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San Francisco by Richard Connema

The New Version of Out of this World and
The Magic Theatre Production of
Kissing the Witch

The 42nd Street Moon production of the newly revised Cole Porter musical is one of the greatest productions this group has assembled. Credit has to be given to artistic director Greg MacKellan for his direction and for his rewriting of over half of the dialogue. He had permission from the Porter Foundation to do the rewrite. There had been half dozen rewrites of this musical since it first opened at the New Century Theatre in New York in 1951 where it ran only 157 performances.

I saw the original musical with way back when with William Redfield as Mercury, Priscilla Gillette as Helen, William Eythe as Art, David Burns as Niki and the great Charlotte Greenwood as Juno. Redfield went on to become a star in early television and Eythe and Greenwood went to Fox for films stardom. Burns became a staple of the Broadway theater including the classic Horace in Hello Dolly.

Prior to its original opening, the show had major censorship problems with the blue nosed Boston mayor’s office. They said the lyrics were “not heard even in better class gin mills”. They took exception to “all irreverent use of God” and thought the dances and costumes were too suggestive. They did not like the term 'goosing me' in “Nobody’s Chasing Me”. In Boston, the producers threw out “From This Moment On’. Everyone thought it would be a smash hit on Broadway and in fact many of the recording artists of the day recorded many of the songs prior to it opening. World opened on December 21, 1950 at a top ticket price of $6. The critics, including the Times, gave it negative reviews.

When I saw the musical in the winter months of '51, I thought the Porter’s score was just as good as Kiss Me Kate. It remains to this day one of my favorite Broadway scores. I have seen several revisions of the script over the years including a great concert version at the Barbican in London several years and the New York Encores! concert in 1995.

The book had always been weak and creaky, but that's no longer so with MacKellan's revision (the eighth incarnation). With the best cast of singers in the Bay Area, the current Out of This World is near perfection and I believe this version will be the only version for future regional production. My only regret is that the musical cannot have a longer run at the Eureka.

The 42nd Street Moon season is off to a grand start in their new home at the Eureka Theatre. They have a larger stage, more seating capacity and a better location. This should help the company since more and more subscriptions are being sold.

The show still starts with Mercury coming out at the beginning to tell the audience to suspend logic and accept the story that is to follow. He also asks the audience to accept the Roman names for the Greek gods since Porter wanted it that way. The difference now is that the beginning of the story takes place in Hollywood of 1951 at the then famous Formosa Cafe near Paramount. Helen Vance is now a famous, though fading, Hollywood star. Jupiter, a notorious womanizer, is up on Mount Olympus along with the gods and goddess. The main god has eyes for the blond beauty. He sends his son Mercury down to earth to set up an assignation with Helen at the Arcadia Inn, outside of modern day Athens. Mercury gets Helen and her new husband, a screenplay writer, to fly to Athens on the premise that she will appear in a new film with a Greek background.

Mercury enlists some of the gods and goddess to provide the right romantic atmosphere for the night of love. However, there is a fly in the ointment and that is Juno, the wife of Jupiter. She has been away for several days and she finds that the husband is chasing women again. She goes to Athens to stop the rendezvous and there the fun begins. We see the various gods and goddesses squabbling among themselves. The clumsy subplot involving a Chicago gangster has been dropped and in its place there is a Hollywood gossip columnist on the order of Parsons or Hopper to take his place. This role was especially written for 42nd Street Moon regular Lisa Peers. Also MacKellan has put “From This Moment On” back in the show.

Steve Rhyne, a 42nd St. regular, seems to get better and better with each performance, this time in the role of Mercury. This young man has the most pleasing natural personality and he has a great voice to match. I have watched this guy over the past three years and he has perfected a natural acting talent. Not over done, just right. His songs from the beautiful “Use Your Imagination” to the kicky “They Couldn’t Compare to You” are amazing. He does a terrific job on the catchy scat lyrics of the latter song.

