Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Girl Crazy, The Quality of Life and Russian on the Side
A Zestful Production of George and Ira Gershwin's Girl Crazy
The 42nd Street Moon Company is presenting the unique 1930 production of George and Ira Gershwin's Girl Crazy with the original script. The slam-bang musical opened at the Alvin Theatre in October 1930 and made a star of Ethel Merman after she brought down the house with "I've Got Rhythm," holding one note for 16 bars as the pit band continued the jumping chorus, stopping the show. That pit band had such legendary musicians as Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. The musical also started the musical career of Ginger Rogers. One of Broadway's comic luminaries, Willie Howard, played the Broadway cabby turned Arizona sheriff.
RKO Radio Pictures made a film that was quite different from the stage version for their comedy duo Wheeler & Woolsey, and MGM produced their own version starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in 1943. In 1965, MGM made another film, changing the title to When The Boys Meet the Girl with a strange cast of Herman's Hermits, Sam the Sham and Pharaohs, Louis Armstrong and Liberace. The film kept a number of the Gershwin songs. Broadway saw a revival of sorts with a completely new plot and songs from other Gershwin shows in 1992 under the name Crazy For You.
Girl Crazy features a wealth of the Gershwin brothers' classic songs that have become standards, such as "Embraceable You," "I Got Rhythm" "Bidin' My Time," "But Not for Me" and lesser known songs like "Sam and Delilah," "Bronco Busters" and "Treat me Rough" plus comic songs "(When It's) Cactus Time in Arizona" and "Goldfarb, That's I'm!."
There is one very silly plot line, the story of New York playboy Danny Churchill (Jeff Horst) who takes a cab from New York to Arizona (the fare was $723) driven by Brooklyn cabbie Gieber Goldfarb (Kalon Thibodeaux) to Danny's father's working ranch which has not been very profitable. Danny turns the property into a dude ranch where they run into all sorts of characters, including the perky Arizona gal Molly (Meghann Reynolds). There are lonesome cowboys who fill in the other roles (Benjamin Pither, Andrew Willis-Woodard, Nicolas Yenson and Justin Torres); an evil sheriff; a dastardly fellow named Lank Sanders (Peter Budinger); a busty lady looking like Mae West in Diamond Lil, Kate Fothergill (Cami Thompson); and her weak womanizer husband Slick (Peter Sroka); the shifty Sam Mason (Gabriel Grilli); and three lovely ladies who also play the three senoritas in the second act, Patsy, Tess and Flora (Lisa Hensley, Elise Youssef Jessica Payne), as back ups to the plot.
Director Dyan McBride is helming a splendid cast of young actors/singers and has made the silly script even campier and a joy to watch. The comic one-liners are older then Methuselah, but in the hands of the very talented Kalon Thibodeaux as the taxicab sheriff of Arizona, they are still very funny. Kalon has the infectious knack for making lines hilarious just through his physical being.
Meghann Reynolds, who reminds me of a young Shirley MacLaine, as Molly Gray and Jeff Horst as Danny Churchill are captivating in the their roles. Both have great vocal chops in their duet "Embraceable You," and she is moving in "But Not for Me." He is originally from Columbus, Ohio, and displays a boyish charm in his acting while she plays the role like a real buckskin desert flower. Cami Thompson as Kate (the Ethel Merman role) is marvelous singing "I've Got Rhythm" and "Sam and Delilah." Gabriel Grilli is very good as the deceitful Sam Mason (a non singing role).
Peter Budinger and Benjamin Pither give great performances as the strong-armed former sheriff and his deputy, with just the right amount of old-time melodrama acting that you might see up in the Sierra foothills during the summer months. Justin Torres is perfect playing the Police Chief of San Luz in the second act as if he is also playing in those summer melodramas. Lisa Hensey, Jessica Payne and Elise Youssef play various roles, giving delightful performances.
Special mention is due Andrew Willis-Woodward who is becoming a better and better musical comedy actor (this is his third 42nd Street Moon Production, CAP 21 Summer Program at NYU's Tisch School of Arts) and a great dancer and singer. He has outstanding dance moves as a "Gay Caballero" in the big dance number that opens the second act.
Nicholas Yenson, new to the San Francisco Bay Area, is wonderful, especially when he and Andrew do an intricate tap dancing routine at the end of the first act. This young man, who trained at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts in modern dance, has great classical dance moves. Nicholas also appears in the small role of the manager of the Hotel Las Palmas, speaking perfect Spanish, and he is charming.
Choreographer Staci Arriaga's dance movements are energetic and lively for a small stage. Once again, Dave Dobrusky gives good back-up on the piano with the lively score of the Gershwin brothers. Tom Orr has devised a good little Western set for the small stage, with a potpourri of Western items on each side.
Girl Crazy plays through November 16 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.
The Quality of Life premiered at the Geffen Playhouse on October 10, 2007. The one-hour and forty-minute piece was nominated for four 2007 Los Angeles Drama Critic Circle awards and six 2007 Los Angeles Ovation Awards. Jane Anderson, who directed the original production and directs here, has brought to San Francisco three of the original actorsDennis Boutsikaris, Laurie Metcalf and JoBeth Williamsto repeat their roles. The fourth member is Steven Culp, who appeared for several seasons on Desperate Housewives" on ABC.
