2007 theater Top 10

I can always tell whether a theater year has been good or not so good when I sit down to hammer out my Top 10 list. If I can summon five or more shows simply from memory, it’s a good year. This year’s entire list came almost entirely from memory (which is a feat in itself as the old noggin’ ain’t what it used to be), so it was a good year indeed.

Here’s the countdown leading to my No. 1 pick of the year.

10. Anna Bella Eema, Crowded Fire Theatre Company — Three fantastic actresses, Cassie Beck, Danielle Levin and Julie Kurtz, brought Lisa D’Amour’s tone poem of a play to thrilling life.

9. First Person Shooter, SF Playhouse and Playground — What a good year for SF Playhouse. This original play by local writer Aaron Loeb brought some powerhouse drama to its examination of violent video games and school violence.

8. Bulrusher, Shotgun Players — Berkeley’s own Eisa Davis’ eloquent play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for drama, turned the Northern California dialect of Boontling into poetic drama as it told the story of an outcast young woman finding her place in the world.

7. Avenue Q, Best of Broadway/SHN — Hilarious and irreverent, this puppet-filled musical by Jeff Marx, Robert Lopez and Jeff Whitty made you believe in friendship, life after college and the joys of puppet sex.

6. Jesus Hopped the `A’ Train, SF Playhouse — It took a while for Stephen Adly Guirgis’ intense drama to make it to the Bay Area, but the wait was worth it, if only for Berkeley resident Carl Lumbly in the central role of a murderer who may have seen the error of his ways. And note: This is the second SF Playhouse show on the list.

5. Emma, TheatreWorks _ Paul Gordon’s sumptuous, funny and, of course, romantic adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel came marvelously to life as a musical, with a star-making performance by Pleasanton native Lianne Marie Dobbs.

4. Argonautika, Berkeley Repertory Theatre _ Mary Zimmerman’s athletic retelling of the Jason and the Argonauts myth fused beauty and muscle and impeccable storytelling into a grand evening of theater.

3. Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People, Word for Word — Actually, the second half of Strangers We Know, this stage adaptation of Lorrie Moore’s short story was brilliantly directed by Joel Mullenix and performed by Patricia Silver and Sheila Balter.

2. Man and Superman, California Shakespeare Theater _ This unbelievably vivid version of George Bernard Shaw’s massive existentialist comedy benefited from superior direction by Jonathan Moscone and an impeccable cast headed by Elijah Alexander and Susannah Livingston.

1. The Crowd You’re in With, Magic Theatre _ The team of playwright Rebecca Gilman and director Amy Glazer fused into brilliance with this slice-of-life meditation on why we make the choices we make in our lives. Local luminaries Lorri Holt and Charles Shaw Robinson brought incredible humor and tenderness to their roles, and T. Edward Webster in the lead managed to make ambivalence compelling.

Now it’s your turn. Please post your favorite theater moments of 2007 — no geographical limitations, just good theater.

Make `ShowBusiness’ your business

One of the most interesting documentaries of the year had nothing to do with health care or Iraq.

ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway sort of slipped in and out of theaters without a whole lot of fanfare, which is really too bad because director Dori Berinstein has created a fascinating glimpses behind the scenes of four major musicals opening in New York during the 2003-2004 season.

Luckily, the movie came out on DVD this week (Liberation Entertainment, $28.95).

For her movie, Berinstein picked four musicals to follow, and boy did she pick good ones: Wicked, Avenue Q, Caroline, or Change and Taboo.

Bay Area audiences, of course, got the first look at Wicked during its pre-Broadway tryout. We had the great fortune to see Caroline, and Avenue Q made its overdue local debut last August. The only real mystery in this bunch is Taboo, the Rosie O’Donnell-produced ’80s flashback revolving around Boy George: his life, his music and himself (he was in the cast).

Of the four, Wicked and Avenue Q were monster hits and are still running. Caroline is an esteemed flop by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori. And Taboo is known as one of Broadway’s great disasters.

The movie follows each of the shows from the summer of 2003 up to the Tony Awards in 2004 when Avenue Q upset favorite Wicked for the Best Musical award.

Along the way, we get fascinating glimpses of the creative process, the marketing machine and the economics of Broadway. One of the juiciest threads involves tension between Jeff Marx, the co-composer of Avenue Q and Jeff Whitty, the book writer who was brought on board relatively late in the creative process.

It all ends happily, with Tony Awards for everyone, but the two did not get along, and it’s not pretty. Marx’s parents, by the way, turn out to be a highlight of the movie.

Director Berinstein includes several round-table discussions with New York theater critics, and this, to me, is a horror show. These nattering fools (save Charles Isherwood from the New York Times, who salvages a shred of dignity) make critics look like the lowest possible bottom feeders in the show business pool. Ouch.

Covering such a diverse assortment of shows, Berinstein ended up with more than 250 hours of video that had to be whittled down to 104 minutes.

“The season was a roller coaster with highly anticipated shows closing early and little shows coming out of nowhere to take Broadway by storm,” Berinstein says. “There was no way to predict where the Season was heading. Consequently, it was necessary to capture everything. Editing, as a result, was a massive and extremely difficult process. Narrowing down our primary storytelling to four musicals was excruciating. So many extraordinary moments are on the cutting room so to speak. I can’t wait until we assemble the DVD.”

Visit the movie’s official site at www.showbusiness-themovie.com.

Here’s the trailer from ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway, followed by a clip featuring Idina Menzel of Wicked.

Review: `Avenue Q’

Opened Aug. 8, Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco

Raunchy, raucous `Q’ finally hits SF
Four stars Monstrously good

It definitely doesn’t suck to be in the audience of Avenue Q, the frisky musical that re-imagines “Sesame Street” as an R-rated comedy cavalcade complete with perky puppets.

After winning the 2004 Tony Award for best musical (take that, Wicked!), Avenue Q made an unfortunate detour to Las Vegas, where desert audiences failed to embrace what is essentially a puppet show for adults with songs such as “It Sucks to Be Me’’ and hardcore puppet sex (note: the puppets don’t have bodies below the waist, so make of that what you will).

But now Q is on tour and is making merry at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre, where the show’s sweet, dirty, dirty charms are on full display.

The cast, which includes veterans of both the Las Vegas and still-running Broadway productions, couldn’t be more appealing. In fact, it’s a bit of a problem, especially with leads Robert McClure and Kelli Sawyer (above), the puppeteers who are almost always visible, because they are actually cuter than their puppets.

It’s hard to know which performance to watch – the flesh and blood or the foam rubber.

Either way, the performances are robust and ribald – exactly the right mix to animate the tale of young Princeton (McClure), fresh out of college with a BA in English that means absolutely nothing in the real world.

He lands in New York’s Avenue Q neighborhood (alas, it’s fictional), a sort of chipper slum for well-meaning folks barely surviving the economic realities of life in the big city.

Princeton is, of course, a puppet, though in his world, as on the street they call Sesame, he interacts with humans such as Christmas Eve (Angela Ai), her fiance, Brian (Cole Porter – what a swellegant name!) and building supervisor Gary Coleman (Carla Renata), the former child star who has seen better days.

This world is also populated by monsters, namely Kate Monster (Sawyer), a kindergarten teaching assistant, and Trekkie Monster (Christian Anderson), an Internet porn addict.

Princeton also encounters a sultry saloon singer named Lucy The Slut (Sawyer again), a deeply closeted and uptight gay stockbroker named Rod (McClure) and two divine creations called Bad Idea Bears (Anderson and Minglie Chen), who encourage – in sickly sweet voices straight out of children’s television — Princeton to squander scarce cash on cases of beer and suggest hanging himself as a way to solve his problems. Heck, these snuggly little teddy bears even provide the rope.

Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s score immediately evokes “Sesame Street” cheerfulness before devolving in wonderfully funny ways to address latent homosexuality in “If You Were Gay,” racism in “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and the German concept of taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others in “Schadenfreude.”

Jeff Whitty’s book, simple and well shaped, gives the show a nice forward momentum as the terrific, Muppet-inspired puppets (designed by Rick Lyon), shock and delight with their attempts to navigate adulthood and find their purpose in life.

Director Jason Moore seamlessly blends the comic mayhem, the puppet antics and the bubbly score into a show that has a surprising emotional punch as the motley crew becomes a little dysfunctional family unit.

Laugh for laugh, song for clever song, you won’t find a more enjoyable musical with the power to make you blush like the irresistible Avenue Q.

For information about Avenue Q, visit www.shnsf.com.

`Q’ Marx the spot

With all the wild and wonderful denizens of Avenue Q heading into San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre this week, you’ll want to check into the Theater Dogs frequently. The characters _ both human and puppet _ will be doing some guest blogging.

For now, though, let’s chat with Jeff Marx (above left), the co-creator — with Bobby Lopez (above right) — of the show and the score.

The Florida native whose stint in law school couldn’t quite keep him out of show business, has left New York for Hollywood. He’s in the process of trying to find a house, and after looking at more than 50 potential abodes, he’s getting frustrated.

“I have found the one I like, and it’s on stilts,” he says. “I could never understand why anyone would want to live in one of those, but after seeing the view, I understand.”

Marx is living what some might call the good life. In 2004, the little puppet musical he co-wrote with Lopez won Tony Awards for its creators and for book writer Jeff Whitty, and then snagged the big prize for Best Musical.

Avenue Q, sort of Sesame Street with swearing, dirty jokes, puppet sex and Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman, but played by a woman), is still running on Broadway, and after a detour to Las Vegas that didn’t work out so well, the show is finally on tour.

So how is the 36-year-old Marx dealing with all this success?

“Bobby and I had different reactions to the success of Avenue Q,” Marx says. “He got all scared and nervous and had all this anxiety about what we were going to do that could outdo this. And I thought, `You know, this exploded. There’s no outdoing this.’ I realized I could die happy having done only this — not that I’m planning to retire. But realizing that took all the pressure off. I’ve got all the money I need now, all the respect and admiration and the open doors. I’m very happy now, and whatever I do next will be fun. I’ve had a huge success. Now I can do anything I f—ing want.”

That a scrappy little musical that mixed puppets and human actors singing songs like “It Sucks to Be Me” and “The Internet is for Porn” would beat out a behemoth musical like “Wicked” for the Best Musical Tony was a shock — even to Marx.

“I think the reason Avenue Q hit home for so many people is that so many aspects of it are true,” Marx says, referring to the main character Princeton, fresh out of college with a B.A. in English, no money and no prospects, meeting friends in a similar state of struggle.

“They don’t teach you in college what real life is going to be like,” Marx continues. “We sit in the quad thinking we’re pretty special, and it’s `Look out, world, here we come!’ But then there’s this rude shock. Everybody goes through it. We wrote this show about our lives and our friends’ lives.”

The 20- and 30somethings who flock to the show put songs from the Avenue Q original cast album on mixes for friends (Tip: The song “Schadenfreude” goes over like gangbusters on mixes).

“We wanted to write a musical for people who don’t necessarily like musicals,” Marx says. “We wanted to write for frat guys and straight guys — people who wouldn’t be caught dead at `Funny Girl.’ Now we hear all the time that guys are telling their girlfriends, `I want to see that show.’ That is the biggest compliment. That’s what we were going for.”

When asked if he’s at all familiar with the Bay Area, Marx says, rather humbly, “To be completely honest, I don’t know what bay you’re talking about.'” When he’s reminded just what the Bay Area is, he says: “I’ve only ever been out there sinigng with the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club. That was like my fraternity in college, my social outlet. I was 19. I’m looking forward to seeing San Francisco as an adult. I can spend as much time as I want and see what I want. And now I’m comfortable being gay. It’s a whole different thing from when I was there before.”

In Dori Berinstein’s recent documentary Show Business, which documented four shows’ journey from the beginning of the 2003-2004 season to the end. The shows documentared are Wicked, Caroline, or Change, Taboo and Avenue Q. In the movie, Marx talks about the conflict he had with book writer Whitty.

“The whole writing process was 4 1/2 years of tough work, especially between me and Jeff,” Marx says. “Bobby and I came up with the plot, the characters and a good half of the songs that basically outlined the plot. The dialogue wasn’t there, but the plot outline was. Jeff came in, and it was a tough balance because it wasn’t his baby, yet he had to put his mark on it an ddo his thing. He was very, very good. His contributions were crucial and wonderful. We had our ideas, he had his ideas. The biggest problem was that we wanted it to be revue-like, like Sesame Street, which doesn’t follow a plot too strongly — it’s like a bunch of commercials in a row. There’s logic to the sequence but not a linear story. Jeff is a playwright, and was, like, No, if you want to do a play, you need a climax at the end, and you need to plant seeds along the way — follow the breadcrumbs to the payoff. You can’t do a revue, he said, because how do you know when it’s over?”

In the end, Marx concedes that his and Whitty’s battles resulted in a better show, which is a compromise — part revue, part play.

“I’m happy with the hybrid,” Marx says. “But it was a big struggle. We fought a lot. Steam came out of our ears, especially Jeff’s. I was like the character Nicky, needling him, and he was more like Rod, fuming and saying No! Just leave me alone!”

After the show’s triumph at the Tony Awards, theater producers across the country were shocked when the Q team opted to bypass the usual national tour in favor of a sit-down production at Steve Wynn’s lush new resort in Las Vegas.

“He told us he’d build a theater to our exact specifications, not too big, not too small, and that they’d advertise on billboards and in the resort’s 2,000 rooms,” Marx recalls. “He said anything flies in Vegas. The show is perfect, don’t change a thing. He gave us a lot of money. It was great for everybody.”

The show got a slow start because the hotel got a slow start. Avenue Q was a tough sell to the Vegas crowd because it was hard to describe. Turns out people in Las Vegas don’t really want to see puppets no matter how racy you tell them they are.

“After a couple of months, we said the show is too long, so we cut it down to 90 minutes — removed 12 minutes and the intermission — and still tickets did not skyrocket the way we wanted them to,” Marx says. “Steve Wynn wanted full houses and standing ovations. He was embarrassed, so he closed it and put in Spamalot.”

But the Q team and Wynn shook hands and parted as friends.

“He bet on us, we bet on him. He paid us a lot, and we parted with a fair settlement,” Marx says.

Marx and Lopez are at work on the movie version of Avenue Q, which Marx says will be “very retro” like The Muppet Movie. There will be humans in the movie but, unlike the show, the puppeteers won’t be seen. The team has also created a student version of Avenue Q to be done in high schools.

“We’ve toned it down a tiny bit, taken out some expletives and som inappropriate stuff for kids,” Marx says. “We figured the schools would want to do it, and rather let them edit the show themselves, we’d do it so the show could retain some of the flavor but be age appropriate.”

As for the spoils of his success, Marx will be kicking back in his fancy new L.A. pad — as soon as he finds one — and as for his Tony Award, it’s in his parents’ Florida home.

Avenue Q continues through Sept. 2 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30 to $90. Call (415) 551-2020 or visit www.shnsf.com.