Ira Gershwin…on several occasions

I’ve been spending the last few months with Ira Gershwin, and I must say, I have completely enjoyed his company.

Greg MacKellan, the co-artistic director of San Francisco company 42nd Street Moon approached me last year and asked me to contribute a narration script for what is becoming an annual Moon tradition: a salon evening paying tribute to a great lyricist. Last year it was Dorothy Fields. This year, Ira Gershwin.

What I knew about Ira was what a lot of people know &#8212 with his brother, George, he wrote some of the greatest of great songs, including “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “‘S Wonderful,” and the list goes on. And on. George (the music) was the flashy, charming guy whose premature death at age 38 from a brain tumor was a tremendous blow to Ira (the words), the soft-spoken, bookish older brother.

So how do you create an entertaining show about a guy whose life was, by all accounts, productive but free of scandal? Who liked to golf and play poker with his songwriting buddies and eschewed all the Hollywood/Broadway glitz and glamour?

The simple answer is: you let Ira’s work do all the work. His day-to-day life may have lacked flash, but it didn’t lack for brilliance. Ira channeled his brilliance and passion into his lyrics, which he cared about passionately. His nickname was “The Jeweler” because he was such a consummate craftsman, and boy did he churn out the gems.

Even after George died in 1937 (the song they were working on at the time of George’s death, ironically, was “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”), Ira continued to hone his craft. Look no further than his collaboration with Kurt Weill on Lady in the Dark or with Harold Arlen on the Judy Garland/James Mason movie A Star Is Born for evidence of his post-George genius.

One of the delights of researching the script was discovering some delightful songs. Being a native of Nevada, I was intrigued by the song “Sweet Nevada” from Park Avenue, the 1946 Broadway flop Ira wrote with Arthur Schwartz. Originally written in the style of a Viennese waltz, the song (about potential divorcees heading to the Silver State) morphed into a country swing, which Ira described like this: “The undulating Blue Danube-ish three-quarter-time rip-roared to a clop-clop, plunk-plunk, bang-bang rowdy-dow.” I thought it would be great to hear a little of the song in the original waltz style then shift to the final country-swing version. Alas, though we have the lyrics &#8212 “A bill of divorcement/At one time, of course, meant/A lady was dragged in the dust–/Till Nevada saved the day;/Sweet Nevada led the way” &#8212 the music is somehow no longer with us.

Oh, well. Plenty of other material from which to choose. Another favorite discovery was from late in Ira’s career. He kept threatening to retitre but always got pulled back into one project or another. His last was writing some songs for Billy Wilder’s 1964 comedy Kiss Me, Stupid. Using some of George’s unused trunk music, Ira composed lyrics to several songs (none of which are used to great effect in the movie, which is a mess), and he seemed to be having a grand time. He wrote a comedy number called “I’m a Poached Egg,” which was based on a fragment of a song from the ’30s, with the assignment of creating something “nutty.” He more than delivered. And delivered. Ira got on a roll and just couldn’t stop writing lyrics.

Here’s the basic idea:

I’m a poached egg
Without a piece of toast,
Yorkshire pudding
Without a beef to roast,
A haunted house
That hasn’t got a ghost&#8212
When I’m without you

He kept going and going with this song. My favorite verses, which were never used, include:

My Fair Lady
Without the rain in Spain,
I’m a dentist without novocaine&#8212
When I’m without you


I’m a missile
That can’t get into space,
Monte Carlo
Without a Princess Grace,
Perry Mason
The time he lost a case&#8212
When I’m without you

Listen to Ella Fitzgerald sing the song here.

I have a new appreciation for Ira Gershwin, especially for his robust sense of humor and his class. Spending time in his world is, well, it’s awful nice. It’s paradise. It’s what I love to see.

Now listen to Ira himself (clearly reading a written text) talk about his life and his brother, George.

There’s a wonderful story in the San Francisco Chronicle about the show and its star, Donna McKechnie. Read it here.


Nice Work If You Can Get It: An Ira Gershwin Salon Evening starring Donna McKechnie is at 7pm, Thursday, January 28, at the Alcazar Theatre, 650 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $70 for the show, $100 for the show and a dessert after party with Ms. McKechnie. Call 415
255 8207 or visit for information.

Theater review: `Wildcat’

42nd St. Moon's "Wildcat"
Maureen McVerry is Wildcat Jackson and Rob Hatzenbeller is Joe Dynamite in the 42nd Stret Moon production of the 1960s musical Wildcat.

