Geneva Anderson digs into art

Review: giddy, rude & ridiculous “Spamalot” is at 6th Street Playhouse through September 22, 2013

Spamalot 2It’s summer and if you’re in the mood for silly…the trotting coconuts, the killer rabbit and the knights who say “Ni” are all back in 6th Street Playhouse’s irreverent Spamalot which plays in its GK Hardt Theatre through September 22,2013.

The 2005 Tony Award-winning musical comedy by Python super-star Eric Idle, with musical score by Idle and composer John Du Prez, is a loving rip-off of the 1975 classic film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Through a medley of song, slapstick, pun, and abandonment of political correctness, Spamalot tells the tale of King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail and his knights’ entanglement in a Broadway production.  Along the way, it cleverly and unabashedly exploits all the cannons of musical theater while poking itself for being a musical.

In the capable hands of Craig Miller, 6th Street’s Artistic Director, the mash-up more or less succeeds. Miller, who brought us The Great American Trailer Park Musical (2012) and The Marvelous Wonderettes (2012) and who just picked up an astounding six awards in the 2013 SFBATCC (San Francisco/Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle), once again combines strong local talent with an excellent production team.

I saw the show last Saturday evening (8/24), opening weekend.  It delivered some good laughs and some catchy tunes, against the backdrop of great sets and unexpected projections, all adding up to an appealing musical.  I can only imagine that the comedy component will get stronger over time as the actors work together more and find that relaxed sweet spot where they can really deliver up the hysterically funny and shameless gags we associate with Python brilliance.

Arthur and company’s musical journey begins in Finland, with the “Fisch Schlapping Song,” grown men being silly and whacking each other with huge fish.  The narrator soon gets the story back on track, back to a dense forest and the time of the plague, where it’s time to cart-away the bodies.  From there, it’s a romp through history as Arthur and his motley crew proceed to Camelot and become Knights of the Round Table. Their zany escapades include battling French Can-Can Girls, warring with a French fort and hurling a huge wooden Trojan rabbit as a weapon, and trying to outwit a vicious biting bunny who protects the Holy Grail.  The characters also take on the assignment of performing a Broadway musical.  One of the funniest moments comes when Robin belt outs a lament to Arthur that their production will never make it to Broadway “if it doesn’t have any Jews!”

M.P. fans will recognize familiar tunes as “Finland,” “Knights of the Round Table” and “Always Look on the Brightside of Life,” a classic from Life of Brian.  Idle and Du Prez co-created catchy tunes like “I Am Not Dead Yet” and “The Song that Goes Like This”  and many of these are reminiscent of Lloyd Webber, Rogers & Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim, however the silly lyrics are all Idle’s.  “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” is one of the most memorable songs and, of course, is a credo that we should all live by.

“Spamalot” at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse through September 22, 2013 is a medley of song, slapstick and silly fun that lovingly recounts the exploits of King Arthur and features a large cast of mainly local performers.  The original 2005 Broadway show received 3 Tony Awards and was seen by over two million people.  Photo: Eric Chazankin.

“Spamalot” at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse through September 22, 2013 is a medley of song, slapstick and silly fun that lovingly recounts the exploits of King Arthur and features a large cast of mainly local performers. The original 2005 Broadway show received 3 Tony Awards and was seen by over two million people. Photo: Eric Chazankin.

Barry Martin’s King Arthur is the heart of Spamalot.  The Napa-based actor, director and co-founder of Lucky Penny Productions has natural comedic timing, a fantastic and robust singing voice, and he delivers an alternately noble and kind of daffy King Arthur whose generosity of spirit rings through all the antics surrounding him.

Arthur’s coconut-clapping page/sidekick and imaginary steed, Patsy, is played to the hilt by Erik Weiss, also a delight to behold. He’s quite young, just starting his senior year at Montgomery High School, but has a natural affinity for comedy, evident as he trots and schleps around stage beside Arthur.

Taylor Bartolucci Deguilio’s Lady of the Lake, is a spoof of all leading ladies and Broadway conventions.  Beaming Deguilio was quite sultry in an array of beautifully colorful form-fitting costumes by Pamela Johnson, but her singing voice, while energetic, was not in its usually radiant top form.  Natalie Herman (Not Dead Fred/Prince Herbert/Ensemble) had small roles but the combination of a marvelous voice and that magical “it” factor, made it her night.  After she sang just a few lines of “I am not dead yet” in Act I, I was fixed on her all night long and she got more delightful as the show progressed.

