“She Loves Me” in Pleasanton and lifts me up to “39 Steps” in Walnut Creek – – Theater is such a fickle lover!

This week’s reviews take us to two delightful entertainment opportunities, a melodramatic comedy in Walnut Creek that is a modern take-off of the 1935 Hitchcock movie thriller “The 39 Steps”, and the second show in Pleasanton, a delightful upbeat musical “She Loves Me”. We often forget how wonderfully romantic and beautifully written plays were in the 1930’s and 1940’s, but luckily for my readers, you can step back into time and enjoy two really premier productions, an outrageous comedy one evening and a romantic musical the next!

Many of my readers still ask me about Lois Grandi, who was a very popular local producer and director who had her own little theater in downtown Walnut Creek for a good number of years. Due in large part to the somnambulistic economy, her little 49 seat theatre, Playhouse West, located on Locust street, simply could not make it financially while providing you with professional actors and professional level productions. She stayed active however, producing “Chicago” in the Firehouse Art Center and Theater in Pleasanton in August of 2011.

This past week, Ms. Grandi came back with the roar of a lioness with her new production that just opened this past weekend, showcasing Masteroff, Bock and Harnick’s music, lyrics and clever writing in their classical musical, “She Loves Me”. Once again, Ms. Grandi has delivered a much appreciated musical in the beautiful little Firehouse Arts Center and Theater in Pleasanton. “She Loves Me” is based in large part on 1937 Hungarian play Parfumerie by Miklós László and the 1940’s movie directed by Ernst Lubitsch, “The Little Shop Around the Corner”, starring Margaret Sullivan and James Stewart. Ernst Lubitsch (who was well know for his production of “Ninoshka”) spoke to the New York Sun in January 1940, stating “It’s not a big picture, just a quiet little story that seemed to have some charm. It didn’t cost very much, for such a cast, under $500,000. It was made in twenty-eight days. I hope it has some charm.” It did very well and its charm prevailed through several re-incarnations, and the musical version, “She Loves Me” was the third adaptation. The musical premiered on Broadway on April 23, 1963 at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, where it ran for 302 performances.

The story takes place in Europe in the mid-1930’s, where we are introduced to the ever efficient and dedicated staff of an upper middle class ladies’ cosmetics and perfume shop. The owner, Mr. Maraczek (Kenneth Baggott), is a very gracious and proud shop owner, but seemingly a little bit on edge. His lead clerk, Georg Nowack (David Judson), has been with him as an employee for many years and as the story opens, we discover that he too is a bit on edge, not quite his affable self. It seems Nowack has been corresponding with a secret admirer and this is the evening they are finally going to meet, after many months of being pen pals. A young lady, Amalia Balash (Amy S. Baker), comes into the store seeking employment. She is quickly dismissed by Mr. Nowack, being told there are no plans to employ additional employees at this particular time. Mr. Maraczek encounters Ms Balash and he basically echoes Mr Nowack’s comments. But before he can show the lady out of the store, this persistent young woman very cleverly demonstrates her upbeat, well-honed, selling skills upon an unsuspecting shopper, to the boss. When you see her clever and resourceful sales ability, not surpriseingly, she is hired immediately by the boss, even over the objections of Mr. Nowack. The initial confrontation between Mr. Novack and Ms. Balash creates a somewhat hostile environment ,but their experiences encountered in their personal search for love seem to become inexplicably intertwined.

There is another romantic tale among the store’s staff, although it has an acrid odor to it, a romance that entwines two other sales people, sales clerk Llona Ritter (Lisa-Mrie Newton) and Steven Kodaly (Kyle Payne). Llona has been looking for love in all the wrong places and her experiences have apparently not turned out very well for her. Steven Kodaly is a very good looking young man, but a man who has been taking advantage of women for a very long time, including Llona. But when Llona accidentally wanders into a library one day, it appears that love is only a good bookmark away.

This is a show where absolutely every actor deserves kudos, as they all perform on a very high level, exquisite voices and outstanding acting skills. Several who are equity level, professional actors. Also, especially take note of the waiter (it will be hard not to) Tim Johnson and professional dancer, Mr. Kendall Eric Sparks!

Everything about this show is “fantastic”, the set design by Pat Brandon, the costumes by Liz Martin, the lighting by Chris Guptil, the musical direction by Pat Parr, the lighting design by Chris Guptil and the overall direction and choreography by Lois Grandi has just hit another high. It is as if this production team in addition to this theater and Lois Grandi were made for each other. Not only is the production top, the theater and their caring staff are noteworthy in their own right. If you can see this one at all, do not, and I repeat, do not, miss it! The theater is located at 4444 Railroad Avenue in downtown Pleasanton and can be easily found to taking highway 680 south to Bernal Avenue, then south east on Bernal to Main Street, then East on Main street to West Neal street and go one block south on West Neal to Railroad avenue, where you will find the beautiful, practically brand new Firehouse Arts and Theater Center. Tickets are a very reasonable $19 to $35 each and the ticket booth box office can be reached by contacting the Pacific Coast Repertory Theater through their email address: www.pcrtproductions.org or you may contact the box office in the theater at www.firehousearts.org or call (212) 541-4684. Performances are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and at 2 pm on Sundays to April 28th. Parking is adjacent to the theater and it is FREE!

