“Sister Act” at Theatre Rhinoceros

San Francisco, CA
at Theatre Rhinoceros

Theater Rhinoceros’ gender-bending production of Sister Act brings an updated excitement to this early 1990’s staged musical that really benefits from the quality, energy, and queer freshness that director AeJay Mitchell’s vision delivers in the intimate Gateway Theatre.

The Cast of SISTER ACT
The Cast of Sister Act
Photo by David Wilson

The show is simply a lot of fun. A supremely good 2 1/2 hours of entertainment.

The plot is simple and simplistic, and it comes from the hit 1992 Whoopi Goldberg movie of the same name. A gangster’s (Curtis played by Crystal Liu) moll (Deloris played by Branden Noel Thomas) runs afoul of the mob and has to hide in an unlikely place, a nunnery. The moll is helped by a good cop (Eddie played by Jarrett Holley). She makes friends with most of the sisters, especially a novice (Sister Mary Robert played by Abigail Campbell). The Mother Superior (played by Kim Larsen) is a sourpuss most of the play, but in the end Deloris, Mother Superior, and all of the nuns affirm their sisterhood. It’s a light, antic, feel-good structure designed to showcase the singing and dancing of the actors.

The musical focuses mainly on enjoyable scenes sugared with blatant moments of touching emotion that are so set up that I hate to admit I felt like tearing up during a couple of them. Of course I didn’t tear up for the schlocky heartstrings-tugging moments, but it’d be okay if you did.

This Sister Act owes its success to a massive amount of talent on stage and in the crafts. Theatre Rhino properly uses the fluffy story as backdrop for boisterous performances, and the actors and costumes deliver!

Branden Noel Thomas’ Deloris unleashes a force of nature. His/her voice could carry the show on its own, but it’s paired with a body filled with C2 that explodes in a barely controlled way in scene after scene. Thomas alternates and combines belting out songs with strong aerobic choreography (also designed by AeJay Mitchell). But, Thomas also slows down and exploits the tender moments of the show. He’s extremely impressive.

Branden Noel Thomas* as Deloris in SISTER ACT.
Branden Noel Thomas as Deloris in SISTER ACT.
Photo by David Wilson.

Other actors deserve special applause.

Abigail Campbell’s Sister Mary Robert as the nunnery’s novice is a perfect counter to Deloris’ barely-under-wraps, worldly lounge singer. Thomas as Deloris is a hefty mountain of in-your-face flesh, and is armed with a supremely secure voice. Campbell counters with a small frame and a much lighter tone. While Campbell overcomes her insecure attitude and allows her timid voice to roar by the end of the show, the balance between the styles and characters is both appropriate and satisfying.

Kim Larsen as Mother Superior provides a different, but also complementary, show-enriching contrast to Deloris. Larsen sings with meaning and feeling (and class and quality), often slowing down the ambient madness. He avoids being a hammy prude caricature, and instead fulfills the necessary foil role. Well, he is hammy at times, but not an annoying spotlight-hogging ham. It’s a difficult balance, and Larsen carries it off.

Joyce Domanico-Huh as Joey, John Charles Quimpo as T. J., Crystal Liu as Curtis, and Abraham Baldonado as Pablo. Photo by David Wilson.
Joyce Domanico-Huh as Joey, John Charles Quimpo as T. J., Crystal Liu as Curtis, and Abraham Baldonado as Pablo.
Photo by David Wilson.

A third acting standout of the show is Jarrett Holley as the police officer. The richness and sweetness of his voice make his songs unreasonably pleasurable. I loved his fantasy role-switching scene, and whenever he was onstage he added to the depth of the characters and story.

Crystal Liu’s stereotypical villainous mobster Curtis also worked completely. Liu was sexist, crass, self-centered, and fun. She brought a strong, if not menacing, sound to Curtis’ songs. I even enjoyed her faked pencil mustache drawn to masculine-up, if not butch-up, the character.

