Contra Costa Musical Theatre prodution of "Sunset Boulevard" Tony Kusher's "A Bright Room Called Day" at Custom Made Theatre 3 Girls Theatre presents AJ Baker's "The Right Thing" New Conservatory Theatre Center production of "Maurice" Joe Penhall's "Blue/Orange" at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre CUTTING BALL THEATRE PRODUCTION OF "TONTLAWALD"

Last year the Really Useful Company of Great Britain released the rights for regional and semiprofessional companies to finally use the original Broadway orchestrations for “Sunset Boulevard”. Since then many companies have been producing the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

“Sunset Boulevard” is not the best musical that Webber ever composed but the productions I have seen have had great actresses portraying the legendary Norma Desmond. Over the years I have seen five professional productions starring Patti LuPone and Kevin Anderson at the Adelphi Theatre in London in 1993 later I returned to London the following year to see Betty Buckley and John Barrowman in the roles. Other performances were in Los Angeles and New York with some luminaries as Glenn Close, Elaine Paige and Petula Clark.

The musical had a rocky road of getting produced and from 1952 to 1956 Gloria Swanson the original Norma Desmond worked with actor Richard Stapley on a musical adaptation of the 1950 Paramount film. Paramount executive Russell Holman in 1957 thought “it would damage the property to be offered to the entertainment public in another form as a stage musical”. Even Billy Wilder said “You can’t write a musical about Sunset Boulevard”,it has to be an opera. After all, it’s about dethroned queen”. Even Sondheim aborted plans with Angela Lansbury in the lead. Finally Webber wrote the musical in 1993. Since that time every singer/actress wants to be Norma.

The problem is whether it is an opera performance, a concert or a musical, something happens that makes the total experience far exceed the sum of its parts. This happened when I first saw the musical at the Adelphi in 1993. I also wondered what a semi-professional company could do with the mega musical. It certainly would need a strong dramatic voice of an actress to play the fading movie star from the silent area.

Contra Costa Musical Theatre has found that voice with Annmarie Martin as the deluded ex-star who has been protected from reality by her servant and past director Max Von Mayerling. She captivates and enthralls the audience with her measured and nuanced performance as Norma Desmond. She excelled where it most counted in her stirring rendition of “As If We Never Said Goodbye” on the Paramount soundstage and her sensitive treatment of the delusional finale.

Robert Lopez excellently plays the cynical and struggling Hollywood scriptwriter Joe Gillis. This is a challenging role with many vocal and acting demands and they are all handled with assurance by the singer. The pair struck gold with their duet “The Perfect Year”. Gene Bencomo has great vocal chops as Max especially in the song “The Greatest Star of All”. Nicole Helfer’s exquisite soprano and a sparking virtuousness capture just the right notes of Betty, the writer who falls for Joe. She does a nice job in a relatively small and ungracious role. She does a poignant reading of “This Time Next Year” All members of the large cast has great vitality and energy and the choreography by director Michael Ryken adds much to the whole production.

Contra Costa Musical Theatre under the direction of Michael Ryken has successfully re-imagined “Sunset Boulevard” with a large cast and large orchestra under the direction of Karl Pister. It certainly does not look or feel cheap. Far from it and you are in the middle of a late 1940 Hollywood soundstage with kudos to set designer Kelly James Tighe. The large orchestra is fantastic and you get a real “big musical” sound that is just a good as some Broadway orchestras I have heard playing Webber’s complicated melodies.

While Webber’s core is distinctly less inspired than “Phantom” the Contra Costa Musical Theatre production seem to have found a way to turn that into a virtue. There are large productions numbers such as the grooming of Joe in “The Lady’s Paying” and the upbeat “New Year Tango” . Much of the dialogue sung is recitative rather than spoken in prose sentences which are an additional demand on the actors. This seems more of a verismo opera then a musical most like Leoncavallo’s “Pagilacci” or Verdi’s “Othello”.
“Sunset Boulevard” plays through April 15 at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts. 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. For tickets call 925-943-7469 or one line at

Half a decade before he became famous for his two part “Angels in America” in 1991, Kushner wrote “A Bright New Room Called Day in 1987. The drama was based on the fall of the Weimar Republic and rise of the Hitler-led Nazi Party suggested through the experiences of a lively group of artists and activities. This was juxtaposed with the increasing paranoid “interruptions” of a refugee from the rise of 1983- Reagan-lead Republicanism.

“A Bright Room Called Day” is a fatuous drama about a world on the brink of war in 1932 when Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party took over the government of Germany. A handful of middle class German artists and film-industry workers are caught in the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Some of the characters seem be a stand in from Sally Bowles and rest of the apathetic, unisexual drifters in Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories”.

