Monday, March 4, 2019

Michael J. Vaughn: Recent Reviews

The Monkey Tribe
Five Stars
Always evocative and compelling
March 2, 2019
“Perhaps because the locations in this novel were significant in my own love affair and spiritual growth, I was particularly moved by this story. Perhaps because this is the fourth book of Vaughn's that I've read, I now consider myself a huge fan. He elevates everything which could be mundane into rich gratitude.” -- Nancy Gingrich

Five Stars
Remember "Watermelon Sugar"? Did you love Brautigan?
January 28, 2019
“Fantasy, hope, sex (more than I expected) but kind, magic. How something semi-real is captivating. Very California in all the best moods of that phrase.” – Terry

Five Stars
December 5, 2018
“This was one of the most unusual books I have ever read. A little too much musical band jargon made it a bit uncomfortable to read, but the characters were well developed and the Falter family was a joy to read about, especially Pablo and Derek, the sons-well raised. Thanks” -- Kindle Customer

Five Stars
Great book
January 6, 2019
“The 2nd book I've read by this author, though I didn't realize it until I finished. This was a story of an epic adventure that every young man dreams of and some accomplish to greater or (probably) lesser degree. It kept my interest and I only put it down when I had to. I haven't read of a cross country like this since ‘On The Road.’” -- Will St. Iver

Five Stars
A must read.
January 1, 2019
“This is a fantastic, magical read. Couldn't put it down. The main character, Skye is on a never ending journey. He is a very likable guy who meets many interesting people who help him grow on his journey.” -- R Lillis

Five Stars
Best in a long time
October 3, 2018
“Not sure why, but it had everything great in spades. I didn't even really know it was a love story till the last. Very cool. Like this author a lot and editing was good!” -- Ellie Winslow

Note: These reviews were written by Amazon customers entirely unconnected to the author. Beware of false reviews! (An excellent clue would be a book with 17 five-star reviews. Those most assuredly came from friends and family.) Special thanks to Julie Moore Rogers Promotions and Booksends for this recent spate of excellent publicity. MJV













Monday, February 11, 2019

Opera San Jose Sails Into the Big Time

Starbuck (Justin Ryan) and Queequeg (Ashraf Sewailam) leading the troops.
All photos by Pat Kirk.
Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick
February 10, 2019

An opera is the best thing that could have happened to Melville’s overwritten, sprawling mess of a book. Given the time-crunch offered by sung dialogue, librettist Gene Scheer was free to remove all the boring mariner digressions and get to the shining central tale, digging a pearl out of a bed of dull oysters. The story still philosophizes too much, sometimes seeming like a three-hour psychological profile of Ahab, but I note that most of these discussions are at least interrupted by a pivotal plot turn.

Jake Heggie, meanwhile, continues his quest to save modern opera from itself. His score possesses a propulsive, tidal quality, reminiscent of film soundtracks in its illustrative qualities, but he’s crafty enough to break it up with quiet interludes (dast I say “set pieces”?) and topdeck celebrations that echo traditional shanties and drinking songs.

Richard Cox as Ahab.
Heggie’s match of vocal character to role character is masterful, and for the most part the OSJ cast is up to the challenge. Richard Cox doesn’t carry the necessary power one associates with Ahab, but his spinto tenor has a certain electric edge suitable for Ahab’s many flights, and he has a ten-mile stare that has madness written all over it.

His friendly nemesis, Starbuck, sings in reasoned passages, trying to coax his captain into appropriate behavior, and Justin Ryan’s well-tempered baritone is just right. Noah Stewart’s soaring lyric tenor is perfect for Greenhorn’s wide-eyed wonder, answered by the friendly but gruff bass-baritone of Ashraf Sewailam as his companion Queequeg. Jasmine Habersham’s limitless soprano gives the cabin boy Pip an affable playfulness and, after his near-drowning, a psychic edginess.

