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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Avenue Q, The Triumph of Love and Angel Face

Avenue Q The Hip Musical Finally Arrives in San Francisco

Avenue Q
Robert McClure and Kelli Sawyer
Robert Lopez, Jeff Marx and Jeff Whitty's enchanting musical, Avenue Q, has finally come to San Francisco. I first saw the Muppet-style mix of humans and puppets at the Golden Theatre in New York in 2004. After anticipating a successful touring version, I was stunned when it was announced that Las Vegas had paid for the exclusive rights to present the musical at Steve Wynn's resort. The show was cut to 90 minutes in Las Vegas but it did not do well, closing in nine months; it seemed gamblers were not interested in a bunch of puppets. The producers then worked out a national tour and San Francisco is the first stop, not counting a pre-tour run at the Old Globe in San Diego. The production is restored to a two-hour ten minute running time, with intermission.

Avenue Q is "Sesame Street" for adults. Think of that children's television show with grownup predicaments like annoying roommates, addiction to Internet porn, and one-night stands. It probably would be rated R, not designed for children under 17.

Avenue Q centers around Princeton (Robert McClure), who moves into an apartment managed by a Gary Coleman (Carla Renata), now a grown-up has-been from his television career. Princeton is a college graduate with a degree in English and is in search of a purpose in life,a s he sings "What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?" He meets assistant kindergarten teacher, marriage-hungry Kate Monster (Kelli Sawyer) who lives in the building and love blooms. However, there is a femme fatale named Lucy T. Slut (also Kelli Sawyer) who leads Princeton down the wrong road.

One of the show's subplots features uptight, nelly Republican Rod (Robert McClure), a closet homosexual banker who has a secret crush on his roommate Nicky (Christian Anderson). Also involved is a hairy monster named Trekkie (Christian Anderson) who looks something like a huge Cookie Monster and loves Internet porn. Rounding out this cast of characters are the human actors Christmas Eve (Angela Ai), a psychotherapist with a thick Japanese accent, and her husband Brian (Cole Porter), a wannabe comedian who sings "I'm Not Wearing Underwear Today" as part of his act.

Robert Lopez' music is jaunty and lighthearted, and Jeff Marx' lyrics unflinchingly juxtapose lilting jingles with happy anthems like "It Sucks to Be Me" and "You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)." "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" is one of the highlights of this charmingly raunchy show. The scene in which the cast discuss the German word "schadenfreude," which means pleasure in someone else's misfortune, is hilarious.

The puppeteers are visible on stage as they perform as well as manipulate the puppets. Kelli Sawyer as Kate Monster has an astonishing voice when she sings "I like romantic things/ like music and art/ And as you know/ I have a gigantic heart/So why don't I have/ a boyfriend?/ Fuck!/ It sucks to be me!"

Robert McClure steals the show with his engaging voice, just right for Princeton and Rod. As Rod, McClure hilariously hymns a mythic Canadian girlfriend. Carla Renata belts out her numbers, and she gives a spunky performance as the super of the apartment building. Angela Ai as Christmas Eve brings down the house with her soulful vocalizing on a mock torch song, "The More You Ruv Someone."

Christian Anderson is outstanding as Nicky and Trekkie Monster. He is delightful singing with a gravelly voice, "The Internet is for Porn." Cole Porter as Brian comes across with the rousing "I'm Not Wearing Underwear Today," and Minglie Chen does great justice both in voice and action as Mrs. T., Bear and others.

Anna Louizos has imaginatively staged the touring production. It is basically the same set that is on the Golden stage but it looks bigger due to the large Orpheum Theatre. She is not using the complete stage, as black panels cut off each side. The fantasy scene in the second act goes over very well for this barn of a theatre. Once again, there were sound problems on opening night with patrons complaining they couldn't understand many of the words.

Avenue Q runs through September 2nd at the Orpheum Theatre, Market at 8th, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-512-7770 or go to www.shnsf.com for more information. Upcoming is Abba's Mamma Mia! opening at the Orpheum on September 5 and running through September 22nd.

Photo: Carol Rosegg


A Triumphant Production of Marivaux's The Triumph of Love

Triumph of Love
Domenique Lozano and Stacy Ross
California Shakespeare Theater, in cooperation with The San Jose Repertory Theatre, is presenting a world premiere adaptation of Pierre de Marivaux' romantic comedy The Triumph of Love on the outdoor stage of the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda through September 2nd. This version, translated by Frederick Kluck, has been adapted and directed by Lillian Groag. Her account contains more hilarious slapstick performances by the harlequin servant Arlecchino (Danny Scheie) and his counterpart the gardener Dimas (Ron Campbell). There are also many comical scenes involving Hermocrates (Dan Haitt) and his sister Leontine (Domenique Lozano). Even the Prince Agis (Jud Williford) of Sparta is a loveable buffoon. The playwright has written a combination of French farce and Italian commedia dell'arte scenes for this new presentation.

The Triumph of Love is rarely performed in present day theatre. The play was made into a 1997 musical starring Betty Buckley and ran on Broadway for only a short time. Paramount produced a film in 2002, and a company in Vancouver tried to update the play to the 1930s which was disastrous. Berkeley Repertory restaged the iconic work in 1994 with positive results. Triumph of Love requires intense listening in order to follow the intricacies of a tale taken from a Greek myth that involves cross-dressing, gender bending, dissembling hearts and unfulfilled theorizing all presented here by a luminous cast of first rate actors.

