Phantom – “Thrilling!”; Dame Edna – “Hilarious!”; Evie’s Waltz Extended – “Hypnotic!”; Buzzin’s “Hit-O-Meter”

by Buzzin' Lee Hartgrave on December 5, 2008


The Phantom of the Opera is one of the most intriguing stories of all time. Set in Paris in the 1900’s, a Phantom takes refuge in the underbelly of a Majestic Opera House. His story is sad. As a young man he was beaten, abused and is disfigured. He hides in the dark caverns where water runs under the Opera House to keep prying eyes away from him. But, he is not just a homeless man. He is a brilliant musician and composer and seems to make a decent living by scaring the Hell out of the owners of the Opera House with threats of violence if they don’t pay a tribute to him. He only comes out at night to make music and to tutor his protégée, Christine Diaa.

Problems arise when a long-time boyfriend (Raoul) of Christine’s shows up at one of the Opera’s that Christine is in. The Phantom goes berserk. His jealousy makes his threats on the Opera House and everyone in it come true. From then on, the musical is nail-bitingly tense.

Every aspect of the musical is unbelievably breathtaking. There are the magnificent colorful costumes and the surprising special effects. Blasts of fire hit the stage at one point. It was so vivid. You could actually feel the heat from the flames. Scary stuff. Then there is the Chandelier that is hoisted up to the top of the Theatre and hangs precariously over the audience. I noticed several uneasy theatergoers glance up every once in a while to make sure that it wasn’t moving. They really got scared — when it does come crashing down within inches of their heads.

The singers were absolutely fabulous. They took this amazingly beautiful score and made it even more sensual and exciting. Their voices were very strong. This is a musical that WILL have you humming the tunes. Especially outstanding is when Christine, who is alone in a graveyard sings “Wishing You Were Here Again.” What a fabulous voice. It was so good, that the Phantom peeks around from a Tomb. There is a struggle between the Phantom and Raul who were both lurking around. See the thing is Christine – you know what they say – ‘be careful, you might get what you wish for.’

There are many humorous moments in the show, especially the repartee between the owners of the Opera House. Also very funny, is the overweight Opera Singer (Carlotta), who is the star – but doesn’t have the greatest voice in the world. She is a joy to watch and listen to – and at the end of the show, she got rousing applause. I would say it was even with the Applause the Phantom got.

PHANTOM is Gothic bliss. The fog machines are doing double duty as the smoky stuff wisps around the candelabras. Every scene is an atmospheric vision as the Phantom pursues Christine in the underground cavern. Even creepier is when he rows a boat through the canal as she sits (all in white) like a virgin being rowed to the unflowering. He really is in love with his protégée, and she seems to be falling under his spell. But, she wants to know what is behind the mask, so she pulls it off as he plays the organ. Bad idea. He goes into a violent rage, and basically descends into madness. Can Raoul save Christine? Can Christine sing her way out of the darkness? Well, I don’t want to give away the ending. You’ll just have to see it for yourself. I guarantee you – it will bring you to your feet. This Phantom of the Opera is Elegant and chilling. And here is an astonishing sound achievement. The Theatre has speakers hidden everywhere that give the feeling that the Phantom is talking from the Caverns, next to you or in the back of the Theater. It is a stunning exploration of the shadowy.

Here’s the deal: “You can’t tear yourself away from these characters. It’s electrifying!”

PLEASE MEET THE TERRIFIC CAST: JOHN CUDIA IS THE PHANTOM. His ‘The Music of the Night; came dangerously close to causing mass fainting. TRISTA MOLDOVAN IS CHRISTINE. When she sings ‘Think of me’ – “you are definitely hooked and can think of nothing else!” KYLE BARISH IS RAOUL: “His duet (All I Ask of You) with Christine is fantastic!” KIM STENGEL IS CARLOTTA (The Diva). She gives the role “new freshness and is uproariously funny!” ANNE KANENGEISER IS MADAME GIRY, the stern Dance Madame and Christine’s friend. She is mysterious. One minute you trust her and the next? “The acting is unique and engaging! — in this complex character.” Also in Star performances are D.C. Anderson, Bruce Winant, John Whitney, Jimmy Smagula, Jessi Ehrlich and Kelly Jeanne Grant. “Without their huge, powerful talents, this show could not make it.” Add the rest of the company – and you’ll see one of the best productions of the Phantom of the Opera in the world.


RATING: FOUR GLASSES OF CHAMPAGNE!!!! (highest rating) –trademarked-

(((Lee Hartgrave has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Datebook and produced a long-running Arts Segment of PBS KQED)))

Dame Edna throwing flowers at the audience. Courtesy Photo.


No one is safe from Dame Edna’s insidious charm. At the beginning of the show, the Dame says off stage: “I know that all Theaters tell you before the show starts to shut your cell phones off and that Text Messaging is not allowed. Here, we encourage you to talk all you want on your cell phone. Have people call you up, and text all you want. It’s encouraged. Of course, we will unceremoniously have you removed from the audience!”

