Michael Feinsten: Standard bearer

Michael Feinstein is one of the most in-demand crooners in the land. If people want sophistication, elegance and abundant love and knowledge of the Great American Songbook, they immediately turn to Feinstein.

For more than 20 years, Feinstein has reigned as the King of Cabaret, the Sultan of Standards and the Torch Bearer for Torch Songs.

A formidable interpreter of American classics from Gershwin to Berlin to Jimmy Webb (yes, he pays attention to modern songwriters as well), Feinstein is also an incredible storehouse of facts and lore. He has invested years in preserving the legacy of America’s greatest songwriters, and he recently created the Feinstein Foundation for the Preservation of American Popular Music to do just that.

But at the moment, all of his good works for American song are taking a back seat to his other career: showman.

On Saturday he finishes up the run of his annual holiday show at his New York nightclub, Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency, and Sunday he flies to San Francisco, where he’ll have one rehearsal before he performs at 7 p.m. at Davies Symphony Hall with the San Francisco Symphony. He’ll repeat the show the following night, New Year’s Eve.

“This is how I like to experience the holidays,” Feinstein says. “I like to see the holidays through the eyes of audience members who all have different things they appreciate about this time of year. I sing the songs and look into the eyes of the people, see their reaction to the music. That’s much more fulfilling than sitting at home looking at a Christmas tree.”

Feinstein, 51, is officially bicoastal. He has an Upper East Side home in Manhattan, and in Los Angeles, he lives in what used to be the Russian consulate.

“Kruschev slept there,” Feinstein says.

In his late 20s, when he was starting to break out of piano bars and gain some notice, Feinstein played San Francisco’s Plush Room, which was then newly reopened.

“I was having a whale of a time then,” Feinstein recalls. “It was a great, magical room for connecting with audiences. I have so many memories from there. Sammy Cahn came in one night. Milton Berle came in and ended up doing 20 minutes. Irene Manning of Yankee Doodle Dandy came in. Herb Caen wrote about me, `The kid’s got it,’ and it was like being anointed by the Pope. All the intelligentsia, the movers, shakes and money of San Francisco were there.”

Feinstein remembers that era as having “a heightened sense of joy. It was before the world had changed, before the city had changed and before the worst of AIDS. It will never be that again.”

One New Year’s Eve, Feinstein recalls playing the Plush when Joan Fontaine (Rebecca), the actress, was squired into the room.

“She was an old-guard Hollywood actress, bowing and waving, and she was seated down front by the piano. She was drinking Champagne, and as the evening progressed, she got loopy and drunk, then kind of quieted into a stupor. Then she was bubbling like a tea kettle, mumbling under her breath. She started heckling me and told me, `Shut up! You can’t play. Get off the stage.’ I went from being thrilled to having Joan Fontaine in the audience to praying she would pass out.”

This New Year’s Eve promises to be a little less belligerent.

“Working with the symphony in one of my favorite cities is fantastic,” Feinstein says. “I’m a romantic, and New Year’s Eve should be romantic and celebratory. One of the songs we’ll be singing is `Here’s to Us’ and another is `The Folks Who Live on the Hill.'”

Keeping songs like those alive is of paramount importance to Feinstein, who has amassed an impressive collection of American song-related artifacts. Recently he bought what was left of a collection of production discs from the MGM musical days that include outtakes and demos.

“There’s no money in preservation,” Feinstein says, which is why he created a foundation to spearhead a national effort. “If it’s not The Wizard of Oz and not deemed viable to turn a profit, nobody’s interested.”

Though classic American song — what many call standards — is still alive and well, more attention needs to be paid, Feinstein says.

“New audiences are discovering this music all the time — they hear it at the movies and on TV,” he says. “It’s such adaptable music. It can survive Rod Stewart and other mediocre interpretations, which still get the music out there and please millions of people. People get something from this music like they do from Beethoven, Shakespeare or Picasso. There’s a unique value to it, not limited to a certain age group.”

Twenty years ago, Feinstein wondered if he’d have an audience in the future because his brand of music seemed to appeal so strongly with older people. And though older people continue to connect with the music, younger people are constantly discovering it.

