Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

As Thousands Cheer and Dear World

During the past few years the Moss Hart-Irving Berlin musical revue As Thousands Cheer has been revived by many regional companies. The original opened on September 30th, 1933, with a top Broadway cast that included Marilyn Miller, Clifton Webb, Ethel Waters and Helen Broderick. It ran 390 performances at the Music Box Theater with a top ticket price of $4.40, and it grossed $1 million in the depths of the depression.

This was Marilyn Miller's last show before her death, and the first-ever Broadway show to star an African-American. Ethel Waters received star billing with the Caucasians. She stopped the show with her song, "Suppertime," which is the heartbreaking song of a mother wondering how to tell her children that their father has been lynched. Those were powerful lyrics in those times. In her autobiography Ethel said, "If one song can tell the whole tragic history of a race "Suppertime" is that song."

It is interesting to note that the white stars of the show refused to bow on stage with Ethel Waters. However, Berlin put his foot down and wouldn't allow anyone in the cast to take a bow. Ultimately, the white stars backed down and history was made. After the musical closed, the show was forgotten and the scores misplaced. The manuscript was found, literally, in the basement of Warner Brothers in 1990.

As Thousands Cheer was finally revived in 1996 when it appeared Off-Broadway and garnered incredible reviews. The Drama Department also presented the musical in 1998 with cast including Judy Kuhn, B. D. Wong, Peter Gallagher and Kevin Chamberlain. A complete cast album was produced. 42nd Street Moon here in San Francisco did an excellent concert reading in 1997.

Marin Theatre, in association with Allegro Theatre Company, decided to open their 2000-01 season with this Irving Berlin musical. Albert Takazauckas was supposed to direct the production but he suffered a fatal heart attack just one week before the first rehearsal. Danny Scheie took over the direction of the show and Billy Philadelphia was hired as the musical director. He rearranged the score, rewrote lost dance music and brought movement and life to a group of the songs and sketches. The producers auditioned the best voices in the Bay Area over a three-month period and found the best singers and dancers.

The company has done a wonderful job on reproducing this dated 1933 musical. The revue is built around typical newspaper stories of the day. It does help if you imagine you are back in 1933 when you see the sketches. Some of the skits have been thrown out and some have been rearranged. The show now opens with the lively number "Through a Keyhole." It's a great number about reporters peeking through keyholes for scandals of the rich and famous. It still holds true for current news. This gets the revue off to a fast start. This ensemble demonstrates the great talent of Irving Berlin the composer and shows the immortality of his work.

The first "comedic" scene is "Man Bites Dog" which is a little corny, but it leads into the song of that title sung hilariously by four talented members of the group; great timing and choreography on this number.

Leslie Hamilton was boisterously entertaining as Mrs. Herbert Hoover, playing the Presidential wife to perfection. It is a great skit about Mr. and Mrs. Hoover moving out of the White House to make room for the Roosevelts, with Mrs. Hoover taking everything out of the residence before FDR and his wife shows up. Another standout performance in the first act was C. Kelly Wright singing "Harlem on my Mind". Playing the great Josephine Baker, she was incredible in the song. "Lonely Woman" was just adequate with no great emotion coming from the singer. The "Joan Crawford" sketch was silly and very dated. Ms. Hamilton tried to do a Joan Crawford in a piece about a divorce from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. but she added no bite to the scene. So many drag queens do a better job on Joan. The first act ended with the familiar "Easter Parade," charmingly sung and danced by the whole company. Thinking about it, I think it would have been better to put the song somewhere in the middle of the first act. It really is not a rousing closing song for the ending of the act.

The second act opens with the exhilarating "Heat Wave" sung by Liz Smitten. She was not as sensual as Marilyn in the movies, but she held her own in the song. The Barbara Hutton sequence was fine, with Karen Hall giving a great rendition of "How's Chances". Two weak and corny scenes followed: "Gandhi Goes On New Hunger Strike" and "Debts". These were very dated and both were given lackluster performances; even the acting was off the mark.

The highlight of the second act was C. Kelly Wright singing the hauntingly somber "Suppertime". She portrayed the Ethel Waters role before an old photograph of two African American bodies hanging from the branch of a tree. It was a very effective piece of theater and she was superb in it.