This morality play incorporates a number of contemporary issues such as the right to die, fundamental religions and the right to live where one pleaseeven in the desolate area of the Oakland Hills in an Arabian yurt with no inside plumbing. There is enough here for several sessions on the Oprah Winfrey television show. Jane Anderson has allowed the four actors to talk in a normal voice, and sometimes they don't project to those sitting in the rear rows of the theater. There are some comedy zingers in this heavy drama, but they get lost, either from lack of projection or the actors talking entirely too fast among themselves. There are overly long dichotomies of ideals that sound more like preaching than intellectually argument.
The two couples deal with death in very different ways in this confrontational drama. Liberals Neil (Dennis Boutsikaris) and Jeannette (Laurie Metcalf) have lost their home and possessions in the destructive fire. Neil is a respected Sociology professor at UC Berkeley and dying of cancer. He is preparing to kill himself if it becomes too painful to bear. Jeannette, a poet and free spirit who runs barefoot through out the ruins of their home, adores her husband and dotes on his condition. In fact, she is ready to commit suicide with him when the time arrives. Both are now living in an Arabian yurt with a makeshift kitchen among the burned out trees and charred stumps. She has collected her completely burnt possessions that almost disintegrated in the 2000-degree fire, and are now twisted things hanging on wires above the tent. She says to her husband, "We are the ones who instill preciousness on things."
Bill and Dinah are entirely different in their lifestyle. Bill (Steven Culp) is an Ohioan straight-arrow born-again Christian who looks to a fundamentalist church for all of the answers to life. Everything in his world is black or white with no shades of gray. Dinah (JoBeth Williams) also looks to the church for answers. Both have suffered a terrible loss, with the hideous rape and murder of their teenaged daughter and only child. Dinah keeps her anger bottled and keeps busy to distract herself from her anger. She pressures her husband to fly to California for a few days to visit her cousin Jeannette and husband Neil. Needless to say, there is a big confrontation on the ideologies of the couples as all hell breaks loose in camp. Bill hates Neil and Jeannette's lifestyle and the fact he is going to commit suicide before the cancer pain sets in, and he tells Neil, "You will roast in the flames of hell along with the murderer of my daughter."
The four actors give substantial performances. During the first four scenes, they talk so fast and over each other that much of the important information cannot be heard. When Steven Culp as Bill briefly tells of the murder of his daughter, it appears he does it as an off the cuff remark. It is only later that he gets emotional value out of his character. He gives a good performance in the second act when Bill really confronts Neil on his life style. JoBeth Williams looks and acts like a an Ohio wife who enjoys canning peaches and preserves. It's an effective performance as she tries to mediate Neil and Jeannette's lifestyle. Laurie Metcalf as Jeannette brings the play to life as the hippie, with some of the strongest and cleverest one liners. Dennis Boutsikaris is an excellent actor whom I have seen on the Los Angeles stage. He seems to be less successful with the role of Neil, displaying very little emotion as a man dying of cancer.
Donald Eastman's set is very good with a burnt tree that looks like a prop from Waiting For Godot. The plastic items from the contents of Neil and Jeanette's home add a gothic touch to the set. Even the yurt looks good on stage. Lighting by Kent Dorsey gives a mood look to the whole production, and Laurie Metcalf's costumes by Lydia Tanji look like authentic hippie wear.
Jane Anderson tries to balance each of the couple's lifestyles, but she does lean a bit on the lifestyle of Neil and Jeannette..
The Quality of Life runs through November 23rd at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary, San Francisco. Tickets can be obtained by calling 415-749-2228 or visiting www.act-sf.org.
Mark Nadler is an outrageous and entertaining performer who patterns his show on Danny Kaye's tongue-twisting patter song from The Lady in the Dark by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin. In it, Nadler rattles off the names of 48 Russians (actually one is Polish) in 43 seconds. He informs the audience that they are going to be getting an education on all 48 composers, some familiar and many unfamiliar. They range from the unfamiliar Cesar Cui and Arensky to the more familiar Serge Rachmaninoff, Alexander Borodin, and the ever-popular Rimsky-Korsakoff. The artist manages to create his own reasons for a crazy, musically brilliant tour de force of zany acting.
Mark Nadler takes the audience on a wacky comic journey and they hear just snippets (some just 45 seconds long) of each composer. He is one of the most animated comics and sometimes just goes completely overboard. Some of the audience will be exhausted from his athletic tomfoolery before the night is over. He is a very talented musician and has good singing chops, especially in Frank Loesser's "Ugly Duckling" from Hans Christian Andersen or a song by Vladimir Dukelsky (better known as Vernon Duke), "Talking a Chance on Love" from Cabin in the Sky. He is in invigorating voice singing Adam Guettel's "Icarus" from Myths and Hymns and Stephen Sondheim's "Next" from Pacific Overtures. He not only sings the song, but acts it out with outrageous movements. Mark is sublime singing the little-known John Wallowitch song, "Manhattan Blue," and Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's "Lonely Town" from On the Town.
Russian on the Side could stand some trimming since there is a lot to take in during 90 minutes. Mark Nadler will be appearing at the Marine Memorial Theatre through November 16th. For tickets please call 415-771-6900 or visit www.Ticketmaster.com.
Photo: Michael Brosilow