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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Amadeus, The Pajama Game and
Connie Champagne Sings The Dusty Springfield Songbook


A Brilliant Production of Amadeus

Amadeus
Drew Hirshfield and William Elsman
Marin Shakespeare Company is presenting its Shakespeare Under the Stars with a staggering production of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus playing through August 24th at Forest Meadows Amphitheatre in San Rafael.

This marks the fourth time I have seen this three-hour comedy-drama. I first saw Paul Scofield play Antonio Salieri and Richard O'Callaghan portraying Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at London's Haymarket Theatre. I later saw the American production starring Sir Ian McKellen and Tim Curry at the Broadhurst in New York, and in 1999 I saw David Suchet play the role of the Viennese composer with Michael Sheen playing the young Mozart.

Marin Shakespeare Company has a cast of fine actors, beautiful costumes and a convincing story to tell.  Peter Shaffer's words are beautiful and clever with a lot of in-jokes that persons who love Mozart's music will enjoy. As the Emperor Joseph II, played marvelously by George Maguire, says thoughtlessly of Mozart's score: "there are too many of them." The playwright called his play Amadeus and not Mozart because the title translates to" beloved by God."

Director James Dunn has made this exquisite production less melodramatic by making Salieri, who is outraged at the unfairness of God for making Mozart more gifted than himself, a more human and heartbreaking character. The court composer to the Austrian emperor is devastated by the vulgar childlike genius of Mozart. Salieri cannot understand why God would allow this crude character to compose such divine beautiful music. Salieri attempts to drag the composer down in order to cope with Mozart's awareness of his own shortcomings.

William Elsman (played Salieri in Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, international tours of The Buddy Holly Story) plays the jealous court composer Salieri.  He offers a polished, droll Salieri eager for our sympathy. The actor holds the attention of the audience, especially in the touching finale to the soliloquy of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro."  He also handles well the alternating between the old and middle-aged Salieri.

David Hirshfield (The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Happy End, Mother Courage) is dazzling as Mozart. He portrays the character as a child prodigy who never grew up. He is astonishing with his puerile behavior and rash tongue that wreaks mayhem with his career and marriage. It is one of the most riveting performances I have seen this year.

Elise Youssef (A Midsummer Night's Dream at Center Rep) handles the many emotional changes of Mozart's wife Constanze marvelously. Alexandra Matthew (Henry V, As You Like It) gives a captivating performance as Salieri's pupil, Katherina Cavalieri.

George Maguire (King Lear, Henry IV, Othello) is perfect as the imperturbable Joseph II.  He makes the emperor tremendously elegant and entirely human. Mark Robinson (recent graduate of Alabama Shakespeare Festival) and Rafael Untalan (A Winter's Tale plus three seasons at Oregon Shakespeare Festival) as the delectably gossipy "Venticelli" (the "little winds" who spy for Salieri) act with much savor and are very loving in their speech and movements.

Jerry Hoffman as Johann Kilian von Strack, Scott Coopwood as Count Orsini-Rosenberg, and Stephen Dietz as Baron von Swieten are excellent.  Sam Leichter and Steven Scot Bono are effective in small roles as Salieri's servants, as are Kathleen Brower and Rebecca Michelle David playing servants.

James Dunn's direction is a masterpiece of stagecraft. Costumes by Patricia Polen are elegant and eye catching.  Billie Cox's sound design is excellent, with snippets of scores by the great Mozart. Bruce Lackovic's set background is a Mozart score that opens up onto the court of Emperor Joseph.

Amadeus runs through August 24th at Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, Dominican College of California, San Rafael.  This production is running in repertory with The Winter's Tale.  The final production will be Much Ado About Nothing opening on August 29th and runs through September 28th.  For tickets call 415-499-4488 or visit at www.marinShakespeare.org.

Photo: Morgan Cowin


A Bright, Brassy and Elated Production of The Pajama Game

The Pajama Game
David Sattler and Cast
Director Jay Manley and company are presenting a first class production of the 1954 hit musical The Pajama Game at Smithwick Theatre at Foothill College through August 17.  The company consistently puts on great professional musicals every year.  Jay Manley gets the best talent of singers and dancers from all over the Bay Area.  This production is no exception.

The Pajama Game and I go back to the summer of 1954 when I saw the musical starring Janis Paige, Eddie Foy, Jr. and John Raitt in the starring roles at the St. James Theatre. I also was fortunate to be part of the Harry Stradling Jr. crew filming the musical at Warners in 1957.  Later I invested with other members of the British Consortium to help fund the British revival, which was not a happy experience. That was the last time I saw this musical—until now.

The Pajama Game was one of the best Broadway musicals in the 1950s with its many "Hit Parade" songs such as "Hey There," "Hernando's Hideaway" and "Steam Heat." The original production ran for 1,063 performances in New York and launched the career of Shirley MacLaine.  To enjoy the current production it helps to have a mindset of the 1950s. Director Manley provides a slide show showing events of the time before the curtain rises.

