“Oliver Twist” a low-lit classical canvas; “Take Me Out” for the ballgame’s sake, you must see it; “Jersey Boys” you can’t take your eyes off them!

by Buzzin Lee Hartgrave on May 25, 2007

JERSEY BOYS – SECOND TIME AROUND …NO SHOW IS COOLER!

YEP, IT’S TRUE – YOU CAN’T TAKE YOUR EYES OFF OF THEM. On the Curran Stage there is so much going on in ‘Jersey Boys’ that it keeps you busy trying to watch everything. This is my second visit to “Boys”. I decided to check it out again with the new cast. I did, and was just as ‘wowed’ as I was the first time. I was amazed at how many things I saw this time, that I didn’t see the first time. The sound was so great, that I did not miss a word. It was clear as a bell. Everything you’ve heard about this show is true – and then some. It’s sexy, outrageous and legendary.

The secret is out! This new cast is a ‘Dream Cast’ that brings incendiary energy to the stage. I couldn’t believe the lighting the first time I saw “Jersey Boys” – and I was still almost knocked out of the seat with the super effects.

Jeremy Kushnier (Tommy De Vito) is hypnotic as the mover and shaker of getting the group together. Kushnier really is the “Key” to setting up the New Jersey tone of the musical. He’s simply one of the best actors seen on the stage in years. Another actor that will stay in your mind for a long time is Drew Gehling as composer/genius Bob Gaudio who wrote many of the hit songs for the Four Seasons. Jarrod Spector is outstanding as the young Frankie Valli with the falsetto voice. The entire cast is sensationally sexy and astounding.

Here is a sample of the fabulous songs that leave images that tear at the heart – ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, ‘Bye Bye Baby’, ‘Walk Like a Man’, ‘Earth Angel’ and about twenty-five more ‘Four Seasons’ hits. Oh, it’s so great to bask in the days when love songs were really love songs. You’ll want to see it over again. Once is just not enough.

RATING: FOUR GLASSES OF CHAMPAGNE!!!! (Highest Rating) –trademarked-
Jeremy Kushnier is a recipient of The Lee Hartgrave Fame Award for best acting – Jersey Boys.

TAKE ME OUT …but make sure it’s a Ballgame or I ain’t going

Jeffrey Cohlman in ‘Take Me Out’. Photo Lois Tema

Ah, the smell of Hotdogs in the air and the smell of sweat in the Locker Room. That’s what a Ball Game is all about. It fills your senses with memories of all the above and more. This is a back stage story. To be exact – it’s a ‘Locker Room’ story where the boys of summer delight in horseplay and looking at each other’s horses. Of course, ever so discretely. “Take Me Out” was the winner of the Tony Award for Best Play in 2003. The story by Richard Greenberg is complex and brings out many issues about how a guy can be your best friend for years, until you come out and he finds you disgusting because you are gay. Hey, you’re still the same guy – and you are not interested in your friend sexually, but that doesn’t matter when you come out in a Locker Room with F—d up Macho guys.

And guess what – of all people, the star center fielder of the Champion New York Empires decides to come out. He is rich, famous, talented and popular. His teammates question why he decided to announce that he is gay. Did he really expect them to pat him on the ass and say, gee…that’s great Darren. He didn’t expect them to run the other way from him, but that is exactly what they did.

Take Me Out is a very sensitive play, and Ed Decker has really done a remarkable job of fleshing out all the little nuances. “Take Me Out” is an extremely emotional and engrossing play that can fall apart easily if not directed well. I have seen this play on Broadway and at the Golden Gate Theatre, and this production sports a splendid cast. Gee, heck – instead of reviewing it, I wish I could just send you a ticket.

‘Take Me’ does have ‘adult themes and nudity’. So what’s the problem? What else would you expect to see in a Locker Room? They don’t play softball in all that steam, you know. But don’t worry – your virginity will still be intact. Just say to yourself during the shower scene – if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. And leave the Viagra at home.

