February 20, 2009


To the left is a scene from "A Delicate Balance"

Pictured (above:) Vassily (Jack Willis) tries to
reach out to his two children. (Patrick Russell) and Natalie Hegg. Lodger (Liz Sklar) gives moral support. Photo: David Wilson

Pictured: Judy Kaye in Souvenir (left)
Photo by: www.ashleyforrette.com

Buzzin’ Lee Hartgrave
Feb. 20, 2009

Souvenir – “A laugh-a-minute!”
‘Philistines’ – “Provocative!”
Edward Albee’s worst play
Oscar predictions 2009



Florence Foster Jenkins may not be the great singer that she thinks she was – but even being tone deaf to music – she is effortlessly entertaining. Judy Kaye plays the off-tune Diva in a deliciously twisted way. The look on her face when she sings to the audience is something that You Tube watchers would just revel over. Of course they didn’t have You Tube then – but now would be a good time to put her record up there.

Jenkins was a rich widow, who was convinced that she was one of the world’s great sopranos. However, whatever she heard in her head – is not what the audience heard. For quite a while, she gave small recitals at the Ritz Carlton Ballroom, where she also lived. The word spread around about this eccentric rich woman who wore fantastic costumes and couldn’t sing her way out of a paper bag. Soon, proposals came around to Jenkins to appear in bigger Venues. One offer was to sing at “Town Hall”, but her piano-playing accompanist talked her out of it. He was afraid that if the Media attended – they would destroy her in print. You see, Jenkins had no idea that people came to see her because she was such a bad singer, that it was pure enjoyment to hear her bark out famous Arias. They were doubled up with laughter. Just like the audience did on opening night at A.C.T. Jenkins elevated Opera to a whole new level, even though she was not aware of it. Jenkins didn’t see or hear the laughter. All she knew is that they applauded her wildly.

Her breakout performance came when she was asked to appear at Carnegie Hall. Just the thought of it sent shivers down the spine of Cosme (Donald Corren). He was afraid that the Media would destroy her and him. He was a serious composer and musician and was afraid that he would never be able to work again. He gives in – and the Carnegie Hall appearance was a huge success. It was sold out wall-to-wall. She became New York’s Super Opera Diva. Everyone was imitating her. She made a record (an Album) of her songs and played them over endlessly in her Posh New York apartment at The Ritz Carlton. Not knowing much about a Gramophone, she frequently scratched the surface of the ‘record’ by scraping the needle over the surface. She had not idea what she was doing.

This musical story is a wonderful treat. I have never really seen anything like it. And, if you want to get yourself into a good mood – then I would recommend this moving and hilarious play.

Judy Kaye is just charming and hilarious. Her Foster Jenkins is a stunning masterpiece.
Cosme (Donald Corren) is marvelous as he narrates the Jenkins story from his Piano. Corren, who is a great pianist and singer is fantastical as he cringes at the sounds that come out of Foster Jenkins. He is funny and poignant at the same time. Remarkable!

You’ll leave the Theater with good vibes and perhaps a new appreciation for the “Tin Ear.”


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

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



Now I know where Tennessee Williams got his inspiration. He got it from ‘Philistines’ the Maxim Gorky comedy (1902), adapted by Andrew Upton. Although the story takes place in Russia – it could have just as well been on a plantation as in “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.” The similarities are quite stunning. Jack Willis as the head of the household of a troubled family gives an equal parts performance that is nuanced with lots of bluster. And like “Cat” everyone in the family has problems with him -- and with other members of the family. However, that is not to say that this is not exciting theater. I would call it riveting.

The truly amazing set takes us to the time of the 1900’s with old family photos hanging from a wire grid that serves as a room divider. The musical interludes (background mostly) move this engaging play along at a fast clip. You hardly notice that over two hours have gone by. The bossy patriarch Vassily Bessemenov (Willis) has a hate/love relationship with his rebel son, and his daughter that is always looking for love. Sharon Lockwood (his wife) flutters around him (Vassily) to try to sooth things over. Still sounds a lot like “Cat” to me.

To spice things up – a boarder that stays in this volatile house is considered to be of ‘loose morals’. Which of course displeases “Daddy” because she takes up with one of his sons. Well, you know how kids are – they always want to do the opposite of what you want them to do. But that doesn’t stop the Lion (Daddy) from roaring. Of course it’s the complex relationships that keep you clued to the chair. This tangled tale is wonderfully inventive and superbly directed by Richard E.T. White.

