Flying high or falling flat, this week's reviews tell you where it's at!

Man in the Chair (Michael Patrick Gaffney) in The Drowsy Chaperone!

Photography by Ben Krantz

Wow, a very big mixed bag this week! - - -

The Diablo Theatre Company is delivering a deluge of laughter and upbeat fun-filled music with their outstanding East Bay premiere of the Tony Award winning musical comedy, The Drowsy Chaperone, in the Hofmann Theater in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, in Walnut Creek. Then, down stairs, in the Knights Stage III Theatre, the Onstage Theatre is unfortunately presenting an underwhelming performance of Harry Segall’s romantic, comedic mystery drama, “Heaven Can Wait”. Unfortunate, in that the lead actors were ready and willing to bring their audience a terrific show, but far too many of their acting counterparts were either not ready or completely miscast for this production. More about this debacle later!
Next week, the “Disney on Ice” traveling show, skates their way back into the heart’s of their audiences in the Bay Area’s Oakland Oracle Arena and the San Jose HP Pavilion, beginning February the 23rd, and continuing through March 6th,. Feld Entertainment returns again with a new ice production that will bring an exceptionally exciting celebration of everything Disney, ON ICE!
Last, but not least, the world famous Venetian Room in the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, that hosted such greats as Tony Bennett, Nat “King” Cole, Joel Grey, and Marlene Dietrich between the 40’s and late 80’s, has been re-born once again as an entertainment venue that will bring back the best in premier entertainment to their upscale venue in the heart of the city, beginning with a February 20th, Sunday evening performance, with Anika Noni Rose.

The Drowsy Chaperone is a relatively new musical spoof of 1920’s “Jazz” musicals, a delightfully funny show that came to fruition in Toronto in 1998, moved to Broadway in May of 2006 and subsequently won the Tony Award for best book and best score. This outrageous spoof introduces us to an agoraphobic middle-aged Broadway Music fanatic, entitled, The Man in Chair (Michael Patrick Gaffney) who, as the show opens, is sitting in his living room (left front of the stage, next to a record shelf with a record player sitting on top of it) with his kitchen in the background. As the lights come up, the Man in the Chair quips about his frustrations with sitting in a darkened theater as he awaits the show to begin. Very quickly, you come to the conclusion that the reason he sits at home listening to his extensive Broadway Musical records collections, is because he is afraid of attending places with large gatherings, where he might have an uncontrollable panic attack.

In short order the Man in Chair tells us that he is in the mood for music from the flapper jazz era and that thought brings to his mind a musical that is one of his favorites (albeit a fictitious 1928 musical) called “The Drowsy Chaperone”. He pulls out one of the two long play records from this 1928 musical record jacket and begins to play it for us. As he settles back to enjoy the music, he now becomes the narrator, and begins to explain the plot to the audience, In doing so, he is so caught up in the musical that he is transported back in time. His dingy little kitchen suddenly becomes the launching platform for the show characters to emerge out of the woodwork, walls and appliances of his kitchen, allowing us to see them in full costume, just as he imagined them in the musical.

The cast of this show (the show within a show) includes a beautiful lead showgirl, Janet Van De Graff (Sharon Rietkerk), the showgirl’s angry producer, Feldzig (Michael Markovich), the handsome young man she has fallen in love with and is engaged to, Robert Martin (Daniel Epstein), Robert’s best man, George (Stephen Foreman), the Drowsy Chaperone (Leanne Borghesi) who is charged with the duty of keeping the two lovers apart and out of sight on the night before their pending nuptials. There are many more characters but two of them are the funniest and most improbable gangsters (disguised as pastry chefs, Gangster #1 (Ned Hansen) and Gangster #2 (Justin Isla)), you will ever be introduced to. The producer, Mr. Feldzig, is angry that his leading starlet, Miss Van De Graff, is willing to quit his show to marry a millionaire oil tycoon, Mr. Martin, leaving him without a lead performer. The producer, Feldzig (amazing the similarity to a guy by the name of Zigfeld, isn’t it?), hires a Latin lover, Adolpho (Dan LeGate), and pays him to meet and seduce the starlet in an effort to spoil the wedding, so that he can get his starlet back. Mr. Feldzig has a girlfriend who is a clueless blond bombshell by the name of Kitty (Samantha Bruce) who wants to take over Van De Graff’s role in the show, and while she is very sexy looking, she (her character) has little if any real talent and a nasal twanging voice that would probably break beer mugs at a rock concert! There are even more actors who should be praised, but unfortunately, I just do not have room to applaud everyone who deserves it in this show.

