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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Souvenir, The Government Inspector and
The Student Gypsy


A Tantalizing Production of Souvenir

Souvenir
Mark Anders and Patti Cohenour
San Jose Repertory is currently presenting Stephen Temperley's wildly funny Souvenir through April 20th. Many people are not aware of Florence Foster Jenkins, a socialite and singer of the 1930s and '40s who unwittingly desecrated a ruthless classical repertoire.

I had several of Jenkins' RCA recordings, and she had a voice like a crow in heat. I missed her famous Carnegie Concert in September, 1944, since I was on bivouac in the wilds of New Jersey just outside Fort Dix, but my Army buddy who saw the show said I missed the comic performance of a lifetime.

Souvenir is entertaining and ultimately poignant. The two hour and thirty minute, "fictional biography" covers the life of society matron Florence Foster Jenkins (Patti Cohenour) beginning in 1927 when she hires 29-year-old musician Cosme McMoon (Mark Anders) as a recital pianist. Florence firmly believes she has perfect pitch and gives her first charity recital in the Ritz Carlton ballroom.

Florence's friends don't tell her how bad she is, and her caterwauling develops a following. Audiences would stifle themselves from laughing out loud; some would run up the aisle to try to contain their laughter. One might say that she really is tone deaf and has no idea how bad she sounds.

The second act is a Reader's Digest version of the infamous concert of September, 1944, for the armed forces at Carnegie Hall. It is accented by Marcia Dixcy Jory's outlandish fussy costumes and highlighted by Florence's deference to her devoted pianist, as she performs his Mexican "Serenata" looking like a camp Carmen. Classical music purists beware, since Florence butchers every song. She changes her costume for each, and they are the wildest costumes you will ever see. When she sings "Ave Maria" she looks like the Statue of Liberty. Her rendition of the Franz Schubert song is a comic glee.

Patti Cohenour (Broadway Light in the Piazza, Sound of Music) reprising her role from ACT in Seattle, is brilliant as Florence Foster Jenkins. Whether singing or speaking, she is an absolute delight. In many of the scenes she reminds me of the late film actress Billie Burke. At the end of the production she sings the way Jenkins hears it in her mind. This is a magnificent and exquisite rendition of "Ave Maria."

Mark Anders (2 Pianos , 4 Hands), who also played his role in Seattle, does a lovely job both as actor and accompanist. He is wonderfully droll in his remarks to the audience as Cosme admits he needs the steady income as pianist to Jenkins. ("I was already twenty-nine and losing my hair".) He becomes very sympathetic to the singer, especially in the scene in which Florence Foster Jenkins is being laughed at during the Carnegie Hall concert.

Edie Whitsett has designed a New York night scene in the background on an almost bare stage with several props, such as chairs, used in the course of the evening. The piano is very dominant, and lighting by Rick Paulson is effective. R. Hamilton Wright's direction is right on the mark.

Souvenir runs through April 20th at the San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. For tickets call 408-367-7255 or visit www.SJRep.com.


Photo: Chris Bennion


A Strange Production of The Government Inspector

The Government Inspector
Graham Beckel (seated), Gregory Wallace, Joan Mankin, Geoff Hoyle
American Conservatory Theatre continues its 2008 season with a very unusual production of Nikolai Gogol's classic The Government Inspector, adapted for the stage by British playwright Alistair Beaton. This newly adapted farce had its premiere at the Chichester Festival in England during the summer of 2005. This is the first American production of the wild and woolly two hour and 40 minute satire of widespread corruption, war exploitation and abuse of power in an executive branch of the government (sound familiar?) in 19th century Russia.

Alistair Beaton has done a fine job in translating Gogol's 19th century comedy. Sometimes this production verges on a Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoon. There is a lot of over-acting and the talented cast looks like they're performing in a Rossini opera without the singing.

This savage satire is about a small town's officials and corrupt mayor trying to feather their own nests. The comedy involves Khlestakov (Gregory Wallace), a penniless nobody from St. Petersburg who has lost his money at cards, coming through the provincial backwater town on the way to his father's estate to beg for money. The mayor and the town officials believe that this con artist is a government inspector from St. Petersburg. Khlestakov has not one clue about what is happening, and he manipulates the situation to has own advantage. This puffed up eccentric has found a society that is full of greed and he milks it for all it's worth.

The Government Inspector starts out with a great scene featuring an enormous table that rises from a trap door and tilts toward the audience. The city officials sit around the table and discuss the expected arrival of the government inspector from St. Petersburg. It's like a hallucinatory scene from a twenties German flick.

