SF Playhouse goes into Sondheim’s Woods

Into the Woods 2
Wolves (Ryan McCrary, left, and Jeffrey Brian Adams) meet Little Red Ridinghood (Corinne Proctor) in the woods in San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Into the Woods. Below: The Baker (Keith Pinto) and the Baker’s Wife (El Beh) discover that success in the woods takes two. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Later this year we’re going to get a star-studded, Disney-ized version of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods, a 1986 musical mishmash of fairy tales, grim realities and realistic ever-afters. It will be fun seeing the likes of Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp singing Sondheim tunes and bringing these tales to life.

But until then, we have real, live people doing this oft-produced show on stage at San Francisco Playhouse and making a strong case for the genius of Sondheim (especially, in this show, his lyrics).

This is a big show in many ways: there’s a 15-member cast, which director Susi Damilano has augmented by one more in the form of a mostly wordless little boy to whom these fairy tales are being told and a panoply of characters, most of whom are efficiently introduced in the thrilling opening number. Some of this size and scope overwhelms this production (especially in some rather messy scene transitions), but comes through most potently are Sondheim’s wonderfully clever lyrics.

There’s some unevenness in the cast, but when the performer clicks with the material, the humor and heart of the story comes shining through. Such is the case with Corinne Proctor as Little Red Ridinghood, as crystal clear an interpretation of the character – part little girl, part sexpot – as you could want. She bridges the worlds of childhood and adulthood effortlessly, and she really gets the jokes.

Also keeping things grounded and fantastical simultaneously is Jeffrey Brian Adams as Cinderella’s Prince. He’s sincere and he’s hilarious and a little bit sad, which is just about perfect. His duet on “Agony” with Ryan McCrary as Rapunzel’s Prince is a show highlight.

Into to the Woods 1

Tim Homsley as Jack (of “and the Beanstalk” fame) gets a nice moment to shine on “Giants in the Sky” and the ever-reliable Maureen McVerry is a hoot, especially in her noveau-riche incarnation once Jack starts bringing stolen loot down the beanstalk from the giants’ castle.

Though a small part Cinderella’s evil stepmother is made memorable in a colorful turn from Bekka Fink, who also lends her lovely vocals to the ghost of Cinderella’s mother (who, in a nice turn, is actually the fairy godmother).

Anchoring the show quite nicely are Keith Pinto as the Baker and El Beh as the Baker’s Wife. Their quest to end a curse and start a family is what ties all the familiar stories together, and the journey of the wife is quite potent. Beh does not come across as the typical fairy tale wife, and that’s fantastic. She seems like a real person with genuine conflicts who is capable of original thought – always a welcome trait in the world of musical theater. Her “Moments in the Woods” is an emotional high point of the darker Act 2, which delves into what happens after “happily ever after” (hint: it’s not happy).

At nearly three hours, Into the Woods can be challenging, even with all its bright (and intriguingly dark) spots. Damilano’s production has its share of slow points, but musical director Dave Dobrusky keeps things rolling with his excellent seven-piece band (using the original orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. And, happily, the rich sound of the orchestra never overwhelms the singers, so the lyrics are out there, front and center, right where they should be.

[bonus interview]
I talked to director Susi Damilano and actor El Beh about Into the Woods for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

San Francisco Playhouse’s Into the Woods continues through Sept. 6 at 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

TheatreWorks’ musical Earnest fun but unnecessary

Earnest 1
The cast of TheatreWorks’ world-premiere musical Being Earnest includes, from left, Mindy Lym, Hayden Tee, Euan Morton and Riley Krull. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is now set in 1965 and includes an original score by Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska. Photo by Mark Kitaoka. Below: The Act 2 opener, “All in the Gutter,” pays tribute to Wilde. The complete cast includes, from left, Lym, Krull, Diana Torres Koss, Tee, Morton, Brian Herndon and Maureen McVerry. Photo by Tracy Martin

In addition to some terrific songs and a perennial reason to scream at Dover to “move yer bloomin’ ass,” My Fair Lady has left an interesting legacy in the form a highly raised bar to which all classic plays turned into musicals must aspire. Most composers have all but given up trying to transform an already great play into an even better musical and instead turn to movies as grist for the musical mill.

But Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska are still aiming toward the Shavian/Lerner and Loeweian heights. Quite courageously, they have turned Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest into a musical. Being Earnest, their transformed work, is having its world premiere courtesy of TheatreWorks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. Taken from its late 18th-century time period and transported to London’s fashionable and swinging Carnaby Street circa 1965, this admirable attempt to musicalize Wilde takes some risks, but, it turns out, none of them are quite big enough.