It’s 1990 and Zillah (Maggie Ballard) has left Long Island to lie low in Berlin and she inhabits an apartment that was once owned by actress Agnes Eggling (Xanadu Bruggers). She is concentrating not only the ghosts of Agnes and her friends but an even older seeker of benefactor Die Alte (Shelley Lynn Johnson) who rises from the dead and enters the apartment to test Agnes on many levels.

There are “interruptions” of the 30’s plot showing two young person’s Traum (Nick Trengove) and Paulinka (Megan Briggs) in 80’s Berlin discussing and trivializing the National Socialism of the Third Reich by being equated with the “national senility” of the Reagan era. These are well executed theatrical crosscuttings. The end of the first act the company re-enacts “Faust” by way of a modern dress devil in an informal manner played excellently by Steve Budd. One could almost see him playing the devil in “Damn Yankees.

“A Bright Room Called Day” contains a lot of speechifying and it is accompanied by slide projects relaying the events of the period. It certainly helps if you know about that German period of history from 1932 to 1933 with the confrontation between the Nazis and Communist in Berlin.

Director Brian Katz has ensemble a great large cast to portray these fascinating characters for this three sided stage. The actors are consistently professional in trying circumstances. Monologues are gamely delivered by Maggie Ballard who plays Zillah a contemporary Jew from Great Neck, Long Island who for some unknown reason visits Berlin in 1990. She has a sincere and deeply committed intensity as she evaluates her strange observations, elucidations and conspiracy theories.

Xanadu Bruggers as Agnes, a bit-part actress and would be scriptwriter flirting with communism authentically embodies a woman t0rn between well-being and integrity, action and reaction. Her more energetic and go-getting counterpart Paulinka is vividly rendered by Megan Biggs.
The one eyed cinematographer, Hungarian exile and socialist idealist Malek is forcefully defined by Vahishta Vafadari with a good foreign accent.

Baz who works for the Berlin Institute for Human Sexuality and is homosexual Chris Morrell captures the mystified objectivity of the character. In one scene he contemplates suicide but recovers his will to live in Munich thanks to a sexual encounter in the park. In another outstanding scene he tells of sitting in a movie theatre with a gun in his pocket watching a Dietrich film. Two rows in front of him sit Hitler and two of his henchmen yet he fails to embrace a golden opportunity to assassinate Hitler. Doubling as minor Nazi Party functionaries Nick Trengove and Jessica Jade Rudholm finds an edge of comic relief in their earnest line-toeing conformity and petty Bickering. Nick Trengove is particularly excellent in the modern day’s scenes of Berlin playing Traum speaking German with a great guttural accent.

Shelley Lynn Johnson dons rags to admirably play a symbolic ghost known as Die Alte. Distinguished, blond, Aryan Steve Budd in his one scene as The Devil, posing as Gottried Swetts, an importer of Spanish novelties is wonderful in this small role. When one of the characters asks him if he might be a neurotic manifestation he counters and says “I gave birth to myself”.

Brendan Aanes sound composition and Andrea Schwartz’s lighting design are splendid and Scarlett Kellum costumes help to ground the focal story in time and place. Brian Katz has managed to put on a powerful production along with some timely newsreel movies projected on the outer wall of the 30's raise of Nazi power in Germany.

Tony Kushner’s “A Bright Room Callled Day” runs through April 8th at the Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough Street, San Francisco. Tickets at
A new theatrical company called 3 Girls Theatre has arrived in town headed by Suze Allen, AJ Baker and Lee Bradley. This company has launched their inaugural season with a four week celebration of Women’s History Month at the Thick House with the world premiere of AJ Baker’s “The Right Thing” as part of month’s events.

AJ Baker by day is attorney Alisa J. Baker practicing executive employment law as a partner in the San Francisco law firm. By night, she is a season playwright AJ Baker, a member of the Dramatists Guild and the Playwright Center of San Francisco. She knew what she was doing by writing “The Right Thing” an 85 minute drama about sexual harassment in the corporate world.

High powered CEO Zell Gardner has been fired for sexual harassment. This gal is stressed since she is broke, jobless, her lover who still works with company is not taking her calls and she has even been betrayed by her cherished goddaughter. Did I say this woman loves her booze also? This woman is really struggling for survival.

“The Right Thing” takes place in one exhausting day as her high powered attorney is going before the Dispute Resolution and Mediation Service” commonly known as DRAMS. The important opening scene shows negotiations between the corporate people. On opening night this could have been slowed down since the actors were talking so fast in a box set on the upper right side of the deep theatre that it is difficult to comprehend. Hopefully that has been rectified by now.

