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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The Grass Harp and
The Smuin Ballet

Elmslie and Richardson’s little known musical The Grass Harp is being presented by the 42nd Street Moon, and this is their best production of the current season. Greg MacKellan has done a superb job of direction on this little known musical. He also secured the services of Susan Watson and Meg Mackay in lead roles

The Grass Harp, taken from the novel by Truman Capote, ran only 7 nights in New York in 1971. The critics gave it mixed reviews. The original cast had Barbara Cook, Carol Bruce, Russ Thacker and our friend Karen Morrow. The show at the Martin Beck was starting to build up and it suddenly closed because of finances. No company wanted to record the score, but the producers managed to scrape together enough money to record under the label Painted Smiles Records. Mr. Elmslie and Richardson went to Cologne, Germany, to bring back orchestra tracks for an original cast album, which was a ploy to avoid prohibitive New York City union regulations. This album has since become a cult classic. It is one of my most favorite Broadway scores.

The production was again performed at the York Theater in New York where it was revised. Mr. Richardson, the composer, was in contact with Greg who proposed a concert version for his company. Mr. Elmslie, the lyricist, flew out to San Francisco and further revisions were made. There was reconstruction of sequences and two songs freshly interpolated. There was a new song put in for Judge Cool and a wonderful number called “Brazil”. With this revision the show just might have made it in New York.

The 42nd St. Moon Company gave a splendid reading of the musical. Capote has spun a soft and funny portrait of small town life in the South. Dolly and Verena live in a small town in the Deep South of several decades ago. They are never-married sisters who live comfortably, raising their nephew Colin. Dolly makes a modest living selling a dropsy cure that she acquired from some gypsies.

Verena joins forces with a sleazy doctor in a get rich quick scam with the intent of wheedling Dolly’s secret receipe and marketing it as a miracle elixir. Dolly gets wind of the sham and takes up residence in a tree house along with faithful Colin and Catherine, a cynical black woman who is convinced she’s really an Indian and dresses accordingly. Dolly is visited by a melancholy widow judge, a determinedly cheerful wandering faith healer and Colin's girlfriend. Eventually a hypochondriac sheriff arrests them on Verena’s behest. However, all ends well when the truth about the doctor is revealed to Verena. It is a charming little fable told well by Truman Capote.

There are 19 songs in Grass Harp and, on the whole, it is a musical delight. It is a delightful score with some memorable numbers such as “If There’s Love Enough” and the sly “Marry With Me”. “Yellow Drum” is especially catchy and downright hummable. It is a rousing military victory song.

The cast is exceptional. Susan Watson, who was the original Nanette in the revival of No No Nanette, is petite, endearing and has a lilting voice. Meg Mackay is wonderful as the faith healer Babylove. She is marvelous singing “The Babylove Miracle Show” and “Walk into Heaven”. She is the most buoyant member of the cast. Lucinda Hitchcock-Cone is impressive playing the other sister Verena. She is especially fine in the touching song “What Do I Do Now?” Bainu Butts-Bhanji is astounding as the housekeeper. She has a powerful singing voice and her rendition of “Marry With Me” is one of the high points of the show. Joel Patterson, a new singer here in the Bay Area, is charming as the innocent Colin. 42nd Street regular Steven Patterson plays the shifty doctor and as usual he does a terrific job. His big number is the newly restored “Brazil” where he does a mean samba.

The Grass Harp is a different sort of show for this group. It certainly doesn’t have the Gershwin-Porter-Rodgers razzle dazzle but this is truly one of the lost musicals and it gives you a strong feeling for the score. It plays until November 21. Babes in Arms opens in December.


The Smuin Ballet

I consider the Smuin Ballet as part of "regional theatre" even though it is a ballet company. It is to San Francisco’s pride and joy that three time Tony winner Michael Smuin has made our fair city his home. He choreographs all of the work and he employs fresh young ballet dancers in unusual works. He presents three programs every year, including the very popular Christmas Ballet that will be here in December.

Mr. Smuin presented four works that he choreographed. There was a cast of 12, small by the standards of the SF Ballet, but these dancers are well worth seeing in an intimate theatre setting. These dancers were in fine form and it was a pleasure to see them not only as dancers but personalities.

Mr. Smuin presented the world premier of Les Noces set to the Stravinsky score of the same name. The ballet depicts a Russian peasant wedding as a kind of community sacrifice. It has nothing to do with feelings of the bride and groom.

The costumes by Willa Kim fit the theme perfectly, with all of the characters wearing traditional Russian costumes. Smuin’s version shows the bride being prepared by her women and the groom by his men, the wedding party and the consummation. It was a very interesting piece.

The other major piece of the evening was Chants d’Auvergne which involved the entire company. Set to the music of Joseph Canteloube and sung in the old French dialect, the piece is a romp through an idealized French village. These joyful dances were divided into 12 short sections mostly in duets, and trios. Amy Seiwert and Lee Bell were standouts in the group.

The third piece was the company premier of Quatrro a Verdi, played to the music of Verdi. It was sheer beauty with no story, just gorgeous moves. The other piece was a beautifully done Dream, a pas de deux commissioned by a Smuin supporter. It was danced superbly by Celia Fushille Burke and Easton Smith to Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1.



- Richard Connema



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