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

Sail Away 1
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.

TheatreWorks delights with devilish Angels

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Rebecca Dines is Jane and Sarah Overman is Julia, best friends whose marriages are boring them to tears. In Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels, a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, the bored wives get up to some drunken mischief. Photos by Kevin Berne

Boredom, desire and champagne make for a potent cocktail in Noël Coward’s 1925 comedy Fallen Angels, now receiving a lively production from TheatreWorks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

Director Robert Kelley delivers an elegant outing for this zesty comedy that keeps its focus on two live wire ladies – Jane and Julia, best friends since grammar school. Living the easy life with their lackluster husbands is taking its toll on their vivacity, and when left to their own devices, they manage to stir up a whole lot of excitement with the help of a man from their past (a cameo by the ever-dashing Aldo Billingslea.

I reviewed the production for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s an excerpt:

If Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz had been born into London’s upper crust, they might have resembled Julia and Jane, besties since childhood and now five years into their respective marriages to wealthy ninnies. Julia (Sarah Overman) is frank with her husband, Fred (Mark Anderson Phillips), over breakfast: “We’re not in love a bit,” she says. Ever-sensible Fred replies that they’re in love in a different way, a way full of affection and “good comradeship.”
Jane (Rebecca Dines) has a similar conversation with her Willy (Cassidy Brown); and when the two men go off for a short golf holiday, the women decide to inject some much needed passion and excitement into their lives. “To put it mildly, dear,” Jane says, “we’re both ripe for a lapse.”

Read the full review here.

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Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels continues through June 28 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$74. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

Sir Noël’s been Lansburied. Lucky Sir Noël.

Blithe Spirit
The North American touring cast of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit includes (from left) Sandra Shipley as Mrs. Bradman, Charles Edwards as Charles Condomine, (background) Susan Louise O’Connor as Edith, Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, Charlotte Parry as Ruth Condomine and Simon Jones as Dr. Bradman. The play is at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco as part of the SHN season through Feb. 1. Below: Stage legend Lansbury won a Tony Award in 2009 for playing spiritualist Madame Arcati. She reprises the role on tour. Photos by Joan Marcus

Is anyone in the theater world more spirited than Angela Lansbury? She has been giving great performances on stages and screens of various sizes for 70 years. She has every right to rest on her laurels and be adored as the legend she is. But not right now. She has work to do.

At 89 (you’d never know it by watching her on stage), Lansbury is taking a victory lap, a final North American tour in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit. She is playing oddball spiritualist Madame Arcati in director Michael Blakemore’s production (part of the SHN season). It’s a role that earned her a fifth Tony Award in 2009. To be clear, this is as sturdy a production of Coward’s 1941 comedy as you’re likely to see, performed with wit, sophistication and, perhaps surprisingly, heart. The cast is excellent, the design just right and the sound (in the cavernous Golden Gate Theatre) startlingly clear. But you come to this production first and foremost for Lansbury, and she is every bit the warm and wonderful genius you want her to be.

The trick to playing Madame Arcati – a psychic, a medium, a kook – is that she must be 100 percent in earnest. She has a firm belief in her power to communicate with the spiritual world, a power she inherited from her mother and discovered at age 4. She also has a starchy British resolve and trucks no nonsense in a field filled with nonsense and charlatans. She gets around the English countryside on her bicycle and keeps her strength up with Ovaltine. In the spirit realm, her “control” (or spirit guide) is 9-year-old child named Daphne, and to reach her, Madame Arcati (we never learn her first name) must put herself in a trance by performing various rituals, including a spastic dance that Lansbury performs to hilarious effect.

The more serious Madame Arcati is, the funnier and more endearing she is. You know the actor in the role has succeeded when, after a successful séance, Madame Arcati takes her leave and the guests at the séance laugh and laugh to the point that you actually feel bad for the medium, whose sincerity, if nothing else, should command a little more respect.

Whenever Lansbury is on stage, this Blithe Spirit is heavenly. Outfitted like a walking gypsy caravan (by Martin Pakledinaz), Lansbury commands attention not because she is grandstanding in any way – she’s very much a member of the company – but because she’s Angela frickin’ Lansbury and she’s putting on a marvelous show.