Watching from his armchair, the “Man in Chair” (Mr. Gaffney) is terribly divided between his passion to absorb every moment of the show as it unfolds and his obsession to interject into the musical his extensive truth-is-stranger-than-fiction knowledge base, all about musical productions and the actors who performed in them. He cleverly morphs the audience into and out of the fantasy before us. As the show goes on, more and more of the Man in Chair’s personal life is revealed through his musings about the show, until, as the record ends, he is once again left alone in his dingy apartment — but he still has his old long play record of his long-beloved show to turn to whenever he's lonely or unhappy. This character and the actor who portrays him is pluperfect in every respect, and without him, this show would be hard to imagine as successful.

This convoluted plot within a plot is a totally outrageous spoof on theatrical musicals, is played bigger than life and twice as ridiculous, marvelously ridiculous that is! It is a superb production, artfully crafted, expertly directed in every respect, led by Artistic Director Daren A.C. Carollo; Music Directors, G. Scott Lacey and Richard Vetterli; the exciting Choreography of Sheri Stockdale; Costume Designer, Carol Edlinger; Set Designer David Gallo; and especially Wig Designer, Judy Disbrow. We have had a lot of excellent theatrical choices recently to invite you to see, and this show is truly a wonderful experience, one you should not miss if at all possible!

What I have to do now, disagreeable as it is, is to tell you how terribly and totally disappointed I am with On Stage Theater’s current production of “Heaven Can Wait!”

When I learned that several of my favorite hardworking, talented and maturing young actors were going to be in this show, I looked forward with great anticipation mixed with a little trepidation about what I would find when this show opened this past weekend. Onstage Theatre, which is a community theater that works with many amateur actors, has been trying very hard to pull themselves together after their disastrous loss of the old Pleasant Hill Playhouse on Oak Road. The Playhouse was deemed an unsafe facility to conduct shows in, following a safety inspection a couple of years ago by the City of Pleasant Hill. Without their home theater in which to design, build, store and produce their little productions, it is very hard for a community theater to have to step up to a more professional operating level to conduct productions in a professional facility such as the Lesher Regional Center for the Arts. There are very tight management rules, union rules, city rules and time frames to have to work within and almost all rehearsals have to be conducted in other facilities, many times private homes. These little companies don’t get into the Lesher Center until a night or two before the company actually moves their sets, props and costumes into the “big theater” to open their shows. It is a very tough, demanding road, and without adequate funding and a lot of very talented volunteers to pull it all together, it many times falls flat on its face.

Unfortunately, when all the elements don’t come together, that is exactly what happens and apparently something happened to this production of “Heaven Can Wait!”, because in spite of some very hard working, excellent acting by the main actors, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. My gut feeling is that this show was just too ambitious a project for this little company, and that On Stage Theatre just doesn’t have a strong enough base of trained “actors” or actors-in-training, to select from. Amateurs with little experience are ok in small roles, with few lines, and while some of these actors can memorize lines, some still have no idea how to act, robbing the character of the life and personality envisioned by the author.

This show is based on Harry Segall’s story of an up and coming boxer, Joe Pendleton, who appears to be headed towards death in a fatal aircraft accident, when an overzealous heavenly messenger pulls Joe’s spirit out of his body, prematurely! When the messenger arrives at the Pearly Gates with a strenuously objecting Joe Pendleton, and is told by his supervisors that Joe’s spirit was taken by mistake (and he still haves another 60 years of life to live on earth), a big problem rears its ugly head. When the messenger quickly tries to return Joe to his earthly body, he learns that another severe impediment has occurred. Joe’s body has already been cremated. Getting to this part of the story in this production was a disaster on the night I saw the show, as line after line to be delivered by the messenger and other supporting actors, was either muffed or forgotten, again and again. Joe Pendleton (Edwin Peabody) did a superb job, knew his lines well and even tried again and again to assist and coach his counterparts. There were awkward pauses long enough you could have driven a truck through them! This opening series of arduous, painfully time consuming errors threw the timing way off and set the “cringing” tone for the entire show.

The story takes a turn as a sub-plot develops, when Joe learns that the body he will most likely be given, that of a Mr. Farnsworth, is about to become a murder victim. You see, Mr. Farnsworth is a multi-millionaire, a corporate manipulator who makes and breaks people and businesses on a regular basis, if it serves his interests. Farnsworth’s wife (played by Shanti Rachel) and his private secretary, a Mr. Tony Abbott (Neil McChesney), are planning to murder Farnsworth, and they succeed in drowning him in the bathtub. With the assistance of Mr. Jordan, a chief heavenly messenger, the spirit of Joe Pendleton is quickly ushered into Farnsworth’s deceased body, before he is discovered. The murder planning lovers, Abbott and Mrs. Farnsworth, are of course shocked when “Farnsworth” suddenly appears, apparently in perfect health! The duplicitous pair will now have to bide their time, waiting for another opportunity to do him in.

