The Audience Is The Thing
Shear Madness. By Paul Portner. Directed by Bruce Jordan. Starring Matt Callahan, Francine Torres, and Christopher Tarjan. At the Mason Street Theater, 340 Mason, on an open run. Call 982-5463.

It's hilarious, it's ribald, it's magenta vinyl furniture and mincing, horny hairstylists! It's Shear Madness, the longest-running nonmusical play in American history and a cottage industry unto itself. The interactive whodunit was launched in Boston in January 1980 and has been cloning itself ever since. Now with 28 productions running around the world -- including ongoing shows in Fort Lauderdale, Budapest, and Montevideo -- Madness mavens Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan have brought the show to S.F., replete with "local humor" about the Castro, Brisbane, and the Board of Supervisors.

As the audience trails in, flaming Tony and gum-snapping Barbara prance about their salon to blaring oldies. With canned insouciance they subject a hapless male customer to tacky, wacky antics. The boobs in face and shooting shaving cream immediately had the crowd chortling like a bunch of hyenas. My companion and I eyed the exit. The pathologically upbeat mood and earsplitting ditties fused into a terrifying spectacle of F-U-N! The producers seemed to have reduced entertainment down to a single elegant equation:

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2 breasts + 1 homosexual + noise = humor.
Finally the music fades, followed by a short yet confusing one-act. It involves a Pacific Heights matron, two seemingly ordinary customers, a mysterious man with a briefcase, and an offstage mad pianist who drives patrons and beauticians to distraction with her repetitive practicing. Things come to a head with the discovery that the pianist has been murdered. While the manic pacing and overwrought caricatures infused the production with an indelible sitcom sheen, much of the dialogue and acting proved to be winningly self-aware. Just at the point when Matt Callahan as the gratingly swishy Tony threatens to erode the last 30 years of gay activism, Barbara cries, "You're such a stereotype, Tony! I don't know what we're going to do with you." "In the '80s I was a stereotype," he declares. "In the '90s, I'm postmodern." By the end of the evening, Callahan was attacking Tony's flouncing, snippy queerdom with such genuine verve that he emerged from the hole he had been digging as the most three-dimensional personality onstage.

No matter the modest comic virtues of the first half, the play's real drama begins when the script ends. The two normal customers reveal themselves to be policemen and proceed to investigate the case by enlisting the audience to help reconstruct the events leading to the murder. As the crowd shouts out observations about bloody gloves and suspicious phone calls, the characters try to convert their accusers, bribing them with candy and arguing their case. In the end we are asked to vote on the killer, thereby directing the final course of the play.

Having discovered a deep human yearning for interactive spectacle, the producers exploit it fully -- giving each audience member the infantile sensation of control that David Foster Wallace calls that "special-for-me feeling." This giddy rush of engagement washes away even the most ossified critical apparatus and leaves one feeling tipsy. On that night, the scene verged on anarchy when certain gentlemen in the back row decided to comment on an actress' cup size. In these moments, Shear Madness transcended its safe mainstream mantle and became something truly weird.

-- Carol Lloyd

Sex, Sex, Sex
Grease! By Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. Directed by Jeff Calhoun. Starring Adrian Zmed, Mackenzie Phillips, and Sally Struthers. At the Golden Gate Theater, 1 Taylor (at Market), through May 11. Call 776-1999.

Seeing Grease! in the Tenderloin is something like eating cotton candy in a soup kitchen. You pass strip joints and neon porn shops, prostitutes, abandoned storefronts with people sleeping in the doorways; you find your seat in the opulent Golden Gate Theater and watch, before the show even starts, some damn fool in plaid pants and a zebra-print coat dancing onstage with teen-agers and kids from the audience. For decoration behind them there's a pink-and-black phonograph record with Vegas lights along the rim, and an orange curtain that reads, enormously, "1959." Civilization goes to hell outside while a section of the middle class that largely doesn't even remember the decade acts out a queer nostalgia for the '50s. It is weird.