Outstanding is Darlene Popovic, a cabaret artist who has played at Don’t Tell Mama in New York and the Plush Room here in San Francisco. She was marvelous as Juno. One of the great highlights of the show was her rendition of “Nobody’s Chasing Me” which included the hilarious chase scene featuring all members of the cast. She was also remarkable in the line swapping duet of “Cherry Pies Ought to be You” with the wonderfully funny Lisa Peers as the Hollywood columnist. Ms. Peers had one of the best dumpy Parson’s dresses that you can image. (I asked her after the show if she would ever wear that outfit outside the stage and she said "no way").

Stephanie Rhodes, one of the Bay area best singers, was stunning as the Hollywood star. Her duet with Steve Rhyne in “Use Your Imagination” was splendid and her solo “I Am Love” was exquisite. We see too little of her now that she is also artistic director of the company. Another regular, Caroline Altman, was Chloe and she shined in the trio “What Do You Think About Men?”. This is one of my favorite songs of all time and I was enchanted by the performances. She was also great with Steve in “Cherry Pies”. John Elliott Kirk played Jupiter and he had a booming voice for his numbers “I, Jupiter, I Rex” and “You Don’t Remind Me”. All of the others gave outstanding performances, however I would like to point out 'the new kid on the block'. He is Matt Riuetta who played a fey Apollo. He hails from Chicago where he played on various stages and this marked his first SF appearance. He had no actual solo but in the chorus his voice was heard. He also did a wonderful camp version of what had to be a gay Apollo. I hope to see more of this young talent here in SF.

Just one other interesting note. In the “Cherry Pie” reprise with Juno and Isadora, this was the first time that two women have sung this song. It is usually done between Juno and Jupiter. However, here is worked well.

The musical runs just one more week and it has been getting sold out performances. I recommend every fan of Cole Porter’s (and those who are not) try to get seats for this remarkable revised musical.

The 42nd St. Moon Group next offering is the American premier of Johnny Mercer and Andre Previn’s Good Companions which is one of my most favorite musicals of all times. I look forward to revisiting this British musical.


Kissing the Witch

The Magic Theatre is presenting the World Premier of Emma Donoghue’s Kissing the Witch This production is based on her book of the same name. The book was selected by the New York Times as Notable Book of the Year. The cast for this bewitching production consist of three females and one male. The witches were wise women and herbal healers who are visited by villagers whenever they need a cure or a curse. These same woman play all of the characters in the five fairy tales also. The heroines in the five tales were treacherous, courageous and openly sensual.

The production begins as three females playing the witches gather on a hill that covers the complete stage. They tell the audience that people want from them always the same thing - transformation. This is what all five stories are about, transformation. The witches then become the characters in each of the tales. Each story goes into another story told by a different witch. The lone male figure was played by one of the Bay’s area favorite actors Mark Philips. He plays a prince, a father, a huntman and a merchant. The stories are enacted in story theater fashion. He was superb in all of the sequences.

One of the interesting things about this play is the fact that the Disney musical Beauty and Beast is playing in the city. One of the tales told in Donoghue’s play called Rose is a more simple version of the fairy tale with no added music. This is a different retelling of the fairy story. Rose is the beauty played by Emily Ackerman. She was outstanding in the role. She was both courageous and curious about her captor. One can see the growing tenderness she had for the beast. Cambron Williamson played the beast with great thoughtfulness.

One of the stories is of a woman who trades in her voice so that she may married the man of her dreams. The male turns out to be roguish ladies man. Ms. Ackerman was delightful as the woman who loses her voice on what turns out to be a very bad fling.

Margaret Schenck was particularly engaging as the maid who bullies the noblewoman out of her own life in Tale of the Handkerchief. Emily Ackerman was delightful as the clueless princess in this story.

There was a marvelous set of mud-toned burlap, bare sticks, a subterranean cave entrance and downstage pond to fill the stage. The music by David Molina set the mood of each sequence. Lighting was especially admirable. Direction by Kent Nicholson was tight and on the mark.

There is talk that the production will play off Broadway next season. It is a darling of a play. It runs until June 25 at the Magic Theatre. Tickets are $25 and $30.

Cheers!


- Richard Connema



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