Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Song of Summer
San Francisco Playhouse
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Anne Darragh and Jeremy Kahn
Photo by Donny Gilliland
The title of Thomas Wolfe's novel "You Can't Go Home Again" has, in the decades since its publication, become a bit of a catchphrase for the relentless nature of change. Yet, despite what Tina (Monica Ho) says about her hometown of Pottsville, Pennsylvania (that it's a town, not a city, because "a town you can leave and when you come back, it will still be the same.") near the top of Lauren Yee's The Song of Summer, which opened Saturday night at San Francisco Playhouse, lots of things have changed.

But before we meet Tina and her mother, piano teacher Mrs. C. (an excellent Anne Darragh), we are introduced to the star of the show, Robbie Renton (Jeremy Kahn), a local boy who has hit the pop star lottery: his first record is in heavy rotation on radio and is number one on pop charts around the world. It's become the song of the summer, one of those tracks that comes along every year to embody the zeitgeist of that particular season. But when Robbie's song is loudly booed at a tour stop in North Carolina, he catches a cab outside the stage door and takes it all the way home to Pottsville, where he was once Mrs. C.'s prize student.

Though his hometown has changed, Robbie—despite his apparent success—seems like the same hesitant, insecure boy we meet when the action flashes back several years to when he and Tina were besties. Though Tina has her life all planned out—college, med school—Robbie seems content to go with whatever flow he finds himself in. But when the song is a huge hit, the flow carries Robbie into a maelstrom of public scorn, as its lyrics are deemed sexist. Or, as Mrs. C. puts it, "So what if the words sound a little ... rape-y?"

Enter Robbie's manager Joe (Reggie D. White), who tracks Robbie down in order to get him back on tour. "You've got the U.S. of A. by the sweaty balls," he says, pleading with Robbie not to let the feminists and woke activists get in the way of his signing a multi-record deal. "Who would want five albums from me?," Robbie counters, encapsulating his crippling lack of confidence in his own talents.

As it turns out, Robbie may be justified in his low opinion of himself, but Kahn disappoints in his portrayal of the young pop star. He seems to wear the same wide-eyed expression of confusion through most of the 90 minutes of Lauren Yee's play. He constantly looks like he's just been told he's been passed over for promotion to assistant manager of a Burger King, or been asked to work through a long division problem in his head. He wears his stardom like a suit of clothes pulled at random for him from a last-chance sale rack at TJ Maxx.

Fortunately, the rest of the cast are far more successful at giving us more complete insight into their characters. Monica Ho has a wonderful time inhabiting the angry-yet-charming Tina, a young woman who has been dealt a bad poker hand but somehow bluffs her way into winning a side pot of resigned contentment. Reggie D. White's Joe brings a bluster that raises the energy level every time he's on stage. Joe seems to be the only character who knows what he wants out of life, and when Robbie turns out to be the best path to getting it, he seizes onto the lost boy with a pit bull's unbreakable grip.

Anne Darragh brings a wonderful gentleness to her role of Mrs. C. In some ways, Mrs. C. is just as lost as both Robbie and her adopted daughter Tina—yet there seems to be no regret in her. Both Darragh and her character seem to be always present in the current moment, never pining for lost opportunities nor praying for some better but still mysterious future.

But the best performance of the night may come from young Riley Hashimoto (alternating each performance with Riley Cheng), who gets just a few lines at the end of the play, but exhibits a natural ease and focus that seems far beyond his tender years. His quiet portrayal helps bring the proceedings to a more satisfying conclusion, and his character's humble confidence stands in stark contrast to the neuroses of those around him.

Bill English's direction is solid, and he keeps the action moving briskly even in the play's quieter moments. He also designed the set, which makes excellent use of the Playhouse's giant turntable to smooth the transition between scenes.

Unlike the two most recent works of Lauren Yee that I've seen—a marvelous production by SF Playhouse of King of the Yees and Oregon Shakespeare Festival's absolutely brilliant staging of Cambodian Rock BandThe Song of Summer lacks a certain gravitas. We cared deeply about the characters in those two plays; we laughed with them, and felt their anxieties and fears. Here, however, the characters are—for the most part—boring people whose company I would avoid at all costs. There are some good performances here, and the setup is interesting (and the ultimate payoff is sweet), but The Song of Summer lacks the "hook" it needs to become my earworm this season.

The Song of Summer runs through August 14, 2021, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. The show is also available to be streamed. Tickets are $15-$100, available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.