Looking and Lear, embrace laughter and tears! Hank Williams tribute, Looking for love & Sweeny Todd, looking for revenge!

Last week I gave you a “heads up” about a Norm Foster comedy at Onstage Theatre in Pleasant Hill entitled “Looking” that a Rossmoor resident called me about and I have to tell you it is absolutely terrific! In addition, we went to California Shakespeare Theatre in Orinda to see William Shakespeare’s King Lear, which was an equally superb production.

Looking for light-hearted comedy to lighten your psychological load? "Looking" in Pleasant Hill is the real deal!

I will start with the Onstage Theatre’s production of “Looking”, which is a delightfully upbeat, lighthearted comedy about a middle aged Canadian man and woman, both seeking love and companionship.

Andy (Mark Hinds) decides it may be time to try using the personal ads in the local paper, because the bar scene has not provided him with any prospects he wishes to pursue as a meaningful relationship. Andy is not exactly what you would call your greatest prospect either, as he is middle aged, somewhat insecure, lazy and cheap and his business is not very successful.

His best friend, Matt (Bill Schneider), is the local “cool jazz” radio station disk jockey. Matt is basically a nice guy, and definitely not looking for a significant other. He appears to be a confirmed bachelor (on the surface only interested in one-night stands), and he has never really found anyone who stirred a great interest (in his vocabulary), at least nothing that stimulated anything higher than his jock strap. Matt suggest that Andy look into “Singles” cruises that he describes as “floating orgies”, suggesting that many such cruises take in the “topless” beaches, which stops Andy cold.

Andy strongly responds telling Matt that he is not interested in “that kind of relationship”. He explains that he perceives advertising in the “personals” as less threatening and more anonymous, something with perhaps a greater propensity to help him find what he is really looking for, a friend and loving relationship in his life. Together, they tentatively word the “personal” ad, arguing over the validity of its contents.

On the other side of town, Val (Babette Bilger) is an operating room nurse with a very responsible and pressure filled job, but little personal life outside the work scene. One day while Val is working out at her fitness center, her friend Nina (June McCue), drops by and while discussing life’s little personal issues, Val complains that she is fed up with the jerks and characters she constantly runs into while searching for a significant “romantic” other in the local bar scenes. Nina apparently has her sights set only towards the next “quickie” as she cannot imagine finding someone, at her age, who would fit with her already established likes and dislikes.

As she and Nina talk about the alternatives available to women in their search for “Mr. Right”, Nina pulls out the day’s newspaper personal ads and they laugh about the content of the various fishing expeditions from men trolling for dates therein. One such ad does catch Val’s attention, and guess whose ad she finds interesting? You got it!

Of course neither searching party, Val nor Andy, is willing to go on a blind date alone, so they enlist their friends to go along, a "buffer", of sorts, on that first meeting at “The Private Dick”, a local pub.

Of course Andy and Val don’t exactly hit it off on that first date, but Matt and Nina do and before the night is over, the buffers end up in the buff, “buffing” each other like hell hath no fury! Feeling guilty over their immediate “unwanted” success, they decide to get Andy and Val back together for another date. This time, the tables turn and both relationships get crazy and all mixed up.

The show is one laugh after another as Norm Foster is a very perceptive and clever writer, calling a spade a spade and digging up a lot of very realistic and typical dirt for the characters to dig their way through before the evening’s laughter is over.

This is a very funny comedy and the acting is really superb. Each actor brings a special depth to their character. You laugh at them, you laugh with them, and you find that you really care about and eventually embrace each of them and their unique personalities whole heartedly!

The set designed by Diane Mc Rice works very well and contributes to the fast moving flow of the play. Director Helen Means has pulled together a terrific cast who deliver an excellent evening of entertainment.

Call 944-9006 for ticket and reservation information and visit their website www.onstagetheatre.org for more information. Tonight is your only chance to see “Looking” as it closes this evening. Call (925) 944-9006 for tickets and reservations. The theatre is located in the School House Culture Center at 2050 Oak Park Boulevard (at the corner of Pleasant Hill Road and Oak Park Blvd.) in Pleasant Hill. You can purchase tickets at the door.