The highlights are many. Trevor Neal takes his regal baritone to the theater’s balcony, which provides a good mimicry of Captain Gardiner’s ship pulling up along the Pequod. Tenor Mason Gates and baritone Eugene Brancoveanu make high-energy ringleaders for the chorus, which, equipped with genuine lead voices like Alex Boyer and Babatunde Akinboboye, fills the California Theatre with more sound than it’s ever had. I also enjoyed the inclusion of four dancers – Ty Danzl, Joshua Jung, Emmet Rodriguez and Anthony Shtov – who took great pains to seem more like sailors who were just really coordinated. For the marshalling of these scenes alone, stage director Kristine McIntyre deserves a medal.

Noah Stewart as Greenhorn.
Stewart and Sewailam do a superb job with the crow’s nest friendship duet, an example of Heggie’s willingness to write unabashedly beautiful music. The libretto goes a long way to sell this friendship as the core of the story, but I would disagree. The core is Ahab vs. Starbuck, an ongoing battle between obsession and practicality that nearly leads to the mate’s execution (a breathlessly suspenseful moment). In a way, this is an operatic debate that goes back to Puccini (follow the love) and Verdi (follow the power). This time, I’m with Verdi.

Ryan shines in his subsequent Hamlet-like monologue on his chances of ever seeing Nantucket again. Stewart’s star turn is Greenhorn’s realization of life’s bitter truths, “All is vanity!” Cox’s solos are all of a piece, various broodings on Ahab’s obsessive thirst for revenge. He demonstrates an admirable ability to keep the energy going through all of these (particularly with his left leg tied back).

Erhard Rom's set.
Longtime OSJ patrons should take note that this is Moby-Dick’s second round, an attempt to adapt the production to mid-sized theaters, and that their partners in this are operas in Utah, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Barcelona. In other words, Opera San Jose is a player. Founder Irene Dalis always focused her efforts on training singers for later success elsewhere, but I have to say, I enjoy the larger ambitions of her successor, Larry Hancock. San Jose is a major-league city, and it deserves to have productions of this importance.

I was lucky enough to review the SFpremiere of Heggie’s opera, and it’s interesting to note the changes. Where SFO was able to recreate the actual riggings of a ship, set designer Erhard Rom has created more symbolic pieces, and covered them with old navigational maps, both oceanic and astronomical. Pip’s lost-at-sea episode, previously accomplished with an airborne singer (!) now depends on a slideaway pocket next to the bridge. It works. The first whale-hunt, initially created with real boats and onstage waves, now employs boat-like constructs and a turntable that spins sailors across the briny. This works, too.

Greenhorn (Noah Stewart) and Queequeg (Ashraf Sewailam).
Sadly, what doesn’t work is the pivotal battle with the white whale. Freeze-frame impacts enacted in the slideaway pockets don’t really deliver. The turntable does a good job of dispensing with Starbuck’s crew. When we’re finally down to Ahab and a harpoon, a great whale’s eye rises from the stage – an effective device. I expected Ahab to turn and dive at it – blackout, we’re done. Instead, captain and harpoon both crumble to the stage and a screen of ocean drops from the flies.

Even that would be passable, but then we go to Greenhorn, adrift on a coffin, hailed by Captain Gardiner from his ship.

“What’s your name, lad?”

And Greenhorn sings out… (hint: first line of the novel, Call me…). Perfect ending, right?

Wrong. Greenhorn stands to wave farewell to the ghost of his friend, Queequeg, now appearing in that same slideaway pocket. What is this, the Ewok celebration from Star Wars? It’s opera – tragedy is not only allowed, it’s encouraged.

Joseph Marcheso turns in an athletic performance with Heggie’s ever-charging score, and his orchestra shows a great dynamic range. A new score could not be in better hands. Please note: any similarity between Ahab and some other leader willing to sacrifice his own workers in an ego-driven, obsessive pursuit of a great wall… er, whale, is wholy coincidental.

