My Top Ten for 2018

I have seen 50 productions in 2018 since I relocated to the North Bay region. Some have been extraordinary, fine testaments to the magic and power of live theatre; but every one of them has demonstrated the centuries-old urge to create portrayals of stories and share them with others. Theatre, even the most humble effort, is shamanistic, saying let me show you something about what it is to be human, encouraging empathy with and reflection on the human condition. Comic or serious or the modern mix of both, theatre of all stripes is alive and well and thriving in the many venues in our greater Bay Area, and the North Bay is no exception.

This Top Ten list is my way to give a shout-out to productions I saw that moved me, made me think about them and their stories long after the house lights came up, shows that sparkled with a special energy and dynamism. Certainly, I saw other shows that were also excellent, that had much to commend them– the North Bay is blessed with so many dedicated theatre groups creating enjoyable entertainment. And of course I wasn’t able to see ALL the offerings in our generously endowed region– undoubtedly I missed some good ones. For whatever reasons, these ten rose to the top in my estimation– thus the list.

They’re listed not in any ranking, but chronologically as I saw them. If you saw any of these shows, you’ll no doubt agree with their inclusion here; and if you didn’t see one or more of them, I hope the list encourages you to check out our North Bay venues for future shows in 2019, and possibly expand your horizons when seeking an evening’s entertainment.

Links are included for your convenience– the title of show links to my original review; and the company name links to their website.

In a class by itself:
Transcendence Theatre Company – Glen Ellen & Santa Rosa – Review 1; Review 2
This first shout-out is for an amazing company that stands alone, only about 8 years old, that just keeps getting better and better, and continually produces fabulous BROADWAY HOLIDAY SPECTACULARentertainment. TTC hires top-notch triple threat performers from Broadway and locally to spend their summers at the Jack London State Park regaling us with innovative arrangements of musical theatre standards mixed with pop and lesser-known numbers, all for singular, stellar effect. In recent years they’ve added a holiday show in December, that never fails to launch the season with feeling and flair. There’s nothing like this company anywhere else that I know of– the arrangements are fresh and surprising, the talent superb, and the constructed revues combine laughter, romance, inspiration, and a generous uplifting dose of positivity. This year seemed to reach even higher peaks of excellence, with a team of artists both on and off stage that raised the performance bar even for themselves. May TTC ever shine…

The Top Ten:
The Tin WomanRoss Valley Players, Ross (May)
26986438337_be3888e971_oToss together a strong cast, a sweetly humorous and affecting play, and intelligent, capable direction, and you have a hit show at RVP. American playwright Sean Grennan’s play has serious themes at its core, including the sudden death of an adult child and a subsequent heart transplant. But it’s also seasoned with appropriate and realistic humor, just the right spice to alleviate the heaviness. This production was a superb rendering of the sweet and the poignant, a surprising touch to the heart.

Peter PanSpreckels Theatre Company, Rohnert Park (May)
This was a most wonderful, magical and memorable journey to Neverland. Spreckels Theatre Company pulled out all the BV1H5649stops for this one, and it came together beautifully, with a terrific cast, dynamite scenic visuals, and creative staging. This stellar production gave us the full, uncut version, including all delightful dances and reprises. The title role, played by a spunky, golden-voiced Sarah Wintermeyer, has seldom been performed better, to my eye and ear. Thankfully, Peter was matched by a host of first-rate actors in other roles and ensemble, making for an excellent and thoroughly satisfying performance.

