Friday, April 30, 2010

Tell Me on a Sunday entertains at ArtsWest

The standard showbiz bromide "Break a leg" nearly came literally true to scuttle the entire run of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Tell Me on a Sunday less than a minute into its opening night at ArtsWest Wednesday. A lift bringing actress Danielle Barnum up from beneath the stage for her grand entrance stuck and lurched slightly, sending Barnum staggering a bit. She was able to regain her balance, avoid skeletal damage, and turn in a marvelous performance as Emma in this seldom-produced Lloyd Webber show.

Danielle Barnum as Emma in Sheldon Bloom's swimming
pool in the ArtsWest production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's

Tell Me on a Sunday. Photo by Matthew Durham.
ArtsWest did most everything right in this production. Barnum is an engaging performer with a sweet singing voice. Director Christopher Zinovitch and crew cooked up an interesting set with a clever projection screen that sometimes hid, sometimes revealed the musicians. The musicians did a fine job with Lloyd Webber's score. The one mis-step, apart from Barnum's stumble onto the stage, may have been the selection of this particular work.

Tell Me on a Sunday is not typical Lloyd Webber fare, which could be good or bad depending on your point of view. This is a one-actor show, and while Weisenheimer isn't necessarily opposed to the same, it seems a musical must be especially challenging to pull off when there's nobody else to sing and dance with, particularly when the one character isn't fabulously likable. Emma's life in the U.S. is a lonely one, trying to break into the hat-making business far away from her native England, and she and her series of invisible beaus use each other until they're finished, then move on to the next. Some wonderful comic touches helped lighten the tone. The swimming pool scene in Beverly Hills was pretty funny.

Barnum gives it her best and turns in an enjoyable performance. We saw her in Balagan Theatre's well-received production of The Full Monty back in November. She was delightful in Tell Me, and pulled off some incredibly rapid wardrobe changes during the one-act show. She's a talented young actor and we're looking forward to seeing more of her. Kudos to musical director and pianist Deanna Schaffer, Joseph Baken on violin, Jacqueline Benthuysen on viola, and Justin Huertas on cello for some top-notch playing.

There were a few opening-night glitches on Wednesday, notably with the lighting, which we didn't think was always where it was intended to be. We're sure those will get ironed out.

All in all, Tell Me on a Sunday is worth a look. It's playing at ArtsWest through May 23.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Joan Osborne plays excellent show in Edmonds

Weisenheimer is a bit befuddled that a vocal talent such as Joan Osborne keeps playing relatively small venues. Maybe she's right where she wants to be. Perhaps it's partly a reflection that her one big hit, "One of Us", is now 15 years in the past. But Osborne has a kick-ass voice and a kick-ass band. She played a great show at the Triple Door a year and a half ago, and performed before a packed house Saturday night at the 704-seat Edmonds Center for the Arts.

Joan Osborne
Interestingly, Osborne played more tunes Saturday from her most recent album, Little Wild One, than she did at the 2008 show when the disc was brand new. She opened the set with "Rodeo" from that record, followed by "Help Me" from the Grammy-nominated 1995 disc Relish, and the Grateful Dead classic "Brokedown Palace." Osborne toured as part of the Dead, post Jerry Garcia, in 2003, and noted that they never let her sing "Brokedown Palace" on the tour. So she included it on her 2006 album Pretty Little Stranger, and it's now a staple of her performances.

Next came a smokin', bluesy version of "How Sweet it Is" which she recorded as the title track of her 2002 album of cool covers, and another from Little Wild One, "Hallelujah in the City."

A couple of the more interesting tunes for me were "Spider Web" and "One of Us", both from Relish. Both had interesting, jazzy introductions that had me expecting Miles Davis to come out and take up a back corner of the stage and start playing. Osborne's band, in fact, is fantastic and versatile. They played jazz, R&B classics, sorta-country, and the Dead exceedingly well. She's been touring with the same gang for a while now: Andrew Carillo on guitar, Richard Hammond on bass, Aaron Comess on drums, and Keith Cotton keyboards.

