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Our critics weigh in on local theater 

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Black Nativity. The theater has long been compared to organized religion; both the stage and the pulpit offer divine intervention in their own contrasting ways. But the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre's perennial holiday production literally turns the auditorium into a church. Based on poet/playwright Langston Hughes' 1961 "gospel song play" of the same title, Black Nativity mixes text from the Bible, snippets of Hughes' verse, and gospel hymns to recount the story of Jesus Christ's birth as told by members of a jubilant congregation. The production's formidable choir and soloists sing gospel standards such as "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and "Joy to the World" and newer songs (by, among others, principal artist and musical director Robin Hodge-Williams) with the sort of ecstatic fervor that makes even the most belligerent nonbelievers want to leap out of their seats and make a joyful noise unto the Lord. The show's choreography is a bit ungainly: Watching Mary go through 10 minutes of birth pangs in the middle of a particularly emotional hymn, for instance, is nothing short of embarrassing. Yet the vocal pyrotechnics -- particularly from blues diva Faye Carol and the angelic Merkell L. Williams -- make the soul sing. Still, you could probably enjoy a similar experience (without the annoying choreography) at Glide Memorial on any given Sunday for free. Through Dec. 24 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $25-32; call 474-8800 or visit www.lhtsf.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Dec. 7.

Brundibar and Comedy on the Bridge. Berkeley Rep's one-act-opera double bill sugarcoats savage criticisms of society with fun, family-friendly stories. Featuring a cast of adults and around 30 children, Brundibar follows the fortunes of a penniless brother and sister as they try to scrape together enough money to buy milk for their bedridden mother. Comedy on the Bridge is an absurd story about a collection of townspeople left stranded on a bridge during wartime owing to some bureaucratic error. The operas are political allegory masquerading as innocent fun. Children's author Maurice Sendak's designs (created with Kris Stone) do much to set up the tension between the magic of children's storytelling and the darkness that lurks beneath. The stage looks like a wondrous, giant picture book, with its elaborate "hand-drawn" townscapes featuring rickety roofs and lampposts touched by golden light. Tony Kushner's librettos are witty and full of lacerating irony. Though visually beautiful and funny, Comedy ultimately flags due to poor vocal technique from some of the adult cast members and the repetitive, stalled action. Brundibar, on the other hand, has more of a fairy-tale flow. Balancing a boyish face and sugary smiles with a Hitler-esque mustache and sudden bouts of childish rage, Euan Morton's fiendish Brundibar is especially memorable -- the stuff of bad dreams. Through Dec. 28 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $15-64; call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Nov. 23.

Corteo. Clowns are at the very heart of Cirque du Soleil's new touring show, and they take on many forms: There are giant clowns, midget clowns, and clowns in bright, baggy clothes who rampage through the audience, soaking people with fake tears that sprout like garden sprinklers from their eyes. Balanced against all the tomfoolery, though, is a serene, mystical realm. This alternate universe is epitomized by Jean Rabasse's lush, Baroque set design (the hand-painted watercolor curtains, in particular, wouldn't look out of place in a major art museum) and a panoply of ethereal angels who appear in the stratosphere every now and again, quietly watching over the artists, even assisting them on occasion. But despite all the comedy and aesthetic beauty of the production, director Daniele Finzi Pasca's creation of a glittering world that exists somewhere between heaven and Earth, just beyond human reach, is rooted in the abilities of the company's incredible performers. Through Jan. 8 behind SBC Park, Third Street & Terry A. Francois, S.F. Tickets are $31.50-200; call (800) 678-5440 or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Nov. 30.

Prelude to a Kiss. In this comedy, playwright Craig Lucas puts a literal spin on the age-old cliché "He became a completely different person after we were married." The courtship between affable medical publisher Peter and insomniac barmaid Rita passes uneventfully enough in a rose-tinted blur of TV dinners and syrupy pillow talk. But when a toothless old man asks the bride for a peck on the cheek on the couple's wedding day, Peter quickly discovers that the mysterious intruder has done more than steal a kiss from his new wife. S.F. Playhouse's production of this popcorn-munching romantic comedy about the transformative power of love is as frothy as the head on a Starbucks beverage and twice as sweet. Lauren English and Christopher W. Jones make for an endearing central couple; English, in particular, does a superb job of channeling the spirit of a geriatric New Yorker trapped in a young woman's body. Yet for all the fast pace and sensitivity of the direction by Bill English (Lauren's dad), Lucas' insubstantial play feels more like a 1992 movie starring Meg Ryan than a work for the stage. Through Dec. 31 at S.F. Playhouse, 536 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $36; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Dec. 14.

The Tribute to Frank, Sammy, Joey & Dean. Sandy Hackett's swingin' tribute to the Rat Pack takes us back to a time when men wore tuxedos in the desert, women could be one of two things (a lady or a tramp), and Celine Dion was just a golden apple in Las Vegas' hungry eye. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Dean Martin are brought back to life by God -- and the talents of a quartet of impersonators -- for one more night of highballing at the Sands Hotel. The concert-style production, featuring a live 12-piece band, perfectly captures the spirit of a long-lost era -- from Johnny Edwards' (or Andy DiMino's) glossy Dean Martin pompadour to what would now be considered terribly un-PC gaffs about black Jews. These particular tribute artists aren't necessarily dead ringers for Frank and company, but if you close your eyes and listen to Tom Tiratto's silk-voiced renditions of "My Way" and "Come Fly With Me," you almost feel like you've been transported, martini in hand, to another time and place. In an open-ended run at the Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $37-69; call 771-6900 or visit www.poststreettheatre.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Aug. 24.

Also Playing

After Dark New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

Are We Almost There? Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 931-8385.

BATS: Sunday Players Fort Mason, Bldg. B, Marina & Buchanan, 474-6776.

Beach Blanket Babylon Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

Bent Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), 861-5079.

Beyond Therapy Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 931-8385.

Big City Improv Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 931-8385.

Cabaret The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby (at MLK Jr.), Berkeley, 510-841-6500.

California Palm Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 931-8385.

A Celebration of Silliness Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 931-8385.

Christmas Ballet Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 700 Howard (at Third St.), 978-2787.

Cinderella Zeum Theater, 221 Fourth St. (at Howard), 777-2800.

Cirque Do Somethin' The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

Comedy Improv at Your Disposal Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 510- 595-5597.

Dirt and Glory: Return of the Golem Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), 285-8282.

Emperor Norton: A New Musical Dark Room Theater, 2263 Mission (at 18th St.), 401-7987.

GayProv Off-Market Studio, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

High Standards New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

High Water Radio Palace of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon (at Bay), 567-6642.

The Hopper Collection Blue Bear Performance Hall, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 885-5678.

Lestat Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (between Taylor and Mason), 551-2000.

Little Cole in Your Stocking Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510- 843-4822.

Love, Chaos & Dinner Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery), 273-1620.

Menopause the Musical Theatre 39 at Pier 39, 2 Beach (Beach & Embarcadero), 433-3939.

Monday Night Improv Jam Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 368-9909.

Monday Night Marsh The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

Noh Christmas Carol Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa (at Florida), 621-7978.

Pinocchio Fort Mason, Bldg. C, Marina & Buchanan.

Season's Greetings Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

Whiskers Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic (at Locust), Walnut Creek, 925-943-7469.

White Christmas Orpheum Theater, 1192 Market (at Eighth St.), 512-7770.

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