“I still have an audience and will continue to have an audience,” Feinstein says. “This music will endure. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Upcoming for Feinstein: He’s working with his pal Liza Minnelli on a CD of songs by Minnelli’s godmother, the great Kay Thompson; he’ll perform in London next month at Feinstein’s at the Shaw, a newly christened performance space; he’s producing a documentary on the late Kitty Carlisle Hart; and his musical, Perspectives, will likely have its debut in London’s West End.

Michael Feinstein and the San Francisco Symphony shows are at 7 p.m. Dec. 30 and 9 p.m. Dec. 31 at Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets are $20 to $175. Call 415-864-6000 or visit www.sfsymphony.org.

For more information on Feinstein, visit his Web site at www.michaelfeinstein.com.

Enthooza for `Kooza’

Opened Friday, Nov. 16, 2007 in San Francisco

Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza thrills more than chills
Three stars Killer `Wheel of Death’

I can be a jerk about Cirque — I fell out of love with Cirque du Soleil, even though I wanted our affair to continue. I suppose it’s all a matter of over-exposure to a good thing, and judging from the response to my whining about this fancy-pants Canadian circus troupe, some of y’all feel the same way.

Well, having paid a visit to the blue-and-white-striped tent behind AT&T Park on Friday to see Cirque’s latest touring show, Kooza, I have to say: It’s pretty thrilling and mostly unfussy.

It’s also kinda long — with a 30-minute intermission (one has to shop for trinkets, mais bien sur) we were out of the tent at five to 11 — and there are definite slow spots. Even though director David Shiner is an expert clown, the clowning in Kooza left me cold. I liked that the clowns spoke, and spoke in English, but their routines, especially the audience-participation bits, ran long and wore out their welcome.

But there are two clowns whose mission is not laughter but “atmosphere” and “tone.” Jason Berrent (below in the vertical stripes) is The Trickster, a wily presence in stripes who seems to orchestrate things with a high-voltage wand. Berrent is incredibly lithe and graceful (his entrance out of a giant jack-in-the-box is extraordinary), and though he’s silent, he’s a powerful presence. His co-star is Stephane Landry (below in the horizontal stripes) as The Innocent, a childlike kite-flyer who is lured into The Trickster’s snare.

The stage (designed by Stephane Roy) is spacious and gorgeous. Giant swaths of fabric move up and down — sort of a breathing curtain — to conceal and expose a central three-tiered gazebo. The lower level contains a traditional theatrical red curtain, the middle level contains the band (fantastic! but more on them in a moment) and the top level is often a perch for clowns.

Over the years I have grown indifferent to the Cirque musical approach. I used to dutifully buy the CDs and zone out to their trippy blend of New Age-worldly wise sounds. After a while, it all sounded the same. Kooza actually sounds quite different, and the thing that sets apart Jean-Francois Cote’s score is a big, fat, brilliantly bold horn section. To have trumpets and saxophones and trombones cutting through the cuteness does wonders. Sometimes there’s an Indian Bollywood feel to the music, other times it’s 1950s movie soundtrack, then it’s jazz, then it’s (and this is my favorite) Earth, Wind and Fire. Loved the music and will buy the CD (or download it — hey, it’s the 21st century).

Highlights of the circus acts:

– The crowd loved the three lady contortionists (Julie Bergez, Natasha Patterson and Dasha Sovik), who are clearly among the best at what they do, but they grossed me out — one girl actually runs around her head! — and I thought that when they were all doubled over, they looked like a giant shrimp cocktail.

Darya Vintilova’s solo trapeze bit, which looks like a whole lot of fun and about as close as a human can get to actually flying, benefits from a pusling rock ‘n’ roll underscore.

Anthony Gatto and Danielle Gatto’s juggling — very Las Vegas with his silver lame jumpsuit and red-feather skirt — is old-fashioned and delightfully cheesy, but Anthony is such a skilled juggler, the cheese melts away and you’re left awed.

– The highwire act by the Dominguez family (with Flouber Sanchez, who is likely an honorary Dominguez), is also exciting. For much of the act there’s no net, and they’re not hooked to safety wires.

– The best act of the night is by far the “Wheel of Death” (pictured at the top of the review) Performed by Jimmy Ibarra Zapata and Carlos Enrique Marin Loaiza, the act involves what looks like a giant propeller, and at each end of the spinning arm is a round cage big enough for a man to run around in or on top of. I don’t often gasp or hide my eyes at circus stunts, but this one made me flinch and shriek like a little girl at a prize fight. Extraordinary.

