Encore

Our critics weigh in on local theatre

The Fantasticks. The longest-running play in American history is also musical theater's cheesiest self-parody, a sweet, dumb story about two fathers who pretend a Montague-and-Capulet-style feud as an excuse to keep their kids, Luisa and Matt, apart. The hope, of course, is to throw them together, since children never do as they're told. When Matt and Luisa fall in love, the fathers arrange a "rape" by the mysterious Spaniard El Gallo, with help from a pair of feckless old actors. Matt is then supposed to rescue Luisa from the Spaniard and become a hero to her as well as to her dad, thus ending the feud. Not everything goes as planned, and the rest of the musical deals in schmaltzy terms with love's dark underbelly. The Fantasticks premiered in Greenwich Village in 1960 and played there until early 2002. The S.F. Playhouse, for some reason, is reviving it. Bill English plays El Gallo in a mustache and black Spanish suit; Louis Parnell plays one of the fathers, Hucklebee; Katy Stephan plays the spoiled but charming Luisa; Mark Farrell plays the nebbishy Matt. Parnell and Farrell are both solid professionals, putting in an honest night's work, but English and Stephan tend to be self-conscious actors. The difference is that Stephan can sing. Her voice soars and melts with emotion, especially in the duets, while English makes up for his limited range with a sort of prancing silliness. Joe Bellan and Graham Cowley manage real comedy as the geriatric actors, but director Dianna Shuster has no clear comic vision for the rest of the scenes, and The Fantasticks, overall, gives off an unfresh odor, like something that's spent too much time under stage lights. Through Aug. 21 at the S.F. Playhouse, 536 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $30; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.com. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed July 14.

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.

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 Aug. 28 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.

Orpheus Descending. One of Tennessee Williams' great but problematic tragedies is a Southern Gothic featuring a wandering blues musician, Valentine Xavier. Val wears a snakeskin coat and carries a guitar inscribed by singers such as Blind Lemon Jefferson and Bessie Smith. He wants to abandon his old life of juke joints and cheap women, so he accepts a straight job at the Torrance Mercantile Store in an unnamed small town, where his sheer physical beauty upsets the sheriff, the local biddies, and the sick tyrant Jabe Torrance. It also entices Mrs. Torrance, and her and Val's halting love affair makes a fine, slow-moving melodrama. Brando played Val in a movie version, The Fugitive Kind, which also moved at a sluggish pace. Jean Shelton's revival at the Actors Theatre, unfortunately, solves none of the pacing problems. In spite of a well-cast group and a vivid set by Scott Agar Jaicks, there's no urgency to the show. Alex Garcia has the right blank, smoldering intensity as Val; Nadia Tarzi has the right olive skin and vague accent for Lady Torrance, who's fervid and Italian; Niki Yapo is appropriately rebellious and frail as Carol, who remembers Val from his previous life. But they all seem to talk past each other. Only Padma Moyer and Delinda Dane, as two of the local biddies, and John Krause, as Jabe, manage to infect the performance with life of their own. Otherwise the actors seem to wait for a passion that never quite arrives. Through Aug. 28 at the Actors Theatre of San Francisco, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $10-25; call 296-9179 or visit www.actorstheatresf.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed July 14.

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