Our critics weigh in on local theatre

The Lion King. How do you turn a decent cartoon about African wildlife into a lame Broadway musical? 1) Puzzle carefully about the problem of costumes and sets. Pour millions of dollars and hours of mental energy into making your actors look like lions, hyenas, elephants, wildebeests, giraffes, and birds. Solve the problem brilliantly. Hire Julie Taymor to design the magnificent costumes and masks (and to direct the show). Hire Garth Fagan to choreograph elegant, exciting, Afro-Caribbean dance routines. Make sure Donald Holder lights the stage with an eloquent feeling for African distances and sunshine. In general make the show a visual feast. Then, 2) squint in confusion at the script, and 3) carve it up to make room for appalling songs by Tim Rice and Elton John. You'll have a profitable bunch of nonsense with more than one God-soaked number that sounds indistinguishable from bad Whitney Houston. The only cast member who can transcend this mess and give a stirring performance is Thandazile Soni, as Rafiki the monkey shaman, who gets to sing songs like "Nants' Ingonyama," by Lebo M, and other African chants originated by Tsidii Le Loka on Broadway. Bob Bouchard is also funny as Pumbaa the warthog, and Derek Smith plays a perfectly arrogant, sinister Scar, the pretender lion king. Otherwise the show is forced and childish. Adults looking for good theater will be happier when the performers dance instead of trying to act. Through Sept. 5 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1182 Market (at Eighth Street), S.F. Tickets are $26-160; call 512-7770 or visit Reviewed Feb. 11.

The Miser. The best part of this Miser is that director Patrick Dooley hasn't tried to drag Molière's rococo comedy of manners into the 21st century. Valera Coble's period costumes are simultaneously faithful to 1688 and irreverent; everyone wears too many frills. Clive Worsley, as Harpagon the miser, is brilliant; his elaborate, preening viciousness keeps him literally on the toes of his pointed shoes for most of the play. Andy Alabran also does strong, flamboyant work as his son, Cléante, who loves Marianne (Meghan Doyle), a rich young thing, but can't get the money from his father to marry her, because Harpagon a) is too stingy and b) has proposed to Marianne himself. The father-son rivalry fuels most of the satire until someone steals Harpagon's chest of 10,000 crowns. The production is witty, energetic, and (suitably) free: The Shotgun Players depend this year on donations rather than ticket sales. Through May 2 at the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts, 2640 College (at Derby), Berkeley. Call (510) 704-8210 or visit Reviewed April 21.

The Time of Your Life. William Saroyan's snapshot of San Francisco just before World War II can be sentimental, old-fashioned, and cheesy; a director needs a steely-eyed vision of the play in order to make it work. Tina Landau, happily, knew just what she was doing when she directed The Time of Your Life at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater two years ago. Now she's brought it to ACT -- in a co-production with Seattle Rep -- with brilliant results. The regulars at Nick's Pacific Street Saloon could be played as paint-by-numbers Local Color, but Landau's cast avoids the trap either by exaggerating the roles or by diving straight through them. The action moves up and around the audience, onto scaffoldings and into the box seats. The play literally overflows the stage, and Landau finds the real, democratic feeling behind Saroyan's effusions. Through May 2 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $30; call 677-9596 or visit Reviewed April 7.

Also Playing

After the Fall: Actors Theatre's revamp of Arthur Miller's autobiographical play about a lawyer who analyzes his life's successes and failures, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, through May 22; $5-$20. Actors Theatre San Francisco, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 296-9179.

Antigone Falun Gong: Sophocles' original debate over individual rights versus the power of the state easily takes to Cherylene Lee's adaptation, which centers on Antigone's decision to defy the state by openly practicing a forbidden religion, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through May 16; $28-$40. Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-843-4822.

Are We Almost There?: Morris Bobrow's rollicking, long-running musical comedy about the trials and tribulations of travel, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, $20-$22. Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-3040.

Assassins: This black comedy musical takes a look at the lives of 13 notorious killers from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley, Jr., 3 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, beginning Friday, April 30, 2 p.m. Sundays, through May 9; $8-$10. SFSU Campus/McKenna Theater, 1600 Holloway (at 19th Ave.), Creative Arts Bldg., 338-2467.

BATS: Sunday Players: Each week Bay Area Theatresports players pit their improv work against all comers as the audience votes them off one by one until the winner stands alone on the stage, 8 p.m. Sundays, $8, 474-6776 (information). Fort Mason, Bldg. B, Marina & Buchanan.

Beach Blanket Babylon: This North Beach perennial features crazy hats, media personality caricatures, a splash of romance, and little substance, 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 7 and 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays, $25-$65. Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.

Cabaret Girl: 42nd Street Moon takes on this 20s-era musical about a cabaret troupe that impersonates a noble family, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 6 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through May 16; $17-$30. Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), 788-7469.

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