Through February 24, California Theatre, 345 S. First Street, San Jose., 408/437-4450.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 21 novels, including Operaville and Gabriella’s Voice.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Saturday, December 8, 2018

A Grinch by the Inch

Who’s Holiday
3Below Theaters
December 7, 2018

If you think the latest Grinch cartoon was entirely unnecessary, and what you’d really like to see is the whole enterprise blown up in a raunchy, comic explosion, then Who’s Holiday is your ticket. Matthew Lombardo’s script, written in perfect Seussian couplets, visits Cindy Lou Who in middle age, trying to get any of her Whoville friends to come to her holiday party but beset by a checkered past that has made her a bit of an outcast. All the better, since we get to have her to ourselves.

The Avenue Q-ness of the play is evident right away, as Cindy Lou recounts that fateful night: “…but I caught him green-handed as he was stealing our shit!” Her tale proceeds to her 18th birthday, when she discovers something else that grew three sizes that day (“If you think black guys are hung, try going jade”).

Our hostess is Shannon Guggenheim, who is 3Below’s Miss Everything (including librettist of their awesome Meshuga Nutcracker musical). She dispenses quickly with the fourth wall, and third wall, and a little of the second, throwing in regular asides and a running commentary on the challenges of stagework. Much of the fun is in the rhyming. When she rhymes “Christmas” with “isthmus,” she takes an educational timeout to provide a detailed geographical definition. Later, when she flubs a rhyme, she says, “Hey! This shit is hard.” And then she has to deal with an audience volunteer who seemed to think he was at an old-school hip-hip rhymeoff (he was good, but he was making us nervous).

To say Guggenheim is delightful doesn’t really say enough. She is an absolute natural onstage, and her Cindy Lou is sexy, funny, and ingratiating. She even makes us a little sad, singing “Blue Christmas” for her estranged green-skinned daughter (who’s off touring as Elphaba in “Wicked”). In short, she’s exactly the kind of woman you’d like to hang out with at a party. And to hell with those sanctimonious Who’s!

December 7 - 22, 2018.  Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm. , 3Below Theaters & Lounge, 288 So. Second Street, San Jose,  $36 - $45. or 408.404.7711.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 21 novels and two plays, Café Phryque and Darcy Lamont, available at


Monday, November 19, 2018

Leoncavallo Meets Hitchcock

Cooper Nolan as Canio. All photos by Pat Kirk.
Opera San Jose’s Pagliacci
November 17, 2018

Stage director Chuck Hudson and a strongly theatrical cast have come up with a Pagliacci for the ages, downright Hitchcockian in its ability to deliver the layers of tension in Leoncavallo’s work. It’s a stunning, suspenseful night at the opera.

To deliver strong effects, of course, you need strong weapons, and this is evident from the start with baritone Anthony Clark Evans’ Prologue. This Prologue is a peculiar piece in opera, a musical highlight, often performed at recitals, that arrives before the “real” story has even begun. Evans alternates between affable and ominous in his monodrama of actors and their hidden identities, and his intense presence plays well into the sometimes-overlooked subplot of Tonio, the hunchback whose spurning at the hands of Nedda turns him into an Iago-like schemer.

The more direct threat, of course, is Canio, the clown (Paglioccio) of the troupe. Tenor Cooper Nolan succeeds in conveying a delicious darkness. He reminds me of that acquaintance who turns out to be a bad drunk, cracking jokes one second, seemingly ready to punch you the next. This first appears in “Un tal gioco,” Canio’s explicit announcement of how he will deal with anyone who makes a play for Nedda, his beautiful wife. Nolan delivers these threats with a forceful lirico spinto, and engages in bit of spousal arm-twisting that almost hurts to watch.

