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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Love, Janis. What starts as a black-and-white photo montage of a young Midwestern girl in frilly baby-doll dresses soon explodes into a rainbow of psychedelic color and debaucherously good rock 'n' roll. Following the young and naive Joplin as she thumbs a ride from Port Arthur, Texas, to late-'60s San Francisco, Love, Janisdocuments four packed years through her tenure fronting Big Brother and the Holding Company and on into her solo career — and then comes to a screeching halt with her untimely heroin overdose in 1970. The narrative is pieced together from letters Joplin wrote home and bits of interviews, but though every word spoken on stage comes from Haight Ashbury's first pinup herself, these interludes are the weak link in an otherwise powerhouse show. Two actors play Joplin nightly, and the electric and deliriously pained voice of the singing stage persona (Mary Bridget Davies) contrasts shockingly with the giddy and practically ditzy Southern girl personality (Elizabeth Rainer), who sends mundane letters describing car trouble, TV-watching, and fluffy puppies. Thankfully, Love, Janis is primarily a pulse-pounding rock concert, with surging electric guitars, tie-dyed light show, and wafting incense — and Davies howling pure, unadulterated dirty blues that make the slickly recorded and sequenced music of today seem sadly soulless. Through Nov. 5 at Marines Memorial Theater, 609 Sutter (between Mason and Powell), S.F. Tickets are $35-67; call 771-6900 or visit www.marinesmemorialtheatre.com. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Sept. 20.

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.

The Ride Down Mount Morgan. Lyman Felt, the wealthy, fiftysomething insurance executive at the center of Arthur Miller's moral comedy, preaches prudence to others while performing metaphorical bungee jumps. Embodying one of the knottiest contradictions of our self-centered, "have our cake and eat it, too" times — how to pursue one's desires and ambitions to the max without forfeiting one's lifestyle, or one's life — Felt takes the idea of nirvana to the socially and morally dubious extreme of being married to two women at once. As enamored of his existence in Manhattan with his upright, nurturing wife of 32 years, Theodora, as he is of his life with spouse number two, the sexy, independent Leah in upstate New York, Felt merrily sustains a madcap commute between his two unknowing spouses and children for nine years, before a near-lethal car accident on an icy mountain pass interrupts his blissful routine. The character's ability to keep up the deception stems in part from his winning personality. It's hard not to fall in love with Victor Talmadge's portrayal of Felt in director Joy Carlin's rambunctious yet intimate production. Endowed with youthful energy, articulate charm, and Johnny DeppÐesque cheekbones, Talmadge turns Felt into a thoroughly likeable bigamist. Through Nov. 4 at San Francisco Playhouse, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $36; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Oct. 18.

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.

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