As usual, the costumes (by Marie-Chantalle Vaillancourt) are gorgeous, and the lighting (by Martin Labrecque) couldn’t be any sharper.

It’s an exciting night under the big top — one that gives me a little more faith in Cirque du Soleil’s ability to keep jaded audience members such as myself coming back for more.

For information on Cirque, which has been extended in San Francisco through Jan. 20, visit www.cirquedusoleil.com.

Berkeley gets a new Playhouse

Elizabeth McKoy(above left) and Kimberly Dooley (above right) are creating a children’s theater, and they know what they’re doing.

In addition to theatrical qualifications, the two women have, between them, six children. McKoy has four, ages 13, 10, 5 and 7 months. Dooley has a 3-year-old and a 10-month-old.
“Imagine this: me and Kimberly conducting rehearsals with babies on our hips and taking nursing breaks,” McKoy says. “Talk about family theater!”

McKoy is the artistic director of the brand-new Berkeley Playhouse, whose first production, the musical Seussical, the Musical, opens Thursday at the Ashby Stage, home of the Shotgun Players.

Dooley is directing the show, and she also happens to be the wife of Shotgun Players artistic director Patrick Dooley as well as a Shotgun company member.

There’s no shortage of children’s theater in the Bay Area, but then again, there are many definitions of children’s theater. For McKoy, who spent five years teaching at Seattle Children’s Theatre, the definition is this: high-quality professional theater involving “talented writers, sophisticated performers.”

“You don’t talk down to kids,” McKoy says. “You put it out there, let them break it down and make personal connections. Young audiences are the future of theater. If we can get audiences to shows like ours and get them to participate in education programs, we’ll have lots of people participating in theater for many, many years.”

Dooley compares what Berkeley Playhouse is aiming to do with what Pixar does on movie screens: “We want to do shows that appeal to children and adults the way Pixar makes movies for all ages that are sophisticated, complex, funny, witty, and with a core imaginative quality that appeals to kids.”

McKoy’s first local creation was the Imagination Players, a theater camp for kids that started in her living room when two of her own brood got bored in the two-week theater camp they were attending. McKoy saw their need to be involved in something more serious, more professional and more like the bonding theater experiences the kids saw the adults having.

Imagination Players quickly outgrew the McKoy household and moved to the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, which is where McKoy and Dooley met.

After last summer’s sold-out IP productions of Little Shop of Horrors and The Music Man, McKoy realized it was time to make the next step and fold her theater camp into a professional theater company and let young performers work alongside adult professionals.

“Kids are often removed from adult experiences and placed in age-appropriate curriculum,” McKoy says. “In the arts, it’s so magical to put professionals with children.”

For Seussical, the cast includes 16 adults, 11 children and a four-piece band.
“In terms of size and scope, this project is ginormous,” Dooley says. “I like it, though. It suits me.”

Dooley (above, with her Cat in the Hat) is also enjoying the show, which has been extensively retooled since its disastrous Broadway run in 2000, and says that Dr. Seuss, for all his charm and wit, provides some substantial messages about compassion, prejudice and the environment.

“I have always loved and responded to stories,” she says. “I see it in my 3-year-old daughter, her passionate love of story. I think I have an ability to key into that with kids. I love working with them and their openness. I love giving them material that’s challenging and giving them art they can ask questions of. They’re smart, and they can take it.”

With arts programs in schools continually being sidelined or cut entirely, McKoy sees a need for groups like Berkeley Playhouse.

“These experiences make better citizens and people,” McKoy says. “When kids get training in the arts, they see the world differently. They’re able to see different points of view, think creatively and outside the box. In a world of horrendous standards-based movements, the arts ask kids to think more, do more, ask questions and not just respond to fixed questions.

“Seeing kids onstage or in the audience, I watch them feel, think, make connections outside of what is being branded in movies and TV, which are corporate-driven experiences. The arts are nutrition for the soul.”

Berkeley Playhouse’s Seussical runs Thursday through Dec. 2 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $18 for children and seniors and $23 for adults. Call 510-665-5565 or visit www.berkeleyplayhouse.org.

Enchanted by `Enchanted’

Last night I attended a screening of Disney’s big holiday movie, Enchanted, and I have to say, I was pretty charmed by the notion of a classic Disney animated feature turned on its head and morphed into a modern-day, live-action musical.

