One more walk around Carmelina

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Carmelina Campbell (Caroline Altman), the title character of the 1979 musical Carmelina, has been collecting child support from three American GIs – but which is the real father of her daughter: Carleton (Rudy Guerrero, left), Walt (Will Springhorn Jr., center), or Steve (Trevor Faust Marcom)? 42nd Street Moon revives the Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane-Joseph Stein musical. Photo by David Allen

Charming — that’s the word that kept running through my brain while watching the 42nd Street Moon production of Carmelina, the largely forgotten 1979 musical by Alan Jay Lerner (of My Fair Lady and Camelot fame) and Burton Lane (of Finian’s Rainbow and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever fame).

It’s easy to see why this gently old-fashioned show didn’t make it in the late ’70s. Based on the Gina Lollobrigida comedy Buena Sera, Mrs. Campbell (the same inspiration for Mamma Mia!), the musical feels as if it’s from a different time. Consider some of the new shows on Broadway in ’70: Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and They’re Playing Our Song. In that crowd, Carmelina seems like a throwback to the early ’60s, when musicals were on the cusp of becoming relics of a now-faded golden age.

That’s not at all to say that Carmelina isn’t worthwhile. It absolutely is. Lane’s melodies and Lerner’s (mostly) clever lyrics can be captivating and, as previously mentioned, completely charming. The story is well told, especially in the first act, when the plot is set up.

The spirited Carmelina (Caroline Altman) was only 17 when US soldiers drove Germans out of her small Italian village. Over the course of a month, the young woman became friendly with three American GIs. One of them left her with a daughter, and after years of living a fiction about an American hero named Eddie Campbell, Carmelina has to face the music. The three men, along with other survivors of their regiment are attending a reunion.

It’s such a pleasure to watch pros like Lerner and Lane attack a number like “Someone in April,” Carmelina’s romantic recollection of her time with the soldiers. What could be crass becomes sweetly comic. And when we meet the Americans (Will Springhorn Jr., Trevor Faust Marcom and Rudy Guerrero), rather than being brash and bold, they sing a beautifully harmonized “One More Walk Around the Garden,” a song about age and memories and reconciling the past.

The other song that deserves to be better known in this score is “It’s Time for a Love Song,” sung by Vittorio (Bill Fahrner), a suitor to Carmelina. It’s a love song as full of maturity as it is romance, and Fahrner’s version is warm and poignant.

If the first act of Carmelina feels like delicious set up, the second act, which is much less musically substantial, feels like a rush to the happy ending, which is a shame.

Director Greg MacKellan makes a strong case for Carmelina as a show worthy of a second look, and his cast and music director Dave Dobrusky on piano (with assists on acoustic guitar from cast member Michael Doppe) do the best thing the could possibly do with the material: they let the charm shine through.

[bonus interview]

I talked to Lynn Lane, widow of composer Burton Lane, Jenny Lerner, daughter of lyricist/book writer Alan Jay Lerner, and 42nd Street Moon Artistic Director Greg MacKellan for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
42nd Street Moon’s Carmelina continues through Nov. 18 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

Feeling gleeful with Darren Criss

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When Darren Criss was a kid going to American Conservatory Theater’s Young Conservatory, he attended one of the company’s annual galas. Joel Grey was the headliner. Now Criss, all grown up and all of 25, is the headliner for this year’s ACT gala.

To say that San Francisco native Criss has been on a rocket to fame ever since his first appearance as Blaine Anderson on the hit FOX series “Glee” would be to understate his rise to national prominence. He’s had hit records and spent three weeks on Broadway (last January he replaced Daniel Radcliffe in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying).

How Criss has managed to keep a level head on this meteoric journey is a mystery, but in a conversation with the multi-talented young actor on a recent Friday morning, he came across as not only charming and grounded but also, perhaps not surprisingly, intelligent and funny.

I interviewed Criss about his headlining gig at ACT’s Expect the Unexpected gala this Sunday (April 15) for an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

There wasn’t enough room in the story to include everything we talked about, so here are some of the “deleted scenes” if you will.

Q: What do you remember about working with 42nd Street Moon?
A:
Working with them exposed me to a lot of stuff I fell in love with. Babes in Arms was an especially great experience. I sang “Where or When” for my “Glee” audition. I sang two songs, that and a jazzy rendition of “Baby One More Time.”

Q: When you bring friends back to San Francisco, what do you like to show them about where you grew up?
A:
I’m very nostalgic. I went to Stuart Hall, which is reminiscent of Dalton Academy with this gorgeous Victorian architecture. I sneak in every now and then with friends and say, “Look, I went to school at Hogwarts. There’s such a great view from up there overlooking the Marina to the bridge. It’s the best. I love doing that. I like to show people a lot of the stuff I love about San Francisco. My parents joke that when I bring people home I should charge them for my tour.

Q: Last year you signed a record deal with Columbia. What’s the story on your album?
A:
It’s like when you ask a writer, “Hey, so you’re writing a new book?” Yeah, always. There’s always something going on whether it’s tangible or concrete. It’s an ongoing process, always meeting with people. Songs are being worked on. yes, I’d love to put out something at some point soon. It’s always ongoing.