Anthony Clark Evans as Tonio, Maria Natale as Nedda.
Maria Natale’s soprano is a bit large for the tight spaces of Nedda’s Bird Song – a piece of playful bel canto mimicry – but the payoff comes with everything that follows. Natale’s great power creates a Nedda with Carmen-like qualities. Hudson’s undercurrent of physical aggression continues as Nedda drives off Tonio’s menacing advances with a whip, and then engages in a number of carnal embraces with her lover Silvio (Emmett O’Hanlon, whose well-tempered baritone offers a bit of calm before the storm). What emerges from this duet, as Nedda bounces between Silvio’s promises and the echoes of Canio’s threats, is Natale’s excellent use of dynamics, including a fortissimo lament rife with anguish.

Nolan delivers the iconic “Vesti la giubba” in a strikingly subdued fashion, aided by the chiaroscuro effects of Kent Dorsey’s lighting (a single overhead spot). The result is an invitation to feel sorry for Canio, a man who has painted himself into a corner and can’t seem to find a peaceful way out. Nolan finishes the piece quaking with emotion, giving the finish a suitably edgy quality.

I have never before noticed just how beautifully Act 2 is set up. Having given each player full knowledge of the situation (except for the identity of Nedda’s lover) and forcing them into the necessity of giving a performance, Leoncavallo sets up a thick tension, each player going through stage prep like they’re walking through a minefield.

Maria Natale as Nedda, Mason Gates as Beppe.
Into this malestrom comes – almost unexpectedly – some excellent commedia dell’arte. Evans and Natale demonstrate playful bits of physical comedy, followed by Mason Gates entering on a fake horse to take over the show and offer a serenade (a gifted lyric tenor who performs backflips and handstands, Gates was born to play Beppe). The well-worn performance, naturally, mirrors the drama of the players’ backstage intrigues (thank you, Hamlet), until Canio starts veering off-script in a way that makes both on- and off-stage audiences feel a little queasy. The sadness of “Vesti la giubba” is gone as Nolan goes into monster mode, his voice growing and growing with each demand for the name of Nedda’s lover. The final blowup is bracingly physical. Canio gives Nedda a knockdown slap that sends mothers and children dashing from the square. Canio kills his wife with a Psycho-style overhead stabbing, then turns to pierce Silvio in mid-air. Finally, Canio is killed by a constabulary’s gunshot and falls roughly to the floor. (This may be the only opera cast that needs its own personal trainer.) It’s all very riveting, in the way that Pagliacci truly can be, and leads to the best final line in opera, Tonio announcing, “The comedy is over.”

Maria Natale as Nedda, Emmett O'Hanlon as Silvio.
Cathleen Edwards’ costumes are lovely, especially the gem-like colored triangles of Nedda, Beppe and Beppe’s “horse.” The village scenes carried a pleasant boisterousness, thanks in part to the Ragazzi and Vivace youth choruses. Christian Reif and orchestra played with power and elegance; I particularly enjoyed the intermezzo, especially the passage featuring harpist Karen Thielen as Tonio contemplates Nedda’s handkerchief. The upper terrace of Andrea Bechert’s village square set allowed for artful backlighting, notably as Tonio and Canio spy on the illicit lovers.

Through Dec. 2, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. 408/437-4450,

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 21 novels, including Gabriella’s Voice and The Girl in the Flaming Dress.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Kendra and Stephen: A Wedding Intro

My niece Kendra began this whole thing last year at my nephew's wedding. At the reception, she asked if I would serve as the officiant at her wedding the following September. It took me a half hour to even understand what she was asking. After all, I'm a pretty public atheist - a job usually performed by clergy doesn't necessarily come to mind. After I thought about it, though, the skill set all added up: I'm used to being onstage, I'm good with a mic, and obviously I can help write the ceremony. All I had to do was come up with an interesting intro, and the ideas came to me in that first week. Primarily, I had to work in Kendra's favorite song, "Yellow," and go from there. The wedding, September 8 in Malibu, was amazing. And here's what I said:
Friends and family! Welcome. We are gathered here today to initiate and celebrate the marriage of Kendra Brit Breunling and Stephen Jacob Cornelius. My name is Michael Vaughn. I am also known as Uncle Mike. (Sung) Your skin Oh yeah your skin and bones turn into something beautiful You know, you know I love you so You know I love you so

Those lines are from Kendra's favorite song, Yellow, by Coldplay. For years now, I’ve used it as a kind of Bat Signal. If I heard it in a coffeehouse, or if someone sang it at karaoke, I would immediately send Kendra a text: Hey, how you doin?

