Bad Girls of Broadway provides a tantalizing portrait of Broadway's most brazen and bawdy babes! Soul searing search for answers in San Jose's "Groundswell" and DAE's "Over the River and Through the Woods" takes us on a sentimental journey!

Photo: Alex Ryer and assistant Adam Wooley by Kenny Wardell

Performing next door to Rossmoor in the Del Valle Theatre, Alex Ryer’s “Bad Girls of Broadway” is a delightful show that tells a titillating tale of three of Broadway’s most bawdy and brazen babes, whose outrageous and outspoken talent paved the way for women to enjoy much greater freedom today! In addition, Alex’s award winning show, “Pure Piaf”, the life and music of Edith Piaf, will be playing in repertory fashion in the same theatre. I made mention of this show in a recent article and I was quite frankly shocked that there were only a handful of patrons who had bought tickets to the Friday night performance. I understand that every resident in Rossmoor received a full-color promotion piece in the mail and it was advertised in our newspaper. This is an outstanding, fun-filled show that you should not miss, if you have any appreciation of the three main characters, Mae West, Sophie Tucker and Fanny Brice. In fact, it was so good that I am going back to see the alternating performance of “Pure Piaf”.

My knowledge and appreciation for Mae West blossomed last year following the production of her play, “Sex”, that was performed in the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. I had no idea of what a truly brilliant writer, actress and promotional expert she was until I started doing some research to write my article, after I was blown away by the brilliance demonstrated by her writing skills. Last week I saw a biographical PBS show about Mae West and this show by Alex Ryer was like the frosting on the cake.

I think we have all heard and gotten a kick out of Mae West’s audacious one-liners such as: “I go for two kinds of men, domestic and imported; It isn't what I do, but how I do it. It isn't what I say, but how I say it, and how I look when I do it and say it; Don't keep a man guessing too long - he's sure to find the answer somewhere else; I used to be Snow White, but I drifted; I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it.”

Ryer is a truly outstanding performer who makes her characters come alive. She not only takes on the character’s impersonation, but she acts as narrator, telling the audience a lot about each character’s life and times, what made them unique in the entertainment world, and why we should appreciate their contributions to women’s emancipation from puritanical molding and male dominance. Her characterizations of Fanny Brice and Sophie Tucker are both fun and enlightening as well.

Sure, I remember Baby Snooks (the radio version), but I didn’t realize that Fanny Brice didn’t take on this character that she made famous until she was 40 years old, while in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1934. Fanny Brice was both a brilliant comedienne and heartfelt romantic entertainer in the Follies. She became so loved and revered that the Barbara Streisand movie, “Funny Girl”, became a lasting tribute to her great and lasting love affair with Broadway.

Her characterization and insights into the life and times of Sophie Tucker are equally delightful. Little did I know, that Sophie Tucker, in addition to her role as a comedienne, played a major role in making “women-in-pants” an acceptable image all across America. Sophie was a “full sized woman”, weighing 145 pounds at age 13. She was so large that the burlesque managers required her to do her skits in “blackface” because she was “so big and ugly” that they didn’t expect her to be accepted for herself. When she found herself without any of her makeup when her baggage was misplaced before a performance, she went on stage without the makeup and was a huge hit. She never wore blackface again. She became so great a success in the Ziegfeld Follies with the audiences, that other women in the show refused to be seen on stage with her. She moved on to other Vaudeville venues, traveling to Europe, was a great success in England, made eight movies and became a huge success on radio and eventually on television.

Ryer is a terrific entertainer in her own right, landing the role of “Audrey” in the first national touring show of “Little Shop of Horrors”. She has worked with Imogene Coca and Judy Kaye in the play, “On the Twentieth Century”. She has traveled and performed all over the world, entertaining American soldiers in Europe and garnering many accolades for her outstanding skills as a singer, dancer and actress. I met both her and her husband after the show and was impressed with how gracious and delightful a couple they both are.

Ryer is backed by a superb piano stylist, Emily Fellner, Elijah Samuels (woodwinds) and Peggy Fasing (stringed instruments). In addition, in her skit about Mae West, she is accompanied by an excellent “Guy Friday”, a dresser, prop supplier and gag assistant who is played by Adam Wooley. Adam is a really handsome young man, whose athletic demeanor and good looks adds significantly to Miss “W’s” image as a male attracting magnet . Mae West was known, especially in her later shows in Las Vegas, for having a bevy of buff body builders embracing her every move, but I actually liked Adam’s portrayal as an adoring younger man, much better. To me the image really fit!

