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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Wildcat, Smuin Ballet and Bruce Vilanch and Sharon McNight at the Rrazz Room

A Rip Roaring Production of Wildcat, Thanks to Maureen McVerry as Wildcat Jackson

Wildcat
Maureen McVerry and Rebecca Pingree
42nd Street Moon once again reached into their bag of uncommon musicals to present Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh's 1960 musical Wildcat, with a book by N. Richard Nash. The musical opened at the Alvin Theatre with Lucille Ball and Keith Andes in 1960. The show's pre-Broadway run took place in Philadelphia, and Lucille Ball wanted to shed the personality of her television character Lucy. However, director-choreographer Michael Kidd noticed that when she exhibited characteristics of "Lucy" the audience went wild. Producer and then husband Desi Arnaz urged his wife to be more like Lucy on stage and the star reluctantly agreed. When Wildcat opened in New York in December 1960 it was as if the popular TV character had taken over the role as Wildcat Jackson. The show took a beating by the New York critics but audiences turned out in droves to see their favorite television star making her Broadway debut. After a series of absences by Ball, due to fatigue and a virus, the producers decided to close the show in June of 1961 instead of hiring a replacement.

Several regional theatres in the east presented the show the following year with Martha Raye, Gale Storm or Mamie van Doren as Wildcat Jackson. I saw Martha play the role and she mugged throughout the whole musical. Following those regional production it was not seen again until 42nd Street Moon Company opened their production.

Cy Coleman's music is bubbly and Carolyn Leigh's lyrics go along with the buoyant music. "Hey Look me Over" hit the top of the charts during the original run and the song became a standard. The score has several entertaining songs, such as "What Takes My Fancy," "Give a Little Whistle" and "El Sombrero."

The book by N. Richard Nash is about Wildcat Jackson (Maureen McVerry) arriving in oil town Centavo City in 1912. Wildcat has dreams of making it rich, but she has neither the capital nor the know-how to accomplish her goal. However, she uses her feminine charm to lure Joe Dynamite (Rob Hatzenbeller), the most successful crew foreman in the territory, into helping her. That is about all you have to know of the story, which has a forgettable subplot of a hopeful romance between oil crewman Hank (Justin Torres) and Jackson's younger sister Janie (Rebecca Pingree).

Director Kalon Thibodeaux and choreographer Tom Segal help to make this a fun presentation of Wildcat, with good singers and full-of-life dancers. Kalon found the perfect Wildcat Jackson in Maureen McVerry. She is dynamic in the role and has some of Lucy's style and bits in this fast-paced production. She is marvelous singing the upbeat "Hey Look Me Over" and passionate singing the lovely "That's What I Want for Janie." Her duets with Rob Hatzenbeller are catchy, especially "You're a Liar" and "Give a Little Whistle."

Ron Hatzenbeller gives a bang-up performance as the leader of an oil crew, Joe Dynamite. He looks and acts like a tough oil man and has a powerful voice singing ""You've Come Home," "You're a Liar" and "Corduroy Road." Richard Pardini almost steals the show as a "dirty looking man," Sookie, in the number "What Takes My Fancy." It looks like a number from Li'l Abner. Justin Torres as Hank and Rebecca Pingree as Jane Jackson do what they can in the second romantic plot. They have great vocal cords singing "One Day We Dance." Caroline Altman gives a delightful portrayal of Countess Emily O'Brien.

The choral work is outstanding on the song "Tall Hope," which opens the second act. Robbie Cowan, Derek Travis Collard, Peter Budinger, Kyle Payne and Jimmy Featherstone as oil crewman are harmoniously energizing. Rounding out the large cast, Michelle Ianiro, Benjamin Knoll, Gina Marchitiello and Chelsea Nenni are effective in their respective roles.

Director Kalon Thibodeaux devised an energetic opening, for the opening song that segues into "Hey Look Me Over." Choreographer Tom Segal has devised two vigorous dance pieces on the small stage for "Give a Little Whistle" and "El Sombrero."

Wildcat played the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco through May 24th. Wildcat will also appear at the Napa Valley Opera House on June 6 and 7th . For tickets call 707-226-7372 or visit at www.NVOH.org. 42nd Street Moon will have their annual fundraising gala called We're In the Money on June 22 nd at Alcazar Theatre. For reservations call 415-255-8207.

Photo: David Allen

A Dazzling Production of Suite from St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet by the Smuin Ballet

The Smuin Ballet Company is currently presenting their spring program throughout the Bay Area and in Carmel. The highlight of the season is a dazzling production of Suite from St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet.

Suite from St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet is based on the 1946 musical St. Louis Woman, with a score by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer and book by Harlem Renaissance writers Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen. The choreographer of this Broadway-style production of a one-act work is the late Michael Smuin. The piece first premiered at Lincoln Center in 2003 by the Dance Theatre of Harlem and later the ballet was presented as part of Cal Performances in 2004 at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley.

This crowd pleasing, entertaining work brought back memories of seeing the original musical at the Martin Beck just after getting discharged from the Army Air Force. This production is a fantastic blend of color, stunning dancing and a great recording of the original score.

The Smuin dancers look absolutely carefree as they inhabit a stunningly mounted world of greens and pinks and purples, all nightlife, gambling and torrid sex. Ryan Camou is wonderful and energetic as the love-stricken jockey Little Augie. He is technically perfect in his pirouettes that seem to go over forever. Matthew Linzer has strong and powerful dance moves as the part-time gangster Biglow Brown. Robin Cornwell is sultry as the reigning beauty of the day, Della Green. The major dancers Susan Roemer, Terez Dean and Shannon Hurlbert are extraordinary in their moves.

The music includes the recorded overture and familiar songs like "Come Rain or Come Shine," plus songs from the original show sung by the original cast members. The whole chorus of dancers shines performing to "Cakewalk Walk Your Lady."

The Spring Program also includes the world premiere of The Naughty Boy with choreography by Trey McIntyre and a company of the finest artists dancing to Mozart's "Violin Concerto in G Major." This is a neo-classical ballet and a loose narrative of Cupid's effects on four couples. Jessica Touchet is vivacious as Cupid, sprightly dancing around the loving couples performed brilliantly by Erin Yarbrough-Steward and Aaron Thayer, Jean Michelle Sayeg and Darren Anderson, Olivia Ramsay and Ryan Camou, and Susan Roemer and Shane Tice.

The intermezzo between the lovely The Naughty Boy and St. Louis Woman is the exquisite Bouquet with choreography by Michael Smuin with Erin-Yarbrough-Steward, Darren Anderson, Ryan Camou and Shannon Hurlbert dancing elegantly in a pas de quatre to Dmitri Shostakovich's music. Brooke Reynolds and Aaron Thayer in the sexual pas de deux are flawless in their graceful moves. It is as if two bodies are wrapped into one perfect body.

The Smuin Ballet presented this program at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek and will continue at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts on May 27- May 31 (650-903-6000) and Sunset Cultural Center June 5-6 (831-620-2048).

Ben Vereen, Bruce Villanch and Sharon McNight at the Rrazz Room

The Rrazz Room continues presenting top-flight artists to entertain the patrons of the new modern room at the Hotel Nikko, 220 Taylor Street, San Francisco. The legendary Ben Vereen recently played the modern club for six nights to very appreciative audiences of fans. On opening night he looked at the full house and said, "You came out on Tuesday night to see me. I did not think anyone knew me."

Few entertainers today are as accomplished or versatile as Ben Vereen. This man has a love and passion for the stage, and his 90-minute show, backed by a terrific trio of Nelson Kole on piano, Tom Kennedy on drums and Marc Dicciani on bass, showed his love for the audience. He broke down that fourth wall and gave a charismatic show of show tunes from Pippinto Cats.