Marivaux' stylish comedy involves Leonide, a reigning princess who wishes to restore the throne to the rightful heir of Sparta Agis, who lives in seclusion with philosopher Hermocrates and his sister Leontine. Leonide disguises herself and her servant as men and arrives at the philosopher's estate. She declares undying love for the philosopher, who knows her to be a woman, and more undying love for the sister who believes she is a man. However, Leonide, who is in love with the handsome Agis, extracts vows of eternal friendship from the prince. All of this is sorted out and all's well that ends well.

Stacy Ross gives a commanding performance as Leonide. She has the presence to carry off this amazing feat of being both male and female. She is superb in throwing up philosophical and moral dilemmas in each encounter. Dan Haitt gives a brilliant performance as Hermocrates. His comic timing in a scene in the second act is hilarious.

Outstanding in the comedy scenes are Danny Scheie as the harlequin servant and Ron Campbell as the gardener. They indulge in all sorts of silly business which becomes wonderful, lowdown, slapstick comedy. Scheie has a voice like Gilbert Gottfried in the first act and then does a nasal sound that sounds like a first class British twit. Campbell affects a Western Texan accent that might have been heard in some of those Republic "B" western movies. These two actors are uproarious in their comedy acting.

Domenique Lozano is wonderful as the lovesick Leontine, and Catherine Castellanos is charming as Corine. Jud Williford gives a delightful comic performance as the jovial innocent Agis.

Kate Edmunds has designed a stylish set with a synthetic green foliage wall on the side and a web of entangled, twisted metal vines beyond a fancy iron fence that looks like the entrance to a palace. There is a replica of Brussels' Manikin Pis in the center of the stage that is used to very funny results. Lighting by Russell H. Champa is breathtaking as the gnarled vine shows off some wonderful subtle colors. Costumes by Raquel Barreto are opulent period outfits. Lillian Groag keeps the plot crystal clear in a smooth staging with music from Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. Jeff Mockus's sound is magnificent with the melodies of the German composer between scene changes.

The Triumph of Love plays at Bruns Amphitheatre at the Gateway exit from Highway 24 in Orinda, California, through September 2nd. The comedy will open the San Jose Repertory season on September 28th where it will play indoors.

Photo: Kevin Berne


Word for Word Presents a Fascinating Noir Production of Cornell Woolrich's Angel Face

Angel Face
Laura Lowry and John Flanagan
Word for Word has been presenting short stores on stage since 1993. Rather than adapting texts, the company actually presents entire literary works verbatim. In the past, they have presented brilliant readings of American and French short stories.

Currently, director Stephanie Hunt is presenting Cornell Woolrich's Angel Face, a 1937 pulp story from the pages of Black Mask Magazine. The two-hour production is on the very large stage of the Theatre Artaud; it seems not to be the place to present this forgotten noir gem. It would have been better to present the thriller on one of the stages at the Magic Theatre. Noir, either in film or on the stage, needs to create a claustrophobic effect for the audience. In this version, the staging is entirely too large for the pulp drama. Much of the action takes place on the high upper level apartment platform, and it is difficult to hear the actors with their hard-boiled 1930s accents. They are so far away from the audience that the idea that this is noir drama is lost.

Angel Face (Laura Lowry) is a wise-cracking chorine with a beautiful face who has climbed up from one speakeasy to another. However, her life changes when her friend Ruby Rose (Morgan Voellger) is murdered and her brother Chick is framed for the murder. Angel Face joins forces with tough detective Nick Burns (John Flanagan) to find the real murderer. This includes going into the underworld where gangsters rule. The crime drama is full of brittle, malodorous, comic writing by Cornell Woolrich. In one scene, nightclub singer Angel Face tells the owner of the club "I do dusties," which means she sings the standards.

Laura Lowry comes across with a voice that reminds me of the character actress Isabelle Jewel, who played in many Warner films of the '30s and '40s. At the beginning of the crime drama it was difficult to hear her dialogue since she was not projecting into the audience of the large theatre. However, she got right on target as the drama progressed and she was on the ground floor of the large stage. She is excellent in the nightclub scenes. Paul Finocchiaro, who portrays Militis the Greek nightclub king, is first rate.

John Flanagan gives a genuine performance as the tough-talking detective Burns. Michael Patrick Gaffney is excellent in several roles, include a terrific scene as an auctioneer. His powerful vocal chops are perfect for the large theatre. Outstanding is Casey Jones Bastiaans as Hell's Bells, dressed like Brazilian bombshell Carmen Miranda in a calypso nightclub number. Danny Wolohan and Morgan Voellger are effective in their various roles.

Scenic Designer Mikiko Uesugi has designed a two-tier set with the bedroom of Ruby Rose and Angel Face on the second floor where too much of the action occurs. Director Stephanie Hunt keeps the story alive with some very savoir faire choices.

Angel Face plays at the Project Artaud Theatre, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco through September 2nd. For tickets call 415-439-2456 or visit www.zspace.org/angelface.htm.

Photo: Mark Leialoha


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

- Richard Connema



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