It all starts with a lavish Video of Dame Edna showing her at a young age and beyond. The Video is entitled “True Hollywood Stories” – and shows how hilariously perceptive this ‘Dame’ is. In the same vein – it occurred to me, that the Dame could do a take-off on the ending scene of the movie “Chicago”. Toting a Gun, with blazing lights in the background — she would be a hoot. Talk about Razzle Dazzle – Edna already has the sparkling outfits.

Purple is her thing. The magnificent Curtains and Drapes on each side of the stage and at the back of the stage flow over to the Dame’s Hair that is a brilliant purple. Her outrageous Costumes vary from bright red to sexy blue. And of course there are the bejeweled glasses that give her that look of ‘privilege.’ And believe me, she takes advantage of that.

She looks plaintively at the Balcony. There is a sort of a “poor darlings” sound in her voice, as she addresses the “Needy”. “Poor Possums” she says – “They are the Les Miserable group — all Stock Market Investors. Hang onto the railings Possums, things may eventually turn around for you.” Yep, the Dame is Don Rickles in Drag.

She invites people up to the stage who will be skewered, as she charms them with viper charm. Luring the Lambs from the audience is a work of art. They are reluctant at first, but then succumb to her tricky ways. There is no way that I would ever get on the stage with The Dame. With her sweet words she wraps her charm around you – and then it’s the gloves come off, as she says to one of the guests from the audience, who she has just offered wine to. “Careful of the wine Possum, you don’t want anymore stains on that outfit.” And to an older Gentlemen, she asks him how old are you Senior?” He tells her: Edna says: “Really? – I would have guessed older.” Yep, in spite of her sweetness and light – Edna is mean spirited. However, she plays her victims like a violin, making it seem perfectly all right to insult. How does she get away with it? Well, it seems that the Dame has a vast understanding of personalities. She knows what will work and what won’t.

She calls her show ‘Live and Intimate’. To prove it – she asks a man to touch her hand. “Go ahead Possum, I’m real. Touch me. The show is all about being intimate.” He reaches out touches her hand. She gets a fainting look on her face and smells her hand after he lets go. “Where have you been fondling Possum – something in between? It has a cheesy smell to it.” I could explain this further, but I think you can come to your own conclusion.

“What a handsome audience. Their faces are like flowers – Cactus!” She doesn’t want to leave anyone out. Everyone gets zapped one way or another. Zooming in on a woman in the audience Edna quips: “You’re Gorgeous, but you look like a woman with special needs.”

To another Audience member: “Describe what you’re wearing dear.” When the lady couldn’t describe it. Edna helps out. “Oh, I see – affordable! You remind me so much of myself – I used to make my own things.”

She brings up a Livermore, Ca Baker to the stage. “What’s the name of your bakery? She asks. “Little Lover,” – he says. So Edna gives him one of those ‘wise’’ looks, then she decides to marry off the guy to a stranger (a woman) who has just lost her husband. Wait, it gets even more bizarre. It’s Midnight in New York, and she calls the woman’s daughter to give her the good news that her mother has just married a Baker. All this takes place over a speakerphone, so that the whole audience can listen in. Very funny repartee!

To a Pacific Heights socialite that was in the Audience the Dame sez: “You look so Pacific Heights. You smell so Duty Free.” At the end of the show Dame Edna brings out bundles of Gladiolus that she tosses out into the audience. The audience loves it – and grabs the air furiously for a free flower. “These are for you Possums. They are organically grown in my own manure.” Now, how’s that for good taste and political incorrectness? Dame Edna should run for President. “It’s the perfect Holiday show and extra Hilarious!”


RATING: FOUR GLASSES OF CHAMPAGNE!!!! (highest rating) –trademarked-

(((Lee Hartgrave has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Datebook and produced a long-running Arts Segment on PBS KQED)))

Marielle Heller, Julie Brothers in Evie’s Waltz. Photo: David Allen


The play starts out with a typical suburban family that seems to be ready to enjoy an afternoon on their private patio. Clay (the Husband) is preparing veggie kebabs. However, what looks like a tranquil afternoon with a few drinks on the patio, soon turns out be an afternoon of tension as you squirm around in your seat and wonder what is going to happen next? Gloria (the Wife) seems to drink a little too much, and she has reason to be cynical. Perhaps the drinking is to help her get over the fact that her son, who is now 15-years-old is a little terrorist. He is uncontrollable and he has a gun. Dad, on the other hand is in denial. He thinks that this is just rites of passage that will soon go away. “Danny’s still the little boy that he was” – He tells his wife. Well, Dad is wrong. There is no denying that Danny is a little S—t and a dangerous one.

They start to get the idea that something is terribly wrong with Danny when he shoots some homemade plates that hang on the wall of the house. They can’t see him, but he can see them from the trees somewhere out there.