Not much growl left in `Wildcat’

There’s a moment in Wildcat that redeems the whole shaky venture.

With 42nd Street Moon, the company that dusts off lost, forgotten or unjustly ignored musicals, there’s always a tricky balancing act. You want to deliver an enjoyable show that the audience embraces for its own merits. But then again, you want to explore musicals that aren’t done often (if ever) and that means there may be a reason for languishing in obscurity. Sure, it’s a fantastic opportunity for musical theater enthusiasts to experience a show that they otherwise could never see, but for the general audience, that can be a form of musical torture.

In its recent shows – namely Girl Crazy, Irma La Douce and High Spirits – 42nd Street Moon has demonstrated the next evolution of its staged concerts becoming more fully developed but still small-scale musicals. The current offering, Wildcat, is more of a step backward.

The actual show has a lot to do with it. Cy Coleman (music) and Carolyn Leigh (lyrics) contribute a patchy score with only a few real highlights, and the book by N. Richard Nash (of The Rainmaker and 110 in the Shade fame) has a real Li’l Abner complex with its cartoony characters and preposterous romance. The only reason Wildcat is remembered at all is that it was the one and only time Lucille Ball, coming off the height of her 1950s fame (and her marriage to Desi Arnaz), appeared on Broadway.

The world loved Lucy in 1960, and apparently they also enjoyed Wildcat, which must have traded heavily on Ball’s star power. They say the heavy workload of starring in a musical eight times a week was more than the famous redhead could bear and she put the show on a break to recover from exhaustion but never bothered to rev it back up. My theory is that Ball got bored because there was so little substance to the show that she had to do virtually all of the work to put it across. Whatever, Ball bailed on Broadway, and plans for a movie version were scotched as well.

42nd Street Moon presents WILDCAT

If you’re going to look for a Bay Area equivalent of Lucille Ball, you need look no further than Maureen McVerry, a comically gifted redhead with a long local resume. McVerry, in the Ball role of Wildcat Jackson, Wildy to her friends, has charm and energy. She puts over the score’s bona fide hit song, “Hey Look Me Over” (with Rebecca Pingree as Wildy’s limp, limping sister, Janie) and she has some nice chemistry with leading man Rob Hatzenbeller as Joe Dynamite, a man with a nose for oil.

McVerry and Hatzenbeller succeed despite the fact that neither is playing a likeable character. They have gusto, which is more than can be said for the show in general. There are bursts of humor and fleeting good tunes, but nothing much lands.

Director Kalon Thibodeaux is defeated by the creakiness of Nash’s shallow book, and he generates a lot of hammy, cheesy acting from his cast.

The saving grace, aside from the leads, comes as a major surprise at the top of Act 2. A bunch of oil rig workers are speculating on the success of a new well and dreaming about what they’ll do with the money when it comes pouring in. The song is “Tall Hope,” and it’s an oasis of genuine emotion and beautiful melody. Arranged by music director Dave Dobrusky, the song has a depth of feeling unlike anything else in the show, and it’s stunningly performed by Robbie Cowan, Derek Travis Collard, Peter Budinger, Kyle Payne and Jimmy Featherstone.

The song is a revelation and the kind of thrilling musical theater moment that comes with discovery. And what company other than 42nd Street Moon, taking risks on cast-offs and musical theater history footnotes, provides such opportunities for discovery? None come readily to mind.


42nd Street Moon’s Wildcat continues through May 24 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $24-$42. Call 415-255-8207 or visit for information.

Here’s Lucy with Paula Stewart performing “Hey Look Me Over” on the “Ed Sullivan Show”:

New `Pompeii’ musical erupts in San Francisco

Ask a group of San Francisco theater enthusiasts what they think about a show and you’ll get more than an earful.

That’s what R.C. Staab found out – the hard way – when he held a reading of his new musical, Shadows of Pompeii, at 42nd Street Moon’s Moonspace last January.


In a rare move, Moon, the group that dusts off old and forgotten musicals, agreed to present a workshop production of Pompeii, which has a book by Staab and a score by Keith Herrmann, Tony nominated for Romance/Romance in 1988. That production, directed by Dianna Shuster, opens Thursday, April 16 and runs through April 26 at the Eureka Theatre.

But first came the reading, that painful reading.

