The rest of the country might be green with envy on Monday, May 9, when A Twist of Limelight, a benefit for San Francisco’s Bay Area Musicals (BAM) features a full hour-long concert by Eden Espinosa. The actress is well known in the theater community for her portrayal of Elphaba in the now iconic musical Wicked.
Espinosa was Idina Menzel’s standby in the original Broadway production and went on to perform in the first national tour, came back to play Elphaba on Broadway, then on to the Los Angeles and San Francisco productions—she’s likely played the role in more performances than any other actress.
“I think I brought my own signature to the part,” says Espinosa of the not-so-wicked witch widely associated with Menzel. “My experiences and emotions informed it and made it mine.”
Espinosa’s ability to take artistic ownership of material made familiar by others is showcased to stunning effect on her 2012 debut album, Look Around, on which Broadway tunes are significantly reframed as standalone pop ballads.
Espinosa’s elegiac, cello-inflected rendition of “One Song Glory” from Rent, her unexpected elevation of “Petrified” from the Boy George musical, Taboo, and her intimate guitar-accompanied reading of Elton John’s “I Know the Truth” from Aida bring a fresh, often-poignant vitality to material that’s either been overlooked or overdone in the past. She is currently working on a follow-up in the same vein.
Like Espinosa, the year-old BAM and its founder/artistic director, Matthew McCoy, are committed to reframing well-known musicals, teasing out new meanings and resonances without setting aside their tried-and-true pleasures.
“In our first season, we’ve done How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which I think is surprisingly relevant in its story about women in the workplace; and Hair, which was really important to do in this city, which is changing so much with the influx of the tech industry—people need to keep being reminded what San Francisco has stood for in the past and the idealism it somehow needs to hold on to despite all these changes.”
Over 13,500 audience members saw the company’s first two shows, with the number of ticket buyers increasing by 25 percent between the first and second, a promising sign for the fledgling troupe, especially in the face of reviews that, while encouraging, were equivocal.
“The local theater community is really supportive,” notes McCoy. “So many people are helping us out and rooting for us to grow successfully.”
BAM’s final show of the season, opening in July, is La Cage aux Folles. The 1983 Tony Award-winning musical by Jerry Herman (music and lyrics) and Harvey Fierstein (book) feels almost anachronistic in contemporary San Francisco, where it’s easy to strike a blasé attitude about gay relationships. But historically, in terms of evolving public perspectives, the show is important. Along with jazz, the Broadway musical is the quintessential American art form.
“This was the first Broadway musical,” McCoy points out, “that ever had two men kissing on stage.” Since then, makeshift “marriages” like Albin and Georges’ in the show have become a thing of the past.
McCoy is a seasoned director and choreographer who has worked on the regional theater circuit nationally as well as in Las Vegas, Paris, London, and Shanghai. He moved to the Bay Area four years ago from South Carolina as a choreographer for the Berkeley Playhouse and began fundraising for BAM through an IndieGoGo campaign.
In addition to choosing shows that can provide unexpected prisms for considering the Bay Area, McCoy is committed to casting that reflects the local population, with black, Asian, Latino and white actors cast based on skills rather than preconceived ideas for who should play what role.
“I really want to do non-traditional casting,” says McCoy. “And I know that Bay Area audiences are really supportive of that. But what they don’t necessarily understand is that I have to work with what I get. While I’ve brought in a couple actors from out of town and may do a little more of that in the future, I want this to be a local company, which means I have to cast from who shows up to audition. I want more minority actors to try out and am going to continue pushing for that in our next season.”
It seems entirely in keeping with McCoy’s aspirations that—with the help of friends—he’s been able to get Espinosa, fresh from a run in the debut production of Michael John LaChiusa’s Rain at the Globe in San Diego, to donate next Monday’s benefit performance. Her multicultural background and unusual interpretation of Broadway favorites is a lovely encapsulation of everything BAM hopes to achieve.
A Twist of Limelight
429 Castro Street, San Francisco
Tickets start at $30.