In finding one’s Mecca, it’s the journey that counts

By Ande Jacobson

The Pear’s current production is another alarmingly topical piece from the not-too-distant past. This time, audiences are transported back to 1974 and the rural village of New Bethesda (properly named Nieu-Bethesda) in the Karoo region of South Africa. Athol Fugard’s play, The Road to Mecca, incorporates themes of racial and gender inequality and religious fervor that are so prevalent in the rural South African culture of the time. These issues are in the forefront of this work, at times uncomfortably so. Additionally, the themes of trust, love, aging, and artistic freedom and inspiration are explored in a powerful way. This is a challenging piece, and the Pear gives it the respect and sensitivity it deserves. Continue reading

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Tchaikovsky takes the TheatreWorks stage by storm

By Ande Jacobson

Hershey Felder brings another of his unique musical biographies to TheatreWorks. The Bay Area premiere of Our Great Tchaikovsky gives audiences insight into the life of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Like the other portrayals Felder has done in previous seasons, he takes on the persona of Tchaikovsky, as well as of various people in the composer’s life. Compared to his portrayals of Irving Berlin and Ludwig van Beethoven, this one is a little different. It is different because his subject is a little different. Tchaikovsky, while a musical genius, led a personal life filled with fear, strife, and chaos because he didn’t fit the social mold demanded by his culture. The composer’s music is still front and center in this production, music that Felder dispatches with his characteristic verve and virtuosity. He is as adept at playing Tchaikovsky’s music as he is at playing the music of Berlin and Beethoven. The changes this time are that he adds a bit more of himself in the storytelling, and the story itself is much darker than the previous Felder shows that have reached the TheatreWorks stage. Continue reading

Spreading holiday spirit and wishing a very merry SaxMas to all!

By Ande Jacobson

Music is in the air this holiday season. While San Jose’s 24th Annual Saxophone Christmas is over, on 16 December 2017, 217 saxophonists playing everything from sopranino to bass saxes spread the joy of holiday music through the air at both Christmas in the Park and Vallco. To get a sense of what this event was like and raise your holiday spirits, please enjoy the following sampling of several selections from previous San Jose SaxMases. Continue reading

Saxophones and singers – the perfect holiday combination for 2017

By Ande Jacobson

Music is in the air this holiday season. While there are numerous concerts and stage productions to choose from, there are two musical events fast approaching in the South Bay that are not to be missed.

First up is the 24th Annual San Jose Saxophone Christmas on the third Saturday in December (the 16th this year). In recent years, there have been around 200 musicians (215 in 2016) playing everything from soprillo saxes (the smallest commercially made saxophone in existence) to sarrusophones and bass saxes along with everything in between. Some years, there is even a tubax or a contrabass sax (the biggest of the saxophone family). Continue reading

TheatreWorks presents the cure for holiday hype – ‘The Santaland Diaries’

By Ande Jacobson

During the holidays, the hype and family togetherness can sometimes be just a little overwhelming. It seems that it’s all about the kids, and the presents, and the singing, and the egg nog. Instead of drowning in that last one to escape, there is another remedy for someone seeking something that’s just a little less saccharine – The Santaland Diaries. What started in 1992 as a NPR holiday tradition that catapulted memoirist David Sedaris to international fame, has reached the TheatreWorks stage in their “alternate” holiday production this year. Joe Mantello adapted Sedaris’ essay into a full one-act, one-man play in 1996, and it has enjoyed seasonal success in regional, college, and in some cases even high school theatre ever since. In short, this little gem details Sedaris’ experiences as Crumpet the elf, navigating the treacherous landscape of Macy’s in Manhattan during the holiday season.

The play runs just 70 minutes without an intermission, and while it’s not appropriate for the youngsters who still believe in Santa, it will have their parents at least chuckling if not fully guffawing at poor David’s predicament as a misplaced and somewhat “low key” elf.

Jeffrey Lo directs Max Tachis in this TheatreWorks production at the Lohman Theatre on the Foothill College campus. Scenic designer, Christopher Fitzer captures the feel of the Macy’s Santaland setup with a nicely framed Santa throne in front of a small, but tastefully lighted pine forest. There’s no snow, except when momentarily provided by Mia Kumamoto’s lighting design toward the end of the piece.