As Sir Robin, Trevor Hoffman pulled off some great dancing and singing. His Act II song “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway,” was one of the highlights of the evening—hysterically bemoaning the lack of Jewish entertainers in Arthur’s motley crew.

There’s not a bad seat in the GJ Hardt Theatre and the stage pops with Theo Bridant’s gorgeous lighting and Jess Driekson’s scenic design.  Alise Girard’s choreography is polished and delivers, among many feats, a chorus line of dancing divas and knights and other sundry characters.  Hats off to musical directors, Jason Sherbody and assistant David Brown for their tight coordination of 22 songs.  Backing up the singing and zany action on stage is the talented eight member orchestra that keeps the rich music flowing all evening long.  Jason Sherbody (Conductor/keyboards), Steve Parker (Reed 1), Brendan Buss (Reed 2), Toom Woodville (Trumphet), Marc Rudlin (Trombone), Lisa Doyle (violin), Ab Menon (guitar/banjo), Joel Renteria (bass), Ricardo Lomeli (drums).

Overall, ARThound goes with a line from the knights who no longer say Ni! …. ekki-ekki-ekki-pitang-zoom-boing!

Up next at 6th Street Playouse:  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Oct 25-Nov 10, 2013) Based on Ken Kesey’s novel and made famous by the 1975 movie starring Jack Nicholson, Dale Wasserman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the story of a charming rogue who chooses to serve a short sentence in an airy mental institution rather than in prison. He realizes this was a mistake as soon as he clashes with Nurse Ratched who controls the psych ward and is a formidable opponent of his notions of nonconformity.   He quickly wins over his fellow “loonies” and accomplishes what the medical profession has been unable to do for twelve years; he makes a presumed deaf and dumb Indian talk, leads others out of introversion, stages a revolt so that the entire ward can watch the World Series on television, and arranges a rollicking midnight party with liquor and chippies.  The famous show down between nurse and patient is one of the riveting evenings of theatre. Stage Direction by Lennie Dean

Details: Spamalot ends September 22, 2013 at 6th Street Playhouse’s GK Hardt Theatre, 52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa, CA.  Performances: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays 2 p.m. Tickets: $15 to $35.  For more information: or phone 707.523.4185.

August 30, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre Company Tackles a new adaptation of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” through June 29, 2013 at EXIT Stage Left, San Francisco

“Tis A Pity She’s A Whore,” a world premiere adaptation by Oren Stevens, transplants John Ford’s infamous classic to Kennedy-era America.  Directed by Ariel Craft, at San Francisco’s Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre through Saturday, June 29, 2013.

“Tis A Pity She’s A Whore,” a world premiere adaptation by Oren Stevens, transplants John Ford’s infamous classic to Kennedy-era America. Directed by Ariel Craft, at San Francisco’s Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre through Saturday, June 29, 2013.

It would have been easy to miss Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre Co’s (BtaBB) world premiere of Oren Stevens’ adaptation of  ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore in the Tenderloin’s EXIT Stage Left Theatre last Friday because almost everything about the production was scarcely bigger than a bread box, except for its energy and soul.  Wake up call for me, who regularly attends and reviews the larger theatre company productions—there’s incredible core of talent out there that is young, strong, collaborative, constantly adapting to opportunities, and so worthy.

Ariel Craft, 24, a former A.C.T. Artistic Fellow, founded Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre Co. a year ago.  Shortly thereafter, she contacted her young friend, the playwright and director Oren Stevens, who grew up in Lafayette and learned his craft at Yale, to write an adaptation of John Ford’s 1633 drama, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore Pity.  The play’s uncondemning treatment of incest was controversial from its first performance and Stevens’ interventions have quickened the pace of the story while keeping it every bit as arresting.  In addition to a sensitive reworking of the story, Stevens displays a wonderful ear for language. His adaptation managed to make the play sound old but come across as crystal clear and quite colloquial—like the very best modern productions of Shakespeare.

