Ginger Rogers, her life and times are remembered in San Jose and Sister Robert Anne leads a class in the art of Cabaret performance in Martinez! A broad diversity of entertainment opportunities open for you this week!

First of all, this week’s reviews take us to the Willows Theatre in Martinez, to explore the off-beat world of Author Dan Goggin’s Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class. The second review takes us to the San Jose Repertory Theatre to reflect on and to immerse ourselves in the theatrical atmosphere surrounding the life and times of Fred Astaire’s very good friend, highly acclaimed dancing partner and seminal Hollywood actress, Ginger Rogers in “Backwards in High Heels”.

“Sister Robert Anne”, the celebrated street-wise Nunsense “bad girl”, who resides in the Mount St. Helen’s Catholic School of Hoboken, New Jersey, is back again in this new show. Sister Robert Anne (Deborah Del Mastro) has come home to the Willows Theater to conduct a educational program approved by the Mother Superior, a program which illuminates the fine art of “Cabaret” performing for the general populace.

I know that a lot of our East Bay residents are familiar with the litany of shows penned by Dan Goggins about a group of well-meaning but occasionally irreverent nuns who poke fun at Catholicism with their tongues in cheek, through various evolutions of the Nunsense Nuns. Karen and I were first baptized with the laughing waters shared by the Willows Theatre Company with the first Nunsense production in a converted bowling alley venue in Concord somewhere around 1986 or 1987. Over the ensuing years, following rave reviews by critics across the nation, Goggins wrote more wonderful and even wackier adventures for the nutty little nuns from the Mount St Helens School in Hoboken, New Jersey. Next came Nunsense 2: The Second Coming, (that starred such notable actresses as Rue MClanahan). Next Goggins decided to go Country style with Nunsense 3, the Jamboree (which was at one time recorded for television in the famous Grand Old Opry itself, starring Vicki Lawrence). Then along came Nuncrackers: the Nunsense Christmas Musical in 1998; Meshuggah-Nuns: The Ecumenical Nunsense followed in 2002; in 2005, Nunsensations: The Nunsense Vegas Review slipped in; and most recently Nunset Boulevard: the Nunsense Hollywood Bowl show and finally, this past week the West Coast Premier of Goggin’s latest triumph, found an exuberant audience in the little Willow’s Campbell Cabaret Theatre with Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class.

For me, a non-catholic, public school educated type guy, most of the heavily ingrained Catholic educational experience jokes were definitely flying way out over my head. I’ve heard much about real life Catholic “sisters” teaching church concepts and doctrine by judiciously applying the golden rule (a wooden or brass 12 to 16 inch ruler which stood guard on the Sisters’ desk; AKA a religious device dedicated to assuring silence and absolute compliance). If you were raised a Catholic, more importantly a survivor of a Catholic education, you probably laughed more than anyone else in the audience, because the insider jokes really brought home lots of memories.

When and wherever the Brooklyn street-wise character of Sister Robert Anne arose in earlier Nunsense shows, she was always trying to garner the spotlight to share her love of stage and theatrical performance with the audience. In this show, she has full license to do it all, anything that lifts up men’s and women’s spirits and is in good keeping with church precepts. However, Sister Robert Anne seems to have a pretty broad interpretation or grasp of church doctrine, as it relates to music and Glory to God!

While many of the Nunsense shows are little more that an excuse to allow the Sisters to engage in rather bizarre fund raising activities for their order, activities that seem to me totally implausible to Catholicism, these activities have provided material to keep the Nunsense entertainment production train on course - - forever! Under the excellent direction of author Dan Goggins, this show is just as implausible as many of the earlier ones, but it is fully satisfying! Further, when you have a professional actress and natural cabaret performer of the caliber of Deborah Del Mastro, you have a really solid reason to go and enjoy an evening of outlandish scripting but at the same time, plausible information about becoming a Cabaret performer, if you had any inclination to do so. Ms. Del Mastro is a brilliantly funny, articulate and intelligent stage-savvy performer who absolutely captivates the audience, and knows full well of what she speaks! The musical director, Kim Vetterli, also known in this production as "Kimberly Anne, The Postulate", provides the musical accompanyment for this delightful show in addition to her sparkling personality being melded into several skits with Miss Mastro. What a great addition, live music, perfectly performed!