Given Staab’s background in marketing (he works for the San Jose Mercury News), he knew exactly wanted from his capacity audience at the reading. They were instructed to fill out a detailed form immediately following each of the two acts asking about specific songs and characters, then they were asked to fill out a third questionnaire with more general comments about the overall show.

“That audience was brutal,” Staab says over coffee in his downtown San Francisco neighborhood. “One guy wanted us to change the location of the show from Pompeii to Herculaneum. Another wanted the volcano to erupt at the beginning of the show. I was fairly depressed the next day.”

A musical theater lover since his high school days, Staab got involved in theater as a performer at the University of Missouri (where he studied journalism) and then worked in a number of community theater productions in Harrisburg, Pa. When he and his wife, who works in television, were living in Raleigh, N.C., Staab decided it was time to try and write a show. Trouble was, he didn’t write music.

Through ASCAP’s Collaborator’s Corner, he was able to connect with composer Jeff Pflaumbaum and the pair wrote the musical comedy Fountain of Youth, which received a workshop production last year from American Musical Theatre of San Jose before it went belly up.

When he set out to write another show, Staab wanted to work with a Bay Area composer, so he put an ad in Theatre Bay Area magazine. One of the respondents had the idea to write a musical about Pompeii, the Roman city in the shadow of Vesuvius, the volcano that would eventually bury the city in ash and lava. That collaboration didn’t work out, but Staab was left with a working libretto and no score.

So it was back to ASCAP, where he found Herrmann, and the work continued.

With the goal of entering his new musical in the National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival of New Musicals, Staab needed the help of a member organization here in the Bay Area, which meant one of four groups: AMTSJ, Woodminster Summer Musicals, TheatreWorks or 42nd Street Moon. The deal was that Staab would pay for the production if he could present it under the auspices of a member theater.

AMT took on Fountain of Youth (which has been submitted for the 2009 NAMT festival), and 42nd Street Moon’s Greg MacKellan and Stephanie Rhoads asked their board about helping produce Shadows of Pompeii and almost immediately got the green light.

Since the January reading, Staab has been busy making changes to his show. He took the suggestions from that brutal audience quite seriously. Songs have been changed and re-ordered. The volcano eruption happens much earlier in Act 2. Character names have been made less Roman and more contemporary. And the opening number has been almost completely re-shaped.

“We never wanted this to be a toga musical,” Staab says. “It’s set in 79 AD, but we wanted it to feel contemporary. We eliminated a lot of the references to the Roman gods, which seemed kind of stilted. We wanted the story to feel more real to the present.”

Because this is a workshop production, there’s no set but there are original costumes by Maya Linke and Krista Nelson, who have taken their inspiration from the fall 2009 line by Alexander McQueen.  For the leading character, a Pompeii artist named Lila, Linke was inspired by the prodigious silhouettes created by Cristobal
in the late 1950s and ’60s.

Composer Herrmann isn’t able to be in San Francisco for the workshop production, so Staab is, as he puts it, “the driver.” He says he has “deputized” the entire cast – which includes Russ Lorenson, Sarah Aili, Carrie Madsen and Carmichael Blankenship — to become librettists and to feel free to offer their observations, insights and suggestions for change.

“They have taken up that job with a lot of gusto,” Staab says.

And though it might mean more pain, Staab says he will be soliciting audience feedback throughout the entire run.

“When some people say they want feedback, they really just want compliments and approval,” he says. “I really want feedback. That’s the whole point.”

Shadows of Pompeii runs through April 26 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25. Call 415-255-8207 or visit or for information.

Theater review: `High Spirits’

Spirits are blithe in Moon’s `High Spirits’
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What’s the point of reviewing a show just a few days before it closes? Not much from a commercial point of view.

But given the sudden interest in all things Noel Coward, I had to check out 42nd Street Moon’s production of High Spirits, a 1964 musical based on Coward’s play Blithe Spirit. And I’m certainly glad I did – the show turned out to be one of Moon’s can’t-miss productions.

The show itself, with music, lyrics and book by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray, has some snappy (and forgettable) tunes and adheres closely to Coward’s original blueprint. But what makes this musical event stand or fall is its core quartet of actors.

If you happen to be in New York these days, you can pop in on the revival of Blithe Spirit and see Rupert Everett, Jayne Atkinson, Christine Ebersole and the redoubtable Angela Lansbury in the roles, and lucky you. But it’s hard to imagine that starry foursome being funnier or more charming than the 42nd Street Moon crew.

