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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Great Acting Saves Woman in Black and
Funny Face Wears a Frown

Thirteen years ago a British thriller opened in the West End of London. The play utilized only two actors and a mute lady in black, a semi bare stage and some sound effects. The British love ghost stories and thrillers, and it was thought this would have a respectable run and then disappear with all the other British thrillers. The play, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from a Susan Hill novel, took off and is still playing at the Fortune Theatre near Drury Lane. It has become the second Mousetrap in London. During that time the cast of two has changed many times and the show has lured some excellent actors from the RSC to take on the role of the two gentlemen.

We saw the production in its 3rd year with Edward Petherbridge, the noted Shakespearean actor taking on the older role. At the time, I found it an ordinary British thriller, not great, but not bad. Just average, maybe a little boring, if I remember correctly. Much of it seemed artificial. The only excitement I can remember was that during the middle of the first act, my mate discovered that he had lost his wallet that contained a good deal of money. He thought he might have dropped it in the lobby of the theater when we were entering. Since we were in the middle of the third row we waited patiently to go up to the house manager to see if anyone may have turned it in. Happily when intermission came, Eddy jumped up and as I got up from my seat, I discovered the billfold jammed between the seats. Needless to say that was the high point of the play.

Over the years while visiting London, we never returned to the Fortune Theatre, even with cast changes. We had no desire to see the play again. However when the Marin Theatre company announced that this play would be the last play of the 1999- 2000 season and since we were members, we went again. I was not that anxious to sit though the production again.

However, we were pleasantly surprised to see two great Bay area actors recreate the role of Kipps, who hires a young actor to help him turn his unmanageable manuscript into a cohesive form for his family and friends, and the younger actor dramaturg.

The plot is simple. Kipps, a middle age London lawyer, hired a young actor to help him tell a ghost story that has haunted him since he was a young man. The story takes place in a creaky old mansion that was isolated on an island in a marsh infested with heavy fogs in a remote part of England. The actor in transition becomes Kipps and the story is underway.

The older Kipps took on all of the characters of the ghost story with the exception of the woman in black. A friendless old widow died in the remote seaside town of Crythin and the young solicitor, Kipps, was sent by his firm to settle the estate. The lawyer found the townspeople reluctant to talk about or go near the woman's dreary home. No one would explain or even acknowledge the menacing woman in black that the lawyer kept seeing. Ignoring the town people's cryptic warnings, he went to the house where he discovered its horrible history and became ensnared in its even more horrible legacy.

I say without reservation the production we saw at the Marin Theatre was as good if not better then the English production we had seen several years back. Most of the credit goes to the splendid actors who had impeccable English accents. They exuded suspense and tension including nerve jangling horror in their performances. Thoughout the performance we anticipated the next appearance of the eponymous “woman in black”. I can honestly say there were a few scary moments in the play.

The two actors were superb in their roles. W. Francis Walter, a noted Bay actor, recently seen in “Invention of Love” played the middle age lawyer Arthur Kipps. He was eminently proficient in all of the roles he undertook in this production. His used of various British accents was outstanding. The young actor and “young” Kipps was played by one of the best actors here in the Bay Area. Darren Bridgett has brightened several stages in the Bay area over the past four years. His British accent was flawless. He handled the role, going from a egocentric actor who wants to change the manuscript, to young Kipps in the haunted mansion in the north with great aplomb. The actor gives a dynamic performance as the young lawyer.

Jamie Greenleaf, the set designer, redid the entire theater so the audience could get into the mood of the ghost story. There were old fashioned footlights and a grand proscenium of faux marble pillars and gold leaf putty framing the theater stage. He hung cobweb draped chandeliers over the audience. I am glad they did not come crashing down on the stage a la Phantom ... . There were cobwebs draping the gold leaf angels surrounding the proscenium stage. The stage itself was littered with furniture, trash and a steamer truck. All the props were used to great effect.