The musical centers on the employees of a pajama factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the early 1950s.  They are demanding a seven and half cent per hour raise, which was pretty good in those days.  The big song, "Seven-and-a-Half cents," seems dated now, with Jerry Ross' lyrics about what you could do in a year's time with that amount.  The line about gasoline breaks up the audience.

Director Jay Manley and choreographer Katie O'Bryon have taken great care to let each cast member develop a distinctive character. David Sattler (European tour of Grease) handsomely plays the management superintendent Sid Sorokin.  He has powerful vocal chops singing  "Hey There," "The World Around Us" and "A New Town is a Blue Town."

Sarah Aili (Little Shop of Horrors) gives a vigorous and bright performance as Babe Williams with a bell clear voice in "I'm Not At All in Love" and her duet with Sattler, "There Once Was a Man." Doug Baird (Pippin), who hams it up as time study man Hines, and Linda Piccone (My Fair Lady, Candide, playing Mabel, are wonderful together. Their comic patter in "I'll Never Be Jealous Again" is entertaining.

Michael Rhone (Carousel, Urinetown) gives a great performance with splendid vocal chops as "Prez," president of the employees union. His renditions of "Her Is" and "Seven-and-a-Half cents" are audience pleasing. Karen DeHart as Gladys and Kateri McRae as Mae both have great vocal cords in duets. Karen DeHart gives out a sexy interpretation of "Hernando's Hideaway."

Each cast member does a fantastic job in this very large cast of singers and dancers.  "Steam Heat" danced by Kateri McRae, Jennifer Coulter, Katie O'Bryon, Ron Lopez Jr. and Gary Stanford Jr. is zingy and sinuously executed.  Choral work on "Racing with the Clock" and "Seven-and-a-Half cents" is sinuously executed.

Joe Ragey has devised a great set with an outline of a large factory in the background.  Janis Bergmann has designed wonderful '50s costumes for the cast, and the orchestra under the direction of Mark Hanson is very good.  Lighting design by Kurt Landisman is bright and cheery and the sound design by Andrew C. Heller is perfect.

The Pajama Game plays at The Smithwick Theatre at Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Rd (El Monte exit West, off Hwy 280) in Los Altos Hills through August 17th.

Photo: David Allen


Connie Champagne Sings The Dusty Springfield Songbook

Talented singer Connie Champagne is most noted for her interpretation of the legendary Judy Garland and has presented very successful shows based on the songs of the renowned singer. With her astonishing voice she now sings songs made famous by Dusty Springfield.  Her show was recently presented at the New Conservatory Theatre Center.

I must confess I knew very little about Dusty Springfield, having only heard of her when I was in England during 1960s. She was one of the most popular American singers in the U.K. at the time.  She had a most distinctive voice; as Burt Bacharach said, "three notes and you knew it was Dusty."

Connie Champagne does not try to intimate Dusty Springfield but sings her songs with her amazing pitch perfect voice.  With the help of arranger and accompaniment Joe Collins she presented a fast-paced 90-minute cabaret show. She also gave the audience some insight into the little known personal life of this singer of soul music.

Ms. Champagne came out wearing a simple and modish dress and opened with Carole King and Gerry Goffin's soulful piece "Goin' Back" and then segued into an upbeat jazzy version of Kenny Gamble, Jerry Butler and Theresa Bell's "A Brand New Me." There are many songs that I was not acquainted with but each one showed the personality of the legendary singer. Connie Champagne sang Dusty's first big hit, "Silver Threads and Golden Needles," and then her last big hit, "What Have I Done to Deserve This," which returned Dusty to the top 20 of U.K. and U.S. charts.

Ms. Champagne was top drawer singing two Hal David and Burt Bacharach songs, "Wishin' and Hopin'" and "The Look of Love." Dusty was known as the "queen of the break up song" and most of the second act consisted of songs of break ups of partnerships which included Hal David and Burt Bacharach's " I Just Don't Know what to do with Myself" and Jimmie Rogers' "It's Over."  She told a little known story about composer Carol Pope who allegedly had a lesbian affair with Dusty. Connie softly sang "Soft Core," written especially for Dusty by the composer, and gave a powerful reading of Dusty's most famous song, John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins' "Son of a Preacher Man."

Connie Champagne's little remarks that she calls "Out of the Closet" could have been toned down a bit with a little less talk. However, at the beginning of the show she told a little story about RuPaul, the famous drag queen.  Looking out at the audience she said, "We are all born naked and we all wear drag!" which is true in the general sense of the words.

Connie Champagne Sings The Dusty Springfield Songbook closed on August 10 at the intimate room located at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave at Market. Now the N.C.T.C are the West Coast premiere, direct from Montreal, of 2 boys.tv, through August 32 and Tom Orr in I Feel a Thong Coming On! running through September 7th. For tickets call 415-861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org.


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

- Richard Connema



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