Always … Patsy ClineSonoma Arts Live, Sonoma (July)
Celebrity tribute shows are always tricky, as audiences will inevitably compare the Always Patsy Clineimitation with the original, and too often the imitation fails to deliver the desired satisfaction of the remembered icon. Sonoma Arts Live made the gamble pay off in a wonderfully entertaining and engaging tribute to the much-loved and memorable Cline. Top-notch talents, excellent music, and attractive production elements added up to a captivating and poignant stroll through the country star’s songbook. Danielle DeBow as Cline clearly did her homework in bringing this country legend to life. DeBow captured the signature vocal inflections and the demeanor to evoke admiration and awaken cherished memories with skillful song renditions. Her version of “Crazy” generated obvious approval and thankful applause both before and after. There are over 25 songs in the show, covering nearly all of Cline’s chart-topping hits—a veritable feast for her fans.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeSpreckels Theatre Company,
Rohnert Park (September)
When 15-year-old Christopher is discovered kneeling over the body of a dog killed AD1A2583with a gardening fork, it’s easy for others to assume he had something to do with the death, especially as his responses to questioning are oddly literal and unhelpful. And he screams when anyone touches him. So begins one of the most heralded plays of recent years, presented by Spreckels Theatre Company in its area premiere. This is a challenging and ambitious piece, given its technological and physical demands. STC gave it excellent, admirable justice, especially owing to a talented ensemble led by the remarkable Elijah Pinkham as young Christopher. Kudos to STC, the creative team, and an impressive cast for rising to the challenge of this theatrical undertaking.

Hello, Dolly!Sonoma Arts Live, Sonoma (October)
The list of performers who have played Dolly reads like a Who’s Who of female stars of 43184458_2123976724339706_3200247060724973568_ostage and screen in any given decade. Now, you must add actress Dani Innocenti Beem, who thoroughly deserves to be named in that stellar company for the absolutely terrific performance she gave in the title role of the show presented by Sonoma Arts Live. Beem’s adept comic skills, particularly her wise-cracking, dry humor, combined with her classic Broadway-style belt, added up to a brilliant portrayal of the iconic Dolly Levi, the widowed matchmaker from Yonkers. Happily, her star turn was ably supported by a talented and enthusiastic cast of seasoned locals who know how to strut their stuff and deliver first-class entertainment. A well-deserved standing ovation for a classic musical.

The Great God PanCinnabar Theater, Petaluma (October)
Jamie seems to have it all, until he’s contacted by a childhood friend he hasn’t seen in 25 years, who shares unsettling news. Frank has decided to prosecute his father for sexual abuse inflicted on him as a child—he also wonders if Jamie can corroborate his story. Thus begins the timely and compelling play by Amy Herzog, given a sensitive and stunning production at Cinnabar. Herzog weaves two-person scenes over 85 minutes into an intriguing inquiry into the vagaries of memory, but more so into the ripple effect of 43788279_10156299797416693_630173969789485056_ochildhood sexual abuse, in the victim’s life and adult world. The play handles delicate subjects with a thoughtful, subtle approach, letting information surface gradually, serving up more questions than answers. This could be dark and dreary, but Cinnabar’s production delivered excellent performances and never felt slow or morbid. Brilliant set, lighting and sound designs located us in the dark woods of shadowy memory, in a terrific concept for a compelling piece.

The Night AliveMain Stage West, Sebastopol (October)
Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s 2013 play has a characteristic luminous redemptive edge in spades, especially in the glowing, exceptional production that graced the stage in 44112033_2359512147397840_1223155867847753728_nSebastopol. His characters are broken people, barely managing in a hostile world, guardedly seeking what few sparks of happiness and kindness they can eke out. The sudden appearance of abuse and violence throws in a physical manifestation of the razor’s edge they already walk. McPherson imbues his characters with resilience, a dogged determination to do more than just survive, to dare to dream. Despite all odds and unhappy events, their will to live powerfully permeates their actions, as they reach for integrity and, yes, love. It’s that luminosity, that hint of divinity, that ultimately elevates the play from the mundane and leaves us with a rare feeling of hope. A magical, touching production.