The other members of the company fare well, especially Charles Edwards (Lady Edith’s missing baby daddy on “Downton Abbey”) as author Charles Condomine and Charlotte Parry as his second wife, Ruth. As the ghost of Charles’ first wife, Elvira, Jemima Rooper must contend with a terrible gray wig and a costume (by Simon Higlett, who also designed the cozy cottage set) that makes her look like a pillow in loose casing. As onlookers Dr. and Mrs. Bradman, Simon Jones and Sandra Shipley are stalwart souls, and Susan Louise O’Connor as daffy maid Edith is a hoot.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Blithe Spirit is how quickly scorn of all things supernatural turns into utter belief (and contempt) once the ghost of Elvira begins haunting the premises. Death is handled so blithely that it hardly seems worthy of grief. Why be sad when it’s so easy to bring people back from the everlasting whatever (where, according to Elvira, you kibbitz with Genghis Khan and Joan of Arc is a barrel of laughs)? That’s where Blithe Spirit, truly an odd comedy, finds its edge.

But its heart, at least in this production, lies with the kook. Angela Lansbury is a joy, and this play is delightful showcase for her prodigious gifts and a wonderful way for her fans to acknowledge an extraordinary body of work that just continues to grow.

[bonus video]
In honor of Angela Lansbury’s triumphant return to the stage, here is a compilation of her Tony Award wins minus her win for Mame, which was before the Tonys were nationally televised. She won Tonys in 1966 (Mame), 1969 (Dear World), 1975 (Gypsy), 1979 (Sweeney Todd) and 2009 (Blithe Spirit).

Nöel Coward’s Blithe Spirit continues through Feb. 1 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$175. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

High on Cal Shakes’ spiffy Spirit

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Dominique Lozano (center) is Madame Arcati, the outsize medium who sets the ghostly plot moving in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, now at California Shakespeare Theater. Also at the seance are (from left) Melissa Smith, Anthony Fusco, René Augesen and Kevin Rolston. BELOW: Augesen’s Ruth reacts to the ghostly presence of Jessica Kitchens (right) as Elvira, first wife of Charles (Fusco on the couch). Photos by Kevin Berne

Noël Coward was a man of his time in many ways and maybe even ahead of his time in others. For instance, in the delightful 1941 play Blithe Spirit, now gracing the Orinda Hills in a handsome and well-tuned production from California Shakespeare Theater, Coward was way ahead of the ghastly Twilight curve.

No, he wasn’t dealing with pale but attractive vampires and shirtless werewolves, but he did understand a little something about mixing mortality and romance. In the play, the ghost of a dead wife returns to haunt her husband and his new wife, but her real aim is to get her beloved to join her on the other side, and she’s not above trying to kill him herself to accomplish that goal. To love someone enough to want to spend eternity with them is an intriguing concept, and thankfully Coward played it for laughs, with only a trace of the shadows poking through the peaked meringue of his comedy.

Director Mark Rucker’s buoyant production is full of sly, well-observed moments that help ground Coward’s smooth-as-dressing-gown-silk dialogue as it flies quickly and crisply through a foggy night in the Orinda Hills. By all rights, a drawing room comedy like this shouldn’t work in the great outdoors, with hawks and bats making guest appearances in the play’s rural Kent setting. But Annie Smart’s marvelous set is elegantly cozy without pretending it’s not outside. York Kennedy’s lights are warm when they need to be and ghostly cool when they don’t.

Anthony Fusco is wonderful as British prig Charles Condomine, a mystery novel writer dealing with a furious and confused living wife and a scheming, ethereally lovely dead wife. Charles is not terribly likeable, but Fusco makes him fun, and by the end we’re even rooting for him a little.

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As the ghostly Elvira, Jessica Kitchens as as lovely as she needs to be (and then some), outfitted in flowing, creamy white elegance by costumer Katherine Roth. All we really need to know about Elvira is that she’s charming and bratty in equal measure. She’s an annoying ghost, but Kitchens softens her edges with sexy mischief.

Blithe Spirit is always in danger of being overwhelmed by the actor playing eccentric medium Madame Arcati, who travels everywhere on her bicycle and delivers schoolgirl aphorisms like the most valiant trouper on the planet. Certainly Domenique Lozano steals every scene she’s in, but the rest of the production is sharp enough to contain her beguiling performance without upsetting the comic balance. The most rewarding aspect of Lozano’s energetic, comically dexterous performance is that for all her goofiness, Madame Arcati seems like a sincere person with talents and intelligence to bolster her eccentricities.

