Broadway Bound & Oliver brighten up your East Bay options!

There are two great shows in Walnut Creek this week, both in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts. The Contra Costa Musical Theatre is presenting the grand musical about orphans in England in the 19th century and most particularly a little guy named “Oliver” in the Hofmann Theatre. At the same time, like a prophetic flight of the Phoenix from his ashes, the Onstage Theatre Company is proving it still has a bright light of theatrical energy that continues to illuminate the theatrical scene with a very good production of Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound” in the Knight’s Stage III Theatre.

Neil Simon was born in the Bronx, New York City on the 4th of July, 1927. Little did anyone realize that this event would usher into the theatrical world a tremendous writer, a writer whose career would light up stages around the world, in a sense, releasing theatrical fireworks that would be repeated again and again. Overall, he has garnered seventeen Tony nominations and won three. He also won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for “Lost in Yonkers”.

After attending the New York University and the University of Denver, he was employed briefly as a mailroom clerk for Warner Brothers in their Manhattan office. He and his brother Danny Simon, were inspired to write comedy sketches for radio and television. In the 1950’s they caught the attention of Sid Ceasar when they wrote reviews for Camp Tiniment in the “Poconos” in Pennsylvania. Sid hired them to join his comedy writing team for his CBS show called “Your Show of Shows”, starring Sid Ceasar and Imogene Coca. His work on that show led to two Emmy Awards, which in turn led him and his brother to Phil Silvers, who hired themto write for the “Sergeant Bilko” show in 1959.

I have written and reviewed many of Neil Simon’s shows that I have loved and eagerly enjoyed again and again, including, “The Odd Couple”, Barefoot in the Park”, and the “Eugene Trilogy”. Simon wrote a semi-autobiographical account of his growing up and coming of age in three plays, also known as the “Eugene Trilogy”, which included “The Brighton Beach Memoirs”, “Biloxi Blues” and “Broadway Bound”, the latter being the show I am reviewing today.

Director Helen Means has brought back several of her regular actors in addition to two terrific young men who play brothers Eugene (played by Nathan Smith) and Stanley (played by Joseph Hirsch). This story chronicles life in a middle class Jewish home in the late 1940’s where two young men aspire to become comedy writers. Their parents’ relationship is falling apart as they discover that their father, Jack (played by Wayne McRice), has been cheating on his wife, Kate (played by Babette Bilger).

The immediate family also includes Kate’s father, Ben (played by Barry Hunau), a non-working socialist who lives to criticize capitalism and who also provides the material for most of the humor in this play. Ben is a humorous, insightful and yet slightly sad character, living with his less successful son-in-law, Jack, and his daughter, Kate.

Kate’s sister, Blanche, is played by Candice Carter. Blanche has married a very wealthy and kindly gentleman who is a very successful entrepreneur in the clothing industry. Blanch and her husband live in an upscale neighborhood and take care of Blanche’s mother. Even though they have requested Ben come and live with them, or at least vacation with them in Florida, Ben, the confirmed socialist, cannot envision himself living a life of ease in the home of a very successful capitalist. Blanche wears furs, drives a Cadillac and rarely wants for nothing. Yet still, she is a very thoughtful, loving and caring sister.

The two boys’ mother, Kate, is a typical homebody, dedicated to taking care of her family and loyal to her husband, although at odds for approximately a year by an unspoken realization that her husband has been having a secret affair. It is in the midst of this play that the dark side of this relationship finally erupts and decisions are made that will affect the future of this family, as a family.

While all of this is going on, the two boys, Eugene and Stanley, suffer the pangs and excitement of trying to write their first break-through comedy skit. Stanley met a very well known comedy show star in an elevator and is invited to present one of his “skits” that he has bragged about, at a meeting the following morning. The truth is that while they have talked about collaborating in writing a script for a radio show, they have never actually done so. In one night’s marathon writing session in an attempt to create a funny skit, they write and re-write, cajole, and confront each other, trying to bring it all together before they kill each other in the chaotic brainstorming session.

The brothers are truly terrific in their dramatization and comedic delivery, bringing this funny, heartwarming and yet poignant play to life. Each and every actor proves his metal and brings the audience an experience of caring about a family in trouble, but with hope on the horizon.

The scenic design by Diane McRice is really quite excellent and the lighting by Randall Nott enhances the mood and isolates the characters perfectly, especially to emphasize Eugene’s role as narrator. Costumes by C.C. Cardin worked very well. Helen Means has delivered a terrific story in excellent fashion with this production.

“Broadway Bound” is bound to please and it continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8:15 p.m., with matinees on two Sundays, October 25th and November 1st at 2:15 p.m., with an evening performance on Thursday, October 29th at 8:15 p.m., as well. This very humorous and engaging play continues through, Sunday, November 1st. Call the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts at 943-7469 for reservations.

Oliver is bigger and better than ever in CCMT's brilliant production in Walnut Creek!

“Oliver!” is back in all its pathos, humor, warmth and wonderful songs in Contra Costa Musical Theater’s (CCMT) current delightful production in the Hofmann Theatre in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts. It has been 20 years since CCMT has produced this show, but this renewal is especially enjoyable as it seems to be even lighter and more fun-filled under Joel Roster’s direction and more artistically beautiful with Kelly Tighe’s outstanding set design.

“Oliver!” was the first musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens’ novel, “Oliver Twist”, to be a financial and meteoric hit. Lionel Bart wrote the music and lyrics for his stage production and it premiered in London in 1960, moved to Broadway in 1963 and was made into a movie in 1968.