Being Earnest is a perfectly pleasant two-plus hours. Wilde’s ever-reliable play, still largely intact, offers wit and crisp comedy, and the score, with music by Gruska and Gordon and lyrics by Gordon, feels repetitive, but at least what’s repeated has a sturdy melodic hook. But there’s no fizz in the score to match the carbonation of Wilde’s farce. The sound of the mid-’60s in England is evoked but without the go-go energy and ebullience that the play aches for.

The basic fact is that Earnest the play did not need to be a musical at all. The play, though brilliantly written, requires a delicate comic touch, a careful approach to tone and performance that relies heavily on timing and tempo. The songs simply gum up the comic works and make the actors, under the direction of Robert Kelley, work too hard to connect the dots between the original text, the songs and a time period shift that ultimately feels way out of whack with the stolid society that Wilde was satirizing.

In a reversal of most musicals, Act 2 is actually much better than Act 1 because Wilde’s comic machinations are grinding away at full steam and a song finally lands solidly. The cat fight between Gwendolen (Mindy Lym) and Cecily (Riley Krull), who mistakenly believe they’re engaged to the same man, is actually sharpened by the musical thrust and parry. The only song in Act 1 that comes close to matching the play’s comedy and serving a real purpose is Lym’s reverie about men named Ernest, “Age of Ideals.”

Earnest 2

A good example of tone and setting working against the play is veteran Bay Area comic actor Maureen McVerry as Lady Bracknell. The role’s comedy stems from dowager stuffiness and blatant greed masquerading as propriety. McVerry is, as expected, quite funny, but she looks so chic and gorgeous in Fumiko Bielefeldt’s costumes that it’s hard to get a bead on where the character is coming from and why, in 1965, she is being so creakily old-fashioned.

The opening number attempts to set the scene, and while that song, along with the snazzy mod costumes on parade, should do the trick, the annoying video screen at the back of Joe Ragey’s set design goes into overdrive with photos of Twiggy and the Rolling Stones to ensure there’s no mistaking when and where we are. But if the score can’t do it, then it’s not really getting done.

Leading men Euan Morton as Algernon and Hayden Tee as Jack, who don’t fare nearly as well as the women on the fashion front, are never very likable, and it seems they keep singing the same song at each other for most of the show. Brian Herndon as butlers Lane (in the city) and Merriman (in the country) and as the Rev. Chasuble feels much more in tune with Wilde and seems to be laboring much less feverishly. Diana Torres Koss as Miss Prism also has some nice moments, though the notion of a spinster teacher/companion employed by a guardian for his 20-year-old ward seems much more 1895 than 1965.

What you don’t want in a production of Earnest, musical or not, is for the play to seem like an endless string of Wildean epigrams strung together by an ineffectual plot enacted by brittle caricatures resembling people. Too many scenes come off that way here, and the Act 2 opener, “All in the Gutter,” is actually a string of Wilde epigrams performed in front of a photo of the author on the big video screen. It is, in effect, what “Seasons of Love” is in Rent: a direct address to the audience welcoming them back from intermission and attempting to re-immerse them in the world of the show. In theory, it works, but in practice it does not.

Even while you can admire the attempt to improve upon The Importance of Being Earnest, it comes down to this: Wilde’s is a comedy for the ages, touched with brilliance. Being Earnest has been created with intelligence and some charm, but it tames Wilde and adds weight where there should be lightness.

[bonus interview]
I talked to composers Paul Gordon and Jay Gruska for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

TheatreWorks’ Being Earnest continues through April 28 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$73. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Xanadu the right thing

Xanadu 1
Brittany Danielle (center) is Kira in the Center Repertory Company production of Xanadu. Her phalanx includes (from left) Catherine Gloria as Euterpe, Maureen McVerry as Calliope, Evan Boomer as Terpsicore, Mark Farrell as Thalia, Dyan McBride as Melpomene and Sharon Rietkerk as Erato. Below: Tom Reardon (left) as Danny and Tim Homsley as Sonny. Photos by www.kevinberne.com

Summer camp has started early this year, but not to worry. This is some high quality high camp.

We’ve had a few Bay Area productions of Xanadu, the Broadway musical version of the notorious 1980 movie starring Olivia Newton-John as a roller-skating light bulb, er, sorry, roller-skating Muse (you know, from Mt. Olympus kind of muse). The Retro Dome in San Jose and New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco both did the show last year, but having missed the show during its 2007/08, I was waiting for the Center Repertory Company production that just opened.

I’m so glad I waited.

Before I tell you how fabulous this production is – and fabulous really is the operative word on so many levels – I have to confess to being a Xanadu fan. There’s a joke in the show about this being “children’s theater for 40-year-old gays,” and it’s like book writer Douglas Carter Beane was talking directly to me. I was 13 when, at the grocery store, I bought the soundtrack album to Xanadu (yes, on vinyl) before seeing the film. I was completely enthralled with Side 1 as the Olivia Newton-John side and Side 2 as the Electric Light Orchestra. There were guest appearances by the rock band The Tubes (“Dancin'”), Cliff Richard (“Suddenly”) and Gene Kelly (“Whenever You’re Away from Me”), and then ON-J herself appeared on the ELO side to sing the synth-happy title song. It was bliss.

Then I saw the movie, and even at 13 I knew it was crap. Sure I liked it, but it wasn’t nearly as good as what I had imagined looking at the production photos on the album cover while I memorized the songs.

I must say I was doubtful about the joke-laden Broadway translation of the movie as a glorified jukebox musical, especially because I never warmed to the Broadway cast recording. But now, having seen an exuberant and very funny production of the show, I’ve come closer to seeing that original version in my 13-year-old head.

Xanadu 2

Director Jeff Collister and a cast of stalwart comedians make great use of the three essential “S’s”: silliness, sassiness and sincerity. Everybody gets the joke that they’re in an intentionally campy, in-joke send-up of the original movie, the “stinkaroo” movie as someone on the show describes it. But there’s also some sweetness in between the abundant laughs. Beane has gone a long way toward making sense of the movie by actually giving it a plot, and now the title song, sung in full-tilt, rainbow-flag waving glory at the end, actually makes a modicum of sense. No mean feat.

When a Venice Beach (California) chalk artist meets his muse, he’s inspired to open up a palace that infuses all art forms with something athletic. “I want to open a roller disco,” says Sonny the (very) blond artist (Tim Homsley). “How timeless,” responds Kira, the muse in disguise (Brittany Danielle). It’s amazing her wheels aren’t slipping in the puddles of irony filling the stage.

The goal for both Sonny and Kira (who’s actually the Muse Clio, born of Zeus) is to be granted the “state of Xanadu.” What that is, who can say, but every time the word is uttered, someone pops up to repeat it as if it’s really, really, really important (not unlike the show itself). It’s all ridiculous but in a mostly sublime way. Smart without being overly so and stupid in just the right measure.

And then there are all those songs, most from the original soundtrack with a few ON-J and ELO songs thrown in for good jukebox-y measure. Whether or not these are good songs, I cannot say. They’re my songs. I love them and I still know all the words. So hearing musical director Brandon Adams’ crack quartet spinning out these peppy, poppy tunes is a nostalgic delight.

Enough cannot be said about leading lady Danielle, who sings, jokes and ROLLERSKATES like a dream. Olivia Newton-John wishes she could be so funny and so graceful. And the supporting cast is filled with marvelous moments, large and small. Dyan McBride costumed by Victoria Livingston-Hall and bewigged by Judy Disbrow looks like a cross between Cher and Heart’s Ann Wilson with some Endora from “Bewitched” thrown in for good measure. She’s Melpomene, the oldest Muse, who cackles and giggles because she’s the bad guy along with her sister Calliope, played by the invaluable Maureen McVerry, who behaves as if she’s channeling one of Carol Burnett’s old addled characters. In fact, this whole show reminded me a little of a finale from the old “Carol Burnett Show” – a lot of singing, dancing and expert comedy thrown together by smart people in a hurry. Cheers to choreographer Jennifer Perry for all her knowing winks to the disco era and to set designer Kelly Tighe and lighting designer Kurt Landisman for drawing a thin, thin line between fun and tacky. A million lights are dancing and there you are, a shooting star…

Comic gold is also dispensed by the two cross-dressing Muses, Mark Farrell as Thalia and Evan Boomer as Terpsicore, and Sharon Rietkerk needs an entire show for her nipple-pinching Muse, Erato. And in that show, there should be a showcase for the vocal talents of Caterine Gloria, who plays Muse Euterpe.

Tom Reardon is a hoot as real estate mogul Danny (who once had a fling with a Muse himself), but he brings down the house as Zeus when the action shifts to Mt. Olympus (and Farrell makes such a good Maggie Smith that the “Downton Abbey” folks should be in touch).

This is such an enjoyable production, filled with broad comedy, charming pop and some wonderful calibrated little details that reward the careful observer (and fans of the movie). If, as this show tells us, the theater is going down the toilet with recycled movie mush like this, I’m happy to take the trip in such colorful company.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Xanadu book writer Douglas Carter Beane last December when the show opened at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Read the feature here.