The songs that are used as the singing examples in the Cabaret classroom, have been taken from a broad range of the earlier Nunsense shows previously mentioned. Songs such as “Welcome, Bienvenue”, “I’ll Find a Song to Sing”, “Playing Second Fiddle” and “Growing Up Catholic” are representative of the type of songs included. Three primary questions guide this class through the evening’s entertainment and education. First the class asks what are you going to sing; second, what are you going to wear; and finally, what is a set-up and how is it valuable to your show’s continuity?
This fun-filled evening was raucously approved by the audience who joined in the singing, the question and answer period, and three members of the audience even joined the “good sister” on stage to help her demonstrate how easy it can be (in the right circumstance) to get up on stage and participate in the entertainment process.

Sister Robert Anne’s Cabaret Class will continue Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Wednesdays at 3:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m., and on Sundays at 3 p.m., now thorugh January 16th. Tickets range in price between @22 and $32 with discounts for students and seniors (65+) and they can be purchased by calling 798-1300 or by visiting the company’s website at . The Campbell Theatre box office is located at 115 Tarantino Drive in Martinez and the theater is located at 636 Ward Street in downtown Martinez.

The life and times of Ginger Rogers are remembered in San Jose Repertory Theater's "Backwards in High Heels"!

Now, let’s turn around and go the other direction, this time, to the beautiful San Jose Repertory Theatre in downtown San Jose, to take in the delightfully funny and for the most part, memorable production of this entertaining look back at the musical path followed by a great dancer and entertainer, Ginger Rogers. Backwards in High Heels takes a look at the long career of this very talented lady, from the time she entered a Charleston dance contest when the traveling act of Eddie Foy traveled to Fort Worth Texas and needed a quick stand-in.

The musical takes us down the Rogers road, through her numerous marriages, beginning at age 17, her years in vaudeville, Broadway tours, introduction to and relationship with famous dancer Fred Astaire and a long list of movies, both as a dancer and serious actress. Miss Rogers was the consummate professional, a savvy money manager and contract negotiator, eventually making her one of the most highly paid female entertainers in Hollywood or on the professional stage anywhere. In 1941 she won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her starring role in the 1940’s production of “Kitty Foyle”. In the mid -50’s her film career declined as parts for older actresses became more difficult to secure, that is until she took on the part of Dolly Levi in the highly successful “Hello Dolly” on Broadway in 1965. Once again Ms. Rogers met with some very popular and favorable critical reviews. Her vignette role in the 1987 production of “Hotel” was her final screen appearance as an actress.

This musical is a very fast moving and employs the talents of some truly outstanding performers starting with the very talented Anna Aimee White (Ginger Rogers), who is quite unique in that she is an excellent actress, superb dancer and delivers her songs with a clear and beautiful voice. I am sure the producers of this show had to look far and wide to find a talent as outstanding as this lovely lady.

Heather Lee plays with excellent and touching diversity, Ginger Rogers’ mother, Lela. While there are many characters in this story, basically, they are played by only four other multitalented performers. Christianne Tisdale plays a plethora of female characters so well that I had to keep looking back at my program to make sure that they were all done by this one really special talent. When she played the parts of Ethel Merman, Katherine Hepburn, Betty Davis or Marlene Dietrich or anyone else, you knew immediately who she was imitating. This lady can do it all: dance, sing and act! On the male support side, Matthew La Banca does a fair representation of Fred Astaire, but not convincing. Benjie Randall and James Patterson play many supporting characters, each performing very well both as dancers, singers and actors.

The show is a very ambitious attempt to do justice to one of the truly great female talents on stage or the silver screen, but in some respects makes hokey what should have been grand. This becomes more of a love story about the relationship between Ginger and her stage-mother Lela, than a story about the woman most of us remember. I think it was almost too much to ask, in one musical, to portray the depth and breadth of this woman’s life, loves, successes and failures. I did enjoy learning about her determination and pluck, especially in her negotiation skills. Apparently it was from one of her negotiating discussions with a major film CEO that she is believed to have told him that she should be entitled to earn more income when dancing with Astaire, because she did the same things he did, but “she did it backwards and in high heels”!

Many of us have heard a great deal about Fred Astaire and his bulldog approach to dancing routines and rehearsals, so often lengthy, so exhausting and grueling to his dancing partners, that many were left with their feet bleeding. This portrayal of Astaire left me scratching my head asking where did they come up with this nice but milk-toasty Astaire. The real Astaire I loved and remembered just wasn’t there. Plus, in this story line, he seems to portray such an insignificant part of Rodger’s professional persona, nothing more than a “now you see him, now your don’t” flash back. In my eyes, my most vivid memories of Ginger Rogers were connected with Fred Astaire, but this miniscule portrayal of Astaire was very disappointing.

For the most part I enjoyed the overall production, the acting, dancing and singing skills of the talented cast. I suspect my disappointment with the Fred Astaire vignette came more from the limited Astaire inclusion and portrayal through the script writing, rather than from the actual portrayal of his character.