“Oliver!” relives the tale of an orphan who commands attention in a workhouse for orphans when he stands up to authority and demands an extra portion of porridge! Subsequently sold illegally into servitude by the workhouse overseer, Mr. Bumble, to a mortician, Oliver again rebels and runs away. He subsequently lands in London and connects with “The Artful Dodger”, a street smart boy who works as a pickpocket in the employ of one crooked host called “Fagan”. Fagan provides a home for many similar runaways and orphans whom he trains as little thieves in exchange for food and shelter. Fagan has transitioned from a very evil and despicable Jewish character in the original novel to a more comedic character in current characterizations.

Oliver is caught by the police when he tries to “lift” a gentleman’s personal property, and is subsequently released to the gentleman and made his ward for a short time. As he is on his way to return books to the library for his benefactor, he is spotted by Fagan’s gang and is kidnapped and returned to Fagan. Fagan and his cohorts fear that Oliver will “rat”, or spill the beans on their criminal activities!

There are many sterling characters in this show and two of the earlier characters, Mr Bumble (Danny Cozart) and the Widow Corney (Melinda Meeng), were show stoppers on the adult actors side. Patrick Michael Dukeman played Fagin with an air of comedic brilliance that lit up the stage. Another actor (Derek Travis Collard) took two small parts, that of the mortician and Dr. Grimwig, and turned them into a work of art! Andrew Shaw was perfectly cast as the villainous Bill Sykes. Jenifer Stark has a lovely voice and portrays the heroine, Nancy! Thirteen year-old Ian Shoemaker has a sweet and beautiful voice and he does well as Oliver. Grant Lowenstein was the real scene stealer, the most totally outstanding character in the entire show who plays “the Artful Dodger”! This young man was simply over the top, pluperfect, brilliant! I can’t begin to give kudos to everyone who deserved them, but there many who were stellar performers that delivered a truly outstanding experience.

The story plays heavily of the lives of the downtrodden and poor and criminal elements in London in Charles Dicken’s time. The musical converts this grim Elizabethan tale into a light-hearted adventure that is grandly mixed with excellent and memorable songs that will continue to echo in your memory for days after you see this production. Director Joel Roster has indeed made this a more inviting production and with the collaboration of choreographer Emily Garcia and musical director Mark Hanson, they bring a superb vitality to the show. Roster has allowed a lot of very young actors to portray Fagan’s gang. These youngsters were charming little devils with great voices, members of the Pacific Boychoir Academy, and they made up a significant portion of the young stars in this show.

Tickets for “Oliver!”, which range in price between $40 to $45 can be obtained by calling 943-7469 (SHOW) or by visiting the Lesher web site at or purchased in person at the Lesher Center for the Arts Ticket Office at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek. This show continues Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays a 8 p.m., with Sunday performances at 2 p.m., now through November 7th.

Across the Bay, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" song writers and songstylists Ashford and Simpson are appearing at the Rrazz Room!

Other entertainment happenings around the bay include the appearance of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who were recording stars known professionally as Ashford and Simpson, beginning in 1964. There big break began in 1966 with Ray Charles major hit, “Let’s Go Get Stoned”, which led to a contract with Motown records, where they penned rhythm and blues hits including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Your Precious Love”. Between 1973 and 1981 (now married) they worked together to release a dozen albums. Hardly a year goes by without a prominent or notable recording artist reviving one of Ashford and Simpson’s classics. They will be performing at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko at 220 Mason Street in San Francisco between November 3rd and 15th, at 8 p.m. weekdays and at 7 p.m., on Sundays and on November 14th, two shows, one at 7 and the other at 9:30 p.m.. Tickets range in price between $47.50 and $55. Call (866) 468-3399 or visit the website at for reservations or additional information.

The San Francisco Symphony concerts series entertains both a the Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco and the Flint Center in Cupertino!

The San Francisco Symphony (SFS), led by Conductor Osmo Vänskä, will conduct two weeks of concerts between October 22nd and 31st. These concerts will feature two works by living composers, with John Adams’ Slonimsky’s Earbox and the first SFS performances of Aulis Sallinen’s Symphony No. 1. Pianist Antti Siirala will perform Tchaikovskys Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-Flat minor in Davies Symphony Hall October 22-24th.

Experience two sides of Beethoven: the Classical symphonist and the passionate dramatist as Vänskä leads the SFS and violinist Vadim Repin in Sebelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor on Wednesday, October 28th at 8 p.m., and Friday, October 30th at 6:30 p.m., in Davies Hall and on Saturday the 31st, at 8 p.m. at the Flint Center in Cupertino. The program will also include Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen’s Symphony No. 1, Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and Beethoven’s Symphony no 8 in F-major.

Finnish Conductor Osmo Vänskä is the Music Director of the Minnesota Orchestra. He has recorded the complete Beethoven symphonies with the Orchestra for the Swedish BIS label, with each album in the 5 disk project receiving superlative praise nationally and internationally, and the recording of the Ninth Symphony receiving a Grammy nomination.

Born in Helsinki in 1979, Finnish pianist Antti Siirala made his orchestral debut at the age of seven and won the Juvenalia Chamber Music Competition at the age of thirteen. Mr. Siirala studied at the Sibelius Academy with Matti Raekallio and Ivari Ilja, and has also worked with Mitsuko Uchida and Murray Perahia. In concert, Mr. Siirala has played under conductors such as Paavo Berglund, Thierry Fischer, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Osmo Vänskä, and he makes his San Francisco Symphony debut with this week’s performances.

The Davis Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. The Flint Center is located on the DeAnza College Campus in Cupertino. Tickets range between $15 and $135 and are available by calling SFS ticket Services at (415) 864-6000 or by going on line to for more information.