Michael Patrick Gaffney (above, photo by Robert Millard) is Charles Condomine, a writer and widower working on a new book that involves a séance. To assure accuracy, he invites a medium named Madame Aracati to his home for an evening’s ghostly entertainment. On Broadway, Lansbury is said to be divine in the role, but 42nd Street Moon has a real secret weapon here: Megan Cavanagh, in her second Moon outing. Cavanagh is a seasoned comic who knows better than to simply put on a kooky show as the bicycle-riding spiritualist.

Cavanagh is hilarious and heartfelt. Her big numbers, “The Bicycle Song” (cleverly choreographed by Tom Segal), “Go Into Your Trance” and “Talking to You” (an ode to a Ouija board) and “Something Is Coming to Tea,” are all show highlights simply because Cavanagh’s Arcati is so much fun to watch. We don’t believe for a minute that Arcati, as eccentric as she is, could be a phony. She’s much too sincere and has too much belief in her own gifts.

That’s a key to making sense of the silly plot. During the séance, much to the dismay of Charles’ second wife, Ruth (a droll Maureen McVerry, funny in a starched British way, pictured above with Gaffney), Arcati conjures the fleshy ghost of Charles’ first wife, the dashing Elvira, played with pizzazz by Dyan McBride.

These four performers, under the loving direction of Greg MacKellan are a joy. They have chemistry together; they sing, dance and act effortlessly; and they seem genuinely to be enjoying their time on stage.

McBride gets the show’s two standout numbers – “You’d Better Love Me” and “Home Sweet Heaven” – and she swirls around the stage in a lovely, flowy blue dress (Louise Jarmilowicz gets credit for the costumes). She even infuses a less interesting song, “Faster Than Sound,” with style and humor.

Musical director Dave Dobrusky lets the feel of the early ’60s strike a groove in his playing, and he gets stalwart support from Nick DiScala on saxophone, clarinet and flute. With only two players, Dobrusky and DiScala manage to provide varied and pleasant arrangements that go a long way in selling the songs.

In recent shows, 42nd Street Moon, now in its 16th year, has evolved from straightforward concert productions, with actors holding their scripts, to more fully staged, though still minimalist, presentations. The great thing is that the transition seems to be working. These aren’t big, splashy set- and costume-heavy shows, but the strengths of the shows themselves shine through and provide a showcase for some of our talented local musical theater performers.

Something to look forward to: The just-announced 2009-10 42nd Street Moon season begins in September with Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam starring New York cabaret star Klea Blackhurst. Harold Rome and Leonard Gershe’s musical western, Destry Rides Again, will star local light Connie Champagne and run Oct. 28-Nov. 15. Cole Porter’s Jubilee returns Nov. 25-Dec. 13 starring High Spirits cohorts Megan Cavanagh and Michael Patrick Gaffney. The Gershwins’ Lady, Be Good! Runs March 31-April 25 and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Very Warm for May runs, appropriately, May 6-24.

The new season kicks of the beginning of a multi-year celebration of composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Ira Gershwin. The new season will also introduce “salon evenings” honoring lyricists Dorothy Fields (Oct. 13) and Ira Gershwin (Jan. 28).

For information visit

Craig Jessup meets Noel Coward redux

Craig Jessup Sings Noel Coward 2Last week I interviewed Craig Jessup for the San Francisco Chronicle about his series of Craig Jessup Sings Noël Coward concerts at the Exit Theatre.

For whatever reason, the story failed to make it into last Sunday’s Pink section along with all of the other coverage of Coward’s surprisingly busy 110th birthday celebration.

The Chronicle did post my interview with Jessup online here.

Here’s the dish on Jessup’s remaining performances: Craig Jessup Sings Noël Coward is at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 8, and Sunday, April 12, at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Call (415) 255-8207 or visit

Theater news: Moon gets `Spirited,’ Encore nabs Nachtrieb, `March’ goes on

42nd Street Moon, the company that specializes in charming productions of classic and lesser-known musicals, has announced a change in its season lineup.

Next March, the previously announced The Baker’s Wife by composer Stephen Schwartz, will be replaced by High Spirits, the musical version of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

“Unfortunately, director Gordon Greenberg, who had delighted audiences on the East Coast with past productions of The Baker’s Wife, had a conflicting obligation,” said 42nd Street Moon artistic director Greg MacKellan. “His production of Stephen Schwartz’s Working has been scheduled for the Old Globe Theatre at the same time we would have done The Baker’s Wife. We hope to include the show in next season’s lineup, and meanwhile we will replace it with `High Spirits.’ As it happens, there will be a major Broadway revival of Blithe Spirit with Angela Lansbury, Christine Ebersole and Rupert Everett at the same time we are doing the musical version.”