The sound effects were also admirable with sounds of London traffic of The late 1890's, dogs barking and screams in the night. In fact, several ladies in the row back of us jumped up, frightened by the screams.

I should say something about the woman in black. She is a mute character and she wanders about the stage only momentarily. Sometimes she suddenly appears stage right, other times center stage or stage left. She also appeared walking among the audience in the aisles. She is dressed completely black with a black veil. Her face is pallid and she says nothing. She was played by newcomer Kristine Ann Lowry.

All in all it was an enjoyable evening and I was thoroughly entertained By the two actors telling the ghost story. It plays throughout June 4th at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley. Tickets are $24-$40. This also ends the 99-00 season.


Funny Face

The 42nd St. Moon Company opened their seventh season with George Gershwin's 1927 hit Funny Face at the Gershwin Theatre here in San Francisco. Greg MacKellan secured the rights to the original book from the principals of My One and Only and from the descendants of the 1927 creators. This probably is the first time that Funny Face, with the original book by Fred Thompson and Paul G Smith, has appeared on the stage since 1981. One could say this is an historical event for all of those theater buffs who wondered what it would be like to have seen at Gershwin's musical in 1927 at the new Alvin Theatre. I am sure they thought it was the cat's pajamas, as they would have said at the time.

The original production featured Fred and Adele Astaire in the leading roles. Adele was given the role of perky Frankie Wynne and Fred took the role of Jimmy Reeve. Victor Moore, the wonderful comedian, was given the role of Herbert the frightened burgler. The original title was Smarty and it had tried out in Philadelphia. Things did not go well and there were a series of rewrites to build up Mr. Moore's role. Robert Benchley, one of the major contributors to the script, left the show, humiliated by the Philadelphia reviews. Paul G. Smith was called in to recreate the show, and the show's title was changed to Funny Face, Fred's nickname for his sister Adele. The musical was an instant hit and it ran 277 performances at the Alvin. It then transferred to London with Fred and Adele where it ran even longer.

The original Funny Face survived in stock and amateur productions until 1981. At that time Tommy Tune decided to do a revival on Broadway. He created a new version of the musical called My One and Only. Tune replaced most of the original book, and Twiggy and Charles “Honey” Cole were added to the cast. We saw Tune's show at the St. James and we were thoroughly delighted with that production.

While I was working at Paramount in 1956, the studio announced the purchase of Funny Face for Fred Astaire and Aubrey Hepburn. Kay Thompson would have a supporting role. We saw the original script in the publicity department and all agreed that the original story would have to go. It was just too silly and corny for audiences in the 50's. Paramount threw out not only the story but some of the songs of the show. The film was an instant success. Today most people associate Funny Face with the film.

Greg MacKellan and Stephanie Rhodes were able to convince the Gershwin foundation to do the show as it was originally seen back in 1927. To approach this show, you should set your mind to 1927. You have to remember that you are seeing a show that appealed to that audience. Today we would consider it corny, and very adolescent, with a childishly simple, though convoluted story and dialogue to match. The original story was a melange of thwarted romances, comic mishaps and bungling burglars. It was even corny for standards of 1927 however, with the Astaires on stage and Victor Moore causing a hilarious uproar no one seemed to care. Audiences loved pure corn in those days.

The score was one of George Gershwin's best. Many of songs became standards like “S'Wonderful”, “Funny Face”, “He Loves and She Loves” and “My One and Only” came out of the original production, and are still popular today.