Ben Vereen still has the charisma with his vibrant voice, smooth manner and moves to be one of the great musical artists in theatre today. He has not lost one spark of energy since I saw him in the original production of Pippin in New York and Golden Boy in London. He has developed a strong and enjoyable comedic style that pleases the audiences. As Ben said, "I wish I had a bigger stage to strut my stuff."

His show was a loose affair and it could change every night. He began by saying, "I have been colored, Negro, Black and now African American—I'm from Brooklyn." He started the gig with a swinging arrangement of "With a Song in My Heart" and segued into a groovy rendition of "The Joint is Jumpin'" doing some cool dance steps. He talked about his early experiences in theatre and sang "Corner of the sky" from Pippin, "The Age of Aquarius" from Hair and "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from Jesus Christ Superstar. He sang a beautiful and heartfelt arrangement of "Memory" from Cats that was sublime.

Ben Vereen gave tribute to Frank Sinatra by singing "Chicago," "The Lady is a Tramp" and "My Way," and his idol Sammy Davis Jr. with expansive vocal cords performing "Once in a Lifetime" and "Mr. Bojangles." He not only sang, but but acted each song. He even danced his way into the audience singing "Hey There" from The Pajama Game.

Three of the highlights of this fantastic gig were Ben Vereen duets with the individual members of the band. Tom Kennedy was astonishing on an upright bass while Ben sang Rodgers and Hart's "My Funny Valentine." Marc Dicciani did extraordinary things with his drums while the artist sang "Misty." The piece de resistance was the lavish melodic support by Nelson Kole while Ben Vereen sang Rodgers and Hart's "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered." Vereen ended the session with a sterling arrangement of "If I Ruled the World." Ben Vereen played the room from May 5 through May 11.

Bruce Vilanch, comic writer and performer, and Sharon McNight, a singer known for her bawdy songs and Sophie Tucker tribute, played the Rrazz room from May 12th to May 17th . This looked like a work in progress between the two performers that seriously needs some new direction. Both are excellent artists in their own right but together, it just did not seem to jell.

Bruce Vilanch and Sharon McNight opened the 90-minute show wearing black T-Shirts that said "Virgin, Hollywood." Bruce called the gig "Defying Sanity" and both sang the song "Defying Gravity" with new words by Mr. Vilanch. Sharon left the stage, while the Hollywood writer, who has won a brunch of Emmys and played Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, did a lot of one-liners. They came fast and furious and some are funny ("I just came from a gay cruise on the ship Crystal Meth"). He talked about the dos and don'ts of a gay wedding where there is an open bar for the parents, or one that is paid for by the father of the top. Some worked and so did not.

Sharon McKnight sang an eclectic mix of songs, some naughty and some nice ballads. She is a good, powerful singer but the mike turned out to be her worst enemy since her voice was made too loud for the room. Sharon sang one of her naughtiest songs, April Winchell's "My Vagina" ("where life begins and where a lady pees" "nothing could be finer than my vagina"), which is a hoot. She showed powerful vocal cords rendering Dilly Keane's "Shattered Illusions" and the piercing, melodic "Movie of My Life" by Susan Werner. She did a good reading of Bill and Patti Jacob's "I Only Wanna Laugh," the Julie Wilson song from Jimmy. Cesar Cancino at the piano provided excellent back up.

Bruce Vilanch returned to the stage with some great backstage stories on the shows he has written for, including the Oscars, Miss U.S.A. pageant and Miss World. This comedy artist is in his element relating these stories. We could have listen to many more of these stories. He ended his gig singing Ray Jessel's "The Things We Do." Not a bad singer for a comic who writes great scripts for a living.

Sharon McNight returned to join Bruce Vilanch on the stage and both called the show "An Experiment in Terror." That does sum up the show. Both harmonized on Johnny Mercer's "A Word a Day" from Top Banana, which was seemed a little amateurish. They concluded the gig by singing "As If We Never Said Goodbye" from Sunset Boulevard, with added lyrics by Ms. McNight.

The Rrazz Room's lineup for future acts can be found at www.therrazzroom.com.


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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