"What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?" and "Ladder" closed out the show, and they played two songs from Little Wild One for an encore: the title track and "Light of This World." Fans yelled out many song requests; were Weisenheimer a yeller, he would have requested the sock-melting "Son of a Preacher Man." Osborne told the audience that having more material than you can squeeze into one show is a good problem. Clearly, though, the wag who bellowed "Stairway to Heaven" planted a seed in Osborne's mind. Don't be surprised if she does some Led Zeppelin next time she comes to town. Rest assured it will be fantastic.

Winners and losers in war shows

Weisenheimer took in a couple of shows with war themes in the last week, and neither was what one might expect. One was a light-hearted romp, and the other was just a dud.

L-R: Owen, Rudinoff, Reid, Wildrick,
and Allen at a club searching for Miss
Turnstiles. Photo: Chris Bennion.
On the Town, playing at the 5th Avenue Theatre, is only a "war" show in that it's about three sailors with 24 hours of shore leave in New York City. It's enough time for all three to find love, or something at least approximating it. Newcomer Joe Aaron Reid was marvelous as Gabey, the sailor who falls for Miss Turnstiles, whom he spots on a poster in the subway. Regulars Greg McCormick Allen and Matt Owen are splendid as Ozzie and Chip, Gabey's shipmates. The great performances were by the love interests, the always fabulous Billie Wildrick, who was Claire the anthropologist, and Sarah Rudinoff, who played cab driver Hildy will brass and bravado. Props, too, to veterans Allen Fitzpatrick and Suzy Hunt, who as Judge Pitkin and Madame Dilly added great humor to the show.

The dancing in On the Town, choreographed by Bob Richard, was marvelous. Much of it was sort of avant garde ballet as envisioned by Jerome Robbins. On the Town, directed by Bill Berry, plays at the 5th through May 2.

The posters for Henry V, playing at Seattle Shakespeare Company, ask rhetorically, "Ain't war grand?" No, it ain't, and neither was the production, directed by Russ Banham. The biggest problem was the woeful miscasting, or mis-directing, of Evan Whitfield as King Henry. Whitfield didn't have much spark as the king, not enough to give us any inkling why those other guys would follow him once more into the breach. He clearly wasn't comfortable with the Bard's language, either. There were a few good moments, especially in the funny scene at the end where Henry tries to woo the English-challenged French princess Katherine (the sparkling Alexandra Tavares), but mostly Whitfield didn't work.

Tavares, left, and Hoffer
learn English. Photo by
John Ulman.
A daring move that paid off was the casting of Jerick Hoffer, who brought his drag alter ego, Ms. Kitty Witless from the comedy/musical duo The Vaudevillians, to the role of Mistress Quickly. Hoffer also played the nurse Alice and did a quick turn as a French soldier to boot. The scene in which Alice tries to teach some English to Katherine was a hoot.

There was a good fight between Pistol and Gower (played by Russell Hodgkinson and James Lapan) in which the weapons were leeks. And Stephanie Shine, the artistic director at Seattle Shakes, was super as chorus, providing the introduction and narration. Overall, though, Henry V was a disappointing finish to what has otherwise been an outstanding season for the company. It runs through May 9.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Janiva rocks Seattle again

Janiva Magness must love Seattle. Magness played a smokin' show at Jazz Alley in February, and came back to town last Saturday night for a show at Highway 99 Blues Club to celebrate the April 13 release of her new CD, The Devil is an Angel Too on Alligator Records. A packed house enjoyed the hell out of two high-octane sets.

The opening set was devoted to the new record, and there's some marvelous stuff on there. True to the album title there is some naughty stuff on it and some nice tunes, too. Weisenheimer particularly likes Janiva's version of George Jackson's "Slipped, Tripped, and Fell in Love," the Earl Randle song "I'm Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down," the Nick Lowe tune "Homewrecker," a rocking version of Delbert McClinton's "Your Love Made a U-Turn," "Turn Your Heart in My Direction" written by her hubby, Jeff Turmes, and the title track by Julie Miller.

So, I've just called out fully half of the disc. Well, it's a darn fine one, and the record-buying public agrees! The Devil is an Angel Too debuted at #3 on the Billboard Blues chart, #1 on iTunes blues albums, #2 on the Blues & Roots chart, and is presently #16 on Amazon. This was a release PARTY in every sense of the word!

