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San Francisco by Richard Connema

San Francisco’s New Musical Theatre Company Opens With Little Mary Sunshine

Also see Richard's review of The Lonesome West

There is a new musical theatre company in San Francisco and their opening show of the season is a musical spoof of a Nelson Eddy-Jeanette MacDonald operetta. Rick Besoyan’s Little Mary Sunshine has probably played more regional, college and high school theaters than any musical comedy of the 20th century. I first saw the farce at the Orpheum Theatre in New York in 1959 with Eileen Brennan in the role of Mary. Since that time, I can’t remember how many times I have seen this cute piece of fluff. I saw Patricia Routledge play the sunshine girl in her very first musical role in 1962 at the Comedy Theatre in London. The old San Jose Light Opera Association also did a bang up job on the Besoyan musical several years ago, with Jane Powell in the lead.

Openstage Repertory Theatre Company has come to San Francisco under the artistic direction of Jonathan Rosen. Previously, Rosen helped revive and expand theaters in the Santa Cruz area, including Mountains of Los Gatos Theatre and Scotts Valley Performing Arts. The Openstage Rep theater is part cabaret and part theater with tables down in front of the stage. Audience members may bring their own wine, and the theater provides the glasses. They offer mineral waters and juices for sale, and small hors d'oeuvre at the front tables, which are called Founder tables. It’s a pleasant way to spend an evening.

Little Mary Sunshine can be presented as complete camp, or one can take a middle ground, or present it somewhat seriously. In these politically correct times, it is almost impossible to eliminate the basic theme of the show which portrays Indians as in the stereotypical movies of the ’20s and ’30s. Director Jonathan Rosen has decided to take the middle road, modifying some of the dialogue to eliminate the more derogatory slang that was used in the original production. I also found this production less campy than prior productions.

The plot of this “operetta” is very complex and convoluted. The characters are strictly from the early movies where all Native Americans were villains. However, in this version we have mostly good Indians and only one bad Indian. There are lines in the show that will make you groan, such as one at the beginning when we find out that the second in command of the Forest Rangers (they sure look like Mounties to me) is a corporal because “the sergeant is suffering from badly strained vocal cords.”

Little Mary, our sunshine girl, is at the center of the musical. She has purchased an inn from the government in the mountains of Colorado but can’t make the payments on the land. She just has not sold enough cookies, so the bad government is going to foreclose on her. However, Mary is full of sunshine and nothing is going disturb her. There are subplots galore, including those about a German opera diva who is a guest of the inn, some young ladies from the Eastchester Finishing School and of course those crazy Rangers (I think they could stand some more training in marching but, hey, it’s a small stage).

I don’t believe it would be fair to compare these young actors who have had limited stage experience with those in the professional productions I have seen. This is a community production, and what they lack in top grade talent, they make up for in enthusiasm for the roles. They are all having fun up there on the stage and that radiates into the audience. However, I would have liked to have seen more outrageous acting to make it a true put-on of the MacDonald-Eddy films.

Jennifer Anne Sundberg plays Mary, and she gives the character more spirit than other Marys I have seen. Most of them have been demure and a little naïve, whereas Sundberg plays it almost straight, with the exception of her duet in “Colorado Love Call” which she camps up. Sundberg has a nice voice in the lower and middle registers; however, she has some problems with the high notes. Kay “Kiki” Arnaudo is the most professional actor in the role of Mme. Ernestine von Liebedich, the German opera diva. Her Viennese accent is excellent and her renditions of “Every Little Nothing” and “Do You Ever Dream of Vienna?” are charming.

The Young Ladies are amiable and sing well in harmony. Kim Saunders as Nancy does a good comic turn, reminding me of Joan Davis, who I worked with at Republic. There were many comedians of her type during those B film days, and Saunders does them justice with her comedy moves and patter. The musical even has an Indian in the cast by the name of Tristan Thunderbolt, from the Chipewa/Ojibewa tribe of Canada, who plays Chief Brown Bear. He is very good and uses real Indian sign language. Dean Shivers plays Captain “Big Jim” and has problems at the beginning, since he rushes his words with no inflection. He does loosen up toward the end of the first act. Mark Alabanza is comical in his portrayal of Cpl. Billy and he has a fine voice in “Me Heap Big Injun.” The two “fake” Indians, Al Abraham and Douglas Kadlecek, look like Indians from my days at Republic Studios doing westerns. The Rangers are good when they sing in a choral group, but they needed to camp it more. They take their roles too seriously.

The orchestra led by Tomalynn Cloud-Davis consists of a pianist, a flute player and a percussionist. They ably accompany the singers and keep to the background. Costumes by Barbara Burge are very authentic.

Little Mary Sunshine plays thru July 13 at Goat Hall, 400 Missouri Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 877-673-6782 or go to www.openstage.org for more information.

The company will present the West Coast premiere of Kander and Ebb’s Steel Pier starting September 13 thru October 12. They end the season with Leslie Bricusse Scrooge on December 6th.


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


- Richard Connema



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