I did have some mixed feelings about the 42nd St. Production. I can't say this was one of their better projects, even though I thought some of the scenes were charming. My first objection was to the overture, played by a 9 piece orchestra. Frankly, they needed more rehearsal time. The tempo was off, and it sounded like some of the orchestra was playing against each other. There was no zing or pizazz. Also, the company used mikes for members of the cast, which was unnecessary since the Gershwin is relatively small. Last year, when they presented On a Clear Day ... , no mikes were used. The voices became tinny over the miking system. Martin Lewis, who played the Astaire role, has a great voice but his voice sounded like an old 78 recording. I fault the sound system and not Mr. Lewis. Also he sang these songs like a singer would have done in '27. Some of the end notes of sentences reminded me of the MC in Follies. However, I suppose that is what the director wanted. I have heard Martin before and he certainly has a much better voice. His dancing was suave and sophisticated and his numbers “Funny Face” and “My One and Only” were bang-up. Mr. Lewis can certainly dance. He was assistant dance captain for the First National Company of Phantom of the Opera. He was one of the true professionals in this uneven production.

I give great credit to Bill Fahner who has become a staple of the company. This marks his 16th appearance with this group. I have watched this young man progress through all of these productions and he has become a great asset to the company. He most certainly did not need a mike when he belted out “S'Wonderful” and “He Loves and She Loves”. He was originally set for the Victor Moore comedy role and, frankly, I wish he had done it. He has a great comedic talent, but then he could not have sung those two delicious songs.

I am sorry to say that Christian Cagigal was completely miscast in the his role. His acting was completely over the top and he played it as if he were Groucho Marx. His lines went over like a lead balloon. He has three long, long uncomedic scenes with a young actor, Brian Yates Sharber, who played the Victor Moore role. These two made those scenes an embarrassment. We had seen Mr. Sharber in the Willow's production of Dreamgirls and he was great. However he played this role as if he were Mantan Moreland in a Charlie Chan movie. Bad, bad, bad.

I had mixed feelings about Lianne Marie Dobbs, the female lead. She exaggerated every expression while on stage. It was as if she were playing in Radio City Music Hall. She has a great voice and can dance but please tone down that acting performance. She seemed completely out of her character. She was good in “S'Wonderful”. She downplayed the role and has a marvelous singing voice. She also did a notable dance with Martin in “Funny Face.” She could be a great musical comedy star if she would just stop trying to ham it up.

In the second female character was the delightful and perky Marsha Lanzo. She created quite a sensation last year in 42nd St. Moon's production of Babes in Arms. She has considerable West End experience, appearing in the London productions of Evita, Cats, Moby Dick, and My Fair Lady. We saw her in Moby Dick and she was quite delightful in that production. In Funny Face she had a minor role. Her major number was “My One and Only” with Martin Lewis and she was enchanting. She made a good dance partner for Martin in that number, also.

One of the low points of the production occurred toward the end of the show when they presented “The Babbitt and the Bromide”. The song and dance number that was created in '27 for Fred and Adele, and I am sure it was superb when they did it. The scene was also recreated for Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in MGM's Ziefield Follies, a high point of film history, since it was the only time that Fred and Gene ever danced together. However, here it stood out like a sore thumb. I suppose it had to be presented since they were presenting the whole original book. It was poorly done and even Martin and Lianne dance could not save it. It really was an embarrassment in this production.

The rest of the cast was adequate. Some of the songs, such as “High Hat,” “Tell the Doc” and “Let's Kiss and Make Up,” were forgettable, but they all can't be standards. I think 42nd Street Moon had great courage to present this original book and it is something you will never see. It is interesting to see what those 1927 audiences loved in musical comedy.

Did I like the production? Well, on the whole, the singers and dancing were topnotch. The comedy scenes are old, worn out and poorly performed with no timing. The audience was not amused. The chorus did a good job. Their opening number called “Birthday Party” was splendid. Costumes were of the 20's, with the males wearing tuxes and women wearing gowns of the late 20's. As already mentioned, the orchestra could have stood some more rehearsal. However they did perk up when the singers and dancers were on.

The next in the series will be Cole Porter's Out of this World, followed by the American premier of Andre Previn's Good Companions, one of my most favorite musicals of all time. The season will end with Jerry Herman's Dear World with Meg Mackay.

The series will be in their new theater, the Eureka Theatre, a jewel of a theater in the Gateway Center of San Francisco.

Cheers,


- Richard Connema



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