The trailer gives you a pretty good idea what the movie’s all about:

The songs are by the Academy Award-winning dynamic Disney duo of Stephen (Wicked) Schwartz and Alan (Beauty and the Beast) Menken. The pair previously collaborated on Disney’s Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And though there aren’t enough songs for my taste, there are two — a huge, joyful production number in Central Park that ends in a veritable festial surrounding Bethesda Fountain, and a romantic waltz at a ball sung by Jon McLaughlin — that make me anxious for the CD (slated for release Nov. 20, and the movie comes out Nov. 21).

Amy Adams plays Giselle, a gentle (and somewhat simpleminded) lass who has Snow White’s woodland cottage and affinity for all creatures great and small. In her hand-drawn animation bliss, she has Ariel’s red hair and Belle’s taste in clothes. Her Prince Charming (Edward, actually, played by James Marsden in his second musical of the year after Hairspray) is more taken with himself than with Giselle, but every prince needs his princess.

Of course Edward’s stepmother, the Queen (Susan Sarandon chewing the scenery), has a problem with a potential new queen, so she and her bumbling sidekick (Timothy Spall) figure out a way to kick Giselle out of animated fairy tale land and into the harsh reality of Times Square.

Soon Prince Edward, the sidekick and, eventually, the queen herself, end up in the real world, where people, doggone it, just don’t spontaneously burst into song.

Giselle is saved from a downpour by handsome lawyer Robert (Patrick Dempsey, naturally), single dad to an adorable princess-deprvied daughter (Dad wants her to have strong women role models like Marie Curie and Harriet Tubman). Of course they think this beautiful redhead is absolutely bonkers, but they both fall for her charms.

Robert’s somewhat harsh girlfriend is played by Idina Menzel (the Tony Award-winning star of Schwartz’s Wicked), who doesn’t even get to sing a song, which is a shame.

There’s a lot of charm in this movie — not the least of which is a computer-animated chipmunk named Pip that nearly steals the picture — and the “let’s make fun of musicals while loving them at the same time” tone works well .

That said, I have reservations — and they’re cynical and very non-fairy tale in spirit. I can just hear the Disney corporate meetings that concocted what amounts to a giant commerical for its new line of princess toys and princess costumes and princess birthday party kits and princess everything under the sun. The princess business is already booming, and this movie is sure to kick it into even higher gear (I hear there are already Macy’s tie-ins).

I’m all for girl-power, feminist-revisionist fairy tales, and when, at the end of Enchanted, it’s up to Giselle to save her mister in distress, it should be a lot more triumphant than it is. There were so many opportunities to be clever and smart here, and Adams’ utterly captivating performance (sincere and silly in equal measure, knowing and hearfelt and, yes, enchanting) could have take the movie to a much more finely etched portrait of female empowerment and charm. But the script (and the heavy-duty special effects) ultimately disappoints.

And may I chime in with all the 10-year-old girls and complain that we don’t get to see the final, most important wedding (there is a wedding, but it’s not really the one we want to see). And there should be a great final musical number, not a soundtrack song by Carrie Underwood.

Here’s the official Enchanted Web site. There are film clips and behind-the-scenes glimpses.

Dog Nation: “Kid Nation”

Frequent Theater Dogs commenter Tracy recommends the somewhat controversial CBS series “Kid Nation.” You’d think, as an elementary school teacher, her days would be full enough of kid nations. Here’s what she has to say (and thank you, Tracy, for the contribution).

You’d think I’d get enough of kids from teaching and parenting, but no, right now the only thing I watch on the telly is CBS’s “Kid Nation” on Wednesday nights. Hosted by Jonathan Karsh, it is a reality show set in Bonanza City, New Mexico (a privately owned movie ranch). The pioneers, or kids, range in ages from 8 to 15, and they are on a quest to build a viable society. Each week the kids have challenges and rewards where they ‘earn’ their place in society as upper class, merchants, cooks, and laborers.

You might think “Survivor” meets “Lord of the Flies,” but it’s not like that at all. I am impressed by the kids’ logical thinking and big hearts. When choosing between dune buggies and fruits and vegetables, guess what they chose? Fruits and vegetables! One week, they earned a reward and the choice was between holy books and pizza. They chose the holy books. The kids are natural characters and the producers of CBS do a great job of editing to create somewhat of a plot for each episode. I like Sophia and Zach, and yes, even the beauty pageant queen Taylor. Her “Deal with It” attitude and non-work ethic make things interesting. Alex, with his one adult tooth that looks like a Chiclet, is another favorite as he quips observations about life on the ranch.

