Glitter and be Shanghai gay!

Thrillpeddlers - Pearls Over Shanghai
Above: Kara Emry and William McMichael get Shanghaied in Pearls Over Shanghai.
Below: Eric Wertz and Steven Satyricon dream of “un bel di.”Photos by David Wilson

Mash up Beach Blanket Babylon with Miss Saigon, throw in every bad Oriental exotica movie ever made, season with Ziggy Stardust and The Rocky Horror Show then sprinkle liberally with Cockettes. The result will be Pearls Over Shanghai, San Francisco’s most unlikely hit musical. It’s so hip John Waters even came to see it.

Forty years after it premiered, Pearls was revived last June by director Russell Blackwood and his Thrillpeddlers theater company at The Hypnodrome, their funky SOMA headquarters. And the show is still going strong. Not even a busted water main and an ensuing flood could rain on this pearly parade.

Pearls Over Shanghai has been extended through April 24, making it practically a San Francisco institution this side of Rice-a-Roni and just as phony (in the best possible way). Dirty, salty, nasty, slinky, sweet and sour are mere glints of the jewel that is Pearl.

Directed by Blackwood and featuring a cast of more than 20, this extravaganza features a score by original Cockette composer Richard “Scrumbly” Koldewyn, who is still tickling the ivories (and the occasional funny bone) in a curly Ilsa She Nazi wig. The book and lyrics by Link Martin have more exotic flavors than an order of house chow fun and drag us into the underbelly of Shanghai circa 1937.

Thrillpeddlers _Pearls Over Shanghai

Three “Yankee Imperial tourists” wander down the wrong alley – imagine the Andrews Sisters falling into white slavery – and that’s the primary plot, though there is a fairly significant ode to Madame Butterfly with an American captain and his Shanghai peasant love. But who needs plot when you’ve got so much delightful decadence done up in so much glittery makeup and so many snazzily salacious costumes (by Kara Emry, Louise Jarmilowicz and Tahara)?

Blackwood is Mother Fu (Fu Manchu’s mother no less), sort of the opium den mother, and he presides over a stage full of familiar faces (Michael Phillis as the glitter-nippled Red Dragon, Veronica Klaus as Russian spy Petrushka, Kim Larsen as Madam Gin Sling) and some faces so garishly glittered they could be classically trained Kabuki actors. And in true San Francisco fashion, you see a whole lot more than just faces.

During intermission, audience volunteers are welcomed on stage, put on all fours and roundly spanked by Lottie Wu (Kara Emry), a dominatrix courtesan. And Act 2 of this two-hour camp delight gets down and dirty flirty with scanty costumes sometimes disappearing altogether. Call it Flower Bum Song. The second act also features some truly extraordinary black-light effects that take flight during an opium nightmare sequence.

With so much glittery carnality and Oriental kitsch filling the stage, just what does this Shanghai express? Sex, drugs and campy fun are the true San Francisco treat.


Pearls Over Shanghai continues an extended run through Aug. 1 at The Hypnodrome, 575 10th St., San Francisco. Shows are at 8pm Fridays and Saturdays and 7pm Sundays. Tickets are $30 (or $69 for the special “Shock Boxes”). Call 800 838-3006 or visit www.thrillpeddlerscom or

Notable dates:
– On Saturday, May 1, Pearls Over Shanghai celebrates its 100th performance.
– Saturday, June 5 marks Pearls’ one-year anniversary.

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