Encore

Our critics weigh in on local theatre

Drifting Elegant. Stephen Belber's new drama belongs to the Magic Theatre's "Hot House" cycle of three fresh plays, performed in repertory with Relativity (by Cassandra Medley) and The 13 Hallucinations of Julio Rivera (by Stephen R. Culp). Drifting Elegant deals with rape, race, and conscience. Nate, a freelance reporter, takes an assignment to profile an accused rapist just released from prison. One problem: Nate knew the victim. An African-American reporter for the same paper, Elizabeth, accused the prisoner of rape, then exonerated him before dying of cancer. Nate not only knew Elizabeth -- they had a brief affair. Now he proposes to write a balanced piece about the man she sent to jail. Is he biased? Yes. Does he interview the guy anyway? Yes. Victor Saad, the accused, is tight-lipped at first, but then reverses himself and starts to intrude on Nate's shambling, unstable life. Darren Bridgett does nice work as Nate, who never knows when to shut up, and Harry Dillon is an effectively stoic Victor, showing up most of Nate's folly. Barbara Pitts also does well enough as Jen, Nate's wife, who flirts with a slick African-American friend of theirs, Renny (Michael Gene Sullivan). But Jen in particular seems undeveloped: She talks too much like her husband, and the concept of the play seems to rest on one forced speech of hers at the end. Nate's deepest, unspoken motivation for writing about Victor in the first place -- unabsolved guilt over Elizabeth -- also feels dodgy. Drifting Elegant still isn't free of its own ideas; it may need more time in the hothouse. Through June 20 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $25; call 441-8822 or visit www.magictheatre.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed May 12.

Hairspray. Based on the 1988 pop-camp-trailer-trash cult classic film Hairspray, the musical by the same name sticks with you for days like a generous spraying of Aqua Net. Between the upbeat score (which combines bebop, rock, blues, and show tunes) and the humorous but meaningful script, it's actually more vibrant, and resonates more deeply, than the movie. Played by the energetic Keala Settle, Tracy Turnblad is a toe-tapping, hip-swinging typical teenager in 1962 Baltimore, with an expansive heart, monumental dreams, and hair so high it's a hazard in a lightning storm. In fact, everything about Tracy is super-sized, and that's precisely her problem. When she finally lands a spot as a regular teen dancer on the locally broadcast (and all-white) Corny Collinsshow, she becomes determined to integrate it. Her desire to do the right thing lands her in all sorts of colorful places, including the slammer. There's never a dull moment in Hairspray, and when the show ends, the joy in the room is palpable enough to make your hair stand on end. Through July 3 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor (at Golden Gate), S.F. Tickets are $39-81; call 512-7770 or visit www.bestofbroadway-sf.com. (Karen Macklin) Reviewed June 9.

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. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Feb. 11.

Master Class. One reason people use the word "diva" too often nowadays is that the notion of great women being defined by great performances has made great fodder for modern dramatists. Not far beneath Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd., the pinnacle of diva dramaturgy, is Terrence McNally"s Tony Awardwinning 1996 play Master Class. The subject here, in a command performance by Rita Moreno, is the aching soul of superstar Maria Callas. But the show is also a valentine to the opera, beautiful bitch that she is. McNally knows how to orchestrate for human instruments. His play is agreeably operatic, and director Moisés Kaufman planes the lines of its shapely form with affection. Based on classes Callas taught at Juilliard in the early '70s, the action is an imparting of her earned wisdom. She's that dazzling -- the brutal teacher we've all had or wanted. Among the three students, strong singers all, Sherry Boone's Sharon is the real crowd-pleaser; the arc of her creative process is the most impressive and the most human. Mark Wedland's design and David Lander's lighting make good use of a deep, high-ceilinged stage to reveal a few stirring glimpses of grandeur. And Moreno, firmly rooted and lifting her face to gather the light, makes a big room feel small. "The real world." Brutal expression, brutal place," she declares as Callas, edifying performers everywhere. Through July 18 at the Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $20-55; call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 9.

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