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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Kept Presented by TheatreWorks,
at Mountain View Performing Arts Center

Also see Richard's recent review of Private Eyes


The much anticipated Henry Krieger and Bill Russell disco musical, Kept, is having its world premier at TheatreWorks. This production is a work in progress by the same composer and lyricist who premiered Everything's Ducky at this theater several seasons ago and, with some tightening of the book, this should also have successful runs and a possible shot at Off Broadway or even Broadway in the future.

Henry Krieger's score has an upbeat disco persistence. The musical gets your feet tapping with the first song, called "The Velvet Rope," with a group of fine dancers outfitted in wild late '70s outfits with puffy Afros, platform shoes and tight, tight pants dancing in a frenzy. The first four songs come fast and furious to establish the characters of the drama. We meet them all in the first fifteen minutes. Things do start to slow down after that. Bill Russell's lyrics are extremely clever and go well with the book, which he wrote with Stephen Chbosky. Scott Schwartz does a good job in directing, but some tightening is still needed, especially in fleshing out the characters.

The plot closely follows the classic Dumas romantic novel La Dame aux Camelias, the tragic story of the famous doomed Parisian courtesan who sacrifices her happiness for her lover. The lady Camille has become world famous through the novel, a popular opera by Verdi and the classic MGM film starring the divine Garbo. Here we have Camille goes disco. Camille is now Caleigh, who is the center of attention at the famous Studio 54 in the late '70s. Ian, a penniless medical student, is dragged to the club by his overly fey roommate, Blake, who wants nothing but one night stands and to have a darn good time dancing, flirting and maybe doing some drugs. Suddenly a vision of loveliness in a skin-tight white dress emerges center stage. It is Caleigh, wants nothing but the moment. She is out for a good time and seems to make an appearance every night. Ian spots her and suddenly, like in a Hollywood movie, he's smitten; it's love at first sight. Ian is about as sophisticated as Gomer Pile and doesn't really know the ropes. Caleigh couldn't care less unless he wants to roll in the hay with her for the night. Ian is a good boy and it takes about four songs for them to get together. Once that happens, guns goes off, fireworks fly and love is in the air.

Caleigh gives up the high life to become Ian's hausfrau and they live on mostly nothing. It's wine and roses time for them until we find out Ian is about to give up going back to medical school. Ian's mother comes knocking at the door and pleads for her son. Caleigh must leave him so he can become a regular all American man. Caleigh has a noble side and she achingly tells him to shove off. She is going back to the fun life. Throughout all of this, the poor girl is dying of a disease that is probably AIDS related. In the novel, opera and movie it was consumption but that is too old fashioned for the '70s. However, love triumphs and Ian finds the awful truth just in time before she passes away.

Of course there is a villain, Marshall the tyrannical, rich married man who dominates Caleigh during her Studio 54 days. There is Caleigh's best girlfriend, Brigitte, who needs medical drugs to keep her on a perpetual high. Even Blake has a spot of trouble with a man from Cincinnati. The plot somewhat reminds me of Rent except that these characters seem to have money. The music has a catchy pop beat and there are some wonderful songs in the production. There are reminscent qualities of the Side Show score. The outstanding numbers are two engaging comic songs, "Why are the Wrong People Rich" and "A Little Loan." The first should be become a standard with cabaret singers. The lyrics by Bill Russell are wonderful. The most outstanding heartfelt song, another that should become popular with cabaret performers, is "Sacrifice." It's beautifully sung by Ian's mother. This is an instant crowd pleaser since the subject could affect everyone in the audience. "Seize the Night" has a great beat and the title song, "Kept," is lovely.

The cast is superb. They are all New York veterans, led by the indomitable Christiane Noll, who is not only lovely to look at, but has a thrilling, bell clear and melodious voice. She is a vision when we first see her at the disco and completely different in the last scene, in which Caleigh is slowing dying. Ms. Noll gives a super acting performance.

Will Swenson is a new find. He not only has great stage presence, but also a powerful baritone voice, particularly in the song "Every Breath and Thought." He is a great romantic lead who should go places. Karen Murphy is outstanding as the mother. She has a wonderful dramatic voice, especially effective in "Sacrifice." Her song is one of the high points of the musical and she gets a great round of applause for that heart stirring number.

Barrett Foa is perfect as a dance queen in tight pants. He has the cleverest, bitchiest lines and he plays the role for all it's worth. He turns somewhat serious toward the end of the musical and shows off his dramatic talent. This young man played Jesus Christ in the 2000 Off Broadway production of Godspell. He also has a great voice and it's a shame he does not have his own song. Another outstanding singer/actress is Brenda Braxton, who can really belt out a song. Marshall, the overbearing rich elderly man, is played by Dennis Parlato. He displays a remarkable powerhouse voice in the number "I Like Knowing Where You Are."

The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler is good. The company could use a few more dancers at the disco to make those scenes more exciting. It looks like the club is having an off night since there too few dancers for the size of the 'room'. The set is interesting; the disco set is sliding walls of mirrors, gleaming metal towers, pulsating lights and mirrored balls rotating around. There are black walls sliding back and forth opening up on various scenes outside the disco. The ending is a little brusque with the dying Caleigh in the arms of Ian singing the beautiful song "Kept" at the back of the stage and then suddenly out come the disco dancers stage front cutting off our view of the couple.

It is a most enjoyable musical that I hope will be as successful as Everything's Ducky. With some tightening, it just might make the New York scene.

Kept runs through May 5 at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center. Call (650)903-6000 for tickets. This ends the 2001-02 season. The 2002-03 season opens with Smokey Joe's Cafe on June 19.


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


- Richard Connema



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