By the way, the gender swapping of Deloris, Curtis, and Mother Superior, the male nuns, the female mobster boys, and the other gender non-conforming casting is never acknowledged. There’s not even a knowing wink or nod. Nor should it have been. Maybe the gender switching made the show more qualified for the Theatre Rhinoceros season — the 41st season of the world’s longest-running queer theater. But, this Sister Act never jumped the shark and pretended to be a over-the-top drag queen romp. The production aims for — and achieves — quality, not kitsch.

My final special appreciation is for David Draper’s costumes. I loved how Deloris went from wearing slutty tight lounge singer outfits with gaudy accessories to nun habits. And, the moments of patterns and color on all the actors were especially striking after several scenes of the black and white nuns. Very fun.

Theatre Rhinoceros also coped well with the stress of putting on a large-cast musical as a community theater company. Only Thomas/Deloris is an experienced Equity actor, yet the cast delivered a professional show. I heard a show craft member worry about the production glitches he noticed in the performance I saw… but I was not distracted as an audience member by what grabbed his attention.

In fact, we all left the theater feeling spectacularly entertained. We’d heard excellent singing. We’d experienced fun dance moves. We’d enjoyed a well acted, happy story.

Theatre Rhinoceros’ Sister Act is very, very good live entertainment — go see it!

Disclaimer: I do Internet work for Theatre Rhinoceros. My opinions here are really what I think. But, I admit, that if I hated the production, I would have simply not mentioned it!

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“Between Two Knees”

Ashland, OR
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

After trying for a month to moderate my initial reaction to the show, I admit failure. So, I reluctantly tell you, “Run! Turn your tickets back!! Seeing Between Two Knees is a waste.”

The “play” is a two-act, juvenile, mental-masturbation orgy of insult humor written without wit and performed without inspiration. It feels unedited, unworkshopped, and unrehearsed, OSF protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

About the cleverest thing about Knees is how it inoculated itself against criticism by suggesting that any complaints directed toward it are based on white fragility, insensitivity, or worse. Aside from this self-vaccination against disapproval, there is nothing else ingenious, thought-provoking, entertaining, or otherwise worthwhile about the show.

The comedy and underlying serious topics are presented with slapstick, 7th grade obviousness.

This is typical:

Between Two Knees (2019): Justin Gauthier (Larry). Photo by Jenny Graham.
Between Two Knees (2019): Justin Gauthier (Larry). Photo by Jenny Graham.

Yuk, yuk…. yuk.

More than anything else, Knees feels like a series of amateur vignettes presented together with a flimsy, white-people-cause-problems theme. There’s a not-so-subtle implication that if you don’t laugh and applaud at the stupidity on stage, then it’s because you’re white and insulted. It’s not because you didn’t like 7th grade humor when you were 12 years old, and it hasn’t grown on you since.

This was workshopped, revised, and refined? With actors? With writers? With anyone connected with a theater? Really? I want to see the workshop’s attendance sheet.

The 1491’s, an “intertribal Indigenous sketch comedy troupe”, is credited as the playwrights of the show. But, the performance feels like an improv show (a low-brow, dumb improv show) more than a play. That impression is strengthened by the flubbed lines, hesitant delivery, and breaking out of character that are the artistic hallmarks of this OSF American Revolutions co-commission.

But, I really don’t want to spend too much effort talking about the performance. After all, comments on a show should not take more effort than the creation of the dismal work that’s being commented on, right?

Between Two Knees is in the bottom 2 or 3 shows we’ve ever seen at OSF. If it were the worst (still Family Album) at least it could be proud of something. As it is, it is merely avoidable dreck.

Ozdachs rating:
0 out of 5 Syntaxes -- TERRIBLE!

