Grins, gams and gumshoes in SF Playhouse Angels

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Private investigator Stone (Brandon Dahlquist, left) exclaims to mystery writer Stine (Jeffrey Brian Adams) that he would be nothing without him in the San Francisco Playhouse production of City of Angels. Below: Stine is seduced by movie studio secretary Donna (Monique Hafen). Photos by Jessica Palopoli

It’s real vs. reel in the San Francisco Playhouse summer musical, City of Angels, a delightfully jazzy take on film noir, greed the constant battle between commerce and art.

This 1989 Broadway hit, with a dazzling score by the great Cy Coleman (music) and David Zippel (lyrics) and a genuinely funny book by Larry Gelbart (whose credits include M*A*S*H and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) is a real treat, and it’s nice to see that SF Playhouse’s musicals just get stronger and stronger. Director Bill English marshals his resources effectively and also contributes a set that makes terrific use of rear wall projections (by Theodore J.H. Hulsker) and makes a convincing split between the slimy real world of 1940s Hollywood and the grimy black-and-white world of cinematic private detectives, missing daughters and murderous plots.

Musical director Dave Dobrusky heads an 11-piece band that handles the jazzy riffs of Coleman’s score well and add some nice shiny, brassy blasts to keep things lively. There are torch songs, comedy songs, vocalese numbers and a couple Broadway-style showstoppers, and Dobrusky’s band handles it all with period pizzazz.

At the center of the dueling stories are Stine, the writer (Jeffrey Brian Adams), and Stone (Brandon Dahlquist), the private detective and the creation of the writer. Stine is in Hollywood turning his hit novel into a screenplay for studio head Buddy Fiddler (a robust Ryan Drummond), who likes to put his stamp on everything, from the script to the script girls. Stine is learning the art of compromise in adapting his novel for the screen and watching everything that made the book interesting evaporate as the story transitions to the screen.

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Adams and Dahlquist are both excellent as conflicting aspects of the writer’s personality. Their big duet, “You’re Nothing Without Me,” concludes Act 1 in the bang-up way it should, though the reprise at show’s end doesn’t pack quite the same punch.

Director English tends to underplay the comedy aspect of this musical comedy, leaning more into the shadows of the film noir world instead. This is most apparent in the sterling comedy number “You Can Always Count on Me” sung by the actor playing secretaries to Buddy in the real world and to Stone in the film world. In this production, that falls to Monique Hafen, who performs the number with the brio of a Kit Kat girl wandered in from Cabaret. There’s pathos in the song to be sure, but the dramatic business undercuts the comedy.

The comedy MVP award goes to Nanci Zoppi who plays a wannabe widow in the movie and a studio head’s wife in the real world. It’s the latter role that gives her a chance to add some real comic zest to the show. It’s reassuring when the women take over the stage because, in true film noir and 1940s Hollywood fashion, they’re mostly reduced to sidekicks, bad choice makers, schemers and seductresses (and the choreography has a tendency, especially in Act 2, of sending them down to their knees).

At just over 2 1/2 hours, this City of Angels keeps up a peppy pace, and the set and the sharp performances clearly delineate the increasingly complicated relationships between reality and cinema while the hot band and strong voices give the movie world a nice Broadway bang.

City of Angles continues through Sept. 17 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$125. Call 415-677-9596 or visit

Big laughs, super star in Moon’s Little Me

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Jason Graae stars as all the men who woo the irresistible Belle Poitrine (Teressa Byrne) in the 42nd Street Moon production of Little Me at the Eureka Theatre. Below: Graae is Prince Cherney and Sharon Rietkerk is young Belle. Photos by David Allen

My faith in the good ol’ American star-making machine is kaput. Any yahoo with a access to a “reality” show camera crew gets 15 minutes and all the nonsensical covers of ridiculous magazines they could wish for. Or singers of dubious talent get in front of a national audience singing notes by the pound with no understanding of (or interest in) the songs they’re macerating.

And then you have journeymen performers like Jason Graae, who by all rights should be an enormous star, doing stellar work that is seen by far too few. I get worked up every time I see Graae perform because something is definitely not right that his dynamic performer with a golden voice and flawless comic timing hasn’t already had several hit sitcoms, won a couple of Tony Awards, sold millions of albums, had a few plum roles on the big screen and written at least one tell-all memoir. In another era, all of the above would be true, but the truth is, Graae is a genius in a world of show biz that has come and gone (and may yet come again – if we’re lucky).

