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Sweet and Sour 

42nd St. Moon scores with America's Sweetheart; Marin Shakespeare stumbles on Richard III

Wednesday, Aug 16 1995
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Sometimes formulas are a good idea. Take 42nd St. Moon, for instance: The theatrical company restricts itself to staged concert-version readings of so-called "lost musicals," dated shows in which (some) great songs were introduced. Producers Greg McKellan and Stephanie Rhoads take their roles as theatrical historians seriously and labor to present each show in its original state. By resisting urges to update an impossibly creaky antique or to mount it as a full-scale production, and by steadily improving on their already pleasing presentation, 42nd St. Moon creates energetic, entertaining, and effervescent evenings. America's Sweetheart, Rodgers and Hart's amiable Hollywood spoof, is no exception.

It takes place at a fictional studio, Premiere Pictures, where comic actors Larry (Michael Farbstein) and Madge (Susan Ilene Johnson) are continually angling for parts. Fresh-faced newcomers from St. Paul, Michael (Clay Crosby) and Geraldine (Juliette Morgan), arrive to break into movies, and Larry and Madge befriend them. Larry maneuvers an introduction for Geraldine with the studio chief, S.A. Dolan (Frank Widman), who falls for her and casts her in his latest silent feature. She becomes an overnight success and dumps Michael, who remains faithful and dogged in his love for her. He also studies acting and voice and gets in on a new gimmick called talking pictures. Geraldine scoffs at this fad, of course. She's also got a tiny little problem: When she gets nervous, she lisps -- big time. Also around to complicate matters is S.A.'s jilted girlfriend, the fabulous French star Denise Torel (Chanelle Schaeffer).

It's all very silly with absolutely no surprises, and the only song I recognized was "I've Got Five Dollars," hardly one of the great Rodgers and Hart classics. It's easy to understand why the show disappeared.

But this cast -- directed by Roy Casstevens with musical direction by Richard "Scrumbly" Koldewyn and choreography by Steve Zee (with additional choreography by Candy Cotton Farbstein and Berle Davis) -- brings the sort of unabashed enjoyment to the proceedings that, say, Mickey and Judy gave the Andy Hardy movies. The pacing is strong, and the informal atmosphere of the staged reading -- complete with actors seated on chairs upstage following the action in their scripts -- sends a subtle signal to the audience that this is theatrical fakery: It's just a group of people gathered around a piano, so to speak. No one expects them to actually do anything.

So when they are genuinely funny, as are Johnson and Farbstein, when they earn honest laughs from lines that by anyone's standards are shameless old chestnuts, it's a marvelous surprise. When they break into an intricate tap dance and execute the steps very well indeed, as does Farbstein especially, it's pure delight. Schaeffer stands out as the vampy, campy French chanteuse, and Crosby and Morgan are winsome as the young couple from the sticks.

At the opposite end of the ambition scale is Marin Shakespeare Company's Richard III, directed by Ken Grantham and starring Jarion Monroe as the evil hunchback king. That this is a reach for the company is painfully evident. That they fall far short of success is simply painful.

Located on the grounds of Dominican College in San Rafael, the stage is nestled in a small rustic amphitheater. The sets, costumes, and lights (which seemed to be shorting out continually the evening I attended) bespeak the shoestring budget on which the show appears to have been mounted. One wonders especially why costume designer Callie Floor chose to go with tacky Halloween versions of Elizabethan garb when simple tights and cloaks would have suggested the period without calling attention to the state of the Marin costume department.

But that aside, one really wonders about other choices -- directorial choices -- such as the apparent decision to have every single death or execution in the play (and in nearly three hours there are a lot of them) marked by maniacal laughter. Or to have the ghosts that haunt Richard on the eve of battle sound as though they're about to break into a chorus from Sweeney Todd. But I get ahead of myself.

Richard III is one of Shakespeare's "bad guy" plays in which (according to a number of historians) he tosses history out the window and creates a character who is considered the personification of evil. Beginning with the famous lines, "Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this son of York," Richard sets forth his intention to do whatever he must to take the throne. He kills at the drop of a hat; causes his brother, the debauched and sickly King Edward, to collapse and die; seduces the widow of a prince whom he has murdered; connives with an ambitious noble, the Duke of Buckingham, to grab the crown; and, finally, orders the death of two young princes who are the last legitimate heirs to the throne.

According to Shakespeare, Richard is hideously deformed, a freak whose very appearance should warn people of the poison he carries inside. He is a man who is consumed by bitterness, whose actions spring from a desperate rage he uses to justify his every evil move. His ambition makes his actions progressive, and should, as written by Shakespeare, provide a dramatic momentum that's full of suspense and horror.

Jarion Monroe's Richard, however, is more like a villain in an old-fashioned melodrama. He walks with a kind of limp, and carries his left arm as though it bothers him, but otherwise he looks downright dashing in all black. Because he insists on leering and practically winking at the audience every time he sets some nasty plan in motion, we feel we're being invited to hiss and boo. Monroe starts over the top and stays there, teetering, for the entire show.

There's no drama to this Richard because, as interpreted in Grantham's direction, he's a cartoon -- a silly, snarling figure who would be at home in any of the Batman movies. We can't take him seriously, and so we wonder at the ingenuousness of his victims, such as Lady Anne (Michelle Pelletier), whom, after murdering her husband, Richard seduces as she goes to the burial. He should overwhelm her with raw sexuality. Instead, he makes her seem demented, as she finds the rationale for accepting his proposal.

Richard isn't the only character who's over the top. With the exception of Judi Quick, who makes "Mad Margaret" moving and believable (except for her wails as she exits, which I imagine she was instructed to do), and Mark Hurty, who plays a grounded and intelligent Stanley, Earl of Derby, everyone minces, makes faces, grimaces, howls, and acts, acts, acts. They have all bitten off more scenery than they can chew.

America's Sweetheart runs through Aug. 20 at New Conservatory Theatre in S.F.; call 861-8972. Richard III runs through Aug. 20 at Dominican College in San Rafael; call 456-8104.

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Mari Coates

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