At the end of each episode, the Town Council (a group of four elected kids) chooses one citizen to earn the Gold Star, a solid gold star worth its weight in gold ($20,000). This really gets the kids to think about the positive traits of others; however, birthdays trump hard work as one week they gave it to an 8-year-old who was homesick and turning nine out in the desert.

My 10-year old got the whole family hooked on “Kid Nation”! It something we look forward to watching and discussing together.

The Dog House

Hey, Theater Dogs — it’s time to check in with the hip, the hot, the happening in the world of theater and beoynd. I figure that a common-denominator blog such as this one, where readers (and the writer) gather because they love theater, will also enjoy similar tastes elsewhere, in music, books, TV, movies, etc.

So, from time to time, I’ll share what’s being watched, listened to and otherwise enjoyed in my Dog House, and I’d like for you to do the same. But rather than posting a comment (which you’re still welcome to do), e-mail your hot-list enthusiasms to me directly at cjones@bayareanewsgroup.com, and I’ll post them here in the main column, where they’re more visible and accessible.

So here’s what I’ve been enjoying recently:

TV: “Pushing Daisies,” Wednesdays on ABC, and not just because Broadway vet Kristin Chenoweth is so delightful (and she sang “Hopefully Devoted to You” a couple episodes back, which makes this television’s only musical series after the welcome demise of “Viva Laughlin.” “Pushing Daisies” is a whimsical delight and feels like a weekly dose of the French movie Amelie. And last week’s was another tiny slice of musical heaven with Chenoweth and Ellen Greene singing They Might Be Giants’ “Birdhouse in Your Soul.” Oh, this is good TV.

BOOKS: Hero by Perry Moore (Hyperion, $16.99). They call this a young-adult novel, but boy howdy, young adult novels sure have changed since I was a young adult (but then again, we didn’t have Internet porn then, which is something that comes up in this book, along with some decidedly adult language). This fascinating book is about high schooler Thom Creed, who’s dealing with his single dad, a disgraced super hero, and dealing with his own budding super-hero powers as well as his emerging homosexuality. Moore’s deft novel combines the best of the coming-out novel with the excitement of the geeky super-hero world. This will make a great movie (or heck, great musical). Check out Moore’s Web site here.

MUSIC: Jens Lekman, “Night Falls Over Kortedala” (Secretly Canadian, $14.98). This disc is such a charming surprise I can’t quite get over my delight with each song on this Swedish crooner’s latest. I’m a fan of big orchestrations (must be the show tune genes at work), and Lekman never met an orchestral sample he couldn’t use. His sound, awash in strings, horns and catchy hooks, is somewhere between Burt Bacharach and Belle & Sebastian, but with its own unique charm. Check out the record company’s Web site here, where you can download songs (I recommend all of them, but do “The Opposite of Hallelujah” first

Here’s Lekman live singing “The Opposite of Hallelujah.”

Now it’s your turn.

Whooping it up in `Des Moines’

Campo Santo, Denis Johnson go a little crazy in Iowa
Three and 1/2 stars Comic, dramatic depth charge

There’s a lot of wonderful weirdness in Denis Johnson’s Des Moines.

The play had its brief, three-performance world premiere last weekend, not at Intersection for the Arts, the usual home for Campo Santo works. This season is all about breaking patterns and trying new things (the slogan is: “New Definitions of Theatre, Don’t Let the Evolution Happen Without You”).

So Des Moines unfolded in the warehouse-y confines of artist John Gruenwald’s Gruenwald Press, a South of Market spot that required audience members to ride a freight elevator one floor up to the show.

Before the show began, the audience mingled in the space – crowded with a variety of sofas, stools, chair and pillows on the floor – partaking of the hors d’oeuvres buffet and the open bar while the Howard Wiley Duo played some smoky jazz in the corner by the windows.

Once settled into the hodgepodge of seats, the audience trained its attention on Leslie Linnebur and Joshua McDermott’s set: an average kitchen in Des Moines, Iowa. The one thing this kitchen had that kitchens in Iowa most likely do not: audience members seated in it.

And at Sunday’s performance – closing night – author Johnson was seated in the kitchen, so we had the pleasure of watching the play and watching the playwright watch the play (he liked it, he really liked it).

