Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Stuck Elevator, Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma
and Craig Jessup

A Fascinating Production of Stuck Elevator

Julius Ahn
Photo by Kevin Berne.
American Conservatory Theatre recently presented a captivating production of Byron Au Yong and Aaron Jafferis' Stuck Elevator. ACT's director Carey Perloff encountered Stuck Elevator under development in a Sundance workshop production three years ago, booked it and provided it with the full resources of ACT's Geary Theatre where it received its world premiere.

Stuck Elevator is a visionary musical work based on the true story of Guang (Julius Ahn), a Chinese delivery man who was trapped in a Bronx elevator for 81 hours. Sounding the alarm would open the doors to freedom, but calling for help meant calling for attention with ominous consequences for this undocumented immigrant. During this 81-minute "opera" his mind wanders through memories, nightmares and fantasies, portrayed by four extraordinary actors/singers. The diverse score shifts smoothly from unfussy operatic arias from the trapped Guang to everything from gentle love songs to a tango to bragging rap from Guang's friend and fellow deliveryman Marco.

Director Chay Yew evoked the intense sense of claustrophobia that plagues Guang from the start of the "opera" to the end. He survives on fortune cookies and soy sauce packets and he even takes comfort that life on the outside is almost as harsh for him as it is on the inside. He thinks of his wife (Marie-France Arcilla) and son (Raymond J Lee) who remained in China and he is trying to raise $120,000 to get his family out of China. He still owes $80,000 to a smuggler (Raymond J Lee) who sneaked him into this country. The score wonderfully evokes the horror of Guang's dilemma from the jubilation of "Holla" to the biliousness of "Shame."

There were fantastic scenes of a gaudy Atlantic City revue and a wrestling bout with an alien robot with "Otis" written predominantly on his chest. There was even a giant fortune cookie that came dancing on the stage along with great hip-hop riffs from Guang's only friend Marco (Joel Perez).

Julius Ahn gave a powerful performance. He sang with power and played his character with commendable subtleness. The rest of the cast were very talented with vibrant voices. Marie-France Arcilla as the lone female in the cast of five played the wife Ming along with other characters, and was terrific. Joel Perez exhibited an exciting voice as Marco, adding layers of rap and rhythm to the opera. Joseph Anthony Foronda rounded out the cast playing many characters and had pitched perfect resonance in all.

Daniel Ostling's imaginative set with the mobile elevator and well utilized projections at the rear was superb. The elevator rose and fell between steel posts at its corner but much of the play's visual success came from projections designed by Kate Freer: images that ranged from tenement grittiness to Chinese art to an immense portrait of Ahn as Guang.

Stuck Elevator played through April 28th at A.C.T. Geary Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. Coming up next is

Black Watch opening on May 9th at the Armory on 14th Street between Mission and Valencia, and later Tom Stoppard's Arcadia at A.C.T. Geary Street opening on May 16th . For tickets call 415-749-2228 or online at

A Wild and Wonderful Production of Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma

Only in San Francisco could the Thrillpeddlers present a wonderful camp production musical like Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma. This counter-culture company is currently presenting the 42nd anniversary of the original musical that would play midnight shows at the Palace Theatre in Chinatown in 1971. Critic Rex Reed caught the show in 1971 and raved. He said in his review that the show should go to New York.

Composer Scrumbly Koldewyn and cast packed their bags and headed to the Big Apple. They opened in a theatre on Second Avenue and the rest of the story is disastrous. Those blasé New Yorkers just did not get the show. There were stories of celebrities running out of the theatre on that eventful night (it was reported that Angela Lansbury said to her husband, "Let's get the hell out of here." It was also reported that the original cast was pretty high on drugs, but that's a rumor).

Tinsel Tarts is richer with age with a new book based on the 1971 outline. The new show is written by original Cockettes Pam Tent and Scrumbly Koldewyn. The composer has kept four songs from the 1971 production and added 14 new songs with the help of Link Martin, Pam Tent and Martin Worman on lyrics.

The show starts out with references to the 1971 disaster in a song called "Ain't We Deluxe" and goes immediately into a soulful song called "Depression" that is like something straight out of an early 1930s Busby Berkley film. Yes, there is a plot, and it involves Madge the Magnificent (Russell Blackwood) and her victimized personal servants who want to break into showbiz. Madge reminded me of some of those Warner Brother stars of the '50s who were egocentric. She does not get her way with director Cecil Von Paramour (Gerri Lawlor) and stomps off the Hollywood movie set, heading to New York on a "cardboard train." The movie star goes to a party at Auntie Social's (Michael Soldier) penthouse where she encounters Salvador Deli (Jim Toczyl) and Groucho Marx (Jim Jeske), Chico Marx (Scrumbly Koldewyn) and Harpo Marx (Carlos Barrera) among other celebrities. I won't go into the shenanigans that happen there.

