S’Just All Right: Gershwin score saves American in Paris

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The touring company of An American in Paris, based on the 1951 movie of the same name, dances into the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season. The score features glorious work by George and Ira Gershwin as well as choreography and direction by Christopher Wheeldon. Photos by Matthew Murphy

The highlight of the 1951 movie An American in Paris is the glorious 17-minute ballet at the end featuring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dancing through an artist’s version of Paris (think Renoir, Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec) to the strains of the glorious horn-honking title composition by George Gershwin. Movie musicals have rarely been so transporting, especially in the seamless blend of classical and modern dance with musical theater.

Given that the movie has become a beloved classic, it makes perfect sense that the Gershwin estate would want to capitalize on the score and keep it alive in a new stage adaptation. Much like they did with Crazy for You (and to a lesser extent with Nice Work If You Can Get It), the idea would be to fold in other songs by George & Ira Gershwin to create a whole new property.

The resulting show, adapted by writer Craig Lucas and directed and choreographed by a member of ballet world royalty, Christopher Wheeldon, is a decidedly uneven affair. It wants to be part serious musical (the darkness of Paris after World War II and the Nazi occupation), part musical comedy (three guys in love with one girl!) and part contemporary and ballet dance show. Call it a ballet-sical (mullet doesn’t quite work). Whatever it is, it doesn’t quite work.

After a short tryout in Paris, An American in Paris opened on Broadway in 2015 and ran for about a year and a half before embarking on the national tour that brings the production to San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season.

It’s a handsome production thanks to some beautiful, evocative sets and costumes by Bob Crowley and gorgeous lighting by Natasha Katz. There are abundant, mostly unnecessary projections (by 59 Productions) that don’t bring a whole lot the soirée other than a sense that we’re watching a 1940s version of Inception, but when they work, as with the sparking light on the waters of the Seine, they’re lovely. Crowley really gets to let loose in the big production number for “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” with a dazzling art deco fantasia on the Chrysler Building that underscores the evening’s most thoroughly enjoyable musical theater experience.

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The show’s opening, set to “Concerto in F,” indicates that this is going to be something special. With a grim color palette and intricate choreographic storytelling, we are immersed into the world of post-war Paris, where denizens are slow to emerge from the Nazi oppression and the general horror of the war. There’s violence, cruelty and grace woven into this rather startling prologue. But then we get into “I Got Rhythm” and introduction of the characters, so we shift right into musical theater mode trying to replicate the ebullience of Crazy for You choreographer Susan Stroman and coming up short.

There’s a sloppiness to this production that affects the acting – don’t even ask about the French accents – and the singing and even some of the dancing.

The revised book shifts the action from the Paris art world into the ballet world, which makes sense so there can be more dancing, but characters are under-developed and relationships are cursory at best. The bright light of the cast is Sara Esty as Lise Dassin, a ballet dancer who catches the eye of two Americans (McGee Maddox as GI Jerry Mulligan and Stephen Brower as composer Adam Hochberg) and one Frenchman (Nick Spangler as Henri Baurel), who all, conveniently, end up being buddies. There’s another brash American, Emily Ferranti as moneyed Milo Davenport, who attempts to grab the spotlight occasionally, but it’s Esty’s Lise who dances away – literally – with the nearly 2 1/2-hour show.

She’s a strong actor, singer (her “The Man I Love” is charming) and dancer, which is a tall order, and not one others match as gracefully or forcefully as she. Her performance in the “An American in Paris” ballet, which here is presented as a ballet company’s dance performance and not as a Parisian fantasy, is absolutely beautiful.

And there’s just no escaping the fact that Gershwin songs and music can carry an evening no matter what else is going on. “But Not for Me,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “I Got Rhythm,” “S’Wonderful” – it’s a feast of great American songwriting. And then you’ve got more classically leaning pieces from George – “Second Prelude,” “Second Rhapsody/Cuban Overture” and, of course, the title piece, and you just can’t lose. Rob Fisher’s arrangements (with orchestrations by Christopher Austin and Bill Elliott and dance arrangements by Sam Davis) work hard to make a 14-piece band sound like a symphony orchestra or a jazz band and mostly succeed.

The details of this stage American in Paris may not linger, but the beauty of its design and the glory of its music are here to stay.

An American in Paris continues through Oct. 8 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$214. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com

Porgy sings anew at the Golden Gate

Porgy 1
Alicia Hall Moran is Bess and Nathaniel Stampley is Porgy in the national touring cast of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess directed by Diane Paulus. The tour launches its national tour at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season. BELOW: Kingsley Leggs as Sporting Life takes a roll of the dice along Catfish Row. Photos by Michael J. Lutch

The music of Porgy and Bess is so pervasive in the musical landscape that actually seeing the show and how the songs fit into the story is a little startling.

I know the George GershwinIra GershwinDuBose Heyward score not from cast recordings but from pop and jazz versions recorded by the likes of Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Carmen McRae, Cleo Laine and Ray Charles and Frances Faye and Mel Tormé. And then there are the countless covers of the show’s songs. “Summertime,” for instance, is considered one of the most recorded songs of all time, with more than 30,000 versions. This music, in other words, is deeply woven into the American cultural fabric.

Productions of Porgy and Bess don’t come along very often, and when they do, they’ll likely involve four hours spent in an opera house. Since its debut in 1935, Porgy has been the odd show out – part American folk opera, part Broadway musical. There’s no question of this landmark creation’s place in the pantheon, but getting audiences to embrace it has been a challenge over the years.

The latest effort to re-style Porgy and Bess for the populace is the result of director Diane Paulus working with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to create a 2 1/2-hour version of the show that sits squarely in the realm of Broadway musical. Though initiated by the Gershwin and Hayward estates, this re-tooling was not without its detractors (hello, Stephen Sondheim). Still, the goal was accomplished. The revival, dubbed The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (as had a 2006 London revival directed by Trevor Nunn) won Tony Awards for best revival and best actress in a musical (Audra McDonald as Bess). That production, with a new cast, has launched its national tour at the Golden Gate Theatre as part of the SHN season.

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Having never seen another production of Porgy and Bess I can’t make comparisons, operatic or otherwise, but I can say that what Paulus and Parks have done is create a strong, character-based showcase for the glorious score. Parks’ script, which replaces recitative with spoken dialogue, is sharp and pulls no punches. She creates a tangible sense of community in Catfish Row, and Paulus’ lean production, with rough, abstract designs by Riccardo Hernandez and painterly lighting by Christopher Akerlind create stage pictures that evoke African-American folklore more than real life.

That seems appropriate because this Porgy and Bess does play out like a grim folktale with glimmers of hope. George Gershwin’s remarkable score emphasizes this with its intoxicating blend of spirituals, folk music, jazz, blues and popular song. Diedre L. Murray has adapted the original score, played here by a 23-piece orchestra under the direction of Dale Rieling, and she has created a sound that is at once grand and intimate.

What surprised me about this Porgy and Bess is that it’s really Porgy’s story. As played by a triumphant Nathaniel Stampley, Porgy is a compassionate voice of humanity. He is crippled (walks with a cane, not a goat cart as in the original) but not self-pitying or maudlin. He defends the wonton Bess from the community who reviles her drugging and drinking ways, and it is through his kindness and love that Bess finds, if temporarily, a better life. Stampley’s nuanced performance has warmth and beauty, strength and passion in abundance.

Like Stampley, this Bess, Alicia Hall Moran, was an understudy on Broadway, and that experience yields a compelling central couple wrestling with all kinds of demons. When Moran and Stampley launch into “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” or “I Loves You, Porgy,” all notions of opera, Broadway, controversy and history vanish, replaced by simply extraordinary musical theater.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Diane Paulus about directing The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess as well as the new Cirque du Soleil show Amaluna for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

I also talked to Alicia Hall Moran, who plays Bess, about the role and about her marriage to renowned jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran for the Chronicle. Read the story here.

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess continues through Through Dec. 8. at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$210. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Oh, Maureen! Ms. McVerry revisits the Gershwins

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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.

Moon strikes up a triumphant Band

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Luke Chapman as Timothy Harper strikes up the band with the help of Sharon Rietkerk as Anne Draper in 42nd Street Moon’s production of Strike Up the Band by George and Ira Gershwin. Below: American cheese mogul Horace Fletcher (Gabriel Grilli) and the “destitute-around-the-edges” society matron Grace Draper (Stephanie Rhoads) trill the Gershwin classic “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” Photos by www.DavidAllenStudio.com


I’ve seen a lot of 42nd Street Moon shows over the years, but I’ve rarely seen one as exuberant, funny, beautifully sung and as hugely enjoyable as Strike Up the Band. Everything about Zack Thomas Wilde’s production is top notch, from the extraordinarily sharp book by George S. Kaufman and the immediately appealing score by George and Ira Gershwin to the terrific cast and the gorgeous late ’20s costumes (by Scarlett Kellum).

42nd Street Moon is less in the business of presenting musty, dusty lost musicals and more in the realm of offering polished if modestly produced professional productions.
And this Band benefits tremendously from the smaller scale. More attention is focused on the satirical book (the original 1927 Kaufman script, not the Morrie Ryskind rewrite from 1930) and on the Gershwins’ songs (especially on Ira’s incisively wonderful lyrics).

Without the proverbial cast of thousands, we get a clearer look at just what a gem Strike Up the Band really is, and its snarky attitude about how it’s commerce – not politics or even morality – that get us into war couldn’t be more timely. Alas.

And it’s all so sublimely cheesy – literally. Kaufman’s book takes us to Fletecher’s American Cheese factory, purveyor of the finest cheeses in the nation – perhaps the world. A new tariff on foreign cheese pleases Horace J. Fletcher (Gabriel Grilli) mightily. But the folks in Switzerland are balking. They’ve sent a note of grave concern to Washington decrying the tariff. What’s worse, their note arrived postage due.

The only patriotic choice to protect cheese interests is, of course, going to war with Switzerland. Fletcher is happy to pay for the war and sell seats to the battles.

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Mixed in with the curds and warfare are three love stories. We have the righteous reporter (Michael Scott Wells) exchanging goo-goo eyes with Fletcher’s daughter, Joan (Samantha Bruce). Then there’s the factory foreman (Luke Chapman) and his infatuation with a flapper (Sharon Rietkerk). And then there are the older folks, the destitute society matron (Moon co-founder Stephanie Rhoads) and Fletcher himself.

Just to make sure the satirical war story didn’t overwhelm the lovers, the Gershwins gave them songs like “The Man I Love,” “Soon,” “Meadow Serenade,” “Hanging Around with You” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You.”

Not to take anything away from the wonderful men in the cast, but the women in this cast are something special. With soaring, gorgeous voices and spot-on comic timing, the ladies in the Band steal the show. I’d happily listen to Rhoads, Rietkerk and Bruce sing just about anything.

That said, Grilli’s straight-man performance as the none-too-bright Fletcher is laugh-out-loud funny – he rings his secretary at one point and says, “Please send in an assortment of singers,” and Benjamin Pither’s lead solo on the astonishing song “Homeward Bound” is the closest the show comes to tugging the heart strings.

Oh, that score. Part Gilbert and Sullivan, part Sondheim but all Gershwin, this sophisticated score plays with the conventions of the day but makes them fresh and funny and full of substance. The title song is one of those irresistible and unshakable ear worms, but check this lyric: “We’re in a bigger, better war/For your patriotic pastime./We don’t know what we’re fighting for –/But we didn’t know the last time!” Ouch.

Dave Dobrusky provides solid musical direction and some gorgeous piano with tremendous assistance from Nick Di Scala on woodwinds. It’s hard to strike up a band without an actual band, but Dobrusky and Di Scala leave you wanting for nothing.

Even the choreography by Alex Hsu has exactly the right sense of humor. The squatting and bouncing of “The Unofficial Spokesman” provides hilarious accompaniment to a government man’s (Eric Wenburg) nonsensical no-position position. And the tap-dancing during the title number at the end of Act 1 is – very much like this show itself – the definition of crowd pleasing.



42nd Street Moon’s Strike Up the Band continues through April 24 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $24-$44. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org for information.

Ira Gershwin…on several occasions

I’ve been spending the last few months with Ira Gershwin, and I must say, I have completely enjoyed his company.

Greg MacKellan, the co-artistic director of San Francisco company 42nd Street Moon approached me last year and asked me to contribute a narration script for what is becoming an annual Moon tradition: a salon evening paying tribute to a great lyricist. Last year it was Dorothy Fields. This year, Ira Gershwin.

What I knew about Ira was what a lot of people know &#8212 with his brother, George, he wrote some of the greatest of great songs, including “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “‘S Wonderful,” and the list goes on. And on. George (the music) was the flashy, charming guy whose premature death at age 38 from a brain tumor was a tremendous blow to Ira (the words), the soft-spoken, bookish older brother.

So how do you create an entertaining show about a guy whose life was, by all accounts, productive but free of scandal? Who liked to golf and play poker with his songwriting buddies and eschewed all the Hollywood/Broadway glitz and glamour?