The second set was great, too, with favorites like "Fool Me Again," "You Were Never Mine," and the Koko Taylor tribute "Wang Dang Doodle."

L-R Janiva Magness, my Sweetie, the official scorer, and
Weisenheimer after Janiva's show at Highway 99 April 17.
Magness is touring with a kick-ass band: Zach Zunis on guitar, Gary Davenport on bass, Jim Alfredson on keyboards, and Matt Tecu on drums. The Highway 99 date kicked off their tour. They play in Gulfport, Mississippi tomorrow, and will spend the rest of April and the first half of May in the South. Magness next hits the Northwest in July. She'll play the Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland on July 4, and the Mt. Baker Blues Festival in Bellingham on July 31.

Magness is a three-time winner of the Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year Award from the Blues Foundation, an honor she's up for again this year, and is the 2009 B.B. King Entertainer of the Year. Go see her if you can. Follow Janiva on Facebook and track the tour on her website, which my Sweetie and her team put together!

Fabulous Fences at the Rep

Weisenheimer has been accused on a number of occasions in recent months of being too nice, at least when it comes to theater reviews. It happened again last weekend when I did a one-word Facebook review of Seattle Rep's production of Fences. The word was "incredible." Folks were shocked--shocked!--to hear me gushing about a play. After several days of additional pondering of it, I'd like to amend my review to: "Effin' incredible." Bring on the critics.

I am not alone in my assessment of this production of the August Wilson play directed by Timothy Bond. Misha Berson raved in the Times (Fences hits it out of the park), Steve Clare of said it hits a home run, Michael Strangeways of Seattle Gay Scene called it beautiful and masterful, Jay Irwin of Broadway World wrote it is a perfect game, and Seth Kolloen of The Sun Break calls it "the best play I have ever seen."

James A. Williams as Troy Maxson
in the Seattle Rep production of
August Wilson's
Fences. Photo by
Chris Bennion.
I won't go quite that far, but this Fences is right up near the top. The casting was perfect, the performances were spot-on, and it's a great script full of drama and humor. While all of the cast were fantastic, it was James A. Williams at the center as Troy Maxson, former baseball star and now garbage truck driver, who dominates the play as he dominates his stage family. What a grand performance: angry, vulnerable, drunk, alone, and burdened with responsibility. Two scenes especially crackled. In the first, Troy's son Cory (Stephen Tyrone Williams) asks his dad why he doesn't like him. As Troy explains it isn't his job to like Cory, he has an obligation, the hate damn near ignites the stage. In the second, Troy has broken the news to his wife Rose (Kim Staunton) that he's having an affair and has a kid on the way. Sparks fly during their discussion of the situation.

William Hall, Jr., José Rufino, Craig Alan Edwards, and Shiann Rush also were marvelous. Hall was memorable in another Wilson play, Gem of the Ocean, at the Rep a few years ago, and Rufino has been seen in a couple of shows at Seattle Shakespeare Company of late.

We saw Fences on its last weekend, and the run has ended. If you missed it, I think they're taking the production back to Syracuse. You should consider going. It's a great show.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

AT&T Park -- 10 years old already?!

Weisenheimer finally took in a baseball game at AT&T Park in San Francisco Monday, the day after they'd celebrated the 10th anniversary of the first game played there. Time flies! The place has probably had two or three corporate names in that time.

AT&T Park, San Francisco. Photo by Weisenheimer.
It's a nice ballpark, and I'm not sure why it took me so long to visit. Two things factor in: We clearly don't visit San Francisco often enough, and the last time we were here I think the Giants were out of town. Plus, this is the town that got us used to NOT seeing baseball so much. It was 1994, my Sweetie, the official scorer, and I were here as part of our first anniversary celebration, we had tickets to home games for both the Giants and Athletics, and major league baseball went on strike. Oddly enough, we found it was easy to have fun in San Francisco even without major league baseball. It's possible I would not have seen a game since, save for the miracle run by the Mariners in '95. I didn't attend a game in the Kingdome until late August, when it appeared Sweet Lou had them on a run for playoff contention.

