Front Row Reviews

“The Divine Sarah” Illuminates a Musical Biography

“The Divine Sarah,” presented by Ross Valley Players at the Barn Theater, brilliantly mirrors the life of the dynamic French Diva Sarah Bernhardt from the 1800s. This collaborative musical play, from its conceptualization to its world premiere on stage, has been forty years in the making. Penned by June Richards and featuring diverse musical styles by Elaine Lang, “The Divine Sarah” was selected from over 40 entries in RVP’s New Works festival.

Scenic Designer Ronald E. Krempetz’s multi-faceted period-painted boxes adorn the stage, depicting richly-colored Bernhardt portraits. These set pieces provide the necessary versatility for the 10 actors, with sparse period furniture placed on either side of the stage creating a broad middle aisle.

Through captivating musical biographical segments, the play transports the audience through Sarah’s tumultuous yet trendsetting life. From neglected childhood and boarding school years to theatrical schools and stormy courtships, the journey ends with her meteoric rise to global stage and silent-film fame.

Born out of wedlock in 1844, Sarah’s captivating portrayal by Merrill Grant depicts her sad beginnings with a neglectful mother, “Youle,” powerfully played by Anna L. Joham, and her younger self, charmingly portrayed by Alexandra Fry. “Youle’s Lament” echoes with the poignant words: “I never wanted a child.”

Sarah’s roller-coaster life continues after the convent with her first love, Henri de Ligne, impressively portrayed by Brad Parks, as Henri sings the anguish of “First Love,” while Sarah and Henri sing “Madness.”

Merrill Grant as Sarah, Lucas Michael Chandler, as Jean-Mounet Sully,

Lang’s music distinguishes Sarah’s stages with clever lyrics and soulful melodies. “Surprise,” sung by the fervent and harmonious company, marks Sarah’s career springing forward. Grant and the debonair Lucas Michael Chandler, playing Jean-Mounet Sully, deliver another wonderful duet titled “This Must End.”

Merrill Grant, as Sarah, stands out with her talent, seamlessly transitioning from song to dance with fluid movements. Bursting onto the greater Bay Area stage scene from New York in 2019, her performance of Sarah appears effortless. Sarah’s brings life to the stage, and is truly a pleasure to watch.

“The Divine Sarah” fearlessly carves her own path amidst the misogynistic confines of the wealthy theatre conglomerates. Theatre, at that time, was dominated by sneering men. Unfazed by societal norms, she portrays any role, even dressing up as a boy. Her life is a series of rollercoaster rides, marked by impulsive decisions, overspending, and a defiance of the norm. Yet, she is a role model for the independence of women worldwide.

Directed by the honored Jay Manley, the ensemble of ten talented cast members brings Sarah’s remarkable biography to life. Though the crowded stage sometimes leads to distracting choreography and confusion about multi-character identities, the skilled actors and singers overcome these challenges, immersing the audience in Bernhardt’s extraordinary journey.

Come and witness Ross Valley Players’ electrifying “The Divine Sarah” as she rises to international stardom, captivating hearts and minds with her unparalleled talent.

“The Divine Sarah” written by June Richards and Elaine Lang, directed by Jay Manley, Costme Design, Michael A. Berg, Lighting Design, Michele Samuels, at Ross Valley Players New Works,, Ross, California, to Sunday, April 7th.

cast: Merrill Grant, Lucas Michael Chandler, Amy Dietz, Alexandra Fry, Keith Jefferds, Anna L. Joham, Julia Ludwig, Brad Parks, Robin Schild, Ron Talbot

on-stage musicians:Musical Director, Jon Gallo: keyboard & Diana Lee: cello  

Photos by Robin Jackson