Lest you think I’m exaggerating, go see Graae play seven leading men in 42nd Street Moon’s production of Little Me, a 1962 musical tailored to the talents of Sid Caesar. The irresistible score by Cy Coleman (music) and Carolyn Leigh (lyrics) features delightful songs like “I’ve Got Your Number,” “On the Other Side of the Tracks,” “Deep Down Inside” and “Here’s to Us” among others, and though you may leave humming a few tunes, what really lingers is the rip-roaring book by Neil Simon (adapted from novel Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs of That Great Star of Stage, Screen and Television, Belle Poitrine, as told to Patrick Dennis).

Act 2 is kind of a letdown, comically speaking, but there’s so much effervescent good will left over from the hearty laughs of Act 1 it hardly matters. And the real reason to see this production is Graae’s master class in musical comedy. His first (and most frequently recurring) character is Noble Eggleston, a blue blood from the right side of the tracks who falls for exactly the wrong girl, an impoverished Belle Shlumpfert from Drifter’s Row (definitely the wrong side of the tracks). Theirs is a love for the ages – you can tell because music plays every time they touch – and they’ll spend most of their lives pining for one another and just missing the chance to be happy in one another’s arms.

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While Noble heads off to Harvard and Yale, where he’ll become a doctor and a lawyer (and a war hero), Belle makes it her life’s mission to become worthy of Noble’s love by attaining wealth, culture and social position. This quest leads Belle into the arms of all the wrong men, all happily played by Graae.

This story is told by Older Belle (Teressa Byrne) as she regales her biographer (Caleb Haven Draper as Patrick Dennis) with stories of her colorful past, and Younger Belle is played by Sharon Rietkerk, a spirited and big-voiced leading lady who is more than up to the challenge of keeping up with Graae while still managing to get some great laughs on her own. They are a delightful pairing, and it’s easy to see why Belle and Noble are so hooked on one another.

My favorite of Graae’s characters is the clueless Fred Poitrine, an inexperienced farm boy on his way to the European theater of World War I. Graae does idiocy brilliantly, but he also does it with heart. Fred’s big number, “Real Live Girl,” is as sweetly heartbreaking as it is funny.

When you’ve got someone as sure-footed as Graae going for big laughs onstage, you kind of want things to go wrong, at least a little bit. When the comedy train is going full speed, you can’t stop it – you just have to make sure everyone stays on board then stoke the engine a little more. That’s what happened with Graae on opening night when a pistol accidentally fell out of his pants (no really, he was just happy to see us) and, while playing French performer Val DuVal, his moustache kept sliding all over his face. Those were some of the funniest moments of the 2 ½-hour show, but there are plenty of sizable laughs built into Simon’s script, and they usually have something to do with rich people making fun of poor people or poor people sacrificing anything to escape their grim reality.

Aside from the joys of Graae and Rietkerk, director Eric Inman’s production is a hit-and-miss affair, and it’s impossible to laugh over the shortcomings of Act 2 (the highlight of which is Rietkerk and Byrne singing the title song). But music director Brandon Adams, at the piano alongside Nick Di Scala on woodwinds, keeps the electricity of Coleman’s score surging, and the sheer enjoyment of watching Graae do such good work diminishes any sense of letdown in the show itself.

Little Me may not be a genius piece of musical theater, but when you have leading players as appealing as Graae and Rietkerk and delivering superstar turns, the Little charms go a long, long way.

[bonus interview]

I interviewed Jason Graae for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here. [subscription may be required]


42nd Street Moon’s Little Me continues through May 19 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit

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”:

Broadway by the Bay’s musical man

As someone who has loved musicals since his formative years, Jim Gardia is certainly in the right business. And to think, he could have ended up as a swim coach.

In college, Gardia, who was a competitive swimmer, was seriously considering a career as a swim coach.

Jim Gardia

“But theater pulled me harder,” he says.

For six years he worked with Los Angeles’ acclaimed Reprise Theatre Company, both as managing director and as producing director. Last year, he left his native L.A. to come north. He is now the executive director of San Mateo’s Broadway by the Bay, replacing Greg Phillips, who left early last year to serve as executive director of Oregon’s Portland Center Stage.

A musical theater performer since childhood, Gardia is someone who has the musical in his bones. While with Reprise, he got to work on some great shows with some great talent. Here’s a sampling: Sunday in the Park with George with Kelli O’Hara and Manoel Felciano directed by Jason Alexander, Follies with Patty Duke, Vikki Carr, Harry Groener and Donna McKechnie, Anything Goes with Rachel York and Brent Barrett, City of Angels with Stephen Bogardus and Vicki Lewis and Zorba with Marc Kudisch and Judy Kaye.

As Gardia says, he didn’t leave Los Angeles or Reprise out of any kind of dissatisfaction. “I had been wanting to move to the Bay Area for years,” he says. “I saw an opportunity with Broadway by the Bay. Jason Alexander is running Reprise, so I left it in good hands.”

A high-level community theater, Broadway by the Bay opens its 44th season this week with the Gershwin musical Crazy for You. With nearly 7,000 season subscribers and more than 6,000 single show ticket sales per production, BBB is the biggest theater on the Peninsula and has a reputation for big, splashy musicals with giant casts and strong production values.

Coming into such an established organization, Gardia, now a resident of Half Moon Bay, says he doesn’t have any plans to change the Broadway by the Bay vision. “What they do thrills me. This format works. I’m here to help make change if it’s needed, but I don’t see the need. We can buff up here and there, but nothing’s broken.”

Nothing in the company may be broken, but there is something big that has gone bust: the economy. Opening a new season in the midst of a recession is something that weighs on every performing arts company at this moment, especially after having seen American Musical Theatre of San Jose cease operation last year.

“Of course the recession is something we have to prepare for,” Gardia says. “We’ve cut our budget, gone line by line and cut where we could. I do not like cutting anything that goes on stage because that’s what we do. Everyone on the board has cut back where they can.”

Ticket prices have gone up, according to Gardia, by “a couple dollars.” But, he adds, you can still see a BBB show for $20 at the lowest level and under $50 at the highest.

“One of our goals is to keep these shows affordable,” Gardia says. “We want this to be for everyone, especially during these times. With this kind of musical entertainment, you can walk into the theater and get carried away for a couple of hours. That’s essential to our psyche. Our job continues to be bringing entertainment to the masses.”

>Also coming this season, whose theme is “The best is yet to come”: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I (July 16-Aug. 2), The Full Monty (Sept. 17-Oct. 4) and the composer showcase, Broadway Up Close and Personal: A Tribute to Cy Coleman (Nov. 5-8).

Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein are familiar names at BBB. But the work of composer David Yazbeck, the man behind The Full Monty, is not. Also new to the BBB stage is the notion of male strippers.

“Full Monty is a little riskier kind of show for us,” Gardia says. “But think about the storyline: unemployed steel workers in Buffalo trying to figure out how they can raise money. It says a lot about the world right now, and every time I’ve seen the show, the audience leaves with huge smiles on their faces.”

This will be the third year that BBB has offered the composer showcase after previous outings honor Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Schwartz. Gardia says subscribers weren’t sure about the composer showcase at first but have warmed to it.

“I think people definitely see it as a highlight of the season now,” Gardia says. The Cy Coleman tribute will feature Coleman collaborator David Zippel and ASCAP’s Michael A. Kirker joined by Broadway performers Lillias White and Jason Graae.

“One of the things we hope to do with the composer showcase is expand it into a master class of some kind for our Youth Theatre and Musical Theatre conservatories,” Gardia says.

Broadway by the Bay’s Crazy for You runs April 2-19 at the San Mateo Center for Performing Arts, 600 Delaware Ave., San Mateo. Tickets are $17-$48. Call 650-579-5565 or visit for information

New seasons: TheatreFIRST, Broadway by the Bay

TheaterFIRST, under the new artistic direction of Dylan Russell, has announced its 15th anniversary season, which will run from January to June 2009 and will include a staged reading series and a Harold Pinter revival.

The season opens with a staged reading series from mid-January to mid-February. Plays and location still to be announced, but the readings will be at 2 p.m. Sundays.

The centerpiece of the season is Pinter’s Old Times featuring L. Peter Callender, a veteran Bay Area actor who last performed with TheatreFIRST in World Music. Old Times runs April 2 through May 3 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley.

Call 510-436-5085 or visit for information.

San Mateo’s Broadway by the Bay, under the leadership of artistic director Brooke Knight and executive director Jim Gardia, has also announced its new season — its 44th — which begins in April of 2009 and concludes the following November. Here’s how the season shakes down:
Crazy for You, a revamped Gershwin musical, runs April 2-19.
The King and I, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, dances July 16-Aug. 2
The Full Monty, a Broadway musical based on a spunky British film, disrobes Sept. 17-Oct. 4
Broadway Up Close and Personal: A Tribute to Cy Coleman, starring Jason Graae (right), runs Nov. 5-8

Performances are in the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware, San Mateo. Season subscriptions are $90-$152 until Nov. 16, when prices change to $100-$164. Single tickets also go on sale Nov. 16. Call 650-579-5565 or visit