Q: You were only in H2S for three weeks. Would you consider going back?
A:
It was the perfect amount of time. It was a blast. I never would have thought I’d be able to do something like that. It was so overwhelming and happened so fast. I knew it was going to be quick, so I was prepared for it to be mind blowing. It’s such a wonderful show. I was figuring out the character as I was going along, kind of like Finch, the character is doing has he goes along. In some ways, Broadway was imitating life.

[bonus videos]

A very brave Darren Criss answers all interview questions from Rolling Stone in song.

And here’s Criss performing for the Trevor Project (with Katy Perry).

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Expect the Unexpected! ACT’s 2012 Season Gala starring Darren Criss and Bill Irwin is this Sunday, April 15, at the Regency Center, 1300 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $500-$2,500. Call 415-439-2470 or visit www.act-sf.org/gala.

Faith Prince & Jason Graae: a perfectly delightful duet

He says he’s been a fan of hers since he was a child. She says he makes her pee.

Quips fly fast and furious when talking to Jason Graae and Faith Prince, especially when they’re talking about each other. Graae and Prince are the latest double act on the circuit, and it’s about time. Seriously. These two have known and loved each other for years, ever since they met in college at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

Faith & JasonAnd oh, yes, there’s that infamous homecoming date and late-night chili surprise. But more on that in a minute.

Graae is the celebrated singer/actor/comedian who most recently brought his Jerry Herman tribute, Perfect Hermany, to the Rrazz Room last spring. And Prince is the Tony-winning Broadway star of Guys and Dolls, Little Me, A Catered Affair (among others) and last summer’s national tour of Billy Elliot, which had an abbreviated stop at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre last fall.

Now bosom buddies Prince and Graae and hitting the road together in The Prince and the Showboy (and there’s a long subtitle with their names and awards attached, see the info box below), coming to the Rrrazz Room this weekend (March 25-27) for three performances only.

The idea for teaming up was actually hatched here in San Francisco, thanks to 42nd Street Moon. The company’s annual songwriter salon feted Jerry Herman this year, and Graae and Klea Blackhurst were slated to headline the show. Blakchurst had to pull out because she got another gig (“I had a dream…”), so Prince, who lives just up the road in Sacramento, filled in.

Graae explains: “When news of our show hit Playbill.com, we got a call from a synagogue in Westchester. ‘Oh, you have a show together? Great!’ And they essentially hired us.”

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So Graae and his college pal had a show to put together, and while they were at it, they decided to hit the road together. But what about an act? They already had “Bosom Buddies” from the 42nd Street Moon show. “We’ll just do that one song over and over again,” Graae jokes. But seriously folks, they’re working with musical director Alex Rybeck on putting together a combustible evening of duets and solos.

Of course it will be brilliant – you don’t expect any less from these two. But will they reveal their romantic history? Just in case they don’t, let’s travel back a few years to Cincinnati (let’s just say they were in college a few years ago). She was a junior. He transferred in as a sophomore. Both were working toward a BFA in musical theater. She was friendly resident assistant, and he was living in the dorms.

“I asked him to go to the homecoming dance,” Prince recalls. “He was really funny and charming and very good. He was fun.”

Neither remembers much about the dance itself, but afterward, Graae says Prince invited him to one of her favorite little Italian restaurants. She said it was called something like Schalina. Turned out she was taking him to a hole-in-the-wall chili restaurant called Skyline Chili (who knew Cincinnati proclaimed itself to be the chili capitol of the world?).

“We had chili five ways, which includes spaghetti noodles, cinnamon, onions, beans, cheese. You name it,” Graae says. “That was Faith’s little joke on me, but I loved the chili, and we had a great night.”

It wasn’t a love match in the traditional sense, but it was a love match of sorts.

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“Jason evokes in me what he evoked in me then,” Prince says. “My heart always gets lighter when I’m around him. He’s a fun person to be with. He makes me smile and makes me howl with laughter. He also has incredible depth and has done well with life. It’s invigorating to be around somebody like that.”

Here’s Graae’s end of the mutual fan club: “She’s a powerhouse, and I’m thrilled to be performing with her. Should be combustible and exhausting for the audience, I should think. I always look forward just to being in the same room with her. She’s an incredible actress. I’m blown away by how focused she is, how economical with movements and comedy. Just so smart. She can get any laugh she wants, of course, but then she can sing a ballad and rip your heart out.”

Graae, though he’s a mighty funny man, can do exactly the same thing. “Jason and I both like to do the pathos and the humor,” Prince says. “I think we really complement each other, and we have the same sense of humor. It’s wacky, but it’s grounded in truth. We both have enough edge that it’s not gooey. It’s not from anger or harshness. It’s not bitter.”

The set list is still being developed, but Graae and Prince may even pull out some material from the post-college shows they did together in New York, Living Color (which originally had the much more interesting name of The Texas Chainsaw Manicurist) and Olympus on My Mind.

Who knows, they may even re-live their early days and treat the audience to a bowl of 5-way chili.