With each new play, starting with 1999’s Hellhound on My Trail through 2004’s Psychos Never Dream, Johnson seems to rattle the theatrical cage even more.

Des Moines is a curious work. It begins in complete naturalism as husband and wife Dan (Luis Saguar, above right) and Marta (Jeri Lynn Cohen) deal with everyday things, like Dan’s loathing of margarine. He lectures Marta that “oleo” means “made of oil.” She’s heard it all before, which is why she buys butter. “You like it. I got it. Now eat it. I love you,” she says.

From the first, this 85-minute “exploration of the damaged American soul,” as the program puts it, obsesses over mortality. Dan had a passenger in his cab, a woman recently widowed when her husband died in a plane crash, and she was obsessed with finding out her husband’s last words and thought maybe the cabbie could provide them.

Turns out the husband was a step ahead of her and had put a note in his pocket that read: “If I die now, my last words were: Orange juice, please.” Then, for some strange reason, the widow left her husband’s wedding ring in the cab.

Back in the kitchen, Marta announces she has some news and one of the local priests, Father Michael (Cully Fredricksen), is coming over. When Marta tells Dan that she has between two and four months to live, she turns to the priest for guidance and comfort.

“There’s very little to say,” he says.

“But to have a priest say it is something,” Marta says.

Desperation, mortality and the need for meaning and release flood into the kitchen, and that’s just the start. The priest is a cross-dresser, and Dan and Marta’s grandson, Jimmy (Max Gordon Moore), was paralyzed during the waist down during his sex-change operation.

While Dan and Marta are out buying beer and whiskey to make depth charges (shot glass full of whiskey dropped into a glass of beer, aka a boilermaker), the widow, Mrs. Drinkwater (Margo Hall, above left) shows up to reclaim her husband’s wedding ring.

What she finds is Jimmy in his wheelchair wearing a tight ‘70s dress, full makeup, Jackie O sunglasses and long brunette wig, and Father Michael wearing rouge, eye shadow and lipstick.

The priest, the transsexual and the widow get a head start on the depth charges, so when Dan and Marta return, the party is in full swing. Next thing you know, the karaoke machine is on (terrific sound design by Gustavo Pastre and Drew Yerys), and Jimmy is singing “Folsom Prison Blues,” the priest recites a dramatic monologue to “Love Me Tender” and the widow gets down and dirty to “Kansas City.”

Then the weirdness starts, and I’m not talking about Marta screaming, “The widow is a whore! The black widow is a whore!”

Director Jonathan Moscone doesn’t usually traffic in onstage weirdness, and that’s a strength here. When Johnson’s text veers out of naturalism and into dream chaos, Moscone’s firm hand — and the good will he has established with the audience through strong direction and excellent performances – keeps the play from spinning into self-indulgent whimsy and tragedy.

Events in the last scenes of the play may be inscrutable, but we’ve come to like this odd assortment of people so conveniently thrown together for a collective dark night of the soul.

Des Moines hasn’t quite found its ending yet, but the play leaves its audience with an electrical charge that crackles with humor, mortality and the need for community – in a depth charge, Iowa sort of way.

For more on Intersection for the Arts and Campo Santo’s fall 2007 events visit www.theintersection.org.

Ice, ice, baby

Admit it. You’re wondering what it was like.

Cheesy? Silly? Stultifying? Genius?

Yes, yes, not so much and no.

We’re talking, of course, about Disney’s High School Musical: The Ice Tour, which opened Thursday at the Oracle Arena in Oakland and then heads to San Jose’s HP Pavilion.

The easy answer is High School Musical, the phenomenally successful Disney Channel movie musicals, are as good on the ice as they were on the small screen. Given your age bracket, that could mean many things.

The experience of The Ice Tour is just that – it’s an experience. The on-ice choreography, the pyrotechnics, the gee-whiz positivity of the blandly perky pop score are all fine and dandy. But watching the audience – to borrow from Lily Tomlin here – is the real art.

Looking around the arena, you couldn’t help but be moved by the gazillions of kids – young, mostly girls, ages 8 to 11 I’d guess – singing along with every word, waving their red-and-white East High School pennants with the abandon of a junior pep squad. The screams were ratcheted up to Beatles ’64 intensity.