One of the charms of this bare bones production is that, with no set to speak of, it all depends on the strength of the acting.  Justin Gillman was particularly engrossing as Giovanni (imagine a grubby Niles Crane) whose amorous feelings for his sister Annabella (Maria Leigh) lead to a brutal and bloody climax.  The scheming that goes on behind the two siblings and their forbidden love is remarkable.  The seemingly hum-drum  household conceals a world of deception and manipulation— betrayals, rival lovers competing for Annabella’s hand, and ultimately murder.  The siblings’ hypocritical mother, Floria (Cat Luedtke) has chosen the wealthy nobleman Sorzano to be her daughter’s mate and doesn’t care about her daughter’s wants.  Scorned Hippolita (scene stealer Allison Hunter Blackwell) seethes with passion and jealousy, whereas Annabella’s maid/nurse Putana (Jeunee Simon) plays the innocent but then quickly gives up the secret of the paternity of Annabella’s child and shows that she’s a master at household politics and landing on her feet.  Sam Tillis is spellbinding as Vasques, the cunning servant of Annabella’s eventual husband, Sorzano (Peter Townley).

The core of this drama emerges with the pregnancy—a joyless, shameful disaster that is punctuated with dramatic bursts of violence that had audience members gasping and cringing.  On Friday, Maria Leigh delivered a fascinating Annabella…I didn’t care for the self-indulged young woman who opened the play tossing love letters from potential suitors around like yesterday’s recycling.  I liked her even less as an expectant mother who didn’t have a protective instinct in her body.  Like her or not, a spirited young woman, who initially seemed to have the world at her feet, was shown to be extremely vulnerable in a society dominated by men.  For days, I was provoked to think long and deep about motherhood and the very modern familial issues surrounding an unexpected child.

Ariel Craft already shows a precocious ability to get her actors to deliver nuanced and emotionally riveting performances.  Her highly original production packages Ford’s disturbing drama within some of the fluffiest tropes of teen love movies of the 1960s. These are beautifully and sometimes comically evoked through original ballads and do-wop-style songs of San Francisco composer David Brown, which are nicely sung by the talented cast.

More from Ariel Craft —Theater is a place for exploration of the impulses which have no place in the daylight of our society, those which we usually don’t allow ourselves emotional space for: the instincts that we’re afraid of and that, if unpacked in our day-to-day lives, would yield catastrophic results. I can think of few plays better suited for this kind of exploration than ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, which was massively controversial when written and still remains so almost 400 years later.

We made the decision to modernize in hopes of avoiding dismissal of the subject matter because it was a “different time.”  I, for one, make a lot of behavioral allowances for any action which happens in a time that I don’t feel I have a cultural reference point for.  I’m very quick to accept incest and murder in the 1600s as a given, in a way that I’m not in the 1960s. Why the 1960s specifically? There is something fruitful—I think—for the play in the bridge between the 1950s and the 1960s, the loss of innocence, the beginning of a sexual revolution.

Oren Stevens on his adaptation:  Ariel Craft and John Ford accidentally tricked me into doing this show. Ariel’s part was easy; all she had to do was ask for a light adaptation, and that’s exactly what I agreed to do.  I thought I would cut a few characters, streamline some language, and call it a day. Then I met John Ford’s play, which is this dense, meaty masterpiece dripping with scheming, passion, and violence.  Before long, I was having so much fun unraveling and discovering this story that I found I was doing a massive (or, as I say in the script, ruthless) adaptation. Through some fantastic conversations with Ariel, we recrafted Ford’s plot-driven spectacle of blood to be driven by the characters that inhabit the it.  Their desires, rather than their actions, were given the forefront. We ended up discovering the play bit by bit, through scattered sidebars after other meetings, or four AM revelatory text messages, and each new piece was a thrilling discovery; every moment of working on this play was exciting. Ariel and John tricked me into doing this show, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

Run-time: 95 minutes with no intermission

Creative Team:  Adapted by Oren Stevens, Directed by Ariel Craft, Scenic Design by Joshua Saulpaw, Costume Design by Emily White, Lighting Design by William Campbell,
Original Compositions and Music Direction by David Brown, Verse Coaching by Jesse Brownstein, Fight Choreography by Will Springhorn, Jr., Stage Managed by Sana Yamaguchi

Performed by: Allison Hunter Blackwell (Hippolita), Alisha Ehrlich (Philotis), Justin Gillman (Giovanni), Maria Leigh (Annabella), Cat Luedtke (Floria), Lisa-Marie Newton (Sister Margaret Cortona), Jeunee Simon (Putana), Sam Tillis (Vasques), Peter Townley (Soranzo)

Details: ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore closes Saturday June 29, 2013.  EXIT Stage Left is located at 156 Eddy Street, San Francisco.  All performances are sold-out.  For more information on Bigger Than a Breadbox Theatre, click here.

June 27, 2013 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment