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 www.bestofbroadway-sf.com. Reviewed Feb. 11.

Mooi Street Moves. Clive Chafer's semihomeless Theatrefirst company turns the elegant patio room of the Berkeley City Club (where Aurora Theatre once played) into a laundry-and-shoebox-cluttered squat for a biting drama about homelessness and displacement in post-apartheid South Africa. Mooi Street Moves shows a white farm boy, Henry, returning to an apartment his brother used to rent, but finding in his place a dreadlocked, cheerful, and deeply unhelpful African named Stix. This suburban neighborhood of Johannesburg has been abandoned by middle-class Afrikaners and overtaken by Africans in a sudden sort of white flight, mainly because of inadequate civil rights legislation in the aftermath of apartheid (according to director Clive Chafer's useful notes). Stix survives as a thieving middleman; he fills the squat with boxes of TVs, shoes, and toasters for resale. Henry himself is homeless, so to live with Stix and earn money he learns the patter and moves of a street hustler -- "Mooi Street moves." Paul Slabolepszy is one of South Africa's leading playwrights, and under Chafer's crisp direction, not to mention pitch-perfect acting by David Skillman (as Stix) and Joseph Foss (as Henry), his brief, slightly contrived pas de deux comes on bright and strong. Chafer has made a local career of mounting fine, neglected plays about race from every corner of the former British Empire -- India, Israel, South Africa, even England itself -- and Mooi Street is one of his most highly polished. Through May 9 at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant (at Ellsworth), Berkeley. Tickets are $18-22; call (510) 436-5085 or visit www.theatrefirst.com. Reviewed April 28.

Slaughter City. With this mystical take on a slaughterhouse workers' strike in the early '90s, Naomi Wallace wants to transcend your average agitprop labor play. Slaughter City isn't just about men and women working long, underpaid hours in a meat factory; it also involves the ghost of an immigrant sausage maker and a young gender-ambiguous butcher who may or may not be stuck in time. (He sees visions of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911.) It's a noble experiment, and parts of it work harrowingly well; Slaughter City at least transcends the pettinessof bad agitprop. But it also veers and detours; it tries too hard to address everything from race to women's rights to the politics of sex in one grandiose sweep. (The American premiere in Cambridge, Mass., years ago suffered from the same problem.) In addition, a stiffness in the acting plagues Rebecca Novick's production: Except for Gillian Chadsey (as Cod, the gender-ambiguous knife-man) and the excellent Rebecca Scarpaci (as Maggot, a knife-woman who loves him), this Crowded Fire cast tends to oversell its lines. The harsh details of slaughterhouse work are ugly and fascinating, but Wallace's huge ambition as a writer saps the workers' story. Through May 8 at the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $15-20; call 675-5995 or visit www.crowdedfire.org. Reviewed April 28.

Valparaiso. Don DeLillo's 1999 play follows an ordinary guy named Michael Majeski on his round of press interviews after a simple business trip to Valparaiso, Ind., goes horribly wrong. He winds up on an international flight for Valparaiso, Chile, and his story turns into a news-of-the-weird novelty item on most American networks. The play shows the glare of Majeski's Warholian 15 minutes. Rod Hipskind plays a likable Majeski -- wiry, frantic, bearded, wearing a gray rumpled suit -- and Csilla Horvath is crisp and compulsive as Livia, his hyperactive wife. Jessica Jelliffe is also an appropriately sinister daytime-TV queen named Delfina Treadwell. But the characters are constructed and flat; something about DeLillo's social criticism feels too glib. It must be easy for a writer to declare the hollowness of postmodern selfhood when he writes such hollow characters. Through May 8 at the Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor (between O'Farrell and Eddy), S.F. Continuing May 13-22 at the Transparent Theater, Ashby & MLK, Berkeley. Tickets are $12-25; call (866) GOT-FURY or visit www.foolsfury.org. Reviewed April 28.

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.

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. Thursday, May 6, through Saturday, May 8, 2 p.m. Sunday, 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.

"Bourgeois": A rather schizophrenic evening of experimental music, dance, and theater featuring choreographer Joe Landini's 4 Stories, a dance piece reflecting on technology's takeover of modern culture, along with Femmisphere: Songs in the Key of Angst, a "drag cabaret" performance by the inimitable Trauma Flintstone, 8 p.m. Wednesdays, through May 26, $10, 885-4006 (information). Venue 9, 252 Ninth St. (at Folsom), 289-2000.

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.

