Our critics weigh in on local theatre

Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A musical for deaf people? Why subject an irreverent novel like Huck Finn to the blustery reverence of Broadway, only to translate it painstakingly into American Sign Language for the sake of people who can -- and should! -- just borrow the damn book from the library and enjoy the sound of Huck's voice as Twain set it down on paper? Yet it works: Thirteen members of the sprawling cast have dialogue but never say a word; in each case a "voice" actor comes on to help perform, while the deaf actor delivers his lines in ASL. This method adds a lot of stage business to the show, which director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun and his assistant, Coy Middlebrook, mitigate through rhythmic movement and clever casting. Tyrone Giordano plays an engaging Huck, with voice assistance from Daniel Jenkins, who wanders the stage in a Mark Twain costume. Erick Devine and Troy Kotsur play a hilarious two-man Pap, Huck's father; Michael McElroy, in his own voice, plays a compelling Jim. When Jim and Huck set off on the raft at the end of the first scene, the rave-up "Muddy Water" might have become oversweet in the throat of another singer, but McElroy makes it infectious, and even Huck Finn purists will admit that this strange musical has captured some of the novel's essence. Through July 10 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $30-85; call 512-7770 or visit www.bestofbroadway-sf.com. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed June 23.

Buddy -- The Buddy Holly Story. Among the honored too-early-dead of rock 'n' roll, Buddy Holly is untouchable. Not only did he help invent the genre, but he also helped invent the too-early death. His legacy is obvious in his music -- it's been covered by the Beatles (Paul McCartney has for years owned the rights to all of Holly's songs), the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Beach Boys, Blondie, and so on, and alluded to, consciously and un-, by countless others. Although it's not immediately evident from the unimaginative title, Buddyis committed to being (and celebrating being) alive -- so much so, in fact, that it comes off as peculiarly hyper. The book by Alan Janes is a pastiche of feel-good, PG-rated stuff, but true enough, it rocks. In appearance, sound, and mood, Buddy evokes a special age in American music, the forward-looking mid-'50s, when a kid like Holly was thrilling to behold. It does no harm to remember the momentum he imparted. Better still to rediscover his musicianship. Through July 11 at the Post Street Theatre, 450 Post (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $25-63; call 321-2900 or visit www.buddyrocks.com. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 16.

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 Nov. 21 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 Award-winning 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 25 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.

Not a Genuine Black Man. It's not easy being green, but try being a black kid in San Leandro in the early '70s. When Brian Copeland got there -- just a few months after the Summer of Love, he points out -- it was one of the most viciously racist suburbs in America. Now it's officially the most diverse. "Take that, San Francisco," Copeland chides. He's earned that attitude, not just for going through his hell of growing up, but also for extracting from it such affirmative, hilarious stuff. Copeland's rightfully popular one-man show is wrought from pain and rage, but never really succumbs to bitterness. "Is that black?" he asks, and proves that it is. Some of his best stereotype-busting material doesn't feel especially new, but it does feel good. Besides, it's the stereotypes that have passed their expiration dates: Copeland's title comes from an accusation recently flung at him by a cranky listener who called in to his KGO radio program. This show is his response. With help from declarative lighting and David Ford's direction, Copeland creates an affecting hybrid of the dramatic monologue and the rollicking stand-up act. Through July 24 at the Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd Street), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call 826-5750 or visit www.themarsh.org. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 2.

Southern Baptist Sissies. Del Shores' tragicomedy mixes what New Conservatory productions tend to do best (camp) with what they tend to stumble over (sentiment). Four teenage choirboys in a Southern Baptist church experiment with their changeable, fickle desires under the inattentive but feverish eye of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. Mark, who snarkily narrates, falls in love with T.J., a straight-up military son who prefers not to think of himself as gay. Andrew is a sweetly suffering closet case; Benny rejects his upbringing to become a drag queen. The show amounts to a survey of the wreckage caused by Baptist fundamentalism, with music: Church ladies and choirboys sing hymns, while Benny channels Dolly Parton and Wynonna Judd. But the liveliest characters are a pair of barflies who seem to live in the club where Benny sings. An old fag hag named Odette Annette Barnette (J.R. Orlando) makes friends with an overweight, over-the-hill queer named Peanut (Richard Ryan). "Oh, no, honey, I'm not a lesbian," Odette tells him chirpily. "I'm a alcoholic." Unfortunately, they have little to do with the main story. The Baptist-community satire is stronger here than any drama of self-discovery: Sissies, overall, preaches to the converted. Through July 11 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), S.F. Tickets are $18-28; call 861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed June 23.