The 42nd Street Moon production will star Megan Cavanagh (so funny in the Moon production of Out of This World) as the eccentric Madame Arcati, a role made famous by Beatrice Lillie in the original 1964 Broadway production. Also on board for the Moon cast are Michael Patrick Gaffney, Maureen McVerry and Dyan McBride.

MacKellan will direct and Dave Dobrusky will serve as musical director, with Mick DiScalla on woodwinds.

The 42nd Street Moon 2008-09 season continues with current hit Girl Crazy through Nov. 16 followed by Ben Franklin in Paris opening Nov. 29. High Spirits begins performances March 19 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Call 415-255-8207 or visit for information.


Encore offers Nachtrieb’s `T.I.C.’

Encore Theatre Company, one of the Bay Area’s most intriguing small companies, has announced that it will present the world premiere of San Francisco playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s
T.I.C. Trenchcoat in Common in January at the Magic Theatre.

Nachtrieb came to prominence with his 2006 hit Hunter Gatherers, which won the ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award as well as the Glickman New Play Award. Encore commissioned him to create a new play, which turned into T.I.C., the story of a teenage girl publishing a blog about her Tenant-In-Common building. On a boring early-summer night, from her vantage point in the cottage in back of the building, she has a clear view of the building’s rear windows. She captures her neighbors’ private activities on her cell phone and publishes them online with commentary. When strange, menacing events begin to take place at her home, it’s evident that her journal isn’t going unnoticed. Someone is reading, someone is watching and everyone is in danger.

“As one of the leading Bay Area companies dedicated to developing new work, Encore Theatre Company has found an ideal collaborator in Peter Nachtrieb,” said Encore artistic director Lisa Steindler. “From the moment I saw Peter’s work, I knew that I wanted to support and nurture such an extraordinary artist. I am honored to present this new work by one of the most exciting young playwrights on the scene today.”

Developed with support from the Z Space Studio, T.I.C. will be directed by Ken Prestininzi, associate chair of playwriting at Yale School of Drama, and the cast will include Lance Gardner, Arwen Anderson, Michael Shipley, Liam Vincent, Rebecca White and Anne Darragh.

T.I.C. Trenchoat in Common runs Jan. 2 through Feb. 1 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$40. Call 800-838-3006 or visit


Sleepwalkers extend `March’


Sleepwalkers Theatre has announced the extension of its current world premiere production March to November, now playing now through Nov. 15 at the Phoenix Theatre. Performances have been added for Nov. 13, 14, and 15 at 8pm.

Additionally, anyone who brings a program from Boxcar Theatre’s current production of Animal Kingdom to Sleepwalkers on the 13, 14, or 15 can see March to November for $5 at the door.


Inspired by SF Weekly theatre critic Chloe Veltman’s Jan. 9th article “Election Stage Left,” which challenged Bay Area playwrights and theatre companies to create more “political” works, Sleepwalkers answers the call to arms with a classic hero story that assess the relevance of overtly political theatre. With the 2008 election as a backdrop, March to November, by Sleepwalkers co-founder Tore Ingersoll-Thorp, is an examination of one artist’s search to find political responsibility in her work.

Tickets are $14. The Phoenix Theatre is at 414 Mason St. (at Geary), San Francisco. Call 415-814-3944 or visit

Review: `Girl Crazy’

Meghann Reynolds and Jeff Horst croon “Embraceable You” in 42nd Street Moon’s revival of the George and Ira Gershwin musical Girl Crazy at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco. Photos by David Allen

42nd Street Moon revives loveable, embraceable `Girl’
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There’s nothing quite like a Gershwin revival to brighten the musical scene.

Ten years ago, 42nd Street Moon presented a staged concert version of Girl Crazy, the 1930 hit with music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and a book by Guy Bolton and John McGowan.

Dyan McBride played feisty cowgirl Molly Gray, who tangles with a visiting New Yorker who’s turning his family’s ranch in dusty Custerville, Ariz., into a dude ranch.

Now McBride is directing a revival of Girl Crazy for 42nd Street Moon, only this time around it’s a fully staged production – no more actors holding scripts and putting them down for the big musical numbers.

