Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Nymph Errant, Once in a Lifetime and Gypsy
I have always found that this score has more than a few songs that favorably compare to Porter's better known standards. Yes, the plot is insane, but this is the book from the original 1933 musical that played in London's West End and starred the legendary Gertrude Lawrence. I was privileged to be in London on May 21, 1989, for the concert version at Theatre Royal Drury Lane with an all-star cast that included Lisa Kirk, Alexis Smith, Kaye Ballard and Elisabeth Welch, who sang the song she had introduced in 1933, "Solomon."
Nymph Errant is a Candide-like tale that depicts the amorous adventures of young Evangeline Edwards (Sharon Rietkerk), fresh from finishing school in Switzerland, who returns to Oxford to live with her maiden aunt Ermyntrude (Nancy Sale). She meets dashing Andre De Croissant (Ray Renati), a French revue producer who lures her to the celebrated French resort Neauville-Sur-Mer. From there, Evangeline finds herself a succession of suitors in Paris, Venice, Athens, Smyrna, a Turkish harem, and a barren spot in the desert. Miss Pratt (Caroline Altman), her school teacher, has urged Evangeline and her classmates to "experiment" and they taken this advice to heart, for wherever Evangeline travels, she encounters one of her school chums living in sin.
The characters are formulaic and lightly drawn, and the gifted ensemble portrays them with largely comic stokes. It has been a successful strategy by director MacKellan since that is how musicals of the 1930s were done. Most of the actors successfully play several roles, ranging from members of high society to characters in the Turkish harem.
Sharon Rietkerk makes a charming Evangeline (the role that Gertrude Lawrence played in the original) with delicate vocal cords. She is very good in her renditions of "It's Bad for Me" and "The Physician." She is wonderfully naïve as the young girl looking for romance. Steve Rhyne is a standout playing masochistic Russian Alexei Stukin and morphs successfully into the Greek tycoon Constantine. He is delightfully hammy in these roles. Alexandra Kaprielian is delightful singing and tap dancing to "Casanova" while Leanne Borghesi belts out "Solomon" in her distinctive style. Caroline Altman has thematic resonance singing "The Cocotte." Newcomer Kelly Sanchez has a vibrant voice singing a song that only Cole Porter could have written, a praise to plumbing called "Plumbing." The rest of the cast consisting of Michael Cassidy, Saif Eddin, Eliza Leoni, Lauren Parker, Ray Renati, Nancy Sale and Erin-Kate Whitcomb beautifully play various roles.
42nd Street Moon should be praised for giving theatregoers the opportunity to see a Cole Porter show that is rarely produced. Nymph Errant runs through October 23 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstreetmoon.org. Their next production will be George and Ira Gershwin's Oh, Kay! opening on November 2 and running through November 20th.
American Conservatory Theatre recently opened its season with the 1930s vintage comedy Once in a Lifetime by those two quintessential Broadway babies, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. There is so much to relish in this two and a half hour farce of 1927 Hollywood when the films discovered sound. If Kaufman and Hart were alive today they would be proud of this fast-paced production. Director Mark Rucker uses local and young A.C.T. graduates to play over 70 roles. He also uses wonderful classic film clips, such as Jolson singing for the first time on screen in Warner's The Jazz Singer and Busby Berkeley's Going Hollywood with Bing Crosby. There is even a hilarious film clip of Jessica Kitchen as a silent diva in a shameful screen test. She sounds like Carol Channing when she appeared as the silent film star Cecilia Sisson in Lend an Ear. This marks the second time I have seen this marvelous farce, having seen a production with no bells or whistles in a small theatre outside the West End in 1999.
I really got a kick out of seeing the magnificent put-on of producers, directors and actors I happened to know from my years working in film. Many were spot on imitations. Once in a Lifetime features out of work hoofers at the height of the Depression sitting in a tacky New York hotel room. Vaudeville is dead so Jerry (John Wernke), the "brains" of the trio, devises a get rich quick scheme involving teaching elocution to studio actors. There is a great need for silent film actors to learn to talk since movies will be changing after Warner's releases the first sound film, The Jazz Singer. May (Julia Coffey) readily agrees to be a "teacher" who has been training actors to speak properly in England. George (Patrick Lane), who is a knucklehead who loves to read Variety page by page, goes along and becomes "Dr. George Lewis," English diction teacher. They take the first train to the coast and on the way they meet famous movie columnist Helen Hobart (Rene Augesen) who is really full of herself (think Louella Parsons).
Jerry, George and May arrive in Hollywood where they meet some of the most flamboyant characters ever seen on stage. There is the famous German director (Kevin Rolston); Mr. Flick (William LeBow), the Sam Goldwyn type head of a studio; an air-head wannabe actress Susan Walker (Ashley Wickett), who can't act her way out of a paper bag; a crazy studio receptionist who can't remember who is on the lot (Nick Gabriel in drag); two mush-mouthed silent queens (Jessica Kitchens and Maria Duchowny); and a noted playwright named Lawrence Vail (Alexander Crowther), who has been languishing in a "padded room" for screenplay writers for months. There are coat-check cuties passing around rumors of casting calls for prostitutes who can speak, and 12 rival mogul Schlepkin brothers.