Also Playing

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.

As You Like It: The all-female Woman's Will company sets Shakespeare's tale in 1960s London with a cross-dressing cast, Saturday, July 10, through Aug. 15, free; see www.womanswill.org for a schedule of performances, 510-420-0813 (information). Multiple locations.

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.

Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: Deaf West Theatre's production is an unusual combination of spoken English and American Sign Language that also incorporates dance and various storytelling traditions in an effort to create a show appropriate for both deaf and hearing audience members, through Saturday, July 10, $30-$85, see www.bestofbroadway-sf.com for a schedule of performances. Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (between Taylor and Mason), 551-2000.

Boxcar Bertha: A one-woman play based on the life and times of 1930s rail-riding hobo Bertha Thompson, 8 p.m. Thursday, July 8, through Saturday, July 10, $12-$20. Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle: The Shotgun players retell the story of King Solomon and his solution to a problem shared by two mothers in this free outdoor production, 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, beginning Sunday, July 11, through Aug. 29, free. John Hinkel Park, Southampton (between San Diego and Somerset), Berkeley, 510-655-0813.

The Good Body: Award-winning playwright Eve Ensler looks at the whys and wherefores of women changing their bodies for social approval, 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through July 25; $11-$68. Geary Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228.

Henry IV: Mladen Kiselov directs Dakin Matthews' adaptation of of Shakespeare's Henry IV,Parts One and Two; Previews, 8 p.m., through Friday, July 9; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, beginning Saturday, July 10, 2 p.m. Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, beginning Saturday, July 10, through Aug. 1; $10-$52. Bruns Memorial Amphitheater, Siesta Valley, Shakespeare Festival Way/Gateway Blvd., Hwy. 24, Orinda, 510-548-9666.

I Look Like an Egg But I Identify as a Cookie: Comic Heather Gold bakes chocolate chip cookies and recounts funny memories with her audiences while asking them to share recipes and other secrets, 8 p.m. Sundays, through July 18, $20-$30, 866-468-3399 (information). Hotel Adagio, 550 Geary (at Taylor).

"I Wanna Be a Republican": The winsomely ornery cross-dressing "beautyshop quartet" turns its attention to politics, with a mock GOP fundraiser, 8 p.m. Friday, July 9, $20-$32. Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness (at Grove), 392-4400.

"A Midsummer Night's Madness": Proceeds from the variety show, which features performances from Auntie Drew, Christian Cagigal, Suppositori Spelling, and others, benefit the Theatre Rhinoceros, 8 p.m. Saturday, July 10, $20. The Center, 1800 Market (at McCoppin), 865-5555.

Open Process Series: Fist of Roses: Campo Santo reads through Philip Kan Gotanda's new production as the audience listens and provides constructive criticism, 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 12, $5-$15. Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia (at 15th St.), 626-2787.

Orpheus Descending: The Jean Shelton & Kenneth Vandenberg-directed production resets the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in a small, backward Southern town., 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 28; $10-$40. Actors Theatre San Francisco, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 296-9179.

Southern Lights: Lee Brady's drama looks into the romantic dalliances of famous country-and-western singers, 8 p.m. Thursday, July 8, through Saturday, July 10, $15. Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.

Things We Did Before Reality: Will Franken's new solo show involves things people did before reality set in, such as believing in a president, 11 p.m. Saturday, July 10, $10. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

"Water Tales": Inge Wessels and her crew of wisecracking puppets offer insights into San Francisco's maritime history, 1 and 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through Aug. 15, free. Hyde Street Pier, Hyde (at Jefferson), 556-3002.

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.