Then a school bell rings, the house darkens, and Sally Struthers comes down the aisle, looking plump and mean, with piled blond hair and cat's-eye glasses, blowing a whistle. Everyone cheers, because everyone likes Sally Struthers. And, in fact, she's funny: Her screechy, shrewish voice contributes to a perfect caricature of Miss Lynch, the principal. When a few stragglers take their seats she stops the show, hand on hip. "We'll wait," she says scratchily. "Don't you know how to tell time yet? Big hand on the 12, little hand on the 8!" It's like being back in school.

Part of the reason for that impression is the audience, which consists mainly of kids and the parents who brought them. Grease! is a family show, which seems strange when you consider how raunchy it is. Two men bare their asses during a number called "Mooning"; Rizzo gets her legs pulled wide during a song that makes fun of Sandra Dee; two men plunge their faces into cleavage; and according to one of Danny's friends a girl named Cha-Cha has passed along the story that Danny "tried to get into her silks." "Well if he did," says another friend, "he must be makin' a bug collection for biology!"

[Rim shot]
This show never would have been staged for families in 1959. Still, on opening night, the raunch didn't go over too well. My impression was that the kids wanted to laugh, but they were there with their parents; and the folks wanted to Set a Good Example. That dynamic made most of the sex as hilarious as an expired whoopee cushion, which to me was the funniest part of the play.

The story of the greaser, Danny Zuko, courting-but-resisting Sandra Dee, the prim girl -- until Sandy whores herself by reversing her image -- is so flabby you might think Grease! would make an excellent vehicle for camp, but the campiness works only in flickers. Mackenzie Phillips plays a convincingly bitchy Rizzo; Beth Lipari is entertaining as Frenchy; and Kevin-Anthony, with his soaring voice, is electric as the Teen Angel, singing to Frenchy in his 2-foot-high fixture of plastic orange hair. Otherwise the show is fantastically boring. It runs two and a half hours on its thin premise, and between songs you realize that most of the dialogue is there to connect the musical numbers, the way a lot of Star Wars is there to link up flaring special effects. Porno flicks, of course, run on the same formula; and seen in the proper light the soul of Grease! takes on a tartishness that isn't really so out of place in the Tenderloin.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Hats Entertainment!
Beach Blanket Babylon. By Steve Silver. Directed and choreographed by Kenny Mazlow. Starring Linda Bulgo, Val Diamond, Doug Magpiong, and Renee Lubin. At Club Fugazi, 678 Green, on an open run. Call 421-4222.

Who says theater can't change our material reality? A block of North Beach's Green Street has been rechristened Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard after Steve Silver's musical revue. Granted, after a 20-plus-year-long run, BBB is as much San Francisco as the GGB and probably deserves its own sign. Director Kenny Mazlow dishes out a sensorial feast in the show's current incarnation, delivering choreographic razzmatazz, a variety of outrageously large hats (including a telescoping Transamerica Building), and lots of visual and musical puns.

The story is simple. Native S.F.er Snow White (Linda Bulgo) takes time out from the seven midgets to find a prince charming; men seem to be lacking at home. (BBB has a gay reputation, but the current version is curiously heterocentric.) With a little magic from a Tina Turner-riffing fairy godmother (Renee Lubin) and dressed like Glinda from the land of Oz, she globe-trots, hitting France, Italy, Japan, and some tropical locales. For each geographic shift, the performers switch accents, musical numbers, and hats -- a lamppost equals France, a chef's hat Rome, pineapples anywhere "exotic" -- and advise Snow on how to hook her fish. In Paris an emphysematous ho advises Snow to lose the too-clean smock and get trashy. But Snow's change of garb, to a French Apache look complete with a full-size garbage-can hat, fails to attract even a down-and-out French poodle (the electrifying Doug Magpiong). Similar episodes follow. The quest lets the troupe get the audience laughing by spinning out caricatures of cultural figureheads worldwide: from Gingrich to "Sony" and Cher, from John Travolta to Princess Di. At one point, cued by Madonna's "Like a Prayer," Snow transmogrifies into the gold-coned-brassiere-bobbing singer and enters the world of the divine when catapulted deus ex machina-style up and across the theater's ceiling. When virgins are mentioned Michael Jackson appears, complete with a baby Jackson strapped to his back.

