The Arts
November 29-December 5, 2006

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Bravo, Brava!

'Sunshine Boys' and 'West Side Story'--stellar stage

By David Templeton

Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys is one of those shows that lives or dies on the experience and excellence of its cast. The play, which premiered in 1972 and was made into an Oscar-winning film in 1975, features two of Simon's trickiest, most difficult-to-play characters. Al Lewis and Willie Clark are aging vaudevillians, legendary one-time comedy partners who've not spoken to one another in over 11 years, but are brought together one last time for a live television show celebrating the history of comedy.

They are irritable, irrational, forgetful, frustrating, stubborn, selfish, angry, sorry, sick and (in one of their cases) borderline senile. There are very few actors who can take a complex heap of traits such as these and play them all competently and believably, and even fewer who can then make the whole thing funny. And this play demands two of them.

In the Pacific Alliance Stage Company's first-rate production of The Sunshine Boys, under the confident direction of Hector Correa, the lead actors achieve more than mere competence. As Lewis and Clark, veteran Bay Area actors Bob Parnell and Will Marchetti give what probably will go down as the best two performances of the year, not just in the North Bay, but anywhere.

If that sounds like hyperbole, let me add that since January of this year, I've seen more than 65 plays across the Bay Area, several in Ashland and a dozen in Los Angeles, and though I have been dazzled by some of the performances I've seen, none has matched the lived-in brilliance and convincing humanity of these two performances. In the movie version, Lewis and Clark were played by George Burns and Walter Matthau. They were good; Burns won an Oscar. Parnell and Marchetti are better.

Thankfully, the supporting players are no slouches. As Ben Silverman, Clark's long-suffering nephew and would-be agent, Sam Misner holds his own against the old-timers, and though his character exists primarily as the straight man to the two feisty vaudevillians, Misner delivers his share of Simon's patented one-liners with plenty of zing and polish. Shannon Veon Kase gives two spirited performances, first as a comically sex-pot nurse in the duo's television sketch, and then as a no-nonsense registered nurse who appears later in the play. As the TV show's harried director and stagehand, Daniel Riviera and David Wigginton, respectively, deliver the goods in small but important parts. For fans of sure-footed acting that avoids the pitfalls of artificial flash and hamminess, this is the show to see.

One more current example of top-notch performances in difficult shows can be found in Santa Rosa Junior College's sensational staging of the Romeo and Juliet-informed West Side Story, another show that depends on solid performances to save it from embarrassing failure. From the opening moments of the show--impressively directed by Leira V. Satlof--one knows this is not just a run-of-the-mill JC theater effort. The outrageously acrobatic street-fight choreography by Lara Branen would challenge and exhaust Broadway professionals, but the athletic young cast of street toughs is up to the task, led by Guy Henry as the Jets' passive-aggressive gang leader Riff and Eduardo Rico as the Shark's angry-charming Bernardo.

In the lead role of Tony, the love-struck ex-gang member who falls for the Puerto Rican sister of Bernardo, Zachary Franczak plays the innocent, dreamier side of the character to good effect. As a singer, Franczak grows stronger with each number in the show, and is especially moving in the beautiful love song "Maria" and the stirring duet "One Hand, One Heart."

Emily Brown as Maria, however, walks off with the show. Though still in high school, she is nothing short of electrifying. Her singing is superbly confident, and you will be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful rendition of "I Have a Love." As an actress, she is heartbreakingly convincing and heartbreakingly genuine.

With West Side Story as a follow-up to last month's remarkable Last Days of Judas Iscariot, the JC's sometimes underambitious theater arts program appears to be well on its way to a very strong year. Good for them, and good for us.

'The Sunshine Boys' runs through Dec. 10 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. Thursday at 7:30pm; Friday-Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2:30pm. $18-$21; Thursday, $16. 707.588.3400. 'West Side Story' runs Wednesday-Sunday through Dec. 3 at Santa Rosa Junior College's Burbank Auditorium, 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. Nov. 29-30 and Dec. 1-2 at 8pm; also Dec. 2-3 at 2pm. $8-$15. 707.527.4343.

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