This fun-filled show, “Bad Girls of Broadway” and the “Pure Piaf” show will continue in alternating productions in the Del Valle Theatre, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, now through November 29th. “Bad Girls of Broadway” plays November 6th, 13th, 14th, 20th, 21st, 27th and 28th. “Pure Piaf” plays November 8th, 14th, 15th, 21st, 22nd, 28th, and 29th. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., closing on the 29th. Tickets range between $32 (seniors) and $35 for general admission and can be purchased by calling the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts at (925) 943-7469, the Barnes and Noble Book store in Walnut Creek or by going to their website at

Murder and double jeopardy take center stage in Center Repertory Company’s production of “Witness for the Prosecution”!

Agatha Christie’s brilliantly suspenseful award winning dramatic play, “Witness for the Prosecution”, is currently playing in the Margaret Lesher Theatre in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in downtown Walnut Creek. Under the expert direction of Michael Butler, this tightly constructed and intriguing play addresses a murder trial conducted in the “Old Bailey”, a famous British court, where it comes fully to life.

This play was originally written as a short story by Agatha Christie. It was first produced on stage in Nottingham, England in 1953, then moved on to the Winter Garden Theatre in London a month later. This intriguing play details the story of a young married man, Leonard Vole (Alex Moggridge), who befriends a very wealthy older woman, Mrs. French. When Mrs. French is found murdered a couple of months later, Mr. Vole becomes the prime suspect, when it is revealed that Mrs. French had recently changed her will and left the majority of her estate to him. Strong circumstantial evidence also points to Mr. Vole as the perpetrator. Leonard’s wife, Romaine (Carrie Paff), a very cold and calculating woman of European origin, provides his only alibi, telling her husband’s attorney (solicitor), Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Mark Anderson Phillips), that he returned home and was with her precisely when the murder supposedly occurred. Sir Robarts is concerned that the wife of the accused is not likely to provide the greatest of asset to the defense, just because she is his wife. He explains this fact to her. The attorney and his assistant, Jean Mayhew (Valerie Weak), prepare what appears to be a very weak case of defense and begin that defense in court when completely unexpectedly, the accused murderer’s wife is surprisingly called as a witness for the prosecution. The defense team and her husband are stunned!

The remainder of the play has more twists and turns than a “pig’s tail”, and this stunning revelation is the first of several revelations and plot twists that continue to turn this brilliantly written plot into one of the most exciting plays you can possibly imagine.

The acting is perfect in every respect. If you have seen the movie version starring Tyrone Power, Charles Laughton, Elsa Manchester and Marlene Dietrich, dismiss everything you remember, because this director’s vision develops his characters differently. I loved Alex Moggridge’s characterization of the suspected murderer, Leonard Vole. He seems totally unassailable, a simple guy who is caught in a web of circumstance. His excuses and reasons for befriending Mr. French seems totally plausible. Miss Paff’s portrayal of his double-crossing wife, Romaine, is brilliant. Mark Anderson Phillips’s character (Sir Wilfrid Robarts) is totally different than that portrayed by Charles Laughton in the movie, as the character is written totally different in the play version. It works very well in this production. Prosecuting attorney, Mr. Myers (played by Mark Farrell), is simply outstanding. The entire cast is perfectly selected and is directed in excellent fashion by Michael Butler.

The carousel set designed by J.B. Wilson is stunning, well conceived and highly effective. The costumes by Victoria Livingston-Hall are equally well conceived. One of the most effective elements in this production is the lighting design by Scott Denison.

If you enjoy the excellent mystery and suspense created by one of the most prolific mystery writers of our times, Agatha Christie, then by all means, “Witness for the Prosecution” is a must see on your entertainment agenda. This production continues Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m., now through November 21st. Tickets may be secured by calling (925) 943-7469 or visiting their web page at or visiting the ticket office at 1601 Civic drive or the ticket outlet at the Barnes and Noble book store in Walnut Creek.

This week I am bringing you two reviews that will provide you with the opportunity to choose from both ends of the dramatic theatrical spectrum; a delightfully poignant comedy and a soul searing psychological thriller, both calculated to keep you in suspense!

The comedy, written by Joe DiPietro and presented by Diablo Actor’s Ensemble Theatre in Walnut Creek, is entitled “Over the River and Through the Woods”. It takes us on a sentimental journey and asks us to ponder the question, “How much do you owe to those who have loved and cared for you?”

