Capsule Reviews 

Our critics weigh in on local theater

Aida -- This Disney version by Sir Elton John and Sir Tim Rice is to the original opera what The Pirate Movie was to Gilbert & Sullivan: Verdi goes Vegas, the award-winning score a forgettable pastiche of Grease rock, R&B lite, and Elton's idea of gospel. But the Willows production by managing director Andrew Holtz gives it the old razzle-dazzle, the canned music offset by choreographer Colette Eloi's lively dance numbers and universally strong singing, if unevenly miked. Particularly powerful are Megan Ross, delightfully flighty as Egyptian princess Amneris, and a haunted Dawn Troupe-Masi as the enslaved Nubian princess Aida. There's no real chemistry with Jeff Leibow as Aida's bland Egyptian lover, and Hector S. Quintana has two modes as the villainous Zoser -- throwing his head back in an evil laugh or snarling and clenching his fists. The gold-striped set by Tom Benson is agreeably flashy, as are Loran Watkins' costumes, suggesting Egypt by way of Flash Gordon. -- S.H. (Through March 26 at the Willows Theatre; 925-798-1300 or

Casino! -- It's hard to fathom what made librettist and producer Judith Offer and composer Joyce Whitelaw think that a musical about Jerry Brown trying to turn Oakland's Fox Theatre into an Indian casino might be a good idea. Mayor J.B. (Ralph Scott) spouts Latin non sequiturs and does tai chi while sidekick Jack Az (C. Conrad Cady) makes Pepé Le Pew moves on the ladies. The heroes and villains are too mild-mannered, and the well-meaning preservationists' master plan is to have a children's choir sing an insipid song about the Fox as the playground of yesteryear's pashas and maharajas on public access television. Rebecca Offer's costumes are nicely swanky, and the singing ranges from quite good (Tanya Fermin as the city manager, Marian Partee as the choir director) to Florence Foster Jenkins-style warbling. There are some mildly amusing moments, but when the hokey love songs start it's hard to tell which laughs are intentional. -- S.H. (Through March 12 at the Oakland YWCA; 510-444-8521.)

Othello -- The Bay Area finally gets a honest-to-god lesbian Othello in Impact Theatre's careful adaptation of Shakespeare's shortest, bluntest tragedy. And the world as we know it does not end, as some purists would warn us. None of the messages or themes of the original work are obscured by director Melissa Hillman's choice to have a woman playing a woman as the Moor of Venice; none of the questions of race, assimilation, love, or jealousy are given short shrift. Like Impact's other stabs at Shakespeare, this is the Bard laid bare swiftly and effectively for a modern audience. More unusual than having Othello played as a lesbian is casting Iago as a light-skinned black man, especially since this play is so very much about seething, duplicitous Iago. Here's a man who, while very honest with the audience about his intentions and schemes, is wearing a mask for everyone else. It heightens the contrast between him and Othello, who makes no secret of her orientation and has no apparent shame about her color. The production is not without flaws; the men deliver their lines too fast, the show could use more musical variety, and some of the blocking is awkward. But these quibbles don't detract from the fact that Hillman has managed to make this fast-paced Othello ultramodern and engaging while honoring and expanding upon the original themes. It has often seemed that Shakespeare anticipated World War II or Vietnam, where the generals happily used African-American soldiers to fight their battles, but recoiled at these same black men marrying their daughters. Now we can throw "don't ask, don't tell" into that mix, and nothing is lost. -- L.D. (Through March 19 at LaVal's; or 510-464-4468.)

South Pacific -- There's trouble in paradise in Rodgers and Hammerstein's beloved musical, and not all of it is tied to the theme of racism that lends it some moral heft underneath all those hummable tunes, from "Some Enchanted Evening" to "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair." Are we really supposed to find it romantic when pidgin-spouting trader Bloody Mary pimps out her "younger than springtime" daughter to Lt. Joe Cable? And were venal Luther Billis and the lusty Seabees always this creepy? This Contra Costa Musical Theatre production handles the musical half of the equation admirably with strong singing throughout, even if the stuff between the songs isn't particularly convincing. Melinda Meeng gives a sharp performance as Bloody Mary and sells "Bali Ha'i" beautifully, and Jessica Fisher is preternaturally spunky as Nellie Forbush, the Arkansas ensign who learns a little something about love and tolerance. -- S.H. (Through March 19 at the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts; 925-943-7469 or


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