You get the idea. BBB is good for a couple of laughs. It offers the same distasteful pleasure you got as a kid from pink cotton candy at the fair. However, BBB also raises other issues; such long-running success can have a deleterious effect. The show's financial base is a story that can easily change with the times (topical ready-mades can replace dated jokes without much ado), two performances a night, and post-show sales of BBB T-shirts, posters, and mineral-water bottles. Survival is fine, but the show's efforts to please its mostly white, middle-class audience may make others more uncomfortable. James Brown is endowed with an extravagant bulbous ass; a grinning "witch doctor" arrives onstage with a bone in his 'fro and a tumescent banana; and all of the female characters, including Hillary R.C., are portrayed as either matrons or sexual accessories. Hmmm. It's fine when street signs become ads, but do the disenfranchised have to foot the bill?

-- Frederick Luis Aldama

The Permanent Behemoth
The Phantom of the Opera. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe. Book by Stilgoe and Lloyd Webber. Directed by Harold Prince. Starring Franc D'Ambrosio, Lisa Vroman, and Christopher Carl. At the Curran Theater, 445 Geary (at Powell), in an open run. Call 776-1999.

It's inevitable. Mention that you love theater, and the response is, "Did you see Phantom [Miss Saigon/Aspects of Love]?" So you divert the conversation back toward dinner before the show. (Lovely elk medallions in black currant sauce!) What else can you say? "I'm sorry you spent $67 dollars to see a chandelier fall, a mouse of an actress in the lead, and sets that threaten to maim the actors if they misstep"? Gonzo blockbuster musicals are not my kind of theater -- besides the prices, there's no surprise or intimacy. Equity actors rarely burst into numbers about cheap motels and a quart of whiskey. And back drafts of dry ice kill visibility in your average 3,000-seat venue. But, with the Curran Theater generously providing an extra seat for the chip on my shoulder, I attended that man of mystery, The Phantom of the Opera.

Phantom's ostentatious success has relied on selling it as the one show to see, a token event absolving you from aesthetic activities for the rest of the year. If you don't visit museums, hate the thought of ballet and opera, and only listen to classical on desert road trips when the radio falls on AM, don't worry; Phantom has a smattering of all of the above. Art, like contrition, is no damn fun. But Goth plots with a synth-drum beat sure are, and Phantom has both the rhythms and the Gothic template: An innocent heroine is caught in a cavernous stone castle inhabited by a creepy, misshapen piece of bastard nobility. He tries to seduce her but is thwarted by our hero. In Phantom, demi-blue blood Christine Daae is the victim, the Opera Ghost her psychological captor, and the French pretty-boy Vicomte de Chagny is there to save the day; if this were Puccini, Christine would yank out her hair and go mad from the duplicity. The ending isn't resolutely happy, but the tears are for romance, not tragedy. Write it yourself and you might be knighted just like Android Lord Blubber.

What's nice about the Curran Theater production is that it avoids the histrionics of the touring behemoth. This is a softer, humbler Phantom. The journeymen actors pumping out eight shows a week actually connect with their audience. The vocals aren't cranked up in volume, and there aren't the claptrap pauses waiting for applause to ripple around the amphitheater. Too much approval is given to the computer-programmed effects and not the solid character work by performers like Geena Jeffries as the preening prima donna, Carlotta. And the San Francisco show also charms with its slight mistakes: Christine is late on an entrance and dancers bump into set pieces. Unifying accidents remind you this is live theater, not merely the vehicle for a trinket or a T-shirt or a soundtrack album pushed by the Really Useful Theater Company. Maybe Phantom isn't the disease of an afflicted theater industry; maybe it's just another play.

-- Julie Chase

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