Meanwhile, another “brilliant” production has just been launched by the Center Repertory Company who is providing Lesher Center patrons with a light hearted look on one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most revered early British spy movies. I did not know what to expect when I received promotional material on an adaptation by Playwright Patrick Barlow of Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps”! After all, how could anyone take such a highly acclaimed movie and turn it into a play, and yet pay tribute to one of the truly great movie producers. I didn’t want to do any research ahead of time, simply wanting to put my trust in Artistic Director Michael Butler, who has been more than living up to my hopes and expectations since he took over at Center Repertory Theater.

The 39 Steps first began as a 1935 British spy thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. The movie is based in large part on the 1915 adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. The film takes us on a wild journey with man, a Richard Hannay, who attends a demonstration in a London music hall theater by a man with superlative memory recall, who is described as “Mr. Memory”. In the midst of the show, shots ring out and in the ensuing chaos, Hannay finds himself protecting a beautiful and mysterious woman who seems very frightened, enclosed in the circle of his arms. She begs him to protect her and to take her home with him to his apartment. He tries to talk her out of her desire to go home with him, but curious about this very attractive and somewhat strange woman, he gives in and they return to his flat.

In the seeming safety of his apartment, after a couple of drinks, she tells him that she is a counterespionage spy, being chased by assassins, and that she needed him to cover departure from the theater so that she could get safely away. He questions her and in the process, she reveals that she has uncovered a plot to steal vital British military secrets, engineered by a man with the top joint missing from one of his fingers. She mentions her concern with the “39 steps”, but does not explain its meaning. In a moment of unguarded separation, she is mortally stabbed in the back by an unknown assailant. While she lies dying in Hannay’s arms, he bravely and reluctantly agrees to help a her take steps to prevent the military secrets from being removed from England. He rushes out of the apartment heading for the Scottish city indicated on the map clutched in the hand of the dying woman. When the body of this woman is discovered in his apartment immediately following his departure, Hannay is accused of the murder. While in transit to the Scottish city aboard a train, he sees a front page newspaper article naming him as the primary suspect in this woman’s death. With the police in hot pursuit, Hannay attempts to use a chance meeting with another attractive woman as a distraction in order to save himself and to separate the spy’s from their stolen secrets before they can leave the country.

Of the four major film versions of the novel, Hitchcock’s film has been by far the most acclaimed. In 1999, the British Film Institute polled 1000 film and television industry people and the film version by Alfred Hitchcock came in number four in the top 100 films in the history of British filmmaking.

Having never heard of Patrick Barlow, this show offered me an opportunity to discover what expertise he had that allowed Barlow to take one great work and to convert it into another successful work of British theater. Patrick Barlow is the founder, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the two-man “National Theatre of Brent”, which has performed on stage, on television and on radio. His specialty is to take very complex works and convert them into two or four man productions, often with comedy twists on original works. Such is the case with this iteration of The 39 Steps, where it transitioned into a brilliantly written comedy melodrama in which four actors take on the roles of many quick change characters. Most of us have seen this attempted before, but I can honestly say that in this production, the process has been transformed into a work of pure art!

The hero in this production, Richard Hannay, is played by Ben Johnson. An actress played by Jennifer Erdmann, plays the part of all of the women with whom Hannay has romantic entanglements. Two other fine actors (Mark Farrell and Cassidy Brown) play every other character in the show: heroes, villains, men, and women, over 100 roles altogether. This often requires lightning fast quick-changes and occasionally requires these actors to play multiple characters all at once. Thus the film’s serious spy story is played on stage entirely for laughs, with a script is full of allusions to (and puns on the titles of) other Alfred Hitchcock films, including Rear Window, Psycho, Vertigo and even North by Northwest.

This show continues Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Sundays at 2:30 p.m., now through Saturday, April 17th in the Margaret Lesher Theater in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek. Tickets range in price between $38 and $47 each. Call 943-SHOW (7469) or visit the Barnes and Noble Bookstore at 1149 South Main Street or check out their website at www.lesherARTScenter.org for more information or tickets purchases.

Director Mark Anderson Phillips has incorporated every possible twist of an over imaginative actor’s mind to facilitate new ways make the impossible – – seem possible!! From sinister men standing beneath a street lamp post when there isn’t any, to men riding on the outside of a train at high speed through a tunnel, when there isn’t any, but yet making you believe those props are really there! This is truly a “WOW” production in every respect, one you certainly have to see believe, and believe it you certainly will, if this review persuades you to go see a terrific show!

About the Author

Charles JarrettTheater reviewer for the Rossmoor News for 29 years, a professional theatrical photographer (Megaline Photographic Design - Alamo, CA) and news paper reporter for 15 years, currently with the Orinda News as a staff photographer and reporter.View all posts by Charles Jarrett →