Director Carey Perloff has thrown everything but the kitchen sink into this overlong farce. There are bits of Russian opera and extraneous dances with klezmer music while actors do a nightmarish dance scene. Perloff has assembled a large cast with some of the best comic talent in the Bay Area, but they push too hard to get laughs from the audience. Sometimes the whole production looks like a bizarre comedy, yet the comedy fails to achieve a madcap lift-off. It is also a mite too long.

Gregory Wallace (ACT core member) really camps it up as Khlestakov, especially in the first act when he continues to raise his egotistical voice in a soliloquy to himself. He acts properly vain in the second act when Khlestakov accepts bribe money from the town citizens. Graham Beckel (Arcadia, The Tempest) is good as the anxious and vociferous mayor of the town.

Dan Hiatt as the Magistrate and Rod Gnapp as the Commissioner of Health seem wasted in their roles. Hiatt looks like a fugitive from The Mikado all dressed in black and Gnapp looks like a character from the opera Boris Godunov. Delia MacDougall is good in the small role of the mistrustful Director of Education. Andrew Hurteau and Alex Morf do what they can with their small roles.

Joan Mankin and Geoff Hoyle as the town busybodies Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky give amusing performances, looking like the Katzenjammer Kids from the old comics. Sharon Lockwood as the mayor's wife steals every scene with her wonderful upstaging. Amanda Sykes gives a sexy performance as the daughter. Jud Williford as Khlestakov's starving servant and Shannon Taing as the maid have a few humorous moments. Stephen Barker Turner as The Doctor and Raife Baker as Mishka are efficient in small roles.

Erik Flatmo's sets looks like something out of the German movies of the twenties. Beaver Bauer has designed some outlandish costumes for the group, and Alexander V. Nichols' lighting is excellent.

The Government Inspector plays through April 20th at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary St, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or online at www.act-sf.org. Their next production is Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class opening April 25 and running through May 25.

Photo: Kevin Berne


The Student Gypsy is a real hoot

The Student Gypsy
Rena Wilson and
Maureen McVerry

42nd Street Moon Productions has really reached into a bag of forgotten musicals to present Richard Besoyan little-known campy operetta The Student Gypsy, also known as The Prince of Liederkranz. This farcical musical is on display at the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco through April 13th.

Rick Besoyan's (Little Mary Sunshine) musical opened at the 54th Street Theatre in New York on September 30, 1963. Reviews were mixed but many of critics liked the spoof of a Sigmund Romberg operetta. A newspaper strike hit New York the following week and there was no outlet for the good reviews so the musical closed after 21 performances. In the cast were Eileen Brennan and Dom DeLuise.

The Student Gypsy has great characters like the Glockenspiel family, Private Rudolph von Schlump, Muffin T. Ragamuffin, Zampa Allescu, Colonel Helmut Blunderbuss, Pfc. Wolfgang Humperdinck, Pvt. Offenbach and even Osgood the Good. I won't even go into the wild and hilarious story of a disguised prince in a silly little war between two countries somewhere in middle Europe.

Besoyan's music is a mixture of Rudolf Friml and Sigmund Romberg with little bit of Victor Herbert, especially in the song "Ting-a-Ling Dearie" and the waltz melody "Seventh Heaven Waltz."

Director Greg MacKellan has wisely put just enough camp into the production to make it a charming pastiche with some very lyrical songs. The large cast is captivating, especially the young singer Rena Wilson playing Merry May Glockenspiel. She is a combination of Kristin Chenoweth and Sutton Foster and has a pitch perfect resonance voice.

Maureen McVerry is hilarious as the gypsy queen Zampa Allescu. She really camps up the character and is a joy to watch as she sings and dances "The Gypsy Life" and "A Gypsy Dance." Tony Panighetti once again turns in a mirthful performance. Gabriel Grilli as Rudolph von Schlump, really a prince in disguise, has a melodious voice in his duets with Rena Wilson. Robert Robinson with a flawless singing voice is top notch as Colonel Blunderbuss.

The supporting cast of Juliet Heller, Robert Robinson, Jarrod Quon, Buzz Halsing, Lillian Askew, Samantha Bartholomew, Molly Anne Coogan, Erin Hoffman, Christopher M. Nelson and Andrew Willis-Woodward doesn't disappoint, with each of the members well suited to his or her part. Staci Arriaga's choreography is outrageous but fun. Dave Dobrusky as usual is great at the piano, backing up the cast. All in all it is a real fun two hour and fifteen minute romp.

The Student Gypsy plays at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St. San Francisco through April 13th. For tickets, call 415-255-8207, Their next production is Coco starring Andrea Marcovicci opening on April 23rd through May 11th.

Photo: David Allen


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

- Richard Connema



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