The nicest surprise of this spirited Spirit is how it becomes the story of Ruth Condomine, the reluctantly haunted second wife who finds herself fighting for her husband with a ghost she cannot see or hear. On loan from American Conservatory Theater (as is most everyone involved in this production), René Augesen is all smart elegance and ferocity as she goes from horror at her husband’s inexplicable and astonishing behavior (he swears he sees the ghost of his dead first wife) to grudging acceptance and willingness to fight with everything she’s got. Augesen’s Ruth is emotional and grounded, a woman who feels her way of life is at stake and well worth a serious fight.

It’s not that Blithe Spirit needs gritty acting to make its sophisticated repartee work, but the warmth and relatable human-size stakes offered by Augesen and Lozano help make the play more than a pleasant diversion with an improbable plot. Their spirit makes this comedy more than blithe. It’s a farce with force.

[bonus interview]
I chatted with the lovely Jessica Kitchens about her work in Bay Area theaters and her spirited turn as Elvira for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit continues through Sept. 2 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $35-$71. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Taking Steps toward a lively evening

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The stellar cast of TheatreWorks’ The 39 Steps comprises (from left) Rebecca Dines, Mark Anderson Phillips, Dan Hiatt and Cassidy Brown. Below: Dines and Phillips take a step closer to romance. Photos by Mark Kitaoka

Whatever will we do when the British have thoroughly unstuffed themselves? That stiff-upper-lip stuff and famous British reserve have long been targets for comedy – especially by the British themselves.

We love to lampoon the stalwart Brit character – the rigid veneer that provided such fodder for Kneehigh Theatre Company’s brilliant adaptation of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, which we saw here at American Conservatory Theater. British frigidity was practically its own character in that show, which threw two placid lovers – a doctor and a housewife – into an ocean of romantic emotion and took incredible glee in the destruction of their noble facades.

I couldn’t help thinking about Brief Encounter during The 39 Steps, the rollicking stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film of the same name.

Both Coward and Hitchcock (working on an adaptation of the 1915 John Buchan novel) enjoy throwing prim-and-proper Brits into tumultuous events and watching their reserve knock against passion and danger.

Stage adaptor Patrick Barlow goes Hitchcock one better. He turns the tumult into a farcical fracas that allows four adept actors to play 140 different characters.

A hit on London’s West End in 2006, the play became Broadway’s longest-running comedy two years later. The touring production played San Francisco’s Curran Theatre in December of 2009, and now Mountain View’s TheatreWorks has cast it with a quartet of local favorites.

Under the direction of Artistic Director Robert Kelley, it’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable evening of mystery mayhem and slapstick espionage. Kelley has cast an irresistible quartet of actors to create the whirlwind, and the result is two hours of constant laughs.

39 Steps 2Mark Anderson Phillips is Richard Hannay, a Canadian visiting London. Bored, he craves something mindless and trivial, so he goes to the theater. Naturally. There he meets a classic femme fatale, a German named Annabella Schmidt played by Rebecca Dines with an accent think as strudel.

When Annabella comes home with Richard and ends up with a knife in her back, the adventure begins. In true Hitchcock style, Richard becomes an innocent man on the run, and his journey takes him to Scotland, where invaluable comedians Dan Hiatt and Cassidy Brown chew the accent as if it were haggis-flavored taffy.

Joe Ragey’s set creates a pretty but second-rate theater complete with elevated box seats on the sides, and the actors seem to be playing the theater’s company actors. Phillips is the vain leading man (the narration keeps emphasizing how handsome Richard is, what with his wavy brown hair and pencil moustache) and Dines is the beleaguered leading lady. Hiatt and Cassidy are the hammy scene-stealers who can’t help playing the show as if it were their own vaudevillian showcase.

The costumes by B. Modern add fuel to the comic fire, especially when Brown does drag. His buxom Scottish hotelier is hilarious, while Hiatt’s villainous Professor sports an impressive two-tone pompadour that wouldn’t be out of place in a band like Josie and the Pussycats.