Once in a Lifetime has wonderful wisecracks and zingers mocking the frivolousness of the film industry, such as a studio receptionist saying that her grandfather used to see things on the legitimate stage and a leading film lady asking in all seriousness, "What the hell is the legitimate stage?". The receptionist adds that the grandfather was in the Civil War too. "The Civil War," muses the leading lady, "didn't D.W. Griffith make that?"
Julia Coffey was wonderful as May. She constantly wisecracked with genuineness and a '30s flair about her speech. Rene Augesen was great as the preening Hollywood columnist. Nick Gabriel was a real hoot in drag as the clueless secretary and receptionist who walked and looked like something out of an RKO flick. Patrick Lane was charismatic as the incredibly thick George, and his facial expressions were straight out of Red Skelton's character of a dumb guy. Ashley Wickett as Susan Walker, who is equally dense, was fine in the role. Alexander Crowther gave a good account of the languishing playwright Lawrence Vale (Kaufman played the role on Broadway), and Jerry Wernke gave a polished portrayal of the fast-taking Jerry Hyland.
Kevin Rolston with a faux German accent was hilarious as the egocentric director. Will LeBow gave a fine performance as the studio head who tends to mangle the English language just like Samuel Goldwyn. Margo Hall delightfully played various roles, from a train conductor to the mother of brainless Susan Walker. The rest of the cast, Jason Frank, Crystal Noelle and Patrick Russell, excellently took on various roles.
Daniel Ostling's sets were superb and added to the glamour of Hollywood in the late '20s. They ran from a box-like, seedy New York hotel room to a Pullman car with a film of a desert passing by the windows, and an opulent full-stage set of a Hollywood restaurant. The stage completely opened up for the last scene, with a realistic Hollywood sound stage set. Alex Jaeger's costume design included an enormous selection of quick-change costumes that allowed 15 actors to play four or more times as many parts. Those costumes looked like the outfits worn in the films of that era.
Once in a Lifetime ran through October 16 at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. Now on stage is the West Coast premiere of David Mamet's Race, which runs through November 13. For tickets call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act.sf.org.
Broadway by the Bay recently presented Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim's brilliant Gypsy. This vibrant musical has never lost its captivation for me ever since I saw the dynamic Ethel Merman play Rose at the Broadway Theatre in New York. Since then I have seen Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly in the role along with several regional productions. The last time I saw Gypsy was in Sacramento with Vicki Lewis playing the role of the stage mother.
Broadway by the Bay presented a solid musical at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City with a cast of engaging singers and dancers. Robin Tribuzi's dances were true to the original Jerome Robbins' choreography. As Sondheim's lyrics so wonderfully put it, everything about this Gypsy was "coming up roses," from the stimulating overture to the rousing finale of each act. The songs such as "Let Me Entertain You," "You'll Never Get Away from Me," "All I Need Is the Girl", "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" and the powerful "Rose's Turn" bounced out of the pit, assertive, confident and cocky, thanks to a great cast of very talented singers and dancers.
Heather Orth superbly played the formidable lady named Rose, the archetypal stage mother of Gypsy Rose Lee. She made the role her own. Rose's pep talk to the untalented youngers was strikingly done. Heather sang the songs with metallic pleasure and brought down the house with "Rose's Turn" at the end of the two and a half hour musical.
This production's claim to importance was also due to its gorgeous cast of characters; even the minor players delivered major pleasures. Lisa Cross was unparalleled as Electra. Choreographer Robin Tribuzi rocked as Mazeppa, and Karen DeHart was perfect as Tessie Tura. Patrick Ball made the most of his Fred Astaire solo, "All I Need Is the Girl."
Mary Kalita as Louise successful transformed her character from a shy girl to a ladylike burlesque queen with incomparable finesse. Her "Let Me Entertain You" in the second act was elegantly accomplished. Lindsay Ragsdale was great as the exactly and beautifully awful Baby June with her Shirley Temple voice. Walter M. Mayes gave a fine performance as the decent agent Herbie.
The 14-piece orchestra under the direction of Rick Reynolds added to glitz of this production along with sizzling costumes by Sue Howell and great lighting by Michael Ramsaur. The sets were from past Gypsy productions.
Gypsy is one of the best musicals of the 20th century and it continues to be very entertaining to audiences in the 21st century. This production closed on October 9th at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway, Redwood City. Broadway by the Bay will complete their 2011 season presenting Broadway By the Year: 1947 and 1966 opening on November 17 and ending on November 20th at the Fox Theatre. For tickets call 650-579-5565 or on line at www.BroadwayByTheBay.org.