And what’s even funnier, is that a whole lot of the moms (not many dads, though there were an intrepid few) had equally big smiles on their faces and were also singing along in between bites of popcorn and nachos.

The pop-culture phenomenon of High School Musical really is something to see – and hear.

As for the show itself, directed by Broadway veteran Jeff Calhoun and choreographed by Chucky Klapow and Cindy Stuart (faithfully following the movie moves created by Klapow, director Kenny Ortega and Bonnie Story), is a fast-moving re-creation of both HSM movies. Act 1 finds Troy meeting Gabriella on New Year’s Eve, their romance and their split alliances – to the school musical, to each other and to Academic Decathlon (her) and the basketball team (him). Act 2 is a summertime fling, with the East High Wildcats working at a luxurious resort and the Paris Hilton-y Sharpay making a move for Troy.

All the songs are squeezed into the nearly two-hour show, and the momentum of the piece cannot be denied. By sheer force of cheerfulness, everyone – even the reluctant adults – has a good time.

Jordan Brauninger and Lane Walker are suitably adorable as Troy and Gabriella, though I must confess I was fonder of Sandy Rucker and Peter Bonard Muck as weirdly intimate brother-sister team Sharpay and Ryan.

The one big improvement over the movies is Troy’s big solo, “Bet On It.’’ In the movie Zac Efron bounces through the ultra-green golf links like a junior Kevin Bacon trying to cut footloose. But on the ice, Brauninger (lip-synching the movie soundtrack, as all the skaters do) gets to show his moves in a much more impressive manner.

I could live another day without hearing “You Are the Music in Me” or “Get’cha Head in the Game” again, but every time I’m exposed to HSM, I react retroactively: my 10-year-old self would have flipped for this squeaky-clean Disney phenom.

Visit the official High School Musical: The Ice Tour here.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you that I gleefully accepted Disney HSM swag including red-framed glasses that blink red lights; a souvneir program that plays “We’re All in This Together” when you open it; red-and-white pompoms; and a sign to cheer for my favorite character (no, I didn’t choose Troy or Gabriella or even Ryan — I picked the one that said CHAD in big, bold letters. All of the swag, except for the sign, has been passed on to fans under the age of 10.

Murakami’s `quake’ rattles Berkeley Rep

Opened Oct. 17, 2007 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage

Galati translates Murakami stories to the stage
Three stars Stirred, not shaken

We’re lucky to live in the Bay Area for many reasons, the quality and bounty of theater chief among them.

When our theater companies aren’t producing interesting shows themselves, chances are they’re importing good stuff from elsewhere. That’s the case with Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s new show, after the quake, which opened Wednesday on the Thrust Stage.

The show originated at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and is presented here as a co-production with the La Jolla Playhouse. You might call this Part 1 of a two-part mini-Chicago festival. Berkeley Rep’s next show is Mary Zimmerman’s Argonautika, which hails from Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre Company.

Pulling shows from other places seems especially relevant in the case of after the quake, a theater piece created from fiction. Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s after the quake deals with the aftermath of the devastating 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan.

For the stage version, Galati, an avowed Murakami devote, takes two of the book’s stories and creates an 80-minute play that, for all its theatrical artistry, still feels like a piece of literature.

Getting back to the “lucky to be in the Bay Area” thing, one of our great companies is Word for Word, the company that turns short fiction into fully staged theater pieces without altering the original text. Well, Galati’s after the quake, which has been more liberally adapted, is beautiful but not on par with Word for Word’s best work (Stories by Tobias Wolff comes immediately to mind).

What’s missing is the theatrical thrill, the excitement of crackling good writing coming alive and becoming something more than just writing.

There are certainly moments in “quake” that reverberate. Most come from the story “Superfrog Saves Tokyo,” in which an action-hero frog (Keong Sim), shows up the home of a mild-mannered loan officer (Paul H. Juhn) to enlist his help in fighting the Worm, an underground villain that absorbs hatred, gets angry and makes earthquakes.

Sim, in his three-piece suit, green gloves and green sunglasses (costumes by Mara Blumenfeld), is a wonderfully droll frog who takes the saving of lives very seriously, and Juhn is just as good as the average Joe who rises to the challenge of being a heroic sidekick.

The other story, “Honey Pie,” is a sweet love story that aims to be something more but falls short, at least in theatrical terms. On the page, with time to muse and decipher, the story may reveal more depth.