Say Hey, say Willie, that
Giants kid is great! Photo
by Weisenheimer.
Anyway, I knew I was going to have a good time at the Giants game when all the ticket takers and ushers seemed impressed with the ticket I'd bought. Club level, front row, just a little to the third base side of home plate. I could have called a better game that the umpire if he'd moved outta the way! The red-hot Giants beat Pittsburgh 9-3, Bengie Molina went 4-for-4 with a homer and a double, and Barry Zito worked into the seventh.

AT&T Park is better than Safeco Field in at least one respect: no roof. On the other hand, they could have used one Sunday when a monsoon delayed the start of the 10th anniversary celebration game by four hours. Such a monstrosity would ruin the great views. While the usher in my section, 217, was predicting more rain, it turned out to be a comfortable and pleasant evening.

Orlando Cepeda, a good enough
Giant to make it into Danny
Kaye's D-O-D-G-E-R-S song.
With a wham, bam, he hit a
grand slam! Weisenheimer photo.
Other features of the park include the well-known giant Coke bottle and giant baseball mitt that loom behind the stands in left field, and McCovey Cove outside the yard in right. Outside on the walkways are statues of Orlando Cepeda and Willie Mays, with the Say Hey Kid's being the more popular.

All in all, the game was a great time. AT&T Park is way better than Candlestick for baseball. Not quite as way better than the Seattle park is over the Kingdome, but pretty close. I think I'll go again, and not wait 10 years this time.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Happy anniversary to SFMOMA

Our current road trip has revealed that 1935 was a watershed year for the arts on the West Coast. Both the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) are celebrating their 75th anniversaries this year. To mark the occasion SFMOMA has dragged out a little of everything in its expansive collection, including historical documents that mark some of the museum's acquisitions over the years.

Weisenheimer is particularly drawn to SFMOMA's photography collection. The founding of San Francisco and the advent of photography roughly coincide, and local icon and personal favorite Ansel Adams was a key figure in getting the form to be considered serious art. There's some great Adams stuff, including a photograph of Diego Rivera at work. It's awesome just to look at prints made by the great master himself. Also on display are works from other legends, including Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Larry Sultan, Diane Arbus, and Alfred Stieglitz, whose portraits of Georgia O'Keefe are incredible. Only one person didn't seem to be enjoying the photography: a girl of about 8 or 10 who was clomping about quite noisily and muttering, "I've seen all this kind of stuff." Critics are born early.

"A Set of Six Self-Portraits" by Andy
Warhol, 1967. Photo by Weisenheimer.
Below, the author in his friends' kitchen
working on this blog post, 2010.
Founding director Grace McCann Morley had a reputation for going out on a limb for abstract artists. SFMOMA put on the first big solo show for Jackson Pollock, for example, and a couple of works by Pollock are included in the exhibit. This put her in the crosshairs for critics. There's a hilarious letter on display from a Life magazine reader who objected strenuously to Morley's selection of a Paul Klee painting "Nearly Hit" for the magazine's "Museum Director's Choice" series. Good times.

While Morley was a big supporter of those with different ideas, later directors weren't necessarily early adopters. For example, SFMOMA had only one work by Andy Warhol until five years after he died. That one piece, though, was "A Set of Six Self-Portraits" from 1967, a work so influential it has become almost ubiquitous. There are several pieces in the style in the home of our host friends on this leg of our trip, including a Barack Obama campaign card and a dozen rubber duckies. And any schlub with a MacBook, e.g. Weisenheimer, can create one in a second or two.

One piece that almost defies description is a 2006 video by Bruce Conner titled "THREE-SCREEN RAY." Conner may be the guy who killed the radio star, or at least an accomplice, as he began making music videos in the early '60s. The soundtrack is a smokin' live performance by Ray Charles of "What'd I Say." The visuals, on three screens, are a fast-changing montage of strippers, cartoons, newsreels about war, goofy fashion shots, fireworks, and countdown leaders. Most of these were shot or collected by Conner for his earlier work, and digitized and re-edited for "THREE-SCREEN RAY."