These days, a 42nd Street Moon show is a real show with a bit of a set (this one’s by Tom Orr) and not much else. You could say, from the looks of things, that the shows resemble high school or community theater productions, and on the surface that might be true.

But the difference is in the quality of presentation. You get high-quality performances – they sing! they act! they dance! – that more than make up for the lack of production frills. Like the staged concerts of yesteryear, these full productions give modern audiences a chance to genuinely experience shows that probably wouldn’t be done by anyone else. For instance, local theaters probably wouldn’t choose to do “Girl Crazy” when they can do the re-tooled 1992 Broadway version, Crazy for You.

Whether they’re lost, forgotten or just outdated, these musicals certainly have their charms, and McBride and her team certainly find much to burnish in Girl Crazy.

The best thing about the show is the tone –it’s exactly right. No one’s apologizing for the slightness of the book or the flimsiness of the characters. They play it as it is, never forcing the comedy or arching the schmaltziness. When slapstick is called for, slapstick is performed. But it’s all completely straightforward – confident, good humored and charmingly relaxed.

Dave Dobrusky, who played the show and served as musical director 10 years ago, is back behind the piano, and he’s marvelous – he even plays a maraca (just one) at the top of Act 2 when the action shifts to San Luz, Mexico.

Staci Arriaga choreographs some high-energy, high-stepping moves for her lanky cowboys (the flashiest moves come from Andrew Willis-Woodward and Nicholas Yenson) and keeps the action on the small Eureka Theatre stage lively without ever crowding it.

Romantic leads Jeff Horst and Meghann Reynolds are delightful and never smarmy. They duet beautifully on “Could You Use Me?” and “Embraceable You.”

The comic romantics – Kalon Thibodeaux as cab driver Gieber Goldfarb and Lisa Hensley as the smitten Patsy – feel like they’re right out of the 1930s. Thibodeaux is a fantastic physical comedian, and he shines on “Goldfarb, That’s I’m” and does some memorable imitations – Jolson, Durante, Chevalier, Cantor – when he chimes in after Reynolds croons a lilting “But Not for Me.”

In the role made famous by Ethel Merman in her Broadway debut is Cami Thompson, who imbues Frisco Kate with Mae West sass and a voice West could only dream of and Merman would have to envy.

Thompson’s “Sam and Delilah” is a showstopper followed quickly by yet another showstopper, “I Got Rhythm.” In Act 2, which is short on memorable tunes, she saves the day with the ballad “Boy! What Love Has Done to Me!”

As Kate’s gambling hubby, Slick, Peter Sroka is another one of those reliable character actors who seems to have been delivered directly from 1930.

In Act 1, we’re treated to multiple reprises of “Bidin’ My Time” crooned by an appealing quartet – Peter Budinger, Benjamin Pither, Justin Torres and Willis-Woodward – but the boys’ gentle crooning is absent from Act 2, which could use some help.

The silliness overtakes the story –hypnotism becomes a key plot point – and songs such as “Land of the Gay Caballero” and “When It’s Cactus Time in Arizona” just don’t do it.

But that was musical theater in the ‘30s, sincerity overtaken by silliness mixed in with tunes both great and no-so great. The charm of seeing a show like Girl Crazy from our vantage point is that we can appreciate it from both a historical perspective as well as one of pure enjoyment.

Pictured above right are Kalon Thibodeaux as Gieber Goldfarb and Lisa Hensley as Patsy West. Photo by David Allen.


Girl Crazy continues through Nov. 16 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $24-$42. Call 415-255-8207 or visit

Review: `Irma La Douce’

Alison Ewing (left) is the lone woman in 42nd Street Moon’s production of Irma La Douce, the story of a sweet Parisian prostitute. Playing some of the “mecs” in her life are (from top) Michael Barrett Austin, Rudy Guerrero and Victor-Alexander Tapia. Photo by David Allen


`Irma’ sells it, Moon sings it

As the only woman in a show full of men, Alison Ewing is a bright light in every way.

She’s playing a hooker with a heart of gold (is there any other kind in musical theater?) in 42nd Street Moon’s production of Irma La Douce, a 1950s show that began life as a distinctly Parisian musical then slowly got blown out of proportion in its translations to the British and later the Broadway stage.

Ewing, making her 42nd Street Moon debut, sings and dances like a pro, looks great in Irma’s tight costumes and almost manages to make sense of the mostly nonsensical character. And that’s no small feat given the silly plot she has to deal with.