Center Repertory Company’s Xanadu continues through June 23 at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. Tickets are $40-$47. Call 925-943-7469 or visit www.centerrep.org.

Oh, Maureen! Ms. McVerry revisits the Gershwins

Maureen McVerry 1
Above: Maureen McVerry makes her San Francisco directorial debut with 42nd Street Moon’s Oh, Kay! Below: Cast members of Oh, Kay! include (from left) Lisa-Marie Newton as Constance, Teressa Byrne as Kay, Skye Violet Wilson as Gilda Grant, Amie Shapiro as Molly and Erica Kimble as Billie. Photo by DavidAllenStudio.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh Kay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Musical Coraline is creepy, kooky, altogether ooky

Coraline 1

Brian Degan Scott as Mr. Bobo and Maya Donato as Coraline in the SF Playhouse production of Coraline. Below: Scott (left), Stacy Ross and Jackson Davis. Photos by Jessica Palopoli.


A door presents itself. You enter. Suddenly you’re immersed in a warped version of reality.

That’s what happens to 9-year-old Coraline, the heroine of Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name when she unlocks a door in her creaky new house. And that’s what happens to audiences that venture into Coraline the musical by David Greenspan (book) and Stephin Merritt (music and lyrics) now at SF Playhouse.

This looks like a children’s musical, but there’s a twist. Things are pretty creepy in this tweak-y world. And it sort of sounds like a musical, though this is about as far away from Rodgers and Hammerstein as you can get and still be in a theater.

SF Playhouse’s Coraline looks just right. The black-and-white set (by director Bill English and Matt Vuolo) looks like a storybook haunted house, and when Coraline slips through that locked door and enters an alternate reality, Michael Osch’s lights kick into blacklight gear, with fluorescent colors cracking the darkness. The same is true of Valera Coble’s costumes – shades of black, white and gray give way to crispy fluorescents once Coraline encounters the mirror-image “others” on the other side of the door. Oh, and the others also come equipped with button eyes – a truly creepy feature.

The 90-minute show begins with the entire cast gathered around toy pianos, plunking out indecipherable melodies. Then the musical duties are handed over to musical director Robert Moreno (tucked behind the set), who is playing piano, toy piano and prepared piano (prepared with nuts, bolts, playing cards, earplugs, paperclips and anything else handy that might warp and twist Merritt’s music).

As much as I wanted to, I did not enjoy Coraline. It’s a half-hearted musical that never comes fully to life. Henry Selick’s movie version was much livelier and a lot more fun. Greenspan’s book follows the Gaiman novel pretty faithfully (more than the movie does), but Merritt’s music is challenging to the point of being dull. There’s an occasional flash of humor or snippet of melody to latch onto, and the musical mayhem toward the end is interesting. But the score mostly drones and plunks and fizzles. It’s like when Danny Elfman wrote music for The Nightmare Before Christmas – it should have been much better than it was, but Elfman, like Merritt, comes from the pop world and doesn’t really seem to know or care how songs function in a musical.

Coraline 2

That said, I adored 12-year-old Maya Donato as Coraline (she alternates in the role with Julia Belanoff). With a crisp British accent, she essentially carries the show and serves as our tour guide through the weirdness. Stacy Ross also shines as Other Mother, the button-eyed villainess intent upon enticing Coraline into her twisted lair. The bigger Ross’ hair gets, the more fun she is. By the end of the show, she has become a spider-like version of a giant hand, complete with bright red fingernail polish (puppets are by Christopher W. Wright).

Susi Damilano and Maureen McVerry are having fun as Miss Forcible and Miss Spink, two old-maid actresses who live in the flat above Coraline and her family. With their herd of terriers, these doddering old ladies get the best song in the show, “Theatre Is Fun.”

The whiff of Oz and Wonderland pervade Gaiman’s world, though it’s not as much fun as any of its progenitors. Musically speaking, the show comes to life only at the end, as the ensemble – which also includes Jackson Davis, Brian Degan Scott and Brian Yates Sharber – sings “One Long Fairytale,” which encourages youngsters to “keep chasing your tale.” That’s good advice. The chase may lead to tales even more interesting than this one.



Read my interview with composer Stephin Merritt in the San Francisco Chronicle. Click here.



Coraline continues through Jan. 15 at SF Playhouse, 588 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$50. Call 415 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org 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 www.42ndstmoon.org for information.

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

Theater review: `High Spirits’

Spirits are blithe in Moon’s `High Spirits’
««« ½

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.

Comedy tonight (actually June 11)

Laugh for a worthy cause on Wednesday, June 11 when The Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation presents
COMEDY TONIGHT! , an evening of “outrageous comedy & decadent divas.” Which begs the question, are there any other kind of divas?