Act 2 of The 39 Steps loses some steam, especially in a long hotel room sequence, but most of the show is filled with deft physical comedy and cute allusions to other Hitchcock films (the Psycho reference is particularly funny).

What’s especially rewarding about a show like this is how spectacularly theatrical it is. With cargo trunks, ladders and a lot of stage smoke, four skilled actors create a world that sucks you in despite the inanity of it all. You’re laughing at the farce of it all, but the story exerts a certain pull because the characters are distinct, the locations are effectively evoked and you’re having a grand time enjoying it on a number of levels.

The 39 Steps isn’t exactly a stairway to paradise, but it’s definitely more than three dozen steps in the right direction.


TheatreWorks’ The 39 Steps continues an extended run through Feb. 20 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $24-$79. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org for information.

Theater Dogs changes, Cal Shakes’ Cowardly courage

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative. – Oscar Wilde

What a tumultuous year it has been here at Theater Dogs. Thank you for taking the ride.

The news is that I have jumped the fence, from writing about theater to working in theater. As the new communications manager for Berkeley Repertory Theatre, I find that I can no longer review Bay Area theater without feeling a nagging conflict of interest. So what’s a dedicated blogger to do?

Here’s what I have figured out for the time being – and this may evolve in time: I’m going to keep the blog alive with news, both local and national, as well as occasional reviews of theater-related music, books, TV and film.

Because I am a devoted fan of Bay Area theater, I will continue to see as much theater as I can, and when I see something wonderful, I will give it a shout out here at Theater Dogs. We’re not talking full-on reviews but boosts, encouragement to get out there and experience the best the Bay Area has to offer on its multitude of stages.

And I invite you to do the same. When you see something great, please drop me a line at theaterdogs@gmail.com. I’ll happily post your thoughts and keep the conversation about our vibrant theater scene alive.

And the first shout out goes to…


To get the conversation started, here’s what I enjoyed about the California Shakespeare Theater production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives.

First off, we lucked out and saw the show on a gorgeous summer night – warm, no wind, starry skies, in short, heaven at the Bruns Amphitheater.

I happened to catch Private Lives the same day I saw Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno, and I have to say, I was relieved to lose myself in the sophisticated humor of Coward after finding myself completely turned off by Cohen’s generally mean, uninspired and fruitless attempt to wring laughs from ridicule and dick jokes (and this from someone who still hasn’t stopped laughing over Borat).

What bliss to be immersed in the world of 1930s Coward, where adults with complicated romantic entanglements parry and thrust with words and wit, all the while looking glam and gorgeous.

I have a great love for all things Coward, and I must say it’s a delight to see the main characters in Private Lives, Amanda and Elyot, played with such warmth and passion by Diana Lamar and Stephen Barker Turner (above right, photo by Kevin Berne). The characters, originated by Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, can be played as brittle facades, but Lamar and Turner, under the direction of Mark Rucker, turn from icy Brits in formal wear into pajama-clad lust buckets with convincing glee.

Act 2, which takes place in Amanda’s Paris flat (the colorful set design is by Annie Smart), bursts with passion as Amanda and Elyot proceed to destroy the flat – and each other – all the while proving over and over again how impossible it will be to live with each other and how equally impossible it will be to part company.

Turner and Lamar have sizzling chemistry that flares and fires consistently and with ever-richer results.


Cal Shakes’ Private Lives continues through Aug. 2 at the Bruns Amphitheater, just off Highway 24 at the Shakespeare Festival Way/Gateway exit, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel in Orinda. Tickets start at $20. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information.
Coming up at Cal Shakes:

Next up is Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days starring Marsha Mason, Aug. 12-Sept. 6.

Also the Cal Shakes costume department has just completed a huge reorganization of its inventory, and the result is tons and tons of costumes, wigs, and accessories, to be sold to the public at thrift-store prices for a few days only. Thirty-five years’ worth of hats, armor, capes, Renaissance and Tudor, unique modern pieces—a little bit of everything! Perfect for Burning Man costumes, Ren Faire, Halloween and what-have-you.

Here are the details: Cal Shakes Costume Shop Sale, Thursday, Aug. 6–Sunday, Aug. 9, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. at the Cal Shakes Rehearsal Hall, 701 Heinz Ave., West Berkeley (Just a few blocks west of San Pablo and north of Ashby). Call 510.548.3422 x131 or e-mail narnst@calshakes.org for information.