The simple answer is: you let Ira’s work do all the work. His day-to-day life may have lacked flash, but it didn’t lack for brilliance. Ira channeled his brilliance and passion into his lyrics, which he cared about passionately. His nickname was “The Jeweler” because he was such a consummate craftsman, and boy did he churn out the gems.

Even after George died in 1937 (the song they were working on at the time of George’s death, ironically, was “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”), Ira continued to hone his craft. Look no further than his collaboration with Kurt Weill on Lady in the Dark or with Harold Arlen on the Judy Garland/James Mason movie A Star Is Born for evidence of his post-George genius.

One of the delights of researching the script was discovering some delightful songs. Being a native of Nevada, I was intrigued by the song “Sweet Nevada” from Park Avenue, the 1946 Broadway flop Ira wrote with Arthur Schwartz. Originally written in the style of a Viennese waltz, the song (about potential divorcees heading to the Silver State) morphed into a country swing, which Ira described like this: “The undulating Blue Danube-ish three-quarter-time rip-roared to a clop-clop, plunk-plunk, bang-bang rowdy-dow.” I thought it would be great to hear a little of the song in the original waltz style then shift to the final country-swing version. Alas, though we have the lyrics &#8212 “A bill of divorcement/At one time, of course, meant/A lady was dragged in the dust–/Till Nevada saved the day;/Sweet Nevada led the way” &#8212 the music is somehow no longer with us.

Oh, well. Plenty of other material from which to choose. Another favorite discovery was from late in Ira’s career. He kept threatening to retitre but always got pulled back into one project or another. His last was writing some songs for Billy Wilder’s 1964 comedy Kiss Me, Stupid. Using some of George’s unused trunk music, Ira composed lyrics to several songs (none of which are used to great effect in the movie, which is a mess), and he seemed to be having a grand time. He wrote a comedy number called “I’m a Poached Egg,” which was based on a fragment of a song from the ’30s, with the assignment of creating something “nutty.” He more than delivered. And delivered. Ira got on a roll and just couldn’t stop writing lyrics.

Here’s the basic idea:

I’m a poached egg
Without a piece of toast,
Yorkshire pudding
Without a beef to roast,
A haunted house
That hasn’t got a ghost&#8212
When I’m without you

He kept going and going with this song. My favorite verses, which were never used, include:

My Fair Lady
Without the rain in Spain,
I’m a dentist without novocaine&#8212
When I’m without you


I’m a missile
That can’t get into space,
Monte Carlo
Without a Princess Grace,
Perry Mason
The time he lost a case&#8212
When I’m without you

Listen to Ella Fitzgerald sing the song here.

I have a new appreciation for Ira Gershwin, especially for his robust sense of humor and his class. Spending time in his world is, well, it’s awful nice. It’s paradise. It’s what I love to see.

Now listen to Ira himself (clearly reading a written text) talk about his life and his brother, George.

There’s a wonderful story in the San Francisco Chronicle about the show and its star, Donna McKechnie. Read it here.


Nice Work If You Can Get It: An Ira Gershwin Salon Evening starring Donna McKechnie is at 7pm, Thursday, January 28, at the Alcazar Theatre, 650 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $70 for the show, $100 for the show and a dessert after party with Ms. McKechnie. Call 415
255 8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org for information.

Broadway by the Bay’s musical man

As someone who has loved musicals since his formative years, Jim Gardia is certainly in the right business. And to think, he could have ended up as a swim coach.

In college, Gardia, who was a competitive swimmer, was seriously considering a career as a swim coach.

Jim Gardia

“But theater pulled me harder,” he says.

For six years he worked with Los Angeles’ acclaimed Reprise Theatre Company, both as managing director and as producing director. Last year, he left his native L.A. to come north. He is now the executive director of San Mateo’s Broadway by the Bay, replacing Greg Phillips, who left early last year to serve as executive director of Oregon’s Portland Center Stage.

A musical theater performer since childhood, Gardia is someone who has the musical in his bones. While with Reprise, he got to work on some great shows with some great talent. Here’s a sampling: Sunday in the Park with George with Kelli O’Hara and Manoel Felciano directed by Jason Alexander, Follies with Patty Duke, Vikki Carr, Harry Groener and Donna McKechnie, Anything Goes with Rachel York and Brent Barrett, City of Angels with Stephen Bogardus and Vicki Lewis and Zorba with Marc Kudisch and Judy Kaye.