The revue ended on another silly piece called "Noel Coward Returns to England". The actors did not know what to do with this piece and it was so dated that it was embarrassing. The timing was completely off. In the end, the cast came out and sang a little ditty called "Not For All the Rice In China" which never became a hit. The song was reminiscent of an early '30s song that could have been in a Warner Brothers film with Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler.

The director, Danny Scheie, had permission from Berlin's estate to make changes and leave out some of the sketches. The company did not do "The Funnies", "Metropolitan Opening", "Metropolitan Opens in Old Time Splendor," or, "Our Wedding Day". Billy Philadelphia put in an overture that was just fine for the 5-piece orchestra. The whole production ran just under 2 hours with intermission.

The assemble consisted of 11 very talented singers and dancers. The orchestra, under the direction of Mr. Philadelphia, played well and he made good arrangements for the songs and dances. The choreography by Richard Gibbs was crisp and lively. The set had newspaper stories and pictures projected onto the screen and it did set the tone of the piece. Many of the people mentioned in the skits would have no significance to a younger crowd. It was nice period piece and a delightful production.

Marin Theatre's next production will be Morning's at Seven opening November 2nd and running thru November 26th.

Dear World

The 42nd Street Moon Company did themselves proud when they presented the lovely production of Jerry Herman's little produced Dear World. What a shame that this melodious presentation is not heard very often. Dear World opened at the Mark Hellinger on February 6, 1969 and ran only for 132 performances. Even with Angela Lansbury winning the Tony for best actress, the musical just could not make it on Broadway. Most of the critics said it was the ponderous book that caused the show's downfall. Also that the massive production effectively squelched the original tale of this enchanting story.

Dear World is a beautiful fairy tale in which the forces of poetry, love and idealism win over those of materialism, cold science and business. The musical tells the romantic fable of a lovable eccentric named Countess Aurelia and her misfit friends who fight to save Paris from a group of business presidents and financiers planning to drill for oil in the beautiful old neighborhood of Chaillot.

The musical was based on Jean Giraudoux's The Madwoman of Chaillot which I saw at the Belasco in 1948, with the great Martita Hunt playing the title role. The cast also included Estelle Winwood, Vladimir Sokoloff and John Carradine. I was also able to see the wonderful Angela Lansbury in the Broadway show at the Mark Hellinger in March of 1969. It was there that I fell in love with the score.

After materialism won out and the show closed, Herman, the composer, and book writers Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee rewrote the show, restoring cut songs and putting back the intimacy that had been undermined on Broadway. This seldom-seen version is the one we saw at the Eureka Theatre. Two songs cut from the original Broadway production were restored for this presentation. One is the lovely "Through the Bottom of the Glass," sung tenderly by the Countess. This is the first song you hear after the overture. This is followed by the satirical waltz, "Spring of Next Year," sung by the villains of the creation. Every song that follows is a joy to the ear.

Meg Mackay played Countess Aurelia brilliantly. This is Meg's best role to date. She was amazing as the eccentric woman in her early 1900's gown full of lace and velvet, a large Flora Dora hat on her head and a turn of the century wig. She even effected a wonderful high-tone voice that matched her role. Her voice was simply superb in the songs "Each Tomorrow Morning," "Kiss Her Now" and the powerful, "I Don't Want to Know."

Ms. Mackay was joined by two of the most marvelously eccentric women, played by Bettina Devin and Coralie Persse. They were priceless in their respective roles and the Tea Party sequence was a dazzling display of music. Three wild musical fantasies came together in an explosion of fun.

Nina, played by Lianne Marie Dobbs, was sparkling in the song "I've Never Said I Loved You." John Elliott Kirk and his powerful voice was outstanding in the nostalgic paen to the "Garbage" of a gentler age. This was one of my favorite songs.

42nd Street regular Steve Rhynes played an entirely different role as the chief villain, the Prospector. I am so used to him playing romantic leads, I was a little put off by his slinking around the stage; however, he did a creditable job as the evil prospector. Maybe a little too much smirking but, he loosened up toward the end. Oh well, you can't play romantic leads forever.

The new version of Dear World will open at the Goodspeed Opera House at the end of the year with Sally Ann Howes playing Countess Aurelia. This then probably will be the last time we shall see the old version. The show closed on Sunday, September 25. My only regret is that I did not see this lovely production sooner.

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

- Richard Connema

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