicians of the era.

Who knew our founding fathers decided to drop a clause about freeing enslaved Africans in order to keep the South in the Union? Or that George Washington and our rag tag troupes were being crushed by the Red Coats until victories finally happened? Who considered the long months of separation endured by our founding fathers from their wives and families or the power and influence the women had on supporting and shaping our nation?

Even though we all know how the story ends, the audience is taken on an exhilarating journey back in time as the days count down from spring to that monumental shift in history that occurred on July 4, 1776.

In spite of more than 235 years passing since those fateful days shaped our nation’s destiny, they are forever with us in the fabric and spirit of our nation and make for a charmingly timeless musical.

1776
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Through October 6

Heather Cassell is a freelance journalist and travel writer with more than 20 years experience covering LGBT and women’s issues. When Heather isn’t wandering off learning and writing about women’s and LGBT issues, she covers business, health and other news for a number of publications as well as the syndicated “Out in the World” international LGBT news column.

Review: “First Date” Brings Modern Romance to Broadway

August 11th, 2013 Comments off

Guest contributor Demetra M. Pappas gets to first base at First Date, a new Broadway musical. 

The cast of "First Date."

The cast of “First Date.”

I’ve never been optimistic about first dates, but this First Date — one of the first musicals of the 2013-14 Broadway season — is surprisingly fun. One look at the lead characters and the set-up is obvious. Aaron (Zachary Levi, best known for the title role in Chuck) is a buttoned down, tie-wearing guy in a suit; Casey (the powerfully-voiced Krysta Rodriguez, most recently of Smash) is an in-your-face vaguely punk girl. Enter the sage waiter (Blake Hammond) who gives Aaron the first cue to ditch the tie and open his shirt collar, then subsequently reveals insider information to the girl about her awaiting would-be knight is shining armor that prompts her to order two strong drinks from the get-go.

Bailout songs ensue, delivered with increasingly hilarious hysteria by Casey’s BFF, who happens to be a guy. Music and lyrics by Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner deliver a familiar pop score as the plot twists and turns to accommodate. In one uproarious scene, Aaron’s grandmother (Sara Chase) rises from the grave to deliver a musical number that follows shiksa Casey’s casual disclosure that she is not Jewish, which also has images of Casey’s father (also played by Hammond), who does an on-stage quick change into a priest, thanks to the comic antics of costume designer David C. Woolard. Almost everyone in the New York tristate has lived and/or witnessed and/or coached a friend or two through this vision of “oy vey” to “exorcist.”

Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez in "First Date."

Zachary Levi and Krysta Rodriguez in “First Date.”

This usually breezy 90-minutes of New York romance is broken by the occasional serious moment, but is a mostly fun unraveling of first date banter, including what Aaron calls “Jewish geography” (a New York variation of six degrees of separation), family matters, various renditions of former girlfriend and reenactments of interior monologues of the lead characters by the supporting players — all deftly staged under the direction of Bill Berry.

Though I didn’t leave the theater humming any songs, First Date has undeniable charm and those frenetically escalating bail out calls are still ringing in my ears. On the surface, Aaron and Casey seem to have nothing in common, but as they progress from drinks to dinner to dessert, a second date seems like a possibility. Are wedding bells in their future? We’ll never know, but played in real time and without an intermission, First Date is a charming look at the trials and tribulations of modern romance.

First Date
Longacre Theater
220 West 48th Street
www.firstdatethemusical.com

Demetra M. Pappas, JD, MSc, PhD, writes about travel, theater and the arts, cultural and historical experiences, and also writes academic work on euthanasia/assisted suicide, stalking, visual sociology and dramaturgy; her first book, The Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide Debate (Greenwood Press, 2012) was nominated and short listed for the 2013 British Society of Criminology Book Prize. 

The Best Deal in Town: 2-for-1 Broadway Tickets this Fall

August 2nd, 2013 Comments off
The cast of "Big Fish," coming to Broadway this fall. (photo: bigfishthemusical.com)

The cast of “Big Fish,” coming to Broadway this fall. (photo: bigfishthemusical.com)

Seeing a Broadway show is a dream. (Unless it’s that disastrous 2006 production of Ring of Fire, but that’s another story — and this is about celebrating Broadway, right?) Besides running the risk of seeing a flop, you’re also going to put out some serious chunk change – triple digits these days.

Fortunately, NYC & Company, New York City’s official marketing, tourism and partnership organization, announced this week that Broadway Week Fall 2013 will return this year to offer theatergoers two-for-one tickets to 19 popular Broadway shows from September 2 through 15. Returning for its sixth iteration, Broadway Week was originally created in the winter of 2011 to boost ticket sales for Broadway while providing savings for New Yorkers and visitors alike. Through NYC & Company’s Broadway Week promotion, more than 300,000 theater tickets have been sold generating nearly $20 million in revenue. Tickets for Broadway Week Fall 2013 will go on sale August 19 at nycgo.com/broadwayweek.

