Our critics weigh in on local theatre

Movin' Out. Billy Joel is perfect for Broadway: big, dumb songs about love and pain. Choreographer and director Twyla Tharp has assembled a series of weirdly literal interpretive dances set to Joel songs that almost tell a story, starting with Brenda and Eddie in high school ("Brenda and Eddie were still goin' steady/ In the summer of '75"). Other characters need to be extrapolated, like Judy, who gets engaged to James (from "James") in a pas de deux set to "Just the Way You Are." Tony seems to be "Anthony" from the title song, "Movin' Out," but the play suffers if you think about it too much. Eddie, James, and Tony join the Army and ship out for Vietnam; one of them dies during a faux-Hendrix remix of "We Didn't Start the Fire"; and later Eddie relives his Vietnam nightmare in "Goodnight Saigon." Love is lost and regained, and the show ends on a completely unearned triumphant note, like an orange juice commercial. Darren Holden, who played piano and sang on the night I attended, does a fair imitation of Billy Joel, but is Joel good enough to deserve the imitation? Tharp also insists on using some of his most bombastic songs, like "Big Shot" and "The Stranger." Best seen drunk, probably. Through Aug. 29 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor (at Market), S.F. Tickets are $34-81; call 512-7770 or visit www.bestofbroadway-sf.com. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed July 21.

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.

Showdown at Crawford Gulch. A top-hatted, long-mustachioed stranger in a silly suit named Cyrus T. Bogspavin comes to the Wild West town of Crawford Gulch, Texas, to inform everyone that the Comanches roundabout are mighty dangerous. "We ain't had much trouble before," says the mayor, but Bogspavin insists that the Injuns have "arrows of mass destruction." The newspaper prints fearful stories faster than it can confirm them; the town grows paranoid; Parson Jones starts shooting up trees. The characters this year don't map neatly onto the Bush administration -- and there's far, far more to the plot than I can repeat here -- but director Keiko Shimosato and playwright Michael Gene Sullivan have trimmed the San Francisco Mime Troupe's annual Bush-bashing festival down to a swift-moving 90 minutes. With good songs! Velina Brown's performance as a new newspaper editor (in "Do I Really Have What It Takes?") and Ed Holmes' duet with Amos Glick as the mayor and Bogspavin (in "The Business of Progress") keep the show engaging even when the plot spins absurdly out of control. Yes, the troupe still takes easy, predictable potshots, but at least its aim is not as wild as it was last year, when it compared the invasion of Iraq to a mad invasion of Canada. This time the target is a national press that found itself distracted by Washington shysters; the satire is layered and subtle. A blend of country, roots rock, and schlock-western theme music from the three-piece resident band (Rob Broadhurst, Joel Fadness, Victor Toman) also helps. Previous Mime Troupe shows have been known to bore young children to death, but this year the verdict from a nearby kid was, "No, Daddy, I wanna stay." He was digging the tunes. Through Sept. 6 at (mostly) Bay Area parks. Admission is free; visit www.sfmt.org for a schedule and locations. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Aug. 11.

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