As Gardia says, he didn’t leave Los Angeles or Reprise out of any kind of dissatisfaction. “I had been wanting to move to the Bay Area for years,” he says. “I saw an opportunity with Broadway by the Bay. Jason Alexander is running Reprise, so I left it in good hands.”

A high-level community theater, Broadway by the Bay opens its 44th season this week with the Gershwin musical Crazy for You. With nearly 7,000 season subscribers and more than 6,000 single show ticket sales per production, BBB is the biggest theater on the Peninsula and has a reputation for big, splashy musicals with giant casts and strong production values.

Coming into such an established organization, Gardia, now a resident of Half Moon Bay, says he doesn’t have any plans to change the Broadway by the Bay vision. “What they do thrills me. This format works. I’m here to help make change if it’s needed, but I don’t see the need. We can buff up here and there, but nothing’s broken.”

Nothing in the company may be broken, but there is something big that has gone bust: the economy. Opening a new season in the midst of a recession is something that weighs on every performing arts company at this moment, especially after having seen American Musical Theatre of San Jose cease operation last year.

“Of course the recession is something we have to prepare for,” Gardia says. “We’ve cut our budget, gone line by line and cut where we could. I do not like cutting anything that goes on stage because that’s what we do. Everyone on the board has cut back where they can.”

Ticket prices have gone up, according to Gardia, by “a couple dollars.” But, he adds, you can still see a BBB show for $20 at the lowest level and under $50 at the highest.

“One of our goals is to keep these shows affordable,” Gardia says. “We want this to be for everyone, especially during these times. With this kind of musical entertainment, you can walk into the theater and get carried away for a couple of hours. That’s essential to our psyche. Our job continues to be bringing entertainment to the masses.”

>Also coming this season, whose theme is “The best is yet to come”: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I (July 16-Aug. 2), The Full Monty (Sept. 17-Oct. 4) and the composer showcase, Broadway Up Close and Personal: A Tribute to Cy Coleman (Nov. 5-8).

Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein are familiar names at BBB. But the work of composer David Yazbeck, the man behind The Full Monty, is not. Also new to the BBB stage is the notion of male strippers.

“Full Monty is a little riskier kind of show for us,” Gardia says. “But think about the storyline: unemployed steel workers in Buffalo trying to figure out how they can raise money. It says a lot about the world right now, and every time I’ve seen the show, the audience leaves with huge smiles on their faces.”

This will be the third year that BBB has offered the composer showcase after previous outings honor Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Schwartz. Gardia says subscribers weren’t sure about the composer showcase at first but have warmed to it.

“I think people definitely see it as a highlight of the season now,” Gardia says. The Cy Coleman tribute will feature Coleman collaborator David Zippel and ASCAP’s Michael A. Kirker joined by Broadway performers Lillias White and Jason Graae.

“One of the things we hope to do with the composer showcase is expand it into a master class of some kind for our Youth Theatre and Musical Theatre conservatories,” Gardia says.

Broadway by the Bay’s Crazy for You runs April 2-19 at the San Mateo Center for Performing Arts, 600 Delaware Ave., San Mateo. Tickets are $17-$48. Call 650-579-5565 or visit www.broadwaybythebay.org for information

Review: `Girl Crazy’

Meghann Reynolds and Jeff Horst croon “Embraceable You” in 42nd Street Moon’s revival of the George and Ira Gershwin musical Girl Crazy at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco. Photos by David Allen

42nd Street Moon revives loveable, embraceable `Girl’
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There’s nothing quite like a Gershwin revival to brighten the musical scene.

Ten years ago, 42nd Street Moon presented a staged concert version of Girl Crazy, the 1930 hit with music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin and a book by Guy Bolton and John McGowan.

Dyan McBride played feisty cowgirl Molly Gray, who tangles with a visiting New Yorker who’s turning his family’s ranch in dusty Custerville, Ariz., into a dude ranch.

Now McBride is directing a revival of Girl Crazy for 42nd Street Moon, only this time around it’s a fully staged production – no more actors holding scripts and putting them down for the big musical numbers.

These days, a 42nd Street Moon show is a real show with a bit of a set (this one’s by Tom Orr) and not much else. You could say, from the looks of things, that the shows resemble high school or community theater productions, and on the surface that might be true.

But the difference is in the quality of presentation. You get high-quality performances – they sing! they act! they dance! – that more than make up for the lack of production frills. Like the staged concerts of yesteryear, these full productions give modern audiences a chance to genuinely experience shows that probably wouldn’t be done by anyone else. For instance, local theaters probably wouldn’t choose to do “Girl Crazy” when they can do the re-tooled 1992 Broadway version, Crazy for You.

