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San Francisco by Richard Connema & Reed Brown

Funny Girl and Tartuffe

The Willows Theatre has done a wonderful production of Jule Styne/Bob Merrill’s Funny Girl . This musical based on the life of Ziegfield star Fanny Brice requires complex stagings, elaborate sets and costumes, and a good cast headed by a strong singing comedienne. The Theatre Group pulled it off successfully.

I first saw this show in New York City at the Winter Garden in April, 1964 with the rising star Barbra Streisand. I also saw Mimi Hines and Dolores Michael do the Fanny Brice role. Frankly, I never thought a regional company could ever revive the show after the film with Ms. Streisand. It would need a strong comedienne in the role. Well the company found one. Jeanne Tinker has made the role her own. She does not try to be Streisand. She did something much more difficult by creating the character from the inside out, using her own comic, musical and dramatic skills. She is a stage veteran and she played Sister Amnesia off Broadway in Nunsense. She was also was in the touring company. She has played in several productions on the East Coast and she played Winnifred in Once Upon a Mattress last year at the Willows.

Ms. Tinker was a pleasure to watch. She is a warm and funny performer. She has a gift for comic expression and gesture and her sense of timing is impeccable. Her big scene is the seduction scene where she is wrestling with her gown’s chiffon sleeves and she tries to strike an elegant pose on a chaise lounge. That was worth the price of admission.

Ms. Tinker is not a powerhouse singer like Streisand. However she delivered the hit songs “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” in a clear, unforced soprano and a relaxed style.

The production starts with a black and white montage of photos of the real Fanny Brice. The set is handsomely designed with a series of revolving platform sets trimmed in art nouveau detail by Peter Crompton.

The other members of the cast are excellent. Barbara Grant is marvelous as the forthright Mrs. Brice and Ron Picket , who won the Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award for Supporting Actor in a Musical last year, played the appealing Eddie Ryan. Simon Relph cut a suave figure as Nick Arnstein and he had an excellent voice.

Everything was professional about this production: the lighting, the period costumes and even the Ziegfield numbers with gorgeous outfits. This musical made me forget the 101 degree heat that was outside the air conditioned theater.

There is a little theater history behind the original production. Ray Stark, a well known agent, wanted a movie based on his mother in law’s life. The studios were not interested in doing a life of Fanny Brice. He also found out that he could not obtain the rights to Ms. Brice’s great songs like “My Man” or “Rose of Washington Square”.

Mr. Stark decided to present it to Broadway as a musical. He had never worked alone on Broadway before. He made an alliance with David Merrick and signed up the songwriting team of Gypsy, composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. They also signed up Mary Martin as the young Jewish girl from the Bronx. Sondheim did not like the bizarre idea of Mary Martin playing Fanny Brice so she pulled out. She said she could not play a Jewish girl from Bronx.

The producers went after Anne Bancroft who wanted to do a Broadway musical. David Merrick did not want Ms. Bancroft while Mr. Stark and the rest wanted a name to star in the musical. In the meantime David had used a young gusty singer from Brooklyn in his musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale. That singer was Barbra Streisand. David brought Jule Stein and the Starks down to a Village joint called Bon Soir where Barbara was singing. However the Starks balked at the idea of an “unknown” to star in the musical.

In the meantime, Jule was looking for a lyricist to replace Mr. Sondheim. He ran into Bob Merrill who was a composer and lyricist. He convinced Mr. Merrill to join him as the lyricist. In three days he wrote the lyrics for all five of the tunes including “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade”. Styne and Merrill flew to California to meet with Stark and Bancroft. When they played the material for Ms. Bancroft, she replied “I can’t do this”.

The producers tried for Eydie Gorme and even Carol Burnett. They were not interested. They finally all decided on Barbra. The rest is history. It runs to July 17.

Tartuffe

American Conservatory Theatre has produced a wonderful version of Moliere’s greatest play Tartuffe with a predominately black cast of excellent actors. The play’s setting has been up dated to Durham, North Carolina in the 50s. However the play stays true to Moliere’s text and there is no updated dialogue from that text. It was a brilliant idea and it worked.

The play is about a chic, black bourgeois family. Tartuffe is like a wannabe Rev. Ike. His primary sucker is the master of the household Orgon, a big man who walks with an snappy gait when he’s happy. Orgon's only ally in his defense of Tartuffe is his mother, a determined church lady, railing on above everyone else’s decadence. The rest of the family have already sniffed out Tartuffe’s venality.

Elmire, Orgon’s young, second wife must find a way to show her husband the phoniness of Tartuffe. She devises a seduction scene with Tartuffe to show her husband, who is hiding under the table, the venality of this opportunistic man. However it is too late since Orgon has signed over his fortune to Tartuffe. Only Moliere’s silly last minute rex ex machina saves the day. There is a long speech by the King’s messenger as to how the King knows what is in everyone’s heart and knows Tartuffe to be a scoundrel. Even though the action takes place in North Carolina the text has not been changed and there is a king and a prince. It does fit uneasily on this Durham setting, as do all the court references and the assumed absolute power of a father. These are minor wrinkles and I was willing to suspend this disbelief.

Most impressive was the easy colloquial grace with which the cast infused the script by Richard Wilbur who translated the original Moliere play. Here, Moliere’s words not only sound natural but character-specific. Director Randolph Wright’s staging is brisk, brightly detailed and graced with crisp comic timing.

The cast is impeccable. Orgon is played by Steven Anthony Jones who played a wonderful Othello several seasons ago at ACT. He spoke with self deluded certainty and awe. He stomps, shouts, grimaces and strike poses of a dominating master of the household. Particularly outstanding is Shona Tucker as Elmire who is so good that she seems to raise the level of those who share her scenes.

Tartuffe is played by Darryl Theirse. It is somewhat hard to see the slick, charismatic religious scoundrel who so completely fooled Orgon as to take over the household in the first place. He appears to be a transparently phony hustler from his first entrance.

Ralph Funicello who designed another Tartuffe for the South Coast Rep created a creamy mansion that is all white. It’s a wonderful set that even the Ewings of “Dallas” fame would die for. Everything is white even with plastic covers on the lamp shades and pillows.

One other interesting item. There is a small role played by Rudy Guerrero who is the only Hispanic in the cast. He plays the boyfriend of Orgon’s daughter. He has a wonderful scene with the daughter played by Anika Noni Rose. Its a sheer delight. Mr Guerrero is one handsome guy and has a terrific voice. He had been selected to play Joey in the Marin Players Production of Rodgers and Hart’s “Pal Joey” that opens in September. This is ACT’s last production of the season and this play closes July 18th. Opening in September to start ACT’s 99-00 season will be Threepenny Opera with Bebe Neuwirth.



- Richard Connema



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