"Spiegel, blutrot" by Gerhard Richter, 1991.
Photog Weisenheimer reflected at right.
One piece Weisenheimer found oddly compelling was a 1991 work by Gerhard Richter called "Spiegel, blutrot" (Blood-red mirror). The name speaks for itself. I must have watched that thing, and all of the museum patrons' reactions to it, for 20 minutes or more. Likewise, another piece looked for all the world like a big stack of posters in the middle of the gallery floor, inviting everyone to pick up and take a copy home with them. I'm quite sure the elderly woman museum volunteer assigned to this gallery for the day must be nursing an ulcer by now; there's a lot of pressure and urgency in making sure nobody touches the art. This may well be the sort of thing the artist (I forgot to note the name! Bad reviewer!) intended, interaction with the piece, and other people, all day long.

SFMOMA is a must if you're going to be in the Bay Area. The anniversary exhibit runs through January 16, 2011.

Monday, April 12, 2010

"Vigil" a hilarious, touching romp

Who'd a thunk waiting for your auntie to kick the bucket could be so funny? The American Conservatory Theater production of Vigil, written and directed by Morris Panych, is a riot from start to almost finish, with a touching, teary ending.

Olympia Dukakis and Marco Barricelli
star in
Vigil at American Conservatory
Theater in San Francisco. We were sitting
about this close. Photo by Kevin Berne.
My Sweetie, the official scorer, scored us front-row seats for the show at San Francisco's marvelous Geary Theater, so we ended up about five feet away from Olympia Dukakis and Marco Barricelli, both of whom turned in marvelous performances in this gut-busting script.

Barricelli is Kemp, and Dukakis is Grace, his dying aunt who has summoned him to take care of her, though they've not seen each other in some 30 years. The dying takes a lot longer than expected. Over the course of a year Kemp gets to utter out loud all of the tactless, horrible things that people in these sorts of situations are thinking. "Let's not talk about anything depressing, alright?... Do you want to be cremated?" Grace, on the other hand, utters next to nothing; Dukakis has just one line -- "Merry Christmas" -- in the entire first act, but says more with body language, gestures, and facial expressions than a lot of guys who have played Hamlet. Grace has maybe a dozen lines in the whole show. It's hard to get a word in edgewise with Kemp's constant ranting about his horrible childhood and impatience that his aunt get with it and croak, already.

At one point Kemp builds a "suicide machine," a classic Rube Goldberg device that Grace can use if she wants to, that gives several good options for ending it all, including a bonk on the head with a cast-iron frying pan. You knew Kemp would be hoist with his own petard, but it's still a hoot when it happens. The other big punch line of the script perhaps should have been seen coming down Geary Street, but surprised us. We won't give it away!

Dukakis, of course, is well known. Barricelli perhaps not so much, though he's artistic director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz and spent eight seasons with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We were fortunate to see him there in the title role of Cyrano de Bergerac in 2006. That predates the Weisenheimer blog, but it was our favorite production of that season in Ashland. He's just amazing as Kemp, a total lout of a character with minimal social skills. What a virtuoso performance.

Grace's house is a jumbled, attic-like collection of junk and crazy, off-kilter windows and doors. The set and costumes were designed by Ken MacDonald, partner with writer/director Panych in life as well as in 50-plus shows.

Our one quibble is with the intermission. We know, theater companies need to bring a little revenue in with refreshments, but sometimes they sacrifice the art to get there. Vigil ran about two hours with an intermission. It could easily have been done in 90 or 100 minutes and kept its momentum going. We may have some posts devoted to intermissions in the coming weeks and months.

If you're in the Bay Area this show is a must-see! It runs through April 18.

Friday, April 9, 2010

"Cat" sizzles at OSF

Stephanie Beatriz as Maggie on
the OSF poster for
Cat on a Hot
Tin Roof.
Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has to rank among the greatest plays in the English language, and the current production at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, directed by Christopher Liam Moore, is absolutely dazzling.