Irma walks the streets of Paris’ “Milieu” and happily turns tricks for her “mec” (pimp), played by a grunting Rudy Guerrero, and all is right with the world. She and her clients all socialize at the local bar and swill anisette after anisette.

Then a law student named Nestor (Kyle Payne, filling in for injured leading man Steve Rhyne, who will not be returning to the production) attempts to come between Irma and her mec’s fist. In a blazingly inane show of law book intellect, Nestor somehow wins Irma from the mec and the two embark on an awkward personal/business relationship.

Here’s where Irma gets positively Shakespearean. Sick of Irma selling herself to a long line of leering Parisians, Nestor disguises himself as rich old man (fedora, ratty bird, glasses) named Oscar and becomes Irma’s sole customer.

Now, we have come to like Irma quite a bit (especially as embodied by Ewing), but the fact that she can’t see through the stupid disguise or recognize her lover’s undisguised body is a little too absurd – even for musical theater.

Irma really goes off the rails in Act 2 when Nestor decides he’s had it with Oscar and disposes of the disguise and gets tried for murder in the process. He’s sent to Devil’s Island, somehow escapes on a raft (just where the raft comes from remains a mystery) and attempts to return to a pregnant Irma in Paris.

The show has been described as an “adult fairy tale” which is a way to gloss over prostitution and poor writing in one glossy tag line. But people rarely come to a musical for the plot.

The score, specifically the music by Marguerite Monnot, is delightful. For the 42nd Street Moon show, pianist and musical director Dave Dobrusky is ably assisted by busy reeds player Nick DiScala, who plays just about everything but an accordion.

The show’s two best numbers belong to Ewing’s Irma: “Dis-Donc, Dis-Donc” in Act 1 and “Irma-la-Douce” in Act 2. Rousing and sharply staged by choreographer Linda Posner, the numbers feel unquestionably French and have more life in them than the moribund book (the original French book and lyrics are by Alexandre Breffort, and the English book and lyrics are by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman). The oft-reprised ballad “Our Language of Love” is lovely and worth hearing repeatedly.

Director Greg MacKellan’s effective pacing of the scenes gets somewhat hobbled by the blackout scene changes (to drag on and off the minimal set pieces designed by Tom Orr), but the general vivacity of the production and the appealing cast – headed by 42nd Street Moon veteran Bill Fahrner as narrator Bob-le-Hotu – keeps the evening lively.


Irma La Douce continues through Oct. 12 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St. San Francisco. Tickets are $24-42. Call 415-255-8207or visit

C’est magnifique — `Irma La Douce’ gets intimate

Greg MacKellan and has cast and crew for Irma LaDouce are finding out what the expression “the show must go on” really means.

A mere week before the first preview performances of the 1950s musical, leading man Steve Rhyne (pictured right with Bill Fahrner (center) and Alison Ewing (left), staring as Nestor Le Fripe, a law student who falls in love with the titular lovable streetwalker, injured his knee fairly severely and would not be able to perform – at least for previews and opening weekend.

MacKellan, co-founding artistic director of 42nd Street Moon and director of Irma, says he has never experienced a situation like this in the 15 years of his company’s existence.

“It’s such a good show, and we’ve been wanting to do it for such a long time,” MacKellan says, “and Steve is so good in the part. We’re working it out, but I’m anxious for Steve to get back.”

Kyle Payne, who was in the ensemble playing multiple roles (and a veteran of Oh, My Godmother!), has stepped into Rhyne’s role, and another member of the ensemble, is filling in for Payne. That leaves the cast a man short with no time to fill the role before performances begin.

“It’s a big upheaval,” MacKellan says, “but Kyle is pretty amazing. Three days after he started, he was off book for Act 1. It’s been a huge thing for the cast to adjust to, but they’ve been rocks.”

All the angst is unfortunate, especially in view of the fact that “Irma” has been a long time coming.

Most people know the name Irma LaDouce from the 1963 Billy Wilder-directed film starring Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon. But that film bears only a surface resemblance to the stage musical created by composer Marguerite Monnot (who wrote songs for Edith Piaf) and book and lyrics writer Alexandre Breffort.

“The essentials of the plot are the same,” MacKellan says, “but the songs, cut from the movie, are the best parts of the show. The stage version isn’t as crass as the movie, in fact the musical isn’t crass at all. It’s very sweetly done – like an adult fairy tale, very romantic and with a sense of joie de vivre. The movie doesn’t have that at all.”