But let’s think about those words: “Your skin and bones turn into something beautiful.”  That line touches on a marvelous truth about humans. We’re really just parts and pieces - sinew, muscle, blood, organs – put together in an extraordinary way. And the pinnacle of this machine is the human brain, which developed the amazing ability to recognize its own existence, and to recognize the powerful bonding force that we call love.
A few years ago, a study concluded that the people you spend the most time with have an actual, physical effect on the wiring in your brain. This is why your parents are always so concerned with who you’re hanging out with. I suppose, then, that a wedding is a way of saying, I like the effect that you have on my brain. Or, put another way, I like who I am when I’m with you. And I’d like to keep that going for the rest of our lives.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 21 novels, most recently The Girl in the Flaming Dress.

Alviso: A Prose Poem


The Chicanos from the tidelands had no school so they were bused to ours. Like children everywhere, we latched onto their differences like hungry leeches.

The shirts buttoned to the collar. The boxy work pants, the constant black T’s, a strange affection for gothic lettering and vintage cars.

We stood in the quad in our bell bottoms, puka shells and disco shirts and asked, What could they be thinking?

We learned the appropriate slurs, which now seem pathetic: greasers (because they used product in their hair), Spics (because they spoke Spanish), beaners (because they ate beans?).

One day, my little brother’s gang – let’s call them The Squirrely Bunch – were performing their best Cheeches and Chongs, tossing around words like cholo, wetback, low-rider, puta in those odd Mexican rhythms, the words falling like dominos to the obligatory eh? (unintentionally paying tribute to the things they professed to hate). My mom finally had enough.

“That’s it! You boys get in the car right now. We’re going for a ride.”

I can only imagine them, huddled in the back seat, muttering. Omigod, Vaughn, your mom finally snapped. She’s gonna kill us and leave our bodies in the swamp.

My mother, one of the more navigationally challenged of women, puzzled her way through unfamiliar back roads until she arrived in Alviso, a former railroad town and fishing port where Mexican families found shelter.

I don’t have direct quotes, but I’m guessing she said, These are real boys with real homes and friends and families who love them, and they are not to be made into cartoons by you. Also, look how far they have to travel to go to a white school where mean boys make fun of them.

I imagine, too, the faces of the locals as a blonde, blue-eyed housewife cruised through town in a station wagon, boys peering out the window like caged animals. It must have looked like the world’s most pathetic tour bus.

Decades later, I sit at a fire pit in Malibu, hearing this story for the second time. My brother has never forgotten that trip, has lived his life accordingly, and keeps this story in his back pocket as a reminder of his mother’s huge, loving and slightly lunatic heart.

As a story always brings more stories, I flash on the day when I turned from my middle-school locker to be punched in the face by a lean, ferocious-looking Chicano.

More shocked than hurt, I stumbled down the hall, holding my nose and shouting, “Why did you do that!?” He and his friends continued to follow me, and I was afraid they were looking for more. They scattered, finally, as I made my way to the nurse’s office.

(Where were the adults? Nowhere. Adults in the seventies were useless.)

As the year went on, I tried to hate those Spics, those beaners, those goddamn greasers. After all, I had reason. But my attempts were always cut off by my mother’s voice, a permanent installation in my head. Now Michael. Think of how that other person feels. (I sometimes envy people who freely hate. Their worldview must be much less complicated.)

Eventually, I managed to place myself in that kid’s shoes, and the equation came clear. He was the alpha male, his friends the Alviso equivalent of The Squirrely Bunch, and it was his job to find the biggest, whitest kid in the place and take him down.

Because that’s what you do on your first day in prison.
Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 21 novels, most recently The Girl in the Flaming Dress.