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Theatre Review: “The Lion King” @ SHN Orpheum Theatre, 11/08/12

The Lion King - what else is there to say about this show that hasn’t been said before? It opened on Broadway fifteen years ago on October 15, 1997 at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Fifteen years… millions of audience members, thousands of reviews, and still last night’s Wednesday evening performance in San Francisco was sold-out. Well played, Disney. Well played.

Since opening, it’s changed theatres on Broadway (from New Amsterdam Theatre to the Minskoff Theatre), opened on the West End and Las Vegas, and there has been multiple national/world tours. There has been seven cast albums in seven different languages (most recently the 2011 Spanish cast). In April 2012, it was reported that The Lion King is the highest grossing musical of all time: $853.8 million. It is currently one of the highest grossing musicals on Broadway each week — easily making the million dollar club. The Book of Mormon is its current rival for top box office grosses.

So, how was the show last night? After all of these years, is it still worth it to see it?

My answer: yes and no.

If you’ve never seen The Lion King, then I recommend getting a ticket for the San Francisco production (unless you plan to see it in New York City).

It’s based off one of my favorite movies of all time. The music, characters and story shaped my childhood. And after all these years, I still love it. (If you need a detailed review of the show, then check out my review of the Las Vegas production.)

The touring production has some obvious limitations in regards to the set and costume design. In the opening scene, while the animals are parading in, you are literally awestruck at the sight of the beautifully designed costumes (created by the now infamous and talented Julie Taymor), but because the stage is not raked (on an angle), the stage picture looks incredibly cramped and not as beautiful as I remember when I saw it in Las Vegas. The adaptation of the set for the tour was well-done, but when you have seen what Disney’s money can create in a theatre that The Lion King calls “home”, it wasn’t as magical.

The performances, by all of the leads, were great — no real stand-outs, or ground-breaking performances besides Rafiki (played by the hysterical Buyi Zama). Everyone was solid. The real stand-out performance was the ensemble. Their vocals, dancing and support they brought to the show was stunning!! One of my favorite numbers in the show, “He Lives in You” was fantastic; it gave me goose bumps.

All that said, I still felt the show was a bit tired last night. It was a Wednesday night (even though it was a sold-out and pretty enthusiastic crowd) and I thought the cast was phoning it in a bit. Maybe, it was just me because I was super tired, but most times theatre reinvigorates and energizes me, but The Lion King didn’t do either. It was still enjoyable, but since I know every line in the show, I couldn’t help be a bit bored. The five year-old sitting in front of me was loving every second of it (until about the middle of the second act when it was clearly past her bed time). And in general, the audience loved it; they leapt to their feet to give the cast a standing ovation at the beginning of the bows.

It’s very clear why it’s been running so long!

It’s a magical night of theatre. If you’ve seen it, I wouldn’t necessarily run to grab tickets, but if you are bringing a little one — it will be a magical night for them! The show is a little long, so if their (or your) bedtime is early, you might want to try a matinee.

 

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Theatre Review: “War Horse” @ Curran Theatre (SF), 08/03/12

It’s funny. All of my friends who have seen War Horse have told me to rush to the theatre and see this. I’ve ignored them, partly because when I was in London I found out it was coming to Broadway so I decided to wait. And then once it was in New York, I found out it was coming to San Francisco so again, I decided to wait. That really wasn’t the smartest decision I could have made.

Whatever you do, do not wait to see this production at the Curran Theatre.

This was one of the most creative and incredibly emotional pieces of theatre I have ever seen. The story-telling, puppets, and music blew me away.

About three years ago, I had the opportunity to take a backstage tour of the National Theatre. While backstage, we were up close and personal with the life size horses. I was taken aback by their sheer size and beauty. It was unbelievable. I didn’t understand how they would be used on stage, but I was already convinced that this piece of theatre would be interesting to see.

The three puppeteers that control all the elements of the horse literally breathed life into a puppet. Each horse had their own personalities and after a moment, you actually believed that the horse was real. It’s amazing that they were able suspend our disbelief in this way.

This show based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel was adapted by Nick Stafford (in association with Handspring Puppet Company) to feel like a movie screenplay. The way the music, written by Adrian Sutton, moved the story along and created suspense and relief in emotional moments literally played out like a soundtrack of a movie. I’ve never seen live theatre use music this way in a play before. It turned out to be absolutely thrilling.

I was crying by the end of the show I was so emotionally engaged with the lead, Albert Narracott (Andrew Veenstra – a BYU graduate) and his relationship with his horse, Joey. The relationship between these two reminded me of the relationship I had with my dog growing up as a child. A bond between an animal and a human can be incredibly fierce and those lucky to have had that bond knows the strength that can come from it. This moving story shows us this strength with incredible beauty and grace.

Please don’t do what I did and put off seeing War Horse. Run and see it.

This is a piece of theatre that is going to be with me for a very long time.

 
 

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“The Book of Mormon” musical is headed to San Francisco

It’s true! The Book of Mormon musical is coming to San Francisco starting November 2012. It is only playing for a limited five weeks and I’m sure will sell out in minutes (just like what happened in Denver)!!

The Book of Mormon is the first show to be announced as part of the SHNSF 2012-2013 season. The remaining four shows on the season will be announced at a later date.

The Book of Mormon won nine Tony Awards including Best Musical and the 2011 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theatre Album. Currently, the only way to guarantee tickets for this strictly limited engagement is by becoming an SHN subscriber today by calling (888) 746-1799 or visiting www.shnsf.com. Group and single tickets sale date will be announced later.

Listen to a few of the tracks from the Grammy winning album here: (parental advisory warning)

“Hello!”

“I Believe”

“Tomorrow is a Latter Day”

 
 

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2011 February Bay Area Theatre Guide

And I thought January came fast. While I only saw a few shows in January, I saw some majorly epic productions.

First, I saw newly revamped version of Love Never Dies which was a train-wreck. Then I saw the over-publicized Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark and loved it. Last, I saw the touring production of Next to Normal which blew me away and tore out my heart out (again).

There’s several shows that are still running from January into February, so make sure you check out last month’s suggestions as well.

Broadway Cast Poster1. Next to Normal at Curran Theatre (SHNSF) in San Francisco – I realize that this was on my list last month, but technically this show doesn’t close until February 20th, so it’s first on my list for February as well.

I was blown away by this cast. I wrote in my review: “It’s rare to have a touring production be just as exciting as the Broadway production. I didn’t think the tour of Next to Normal could do it, but they passed expectations by a mile. Do not miss this production of Next to Normal.”

WebsiteTickets

2. Avenue Q at Orpheum Theatre (SHNSF) in San Francisco – I love this show so much. I saw the non-equity touring cast of Avenue Q at Broadway San Jose a little over a year ago and enjoyed it immensely even though theatre was way too big for the production. I have a feeling that the Orpheum Theatre will be a bit big as well, but you’ll still laugh and laugh and laugh.

Here’s an excerpt of my review: “If you’ve seen it, then beware that the intimacy of the Broadway version is all but lost in the expansiveness of the theatre and the jokes might not be as shocking (since you already know them), but you’ll still laugh. While, overall the performers are super talented, they unfortunately don’t compare to the original cast. Knowing all of this, you’ll still end up laughing and having a great night of theatre!”

I have a feeling my review will be similar. Runs February 15 – 27th, 2011.

Website | Tickets

3. Big River at Contra Costa Civic Theatre: The irrepressible Huck Finn helps his friend Jim, a slave, escape to freedom at the mouth of the Ohio River. Their hilarious, heartwarming adventures bring to life the novel’s colorful characters in a brilliant celebration of pure Americana. With a jubilant score of Cajun, country, gospel and blues, Big River is a rousing, high- spirited show that sets your hands to clapping, your feet to stomping and your heart to rise within you! Winner of seven Tony Awards including Best Musical, Score and Book, this is one the whole family will enjoy!

February 11 – March 13, 2011.

Website | Tickets

4. The Dresser at San Jose Rep: It’s 1942 in Britain and the smell of death is in the air. The sirens howl, signaling another air raid, but inside the crumbling walls of a regional theatre in the provinces the aging actor, Sir, prepares to give his 227th performance as King Lear.

Norman, Sir’s devoted, fuss-budget dresser, is barely able to take care of himself but faithfully assists Sir in near feudal servitude, massaging his ego, pampering his intellect and even creating sound effects for the Shakespearean production by Sir’s struggling troupe. This touching and poignant tribute to theatre, friendship and the human spirit in the face of great strife – be it war or one’s own debilitating mortality – proves that “the show must go on.”

January 27 – February 20th, 2011.

Website | Tickets

What shows are you planning on seeing in February?

 
 

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Theatre Review: “Next to Normal” @ Curran Theatre (San Francisco), 1/26/11

Next to Normal at the Curran Theatre is an absolute triumph!

This was the sixth time I’ve seen Next to Normal. I first saw the production right after it transferred from Off-Broadway at the Booth Theatre, while it was still in previews. I didn’t know anything about the production and I was absolutely blown away by the show. Ever since then, Next to Normal has been one of my favorite musicals of this decade. Its raw, emotional story about mental illness is simply heartbreaking and hopeful all at the same time. Since that night, every time I’m in New York I try to fit Next to Normal into my schedule. I’ve seen most of the Broadway understudies (though I never did get to see Brian D’Arcy James) and most recently I saw the replacement cast featuring Marin Mazzie and her husband, Jason Danieley, respectively, as Diana and Dan Goodman. Every time I’ve loved it but I never expected that the touring production of Next to Normal would have this much emotional punch.

It ripped open my heart all over again.

Opening night in San Francisco felt like I was seeing a totally new production of Next to Normal and yet everything was the same. The lights, set, and music were all the same. There was no expense spared in regards to the technical area, but the adjusted sound design created almost a new show for me. I heard new harmonies, different characters were highlighted in group songs, and the focus just wasn’t on Diana Goodman (Alice Ripley). Asa Somers, who plays Ripley’s onstage husband, Dan, held his own remarkably against the powerhouse, Tony-winning performance by Ripley. Somers’ vocals were incredible — some of the best vocals I have ever heard on a Broadway stage and they blended perfectly with his son’s, Gabe (Curt Hansen), vocals. Case in point: “I Am the One (Reprise)” literally took my breath away. Somer’s performance added an intensity to Dan that I’ve never seen before.

And then there’s Emma Hunton who plays the jaded, sarcastic daughter, Natalie. Her crystalline vocals never stopped being impressive. Her rendition of “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” was spot-on and the audience loved it. I had my doubts that anyone could top Jennifer Diamano’s Tony-nominated performance, but Hunton held her own. She added more sarcasm to her role and was more extroverted in her feelings – less emotionally manipulative and more present, overall. All of this emotion just kept growing until Natalie and her mother, Diana, finally have a heart-to-heart in the song, “Maybe (Next to Normal)”. My heart broke as they sang this song. Hunton raised the stakes in a way that created a beautiful arc to Natalie’s character.

Henry (Preston Sadleir), Natalie’s boyfriend, also rounded out the fiercely talented cast. I’ve always seen the original Henry, Adam Chanler-Berat, play the role so it was great to see a slightly different take on Henry. Sadleir did a hellavu job with the role and complemented Hunton’s intensity with his calm/easy-going personality. Just as I saw the deeper parallels to Diana and Natalie’s journey, I saw more parallels to Dan and Henry’s emotional discovery and subsequent loss. Even Dr. Madden/Dr. Fine (Jeremy Kushnier) felt more “present”. His genuine rock-star persona got a lot of laughs at the beginning of Act 1 and the audience was eating it up!

The incredibly talented director, Michael Greif, created a deeper arc with all of the characters in this production and really pushed them to find an even greater depth to the piece. No longer was Alice Ripley holding the show together by her overwhelming intensity — everyone complemented her intensity by taking an even bigger risk emotionally. At points, Ripley struggles vocally to get every note out but you don’t care because her dramatic intentions are so intensely motivated. There’s never a second on stage when you don’t believe that she’s not actually struggling with bi-polarism/schizophrenia. Her Tony-winning performance should not be missed. I can’t stress that enough.

Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote, “No show on Broadway right now makes as direct a grab for the heart — or wrings it as thoroughly — as “Next to Normal” does. This brave, breathtaking musical, which opened Wednesday night at the Booth Theater, focuses squarely on the pain that cripples the members of a suburban family, and never for a minute does it let you escape the anguish at the core of their lives.” It’s still true in every way. This Pulitzer Prize winning musical should be seen by everyone.

It’s rare to have a touring production be just as exciting as the Broadway production. I didn’t think the tour of Next to Normal could do it, but they passed expectations by a mile. Do not miss this production of Next to Normal.

 

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2011 January Bay Area Theatre Guide

The new year has begun! Welcome to 2011!

With all of the craziness of the holidays, I wasn’t able to get my theatre picks up for January until now. Luckily, several shows are opening in late January which gives you (and me) plenty of time to organize our theatre wish-list for January.

I spent the beginning of December seeing the touring production of Shrek (which I thought was abysmal), the puppet masterpiece, The Composer is Dead at Berkeley Rep (which didn’t have much of a plot or presence) and the new musical, Backwards in High Heels at San Jose Rep (a fun delightful show with no heart). To be honest, I was a bit let down by all three productions and it drove me to a much needed theatrical break. After all, I did see over 60 productions last year alone!

While I spent my holiday in London, I had the chance to see the newly revamped Love Never Dies. Again, I was let down by the changes that Andrew Lloyd Webber had made and was quite disappointed.

I’m off to New York City for a quick weekend, where I’m seeing Spiderman and American Idiot (with Billy Joe Armstrong). I can’t wait to report!

So here’s to a new year and a new month with hopefully a better slew of shows than this past December.

Broadway Cast Poster 1. Next to Normal at Curran Theatre (SHNSF) in San Francisco – Out of all the shows that you should buy tickets to, this is the one. I know this touring cast will be good because it has the Tony Award winner Alice Ripley is in it. I’ve seen her perform several times and her performance is incredible and not to be missed.

Next to Normal has become one of my favorite musicals of all time. I’ve seen it five times on Broadway and I’m looking forward to seeing it again in San Francisco in a new theatre, with almost a new cast.

Out of all the shows that are coming to San Francisco, I can’t stress enough that this is the show that you should buy tickets to and see! It’s absolutely a beautiful show and worthy of the Pulitzer Prize that it won! I’ll be there opening night.

Website | Tickets

2. Clybourne Park at ACT (San Francisco) – Home is where the heart—and history—is in Clybourne Park, a “buzz-saw sharp new comedy” (The Washington Post) that cleverly spins the events of A Raisin in the Sun to tell an unforgettable new story about race and real estate in America. Act I opens in 1959, as a white couple sells their home to a black family, causing uproar in their middle-class Chicago neighborhood.

Act II transports us to the same house in 2009, when the stakes are different, but the debate is strikingly familiar. Adamant provocateur Bruce Norris launches his characters into lightning-quick repartee as they scramble for control of the situation, revealing how we can—and can’t—distance ourselves from the stories that linger in our houses.

A West Coast premiere.

January 20–February 13, 2011

Website | Get Tickets

3. Grease at Broadway San Jose – Unfortunately, I will be out of town for the full week of this run, so I will not be able to see it. I’ll be honest and say that Grease isn’t my favorite musical (by any means), but I’m hoping it will be a fun production filled with upcoming Broadway talent.

If you do have a chance to see this show, let us know what you think! I’m very curious to see how it all turns out.

Hopefully, you were the winner of our ticket giveaway!

Opens January 18th – 23rd, 2011.

Website | Tickets

4. Compleat Female Stage Beauty at City Lights Theatre Company - Embracing a period of British history that’s ripe with gender & social intrigue, Kynaston, the most famous portrayer of female roles in seventeenth century London, is brought to ruin when King Charles II changes the law to allow women to act. His journey embarks down a road of revenge and self-awareness as Kynaston strives to take his place on the stage once again.

City Lights is known for stretching boundaries and I’m sure that they are at it again. It also features several great Bay Area actors!

It opens January 2oth and runs till February 20th, 2011.

Website | Get Tickets

5. Sylvia at Bus Barn Stage Company – Empty nesters Greg and Kate have moved to Manhattan where Greg finds Sylvia, a golden lab/poodle mix, in the park and brings her home. Greg is smitten by Sylvia’s unconditional love and the romantic triangle that results begins to eat a serious (and riotous) hole in Greg and Kate’s 22 year marriage.

This endearing romantic comedy about a marriage and a winsome canine is a tasty (dog) treat not to be missed.

January 27th – February 19th, 2011.

Website | Get Tickets

6. Clue at Boxcar Theatre – A play based on a movie based on a board game. The 1985 cult classic is adapted for the stage with every side splitting joke intact and even a few new ones thrown in for good measure. Peering over a life-sized board game, the audience watches from six feet in the air as six guests and a bumbling butler navigate square by tiny square searching a mansion to find out who killed Mr. Boddy.

Was it Colonel Mustard in the billiard room with the wrench or Ms. Scarlet in the lounge with the candlestick? With secret passages running underneath the seats, and multiple different endings, this completely ripped off production is the most original yet.

January 7th – February 5th, 2011

Website | Get Tickets

On My Radar:

  • The Dresser at San Jose Rep – It’s 1942 in Britain and the smell of death is in the air. The sirens howl, signaling another air raid, but inside the crumbling walls of a regional theatre in the provinces the aging actor, Sir, prepares to give his 227th performance as King Lear. Runs January 27 – February 20, 2011. Website
  • Holes at Hillbarn Theatre Company – Holes is a modern grown-up fairy tale with a charming ending that comes full circle after a variety of perambulations. Opens January 27th – February 13th, 2011. Website
  • A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at South Bay Musical Theatre – Great show directed by Walter Mayes. Opens January 29th – February 19th, 2011. Website
 
 

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Theatre Review: “Shrek” @ Orpheum Theatre (SHNSF), 12/01/10

With newly minted posters and marketing graphics, Shrek The Musical, opened at Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco to a big monstrous thud. When it opened on Broadway in December 2008, it received mixed reviews — critics generally loved the magical sets, costumes and performances by Brian D’Arcy James (Shrek), Sutton Foster (Fiona) and Lord Farquaad (Christopher Seiber). The touring production of Shrek The Musical, literally takes everything good about the show and strips it down to nothing. It became a boring, magic-less show that can’t be saved because of the mediocre score by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie and Caroline, or Change) and bad re-direction and staging by Jason Moore (Shrek The Musical on Broadway) and Rob Ashford (Promises, Promises and Thoroughly Modern Millie).

One of the biggest beefs I have with this production was the incredibly bad sound design. Throughout the entire show, it sounded muffled, not balanced with the small orchestra (that featured 11 local musicians) and altogether a big muddled mess. Whenever the fun chorus of misfit fairy-tale characters were on stage, it felt like they were miles away and I had one of the best seats in the house (center orchestra – row M). Whenever the two leads, Shrek (Eric Petersen) and Fiona (Haven Burton) sang together, the sound would instantly become mush. I’m generally familiar with the score and for minutes on end, I had no idea what anyone was saying. For a show that’s based in comedy, it’s hard to be funny when no one knows what you’re saying.

I saw Shrek The Musical in February 2009 – right after it opened – with the full original cast. I walked out of the Broadway Theatre and remember thinking that while it wasn’t my favorite musical of all time, it was delightful and magical. You could see $24 million dollars on the stage and it was a technical masterpiece with set pieces moving in ways I had never seen before. I knew it was going to be hard to re-create Shrek as a touring production, but the producers and designers seemed to find the easiest (and usually less creative and effective) way to tell the story. Even the choreography was dumbed down. (It was most noticeable in the semi-tap routine, “Morning Song”, at the top of Act 2.)

Instead of moving set pieces that changed effortlessly, while Shrek and Donkey (Alan Mingo, Jr.) were on their journey to find the princess, they literally ran around four trees in countless amounts of scenes. I understood what they were doing, but the re-staging of these numbers fell flat and looked messy and direction-less. It was amateurish at best. Overall, the entire re-design was non-imaginative and really affected the show as a whole. The magic was lost.

There are also a few changes to the script, music and characters. While, I’m not going to list all of the changes, the main change was the dragon song. The song, “Forever” replaced the Broadway version of “Donkey Pot Pie” (a mess of a song). This particular scene has been a headache for producers and writers since the beginning. I actually enjoyed the new song and the spectacular life-like puppet dragon was incredibly cool. But you actually never see the Dragon’s persona, played by the fierce Carrie Compere, on stage. She sings everything off-stage which is a huge mis-step. We want to see her!

Overall, the performances by the cast felt like they were “phoning it in” and not playing to a very generous sold-out crowd at the Orpheum Theatre. This might be partially attributed to the bad sound design because their performances never reached past the second row of the orchestra. Eric Petersen’s (Shrek) voice was fantastic, but again, a lot of his dialogue and jokes were missed. Haven Burton (Fiona) lost all of her “funny” since Broadway. Haven, who played Gingy in the original cast, almost stole the show with her incredible gingerbread-like voice and comedic timing. All of that spunk and energy seemed to be gone. I’ve also seen her perform Fiona’s song(s) at a Broadway Teacher’s Workshop in NYC and it was excellent in every respect. But for some reason, her performance just didn’t work. There was no chemistry between her and Shrek and the timing felt off — maybe we can just chock it up to a “bad” night.

Obviously, the show markets heavily to the children and families, but if with all of the changes that producers/directors/composer made for the touring cast, why not make the show run a little shorter? Why not pick up the pace a little more, so that the younger crowd (meaning children ages 5-11) don’t fall asleep half way through the second act? It’s a long show — clocking in at around 2 1/2 hours (we got out at 10:45pm) and the movie is only 90 minutes! I was squirming in my chair about half way through the second act, so I can’t imagine what a five-year old thought of it. I only recommend taking your kids to this, if they can actually sit that long, because the last thing you want to do is watch the show from the tiny screens in the lobby.

And the added song, “I’m a Believer” (that was featured in the first movie) at the end of the show, as a bonus curtain call, was a hot mess. Cut it.

As you can tell, I was underwhelmed in generally every area. I expected more from this tour. A lot more. I thought they were going to be able to find the magic in this off-beat fairy-tale, but the touring production of Shrek The Musical provides only a few laughs (usually regarding gross bodily functions) and one or two hummable melodies with nothing but thoughtless direction at a plodding pace — not a good recipe for any show.

 

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