“Nothing says New York City like Broadway,” said CEO of NYC & Company George Fertitta. “Each year millions of New Yorkers and tourists visit Broadway to experience the unmatched creativity and talent that define our theaters. Through NYC & Company’s Broadway Week two-for-one ticket promotion, we are giving everyone the opportunity to enjoy some of the best theater in the world at an affordable price.”

“Broadway contributes over $11 billion to the economy of New York City on top of ticket sales and supports 86,000 local jobs. NYC & Company’s innovative two-for-one programs benefit the City, the industry and, of course, the consumer,” said Charlotte St. Martin, Executive Director of The Broadway League. “Broadway Week has become a much anticipated fall tradition for everyone.”

New Broadway Week participants this fall include the award-winning shows The Trip to Bountiful and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella as well as the highly anticipated productions of Big Fish and The Glass Menagerie. So mark your calendar and let’s hope you pick a winner. We also encourage you to discover your inner Ben Brantley…  share your thoughts on your theatergoing experience on The Broadway Blog’s Facebook page. Who knows, maybe we’ll invite you to become a guest critic!

"The Glass Menagerie" (photo: Michael J. Lutch)

“The Glass Menagerie” (photo: Michael J. Lutch)

Shows participating in Broadway Week Fall 2013:*

• Annie

• Big Fish

• Chicago

• First Date

• Forever Tango

• The Glass Menagerie

• Jersey Boys

• Let It Be

• The Lion King

• Mamma Mia!

• Newsies

• Once

• The Phantom of the Opera

• Rock of Ages

• Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella

• Soul Doctor

• Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark

• The Trip to Bountiful

• Wicked

*Subject to availability. Blackout dates may apply.

Review: “Let it Be” Brings the Beatles to Broadway

August 1st, 2013 Comments off

Guest contributor Demetra M. Pappas goes on a magical mystery tour with the reincarnated Beatles. 

The cast of "Let it Be." (photo: Chad Batka)

The cast of “Let it Be.” (photo: Chad Batka)


Let It Be: A Celebration of the Music of the Beatles
began as a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles first record (Please Please Me) in 1963, and like the Beatles, has crossed The Pond to America. This is not a musical with a book story line. Rather, it is a rock concert, with four amiable young men who pay the audience the compliment of not trying to look exactly like the original Fab Four. Reuven Gershon as John Lennon is a particular standout, perhaps in part because in actuality Lennon was the first to step away from the uniformity of the foursome (in this production, that is signified when John wears a costume the same as the others, but sports a black leather hat, as well).

While the set is simple (guitars, mikes, drums, piano and keyboards to the side), set designer Tim McQuillan Wright engages in an exceptional stage curtain conceit – black and white television screens that loop scenes of screaming, fainting women, some being carried away, some being restrained. Wright also implements an old fashioned AM/FM radio. Two televisions mounted at the top of the stage alternate loops as well as the on-stage performances and add another nice bit of retro-tech design.

John Brosnan (l) and Reuven Gershon in "Let it Be." (photo: Chad Batka)

John Brosnan (l) and Reuven Gershon in “Let it Be.” (photo: Chad Batka)

There has been a fair amount of criticism that Let it Be is linear in its presentation of pop to political, whereas the albums themselves were not necessarily so. The most misleading is that the Beatles decided to become more serious with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band,” and then in costumes from the album cover, they perform “Eleanor Rigby” from the earlier album “Revolver.” Act II goes back and forth between albums, rather than taking a chronological approach. That said, the thematic organization is, perhaps, poetic license with chronology. I found the frequent costume (and wig… and facial hair) changes, meant to reflect albums and time frames, pleasant cues and am pretty confident that younger audience members found them essential. Jason Lyons’ lighting design promoted this, and particularly culminated at the end of Act I with the psychedelic approach to “A Day in the Life.”

Last summer, I saw a Beatles Classical Mystery Tour with the San Francisco Symphony. That program included, unlike Let It Be, commentary and conversation and the San Francisco Symphony as background music was admittedly superior. Funnily enough, both performances included “Hey Jude” with organized audience participation that rang through the rafters (Sound designer Gareth Owen may want to dial the sound back a notch, especially in Act II, rather than cranking it up to deafening proportions).

For a relatively harmless retrospective of the Beatles’ catalog, Let it Be is an entertaining (if not completely satisfying) interpretation of one of the 20th century’s greatest influences in popular music.

Let It Be
St. James Theater
246 West 44th Street
www.letitbebroadway.com

Demetra M. Pappas, JD, MSc, PhD, writes about travel, theater and the arts, cultural and historical experiences, and also writes academic work on euthanasia/assisted suicide, stalking, visual sociology and dramaturgy; her first book, The Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide Debate (Greenwood Press, 2012) was nominated and short listed for the 2013 British Society of Criminology Book Prize.