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“Mother Road” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

World Premiere

by Octavio Solis
directed by Bill Rauch

Ashland, OR
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Mark Murphey (William Joad), Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes). Photo by Jenny Graham.
Mark Murphey (William Joad), Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes)
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

My subconscious has delayed my writing comments about Ashland’s Mother Road. I saw it opening night in early March, but I haven’t felt like it was time to write about the play. Not when I first saw it. Not when I got back home and had a chance to think about it. Not ever.

The problem is that I want to construct an enthusiastic collection of comments that matches the applause the audience — including me — gave opening night. And, I can’t. The importance of the story, the crafts, and the acting are all wonderful. But, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

The Ensemble of Mother Road. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The Ensemble of Mother Road
Photo by Jenny Graham, OSF.
Click on the photo for a larger version

The play does a reverse trip across “Mother Road”, Route 66, from the one John Steinbeck wrote about in 1939. This 80-years-later family story migrates the last surviving Joad back from California to the homestead in Oklahoma.

The Last of the Joads is Martin Jodes (Tony Sancho) whose Oklahoma ancestors wound up marrying into a Hispanic family and changing the spelling of their surname.

The play starts off with the penultimate Joad, William, (Mark Murphey) arriving in California from Oklahoma to meet Martin who has been identified by William’s attorney (Jeffrey King) as the family’s only living heir. White, white William has to be reassured by his attorney that DNA itself has confirmed the certainty of brown Martin’s kinship.

William is old and ill, and had set his lawyer on the quest to find a relative so that William could fulfill his promise to his mother that he’d keep the now-considerable Oklahoma farm in the biological family. William and Martin don’t exactly hit it off, but William persuades Martin to come back to the farm so he can take it over when William dies.

Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes) abd Mark Murphey (William Joad), Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes) and Mark Murphey (William Joad)
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

William and Martin start driving back to Oklahoma. We spend the rest of 2 1/2+ hours learning more about our two principals, meeting important people in Martin’s and William’s lives, adding some/most of these people to the car trip, and journeying back to OK.

We are treated to some truly great scenes between Murphey and Sancho. Murphey’s cranky Okie fits, and reminded me that Murphey was also perfect as Cassius. And, as the story goes on, he mellows and deepens in front of our eyes. His flashback interaction with his mother was brilliant.

Sancho is even richer in his scenes. He not only plays off Murphey, but also shines in revelatory moments with his friends and when acting out against injustice.

Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes), Amy Lizardo (Mo), Mark Murphey (William Joad), Cedric Lamar (James). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Tony Sancho (Martín Jodes), Amy Lizardo (Mo), Mark Murphey (William Joad),
Cedric Lamar (James). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

I feel like I should single out each actor for applause. In addition to the cast already mentioned, Cedric Lamar, Armando Durán, Catherine Castellanos, Amy Lizardo, Caro Zeller, and Fidel Gomez deserve raves. The actors were flawless.

Christopher Acebo’s set was simple, non-distracting, and appropriate. Perfect. The same kudos to Projection Designer Kaitlyn Pietras, Lighting Designer Pablo Santiago, and Composer and Sound Designer Paul James Prendergast.

All wonderful.

But, folks! There isn’t a moment when you even suspect an ending different from the one that shows up on stage.

The additional characters and stories are interesting and enriching, but not surprising or threatening or changing. If I was more literate, I suspect that some/all of them might mirror parts of Steinbeck. That would make them even more inventive/deep/something.

But, as good as the storytelling craft is — and it’s very good! — Mother Road doesn’t get me to connect. It feels a bit too structured, and a bit too pat.

Ozdachs rating:
4 out of 5 Syntaxes

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Day 189: Walkies!

Despite working seven days a week, Geoffrey has taken Auroara out on 23rd Street for her first two outside walks this past Sunday and the Sunday before. Her first excursion was on her six month birthday, and we took some pictures of that event.

Today, Auroara remembered that going out front was not the end of the world. She hung back a little at first, but after just one house, she was surveying the street and deciding that the front door world at least smelled interesting.