You don’t need a second opinion. Just take my word for it: The cast in ‘Philistines’ is terrific. Jack Willis is a ‘knockout’! Sharon Lockwood excels again! Philip Martinson is unbelievably good! Robert Ernst is brilliant! Liz Sklar (who is called a “slut” in the play by Lockwood) – is a luminous spark! Briannie Bond (the Servant) is humorous and moving at the same time! Patrick Russell – intense! Also great is Rondrell McCormick and Philip Martinson. This is a strong and vivid play with powerful actors.

Presented by The A.C.T. Master of fine Arts Program performing at the Zeum Theater.

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

FUN FACT: OTHERS HAVE RE-WRITTEN PLAYS OR STORIES: ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS IS ‘PEYTON PLACE’. IT WOULD SEEM TO THE READER THAT IT IS ALMOST THE SAME STORY AS ‘KINGS ROW’ (Ronald Reagan) starred in the movie version. The Author even took the name of the one of the Characters from Kings Row (Mr. Peyton) and used it as the title of her best selling book. Can you guess who that author was?



ALBEE’S WORST PLAY (my opinion)

It seems to me that Albee does some recycling of his own. “A Delicate Balance” is just recycled from Virginia Woolf (a huge success). It appears that Albee wrote Virginia Woolf first and wrote “Balance” afterward. He is not the only one who re-writes their own plays and musicals and calls them something else. It is done all the time. Jerry Herman borrowed music from one show to put into another. In some cases all this taking from themselves has created some very interesting entertainment. But in this case “Balance” uses a somewhat same plot as ‘Virginia’ and turns out a badly written play. Both plays have all the same elements. There is the incessant drinking and arguing. A love between a couple that became boring a long time ago and a neighbor couple that comes over to join in the misery. Plus the main character is very professorial – just like in “Woolf.” The screaming at each other is tempered in ‘Balance’.

The second act gets even more dull and ridiculous. After having too many drinks the husband of the unhappy married couple gets on his hands and knees and begs the neighbor to stay in their house with him and his wife (drinking does that to you.) This he does after telling his neighbors to get out of the house. You see, the couple down the street (best friends) asked to stay with the unhappy couple after they had to leave their house, because something or someone frightened them. We never find out what. But after staying with these two nut cakes, they decided that they would go back home. Hey, one night would have done it for me.

Albee was honored as “America’s greatest playwright.” They should take that award back. Tennesse Williams was a great playwright – but not Albee. To me, he was just a one hit wonder, with his success with Woolf (dragged out every few years in a revised edition). Some newspapers are now refusing to review ‘Plays’ unless it is new material. They no longer want to use up their ink on plays that have been reviewed a zillion times. New stuff is the rage these days.

So, lets just call “A Delicate Balance” Virginia Woolf Light. The Custom Made Theatre Company did all they could to squeeze something fantastic out of this play. But they wasted their considerable talents to put it on.

I love little Theater productions, especially for the intimacy of it. However even with terrific actors in a play – there must be a compelling story. ‘Balance’ is stale and went nowhere. I heard it all before in the bombastic Virginia Woolf. But, I did enjoy the thoroughly engaging and compelling cast: They are: Jean Forsman, Dennis McIntyre, Shelley Lynn Johnson, Stuart Elwyn Hall, AJ Davenport and Leah S. Abrams. They pulled out all the stops and made this play better than it really is.



Taraji P. Henson (Best Supporting Actress) for “Benjamin Button”. Henson is good – but the winner should be Penelope Cruz for “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”. Supporting Actor will be a landslide for Heath Ledger in ‘The Dark Knight”. Hollywood always has had an infinity for death. Best Actor: It will be Mickey Rourke for “The Wrestler”. Some think it will be Sean Penn for “Milk” – but Penn has already won an award. Hollywood likes to gives awards to actors that have had a hard life. Kate Winslet will win Best Actress for “The Reader”. Previously I had said that the Best Picture Award would go to “Benjamin Button” – a film that I consider the Best this year. But, the winner will be “Slumdog Millionaire.” Hollywood also likes “Cinderella Stories” Now I will put away my magic pick up sticks that told me the winners.

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