Junpei (Hanson Tse), Sayoko (Jennifer Shin) and Takatsuki (Juhn) were inseparable in college until two sides of their friendly triangle fell in love, leaving the third side feeling lonely and rejected.

Years later, Sayoko and Takatsuki are the divorced parents of a little girl, Sala (Madison Logan V. Phan on opening night, alternating in the role with Gemma Megumi Fa-Kaji), whose dreams are invaded by a creature she calls “earthquake man.”

The only thing that seems to calm the girl is a bedtime story from her mom’s old friend, Junpei, a short story writer by trade. He tells her about clever bears and other bears who miss their chances.

Notions of anxiety, safety and finding equilibrium on shifting grounds course through each of the stories, but aside from the fact that “Superfrog” is one of Junpei’s short story creations, the connection between them does not come through strongly, thus giving the brief evening a somewhat incomplete feel.

Still, there’s plenty to enjoy, from Galati’s simple, fluid staging on James Schuette’s dark, elegant set (think of a hip advertising agency lobby beautifully lit by James F. Ingalls), to the warm, charming performances from the cast. Best of all is the live music performed by Jason McDermott on cello and Jeff Wichmann on koto (a stringed instrument that, like the accordion does for Paris, immediately conjures Japan). In addition to the original compositions by Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman, the duo also manages to work in the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” and “You Light Up My Life.”

after the quake ends up being a more intellectual pleasure than an emotional theatrical experience — sort of like a good short story compared to a big, juicy novel.

For information about after the quake, visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Campo Santo, Johnson together again

Campo Santo, the small theater company with major literary impact, is not doing a traditional season.

Sean San Jose, Campo Santo founder, and Deborah Cullinan, executive director of Intersection for the Arts, describe this offbeat season as a “search for the most exciting and bold new theatrical constructs.”

The season includes three world-premiere plays by some literary heavyweights, but each premiere lasts a limited time.

First up is Denis Johnson’s Des Moines, which opens Oct. 19 and closes Oct. 21. That’s right, three performances only. And guess what? The shows were sold out before rehearsals even began.

That’s what Johnson’s name can do, and that’s only speaking of him as the playwright of such extraordinary work as The Soul of a Whore, a previous Campo Santo-Intersection collaboration. Never mind that last week Johnson (above) was nominated for a National Book Award for his epic Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke. People around here love Johnson as a playwright (OK, as a novelist, short-story writer and all-around great guy, too).

The tag-line for Des Moines is: “Come to a party…where a play breaks out!” And that’s pretty much what happens. Ticket buyers are given a super-secret location in San Francisco. They show up and take part in a cocktail party — complete with live music and cocktails — and the play sort of unfolds around them. Attendees can expect to meet a cabbie, a devout grandmother, a grieving widow and a cross-dressing priest among others as they randomly collide at a cocktail party in the Mission District and a small house in Des Moines, Iowa.

Jonathan Moscone, artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater, directs a cast that includes Jeri Lynn Cohen, Cully Fredericksen (below), Margo Hall, Max Gordon Moore and Luis Saguar.

If you’re intent on getting into Des Moines (and who could blame you?), you can put your name on the waiting list by e-mailing reservations@theintersection.org.

But wait, there’s more!

And because one new Johnson play is never as good as two new Johnson plays, Campo Santo and Intersection are premiering another one: Everything Has Been Arranged, a collaboration with Southern Exposure (an artist-run contemporary-arts and arts-education group) based on Johnson’s story “The Small Boys’ Unit,” about civil wars in Liberia, from his book Seek.

San Jose directs the show, which is part of Grounded?, a series of juried projects at Intersection that includes new visual art, public intervention, performance and media in search of physical, personal, social, political and creative ground.

Everything Has Been Arranged is only being performed three times: Dec. 6, 7 and 8 at Intersection. The evenings will also include performances of unpublished interviews on the Sudan civil wars culled from the newest publishing imprint from McSweeney’s, Voice of Witness.

Also part of Grounded? is Vendela Vida’s new theater piece, let the northern lights erase your name, directed by Danny Scheie. The piece is from Vida’s novel of the same name, which one reviewer described as walking “a very fine line between high-camp comedy and lyrical seriousness.”

let the northern lights erase your name will be performed Dec. 13, 14 and 15 at Intersection.

For a complete listing of Grounded? events, call 415-626-3311 or visit www.theintersection.org.