In bursts Danny’s girlfriend “Evie” who has just killed her own mother. She has blood on her when she comes over to Danny’s house. Danny is still out there somewhere in the bushes. Evie and Danny are worse than “Bonnie and Clyde” – at least they killed for money, but these two whacko’s with their mixed up brain cells have convinced themselves that they are ridding the world of people who are not like them. You know the type – they are in every school in the City. No matter what City it is. Schools are a dangerous place to send your children to because of nut cases like Evie and Danny, who have made a map of the school and all the exits that they can lock, when they decide to shoot whoever comes down the hall. Their plan is that there will be no escape.

I have to tell you, there are times during the play that it literally takes your breath away. The rifle ‘sights’ are not just aimed at the players on the stage, but at the audience as well. This play and the spine chilling visuals are so powerful, that you begin to be part of this cat and mouse drama. And if that doesn’t scare the hell of you, I don’t know what will.

Here are the things that Danny’s mother has charged Evie with? Credit Fraud, Taking Fire Arms to School, and making Maps of the school. Evie’s response: “We have a plan.” Here would be my plan. When Danny is focusing his rifle on his Dad and his Mom and Evie, I wanted to shout out – “Shoot Her” (Evie). Of course this is testament of how good the acting was if that got that kind of reaction from me. Evie, is not a nice person.

And where does the “Evie’s Waltz” part come in? Well, apart from the fact that the Austrian church and establishment condemned the waltz. At the time it was considered a forbidden, even erotic dance. Even Queen Victoria banned it. The young however, adored it. And it also is Danny’s favorite music. So, in sort of a dance of death, Evie grabs hold of Clay (Danny’s father) and they dance to the soaring music of a Strauss Waltz. Yes, this Carter W. Lewis play is beautiful and horrifying at the same time. I’ve no doubt that someone will make it into a movie. Loretta Greco’s direction is a triumph. Greco brings out the special exuberance and authenticity of the actors.

MEET THE GOLD PLATED CAST: Darren Bridgett (Clay). Unforgettable acting that is subtle and nuanced. “Powerful and moving!” Julia Brothers (Gloria) – Her varied emotions are a thrill to watch. Brothers, is “Terrific!” Marielle Heller (Evie) – you hate the character, but love the bone chilling performance. “ Mesmerizing!” Where is Danny and Evie’s mother? We never see them, or hear them, but they are definitely a necessary part of the story. You feel their presence.

This family drama builds up to stunning and crashing emotions. It’s one of the best plays this year. The Magic Theatre is off to a winning season.

RATING: FOUR GLASSES OF CHAMPAGNE!!!! (highest rating) –trademarked-
(((Lee Hartgrave has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Datebook and produced a long-running Arts Segment on PBS KQED)))


IT’S A RARE TREAT! Master American playwright, John Guare will be part of the Koret Visiting Artist Series. At A.C.T. He will be in residence at the gorgeous A.C.T.: A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN GUARE. This is exciting. John Guare will be part of the Koret Visiting Artist Series. He will be in residence at A.C.T. Theatre on Geary Street in preparation for the first major revival of his really, really funny “Rich and Famous.” Guare has made significant rewrites to his original 1976 text. The conversation with Guare will take place on the American Conservatory Stage on Saturday, Dec. 13, 2009, at 10am.

NEW YORK TIMES REVIEW OF ‘WHITE CHRISTMAS’ STARRING CHARLES DEAN. White Christmas “wowed” audiences in San Francisco for two seasons. But the New York Times reviewer said: “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is as conscientiously G-rated a musical as you’ll find on Broadway. Still, it ought to have an audience advisory – for diabetics.” Buzzin’ thinks that Christmas is just not this reviewers, thing. Sure it’s light and fluffy, but what is Christmas? It’s supposed to be light, fun, fluffy and sweet – Scrooge!


EVIE’S WALTZ HAS BEEN EXTENDED DUE TO POPULAR DEMAND. The sleek surefire thriller is a ‘cat and mouse’ story that has a snap ending. This play is more than “shocking” – it’s a nail biter! … At The Magic Theatre in Fort Mason thru Dec. 21st, 2009.

JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE is still packing them in at The Berkeley Rep. This is a terrific, thrilling drama, that will keep you talking about it for weeks and weeks. Actually, it never really leaves your mind. It’s that powerful.

AS BEES IN HONEY DROWN at The New Conservatory Theatre. Andrew Nance does a fabulous directing job on this story about a young gay New York writer that falls into the clutches of a glamorous woman whose sting is fatal. It’s diabolical fun! It’s a blast!

THE ARABIAN NIGHTS AT THE BERKELEY REP. This ancient tale is spiced up in the Mary Zimmerman take on Arabian stories. It’s a sexy Magic Carpet that goes wild. Very Theatrical! I’m sure that you’re gonna love it.

THE DEVIL’S DISCIPLE at The Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. Wow! What fun awaits you in this riveting play. Gabe Marin stars as the “Disciple” and he’s a gusher of talent. This is a compelling show that is charged with vitality, wit and wisdom. See it while you can, it closes this Sunday.

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The Photo of Lee Hartgrave Boy Reporter is by Jim Ferreira – Film Noir & Hollywood Glamour.



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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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