Auroara standing in a show pose as she looks downhill on 23rd Stree
Day 189 – Surveying the Street

She did quite well walking, sniffing, and exploring… until as we approached the corner, PEOPLE appeared! A gaggle of PEOPLE, with these strange-looking and acting small PEOPLE.

Auroara on 23rd St with young neighbor girls
Day 189 – Do I Trust Them?

The human girls were very patient and interested in Auroara. Unfortunately, our girl never gave in and decided it was okay to eat the treats the humans offered her.

Day 189 - Resisting Temptation
Day 189 – Resisting Temptation

As soon as the girls and their parents gave up, Auroara pulled on her leash to follow them stealthily, watching and making sure that their backs remained turned.

We hung back, though, and let the humans go up the hill unmolested.

Once home, Auroara showed no ill effects from the experience. She rejoined the pack and restarted her enjoyment of the day.

Auroara in the sun in the backyard.
Day 189 – Auroara in the Backyard Sun
(actually photographed before the walk)
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“Hairspray” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Hairspray

created and written by John Waters
book by Thomas Meehan and Mark O’Donnell
music by Marc Shaiman
directed by Christopher Liam Moore

Ashland, OR
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Hairspray production banner from OSF

Prepare to smile, laugh, feel good, applaud, and appreciate an uplifting story sung and danced into your heart by a strong, beautiful, coordinated cast. Get ready for a perfect production of a archetypal feel-good big musical.

Beyond the summary above, everything else is just dreary supporting detail.

The story has a socially marginalized fat girl scoring a position on a TV dance show that is a bastion of white privilege and teenage snottiness. She and her black friends break barriers and win the hearts of the hottest boys… and of the audience.

Hairspray Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

This OSF musical entertains, explains, and engages flawlessly. Director Christopher Liam Moore has created a unified, lively show that is excellent fun. Friends who have seen many productions, including on Broadway, said that this production was the best they’ve seen.

Everyone in the cast shines. I am especially happy to see veteran and returning Ashland actors sing and dance so well. Greta Oglesby (Motormouth Maybelle) is back!… in a moving, show-stopping way. We know the strong talent of Jonathan Luke Stevens (Link Larkin) and Eddy Lopez (Corny Collins) from large musical roles in prior years. And, K.T. Vogt (Prudy Pingleton), Daniel Parker (Edna Turnblad), Brent Hinckley (Harriman F. Spritzer), Chritian Bufford (Seaweed Stubbs), and David Kelly (Wilbur Turnblad) have been characters in earlier OSF musical productions — some of them meaty. Did I know that Kate Mulligan (Velma) has so much musical talent? I do now.

Greta Oglesby (Motormouth Maybelle) and David Kelly (Wilbur Turnblad). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Greta Oglesby (Motormouth Maybelle) and David Kelly (Wilbur Turnblad).
Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The new-to-OSF performers are also incredibly talented. My favorite, no surprise, is Katy Geraghty (Tracy Turnblad) who amazes with her hot, heavy moves. She amply fills the starring role!

The crafts supporting the cast created a coherent, comfortable, over-the-top collage of activity. The set is simple, but happily garish. It complements the too-much (but just right for this show) costumes. Just look (and click on the picture to see a larger version… if your eyes can handle it):

Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Ensemble. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

All-in-all Hairspray is a flawless, feel-good musical romp. I have no suggestions for improvement — I believe OSF’s production delivers everything possible from the show!

Now, I don’t think you leave the theater changed. The “everyone’s included in our dance party” feels uplifting, but it’s mainstream snowflake propaganda that doesn’t deliver any revelations. Hairspray is a musical version of Green Book — a white-written, cross-racial, happy buddy story.

Still, the OSF production fulfills all the promises of the show. The writing, music, and execution are definitely on the top of the happy-musical genre. Everyone leaves the theater cherry, signing, and smiling. Hairspray deserves its standing ovation.

Ozdachs rating:
5 out of 5 Syntaxes

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