Here are some of the comic divas expected to attend:
JUDY TENUTA American Comedy Awards “Best Female Comedian” / TV, film star
BRUCE VILANCH Broadway (Hairspray) / TV (“Hollywood Squares”) star
JOHNNY STEELE Winner San Francisco Comedy Competition
MARILYN PITTMAN Lesbian comic and radio talk show host
AUNDRE THE WONDERWOMAN Finalist SF Int’l. Comedy Competition

And here are some of the singing divas:
SHARON MCNIGHT Tony nominated (Starmites) cabaret star
MAUREEN McVERRY Cabaret star / actress
LEANNE BORGHESI Cabaret star, aka Anita Cocktail
plus Cast Members from INSIGNFICANT OTHERS – Theatre 39’s resident show
Musical Director Scrumbly Koldewyn

Here are the particulars: Wed., June 11, 2008, 8:00 pm
Theatre 39 on Pier 39 – (Beach St. and The Embarcadero), San Francisco (Complimentary Validated Parking at Pier 39 garage)

Show only $35
Show + Dessert After Party with the cast at Hard Rock Café $50
Pre-Comedy show Option – Special pre-fixe dinner at Hard Rock Café $25 (a portion of the dinner ticket will benefit REAF)

For tickets and information call 415-273-1620 or visit http://www.helpisontheway.org

New seasons: Magic, 42nd Street Moon

The Magic Theatre, now under the artistic direction of Loretta Greco, has announced its 2008-09 season. Here’s the lineup:

The K of D, an urban legend by Laura Schellhardt
Sept. 20 – Oct. 19

A small town girl spins the story of an urban legend. When a reckless driver kills her twin brother, Charlotte receives an eerie power from his dying kiss. This quirky and touching play offers that magical perspective of a child on the big questions of life and death. Theatrical and spare, The K of D uses nothing but one actress and your imagination to create the familiar world of a Midwestern town.

Evie’s Waltz by Carter W. Lewis (directed by Greco)
Nov.8 – Dec. 7

Gloria and Clay are living every parent’s nightmare – their son has been expelled for bringing a gun to school. As they struggle with the ramifications of this fact on their family, an unexpected visit from their son’s girlfriend turns their backyard barbecue into a high-stakes game of cat and mouse.

Tough Titty by Oni Faida Lampley (directed by Robert O’Hara)
Jan. 24 – Feb. 22, 2009

Eat healthy, work out, and think positive thoughts. When Angela’s routine cannot keep breast cancer at bay, she must face the disease and her family with willpower, tenacity, and humor. Sassy, funny, and emotional, Tough Titty explores one woman’s journey to find grace in living.

American Hwangap by Lloyd Suh
Feb. 28 – March 28, 2009

On his 60th birthday, Min Suk, a Korean immigrant, decides to return to the US to reconnect with the family he abandoned 15 years ago. In this world premiere play, as the preparations for the big celebration proceed, his wife and three grown kids must wrestle with their broken past to welcome him to the land he once loved.

Mauritius by Theresa Rebeck, seen in photo above, (directed by Greco)
April 18 – May 17, 2009

Who knew stamp collecting could be so dangerous? A young woman discovers the rarest of stamps in her dead mother’s inheritance. Can she outsmart collectors, dealers, and her own sister all the way to the bank? Rebeck weaves a funny and fast-paced thriller that turned into a hit in New York with an all-star cast.

Mistakes Were Made by Craig Wright
Wright’s credits include the play The Pavilion and the HBO drama “Six Feet Under.”strong> “

Six-play subscriptions are $120-$224. Call 415-441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org for information.

Also announcing their new season are the folks at 42nd Street Moon, the group that produces concert version of lost, forgotten or unjustly neglected musicals.

Irma La Douce
Music by Marguerite Monnot, English lyrics by Julian Moore, David Heneker and Monty Noman
Sept. 25 – Oct. 12

Girl Crazy
Music by George Gershwin, Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
Book by Guy Bolton and John McGowan
Oct. 23 – Nov. 16

Ben Franklin In Paris
Play and Lyrics by Sidney Michaels, Music by Mark Sandrich Jr.
Nov. 28 – Dec. 14

The Baker’s Wife
Book by Joseph Stein, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
March 19 – April 5, 2009

The Great Revues: Celebrating a Lost Broadway Art
April 16 – 26

Wildcat(featuring Maureen McVerry, above)
Music by Cy Coleman, Lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, Book by N. Richard Nash
May 7 – 24

Special one-night-only fundraiser:

The Sweetest Sounds Celebrating musicals of the 1960s
June 30, 2008 at the Alcazar Theatre.

Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.com for information.