New `Pompeii’ musical erupts in San Francisco

Ask a group of San Francisco theater enthusiasts what they think about a show and you’ll get more than an earful.

That’s what R.C. Staab found out – the hard way – when he held a reading of his new musical, Shadows of Pompeii, at 42nd Street Moon’s Moonspace last January.


In a rare move, Moon, the group that dusts off old and forgotten musicals, agreed to present a workshop production of Pompeii, which has a book by Staab and a score by Keith Herrmann, Tony nominated for Romance/Romance in 1988. That production, directed by Dianna Shuster, opens Thursday, April 16 and runs through April 26 at the Eureka Theatre.

But first came the reading, that painful reading.

Given Staab’s background in marketing (he works for the San Jose Mercury News), he knew exactly wanted from his capacity audience at the reading. They were instructed to fill out a detailed form immediately following each of the two acts asking about specific songs and characters, then they were asked to fill out a third questionnaire with more general comments about the overall show.

“That audience was brutal,” Staab says over coffee in his downtown San Francisco neighborhood. “One guy wanted us to change the location of the show from Pompeii to Herculaneum. Another wanted the volcano to erupt at the beginning of the show. I was fairly depressed the next day.”

A musical theater lover since his high school days, Staab got involved in theater as a performer at the University of Missouri (where he studied journalism) and then worked in a number of community theater productions in Harrisburg, Pa. When he and his wife, who works in television, were living in Raleigh, N.C., Staab decided it was time to try and write a show. Trouble was, he didn’t write music.

Through ASCAP’s Collaborator’s Corner, he was able to connect with composer Jeff Pflaumbaum and the pair wrote the musical comedy Fountain of Youth, which received a workshop production last year from American Musical Theatre of San Jose before it went belly up.

When he set out to write another show, Staab wanted to work with a Bay Area composer, so he put an ad in Theatre Bay Area magazine. One of the respondents had the idea to write a musical about Pompeii, the Roman city in the shadow of Vesuvius, the volcano that would eventually bury the city in ash and lava. That collaboration didn’t work out, but Staab was left with a working libretto and no score.

So it was back to ASCAP, where he found Herrmann, and the work continued.

With the goal of entering his new musical in the National Alliance for Musical Theatre Festival of New Musicals, Staab needed the help of a member organization here in the Bay Area, which meant one of four groups: AMTSJ, Woodminster Summer Musicals, TheatreWorks or 42nd Street Moon. The deal was that Staab would pay for the production if he could present it under the auspices of a member theater.

AMT took on Fountain of Youth (which has been submitted for the 2009 NAMT festival), and 42nd Street Moon’s Greg MacKellan and Stephanie Rhoads asked their board about helping produce Shadows of Pompeii and almost immediately got the green light.

Since the January reading, Staab has been busy making changes to his show. He took the suggestions from that brutal audience quite seriously. Songs have been changed and re-ordered. The volcano eruption happens much earlier in Act 2. Character names have been made less Roman and more contemporary. And the opening number has been almost completely re-shaped.

“We never wanted this to be a toga musical,” Staab says. “It’s set in 79 AD, but we wanted it to feel contemporary. We eliminated a lot of the references to the Roman gods, which seemed kind of stilted. We wanted the story to feel more real to the present.”

Because this is a workshop production, there’s no set but there are original costumes by Maya Linke and Krista Nelson, who have taken their inspiration from the fall 2009 line by Alexander McQueen.  For the leading character, a Pompeii artist named Lila, Linke was inspired by the prodigious silhouettes created by Cristobal
in the late 1950s and ’60s.

Composer Herrmann isn’t able to be in San Francisco for the workshop production, so Staab is, as he puts it, “the driver.” He says he has “deputized” the entire cast – which includes Russ Lorenson, Sarah Aili, Carrie Madsen and Carmichael Blankenship — to become librettists and to feel free to offer their observations, insights and suggestions for change.

“They have taken up that job with a lot of gusto,” Staab says.

And though it might mean more pain, Staab says he will be soliciting audience feedback throughout the entire run.

“When some people say they want feedback, they really just want compliments and approval,” he says. “I really want feedback. That’s the whole point.”