The show features a Seattle favorite, Michael Winters, who was nominated for a best-actor Wisey last year for his portrayal of Prospero in The Tempest at Seattle Shakespeare Company. We were thrilled to learn Winters would play Big Daddy, then disappointed to hear that Cat was only running through July 4, and we typically visit Ashland in September. But, my Sweetie, the official scorer, has a business trip to San Francisco, Ashland is conveniently located about halfway there, and so a side trip was in order.

Winters and Big Daddy don't even appear until the second act, but the wait is worth it. He's incredible in a kick-ass role. Williams wrote him bigger than life, master of "28 thousand acres of the richest land this side of the valley Nile," and Winters is up to the task. A virtuoso performance by a great talent.

Stephanie Beatriz was hot and in charge as Maggie the Cat. We gave Beatriz a shout-out for her performance as Catherine in A View from the Bridge at OSF in 2008. She was really superb and more than a match for Sister Woman Mae (Kate Mulligan), Big Mama (Catherine E. Coulson), and Gooper (Rex Young), all of whom were marvelous.

Big Daddy (Michael Winters)
insists that Brick (Danforth
Comins) tell him why he
drinks. OSF photo by
Jenny Graham.
Perhaps the best acting was done by Danforth Comins as Brick, who had to look bored and disinterested for about 45 minutes in the first act while smokin' hot Maggie pranced around the stage in the wispiest of slips, setting the stage for the fun to come. Man! Liz who? My Sweetie had some quibbles with Maggie's hair. Frankly, I didn't notice!

A great deal of credit goes to director Moore and scenic designer Christopher Acebo for a fabulous set. It was simple: the bed, a nightstand, and Brick's liquor cabinet. There were no walls, just some wispy curtains in a circle around the stage, emphasizing the challenging lack of privacy in Brick and Maggie's world. In scene two they flipped around the furniture so that the set was a mirror image of what it was in scene one. Lots of reflection in that second scene. In the third scene, the bed was moved to a more prominent position, and that's where the play ends. Moore also used a 1974 version of the script, to which Williams added some more zesty language and more details about Brick's relationship with Skipper.

What a marvelous show in all regards. Get thee to Ashland and see it if you can.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Sunlight at ArtsWest leaves a few things in the dark

West Seattle's ArtsWest theater purports to produce "artistic events so fiercely compelling that they require conversation." It's a bit of an audacious claim from a company that has been doing the goofy Christmas musical Plaid Tidings the last few holiday seasons. But ArtWest's recent production of Sunlight by Sharr White, directed by Vanessa Miller, accomplished the mission.

Sunlight is the story of a family torn apart in the post 9/11 world. The protagonists are a liberal college president, the conservative dean of the law school who also happens to be his son-in-law, the president's daughter/dean's wife, and the president's long-time assistant.

Director Miller coaxes marvelous performances out of all four actors. John Wray is hilariously fussy and bossy and pompous as the president, Matthew Gibbon, who has built this college out of a swamp. John Ulman is Vincent, his former star pupil who, as head of the law school, helped the government develop "guidelines" under which torture is acceptable--guidelines that led to the brutal death of a 15-year-old boy. Caught in between is Peggy Gannon, fabulous as Charlotte, Matthew's daughter, lawyer, and advisor, and Vincent's about-to-be estranged wife. Karen Nelson was incredible as Maryanne, long-time assistant to Matthew and something of a companion since the death of his wife several years previous.

While the performances were wonderful, the play has a few holes in it. The title refers to the quote from former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who opined that sunlight is the best disinfectant. But this play takes place at night, and I don't think all the cards are on the table. Vincent's main argument in support of torture is that Charlotte worked in the World Trade Center, he didn't know if she was OK that morning, and therefore torture is always justified if we think we can root out a threat. It's too simple, and not the real reason governments take part in the practice. Neither is it believable that Matthew would completely trash his dean's office, then trip him and start a fistfight in his living room. Even if he had been drinking.

But props to White for raising the question. I expect we'll be seeing plays about torture for a while now. Last year's Wisey-Award-winning best play, Equivocation, also included torture among its many plot lines. Creepily, in Equivocation Sir Robert Cecil was a big supporter of the practice, and suggested that it might even be considered a plus on the résumé by the time the 21st Century rolls around. And good for ArtsWest to doing some interesting and challenging new work.