The second is a terrifying thriller, a new heart-stopping suspense drama, “Groundswell”, written by formerly exiled South African apartheid author, Ian Bruce. I would call its mix of historical probabilities, a diabolical intensity that seems to cross between the gripping fear of Stephen King and the touching sensibilities of Athol Fugard. This dramatic play asks you to consider the aftermath and historical convolution of Apartheid disbanded as respects three principal questions. “How do we live together after Apartheid? Where did all the promise and hope go? And last, but not least, who bears responsibility for the sins of the past, and can we move beyond it?” This spell-binding production is being presented in San Jose, at the San Jose Repertory Theatre.

Since “Over the River and Through the Woods” (in downtown Walnut Creek) is just a short drive from Rossmoor, and the most likely to attend from a convenience standpoint, I will use this play as my point of departure.

Nick Cristano (Vince Faso), the 29 year old third generation, single grandson of Italian immigrants has just received the good news that he is being offered a very important promotion by his company, but it will require him to move from his home in Hoboken, New Jersey to Seattle, Washington, a long way from his family ties. Nick is torn by the importance his grandparents place on him being the only member of their younger generation still living in close proximity to them.

His father and mother have moved on to Florida, and his sister has moved away as well. Nick, a marketing executive, still remains in Hoboken, New Jersey, close enough to both sets of his grandparents so that he can have a traditional Italian family dinner with them every Sunday evening. The four grandparents, Aida and Frank (Julie Helms and Sal Russo) and Emma and Nunzio (Pat Parker and John Hutchinson) are the backbone of a family whose concerns for their family have brought them to America and kept them together to provide a sense of stability in a strange land.

“Tengo Famiglia” is voiced repeatedly by Grandfather Nunzio, a phrase which means “keep the family together”, a commonly uttered phrase developed throughout the past as families were forced to migrate from homelands to new lands of opportunity. “Over the River and Through the Woods” is a play in which a young man has to deal with overbearing grandparents who insist on keeping him in New Jersey as they can see no compelling need for him to seek employment or opportunity elsewhere. All he needs to be happy and satisfied, in their eyes, is to meet the proper young lady, get married, have children, and STAY IN HOBOKEN!

The grandparents are delightful and loving characters, and typical of seniors in their advanced ages. Frank is having some driving problems, Nunzio has some health problems he doesn’t want to share with the family members, Aida seeks to solve everything with great home cooked meals and grandma Emma, thinks that finding Nick an attractive and eligible lady friend will make the world right. They all love to talk a lot, loud, and long and are hard to converse with , at least to be allowed to get a word in edgewise in their convoluted discussions.

When Nick finally gets through to them that he has this wonderful opportunity that he feels he cannot pass up, they basically tell him to “get over it, you’re better off here!” However, when he arrives for the next family dinner, he discovers that Grandma Emma has invited the daughter of her bridge partner, an attractive, unattached young woman by the name of Caitlin O’Hara, to join them for dinner. She is placed next to Nick at the dinner table and an interesting family conversation ensues, embarrassing Nick almost to tears. The overbearing effort by the grandparents to make the couple like each other, the private anecdotes and personal stories they share with basically a total stranger (Caitlin), creates a dinner atmosphere that is total disaster as far as Nick is concerned.

The dialogue is smart and witty, poignant, intense and heartfelt. It is a charming example of inappropriate interference by loving grandparents who see nothing wrong with doing whatever they feel is necessary to keep their beloved grandson close to them, there in New Jersey. The dialogue is delightfully quotable with comments such as Emma’s exhortation to Nick, "I want to see you married before I die," to which he replies, "Let me know when you think you're going, and I'll see who I can dig up."

Director Scott Fryer has brought together a superb cast of actors whose acting skills are terrific in every respect. You cannot help but fall in love with each character, from the hapless Nick to the sweetly considerate and understanding Caitlin, and to each of the loving grandparents.
This superb comedy and memorable examination of family relationships is a play similar in many ways to a play by Neil Simon, but unique to this author, Joe DiPietro. I strongly recommend it to families of all ages. It strikes a nostalgic bell in my corner of the ring, bringing with it memories and familiarities I too cherish. “Over the River and Through the Woods” continues Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., through October 25th in the Diablo Actor’s Ensemble Theater at 1345 Locust Street in Walnut Creek. Tickets range between a very reasonable $10 to $25 per person and are available by calling (866) 811-4111 or by going to their website at for more information.

Echo's of Apartheid reverberate in a deadly confrontation, in San Jose Repertory Theater's "Groundswell"!

Over the years I have been delighted by the plays of South African author Athol Fugard, plays that have cried out for change, called out for the end of Apartheid in his homeland. Now there is a new voice on the horizon, a voice that calls out for self-examination and understanding following that country’s departure from Apartheid. That new voice resonates in the brilliant words and understanding exhibited by author Ian Bruce, whose new play, “Groundswell” is taking the theatrical world by storm.