Shadows of Pompeii runs through April 26 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25. Call 415-255-8207 or visit or for information.

Cabaret review: Russ Lorenson’s `Standard Time’

Keep your eyes and ears open for Russ Lorenson’s next show.

If you care about quality cabaret – the elusive art that lives in a specific region where pop, jazz and theater intersect – you’ll care about Lorenson, a local singer making his way steadily through the best rooms in the country.

Lorenson made his official Rrazz Room debut Sunday night in a show called Standard Time which attempts to demonstrate that the Great American Songbook did not stop being written in 1959. Lorenson contends that great songs in the standard style are still being written, and that’s why his set list concentrates on tunes written in the last 20 years or so.

In a white shirt, black vest and jaunty fedora, Lorenson opened the show with Andrew Lippa’s “Raise the Roof” (from the off-Broadway musical The Wild Party) and proceeded to, well, raise the roof a little.

You could say Lorenson(at right, photo by Steve Burkland) is part of the neo-croonerism pack that includes Harry Connick Jr., Michael Buble, Jamie Cullum and Peter Cincotti. He cares about being cool and suave and sexy in his vocal stylings, but unlike a lot of the pack, he’s not interested in aping King Crooner Frank Sinatra.

If anything, Lorenson is more Tony Bennett (to whom he has paid tribute in a previous show) with his smooth, muscular voice. Where Bennett often tries to crack the sky with his belt, Lorenson is more sensitive and supple in regulating the power of his voice.

In a generous set of 19 tunes, Lorenson uncovered some real treasures to prove his point that great songs are still in ample supply. Ronny Whyte and Francesca Blumenthal’s “The Party Upstairs” is a sharp examination of loneliness that ends with a clever, hopeful twist, while Tony Desare and Mike Lee’s “How I Will Say I Love You” is pure, heart-melting romance. Another sweetly romantic tune is Chris Rice’s “When Did You Fall?” about friends turning that tricky corner and becoming lovers.

A fair portion of the set list, entertaining as it is, has a sameness to it. The songs have that pleasant finger-snapping vibe that’s pleasant, but the songs themselves are fairly stock romantic stuff. The one exception is Michael Garin’s comedy number “My Hand,” a raunchy ode to onanism.

But even the more ordinary songs are elevated by Lorenson’s (photo above by Angela Drury) extraordinary quartet. Music director/pianist Kelly Park provides all the arrangements, and they are gorgeous. As a pianist, Park has romance in his fingers, and his work, especially on Peter and Cynthia Cincotti’s “I Changed the Rules,” is stellar. As a songwriter, Park provides some charming songs as well: “Fools in Love,” which he wrote in high school (and is the show’s oldest song), and “Diamond in the Sky,” a variation on “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” written for his daughter.

Brian Carmody
provides a sturdy drum foundation, and Tom Hubbard gives a master class in the musicality of the bass. And Terrence Brewer on a plugged-in guitar lends the quartet a distinctive sound that’s part 1950s and part now. His playing is stunning, and his duet with Lorenson on Maury Yeston’s “Danglin'” is a set highlight.

Special guest Andrea Marcovicci, whose own show, Marcovicci Sings Movies II, opens Tuesday, Oct. 14 and runs through Nov. 2 on the Rrazz stage, stopped by to lend a little star power and congratulate Lorenson, a former student at “cabaret camp.” She sang “Two for the Road” and got off the evening’s best line as she observed an elderly woman in the front row enjoying a cocktail: “I like to see people of a certain age drinking.”

The charming Lorenson could stand to talk a little more to his audience, and he would also do well to throw in a few familiar tunes, which help the audience relax into the music and give Lorenson to show off his ability to put a personal stamp on something we already know.

In this showcase of newer tunes, Lorenson saved the best for last. His encore number is a very new song. Inspired by the title of a comedy song written by Ronny Graham for “New Faces of 1952,” Lorenson and Park took the title, “It’s Raining Memories,” and wrote a whole new song – a gorgeous song with texture and emotion and no veneer of cool.

To see Lorenson’s performance schedule visit