King Lear is one of Shakespeares most often produced tragedies and an excellent, dynamic production is rocking the Orinda hills!

California Shakespeare Theatre has become a very highly regarded professional theatre company over its many years in the Bay Area, producing a broad diversity of classic Shakespearean plays as well as other classic theatrical works. Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone is continuing to expand the opportunities even further. The new Season will begin in 2008 with Pericles by William Shakespeare in May, continuing with The Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde in July, adding Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov in August, and concluding with Twelfth Night by Shakespeare in September.

The current season concludes with the current production of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, King Lear. I have to say that if there were ever a great play that demonstrated a case for anger management in people’s lives, it would be this classic work by William Shakespeare. I don’t believe I have ever seen a more “angry” King Lear than in this production. Lear, as played by Jeffrey DeMunn, is the epitome of a prideful and easily stirred to anger father. I am amazed that DeMunn was able to maintain his voice through the entirety of this three hour show. He certainly is the most vocal Lear that I ever remember, and certainly one of the strongest and most diverse actors I have seen play this role.

The story line basically involves a King who is long in the tooth, and who has three daughters to whom he proposes turning over his kingdom while he goes about the country entertaining and carousing with his buddies, an entourage of about 100 knights.

At the ceremony in which he calls his two older married daughters, Goneril and Regan and one unmarried younger daughter, Cordelia, together, he encourages each daughters, to tell him what he wants to hear, which is their praise and undying love and loyalty. The two older, street-wise daughters, know that what he really wants is a pledge of love and loyalty before he turns over his power and physical assets to them. They are smart and devious enough to play his game.

The younger daughter, for whom he has professed the greatest love for many years, is not willing to express an exaggerated or false sense of love or loyalty to him in order to gain special favor. Cordelia (played by Sarah Nealis) asks herself, why should I? After all, she has already professed that love and loyalty again and again, and has consistently proven her love for him over the years. She states quite honestly that when she marries, at least half of her love should be given her husband and the remaining love granted her father. She cannot comprehend why her sisters express such an exaggerated love for their father, saying nothing about their love for their husbands.

When she fails to respond to her fathers’ outrageous demands for loyalty and love, he flies into a rage and bans her from his kingdom and offers her in marriage to any man who would take her. Then, adding insult to injury, he even refuses to provide a dowry, in essence, saying that she’s not worth it! The Earl of Kent (Andy Murray) encourages the king to re-think his brash decision and is himself banished from the kingdom.

When the Duke of Burgundy (Arthur Keng) learns that there will be no dowry or lands given along with the beautiful younger daughter, he cancels his courtship and walks away. The young unwed King of France (Liam Vincent) however, expresses his feelings that she is a dowry in her own right, and he takes her home with him, weds her, and provides for her quite graciously.

The kingdom is then split between Goneril (Delia McCougall) and Regan (Julie Eccles) and they are then given complete control of the kingdom. Before very long, the king begins to discover the folly of his decision, as the false love begins to show itself.

There are (as is typical with Shakespeare), several subplots, one of which is that the Earl of Gloucester (James Carpenter) has two sons, Edgar (Erik Lochtefeld) and an illegitimate son, Edmund (Ravi Kapoor), with Edmund plotting to steal his brother’s inheritance by falsehood and deception. Then we have wives cheating on husbands, invading armies, property rights being contested, people hearing what they want to hear, sisters turning on sisters, etc., etc., much like a modern soap opera!

The highly convoluted plot evolves through the excellent direction of Lisa Peterson and the play moves along quite well, for a play so laden with drama layered upon sub-layer, upon sub-layer. The acting is absolutely superb and the impressive but minimalist set, by Rachel Hauck, works well, as does the lighting design by Alexander V. Nichols.