Hand to GodLeft Edge Theatre, Santa Rosa (October)
Just when you think you’ve seen it all, theatrically speaking, who shows up on stage but a 44295926_1344097992394376_3086300032173867008_ofoul-mouthed, Satanic, and raunchy hand puppet named Tyrone, who unleashes a violent but hilarious reign of terror on the world around him—that is, around the poor unsuspecting teenager Jason, whose right arm seems possessed when Tyrone is on it. Robert Askins’ madly funny and irreverent play Hand to God got a terrific airing with a strong cast at Left Edge, featuring a mind-blowing tour de force performance by Dean Linnard as the teen and his demonic alter-ego. A wild, wacky roller-coaster ride, filled with riotous laugh-out-loud action and the absurdly clever ravings of a deranged puppet.

God of CarnageNovato Theatre Company, Novato (October)
Yasmina Reza portrays smart, educated people as they descend, quite humorously, into 44419726945_cedadaf1a6_kuncivilized behavior, thus exposing the caveman-like underbelly of so-called polite society.  God of Carnage delivers this descent in hilarious fashion, and it roared into life  in Novato Theater Company’s excellent staging. A fine cast and superior production values made for a superb 90 minutes of entertainment, full of surprises, zingers, and even some food for thought. Four first-class actors plus distinctive spectacle added up to an outstanding entertainment, one that left us all laughing– and thinking.

Every Brilliant ThingLeft Edge Theatre, Santa Rosa (November)
One of the most hauntingly beautiful theatre pieces I saw this winter was Duncan EBT_4web1984Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing. Thoughtful without being sentimental, an antidote to holiday treacle without being crass, it’s a memorable and moving show that warms the heart and affirms life, even with sadness, depression, and death in the bargain. Solo actor Ron Severdia’s stirring performance felt fresh and familiar, capturing both the comedy and the pathos in an intriguing tale. Both script and performance have stayed with me for weeks, pleasantly reminding me to celebrate hope and love…

Hope you’ve enjoyed the list, and I hope to see you in a theatre!

Annie

6th Street Playhouse
Runs in Santa Rosa through December 21

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Larry Williams, Alina Kingwill Peterson, 
Morgan Harrington, and Cast

Photo by Eric Chazankin

Set in the height of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the ever-popular musical Annie, with book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Martin Charnin, supplies a rags-to-riches story for one little girl, offering a vision of hope and optimism for all ages and eras. 6th Street Playhouse is currently running an attractive production of this family-oriented show, featuring multiple castings of the title role and many of the orphan girls with talented youth and solid performances from the adult leads. With its relentlessly positive attitude and Christmas themes, it’s a fun holiday piece for young ones who can sit still for two and a half hours, especially for those unfamiliar with the story.

If you bring youthful patrons, be prepared to explain many of the historical references and quips, some of which even younger adults may not know. Eleven-year-old Annie (Alina Kingwill Peterson or Evelyn Goodwin) is determined to find the parents who left her on the New York city orphanage steps years before. After one failed runaway, Annie escapes the tyrannical orphanage director Miss Hannigan (Daniela Innocenti-Beem) by becoming a temporary adoptee at the home of famous billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Larry Williams).

Meant to stay for only two weeks, Annie’s charms and native intelligence win the hearts of Warbucks, his secretary Grace (Morgan Harrington), and all his staff. But when he proposes to adopt her, she can’t see beyond her desire for her own real parents, and Warbucks launches a full-scale FBI search, offering a hefty reward and reaching all the way to the Presidency (Steve Thorpe as Franklin D. Roosevelt). Miss Hannigan, her brother Rooster (Jeff Coté), and his girlfriend Lily (Lydia Revelos) concoct a scheme to cash in, and thereby hangs the rest of the tale. …

To continue reading about this production, see the full review at Talkin’Broadway.com:
Annie

Broadway Holiday Spectacular

Transcendence Theatre Company
Runs through December 9, Santa Rosa and Napa

BROADWAY HOLIDAY SPECTACULAR

Run, don’t walk, to pick up your phone and get tickets if you can—Transcendence Theatre Company has done it again, with a knockout production that soars with fabulous song and dance, and will lift your spirits high for the holidays. Fan favorites are joined by new faces in the ensemble, bringing their triple-threat talents from Broadway in one showstopper number after another. The challenge is trying to decide which number, which performer one loves the best—the whole show is that good. Director/choreographer Tony Gonzalez, music director and co-creator Susan Draus, and their creative team have concocted a merry, soul-stirring froth of an entertainment you don’t want to miss.

