Theater of the Inevitable

Beach Blanket Babylon, Shear Madness, Tony n' Tina's Wedding

Beach Blanket Babylon
Sooner or later, you're obliged to go: Your maiden aunt, your widowed grandmother, your Uncle Erwin and Aunt Wilhelmina from the Midwest, or some other such person is coming to town. He, she, or they want to see some theater -- by which they mean something entertaining and not too challenging. (Touched by an Angel is sometimes too much for Aunt Wil.) You, of course, have standards, which is why you thank God that Phantom's no longer playing. That's when you're forced to turn to San Francisco's long-running shows, all of them reeling in the tourists, promising hilarity beyond measure, delight beyond compare, and the best value for your entertainment dollar.

The jokey razzmatazz of the late Steve Silver's Beach Blanket Babylon is now in its 26th year, a campy jamboree that's like a Disneyland revue upended and subverted. What's surprising is that even after 25 years, the thing still works. Its illogical groupings (Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Jackson, Fergie, and Richard Simmons all sing "Into Food" to the tune of "In the Mood"), dadaist product placements (Mr. Peanut, Ritz crackers, and Oil of Olay are only some of the brands), pillaging of hit tunes (Bacharach, Motown, West Side Story, and many others contribute to the score), and celebrity ripping (Willie Brown, the Artist, and Bill and Hillary are pilloried) create a pop theater of the absurd. Director Kenny Mazlow drives the show at Mach speed -- panels snap open to reveal the next celeb impersonation or oversized prop and close before the laughter dies down. And the hats -- huge and wondrously foolish -- hint that brilliance can lie behind an all-out commitment to nonsense.

None of this would work without talented performers. BBB's 10 cast members all look as though there's nowhere else they could be, let alone want to be, especially Erica Wyman as a Carmen Miranda-esque tootsie who overaspirates her h's; Tom Halligan, who apparently believes dancing in a French poodle suit while singing "Big Girls Don't Cry" is perfectly reasonable; and Stirland Martin, whose James Brown can only speak in unintelligible ecstatic exhalations. The show's three stars are Linda Bulgo as Snow White searching for true love, the big-voiced Renée Lubin as her fairy godmother (and various other roles), and Val Diamond, an institution herself of the same stature as the show.

Val Diamond in Beach Blanket Babylon: An institution herself.
David Allen
Val Diamond in Beach Blanket Babylon: An institution herself.


Beach Blanket Babylon
By Steve Silver. Produced by Jo Schuman Silver. Directed by Kenny Mazlow. Starring Linda Bulgo, Tracy Chiappone, Val Diamond, Renée Lubin, Doug Magpiong, Kenny Mazlow, Kirk Mills, Patrick Reese, Andrew Schmitt, Phillip Williams, and Erica Wyman. At Club Fugazi, 678 Green (near Columbus), on an open-ended run. Admission is $25-60; call 421-4222.

Shear Madness
By Paul Pörtner. Produced and adapted by Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan. Starring Andrew Hurteau, John McGivern, Amelia Rosenberg, Marie Shell, Christopher Tarjan, and Liam Vincent. At the Mason Street Theater, 340 Mason (below Geary), on an open-ended run. Admission is $34; call 982-5463.

Tony n' Tina's Wedding
By Artificial Intelligence. Produced by Howard Perloff for Howard Porter Productions. Directed by Brian Rardin. Starring John Kovacevich, Lenoir Kieve, and a cast of thousands. At the Cable Car Theater, 430 Mason (above Geary), on an open-ended run. Admission is $65-75 including meal; call (800) 660-8462

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This is the third time I've been to BBB (the first two times? Out-of-town guests, of course), but I've seen Diamond only once. Her current understudy, Tammy Nelson, is tremendously gifted, but when Diamond, dressed as a French hooker with a lamppost coming out of her head, stopped to sing Bacharach's "Anyone Who Had a Heart," the camp, the gimmicks, the jokes were transcended, and a glimpse of heartbreak appeared. As fun as BBB is on its own, Diamond elevates the tomfoolery to something essential, making the trivial important.

Shear Madness

For unimportant triviality, there's Shear Madness, running in San Francisco since 1997. Originating in Boston in 1980, this franchise's attempts at local color have a pasted-on quality. (No self-respecting S.F. hairdresser, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, would have pink and lime green wallpaper in his or her shop.) The show, from a German play by Paul Pörtner and shaped by producers Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan, has four acts. Act 1: The activities among six people in a beauty shop culminate in the murder of the unseen elderly woman who lives upstairs. Act 2: The police mount a re-creation of the first act, and the audience points out where suspects mislead or dissemble. Act 3: Audience members question the actors directly and vote on who they think is guilty. Act 4: The cast plays out an explanation of how the audience's pick is indeed the murderer.

The players bellow unnecessarily and often all scream at once. In Act 1, the fourth wall is presumably intact, yet the cast breaks character to laugh when an actor gets off a good line or ad-lib. The fourth act is harsh and overly dramatic, as if the production were no longer a spoof but a real whodunit, and whatever goodwill has been generated is undercut.

The direction seems completely absent; the actors do whatever they want. But the show isn't about style or plot -- I defy any viewer to explain the motives or particulars behind the killing -- currently, it's about John McGivern. As the gay hairdresser Tony Whitcomb, he swishes, minces, prances, flirts, sashays, grovels, and begs -- anything for a laugh, whether it makes sense in the context of the show or not. He upstages the other actors without shame, and the audience loves him for it. ("Wasn't that gay guy a scream?") I grew to hate him for it. If you need to show your relatives that Homosexuals Are Very Funny, McGivern's your man. Otherwise, stay away.

Tony n' Tina's Wedding
With Tony n' Tina's Wedding the theater collective Artificial Intelligence (the show's original New York creators) and director/choreographer Brian Rardin have ingeniously contrived a show in which audience participation is essential, yet the risk of public mortification is almost nil. Transforming Italian-American nuptials into performance art, Tony n' Tina's Wedding realizes that American wedding rituals are as much about humiliation as they are a celebration of love. We tell the couple their relationship is exceptional and unique -- holy -- while at the same time we do our best to show the bridal pair they're nothing special: They've succumbed to the same base mixture of lust, fear, and weakness we all have. And of course, both things are true.

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