And, by the way, Prince is serious when she says Graae makes her laugh so hard she tinkles. “I may have to invest a little in Depends.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Prince and the Showboy: An evening with Tony Award-Winner Faith Prince and Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle/Ovation Award-Winner Jason Graae runs March 25-27 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 800-380-3095 or visit www.therrazzroom.com.

Faith Prince photo credit above: Joseph Marzullo/Wenn.com

2011 in the rearview mirror: the best of Bay Area stages

2011

Let’s just get right to it. 2011 was another year full of fantastic local theater (and some nice imports). Somehow, most of our theater companies has managed thus far to weather the bruising economy. May the new year find audiences clamoring for more great theater. (Click on the play titles to see my original reviews.)

1. How to Write a New Book for the Bible by Bill Cain
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Directed by Kent Nicholson

Only a few days ago I was telling someone about this play – my favorite new play of 2011 and the most moving theatrical experience I’ve had in a long time – and it happened again. I got choked up. That happens every time I try to describe Cain’s deeply beautiful ode to his family and to the spirituality that family creates (or maybe that’s vice-versa). Nicholson’s production, from the excellent actors to the simple, elegant design, let the play emerge in all its glory.

2. Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris
American Conservatory Theater

Directed by Jonathan Moscone

Because I interviewed Norris for the San Francisco Chronicle, I wasn’t allowed, at the playwright’s request, to review the production. Well, to heck with you Mr. Pulitzer Prize-winning Norris. This was a genius production. A great play (with some wobbly bits in the second act) that found a humane director and a cast that dipped into the darkness and sadness under the laughs (Rene Augesen in particular). How do we talk about race in this country? We don’t. We just get uncomfortable with it. This is drama that positively crackles – you can’t take your eyes off the stage and find there are moments when you’re actually holding your breath.

3. Bellwether by Steve Yockey
Marin Theatre Company
Directed by Ryan Rilette

Horror is hard in a theater, but Yockey came close to scaring the pants off his audience in this chilling, utterly compelling world-premiere drama about children disappearing from a suburban neighborhood. And the paranormal aspects weren’t even the scariest things – it was the humans being disgustingly human to each other in times of stress that really worked the nerves.

4. The Lily’s Revenge by Taylor Mac
Magic Theatre
Directed by Meredith McDonough, Marissa Wolf, Erika Chong Shuch, Erin Gilley, Jessica Holt and Jessica Heidt

The sheer scope, ambition and feel-good communal aspect of this massive undertaking makes it one of the year’s most disarming experiences. The charms of Mac, who also starred as Lily, cannot be underestimated. Kudos to the Magic for staging what amounted to the best theatrical open house in many a season.

5. The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
California Shakespeare Theater
Directed by Shana Cooper

I debated which Cal Shakes show I should include on this – it was down to Moscone’s Candida, which featured a luminous Julie Ecclesin the title role. But I opted for this high-octane production of a really difficult play. Leads Erica Sullivan and Slate Holmgren brought not only humor to this thorny comedy but also a depth of emotion I hadn’t ever experienced with this play. Director Cooper worked wonders with this Shrew, making it feel new and relevant.

6.The Companion Piece by Beth Wilmurt
Z Space @ Theatre Artaud
Directed by Mark Jackson

The combination of Wilmurt and Jackson is irresistible (Shameless plug! Read my San Francisco Chronicle interview with Jackson and Wilmurt here). Always has been and probably will be as long as they want to keep creating theater together. This vaudevillian spin featured laughs and songs and the most exquisite dance involving wheeled staircases you can imagine. That dance was easily one of the most beautiful things on a Bay Area stage this year.

7. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by Lauren Gunderson
Crowded Fire Theater Company
Directed by Desdemona Chiang

Fresh and funny, Gunderson’s spitfire of a play introduced us to a playwright we need to be hearing from on a regular basis.

8. Phaedra by Adam Bock
Shotgun Players
Directed by Rose Riordan

Every time Bock comes back to the Bay Area he shows us yet another facet of his extraordinary talent. This spin on a classic allowed Shotgun to wow us with an eye-popping set and a central performance by Catherine Castellanos that echoed for months afterward.

9.Lady Grey (in ever lower light) by Will Eno
Cutting Ball Theatre
Directed by Rob Melrose

I can’t get enough Will Eno. Whether he’s the Brecht of our generation or an absurdist spin on Thornton Wilder, I find him completely original and funny in ways that are heartbreaking. This trilogy of plays from Cutting Ball was uber-theatrical and highly enjoyable. As was Eno’s brilliant Middletown, which I saw at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company directed by Les Waters (Berkeley Rep’s soon-to-be-former associate artistic director who’s heading to Kentucky to head the Actors Theatre of Louisville).

10. Strike Up the Band by George S. Kaufman (book) and George and Ira Gershwin (score)
42nd Street Moon
Directed by Zack Thomas Wilde

42nd Street Moon shows have delighted me for years, but I can’t remember having this much fun at the Eureka in a long, long time. The laughs were big and genuine, and the score was sublime. The whole package was so appealing it’s a shame the production couldn’t move to another venue and keep the band marching on.