Tachis is wonderful in this show. It’s not an easy task to be an engaging solo performer for an unbroken 70 minute stretch, but Tachis is up to the challenge. Before he enters the stage, the set stands open for patrons to take turns sitting in the big chair and taking pictures. Yours truly decided to take that opportunity to shoot the accompanying shot of the colorful set, signpost (next to the big chair) and all.

When Tachis first enters, he hams it up posing with the signpost for a few last photos before he instructs patrons to put their phones away for the duration of the performance. His curtain speech is a bit different than the standard recordings. It both does the job and sets the tone for much of what is to come.

Howard Ho’s sound design could almost be considered “counter-Christmas” with some rock, some eerie haunted-sounding holiday arrangements, and a bit of burlesque thrown in at just the right moment. In addition, as Tachis portrays David / Crumpet the elf introducing the audience to the different regions of Santaland, sudden horn blasts accompany the unfurling of the appropriate banners, sounding like attacks to the poor elf on stage.

Tachis, for his part, starts out as himself. Once he takes care of the pre-show business and delivers his unique announcement, he reemerges as David Sedaris, job hunter in NYC during the holiday season. As David, he recounts to the audience a conversation he had with his roommate sneering at the ads for seasonal help. He then shares that he applied to become a store elf on a whim after this discussion. Despite his having shared in some mockery with his roommate over such a position, he’s unemployed and down to his last $300 before he’d have to resort to becoming a dog walker to be able to eat and figures how hard could it be? Little did he know.

Tachis’ easy manner, sardonic delivery, and facial expressions convey volumes. Through his monologue, we come to understand that in many ways, becoming a store elf is much like any other job. The duties, however, are a bit specialized. As he recounts the interview, onboarding, and training phases, he clearly points out the unique aspects of his position. It’s evident that David really doesn’t belong in this job, but he’s going to make it work somehow.

Then David gets to the final training session when his work uniform is required. He changes on stage with appropriate snide comments about his elven wear, and a chorus of “Santa Baby” plays on as he applies the velvet costume pieces. Costume designer Jill C. Bowers hits the perfect combination of colors and textures to make his outfit memorable and authentic.

Much of what Tachis relays sounds extremely familiar to anyone who has worked in the service industry dealing with the general public up close and personal. Whether it’s the impatient or insipid customers, or his zany colleagues, audience members can picture the people he describes and, in many cases, correlate them to acquaintances from their past.

The standout scenes though are when Tachis brings out his alter ego, designed by Mark Stys. His mini-me elf puppet is adorable, and the interactions Tachis has with him are priceless. Whole conversations ensue, some involving members of the audience, some further upstage, but all with wonderful expressions and mannerisms. Tachis is quite an adept puppeteer for this production, seamlessly manipulating the mini-elf and frequently exchanging glances as they “share” the jokes together.

Being live theatre, there are moments where slight malfunctions might occur, and on opening night did occur at least once. At one critical moment, a set piece didn’t entirely cooperate when it was deployed, but Tachis adroitly delivered a situational ad-lib and didn’t miss a step. He has internalized this material to the point where it flows easily and naturally, no matter what happens.

This production won’t appeal to everyone, but if you’re looking for a fun escape from the normal holiday happiness, this is definitely the show for you. It’s a little edgy, but not overly so. It’s a got a wee bit of off-color language and content, but there too, not excessively so. It gives audiences an entertaining appreciation for a seasonal job that they’ve certainly at least seen if not lived themselves. It’s clever, and the time flies by before sending folks back to their normal holiday hubbub.

What:  The Santaland Diaries, by David Sedaris, adapted by Joe Mantello

Where:  Lohman Theatre, Foothill College, Los Altos Hills, CA

When:  Continues through 23 December 2017

See http://theatreworks.org/201718-season/201718-season/santaland-diaries/, email boxoffice@theatreworks.org, or call (650)463-1960 for more information or to order tickets.