Speaking of the Shower Scene. The guys — nude of course take showers in the show. It is really very poetic and beautiful. Showering can be such fun, and at times brutal. I’ll leave that to you to figure out. Though this is a serious play – there is some comic relief provided by Patrick Michael Dukeman (Mason Marzac), who is the business manager of the ‘falling star’ ball player Darren Lemming (Brian J. Patterson). He’s lots of fun and can hardly control himself every time Darren walks in the door. He’s just your normal, well maybe not normal, overprotective, overbearing, over the top business manager who happens to have the hots for you. This is the first time that I have seen the ‘role’ go to this extreme, but it does bring some needed comic relief. Yeh, there was the same character on Broadway, but very subdued.

This guys gonna be a big star. That would be Jeffrey Cohlman as the dumb hillbilly ball player. Cohlman manages to recreate the dialogue that you would be used to hearing in a little mountain town in Kentucky. He’s absolutely amazing. He’s a tight wire that’s ready to snap, and you don’t want to be close when he does. He’s masterful as Shane Mungitt who was bounced around from Foster Home to Foster home. The only thing that saves him is that he is a great Pitcher…and he may lose that.

“Take Me Out” is thoroughly Invigorating. Hey, Go! Somebody’s got to catch the Ball or two!

RATING: FOUR GLASSES OF CHAMPAGNE!!!! (Highest Rating) –trademarked-
At the New Conservatory Theatre
Jeffrey Cohlman is a recipient of the Lee Hartgrave Fame Award — best actor – “Take Me Out.”

OLIVER TWIST – INFINITELY REWARDING

Will Lebow, Michael Wartella, Elizabeth Jasicki, Carson Elron in Oliver Twist. Photo Kevin Berne

To play Oliver Twist you need soulful eyes and a pretty face. And on the Berkeley Rep stage they have found the perfect Oliver with Michael Wartella. This is a very dark “Twist’ Not that it is supposed to be a happy go-lucky time for Orphans, but the Sun never shines in Oliver’s World.

Carson Elrod plays the Artful Dodger with glee and is also the narrator. He bounces around the stage like he’s on springs. Elrod has lots of spark and energy going on – not to mention the tons of tricks stored in his Top Hat. There are plenty of bad guys and deceptive women in the Dickens’s story. It’s a swirling world of cheats and drifters and the intrigue never lets up in this Neil Bartlett adaptation. He’s had plenty of experience with “Twist”. He also directed the successful original London production. The set is dingy and darkly lit — sure sets the tone for the play. It’s a low-lit classical canvas. You actually get the feeling that you are being dragged into dungeon like hideouts where ‘Oliver’ spends most of his time, being cruelly abused. Well, it does take place in 1830’s London. If you were not privileged then you were pretty much left to your own street smarts to get food. Not easy to do with so many pick pockets around.

Rae Smith has designed some really impressive rags for the actors, which add immensely to the Rags to Riches aspect of the story. Oliver’s story starts when his mother dies at a young age. He is sent to an orphanage run by the Bumble’s, a husband and wife who are cruel and non-caring. Les Miz, the musical liked the idea so much that they used similar characters as the comic relief. Oliver, sent on an errand, comes across the “Artful Dodger” who takes him to “Fagin” (Ned Eisenberg) – the ringleader of a pack of rough and tumble, unsavory crooks. Director Bartlett has encouraged the actors to be ‘over the top’ to give it that kind of music hall flavor. And it works marvelously. It’s High Melodrama with whipped cream on top. Eisenberg gives a Tour-De-Force performance that is defiantly untamed as the clever and plotting crook that can take a handkerchief out of your pocket without your feeling a thing. He’s the one to watch. It’s a great stage performance.

Some have complained that they wish they could have heard at little bit of the song “Pick-a-Pocket or Two” from the musical. Bartlett’s rendition of “Twist” is a play with incidental music (by Gerald McBurney.) Nothing that you can hum — but pleasing non-the-less. I guess they didn’t read the part where it says that it is a play. This Oliver Twist is an outstanding rendering of the Dickens’s story. It’s full of imagination and the actors have done a stellar job of bringing out the plays darker undercurrents. Talk about magnetic – try to pull yourself away from this one.

RATING: FOUR GLASSES OF CHAMPAGNE!!! (Highest Rating) –trademarked-

Ned Eisenberg is a recipient of the Lee Hartgrave FAME Award for Best Performance — Oliver Twist.

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Buzzin’ Lee Hartgrave

Buzzin’ Lee Hartgrave is a longtime theater critic in the San Francisco Bay Area. His reviews appear each Friday in Beyond Chron.

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