HONOR ROLL

The Wild Bride by Emma Rice and Kneehigh
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Directed by Emma Rice

This extraordinary show would have been at the top of my Top 10 list had it originated in this region or even in this country first. But as it’s a British import by a genius theater company, it can be content to live in the honorable mention category. The really good news is that Berkeley Rep has extended the show through Jan. 22. Start your new year right and go see this amazing piece of theater.

Of Dice and Men by Cameron McNary
Impact Theatre
Directed by Melissa Hillman

Nerds are people, too. This sharp, savvy and very funny show takes a very specific world – Dungeons and Dragons gamers – and makes it instantly recognizable because it’s so very human.

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Aurora Theatre Company
Directed by Mark Jackson

The physicality of this production is what lingers in memory, specifically Alexander Crowther’s transformation into a spider-like creature crawling over the wonderfully askew set. Director Jackson does wondrous things with actors and stages.

Spring Awakening by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik
San Jose Repertory Theatre

Directed by Rick Lombardo

This is not an easy musical to pull off, not only because the original Broadway production was so fresh and distinct. It’s tricky material performed by young material who have to act and rock convincingly. Lombardo’s production didn’t erase memories of the original, but it staked its own claim, and the young cast was bursting with talent.

A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee
Aurora Theatre Company
Directed by Tom Ross

Being so close to Albee’s drama in the intimate Aurora proved to be an electrifying experience as we began to feel the tension, the fear and the barely concealed sneers of the upper middle class. Kimberly King’s central performance was wondrous.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

Nicest unscripted moment: Hugh Jackman ripping his pants and changing into new ones in full view of the audience on opening night of Hugh Jackman in Performance at the Curran Theatre. He’s a boxer brief guy. And a true showman.

Biggest disappointment: Kevin Spacey hamming it up so uncontrollably in the Bridge Project’s fitfully interesting Richard III. Spacey is a fascinating stage presence, but he’s so predictably Kevin Spacey. His Richard III offered no surprises and, sadly, no depth. If Richard was really the kind of guy who would do Groucho Marx impressions, he probably wouldn’t be the Richard III Shakespeare wrote.

Second biggest disappointment: ACT’s Tales of the City musical. Upon reflection, it just seems all wrong. Good idea to turn Armistead Maupin’s books into a musical. But the creative team was simply too reverent, too outside the time and place.

Oh, Maureen! Ms. McVerry revisits the Gershwins

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Above: Maureen McVerry makes her San Francisco directorial debut with 42nd Street Moon’s Oh, Kay! Below: Cast members of Oh, Kay! include (from left) Lisa-Marie Newton as Constance, Teressa Byrne as Kay, Skye Violet Wilson as Gilda Grant, Amie Shapiro as Molly and Erica Kimble as Billie. Photo by DavidAllenStudio.com

In 1993, an ebullient comedienne with a head full of red curls, danced and sang her way across the stage of the Gershwin Theatre (aka the Presentation Theatre) as the bubbly title character in Oh, Kay! a giddy 1926 musical with a score by George and Ira Gershwin.

Maureen McVerry, long one of the Bay Area’s most reliable musical comedy stars, appeared to have a grand time playing a Jazz Age baby wriggling her way through Prohibition and attempting to win the affections of the handsome Jimmy Winter.

McVerry (seen in the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival production below) made a memorable entrance with a boat on her back. “’Are you sure this is how Gertrude Lawrence got her start,’ I remember thinking,” McVerry says on the phone from her Potrero Hill home.Maureen McVerry 2

McVerry is back in the land of Oh, Kay!, this time as the director. She’s helming a slightly revised version for 42nd Street Moon, which begins previews today (Nov. 2) and opens this weekend.

“Our Kay does not enter with a boat on her back,” McVerry says.

It may be news to San Franciscans that McVerry is directing shows and not just starring in them. But for the last few years she has had what she calls “a secret other life.”

“I was the drama queen of Redwood City,” she says. “I got roped into directing shows at the middle school and found it quite satisfying.”

A few shows ago, she needed a musical director, so she turned to her friend and frequent 42nd Street Moon collaborator Dave Dobrusky, who then reported back to 42nd Street HQ that McVerry was a director with whom to reckon.

McVerry got the call to direct Oh, Kay! and is happily back in Gershwin land (with added merriment from P.G. Wodehouse, who wrote the book).

Oh Kay

“I don’t remember the show being such a farce, but it’s really a farce,” McVerry says. “What I remember is that we were all supposed to be drinking all the time. These characters were lit – made the third day at Woodstock look like a cakewalk.”

McVerry says she’s attracted to the lightness of the show – there’s a problem, and it’s solved in a day. The whole thing takes place on a Long Island estate, and everyone’s rich and gorgeous. Then there are the stunning songs – “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Fidgety Feet,” “Clap Yo’ Hands” among them.

So what kind of director is McVerry? Well, since she’s been working with children so much in recent years, she says she doesn’t cuss near as much as she used to.

“I hope I’m the kind of director who makes it a joy to put on a show and who makes each actor feel like they’re contributing something important to that show,” McVerry says. “I’ve worked with so many great directors in my life, and the best directors make sure their actors feel involved.”