Act one includes traditional songs such as “Jingle Bells” in a modern medley alongside pop hits such as “Let It Go” (Crystal Kellogg, Erin Clemons and Shaleah Adkisson in a thrilling trio) and “All I Want for Christmas” (much-loved local Meggie Cansler Ness, with Cassie Levine and Traci Elaine Lee). There’s a beautiful rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by newcomer Erin Clemons, a wistful version of “Christmas Time” (Shaleah Adkisson), and a tale of snowflakes in “One of a Kind” sung by Will Ray to children from the audience. Transcendence has found their Fred and Ginger in Julia Freyer Gleason and Luis Figueroa, who sail through a superb dance for “The Christmas Waltz.” Fun abounds in the Peanuts scenarios, a plethora of grandmothers, and a “Swinging Yuletide.”

The show wouldn’t be complete without a moving tribute to Hanukkah (led by Cassie Levine and Stephan Stubbins) and the joyous “To Life!” Act one closes with a surprising, fresh arrangement of the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s “Messiah,” combining jazz, gospel, and Broadway for an exhilarating finish. …

To continue reading about this production, see the full review at Talkin’Broadway.com:
Broadway Holiday Spectacular

Anne of Green Gables

Sonoma Arts Live
Runs in Sonoma through December 9

AoGG-Performance-5.jpg
Bryan Hendon, Shirley Nilsen Hall, and Melody Payne
Photo by Miller Oberlin

Billed as a family musical, the adaptation of Anne of Green Gables playing at Sonoma Arts Live fulfills that appellation with its homespun, innocent and charming warmth. Commendable acting, particularly that of Melody Payne playing Anne, along with attractive spectacle and staging make for a pleasant evening spent in 1908 Avonlea.

Based on the much-loved novels of L.M. Montgomery, Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman’s musical unfolds in episodes highlighting the best-known scenes from the books. Spunky orphan girl Anne (Payne), with her flaming red hair and freckles, is adopted somewhat by accident by siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert (Bryan Hendon and Shirley Nilsen Hall), who originally wanted a boy. Anne’s natural exuberance and generous spirit earn her way into their hearts and a forever home at Green Gables farm. After early missteps and mishaps, Anne also wins over schoolmates and neighbors, eventually becoming a beloved citizen for the town.

Anne’s trials and antics are sometimes amusing, sometimes sobering, and still have a contemporary feeling—Montgomery’s stories include scenes of bullying, prejudice and small-mindedness, as well as young love, friendship, and familial affection. There’s also a nascent feminism in Anne’s forthright nature, intelligence, and refusal to accept limitations on her potential. More than 100 years from her creation, she remains a good role model for all of us. Children (of nine or more) and teens unfamiliar with Anne may enjoy this introduction to the young heroine. …

To continue reading about this production, see the full review at Talkin’Broadway.com:
Anne of Green Gables

Every Brilliant Thing

Left Edge Theatre
in Santa Rosa through December 16

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Ron Severdia. Photo by Argo Thompson. 

One of the most hauntingly beautiful theatre pieces I’ve seen this season is Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing, currently running at Left Edge Theatre. Thoughtful without being sentimental, an antidote to holiday treacle without being crass, it’s a memorable and moving show that warms the heart and affirms life, even with sadness, depression, and death in the bargain. Solo actor Ron Severdia gives a stirring performance that feels fresh and familiar, capturing both the comedy and the pathos in an intriguing tale.

Tone is important for this piece, and Severdia hits it just right—there’s humor, joy and laughter, along with a very straightforward, natural delivery that invites us in and avoids the maudlin. He tells the story, in first person, of a man whose mother attempted suicide when he is seven years old. His father tells him, “your mother has done something stupid,” and the boy pieces together scant bits of information to try and understand what has happened. His young mind hears, accurately or not, that she didn’t feel there was any thing worth living for. This leads the boy to create a list, hoping it will cure his mother’s depression, a comprehensive list of “every brilliant thing” that makes life worthwhile.

The list grows and takes on a kind of life of its own. We get to hear the first 10 things, then another group, then another group, and so on, into the hundreds—ice cream, roller coasters, staying up late—simple or sublime, they ring out like bells on a Christmas tree, from a boy’s simple pleasures to more adult joys. As the boy grows into teenage and adulthood, sharing observations and experiences (and more things on the list), he draws us inside his life in an easy but intimate way. …

To continue reading about this production, see the full review at Talkin’Broadway.com:
Every Brilliant Thing

The Odd Couple

Ross Valley Players
Runs through December 16, 2018

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David Boyll and Russ Whismore. Photo by Robin Jackson.

Arguably playwright Neil Simon’s greatest hit and the number one theater comedy of the 20th century, The Odd Couple, endures, surviving productions of every stripe to share its apparently timeless humor with audiences again and again. The play premiered in 1965, and the script occasionally reveals its dated origins, but not in a way that mars the comedy—Simon’s genius creates a world of identifiable and genuine characters no matter the era or circumstance. The current production at Ross Valley Players falls somewhat short of the mark, as it’s less funny than one would hope, but it manages to be entertaining overall with some fortuitous casting.

The Odd Couple focuses on two middle-aged men, recently divorced Oscar (Russ Whismore), in his eight-room Manhattan apartment, and his friend, newly separated Felix (David Boyll). When the weekly poker game at Oscar’s pad gets interrupted by Felix’s suicidal threats following his eviction from home, Oscar is prompted to offer Felix a temporary landing, which Felix gratefully accepts.

We soon learn that Felix’s neatnik habits, compulsions and neuroses make a poor match with Oscar’s free-wheeling, slovenly bachelor demeanor, leading to amusing arguments and stand-offs. …

To read more about this production, go to Talkin’Broadway:
The Odd Couple

God of Carnage

Novato Theater Company
Runs in Novato through Nov. 11, 2018

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Ken Bacon, Jena Hunt-Abraham, Heather Shepardson, 
and Marty Lee Jones.  
Photo by Fred Deneau

Yasmina Reza has made a playwriting career out of portraying smart, educated people as they descend, quite humorously, into uncivilized behavior, thus exposing the caveman-like underbelly of so-called polite society. Her 2008 hit play God of Carnage delivers this descent in hilarious fashion, and you can see it in action right now in Novato Theater Company’s excellent staging. A fine cast and superior production values make for a superb 90 minutes of entertainment, full of surprises, zingers, and even some food for thought.

Self-made businessman Michael and earth mother arts writer Veronica (Marty Lee Jones and Heather Shepardson) have invited the Raleighs to their upscale Brooklyn home to discuss an altercation between their 11-year-old boys. Corporation lawyer Alan and trophy wife Annette (Ken Bacon and Jena Hunt-Abraham) readily admit their son Benjamin’s wrongdoing, as he did after all hit Henry with a stick, damaging two teeth. Initially, it all seems cut and dried, the two couples amicably discussing potential strategies for resolution of the conflict: Perhaps a meeting? With or without parents? What kind of consequences? And so forth.

But over espresso and homemade clafoutis, conflicting opinions emerge, tensions surface, and intellectual demeanors and niceties begin to crumble. …

To continue reading about this production, see the full review at Talkin’ Broadway:
God of Carnage