"Pure Piaf" and "As You Like It" highlight this week's reviews in the East Bay!

This week’s entertainment notes include two local theatrical productions and information about upcoming shows that include the sounds of the “Tex Beneke Big Band”, “Music for Families” at the San Francisco Symphony, and the “Smuin Christmas Ballet, 2009 Edition.”
Two shows this week are local gold, Butterfield 8’s production of “As You Like It” at Cue Productions in Concord and Alex Ryer’s “Pure Piaf” at the Del Valle Theatre in Walnut Creek.

I reported very favorably last week on Alex Ryer’s “Bad Girls of Broadway” and mentioned that she was also performing in an award winning show entitled “Pure Piaf” that was running during the same time span, in the same theatre, on alternate dates. I had the pleasure of seeing “Pure Piaf” this past weekend, and I strongly encourage you to go and see this show, if you have not already. Ryer is an extremely talented lady who captures the essence of Edith Piaf quite nicely.

As a testament to her charm and acting skills, a delightful gentleman and his lady friend, Bert Steinberg and Lucia Brandon, sat in the row in front of Karen and I and I could tell by their reaction that they were quite excited by her performance. After the show was over, I cornered Mr. Steinberg and Ms. Brandon and asked them for their opinion of the show, which they seemed glad to share with me. It turns out that Bert saw Ms. Piaf perform on two different occasions in New York, in Manhattan, at the famous Club Versailles in the mid-forties. He treasures his memories of this short lived star of stage and radio who hit her apex in the 40’s and 50’s. Bert said he has just about every album and every song she ever made (I might be exaggerating a little on this), and said that on his computer at home he has two photographs, one of his lady friend, Lucia Brandon, and the other of Edith Piaf. He raved about how wonderful Ryer’s performance was and how very similar her voice was to that of the real Ms. Piaf. He thought Ms. Ryer’s show was simply terrific. He waited around after the show hoping to see the actress and was treated to a personal meeting with her. A very cordial greeting and inquisitive discussion ensued between Alex Ryer and Mr. Steinberg. He said he was glad he had driven all the way to Walnut Creek from his home in San Francisco.

I likewise remember the songs made great by Ms. Piaf. Songs such as “La Vie En Rose”, “Milord”, “Mon Dieu”, and “Autum Leaves”, just to name a few. While I never saw Ms Piaf personally, I certainly do remember her voice and song stylings. While Ms. Ryer has certainly captured the plaintive torch style, the sadness and the poignancy in her portrayal of Ms. Piaf, she lacks both the petite frame and the extreme vibrato for which Piaf was also well known. This does not matter one iota, as the re-telling of Piaf’s moving and tragic story will keep you captivated throughout the show, from the dark beginning to a touching ending, that came much too soon.

Edith Piaf was born Edith Giovanna Gassion in Belleville, Paris. With a height of only 4’8”, she became known as La Môme Piaf, "the waif sparrow" -- an apt description for someone who projected a seemingly contradictory air of fragile toughness. Similar to Billie Holiday, Ms. Piaf overcame a very grim childhood (a story so painfully true that could have been written by Charles Dickens), to eventually find great success, becoming perhaps the most popular singing star in all of France. Her dark torch songs somehow projected an inner strength instead of self-pity. Besides romance, she sang about sex, death and drug addiction in a straightforward fashion that still seems shocking even in these modern times. Many of her songs were banned from the radio because of her strait forward treatment of very controversial subject matter. She rose above great criticism for her bohemian lifestyle and songs laced with “dirty talk”. However, the more outrageous she became, the greater her star of success shown throughout the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Ms. Ryer paints a poignant picture, a graphic tale that you will remember for a very long time.

If you at any time in your life enjoyed the plaintive songs of Edith Piaf, then this show is an absolute must for you! Alex Ryer is truly a superb performer who delivers an accurate and moving tribute to the memory of Ms. Piaf, a legend in her own time.