She has also worked with directors who were terribly stingy with praise, making the actors feel like they were on the verge of being fired at any moment. McVerry learned from those experiences.

“I’m very clear on this: more praise, more praise,” she says. “It’s not false praise. Actors flourish with genuine praise.”

Next month, after Oh, Kay!,, McVerry will be involved in the opening of a theater space in Redwood City that she raised money to help refurbish. After that, who knows?

“I’d like to do my cabaret act, Very McVerry again,” she says. “The name stays the same, but the show is always changing. Other than that, I don’t know. But as Bette Davis used to say, you should never talk about the future.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION
42nd Street Moon’s Oh, Kay! is in previews and opens Saturday (Nov. 5). The show continues through Nov. 20 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$50. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

Russian dressing: The vintage charms of Silk Stockings

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Ninotchka (Lee Ann Payne) explains the Communist theory of romance to a skeptical Steve Canfield (Ian Simpson) in the song “It’s a Chemical Reaction, That’s All” from the 42nd Street Moon production of Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings. Below: Simpson resists the charms of Hollywood bathing beauty Janice Dayton, played with relish by Dyan McBride. Photos by DavidAllenStudio.com

How in the world do you follow Strike Up the Band? 42nd Street Moon’s last outing was a spectacularly charming and tuneful production of a Gershwin show that has been unjustly sidelined by musical theater history.

The problem with doing such a bang-up job with Band is that there’s still a final show in the season with which to contend.

And may I say, the finale is no Strike Up the Band. But it’s Cole Porter, so all is not lost.

Silk Stockings, a 1955 musical adaptation of the Greta Garbo film Ninotchka, is a minor work with a wildly unfocused book and a hit-and-miss Porter score.

You don’t see a lot of Silk Stockings revivals, so we have yet another reason to celebrate 42nd Street Moon’s dedication to dusting off shows that we’d never otherwise get to experience.

Director Greg MacKellan’s production certainly has style, which is important when you’re basking the capitalist and romantic decadence of Paris in the ‘50s. Sarah Phykitt’s set introduces a nifty little proscenium that allows the stage, with just a few adjustments, to be a fancy Parisian hotel, a private salon for fashion shows or a movie musical set. It’s one of the more involves sets we’ve seen in a Moon show, and it’s lovely.

But loveliest of all are the glamorous ‘50s fashions put together by costumer Louise Jarmilowicz. The leading ladies look stunning – like they just stepped off the pages of 1955 Vogue.

As ever, the score is ably handled by music director/pianist Dave Dobrusky and invaluable saxophonist/clarinetist/flutist Nick DiScala.

I only wish the score they were playing was more rewarding.

There are some fun songs in the score, but even some of the better tunes don’t make a whole lot of sense in context of the story. For instance, the ebullient “Stereophonic Sound” is performed by a former bathing beauty of the cinema (think Esther Williams) who has fled the Hollywood studio system to make an independent French film.

When she sings “Stereophonic,” which lists all the latest widescreen crazes like Cinemascope and Todd A-O sound, it’s never quite clear if she’s overwhelmed by all that technical gimmickry, delighted by it, railing against it or happy just to be in the mix at all (perhaps it’s all of the above). One certainly didn’t make movies in France in the 1950s to revel in Hollywood dazzle (even though that’s exactly what the bathing beauty ends up doing), so the purpose of the song doesn’t really come across.

The same is true for a song added to the 1957 movie (with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse), “The Ritz Roll and Rock.” The song is a lot of fun (and the choreography by Jayne Zaban is snappy), but as performed by Russian artists who would rather be back in Paris, this Porter twist on rock and roll seems more of a novelty than a number integrated into the story.

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Ah, the story, the pesky story. Part of the problem with Silk Stockings is the muddled book by George S. Kaufman, Leueen MacGrath and Abe Burrows. It takes too long to figure out whose story this is. First it seems to be the tale of a defecting Russian composer, then it seems to shift to a Russian bureaucrat who falls under the spell of capitalism (and a handsome American) while in Paris. Then it seems maybe we’re shifting to the swimming Hollywood star.

But no, the story really is about Ninotchka, the stern Russian lady whose Communist resolve is no match for decadence and delight.

Though nicely performed by Lee Ann Payne, Ninotchka isn’t all that interesting a character, and neither is her paramour, slick agent Steven Canfield (charmingly played by Ian Simpson).

Far more interesting is Dyan McBride as Janice Dayton, the actress aspiring to roles that don’t leave her waterlogged. McBride has great fun with “Stereophonic Sound” and does her best with the limp “Satin and Silk.” Even her goofy musical number “Josephine” (the result of turning a serious take on War and Peace into a musical bio of Napoleon’s wife), as fun as it is, goes nowhere.

The title song, sung by the lovestruck agent, has to be one of Porter’s weakest, and the duet “As on Through the Seasons We Sail” aims for poetry but just tanks.

The love song “All of You” is still performed with some regularity, though it sounds like Porter recycling himself.