A sensation in Paris in the mid-’50s, Irma moved to London in 1958 with new book and lyrics by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman. The show was a hit in English as well and then headed to Broadway in 1960, where it won a Tony Award for leading lady Elizabeth Seal.

MacKellan has been trying to get the rights to Irma for years, but they have been unavailable since the last major production – for the San Francisco Civic Light Opera in 1978, a production that starred Priscilla Lopez (A Chorus Line) and Larry Kert (West Side Story).

“It was something about the French authors and their resentment of the English translation,” MacKellan says. “I’m not sure what it was all about, but the English version changed a lot of things, and then the movie didn’t even use the songs, except a couple of them and then only as background. But about 10 or 11 years ago, all the English authors had died, and something about the contract sent everything back to the French authors to decide what was to be done. Last fall, a new attorney took over the estate, and eventually we got a call asking us if we wanted to do it.”

Though MacKellan and company are performing the Broadway version of “Irma,” which is the only version licensed in this country, he says he’s trying to make the show more the way it was in England.

“With each incarnation, the show has gotten a little bit bigger,” MacKellan says. “The original French production was small, rather dark and very intimate. It became something else in England then in New York, it was a big Broadway show where you listen to the overture and get excited. But it’s not that kind of show. For obvious reasons – our theater, our stage – our production will be more intimate.”

Irma is also notable, in 42nd Street Moon terms, because it’s the third production in the company’s evolution from presenting concert versions of musicals – with scripts in hand – to presenting more fully produced versions of shows.

“We ascribed to the notion that people should now it’s a concert for a long, long time,” MacKellan says. “But it was time to refresh the idea of what we’re doing, to reconnect with what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”

A fuller production – no scripts, pieces of sets, props – can be challenging in the tight confines of the Eureka Theatre with precious little backstage space.

“We’re finding our way into this new way of doing things, but people seem to really enjoy it,” MacKellan says. “The binders are gone for good.”

Though 42nd Street Moon has been known for dusting off some truly dusty old shows that have been lost, forgotten or in dire need of being pieced back together, the company’s fresh approach could include some newer shows.

“(Co-artistic director) Stephanie (Rhoades) and I feel that there are so many people out there writing new musicals that don’t get the opportunity to see them produced,” MacKellan explains. “These shows need a chance, and it’s time to let people see them. In this economy it’s harder than ever for people to get new musicals done. We’re planning on a new show for the 2009-10 season. We did one thing fairly well and opened people’s eyes to this huge history of the American musical theater that they didn’t even know existed. We still intend to do that, but it’s time to bring it forward to now.”

Irma LaDouce previews today (Sept. 25) and Friday, Sept. 26 and opens Saturday, Sept. 27. The show continues through Oct. 12 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $24-$42. Call 415-255-8207 or visit

Celebrating Strouse with `Possibilities’

San Francisco’s unique musical theater company, 42nd Street Moon, kicks off its 16th season with a celebration of Tony Award-winning Broadway composer Charles Strouse on Monday, June 30: You’ve Got Possibilities: Celebrating the Musicals of the 1960s and an 80th Birthday Salute to Charles Strouse.

Strouse won his Tony Awards for Bye, Bye Birdie in 1960, Applause in 1970 and Annie in 1977. Among his other shows are Golden Boy (a starring vehicle for Sammy Davis Jr.), It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman, Rags and Nick and Nora. The composer (who also wrote the theme song for “All in the Family”) will be in attendance.

In addition to commemorating his eighth decade, Strouse is also celebrating the release of his autobiography: Put on a Happy Face: A Broadway Memoir. The book and the 42nd Street Moon show are all part of a year-long tribute that includes concerts, revivals and special events around the world.

The 42nd Street Moon show at the Alcazar Theatre includes special guests Nancy Dussault, Andrea McArdle (who got her start in Strouse’s Annie), Linda Posner (credited as Leland Palmer starred in Strouse’s Applause as well as the movie All That Jazz — this marks her first stage appearance since her retirement from show business in 1977), Susan Watson (began her Broadway career in Bye, Bye Birdie), and Klea Blackhurst.

The gala begins at 5:30 p.m. with hors d’oeuvres and a silent auction. Performance follows at 7 p.m. The Alcazar is at 650 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $100 ($75 of which is tax deductible). Call 415-255-8207 or visit

To keep up with everything going on in Charles Strouse’s celebratory 80th year, visit

Here’s a clip from the NY Post’s “Backstage with Michael Riedel” that includes a visit with Strouse: