42nd Street Moon hits the high seas with Coward’s Sail Away

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In the 42nd Street Moon production of Noël Coward’s Sail Away, passengers and crew aboard the S.S. Coronia include (from left) Barnaby Slade (Nathaniel Rothrock), Nancy Foyle (Khalia Davis), cruise hostess Mimi Paragon (Allison F. Rich), Alvin Lush (Jordan Martin) and Elinor Spencer-Bollard (Darlene Popovic). Below: Mimi develops feelings for passenger Johnny Van Mier (Lucas Coleman). Photos by David Allen

Sail Away, the last musical for which the great Noël Coward wrote the whole shebang (book, music, lyrics), had two things going for it when it premiered on Broadway in 1961. First was the customary Coward wit, which shone in numbers like “The Passenger’s Always Right” and “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” And then there was the show’s star, Elaine Stritch for whom Coward created the role of cruise hostess Mimi Paragon. Any show was better for having Stritch in it (Goldilocks anyone?), and the combination of her personality and Coward’s charm should have proven irresistible.

Reviews were decidedly mixed, however, and the show only ran five months. London audiences were much more receptive to Stritch and Coward, and the show ran nearly a year. But since then, Sail Away has done just that – it has pretty much sailed into obscurity, making it ideal fodder for the folks at 42nd Street Moon, the company that has spent the last two decades celebrating lost, forgotten and under-appreciated musicals.

The biggest challenge facing director Greg MacKellan would be finding an actor to play Mimi – filling the shoes of Elaine Stritch is a daunting task to be sure. But MacKellan found a ringer in Allison F. Rich, who had been such a standout in his Nick and Nora last spring. Rich is wry, sexy, statuesque and possessed of a powerhouse voice. On stage she’s something like a cross between Allison Janney and Carol Burnett, which is mightily appealing.

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The whole show rests on Rich’s capable shoulders because Mimi is by far the most interesting character in the show. A failed actress who now cruises the high seas giving tours of ruins and organizing shuffleboard tournaments, Mimi has sass to spare, and on this particular cruise, she will far for a handsome younger man, a trust fund baby named Johnny Van Mier (played by the charming Lucas Coleman and put her cynicism to the test.

That’s really all that happens in Sail Away – a crusty cruise director falls in love, while around her, the various passengers do their best to come across as colorful even if none of them is terribly compelling.

There’s a secondary love story involving a sweet solo traveler, Barnaby (Nathaniel Rothrock) and Nancy (Khalia Davis), secretary to a famous romance author (the ever-amusing Darlene Popovic). Nancy has zero interest in taking dictation and is only on board for romance. Though she resists Barnaby at first, she succumbs to his earnestness and they dance through two Coward numbers attempting to be hip by 1961 standards, “Beatnik Love Affair” and “When You Want Me.” Their choreography, by Brittany Danielle has more than charm and does as much to develop their personalities as Coward’s rather wan book.

The rest of the passengers try to make up for the surprising lack of plot by being annoying. There’s the brash American couple, the Candijacks (Katherine Cooper and Davern Wright), the stuffy Brits, the Nutleys (Michael Patrick Gaffney, Maria Mikheyenko) and the lax mother (Ashley Garlick) and her out-of-control child (a fine Jordan Martin).

The Keats-spouting author, Elinor Spencer-Bollard, has a folksy comedy number, “Alice,” which Popovic delivers beautifully, and Lucinda Hitchcock Cone gets to be the overprotective mother of Johnny as Evelyn Van Mier, but her only function seems to be to disapprove loudly of Mimi’s excessive enthusiasm.

Musical director Dave Dobrusky at the piano with Nick Di Scala on woodwinds keep Coward’s score lively, and there are some delights here beyond the show-stopping final number (Mimi’s “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?”). Her duet with Martin on “The Little One’s ABC” yields some very satisfying laughs, and her “Useless Useful Phrases” is an enjoyable traveler’s lament.

Coward seems to be working in a decidedly Irving Berlin-meets-Rodgers and Hammerstein mode here, and while Sail Away is pretty bland compared to the much livelier Anything Goes, his attempt at an R&H ballad, “Later Than Spring,” is a lot like the show itself: enjoyable if not terribly convincing.

Noël Coward’s Sail Away continues through Nov. 15 in a 42nd Street Moon production at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

Nick & Nora and musical theater necrophilia

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The cast of 42nd Street Moon’s Nick & Nora includes (from left) Brittany Danielle and Ryan Drummond as Nick and Nora Charles, and Allison Rich (right) as actress Tracy Gardner and Nicole Frydman (reclining) as murder victim Lorraine Bixby. Below: Danielle’s Nora is charmed by William Giammona as Victor Moisa, much to the chagrin of Drummond’s Nick. Photos by David Allen

The greatest crime the musical Nick & Nora seems to have committed in its ill-fated 1991 debut was not being nearly as good as it should have been and not being nearly the catastrophe everyone had imagined. The notorious musical is based on Dashiell Hammett’s final novel, The Thin Man from 1933, which was turned into the more memorable series of Thin Man movies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as soigné sophisticates Nick and Nora Charles, who also solve crimes.

Nick & Nora has not been fully produced since its Broadway demise (72 previews and only a week of performances following the disastrous reviews), which is why we love 42nd Street Moon, the company that dusts off the flawed, forgotten and factious musicals of old and allows a contemporary audience to see what’s actually there. Sometimes these shows fell through the cracks for good reason, but more often there’s something surprising or gem-like to unearth in their resurrection.

Moon’s production of Nick & Nora does not reveal an unjustly maligned masterpiece, but it is great fun – exuberantly produced with a game cast directed by co-artistic director Greg MacKellan. One of the most common reactions to the original Broadway production seems to have been “well, it wasn’t as bad as they said it was,” and that is, perhaps, the worst kind of review. Not only is the show not good, it’s not the delicious debacle that can be just as fun (if not more so) than a masterwork.

No, Nick & Nora is an inherently flawed show with moments of charm, humor and even beauty that fails to make a case for itself as a work of art independent of the novel and the movies (and the radio show and the subsequent TV series and assorted rip-offs). The one thing I kept thinking over and over while watching the nearly three-hour show is, “This gives me a whole new appreciation for just how good City of Angels is.” That jazzy show is also set amid the glamour and backbiting of Hollywood in the early mid-20th century, but it’s got style and high concept and a score that won’t quit.

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It’s understandable that expectations would be high for Nick & Nora. It’s director and book writer, Arthur Laurents, wrote what is arguably the greatest musical of all time in Gypsy and has other shows like West Side Story and La Cage aux Folles on his lengthy and distinguished resumé. Composer Charles Strouse had huge success with Bye Bye Birdie and Annie, and lyricist Richard Matlby Jr. made a splash with his Richard Maltby collaborations Baby and Closer Than Ever and then with his lyrics for Miss Saigon. That’s the kind of creative team that looks good on paper, but on stage, there’s no real magic. These are all artists capable of great work, but the spark of inspiration seems to have bypassed this endeavor entirely.

Still, Nick & Nora has a sort of clunky, old-fashioned charm, which director MacKellan emphasizes in his enjoyable production. Ryan Drummond and Brittany Danielle in the title roles have abundant charm, but what’s nice about their downplayed performances is that they also come across as human beings and not Art Deco archetypes of crisp, urbane repartee. The show’s creators, however, have not done a good job of conveying who Nick and Nora are in their songs or convincing us that these blithe crime busters should be singing and dancing. Laurents introduces marital discord into the mix, which seems wildly off base, especially when he’s already juggling a complicated murder mystery in which every supporting character seems to be a suspect. On Broadway there was an actual dog playing famous sidekick Asta, but this production keeps the canine offstage.

The show’s one bold theatrical touch is having murder victim Lorraine Bixby (played with brio by Nicole Frydman) continually back from the dead to reenact key moments of her tumultuous life and death. She also gets the score’s best song in the funny and rousing “Men.” Lorraine was a movie studio bookkeeper with secrets and potentially destructive gossip. Many had a motive to see her silenced, including the Hepburn-esque actress Tracy Gardner (the robust Allison F. Rich), the crooked producer (Michael Kern Cassidy), the corrupt detective with a foot fetish (Michael Barrett Austin), the embezzling director (Brian Herndon), the slick union chief (William Giammona) and the highly protective wife of the producer (the invaluable Cindy Goldfield). There are other players as well, including the surprisingly drawn racial stereotypes (the show is set in 1937 but was written in the ’90s so there’s really no excuse) of a Mexican entertainer and a Japanese house boy.

The talented cast makes a good case for Nick & Nora as a show that deserves another look and perhaps a longer life in community theater, but it’s also easy to see why this Broadway misfire – stuck in that purgatory of “not so bad/not so good” – has lain dormant for nearly a quarter of a century.

[with thanks to the marvelous George Maguire for the headline]

42nd Street Moon’s Nick & Nora continues through April 19 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

Emily Skinner waltzes away with Moon’s Waltz

A love letter to Emily Skinner…

Dear Ms. Skinner,I had the pleasure of seeing you perform in 42nd Street Moon’s production of Do I Hear a Waltz, and I was completely captivated by your Leona Samish, the lonely American tourist who travels to Venice for a taste of life.

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I have fond memories of Moon’s 1998 production back when they were doing staged concert productions with actors holding their scripts. That was my first encounter with Waltz, a 1965 Broadway curiosity that matched three musical theater masters – Richard Rodgers writing the score, Stephen Sondheim writing the lyrics and Arthur Laurents writing the book based on his play The Time of the Cuckoo (also the source material for David Lean’s 1955 movie Summertime starring Katharine Hepburn as Jane Hudson, a totally re-written Leona). The show, by all accounts, was a misery to create, primarily because Rodgers, lacking confidence in his abilities in the wake of Oscar Hammerstein’s death, was a miserable and stubborn collaborator

The result is a show that feels part Follies, all sophistication and darkness, and part The Sound of Music, all cheerful musical comedy. Sondheim has described the show as perfectly respectable but labels it a “why?” musical – why, if the creators were not passionate about the adaptation, does the musical need to exist?

I can tell you, with some certainty, that “why?” was answered for me in the person of you, Ms. Skinner. This oddball musical needs to exist so that actors as skilled as you can perform in it and attempt to make some sense of it. I was not lucky enough to see you in your star-making turn in Side Show, but I did see you on Broadway in The Full Monty and in James Joyce’s The Dead, but seeing you in the intimate Eureka Theatre was a revelation. With no microphones and only piano accompaniment (Dave Dobrusky is the pianist/musical director), it was just you and the show and the audience.

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I will say that the set looks so much like the Olive Garden that it was distracting and that the supporting cast was uneven but certainly has its charms, but this experience was all about Leona, a tough, funny, lonely woman who deserves more from life and has set out to grab it. If there is ever serious interest in reviving Do I Hear a Waltz on Broadway (and there probably won’t be unless Sondheim wants to do some serious tinkering), we have found the ideal Leona. In your capable hands, Leona is likable without being sappy or needy. She’s smart but she’s out of her element and a little off balance, especially when she falls for a Venetian antique seller who may or may not be on the up and up. Leon has some considerable defenses around herself, but she also, as we see briefly, a great capacity for joy.

Ms. Skinner, you are in spectacular voice – “Someone Woke Up” and the title song have never sounded so good. I found myself wishing that Sondheim and Rodgers had mustered a great aria for Leona to perform at show’s end that lets us in on the state of her heart and mind as she heads home. In the latter part of Act 2, it’s almost as if the creative team forgot they were creating a musical and focused much more on the play. In the hands of a skilled actor we hardly miss the score (Leona’s drunken breakdown at the party she’s throwing is some serious musical theater drama), but Waltz does end rather with a whimper, which doesn’t quite seem fair to Leona.

As strange as it is, Do I Hear a Waltz? is awfully entertaining, and kudos to director Greg MacKellan for wrestling this beast into such pleasant form. But the best decision of all was to hire such a remarkable leading lady. Thank you, Ms. Skinner, for allowing us such a captivating Waltz.

42nd Street Moon’s Do I Hear a Waltz continues through Oct. 19 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

PHOTO CREDITS: (top) Emily Skinner as Leona Samish in 42nd Street Moon’s Do I Hear a Waltz? (lower) Skinner and Jonah Broscow as her pint-sized guide, Mauro. Photos by pwophoto.com

Bright and bouncy, Moon’s Sunshine radiates charm

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Kari Yancy as Alice swoons while Galen Murphy-Hoffman as George declares his love in the world-premiere musical Painting the Clouds with Sunshine, a first in the 42nd Street Moon canon. Below: Movie stars Iris (Allison F. Rich) and Russell (Ryan Drummond) demonstrate a little Fred and Ginger action. Photos by David Allen

The song titles say a lot about what this musical is like: “Livin’ in the Sunlight,” “You Hit the Spot,” “Sweeping the Clouds Away.” If it seems there’s a rosy glow emanating from these titles, that’s exactly right. You’ll find no more glowing show in town than 42nd Street Moon’s first original musical in its two-decade history, Painting the Clouds with Sunshine.

This is a stage musical in love with movies. Creators Greg MacKellan and Mark D. Kaufmann have learned a whole lot from the passing parade of lost, forgotten and banal-to-brilliant musicals that have made 42nd Street Moon’s reputation since its debut in 1993. They eschew the corniness of most musical books, build in a whole lot of charm (from both performers and their songs) and add just enough shadow and smarts to keep the show from flittering away in the breeze of twirling tap dancers.

MacKellan (a 42nd Street Moon founder, with Stephanie Rhoads and Kaufmann, who also directs, have chosen Depression-era movie songs from 1929 to 1939 to tell their original tale of a hardworking journalist, a not-so-naive farm girl from Iowa and the world-weary owner of a diner whose paths cross in 1935.

The plot, while not exactly heavy drama, isn’t light. Morals are compromised (or at least sorely tested), hearts are broken (and mended), secrets are revealed and propositions are tendered. The action takes place in a Hollywood of swanky parties, graveyards and streets full of people down on their luck.

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There’s only a cast of eight, but they work hard to populate Tinsel Town. We even get glimpses of the glamorous movies themselves in the Fred-and-Ginger like Russell and Iris (Ryan Drummond and Allison F. Rich), who convey a lovely sense of escapist fun that made the movies so popular (and important to the national mood) in the ’30s.

Galen Murphy-Hoffman is George, a reporter for the Hollywood Citizen News, and Kari Yancy is hyper-appealing as Alice, the young woman who slings hash but has big dreams, not the least of which is helping her folks back in Iowa survive the financial disaster of their farm.

John-Elliott Kirk is a diner regular who works at the RKO Studios, and he finally got the nerve to act on his years-long flirtation with diner owner Willa played with tenderhearted strength by the invaluable Cami Thompson. Nicole Frydman is the wisecracking best friend of Alice and Justin Gillman is a newsstand owner who knows how to survive on the streets pushing more than papers.

If these folks are all types, they’re also more human than they might be than in, say, an actual 1930s movie. They also have a robust selection of songs from the era to keep things lively. There are great songwriters represented like Rodgers and Hart (“My Friend the Night”) and Frank Loesser (“Some Like It Hot”) and some of the era’s most industrious tunesmiths like Mack Gordon, Harry Revel and Al Dubin.

Among the many musical highlights (Dave Dobrusky is the pianist and musical director) are “Breakfast Table Love,” “Dusty Shoes” and “Gather Lip Rouge While You May.” The vocal arrangements rely heavily on harmonies, and they’re gorgeous. Staci Arriaga’s choreography has bounce and inventiveness, and the costumes by Felicia Lilienthal add delightful period color.

The charm of Painting the Clouds cannot be overstated. It has been conjured with tremendous skill and true affection for the period. The show, like the movies it celebrates, is “an elixir of joy to put us in dream land for a couple of hours.”

42nd Street Moon’s Painting the Clouds with Sunshine continues through April 20 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

Moon’s Carnival: midway between comedy, drama

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Optimistic orphan Lili Daurier (Ashley Jarrett) makes friends with the carnival puppets, unaware that puppeteer Paul Berthalet (Ryan Drummond, left) and his assistant Jacquot (Michael Doppe, center) are the people pulling the strings in the 1961 musical Carnival revived by 42nd Street Moon. Below: Rosalie (Dyan McBride, left) eyes Jarrett’s Lili as she watches the magic of Marco the Magnificent (Bill Olson). Photos by David Allen

Watching the 1961 musical Carnival, a hit on Broadway, it’s fairly easy to see why the show was never a candidate for major Broadway revival or a staple of community theaters. The score, by Bob Merrill, has real charm and beauty mixed with pleasant mediocrity. The standout song, “Love Makes the World Go Round,” is used to great effect, although the most poignant song in the score is a longing-for-home number called “Mira” that perfectly captures what the show wants to be: a sweet, melodic story with melancholy and pain running not too far under the surface. And therein lies the tricky part. This musical, with a book by Michael Stewart, looks like a happy mainstream musical, but it’s much more complex than that. In many ways, it succeeds in being musical comedy and drama, but the creators didn’t have quite the sophistication to pull it off – or maybe they felt they were offering as much sophistication or complexity as an early ’60s Broadway audience could handle.

Whatever the reason, Carnival Remains a curiosity, and thanks to 42nd Street Moon, the great reviver of Broadway curiosities, treasures and castoffs, we get to explore Carnival games in a production that lets us experience what the show does best. Director Greg MacKellan and choreographer Jayne Zaban guide a spirited cast through a bright 2 1/2 hours filled with some lively moves and some gorgeous voices.


In its two key roles, Carnival requires performers who can really sing and really act with an almost operatic intensity. Leading lady Lili Daurier (Ashley Jarrett) is freshly orphaned and just off the bus looking for a friend of her late father’s who sells souvenirs in a second-rate French carnival. The man she’s looking for is dead, and she quickly learns that carnies who offer a helping hand may have other body parts in mind. Lili, who is described later in the show as a “grown-up girl with the mind of a child,” is a tricky character. Is she simply a country bumpkin so naive to the ways of the world she might as well be 9 years old? Or is this more of a Light in the Piazza situation in which her simplemindedness is more complex? Hard to know, but Lili’s sweetness and sincerity are never in question, and those qualities are the primary reason she bonds with the puppets in the carnival’s rag-tag puppet show and helps turn the struggling act into the hit of the midway.

The primary puppeteer, Paul Berthalet (Ryan Drummond) is a disillusioned former dancer dealing with war injuries and a life he neither expected nor likes. He’s immediately skeptical of Lili and her infatuation with the rakish magician Marco the Magnificent (Bill Olson), but at some point, he falls for her and is only able to express himself when he’s performing as one of the puppets. When he’s just himself, he’s downright cruel to Lili, much to the disgust of his assistant, Jacquot (an affecting Michael Doppe).

Both Drummond and Jarrett have powerful voices and give convincing performances, especially Jarrett, whose interaction with the rather disappointing (but well performed) puppets is filled with childlike glee.

With such interesting central characters, it’s too bad that the secondary love story, between Marco and his assistant, the Incomparable Rosalie (Dyan McBride) relies more on comedy than complexity, and the introduction of a potential fiancé for Rosalie, a goofy vet from Zurich, doesn’t really add much to the overall story, although McBride’s number, “Humming,” is performed with her customary aplomb and crack comic timing.

Carnival, in the end, plays it safely down the middle, trying to be a family-friendly musical with darker undertones. There’s a gentle charm to the show, and this production’s musical director, Dave Dobrusky, makes a melodic case for the best of Merrill’s score, but there seems to be an impulse on the part of the creators to make something more significant here. The songless final stretch of the musical is all about drama and character and not at all about fulfilling musical comedy expectations.


42nd Street Moon’s Carnival continues through April 21 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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(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.


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.


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).


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 www.42ndstmoon.org.