King Lear plays Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., with productions on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m.. There are matinees at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and afternoon performances at 4 p.m. on Sundays, now through Sunday, October 14th. Call the Box Office at (510) 548-9666 or visit their web-site at www.calshakes.org for more detailed information. The Cal Shakes Theatre is located in the Bruns Amphitheater at 100 Gateway Blvd., in Orinda. There is plenty of parking at the entrance to the theater which is at the last exit east of the Caldecot Tunnel, at 100 Gateway Blvd, in Orinda. There is a hill to climb to the Bruns Amphitheater seating area, but if you prefer, the company has a free shuttle up the hill from the entrance, and from the Orinda BART station as well. Tickets start at $15 and generally range between $37 and $60 depending on accommodations and date.

Remember to dress warmly as it can be very chilly, in-fact, down-right cold if the fog comes in over the Orinda hills into the theater area. Bring a picnic dinner or lunch or buy a dinner from the food booth adjacent to the theater seating area and dine before the performance in the wonderful picnic ground also adjacent to the theater. The afternoon performances provide a great excuse to come early and wander around the beautiful grounds and see the lovely pieces of statuary and art work. Cal Shakespeare, as I have stated previously, is “more than a theatrical experience - - it is a walk in the park, and it is an educational opportunity, a rich and rewarding experience.”
Two musicals this week, one a reverent tribute to the short-lived country musician whose music seems to be popular forever, Hank Williams, Lost Highway, and the other an stunning, abeit highly unusual re-envisioning of the dark and wonderful tale of The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sweeny Todd.

Hank Williams, Lost Highway opens in Walnut Creek

Hank Williams, in just seven short years, wrote 36 top ten Country and Western music hits, 11 of which went to number one on the Bill Board charts. He is described by many as an enigma, a shooting star that shot meteorically into the country-western heavens, burned bright for a few years, then burned out and crashed almost as quickly. He died from a “heart attack”, according to his doctor, at age 29, in the back seat of his car. The truth be known, alcohol and drugs, and a broken heart probably contributed significantly to that “heart attack”.

Hiram “Hank” Williams was born on September 17, 1923. His father was unable to provide the family any type of consistent income as he was constantly in pain, suffering from injuries incurred after being gassed during World War I. Young Hiram had to find any kind of work he could to contribute his pennies and dimes to the family purse, so the family could hang on and meagerly sustain itself. At age 6, he sold peanuts and shined shoes to help provide another meal.
Hank loved music and a year later, when he was only seven, his mother bought him a second hand guitar for $3.50. A black street performer by the name of Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne taught him to play and by age 16, Hiram (now known as Hank) had already formed his own band, the Drifting Cowboys. He and his group had begun playing on radio station WFSA in Montgomery, Alabama, and before his 16th birthday, Hank’s reputation as an outrageous drinker was well known. What was not well known was that he was born with a spinal defect (diagnosed in his later years as Spinal Bifida) that caused him constant pain, except when he was drinking or taking painkillers.

Unfortunately, the tail of that comet called success burned hot with beautiful women, booze and more money than this very young man knew what to do with. In 1943, he met and married a beautiful gal by the name of Audrey Mae Sheppard. She played standup base well enough to join the band, but she wanted in the worse way to become a singing star, like Hank. Unfortunately, she couldn’t carry a tune in a trash can. She did however play a major role in managing his band and in helping him to meet musical mentor, Fred Rose. It was Rose who engineered the band’s true rise to success, including Hank’s first guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. It was that one guest appearance that helped break Hank out of the Honky-tonk bar circuit and find his natural national audience. From there on, the Hank Williams story was a brilliant white heat until the alcohol and sedatives destroyed his reliability and reputation.

Hank’s greatest hits spawned in those last great years (1947 to 1953) included such greats as: Move It On Over; I’m a Long Gone Daddy; Why Don’t You Love Me; Cold, Cold Heart; Hey Good Lookin’; Jambalaya; Lonesome Whistle; Lonesome Whistle; Honky Tonk Blues; and of course, Your Cheatin’ Heart!

This tribute to Hank Williams, written by Randal Myler and Mark Harelik, moves along very well, incorporates some of William’s best known songs, and provides a truly upbeat evening of music and song, and just plain great entertainment. Michael Butler, who directs this outstanding production, is indeed fortunate to have found a truly superb group of musicians and actors to bring this melodious and tragic story to life. Robert Brewer is quite excellent as Hank Williams, even sounds and looks a bit like him. Megan Smith is superb as Audrey “can’t-sing-a-note” Williams, his wife. Hank’s mother, Mama Lilly, is played very well by Mary Baird, and Zehra Berkman plays the attractive waitress who goes on a picnic in some tall grass with an inebriated and amorous Williams. Tee-Tot, Williams’ musical mentor, played by Clinton Derricks-Carroll, is absolutely excellent. Obviously due to some strong language and adult topics, this is probably not a show for anyone under 12 years of age.

The band, led by musical director Tony Marcus, is worth the price of admission alone. They are pluperfect in every respect, and Tony plays fiddle, mandolin and banjo - - among the best you’ve ever heard. What a sound! I’d go back again just to hear these guys play! The band includes Chuck Ervin, Sam Misner, J. D. Nelson, and of course, Tony Marcus (as Leon), musician and master of many talents.

The memorable set was designed by Melpomene Katakalos, costumes by Melissa Paterson, sound design by Jeff Mockus, and with lighting design by Scott Denison.

Hank Williams: Lost Highway, plays Wednesdays at 7:30, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p/m., with Sunday performances at 2:30 on the 23rd and at 7:30 on the 30th. Performances continue through Saturday, October 30th. Ticket prices range between $14 and $38 per person. Call (925) 943-7469 (SHOW) or visit their website at www.centerREPertory.org . The Dean Lesher Regional Center for the arts, in which this Center Repertory Company produces this play, is located at 1601 Civic Drive, in Walnut Creek.

Looking for love - - try the Onstage Theatre in Pleasant Hill

I received a phone call today from a Walnut Creek Rossmoor Resident who lamented the fact that I was unable to work in a “delightfully funny” comedy that she saw Saturday night at the Onstage Theatre in Pleasant Hill by Norm Foster, entitled, simply “Looking”. While I have not seen this show, I think Norm Foster is a terrific story teller who tells stories in a very funny way, about people who seem very real, people who we can truly relate to. I will try to see this show next week, but in the mean time, I was told I should recommend it very highly, by this lady who goes to a lot of theatre at Onstage.

The story is about the woes of middle-aged dating. The merriment begins when “Andy” (played by Mark Hinds) tells his friend, Matt, that he hasn’t had much luck in the dating scene, so he has put an ad in the personals column of his local newspaper. An attractive woman, Val, responds and the fun begins. Nina, a friend, joins the merriment. Val’s a nurse, Andy’s in the storage business, Nina’s a police officer, and Matt’s a radio morning show host. They’re middle-aged, single and “looking.” Val (played by Babette Bilger) agrees to meet Andy after answering his personal ad in the newspaper, and Nina (June McCue), and Matt (Bill Schneider), are coerced into coming along for support. The result? Norm’s irresistible, true-to-life blend of humanity, romance and laughter ring through! While I haven’t actually seen this show, I have read part of the script on-line, and it appears true to Foster’s typical down to earth blue-collar humor.

This should be a delightful evening of entertainment, so I will pass on the recommendation!

Performances are on Fridays and Saturdays through September 29th, and curtain times are always at 8:30. Tickets range between $12 and $15 with a Thursday special price of $7. There will be one additional Sunday performance on the 23rd at 2:30 p.m. and one remaining Thursday performance at 8 p.m., on the 27th. Call the Schoolhouse Cultural Center (also known as the Onstage Theater) at (925) 944-9006 or purchase tickets at the Theater’s door at 2030 Oak Park Boulevard (at Pleasant Hill Road) in Pleasant Hill.

Sweeny Todd, the Deamon of Fleet Street, mesmerizes audiences in San Francisco

Sweeny Todd’s dark exploits have actually been around the British literary landscape for over one hundred years, appearing first in the late 1840’s in a Victorian Tabloid called the “Penny Dreadful”. The first play about the vengeful barber actually emerged in 1847, but the most notable version, Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, was a musical version created by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, an adaptation of Christopher Bond’s play (written and produced in 1973). The Sondheim and Wheeler musical version took the stage in 1979 and was instantly recognized as a magnum opus.

It wasn’t until nearly 20 years later that a British theater director by the name of John Doyle, was asked to direct Sweeny Todd (in the mid 1990’s) on a tiny stage, and was provided with few financial resources, that a new and innovative style of professional theatre emerged. Doyle had previously worked with the concept, “All Hands On Deck”, which meant everybody was required to do everything to pull the production together. In other words, if this was a musical that required acting, then the musicians would also have to be capable of acting as well.

The show that I saw in San Francisco in the ACT Theatre at 415 Geary Street is brilliant, abbreviated in some small aspects, but superbly cut from similar cloth, but much more austere than the previous “grand” productions. I simply loved it. Macabre and merciless, moody and magnificent, all rolled up into one superb show.

Each of the 10 actors has to play a musical instrument and act at the same time on the same stage. Director Doyle engaged Sarah Travis to assist him with converting a piece designed for 27 instruments into a piece that allows ten actors (who have to stay on stage the entire time) to perform a comparable musical work, to Sondheim’s original extremely complex masterpiece.

The story is about an escaped prisoner, who, as a young barber by the name of Benjamin Barker, was falsely accused, tried, and sentenced to a life in prison for a crime he did not commit. The story begins as the former prisoner returns by ship to England 15 years later, after having escaped from the penal colony at Botany Bay in Australia. The man has changed his name to Sweeny Todd and returns to Fleet Street, to the same commercial flat where his previous barber shop once stood.

In the process he encounters Mrs. Lovett, a pie maker, who occupies the eatery below his old shop. She knows of his unjust prison sentence and recognizes Barker, now known as Todd, and offers to aid him in his quest for survival and revenge.

She tells Todd that his wife died at the hands of judge Turpin and that his daughter has been raised and cared for by the judge, as his ward. Now that the daughter, Johanna, is approaching womanhood, the Judge sees her in an amoral light. Todd hears of the judge’s plan to wed his daughter through a sailor, by the name of Tobias. This is the same young man that he had befriended while shipboard, returning from Australia.

Todd encounters another enemy, a barber named Pirelli, who tries to blackmail him. Todd dispatches him quickly with his silver handled “friend”, his razor, while shaving him. Mrs. Lovett can’t see anything go to waste, so she convinces Todd that they should take advantage of the victim’s remains to fulfill another need, a dire shortage of “meat” needed to plump up her meat pies!

The story is much the same as the Sondheim musical, but in this production, Mrs. Lovett (Broadway sensation Judy Kaye) plays a mean Tuba; Sweeny Todd (David Hess) plays a turbulent trumpet, the young sailor who befriends Todd, Tobias (Edmund Bagnell) plays a sweet violin and clarinet; Todd’s beautiful daughter, Johanna (Lauren Molina) plays a sonorous and sweet cello as well as singing with the voice of an angel. The actor/musician accompaniment actually enhances this production, adding a new dimension and depth.

While this production will probably not change forever the nature of Sweeny Todd, it will forever change the possibilities with which we envision future musicals.

This terrific, thrilling, chilling, “Must See” production has just been extended because of a torrent of ticket sales, for 16 additional performances, through October 14th. Then it will leave on a national tour. Tickets for Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street can be purchased at ACT ticket services at 405 Geary Street, or by calling their box office at (415) 749-2228 or via the ACT website at www.act-sf.org . The ACT (American Conservatory Theatre) is located at 415 Geary Street, about 6 blocks up hill from the Powell Street BART station. Tickets range in price from $30 to $82 each. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., now through the closing date , Sunday, October 14th.