The Canterville Ghost: Based on an Oscar Wilde novella, this comic tale follows an American family who moves into a haunted house, 8 p.m. Friday, May 7, 2 p.m. Saturday, May 8, and Sunday, May 9, $5-$10. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

Casino!: The new musical comedy debates whether a casino in Oakland's Fox Theater would be a good or lousy idea, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through May 16; $20, 510-531-0511 (information). Glenview Performing Arts Center, 1318 Glenfield (at Park), Oakland, 510-531-0511.

Dirty Blonde: Claudia Shear's comedy follows the exploits of Mae West and two of her many lovers, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through June 26; $10-$25. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

Dybbuk: The Traveling Jewish Theatre company's adaptation of the Yiddish theater classic story of a love affair so powerful not even death can destroy it, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through May 23; $18-$30. Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), 285-8282.

EUBIE! The Music of Eubie Blake: Relive the Roaring Twenties and the legendary artistry of Eubie Blake as San Francisco performers take on classics like "Charleston Rag" and "I'm Just Wild About Harry," 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through May 16, $20-$35. Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), 474-8800.

Hairspray: A zaftig girl finds love, acceptance, and her dancing chops in this musical comedy, through July 3, $36.50-$81, see bestofbroadway-sf.com for a schedule of performances. Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor (at Market), 512-7770.

The Importance of Being Earnest: The Asian American Theater Company's adaptation of Oscar Wilde's classic adapts its language to that of modern San Francisco, 8 p.m. Fridays, 8 and 10 p.m. Saturdays, through May 29; $15-$35. Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.

Jitney: Omega Theatre Works presentation of August Wilson's classic 70s work about urban renewal's effects on neighborhood cab drivers, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, through May 29; $20. Egypt Theater, 5306 Foothill, Oakland, 510-777-1707.

Money & Run: A sendup of action/adventure shows with a protagonist who attempts to take down Big Momma Bob's evil empire while battling ninjas, nuns, and narcs, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through June 5, $10-$15. La Val"s Subterranean Theater, 1834 Euclid (at Hearst), Berkeley, 510-234-6046.

The Mystery of Irma Vep: Charles Ludlam's cult play spoofs Victorian penny dreadfuls and classic horror films, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, through May 23; $39-$55. Berkeley Repertory's Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-647-2949.

Not a Genuine Black Man: KGO talk show star and comic Brian Copeland's solo show talks about growing up black in one of the most racist suburbs of America -- San Leandro, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through May 15; $15-$22, 641-0235 (information and reservations). The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

"Pocket Chekhov": Expression Theater Ensemble presents two Anton Chekhov farces in one evening -- The Brute and A Marriage Proposal; Opening night, 8 p.m. Thursday, May 6; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, beginning Friday, May 7, through May 29; free-$15. San Francisco Performing Arts Library & Museum, 401 Van Ness (at McAllister), 255-4800.

San Francisco Improv Festival: Twelve weeks, hundreds of performances in this all-impromptu-theater extravaganza, through June 26, see www.sfimprovcooperative.com for a schedule of events. Multiple locations.

The Sisters Rosenweig: Actors Ensemble of Berkeley takes on Wendy Wasserstein's droll comedy about a tumultuous family reunion, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through May 16, $10, 510-649-5999 (information). Live Oak Theater, 1301 Shattuck (at Berryman), Berkeley, (510) 704-8210.

Strange Travel Suggestions: Inveterate traveler Jeff Greenwald spins tales of his worldwide journeys, 8 p.m. Wednesdays, through May 26, $15-$22. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

Stretchmarks: Growing Into Motherhood: Four mothers share tales of pregnancy, childbirth, and rearing in this original comic show, 8 p.m. Thursday, May 6, through Saturday, May 8, 1 p.m. Sunday, May 9; $20-$22, 289-2289 (reservations). Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.

The Sweet New: Raymond Rea's play takes a look at social, political, and emotional changes in three generations of an Italian-American family, 8 p.m. Friday, May 7, and Saturday, May 8, $15-$20. Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (between Taylor & Mason), 673-3847.

Teatro ZinZanni: A blend of European cabaret, circus arts, and original music with a five-course gourmet dinner, in an open-ended run, 6 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; $99-$125, 438-2668 (tickets), www.zinzanni.org. Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery), 273-1620.

A Transylvanian in Silicon Valley: Romanian expatriate Silvian Centiu tells the comic story of how he transformed himself into a Silicon Valley programmer, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, through May 20; $20, 820-3929 (information). Actors' Theatre Second Stage, 533 Sutter (at Powell).

"Women in Jewish Theater: Staged Readings of New Plays": Plays by Jewish women are given the spotlight in this three-week series of staged readings, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, through May 19, $10-$12, 292-1233 (information). Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California (at Presidio), 292-1200.

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