(Photo credits: Kevin Berne for all but the preshow set shot; A Good Reed Review preshow set shot)

Background References:
The Santaland Diaries / Season’s Greetings: 2 Plays
NPR: A Holiday Tradition: David Sedaris Reads ‘Santaland Diaries’

TheatreWorks packs 80 days into a fun-filled, 2-hour trip around the world

By Ande Jacobson

TheatreWorks presents Mark Brown’s adaptation of the 1872 Jules Verne classic novel, Around the World in 80 Days, and has audiences whooping at the antics on this whirlwind, 80-day adventure compressed into 120 hilarious minutes (including intermission). Although the show is billed as a holiday adventure, the only holiday aspects are the festive adornments throughout the house at the Lucie Stern Theatre, a bit of snow along the journey, and the timing of the target arrival home from the adventure. It’s good, clean, family-friendly entertainment that will have even the “grinchiest” audience member smiling. The adventure intertwines technology and romance across the globe in that bygone era of the late 19th century. Continue reading

BBB mounts a dancing spectacular that glistens in the rain

By Ande Jacobson

Singin’ in the Rain started life as an MGM film in 1952 showcasing the talents of Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds. It later became a classic film legend, even though it originally only enjoyed modest success. It tells the memorable story from the 1920s about the transition of the film industry from silent films to talkies, and humorously details the challenges felt by those unfortunate silent film stars whose voices were better left unheard. In the mid-1980s, the film was faithfully adapted for the stage keeping the story and all of the songs and memorable dances intact. It’s actually a little surprising that it took until the mid-80s to reach the stage given that its story fits the traditional musical mold so well. It’s an uplifting tale of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy gets girl back in the end after a few interesting twists and complications. Then again, this show requires three true triple threats along with a well-synchronized dance ensemble, masters of tap one and all. And it requires on-stage rain, so it’s not a trivial matter to mount a successful production. Continue reading

The prescience of Henrik Ibsen’s ‘An Enemy of the People’ – who knew?

By Ande Jacobson

The Pear never backs away from edgy theatre, a tradition that’s alive and well in their current production – An Enemy of the People. Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 political masterpiece premiered in London in 2008 and made its Broadway debut in 2012. Though this version of Ibsen’s story is 90 minutes shorter than the original (the Pear’s production runs approximately 120 minutes including the intermission) and includes updated (and translated) language, the integrity of Ibsen’s material remains intact. The surprising aspect of this work is that although it depicts a situation in 1880s Norway, its themes and issues are just as pertinent to U.S. society today and include altruism and whistleblowing vs. profit and venal self-interest; media manipulation vs. the truth; free speech; and the educated elite vs. the working class. Continue reading

TheatreWorks’ ‘The Prince of Egypt’ brings a big story to life in a spectacular way

By Ande Jacobson

TheatreWorks is no stranger to world premieres, or even to working with the powerful father-son artistic duo of Stephen and Scott Schwartz. Lest audiences think that the current TheatreWorks production of The Prince of Egypt is routine in any way, they can rest assured that it is not. The show is adapted and expanded from the 1998 DreamWorks film of the same name, and conveys its story of biblical proportions in an immensely creative and captivating way while providing some breathtaking theatre. The Prince of Egypt tells the story chronicling the early life of Moses up through his awakening as one of the Hebrews on his quest to “let his people go.” The production is a world premiere that Mountain View audiences will savor for reasons that will be described shortly. What will be seen on stage; however, stems from a collaboration that breaks new ground for TheatreWorks. The stage adaptation by Stephen Schwartz and Philip LaZebnik is being mounted in collaboration with the acclaimed Fredericia Teater in Denmark. Once the Mountain View run completes, Diluckshan Jeyaratnam (Moses) will head back to his homeland to star in the European portion of this co-world premiere in both Fredericia and Copenhagen, telling the story in both Danish and English beginning in April 2018.

What makes this production so spectacular? It’s all in the storytelling. The cast is a talented, diverse, international troupe that explodes with the grandeur and precision this story demands. The grand scale, with empires and monumental physical elements from the Egyptian pyramids, to the river Nile, the expansive desert, and the Red Sea are well-known, and generally not seen on stage. In a film, these can be included directly, but on stage, while they could be projected, a far more creative approach can also be applied. Per director Scott Schwartz:

“We call on cloth, light, and dance to represent water, fire, plagues, and more.”

Continue reading

Follow-on thoughts about ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ – Part 2: Happiness

By Ande Jacobson

Happiness is a central theme that Yuval Noah Harari explores in detail in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He discusses the multitude of advances that humankind has achieved throughout its history, starting, as he puts it, as “an animal of no significance.” As mentioned in previous discussions of this book, Harari separates humankind’s history into several revolutions (cognitive, agricultural, scientific), and through them all, he questions whether the individual members of our species are happier with each advancement. Even at our earliest stage in history, Homo sapiens has been a biologically successful species, but is biological success enough? Does that alone serve to make the majority of us happy? Continue reading