"Backwards in High Heels" continues through this week only! Performances are on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evening at 8 p.m., with a matinee on Thursday at 11 a.m., Saturday at 3 p.m., and closing on Sunday the 19th at 2 p.m.. The tickets range between $35 and $74 each. Seniors get a $6 reduction in normal ticket prices. Call (408) 367-7255 for reservations or visit their web site at for additional information. The San Jose Repertory Theatre is a beautiful facility, easy to reach and always rewarding. The San Jose Repertory Company Theatre is located at 101 Paseo de San Antonio, between 2nd and 3rd Streets, one block north of East San Carlos Street. There is multi-storied public parking structure at the corner of East San Carlos Street, between 2nd and 3rd streets. Also, right now, all the Christmas lights are on in San Jose and there is a big Christmas in the Park celebration continues with all kinds of Christmas related displays, carnival rides and goodies in the San Jose Caesar Chavez Park just two blocks away from the Theater. This event continues through January 1st.

Marley's Ghost (Paul Plain) Photo credit: Jay Yamada

This week, the first review is “Scrooge”, the musical, definitely a Christmas specific show, but the other two, “Shrek, the Musical”, which opened at the Orpheum and "Becoming Julia Morgan", in the Berkeley City Club, are certainly worthy of providing super stocking stuffer incentives for Christmas, if you are looking for a marvelous selection of gifts to share in this season of caring and sharing!

The Town Hall Theater in Lafayette is certainly riding a new wave of popularity as Artistic Director Clive Worsley has brought accolade after accolade, award nomination after award nomination, season after season, since he took over two and a half years ago. The Town Hall Theatre Company first brought us “Scrooge”, the musical, a year ago. However, that first production was very basic, very raw in cosmetic terms. In what a modern Sherlock Holms would have described as “Rudimentary, Dr. Watson, Rudimentary”, last year’s production had a long way to go. This year, the production has graduated to another level, this time with a beautifully designed set by Emily Greene and wonderful costumes by Bessie Delucchi, in addition to a stellar cast and excellent direction.

This delightful updated version of the Christmas Carol story, adapted by Leslie Bricusse, is made lighter and even more fun with new lines and lovely lyrics, a fun filled story-telling experience delivered with passion, poignancy and wit. As Charles Dickens said in his closing statements of the play about the wonderful character embodied in young Tiny Tim, “It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!” Town Hall has endeavored to keep Christmas well and they will earn your applause with their wonderful community theater production of this classic.

I cannot add much to what I am sure you already know about the story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s cynicism and dreadful money lending practices, his overworked and underpaid employee, Bob Cratchet; Cratchet’s lovely family and adorable, handicapped little son, Tiny Tim. I am sure you have experienced the annual retelling of “A Christmas Carol” many times both in movies and live theater. I, like you, vividly remember all the other wonderful characters who make up the romantic fabric of Dicken’s poetic masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, but I never seem to tire of enjoying the tale being told over and over again. In this musical, it echoes a familiarity that reminds me a great deal of the musical style embodied in another Dickens’s classic, the story of Oliver Twist, in the musical, “Oliver”. This musical’s lyrics and music elicits similar feelings; upbeat, joyful, poignant and endowed with fun-filled humor!

Director Jessica Parker (who is an Associate Artistic Director at Cal Shakes) has brought together a most excellent cast that covers a very broad range of talented performers, both seasoned professional level actors and advanced amateur actors as well. The cast has to be very talented as they are asked to play multiple characters with a broad range of personalities. Some of my favorites are gathered together in this production, including Melynda Kiring (a four time Shellie Award winning recipient), who is a heartwarming delight as she plays Mrs. Cratchet in this production. She also plays the Ghost of Christmas Past, in addition to several ensemble roles. John Blytt plays Ebenezer Scrooge quite well. While he cannot really carry a tune, he does very well in delivering the musical equivalent of lyrical story telling. Much as Rex Harrison spoke his musical lines in “My Fair Lady”, John Blytt delivers his musical lines in much the same fashion, with a similar heart-felt enthusiasm and passion. The delightful Randy Anger portrays the much loved former employer, Old Mr. Fezziwig and the Ghost of Christmas Present. Paul Plain, whom I have praised in several productions in other theaters in recent months, wins many accolades once again, this time for his outstanding portrayal of Marley’s Ghost. Clive Worsley is excellent in his role as Bob Cratchet. I wish I had more space to laud the efforts of so many talented people, actors and support staff alike, all for their wonderful energy and dedication in this production.

Then, in a final note of commendation to the choreographer, Emily Morison, I have to applaud this lady who pulled off a minor miracle, in translating some wonderful dancing routines with a full cast upon a miniscule stage dancing platform.
In addition to delivering this up beat theatrical production, the Town Hall Theater paid tribute to one of its most dedicated volunteers, Charlotte Aszklar, who worked as prop master in addition to many, many other supporting jobs in her 49 plus years of dedication to the Dramateurs, the original theatrical company that is now known as the Town Hall Theater Company. She was joined in her efforts over the years by her husband, Ed Aszklar and her entire family, at one time or another, all on or behind the Town Hall Stage, both as a member of the Dramateurs and the melodramatic comedy theatrical company known as the LaFrantics.

This wonderful, truly Christmas spirit launching performance of “Scrooge” will be a wonderful treat for the entire family. Tickets range between $22.50 to $29.50 each for general admission depending on date and time of the production, with discounts for groups, seniors, students and children under 12. For more information, call the theater’s box office at 283-1557 or purchase tickets on line at The Town Hall Theater is located at 3535 School Street (corner of Moraga Road) in Lafayette. The show continues Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees at 2 p.m., with a 7 p.m. performance on December 12th and 19th. There will be a 3 p.m. matinee on December 18th as well. Call the theater or check the web site to confirm performance times and dates. The show closes on December 19th, so don’t delay, call Town Hall today!

Shrek, The Musical is super fun, an absolute must see production if you see anything this month!

One of the most enjoyable Broadway traveling professional theatrical productions to come to the Bay Area this year has to be the DreamWorks Theatrical production of “Shrek, The Musical”, which opened this past week in the Orpheum theater in San Francisco, under the direction of Carole Shorenstein Hays.

Shrek was the first animated movie to receive an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, a new category for computer generated media, introduced in 2001, the year the film was released. It cost Dreamworks 60 million dollars to make the movie and it grossed over 484 million in revenues. The story was based on a fairy tale picture book by William Steig of the same title. The movie’s graduation to the live stage as Shrek, The Musical, was a natural progression in that DreamWorks had scored big on the three sequels, Shrek 2, Shrek the Third, and Shrek Forever After. The movie was even voted into the American Film Institute’s “Ten Top Ten” best classic films in 2008. A song written by Neil Diamond, “I’m a Believer”, was chosen as the lead song in the movie because of it’s opening line, “I thought love was only true in fairy tales,” and because of love being the primary ingredient in the simple, fun-filled plot. You may remember the song as previously recorded by the “Monkees” in 1966, which went on to become the biggest selling single record in 1967.
Regardless of whether you saw the movie or not, the staged musical is an absolute brilliant production, full of laughter, upbeat and joyous, a theatrical event that should not be missed. It is superb for children and adults alike, especially if you enjoy musicals.

The story a revolves around an ogre by the name of Shrek (Eric Petersen) who has been living in a swamp quite peacefully, until a power hungry, pint-sized prince by the name of Lord Farquaad (David F.M. Vaughn), banishes all of the fairy tale creatures in his kingdom to the swamp. Shrek is not happy with the intrusion into his peacefully muggy domain and he sets off towards the castle to deal with the Prince. Along the way, he encounters an irritatingly conversant donkey (Alan Mingo Jr.) who accompanies him to the castle. Prince Farquaad wants to become king, but cannot do so until he finds someone who will marry him. The prince is a cowardly little squirt who has heard that a very beautiful princes, Princess Fiona (Haven Burton), lives in a tower guarded by a fierce dragon. Farquaad has set his sights on finding someone courageous enough to separate the princes from her imprisonment and will subsequently bring her to his castle to wed him. He makes a deal with the big, tough thoroughly green ogre that if Shrek will set about on this quest for him, he will return the peaceful swamp to Shrek, sans all of the displaced fairytale creatures.

Thus begins the staged version of the fairy tale adventure and journey, but your fairy tale journey will begin the minute the lights come up and the production begins. Everything about this musical is big and glorious - - the magnificent sets and the incredible costumes (by Tim Hatley), the brilliantly conceived and designed flying Dragon, an animated creature that is a wonder in itself to behold. The dragon is a four man operated fully mobile mechanical puppet, so large that it takes up a major portion of the stage. The scene with the dancing rats, is deceptively simple, but once again, a brilliantly conceived piece of choreography (by Josh Prince), a most enjoyable surprise. There are many staging concepts incorporated in this production that are not in the movie version, concepts and contraptions that make this an even more enjoyable experience than all of the movies about Shrek put together!

Tickets for Shrek The Musical range in price from $30 - $99 and tickets can be purchased online at , or by calling SHN Audience Services at 888 SHN 1799 (888 746 1799) or by visiting the Orpheum Theatre Box Office (1192 Market at 8th St.). For information on Groups of 15 or more, call Group Sales at 888 SHN 1799. The production continues Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Wednesdays, Thursday December 23rd and 30th, Friday, December 24th, Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m., and added performances on Sunday evening, December 26th at 7:30, closing on December 2nd. The Orpheum Theater is located at 1192 Market Street at 8th street and can be easily accessed at the Civic Center BART station in San Francisco.

Becoming Julia Morgan, a new play about the life and times of Julia Morgan is being staged in a Berkeley building she designed that is often refered to has her little castle!

The Julia Morgan Project has just opened their new award winning play by Belinda Taylor, “Becoming Julia Morgan”, a play about the life of this much admired architect. The play is appropriately being performed in the Berkeley City Club, one of the many Bay Area properties designed by Julia Morgan. Over the years, I have visited a number of the beautiful buildings created at the hand of Ms. Morgan, but really knew very little about her. This exceedingly well written play opens a marvelous window that had been obscured for many years, primarily because Ms. Morgan shunned the spotlight, not allowing many interviews nor seeking or providing any opportunity for notoriety. She remained unmarried, and spent her life quietly obsessed with her design work with her staff, until her style fell out of favor in the mid – 40’s and early 50’s. She died in San Francisco when she was 85.

Julia Morgan is probably best known for her work with William Randolph Hearst in designing what has become known as the Hearst Castle at San Simeon, California. Julia Morgan was born in 1872, just shortly after the end of the Civil War in the growing city of San Francisco, California. She was small of stature, but big on ambition, ambition to become a female architect, unheard of in her time. She had to battle the centuries-old male dominated architectural establishment but after an intense process of appealing for admission, she was finally admitted to the famous École des Beau Arts school in Paris. After graduation she returned to California and began designing projects for prestigious and wealthy benefactors including Phoebe Hearst. When the 1906 earthquake struck San Francisco, the opportunity for massive re-design and new construction projects took off like a rocket. The fact that her re-enforced concrete bell tower at Mills College stood up so well to the earthquake, with no perceivable damage when so many other properties failed, she fell into great demand. When Phoebe Hearst died and her son, William Randolph Hearst inherited his family fortune, he drew Miss Morgan into his inner circle and had her collaborate in the design of many projects, most significantly and most prestigiously, the Hearst Castle.

The play focuses on a period between1931 and 1937, but allows us flashbacks into Morgan’s earlier student days at Cal Berkeley and in Paris. In Taylor’s play, a dedicated newspaper reporter, not unlike the author herself, attempts to get beyond the protective and devoutly private shield Ms. Morgan put up to protect herself from prying eyes. The fictional reporter (and a former student of architecture) in the play, Jerry Mac (Paul Baird), befriends Ms. Morgan and attempts to extract the “essential Morgan” from her so that he can write a book about her. Janis Stevens plays in pluperfect fashion the humorous and determined Morgan. Her portrayal is certainly award worthy in my perception and I look forward to bringing this excellent portrayal up to my fellow San Francisco Theater Critics Circle members. Director Barbara Oliver has enrolled the excellent talents of Sally Clawson to fulfill the roles of several other characters, including Marion Davies, the famous girlfriend of William Randolph Hearst. In addition Oliver has garnered the excellent talents of Dave Garrett to play multiple roles as well, especially the role of Hearst himself.

The Berkeley City Club was the initial experimental theater facility that allowed Barbara Oliver to build a fan base for what was to eventually to become the stellar little theater, know as the Aurora Theater in Berkeley.
This production is wonderful for several reasons, not the least of which is the opportunity to learn about one of the most important women pioneers of the 20th century, in addition to just plain having a wonderful evening of very entertaining and thought provoking theatre, delivered by an outstanding group of actors.

“Becoming Julia Morgan” continues Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday performances at 5 p.m., now through January 19th in the Berkeley City Club at 2315 Durant in Berkeley. Ticket prices range between $24 and $30 each. This is a very small theater in the round which means you are very close to the action and will enable you to hear and enjoy every word very clearly. You may call (510) 984-3864 to purchase tickets by phone, or you may visit their ticket provider’s web-site (Brown Paper Tickets) at , enter the name of the play in the search window or enter the name of the Berkeley City Club and it will take you directly to the ticket ordering information. The Berkeley City Club was often referred to as Julia Morgan’s own private little castle. It is a magnificent structure and well worth the trip to Berkeley. Great show, check it out!