There were several actors who contributed some excellent work, such as Bill Clemente as Max Levine, Joe’s former boxing trainer. When Bill Clemente came on the scene, it was as if a breath of fresh air hit the stage; he knew his lines, was completely in character, and for the most part, knew exactly how to deliver them. Joe finally convinces Max that he really is Max’s former pugilist protégé, Joe Pendleton, in another man’s body and convinces him that he, Joe, can still pursue a championship boxing career, even if he is the spirit in Farnsworth’s body.

Joe, now as Farnsworth, is a completely different and honorable kind of guy, but a guy who has none of the business skills or money manipulating knowledge of the former Mr. Farnsworth. Joe, now as Farnsworth, finds himself over his head in trying to straighten out the many ills created by the previous Farnsworth, including rescuing from financial ruin the daughter of one of his former partners, a Mr. Logan, whom Farnsworth railroaded into a jail term for felonies he never participated in. Joe takes a liking to Bette Logan (Jennifer Brown Peabody - - - yes, actor Eddy Peabody’s wife) and now wants to pursue her romantically. The head heavenly associate, Mr. Jordan, played by Mark Cornelius, was also excellent in every respect. Shanti Rachel, Neil Mc Chesney and Jennifer Brown Peabody are among those who also contributed significantly on the positive side of this production.

This is a wonderful play with great lines and with some very good actors who are trying valiantly to make it work. Then, there are some very amateur actors in a lot of roles, muddling along, and at the present time, this show is a total mess, a very mixed bag! Even the blocking is terrible, with actors walking where they shouldn’t, “around” people they are not supposed to be able to see because the actors they are dodging are from the spirit world!!! It’s hard to dodge a ghost! I applaud the company’s purpose in attempting to serve an entire community, providing anyone, lawyers, realtors, nurses and all other comers with the opportunity to get on stage, and to begin to learn to be actors. However, I believe their first duty as a theater is to deliver a meaningful theatrical experience, and to honor the author’s intent and vision. After all, isn’t that what your patrons pay you to see?

“Heaven Can Wait” needs lots of work but if you want to take your chances, it continues Fridays and Saturdays at 8:15 p.m., with one Thursday performance on February 24th at 8:25 p.m., and on Sunday February 27th and on March 6th when it closes. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $16 for seniors, and only $10 for youth up to age 17. The Knight Stage III Theater is on the ground floor of the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek. Call the Lesher Center for tickets at 943-SHOW (7469).

Now, other happenings around the Bay area, you might be interested in!

Direct from Lincoln Center, the sexy voice of Anika Noni Rose, will bring her highly acclaimed American Song Book series show, “Vintage Rose”, to the Venetian Room in the fabulous Fairmont Hotel for a one evening performance! This Tony Award winning actress and song stylist has almost become a household name following her success as Emmie Thibodeaux in Tony Kushner’s “Caroline, or Change”, her outstanding portrayal of Lorrell Robinson in the movie “Dreamgirls”, and her “Best Voice” award as the voice of Princess Tiana in Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog”.

This intimate evening with Anika Noni Rose will feature songs made famous by Blossom Dearie, Lena Horne and other legendary artists. This is a one night performance so call the City Box office now at (415) 392-4400 or go online to for you tickets. Tickets are $45 each. The Venetian Room of the Fairmont Hotel is located at 950 Mason Street in San Francisco.

I love to take the grand-kids to the Disney on Ice productions and a new show, entitled “Let’s Celebrate” will be slip-sliding their way back into the heart’s of their audiences in the Bay Area’s Oakland Oracle Arena and the San Jose HP Pavilion, beginning February the 23rd, and continuing through March 6th,. With the voice of Anika Noni Rose still floating in my memory, what a great time to return to a Disney on Ice production to see their talented skating stars present a Mardi Gras celebration on Ice with Prindess Tiana and Prince Naveen. Alice and the Mad Hatter will celebrate a Very Merry Unbirthday Party, Lilo and Stitch will take us to a Hawaiian Luau and Jack Skellington will shiver our timbers with his Halloween celebration as well. “Let’s Celebrate” promises to stir up a wonderful evening with some of our favorite Disney characters so if you enjoy magic on ice, then an evening with Disney would be exciting and nice!

Tickets for the San Jose performances of “Let’s Celebrate” which run from Wednesday, February 23rd through Sunday, February 27th , or the Oakland Oracle Arena, which run from Wednesday, March 2nd, through Sunday, March 6th, are available by calling Ticketmaster at (800) 745-3000 or by visiting them online at To learn more about Disney on Ice, visit Opening night tickets are always only $15 each (except VIP or premium seating). Other ticket prices range between $16 and $25 each, with VIP tickets at $45 and Front Row tickets at $75 each depending on seating location and day and time of performance. The HP Pavilion is located at 525 West Santa Clara Street in San Jose and the Oracle Arena is located at 7000 Coliseum Way in Oakland.