Functioning in this show much the way “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” functioned in Kiss Me Kate is the song “Siberia,” an old-fashioned vaudevillian shuffle. In this production, Porter’s ode to Russia’s punishing frozen wasteland is performed with gusto by Jeremy Vik, Michael Rhone and Jackson Davis.

I would have liked to just relax and enjoy the production, but certain things kept niggling at me.

For instance, late in the show, the action shifts to a Moscow apartment building, where Russians in Russia, we assume, are speaking Russian to each other. Through the willing suspension of disbelief required for musical theater (or any theater, for that matter) the Russian is magically translated to English for our monolingual ears. That’s why “The Red Blues” bothered me so much. If they’re speaking Russian to each other, chances are good that the Russian equivalent of feeling sad and bummed out is not the same word as the color blue. It’s just a convenient (and rather lazy) attempt on Porter’s part to be clever.

And that’s my basic problem with Silk Stockings. Porter is, in many respects, phoning it in. But Porter on a bad day tends to be better than a lot of other composers on their best day, so at the very least, the score is consistently interesting if not exactly silky.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
42nd Street Moon’s Silk Stockings continues through May 22 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $24-$44. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstreetmoon.org for information.

Moon strikes up a triumphant Band

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Luke Chapman as Timothy Harper strikes up the band with the help of Sharon Rietkerk as Anne Draper in 42nd Street Moon’s production of Strike Up the Band by George and Ira Gershwin. Below: American cheese mogul Horace Fletcher (Gabriel Grilli) and the “destitute-around-the-edges” society matron Grace Draper (Stephanie Rhoads) trill the Gershwin classic “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” Photos by www.DavidAllenStudio.com

 

I’ve seen a lot of 42nd Street Moon shows over the years, but I’ve rarely seen one as exuberant, funny, beautifully sung and as hugely enjoyable as Strike Up the Band. Everything about Zack Thomas Wilde’s production is top notch, from the extraordinarily sharp book by George S. Kaufman and the immediately appealing score by George and Ira Gershwin to the terrific cast and the gorgeous late ’20s costumes (by Scarlett Kellum).

42nd Street Moon is less in the business of presenting musty, dusty lost musicals and more in the realm of offering polished if modestly produced professional productions.
And this Band benefits tremendously from the smaller scale. More attention is focused on the satirical book (the original 1927 Kaufman script, not the Morrie Ryskind rewrite from 1930) and on the Gershwins’ songs (especially on Ira’s incisively wonderful lyrics).

Without the proverbial cast of thousands, we get a clearer look at just what a gem Strike Up the Band really is, and its snarky attitude about how it’s commerce – not politics or even morality – that get us into war couldn’t be more timely. Alas.

And it’s all so sublimely cheesy – literally. Kaufman’s book takes us to Fletecher’s American Cheese factory, purveyor of the finest cheeses in the nation – perhaps the world. A new tariff on foreign cheese pleases Horace J. Fletcher (Gabriel Grilli) mightily. But the folks in Switzerland are balking. They’ve sent a note of grave concern to Washington decrying the tariff. What’s worse, their note arrived postage due.

The only patriotic choice to protect cheese interests is, of course, going to war with Switzerland. Fletcher is happy to pay for the war and sell seats to the battles.

Strike up the Band 2

Mixed in with the curds and warfare are three love stories. We have the righteous reporter (Michael Scott Wells) exchanging goo-goo eyes with Fletcher’s daughter, Joan (Samantha Bruce). Then there’s the factory foreman (Luke Chapman) and his infatuation with a flapper (Sharon Rietkerk). And then there are the older folks, the destitute society matron (Moon co-founder Stephanie Rhoads) and Fletcher himself.

Just to make sure the satirical war story didn’t overwhelm the lovers, the Gershwins gave them songs like “The Man I Love,” “Soon,” “Meadow Serenade,” “Hanging Around with You” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You.”

Not to take anything away from the wonderful men in the cast, but the women in this cast are something special. With soaring, gorgeous voices and spot-on comic timing, the ladies in the Band steal the show. I’d happily listen to Rhoads, Rietkerk and Bruce sing just about anything.

That said, Grilli’s straight-man performance as the none-too-bright Fletcher is laugh-out-loud funny – he rings his secretary at one point and says, “Please send in an assortment of singers,” and Benjamin Pither’s lead solo on the astonishing song “Homeward Bound” is the closest the show comes to tugging the heart strings.

Oh, that score. Part Gilbert and Sullivan, part Sondheim but all Gershwin, this sophisticated score plays with the conventions of the day but makes them fresh and funny and full of substance. The title song is one of those irresistible and unshakable ear worms, but check this lyric: “We’re in a bigger, better war/For your patriotic pastime./We don’t know what we’re fighting for –/But we didn’t know the last time!” Ouch.

Dave Dobrusky provides solid musical direction and some gorgeous piano with tremendous assistance from Nick Di Scala on woodwinds. It’s hard to strike up a band without an actual band, but Dobrusky and Di Scala leave you wanting for nothing.

Even the choreography by Alex Hsu has exactly the right sense of humor. The squatting and bouncing of “The Unofficial Spokesman” provides hilarious accompaniment to a government man’s (Eric Wenburg) nonsensical no-position position. And the tap-dancing during the title number at the end of Act 1 is – very much like this show itself – the definition of crowd pleasing.

