Life Is Like a Train "On the Twentieth Century" at NTC Five Stars for "Master Harold"...and the boys at Off Broadway West

Johnny DeBernard, Daniela Innocenti-Beem and John Conway in On the 20th Century

"On the Twentieth Century" which just opened at the Novato Theater Company takes place on a 16 hour train ride from Chicago to New York on the Twentieth Century Train in 1932.  According to Artistic Director Blanca Florido, this famous train was considered, at the time, the epitome of luxury and elegance in continental travel.  

"On the Twentieth Century" is a musical with book and lyric by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and music by Cy Coleman.  Part operetta, part farce and part screwball comedy, the story involves the behind-the-scenes relationship of a temperamental actress and a director.

Oscar Jaffee (David Bauer), an egotistical and perpetually broke theatrical producer plots to talk his estranged paramour, Lilly Garland (the wonderful Linda Gaudiani), into appearing in one of his plays. He contrives to have a drawing room on the Twentieth Century at the same time she does.  However, she is a successful and equally egotistical movie actress and wants nothing more to do with him despite the pleas of Oscar's hapless assistant, Owen (John Conway) and Oliver (Johnny DeBernard) who both give stand out performances. Complicating matters are Lilly's current lover, Bruce Granit (Sean O'Brien) who doesn't want to see his meal ticket evaporate and Letitia Primrose (a delightfully comic Daniela Innocenti-Beem), a rich old religious fanatic who gives Oscar $200,000 to produce the play, "Mary Magdalene"--and chaos results when Ms. Primrose proves to be a fraud.  

Very impressive is the amazing direction of Blanca Florido who keeps the cast of 19 actors on their toes.  Equally impressive are the fabulous 100 costumes by Christine Andrews and the set design by Gary Gonser.   The Musical Director Michael Moran on the piano with Debra Chambliss on the keyboard and Mike Evans on percussion carried off Coleman's score of 21 musical numbers beautifully often evoking the movement of a train in its orchestration and rhythms.  

Joyous, lively, original, hilarious and loaded with great performances, "On the Twentieth Century," is one of the 1970's lost musical gems.  The Novato Theater Company's highly ambitious production deserves a lot of credit.  

Shows run at the Novato Theater Company Playhouse, 484 Ignacio Blvd., Novato, October 21-November 13.  Showtime is 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For reservations, call 415-883-4498 or go to

Flora Lynn Isaacson

LaMont Ridgell as Sam & Adam Simpson as Hallie in "Master Harold"...and the boys

Off Broadway West Theatre Company has just opened their 5th season with a superb production of "Master Harold"...and the boys.  It has been 8 years since this classic has been performed in San Francisco.  Racial prejudice and difficult family relations remain a present concern.  This play addresses both.  

Athol Fugard's "Master Harold"...and the boys is based on the playwright's early life in South Africa.  But the play itself is not a simple retelling of an incident from his past.  Rather, Fugard presents a personal experience that extends to universal humanity.  If the play were simply a controversial attack against the policy of apartheid, it would already be outdated now that sweeping change has transformed South Africa.  Instead, Fugard wrote a play about human relationships that are put to the test by societal and personal forces. 

"Master Harold"...and the boys is a one act that takes place inside St. George's Park Tea Room on a wet and windy Port Elizabeth (South Africa) afternoon in 1950.  No customers populate the restaurant due to the bad weather.  Two black waiters, Willie (Anthony Rollins-Mullens) and Sam (LaMont Ridgell) are onstage as the play begins.  Willie is scrubbing the floor on his hands and knees and Sam is reading comic books at a table which has been set for a meal.  Willie wants to improve his dancing skills but appears to have been deserted by his partner after he won the dance competition.  Sam offers Willie advice about improving both his dancing technique and his domestic relations.  The son of the tea room's owner, Hallie (Adam Simpson) enters direct from school.  He eats a bowl of soup and talks to the two men with whom he appears to have a close relationship.  Hallie, while displaying obvious affection for the men--especially Sam--takes a pedantic tone, assuming the role of teacher, yet the nature of their interaction clearly shows Sam as the teacher and Hallie as the eager pupil.  During the course of the play, the two waiters and Hallie exchange kidding remarks not meant to offend anyone.  But, after Hallie receives some bad news about his father, he takes out his anger on the workers.  Efforts to smooth out the situation erupt into an all-out racial conflict.  Fugard himself served as a model for Hallie.   

This Off Broadway West production deserves high praise for both its fine acting and brilliant direction by Richard Harder.  The audience gave the play a well-deserved standing ovation. Bert van Aalsburg's set of St. George's Park Tea Room is also truly amazing.  

The trio of actors are wonderful!  Each is perfect for his part.  LaMont Ridgell plays a dignified, wise and understanding Sam.  Anthony Rollins-Mullens plays a boyish and naive Willie and Adam Simpson's Master Harold is intellectually curious but not challenged enough by his classes. His lack of enthusiasm for his monotonous school routine contrasts with the enthusiasm he takes in teaching and debating with Sam.  When faced with the return of his tyrannical father, Harold transfers his anger and pain to what he considers his servants, transforming their relationship for the first time from childhood friends and companions into subservient help.  Director Richard Harder makes each moment specific and come alive before our very eyes.  "Master Harold"...and the boys is a tribute to him and his talented cast.  Run, don't walk to see this fine production!

"Master Harold"...and the boys plays at Off Broadway West Theatre Company through November 19, 2011.  Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. at the Phoenix Theatre, Suite 601, 414 Mason Street (between Geary and Post), San Francisco.  For tickets, go to: or call 800-838-3006. For more information, call 530-864-4438 or 415-407-3214.

Flora Lynn Isaacson