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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Menopause the Musical. Set in Bloomingdale's department store, this play unites four contrasting female characters — an Iowa housewife, an executive, a soap star, and a hippie — through the combined forces of cut-price lingerie and hormone replacement therapy. Singing doctored versions of 1960s and '70s pop favorites like "Stayin' Alive" ("Stayin' Awake") and "Puff, the Magic Dragon" ("Puff, My God I'm Draggin'"), the ladies potter from floor to floor, sharing their worst menopausal hang-ups as they try on clothes, rifle through sales racks, and run in and out of the store's many strategically placed powder rooms. Although Menopause is entertaining and energetically performed, it's unabashedly tacky. An ode to the delights of masturbation, sung down a pink microphone to an adaptation of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," for instance, makes one think that all that's missing from this (very) belated bachelorette party is a male stripper. And as much as the show makes its largely 40-plus female audience feel more comfortable about getting older, it doesn't go far enough. Menopause is euphemistically referred to as "the change," which just seems to reinforce taboos. And its obsession with shopping, sex, and cellulite makes Menopause feel a lot like a geriatric issue of Cosmo. Rather than empowering women, the musical ends up underscoring clichés. In an open-ended run at Theatre 39, Pier 39, Beach & Embarcadero, S.F. Tickets are $46.50; call 433-3939 or visit www.menopausethemusical.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 11.

Shopping! The Musical. Some theater types want to be Hamlet; others want to be Liza Minnelli. The smiling, hardworking performers in this new musical revue definitely fall into the latter category. Lyricist-composer Morris Bobrow uses his infectious, irreverent humor to great effect as he pays homage to the highs and lows of our compellingly crass commercial culture. He uses the small, cramped theater in a straightforward manner — four center-stage stools and an amusing backdrop provide the set. The accomplished accompanist Ben Keim keeps things lively on one side of the stage behind an upright piano. The actors lead us through songs that bring to mind Jerry Seinfeld's sharp observations on mundane modern life: "Shopping in Style" extols the virtues of Costco, and "Serious Shopping" imagines a man trying to buy lettuce from a riotously over-the-top grocery cult. The musical runs just over an hour, yet it still has a few rough spots. The mid-show sketch "Checking Out" gives us a limp comedic premise that we've seen before on sub-par sitcoms, and the piece "5 & 10" is a mix of awkward nostalgia and pitch problems. Nevertheless, this is a clever collection of tunes performed with an unabashedly cheesy enthusiasm that would make Liza proud. In an open-ended run at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $25-29; call (800) 838-3006 or visit www.shoppingthemusical.com. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed June 14.

Taming of the Shrew. The African-American Shakespeare Company's production of the Bard's tale depicting the battle between a husband and wife for the marital upper hand can't be faulted for making bold production choices. Instead of traditional Elizabethan settings and garb, director Victoria Evans-Erville opts for a '70s Funkadelic/Blaxploitation/Good Times vibe. That means plenty of afros, polyester, and bell bottoms colored every hue of the DayGlo rainbow. Apparently Evans-Erville took the Shrew's phrase "irreverent robes" seriously. While updating Shakespeare to modern, relevant, and even fun locales sounds great, this production has so much fun that it seems almost mocking, showing little regard for the original writing and language. Traditional lines get contemporary additions such as "Tres cool," "You dig?" and "Here's the skinny." The musical interludes — featuring actors busting out into versions of Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye hits — might have been brilliant had they been sung and not badly lip-synched. Actors David Moore (Petruchio) and Tonia Usher (Kate) generate some nice friction in the famous seduction scene as they tango to the iambic pentameter beat, and Federico Edwards (Gremio) turns in an enjoyably bizarre, bug-eyed performance reminiscent of Don Knotts, but many of the others fumble the language. In the end, this attempt at a clever, hip interpretation of a classic becomes a goofy parody. Through Oct. 22 at the Buriel Clay Theatre, 762 Fulton (between Webster & Buchanan), S.F. call 762-2071 or visit www.african-americanshakes.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Oct. 4.

Travesties. It's hard to walk out of a Tom Stoppard play and not feel poorly educated. During Travesties' 2 1/2 hours, Stoppard nimbly sprints through Marxism, socialism, dadaism, nihilism, imperialism, expressionism, and cubism, then wraps it all up with a nice big bow of absurdism. If these "isms" (along with the history of the Russian Revolution) don't jibe with your knowledge base, then 90 percent of the night's rapid-fire references will fly over your head. This 1974 work places three of the most influential minds of the 20th century — James Joyce, Lenin, and Tristan Tzara (dadaist founder) — together in World War I-era Zurich, whereupon they commence a literate and madcap farce of a discussion about the merits of art, revolution, and politics. ACT helmer Carey Perloff's production is disorienting at the start, with tremendous bookcases flying from the sky, but soon establishes a cartoon funhouse energy that matches Stoppard's smug wit. The verbally and physically dexterous cast is assembled from top-notch performance institutions (Canada's Shaw Festival and Cirque du Soleil), and the material is a delicious workout for the mind. Even so, the production and the much-lauded script feel somewhat soulless. Stoppard is either a friggin' genius or a pretentious, elitist snob; depending on which you believe, you'll leave the theater feeling either dumbfounded or simply dumb. Through Oct. 21 at the American Conservatory Theater, 405 Geary (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $25-80; call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Oct. 11.

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