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION

42nd Street Moon’s Strike Up the Band continues through April 24 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $24-$44. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org for information.

Hot Babes! Even hotter tunes!

Babes 2
Alexandra Kaprielian, left, is Billie Smith, Zachary Franczak, center, is French aviator René Flambeau) and Michael Scott Wells is Val LaMar in 42nd Street Moon’s production of Rodgers & Hart’s Babes in Arms. Below: The kids jump for joy at the very thought of putting on a show in a barn! Photos by davidallenstudio.com

Let it be said that Babes in Arms is one of the weirdest musicals with the greatest scores ever written. There have been weirder musicals and greater scores, but never in such striking combination.

You can see for yourself as 42nd Street Moon unfurls all the daffy delirium that is Babes in Arms on stage at the Eureka Theatre. Go for the weirdness but stay for the sheer pleasure of hearing “Where or When,” “My Funny Valentine,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “Way Out West,” “Johnny One-Note” and “The Lady Is a Tramp” in their original context.

This is the second time that 42nd Street Moon has resurrected Rodgers and Hart’s 1937 show. The first time was in November of 1999, when the cast included Darren Criss, the newest cast member on the phenomenon known as Glee.

In fact, Glee and Babes in Arms have several things in common. For one, they’re both full of talented kids crazy about putting shows. For another, they both traffic in some terrific songs. And finally, they’re both about as reality-based as Santa Claus.

In Babes, whose book was written by its composers, a bunch of kids (we have to assume they’re younger than 18) are essentially abandoned by their vaudeville performer parents for six months with no money or means of support. The welfare department (in the form of the local Long Island sheriff) decides the kids should be shipped off to a work farm for their own protection.

The kids fight back! They’re not babes in arms. They’re babes in armor! And there’s work to be done to be done. In their youthful wisdom, they declare that putting on a show in the old barn will solve all their problems. If only President Obama went to the theater more often – he’d know that teenagers putting on shows in barns would surely end troubles in North Korea, the Middle East and Alaska.

Babes 1Not to give too much of the plot away, but when the show idea doesn’t work (aw, heck), the kids expect a solution for their troubles to drop from the sky. Which actually happens in the form a French aviator who crash lands in a nearby field. After being pummeled into unconsciousness, the pilot is imprisoned in a basement and impersonated by one of the kids. All in good fun.

Rather than being angry about the violence and abduction, the pilot is an incredibly good sport because – and you can feel this coming – the kids put on a show for him!

Richard Rodgers, in all his wisdom, feared that Babes, in spite of its extraordinary score, had not aged well, so in 1959, he commissioned George Oppenheimer to revise it. Characters and songs were cut, as was a subplot about performers of color being discriminated against (much to the disgust of the kids).

This 42nd Street Moon version goes back to the original (with a re-write assist by playwright John Guare, who spiffed it up for New York’s Encores! Series in 1999), so the preposterous plot is here in all its glory.

Director Dyan McBride knows just how to keep the action moving and the tone light so that the absurdity of the plot bumping up the richness of the songs isn’t quite as head-scratching as it might be. It’s already bizarre enough to have teenagers singing sophisticated, worldly songs like “Where or When” and “The Lady Is a Tramp,” so McBride’s deft touch, with a choreographic lift fromZack Thomas Wilde, is welcome.

McBride’s cast is merry and bright, and they receive sturdy support from musical director Dave Dobrusky (who also has a cameo as Fiorello LaGuardia). Michael Scott Wells and Alexandra Kaprielian are front and center as (funny) Valentine and charming Billie, the gang leaders, as it were, and Zachary Franczak is enjoyably villainous as Southern bigot Beauregard Calhoun.

A weird highlight of an already weird show comes in Act 2 as one of the minor characters, Peter (played sweetly by Jonathan Shue), gets his own dream ballet. It involves $500, communism and a trip around the world, and it has to be seen to be believed. Kinda like the show itself.

VIDEO BONUS:
Here’s the trailer for the 1939 Busby Berkeley spectacular that shares the name Babes in Arms a shred of the plot and only two of the songs (“Babes in Arms” and “Where or When”).

FOR MORE INFORMATION

42nd Street Moon’s Babes in Arms continues through Dec. 19 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $24-$44. Call 415 255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org for information.

Latest celebrity couple: Lukern

Rebecca Luker

You know that annoying habit we have of combining couples’ names to form one idiotic name – you know, Brangelina, TomKat, Bennifer.

Well, I have a new one. After last night’s 42nd Street Moon salon saluting the work of Jerome Kern, I’d like to introduce you to Lukern. There’s no more beautiful soprano on Broadway than Rebecca Luker’s, and as the evening’s host, Greg MacKellan, pointed, nobody short of Richard Rodgers had Kern’s gift for gorgeous melody. So when Rebecca meets Jerome, beauty ensues. Hence, Lukern.