Whether they’re lost, forgotten or just outdated, these musicals certainly have their charms, and McBride and her team certainly find much to burnish in Girl Crazy.

The best thing about the show is the tone –it’s exactly right. No one’s apologizing for the slightness of the book or the flimsiness of the characters. They play it as it is, never forcing the comedy or arching the schmaltziness. When slapstick is called for, slapstick is performed. But it’s all completely straightforward – confident, good humored and charmingly relaxed.

Dave Dobrusky, who played the show and served as musical director 10 years ago, is back behind the piano, and he’s marvelous – he even plays a maraca (just one) at the top of Act 2 when the action shifts to San Luz, Mexico.

Staci Arriaga choreographs some high-energy, high-stepping moves for her lanky cowboys (the flashiest moves come from Andrew Willis-Woodward and Nicholas Yenson) and keeps the action on the small Eureka Theatre stage lively without ever crowding it.

Romantic leads Jeff Horst and Meghann Reynolds are delightful and never smarmy. They duet beautifully on “Could You Use Me?” and “Embraceable You.”

The comic romantics – Kalon Thibodeaux as cab driver Gieber Goldfarb and Lisa Hensley as the smitten Patsy – feel like they’re right out of the 1930s. Thibodeaux is a fantastic physical comedian, and he shines on “Goldfarb, That’s I’m” and does some memorable imitations – Jolson, Durante, Chevalier, Cantor – when he chimes in after Reynolds croons a lilting “But Not for Me.”

In the role made famous by Ethel Merman in her Broadway debut is Cami Thompson, who imbues Frisco Kate with Mae West sass and a voice West could only dream of and Merman would have to envy.

Thompson’s “Sam and Delilah” is a showstopper followed quickly by yet another showstopper, “I Got Rhythm.” In Act 2, which is short on memorable tunes, she saves the day with the ballad “Boy! What Love Has Done to Me!”

As Kate’s gambling hubby, Slick, Peter Sroka is another one of those reliable character actors who seems to have been delivered directly from 1930.

In Act 1, we’re treated to multiple reprises of “Bidin’ My Time” crooned by an appealing quartet – Peter Budinger, Benjamin Pither, Justin Torres and Willis-Woodward – but the boys’ gentle crooning is absent from Act 2, which could use some help.

The silliness overtakes the story –hypnotism becomes a key plot point – and songs such as “Land of the Gay Caballero” and “When It’s Cactus Time in Arizona” just don’t do it.

But that was musical theater in the ‘30s, sincerity overtaken by silliness mixed in with tunes both great and no-so great. The charm of seeing a show like Girl Crazy from our vantage point is that we can appreciate it from both a historical perspective as well as one of pure enjoyment.

Pictured above right are Kalon Thibodeaux as Gieber Goldfarb and Lisa Hensley as Patsy West. Photo by David Allen.


Girl Crazy continues through Nov. 16 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $24-$42. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

New seasons: TheatreFIRST, Broadway by the Bay

TheaterFIRST, under the new artistic direction of Dylan Russell, has announced its 15th anniversary season, which will run from January to June 2009 and will include a staged reading series and a Harold Pinter revival.

The season opens with a staged reading series from mid-January to mid-February. Plays and location still to be announced, but the readings will be at 2 p.m. Sundays.

The centerpiece of the season is Pinter’s Old Times featuring L. Peter Callender, a veteran Bay Area actor who last performed with TheatreFIRST in World Music. Old Times runs April 2 through May 3 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley.

Call 510-436-5085 or visit www.theatrefirst.com for information.

San Mateo’s Broadway by the Bay, under the leadership of artistic director Brooke Knight and executive director Jim Gardia, has also announced its new season — its 44th — which begins in April of 2009 and concludes the following November. Here’s how the season shakes down:
Crazy for You, a revamped Gershwin musical, runs April 2-19.
The King and I, the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, dances July 16-Aug. 2
The Full Monty, a Broadway musical based on a spunky British film, disrobes Sept. 17-Oct. 4
Broadway Up Close and Personal: A Tribute to Cy Coleman, starring Jason Graae (right), runs Nov. 5-8

Performances are in the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware, San Mateo. Season subscriptions are $90-$152 until Nov. 16, when prices change to $100-$164. Single tickets also go on sale Nov. 16. Call 650-579-5565 or visit www.broadwaybythebay.org.