A lot is going on in this fast pace drama that is set in a series of box sets on a three level stage and you have to keep your mind moving to follow the action of this nonstop talky drama. Many of the scenes are well done especially the confrontation scenes between Zell and her attorney and the scenes between her and her godchild. Sometimes the drama reminds me of the film “Wall Street” when Michael Douglas says “Greed is good”. The drama does keep you guessing as new accusations and conundrums are revealed.

Catherine Castellanos is excellent as the boozy Zell Gardner. She does a great tour de force of silent acting the very first scene as she enters the stage just to get prepare for the confrontation in the conference room. Louis Parnell gives a convincing performance as a high power attorney.

Karina Wolfe as the godchild Sam Curtin gives a genuine performance dressed as a punk child. Her confrontation scene with Zell is a high point of this rapid pace drama. John Flanagan in a small role as the attorney for the company is believable in the role. Lol Levy as Dr. David Heller and Helen Shumaker as the Hon. Leigh Mansfield (Ret) give convincing performances.

Suzi Allen’s direction maintains an interest in the proceedings that is filled with legalize language. Hopefully that opening scene has been corrected by now since it is a key scene that sets off this legal play.

“The Right Thing” is plays on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through April 1 at the Thick House. 1695 18th Street, San Francisco. For tickets go to or
Andy Graham and Roger Parsley’ new stage adaptation of the repressed novel by E.M. Forster’s “Maurice” has reached our country thanks to Ed Decker, Artistic Director of the New Conservatory Theatre Center. The theatre is presenting the American premiere of the story of young lovers, Clive and Maurice. The drama is faithful to the book although many characters have been left out to make the novel more presentable to the stage. The New Conservatory Theatre Center adaptation and directed with a light touch by George Maguire does its best to cram in a story that spreads easily across the pages of the famous novel.

E. M. Forster began writing the novel in 1913 but it was not published until after his death in 1970 due to the subject matter. Merchant-Ivory made a stunning film of the novel in 1987 that featured James Wilby, Rupert Graves and Hugh Grant in his first film role. The play premiered at the Above the Stag in Victoria, London in 2011.

The action takes place over time and space amid Kuo-Hao Lo functional, no-nonsense bare stage. As in the film the story opens in Edwardian England with a mannered conversation on the beach between Maurice (Soren Santos) and his schoolmaster Mr.Ducie (John Hurst) about the birds and the bees. “The sacred mystery of sex” the schoolmaster tells him.

Maurice runs the gauntlet as a gay man, book-ended between an oppressive Edwardian dogma and a devout Christian family. Taking in love, rejection and hypnotism, journey in not all sweetness and light. Maurice journey to awareness and homosexuality begins when goes to Cambridge where he meets fellow student Clive (Alex Kirschner) who discusses weighty matters as the Trinity and Plato’s teachings. Soon they fall in love. Separted by class, the two men embark on a romantic relationship but struggle to keep their feelings hidden from their families and the law. The biggest surprise comes when Clive returns from a trip abroad and announces that he intends to marry a woman. Maurice must choose whether to continue living a lie with Clive, to seek a cure for what British society deems an illness or to honor his true nature and desires.

“Maurice” reminds of me of those English plays that I have seen over the years in the West End. The English take their time in setting up the characters however it is well worth the wait for the “meat” of the play. The first act owes much to the play’s origins as a novel being rather wordily and slow moving. The second act moves much more quickly

The real strength of this production lays in the various tete a tetes between the lovers, who rejoice and then later battle with their sexuality “against the rest of the world” plus strong performances by the cast and smooth direction by George Maguire. An accomplished performance by the whole cast make the most of the well written dialogue.

Soren Santos gives a rounded and engaged performance as Maurice. He strikes a fine poise between sexual arrogance and shamefulness. Alex Kirschner delivers a fine performance as Clive a man who never seems to be quite as ease with himself. He is not sure if he is disgusted with his friend Maurice open homosexuality or the fact that he is still secretly in love with the guy or that Maurice has fallen in love with a hunky gamekeeper Scudder (Andrew Nolan)

Andrew Nolan is impressive as the earthy Scudder and some excellent cameos from John Hurst as Mr. Ducie the headmaster and the hypnotist Dr. Barry. Hilary Hyatt as Ada Hall keeps things on a lighter note managing to add some humor to the play. Lindsey Murray gives a good performance as Mrs. Hall.

Director George Maquire and the able cast work their hardest to bring life into the script and they succeeded with top form British accents. They have found new wittiness and tone to appeal to modern day audiences while remaining faithful to a novel written nearly a century ago.