The musicians who accompany Ms. Ryer, add significantly to both the story telling aspect and setting the mood of the Paris street and nightclub scene for the audience. The musicians include Peggy Fasing (violin), Emily Fellner (music director, accordionist, and piano), Jacob Johnson (base and guitar), Alex Roitman (accordion) and Elijah Samuels (woodwinds).
“Pure Piaf and Bad Girls of Broadway”, will continue to entertain in the Del Valle Theatre, at 1963 Tice Valley Blvd., Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, now through November 29th. “Bad Girls of Broadway” plays November 20th, 21st, 27th and 28th. “Pure Piaf” plays November, 21st, 22nd, 28th, and 29th. The 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 http://www.lesherartscenter.org/.

“As You Like It” opens in Concord and garners standing applause.

Every once in a while, I see a theatrical production that is exceedingly strong, a production that seems as though it is in a venue, where it doesn’t belong. I have been reporting on a number of fun little shows at Cue Productions in Concord. This venue has the air of a nightclub trying to go upscale, providing near professional level entertainment at a more than reasonable cost to the masses. Artistic director John Butterfield, creator of the Butterfield 8 Theatre, is a master choreographer, actor, set builder, costumer, dancer and theatrical director, who is trying to bring upscale theater to blue collar America, at a price they can afford. John resorts to a production design that resonates of the more simple theatrical styles employed in William Shakespeare’s own time, honest, very basic and down-to- earth, counting on the audience’s imagination to bring the story to fruition. This basic style of theatre does not employ grand set design and expensive costumes to enthrall you. It truly depends upon the actors’ skills to make Shakespeare’s archaic words come to life, to dispel the confusion and to make clear the author’s intent. In one sense, Butterfield has made the play shorter and unique by substituting his own fanciful dance choreography to introduce forest guides, in place of many of the songs written by Thomas Morley, songs that are quite popular in the more traditional productions. However, when space is at such a premium in such a small venue, eliminating the need for musical accompaniment simplifies production stratagems. Such is the case with this most entertaining production. Director Butterfield has selected a cast that owns this story and brings it beautifully to life, in a more simple fashion which I am sure will captivate you, unless you are a purist as respects Shakespearean productions!

This past week the company opened with Shakespeare’s lightly comic story entitled “As You Like It”, a tale of two’s, two pairs of brothers and two cousins whose destinies spin down a perilous path. Fortunately, as it is with whirlpools, not everything is drawn downward to death and destruction; sometimes those caught in the rapidly circling currents are unexpectedly thrown out of the path of destruction by strange twists of fate, and so it is with this masterful comic tale by William Shakespeare.

In many ways the story is a contrast between life at court and life in the country. Paramount to this story is the tale of two brothers raised in a courtly setting. The brothers quarrel and one, Fredrick, seeks power and prestige and control. Through some means not described in this play, he gains control of their family lands and subjects. After doing so, he bans his brother from their little kingdom, which has been assumed by later-day scholars to be in an area near the forest of Ardennes (called Arden in the play), near Warwickshire and the Cotswolds.

Donald Hardy plays both of the twin brothers, first, the Duke, who is living in exile in the Forest of Arden and his estranged brother, Frederick, who has wrestled control of their lands away from the Duke and sent him into exile. Donald is quite excellent in everything I have seen him attempt, but he is even more successful in his portrayal of the dual characters, making you believe is he is really a set of twins. Fredrick’s daughter Celia (played by Daniela Quinones), is practically inseparable from her cousin, Rosalind (played by Meggy Hai Trang), the daughter of the banished Duke. Rosalind has been allowed to remain in the courtly environment, due in large part to her close sister-like relationship with Celia.

The second set of brothers, Orlando (played by Peter J. McArthur) and Oliver (played by Nick Wong), are at each other’s throats, due in large part to the custom of the time, of the older brother (Oliver) being in charge of the family inheritance and in control of the educational and financial fate of his younger brother, Orlando. Orlando greatly resents his older brother’s treatment of him. The sibling rivalry becomes so severe that the older brother encourages a wrestler, Charles, (who is engaged to compete in a match with Orlando), to do whatever is necessary to rid him of his brother, permanently!