Oh yes, there is a sub plot in the second act. Sally Snack (Noah Haydon) and Prunella Prune (Bonni Suval) leave the employ of Madge in New York and head to Hollywood for fame and fortune in the movies. They get jobs as waitresses in a restaurant run by Brenda Breakfast (Rumi Missabu) and are discovered by none other than Cecil Von Paramour, who gives them a role in a parody of Busby Berkeley's The Gang's All Here. There is a filthy version of the Carmen Miranda banana number that is a hoot. It also features Tarzan (Paul Loper) with very little clothes as the lead singer. Following that is another parody of those South Sea Island movies where a virgin is thrown into a volcano. The finale takes place in Hell where everyone sings and dances, naked and clothed, to "The Hades Lowdown."

I should state that the show is so completely surrealistic that altering your consciousness with psychedelic drugs before attending might not be a bad idea—or at least a couple of drinks, if you are not into drugs. The costumes by Alice Cunt (that's her real name) are fantastic. It looks like he/she bought up every sequin in San Francisco, since every costume sparkles in brilliant colors.

Scrumbly Koldewyn's songs are '60s and '70s Broadway style tunes. He also plays the piano along with Birdie-Bob Watt on saxophone and Steve Bolinger on bass to assist the large cast in their numbers. Pam Tent, who plays Hollywood columnist Veda Viper, rocks, especially in the number called "Vedda" (she wrote the lyrics). It sounds like a Russian marching song and even the audience gets into the spirit by thumping their feet to the beat. The Marx Brothers hilariously sing "Sanity Clause" and Leigh Crow belts out "The Lights are Much Brighter on Mars." Jim Toczyl sings and dances "Do the Dada" and there is a lovely song sung by Michael Soldier as Auntie Social (this drag looks like a cross between Joan Crawford and Margaret Dumont). Scrumbly Koldewyn gets into the act by singing a hilarious song called "When Petals Fall in Petaluma."

The two hour extravagance ends with an old fashioned song and dance straight out of a Busby Berkeley-Warner Brothers musical called "The Sound of Old Broadway." Bravo to the whole cast who make this a very fun night of great campy humor.

Tinsel Tarts in a Hot Coma runs through June 1 at The Hypnodrome Theatre, 575 10th Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 800-838-3006 or online at

Craig Jessup's Rhythm of Life

Craig Jessup presented a marvelous one-person show at the jewel of a theatre called 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley on April 12. His 70-minute show was about his life as an entertainer, and it was called Rhythm of Life.

For years, Jessup has been playing theatres, cabarets and concert halls throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. After receiving his BA in theatre from Oregon State University and studying acting at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, he teamed up with Ruth Hastings and Barry Lloyd in 1977 to form Ruth Hastings and Company. They played in every cabaret in San Francisco. At a highly successful run of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris at a local club, they received an invitation to perform the acclaimed musical review in Brussels at the Belgium National Opera for a two week engagement. This talented singer is also known for his outstanding Noël Coward's songs.

Jessup not only has a crowd pleasing voice but acts out each song that he is singing. His one person show had an eclectic mix of songs by Noël Coward and Jacques Brel, Stephen Sondheim, Lionel Bart and even a song that he wrote himself, called "Rockaway" (an Oregon costal town where he spent his childhood). He was backed by Musical Director Ken Muir on piano and Chuck Bennett on bass.

The talented singer entered the stage and immediately went into a swinging arrangement of "Rhythm of Life" from Sweet Charity, then segueing into Lionel Bart's "Who Will Buy?" from Oliver!. He gave a sublime reading of a Sondheim set that consisted of "Buddy's Blues," Good Thing Going" and "Being Alive."

Jessup was wonderful singing Jacques Brel's "Mathilde," "Desperate Ones" and "If We Only Have Love." He took to the piano to sing and play his own composition, "Rockaway." Since he is a master of Coward's songs, he delighted the audience with "A Bar on the Piccola Marina," "If Love Were All" and "Mad Dogs and Englishmen." He ended his program with a series of songs by Rodgers and Hart that included "I Could Write a Book" and "This Can't Be Love," followed by "It's Got to Be Love."

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

- Richard Connema

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