The questions posed earlier of “where have we been, what are we doing now, and how do we live with the realities”, are brought shockingly to the stage by director Kirsten Brandt in San Jose Repertory Theater’s production of “Groundswell”, which opened two weeks ago in San Jose. When author Ian Bruce was interviewed and asked why he was compelled to write “Groundswell” at this time, his answer was: “Apartheid had been our subject matter for such a long time, and we really didn’t know what to make of the changes yet. It took awhile - - the seismic shock had to pass. Slowly, like waking, I think we began to see again that there were still old cracks and there were new ones opening. There was work to be done. One of the things that happens when there is major change is that people lose their bearings, become unsure of their identities.”

How far will men be willing to go to accomplish what they believe is necessary to grab their last chance at a better life; are they willing to commit murder?

Circumstances evolve in the Garnet Lodge, a beachfront guesthouse in a small port town on the west Coast of South Africa where three men meet in a chance encounter that may forever change their lives. The guest house part-time manager, Thami (Dwight Huntsman), and groundskeeper, Johan (Scott Coopwood), are preparing for an off-season guest to arrive for a brief stay in the lodge. When the guest, Smith (Peter Van Norden), a wealthy but retired financial investor and businessman arrives, ostensibly seeking out a little known golf course purportedly located nearby, he is disappointed do discover it does not actually exist.

Thami is a hard working black South African who has a good job and is well respected by the Guest house’s owners, as they have entrusted the facility to him while they have returned to their home in Cape Town after the close of the tourist season. Thami’s father died mysteriously while working in the diamond mines nearby and Thami has grown up to overcome his lack of education and is transitioning into a social climate which now allows blacks to hold jobs previously only available to whites. He has taken a poorly paying but somewhat secure job, seeking to improve his financial lot to better support his wife and children who are living in poverty elsewhere.

He has a part time groundskeeper and co-worker, Johan, whom he has befriended and who is trying to overcome his financial difficulties precipitated by a previous criminal conviction as a police officer, whose lack of judgment cost a black man his life, unnecessarily.

South Africa is a country made wealthy by the closely regulated and tightly controlled diamond industry. Poor people could either steal diamonds while working for the mines or pickup alluvial diamonds on the beaches and riverbanks. Under the government’s control, it became illegal pick up these naturally deposited diamonds, unless one had purchased a concession from the government to search for them in a specific “concession” areas. While this was definitely a poor-man’s opportunity to find personal wealth, a number of people who had purchased these newly granted concessions in recent times had gotten “lucky”. Some had found a significant alluvial diamond which changed their lives. Both Thami and Johan have been dreaming for months of finding a way to raise the capital necessary to purchase one of the few remaining concessions before they are all bought up.

When Johan, discovers that this newly arrived guest is a businessman, apparently of significant wealth, he plots to engage Smith in becoming a partner with them in just such a government-run diamond concession. Johan convinces Thami that this is their last best chance for acquiring the financial means to their dream and Thami reluctantly goes along.

When an evening of dinner and drinking and an enrollment attempt fails to persuade Smith to join financially in their venture, the evening turns ugly and this pursuit of a partner turns into a pervasive persuasive attempt at highhanded robbery. Will they prevail or perish? You will have to see this highly suspenseful, chilling and thrilling play to discover its outcome.
Each character has a personal history that is seared by the heat and heart of the Apartheid system. Their personal experiences have brought them indelibly to this poignant place in history.

Normally, during any production, I am busy throughout the course of the play taking notes to help me remember significant points. Not so with this play, this production. After the first fifteen minutes I was so enthralled, so riveted by the outstanding acting and depth of emotional involvement, that my notes never exceeded two sentences in the play’s entirety.
The set designed by John Iacovelli is breath-taking! The lighting created by David Lee Cuthbert and the costumes designed by Maggie Morgan work exceedingly well.

“Groundswell”, continues Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m., Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Saturdays at 3pm and on Sundays at 2 p.m., continuing now through Sunday, November 8th. The theatre is located near San Jose State University, at 101 Paseo de San Antonio, between 3rd and 4th streets, one half block north of San Carlos street. There is a large parking garage at the corner of San Carlos street and 4th street that is both convenient and reasonably priced (remember to take your ticket with you as you have to pay before you get your car down to the exit gate). I highly recommend the 60 minute drive to San Jose to see this show. Call (408) 367-7255 for ticket and reservation information, or visit their website at or visit the theatre box office at #101 Paseo de San Antonio to purchase tickets. Tickets range in price between $35 and $62, depending on performance date and seat location in the theatre. If you like thrillers, this is a terrific show and now's the time to go!