The match occurs and Orlando wins the match, but Fredrick is inflamed by his wrestler’s defeat, by his nephew. To make matters worse, Rosalind falls in love with the lusty and handsome Orlando and she, to the anger of Fredrick, becomes an additional pain in his side.
Plans are overheard which reveal that Orlando will be murdered if he should remain in his uncle’s court. Fredrick’s ire encompasses his niece’s presence in the court and he banishes Rosalind out of his Dukedom as well, over his daughter’s strenuous objections. Rather than be separated by banishment, both young ladies escape their host’s wrath together by sneaking away and taking refuge in the forest of Arden. Rosalind disguises herself as a young man to make her more difficult to find, should the angry Fredrick try to track her and Celia down.
Eventually, just about everybody ends up in the forest. The lovers play a game of cat and mouse and eventually the imperiled subjects, escape the deathly pull of the whirlpool’s vortex. The story is delightfully funny and the entire cast will engage your entertainment senses. This play is for the most part very silly and a lot of fun, a great way to spend an evening!

“As You Like It” plays Fridays and Saturdays, at 8 p.m., with additional performances on Sunday the 22nd of November at 3 p.m., and on Thursday, December 3rd at 8 p.m., at Cue Productions Live, located at 1835 Colfax Street in Concord. Tickets are only $12 for seniors and $18 for general admission. Tickets may be purchased at the door and there is usually plenty of parking on the streets nearby. You may call (925) 708-5074 or (510) 282-6174 for additional information. I usually bring a tush-cushion as the seating is not very comfortable for my old derriere.

While looking into my entertainment notebook I find several events and shows that you will want to be aware of:

The Smuin Ballet will be performing “The Christmas Ballet, 2009 Edition” in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek on Friday the 27th, and Saturday the 28th of November at 8 p.m. for two, one evening performances. The program will move on to Carmel, Mountain View and San Francisco in December, after the Walnut Creek performance. You may secure tickets by calling 943-7469 or by going on line to http://www.dlrca.org/ for more information.
Tex Beneke Orchestra returns to Livermore by popular demand!

The Bankhead Theater at 2400 First Street in Livermore is bringing back the Big Band sound this coming Friday evening with a musical salute to the 30’s and 40’s as the Beneke Band plays some of the best big band music of this era. The Tex Beneke Band has been playing the music of such legends as Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey for many years. As the most popular member of Miller’s pre-World War II orchestra, featured on songs such as the Chattanooga Choo Choo and Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree, Beneke became a major fixture in this popular dance band era. You can revel in memories of the sweet and sonorous sounds of the famous song stylist of the 40’s and 50’s, with the Ink Spots, who will be appearing with the band as well.

“Swinging with the Big Band” will appear for this one night performance only, on Friday night, November 20th at 8 p.m.. Tickets, which range in cost from $33 to $56 can be secured by calling (925) 373-6800 or by visiting the Livermore Performing Arts Center at http://www.livermoreperformingarts.org/.

“Music for Families” is to be introduced by the San Francisco Symphony!
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, if you enjoy the Symphony, then you should know that the symphony will kick off their Music for Families series on this coming Saturday, November 21st at 2 p.m., with the first of four concerts in the Davies Symphony Hall at 201 Van Ness Ave, in San Francisco. These concerts are designed to introduce children and families to different aspects of the orchestra and the world of live orchestral music. SFS resident conductor Edwin Outwater will lead the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall in on this date.
What do a bear, a hen and a clock have in common? They are nicknames for different pieces of music by Franz Joseph Haydn, one of the most famous conductors in Classical music! The symphony will play all kinds of music, including wonderful pieces called “symphonies.” Through this concert you will learn why Haydn is called the Father of Symphony.

Tickets and additional information may be secured through the SFS Box Office at (415) 864-6000, or by going on line and visiting their web site at http://www.sfsymphony.org/ . Tickets range in cost between $15-$56 for adults and $7.50 to $28 for ages 17 and under.