“Maurice” plays through March 25th at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness off Market Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-861-8972 or
The lunatics are running the asylum in Joe Penhall’s “Blue/Orange” now playing at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre through March 18th. One could ask in this mesmeric drama that is at a psychiatric hospital in London “Who Is Right? Who is Wrong? Who is Sane?, Who is Crazy?.

The comedy drama concerns the welfare of a black patient named Christopher (Carl Lumbly) who is far from ready to be released into the outside world. He has been in residence for the personality disorder for the prescribed 28 days and is expected to release imminently. However, his trainee psychiatrist Bruce (Dan Clegg) isn’t sure Christopher is ready to face the reality of the world. The play starts off at a rip roaring pace as we see Christopher having his final interview with Bruce who has invited his mentor Robert Smith (Julian Lopez-Morillas) to sit in on the session.

Dr. Smith is a worldly pompous ego centric patronizing doctor who wants to release Christopher to the outside world. He dismisses Bruce’s prognosis that Christopher is schizophrenic and tells young intern to dismiss the man immediately. The elder doctor theory as to why Christopher is “normal” is related to race relations in London. He believes the patient is a victim of “ethnocentric” misdiagnosis that seems many more black than white people are in mental hospitals. Or is he a discontented bully in a white coat with a book to finish?

This marks the third time I have seen this compelling drama. I first saw this compelling drama in London in 2001 with Bill Negly playing the older doctor and later I saw the the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley in 2005. This is an enthralling drama strongly enhanced by three superb actors. Carl Lumbly is great as the patient Christopher who believes that he is the son of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. He stares attentively, fiddles uncontrollably, panics one moment and exerts an unnatural calm the next. It’s a brilliant performance

Julian Lopez-Morillas gives a multifaceted performance as Robert who quotes R.D. Lang and Allen Ginsberg when bringing out diagnosis and prognoses of the patient Christopher. His performance is wonderfully regulated with a striking theatrical voice that excites the audience.
Dan Clegg a graduate from A.C.T. MFA program is excellent as the eager, young, unwavering doctor who shows his inexperience crudeness of a young man who believes he will be a great mental health doctor. However in the second act he becomes uncertain of this diagnosis and fights to keep his job at the mental hospital.

The struggle between the two doctors ia a kind of intellectual catfight in which language, semantics and insults are the weapons and this diminishes the patient even more. They are done at crackling pace and keep the two act production moving rapidly. Director Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe and the actors surpass at illuminating the racial part of the drama. Lisa Clark has designed an excellent set of symbolic set of green ward doors from the rafters to the floor.

Blue/Orange runs through March 18th at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 450 Post Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-474-8800 or on line at
Cutting Ball’s “Tontlawald” now having its world premiere at the Exit on Taylor is based on an Estonian fairy tale about a mistreated girl named Lona who goes to a creepy haunted forest to escape the torment of her stepmother. She eventually seeks vengeances against her. The ensemble-based piece was commissioned by Associated Artistic Director Paige Roger after it was told to her son’s first-grade class. This one hour production reminds me of the ABC’s series “Revenge”

“Tontlawald” is difficult to follow especially if you don’t read “The Tale of the Tontlawald” in the program before seeing it performed by this superlative cast of singers and actors. However what it lacks in actual plot lines it makes up for an excellent production full of stunning arrangements of music sung by the seven member ensemble. Visually and superb unusual high frequency songs the production reaches charismatic heights. Several years ago an Estonian choral group was in this country and they produced amazing high sounds that are rarely heard in this country. I compare some of the songs to this sonically type of music.

The capella music ranged from jazz standards like “Sweet and Low” to Sarah Hopkins “Aboriginal Song” to a delightful portion of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” to doo-wop. There was even a barber shop quartet singing “Irish Mother”. Some of the strange high pitched voice singing ancient and dead languages in Estonian remind me of the Estonian choral group that I saw several years ago. A highlight is the wild wonderful pas de deux performed by Sam Gibbs and Wiley Naman Strasser as they beat their chest looking like something from a cave man film.

Madeline H.D. Brown, Rebecca Frank, Cindy Im, Marilet Martinez, Sam Gibbs, Wiley Naman Strasser, Meg O’Connor and Liz Wand had great vocal chops singing in beautiful harmonies.

Production designer Silvie Duetsch working with lighting designer David Sinaiko creates an enthralling space with the audience sitting on each side of the theatre. The stage is filled mostly with empty boxes surrounded by a paper web that looks like a giant spider web. Occasionally the web is cut to allow actors to come to center stage to perform.
“Tontlawald” plays through March 11 at the Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-525-1205 or go to