Theater review: `High Spirits’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For information visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

Craig Jessup meets Noel Coward redux

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

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

The Chronicle did post my interview with Jessup online here.

Here’s the dish on Jessup’s remaining performances: Craig Jessup Sings Noël Coward is at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 8, and Sunday, April 12, at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Call (415) 255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

Celebrating Noël Coward’s genius

First a disclosure: the following deals with one of my best friends, who happens to be a fantastic performer and a veteran of the Bay Area theater and cabaret scene.

One of the reasons Craig Jessup and I became friends in the first place was a shared love of Noël Coward. Craig was performing his cabaret tribute to Coward at the Mark Hopkins Hotel high atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill, and the match of singer and songs was impeccable.

As an actor of sophistication and good humor and a singer of power and subtlety, Craig is an ideal Coward performer. He brings the requisite comic skills to songs such as “I’ve Been to a Marvelous Party” and “(Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage) Mrs. Worthington),” but he’s got the emotional chops to really delve into the brilliance of Coward ballads such as “Come the Wild, Wild Weather” and my personal favorite, “If Love Were All.”

For Coward fans and those who still need exposure to the Master’s particular genius, Craig Jessup Sings Noël Coward is being revived for two shows only this Saturday, Dec. 6, at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley. Ken Muir, one of the Bay Area’s best pianists and musical directors, is at the piano.

If all you know about Coward is the image of the cigarette-smoking sophisticate always ready with a zinger, you owe it to yourself to learn a little more about this prodigiously talented man who wrote music and lyrics, penned some brilliant (and not-so-brilliant) plays, wrote some hilarious books (novels, spoofs), painted some gorgeous pictures and acted and directed in the worlds of film and theater.

Perhaps because Coward did so much so well he’s taken somewhat for granted. His self-perpetuating public image also has something to do with that – he’s remembered more as a dandy than as the hard-working renaissance man he actually was.

Whatever, any time spent reveling in Coward’s world is time well spent. In addition to Craig’s show, you should check out the three-part documentary originally aired in 1998 that is now available on DVD from Kultur Video: The Noël Coward Trilogy. Director Adam Low takes an in-depth look into Coward’s work and his carefully cultivated public image. Then check out the BBC’s fantastic box set of Coward plays, The Noël Coward Collection.

At some point there will be a Coward renaissance. Until then, we have Craig Jessup Sings Noël Coward, which is an awfully good start.


Craig Jessup Sings Noël Coward is at 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6 at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre, 142 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $20-$35. Call 415-383-9600 or visit www.142throckmortontheatre.org.

Here’s Coward singing “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” from 1955:

And here’s Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in Act 1 of Private Lives:

Cal Shakes announces ’09 season

As the California Shakespeare Theater heads into its final show of the season (Twelfth Night), artistic director Jonathan Moscone has announced next summer’s line-up.

The season will mark Moscone’s 10th anniversary heading Cal Shakes, and he will direct Romeo and Juliet and Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days starring Marsha Mason(right) in her Cal Shakes debut.

Mark Rucker, currently helming Twelfth Night, will return with Noel Coward’s Private Lives, and Aaron Posner makes his Cal Shakes debut directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Rucker is a familiar face at the Bruns Amphitheater (Richard III in 2007, Romeo and Juliet in 2001), but Posner isn’t as well known. He’s the artistic director of New Jersey’s Two River Theater Company, where he recently produced Macbeth, conceived and co-directed by Posner and Teller of Penn and Teller, with magic designed by Teller.

Cal Shakes has previously produced Romeo and Juliet in 1977, 1983, 1989, 1994 and 2001; A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1974, 1975, 1979, 1985, 1991, 1997 and 2002. Next season’s productions of Beckett and Coward mark the playwrights’ first appearances at Cal Shakes.

Here’s how the schedule shakes out:
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, directed by Jonathan Moscone – May 27-June 21
Noel Coward’s Private Lives, directed by Mark Rucker – July 8-Aug. 2
Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, directed by Jonathan Moscone – Aug. 12-Sept. 6
Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Aaron Posner – Sept. 16-Oct. 11

Season subscriptions range from $224-$112. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information.