Jerome Kern

As the evening’s featured guest, Luker got to sing two of my favorite Kern songs, “The Way You Look Tonight” and “They Didn’t Believe Me.” She also got to show off her comic chops – something a soprano doesn’t often get to do when she’s playing Marian the Librarian or Maria von Trapp – on “My Husband’s First Wife.” For the section on Show Boat, we got the old switcheroo. In the 1994 Broadway revival, Luker was Magnolia, and Debbie de Coudreaux was a member of the ensemble and the understudy for Julie. So MacKellan, who also directed and wrote the evening in addition to serving as genial host, decided to let them sing each other’s songs.

De Coudreaux, after a little lyric fumble, did a lovely job with “Make Believe,” then Luker brought down the house with “Bill.” The former cast mates joined forces on a rousing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”

The men of the ensemble – Bill Fahrner, Pierce Peter Brandt and Michael Scott Wells – with an assist from the lovely Alexandria Kaprielian, got to sink their musical teeth into an extremely interesting Kern song from 1929’s Sweet Adeline (lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein) – it’s a long, involved song about three guys who don’t know they’re in love with the same woman, and it’s practically like a wonderful little musical in and of itself.

The great thing about an evening like this is that the great tunes just keep pouring off the stage of the Alcazar Theatre. Just when you think you’ve heard a favorite, out pops another gem – like when Fahrner unfurled a tender “Why Was I Born” or when he sang Kern’s own favorite song, “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star.”

As 42nd Street Moon evolves and starts doing shows that aren’t necessarily lost or forgotten (heck, for their next show, they’re doing something brand new: a two-man musical called Murder for Two), it’s nice to settle in for an evening of songs – some incredibly famous, and some hardly ever performed. There’s no chance Jerome Kern will ever be forgotten, but it’s nice to be reminded of the depth of his songbook and of his incredible gift for writing a sumptuous tune.

A funny Megan Cavanagh happened on the way to this Forum

Forum 2
 

(from left) Megan Cavanagh, Bob Greene, Michael Rhone and Rudy Guerrero don togas for the 42nd Street Moon production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Photo by www.davidallenstudio.com

 

Anybody’s enjoyment of the 1962 Stephen Sondheim/Burt Shevelove/Larry Gelbart musical farce A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum depends largely on the actor playing Pseudolus, the lie-spouting slave and comedy motor at the center of the show.

Zero Mostel originated the role – did anyone have a bigger comic motor than Zero? – Phil Silvers played it in 1972 and Nathan Lane and Whoopi Goldberg took turns in the most recent Broadway revival in 1996. I’ve seen several productions of Forum and experienced what the Romans used to call Pseudolus annoyaolus, which is to say, the actors in the role were working so laboriously to be funny that I never laughed. It’s not surprising that Pseudolus breaks a sweat, but I really don’t want to.

The 42nd Street Moon production of Forum now at the Eureka Theatre is the first where I didn’t grow to dread the ever-expanding machinations of Pseudolus, who never met a lie he couldn’t enlarge. The reason is simple: Megan Cavanagh. She’s doing a little gender bending to play the scheming slave, and she’s marvelous. The old vaudevillian aspect of the role doesn’t escape her, nor does she belabor it. She’s a natural comic, so she doesn’t have to force the laughs. And she’s absolutely charming. She has grace where other Psuedolii have goals. She makes you laugh while they want to make you laugh.

To paraphrase Dinah Washington, what a difference a dame makes.

In this new era of 42nd Street Moon shows that are not staged concerts and not elaborate productions, the key to a successful production is a performer on which to hang the show, and in this case, it’s Cavanagh. Other cast members offer pleasures, and the show itself, though never my favorite Sondheim, has its fair share of laughs and musical delights. Any show that contains “Comedy Tonight” is going to be assured of at least one legendary show tune.

Director Greg MacKellan knows exactly how the show should go, and though he’s somewhat limited for space on the Eureka stage –farce requires a certain amount of running room – he and choreographer Tom Segal manage plenty of lively action. Some of Segal’s dance moves are especially funny in an acrobatic cartoon kind of way.

Cavanagh shines in her every scene, and she gets some spirited assists from Rob Hatzenbeller as Miles Gloriosus, a vain soldier whose charm doesn’t extend beyond his own face reflected in his breast plate, and Michael Rhone as Hysterium, whose ironically titled “I’m Calm” is amusing.

The Forum second act, though long on farcical chases, complications and resolutions, is lacking great musical moments, save for reprises of “Lovely” and “Comedy Tonight.” But it’s a nice touch that the short re-cap at the top of the act is underscored by “Love Is in the Air,” the original opening number that was ever so wisely replaced out of town by the show-defining “Comedy Tonight.” Kudos to musical director/pianist Dave Dobrusky and reeds player Nick Di Scala. They sound great and they’re lovely in togas.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

42nd Street Moon’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum continues through Oct. 24 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $24-$44. Call 415 255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org for information.

VIDEO EXTRAS

Here’s Ruthie Henshall and Carol Burnett singing “Lovely” from Forum (the clip is from the 1999 Broadway Sondheim revue Putting It Together).

And here’s Burnett with Bronson Pinchot putting a twist on “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” also from Forum (and also from Putting It Together).

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