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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Emperor Norton the Musical. San Francisco has long been a haven for eccentrics. But even the most colorful of today's local characters, such as Pink Man and the Brown Twins pale in comparison to 19th-century San Francisco luminary Joshua A. Norton — failed businessman, friend to stray dogs, and self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States. Which is why lyricist Kim Ohanneson, composer Marty Axelrod, and director David Stein's collective impulse to create a musical out of Norton's made-for-the-stage narrative (and transfer it from the Dark Room Theater where the work received its premiere to the more tourist-friendly Shelton Theater,) is supremely sane. If only the execution of the production were less so. Ohanneson's book rambunctiously captures the frontier, anything-goes spirit of post-Gold Rush San Francisco and Axelrod's evocative score combines a honky-tonk, piano-bar feel and snippets of traditional tunes such as "Turkey in the Straw" with arias alternately indebted to Gilbert & Sullivan and Lloyd-Webber & Rice. Yet despite Ohanneson and Axelrod's fine sense of the surreal and some bracingly bonkers performances (especially from the shaggy-looking Peter Doty and Steffanos X as Norton's dogs), Emperor Norton remains a curiously staid affair. The production seems intent on downplaying the madness. The performers mostly move about the stage and sing their lines as if carrying out instructions rather than being fully present in their roles. Stein's staging ultimately makes Norton more of an Everyman than an Emperor. Through April 1 at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (between Mason and Powell), S.F. Tickets are $30; call 433-1226 or visit http://www.emperornortonthemusical.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 7.

Joe Turner's Come and Gone. There will come a time, oh yes, there will come a time, deep in the heart of the first act, when you will wonder where playwright August Wilson and director Stanley E. Williams are leading you. You will wonder why Mr. Williams staged so much talking as sitting and if Mr. Wilson ever met a mythical metaphor that did not suit his taste. You will wonder who is this Herald Loomis and why does he stalk around so. The spirit will rise up in you to stretch your legs and visit the theater lobby. But if you allow the words to wash over you, and if you hold those words somewhere within you until the second act, then all that seemed small and obscure will come together before your eyes. Your spirit will marvel to see actor Bernard K. Addison take what has been closed and dark in Herald and wrench it open with his own two hands. You will bear witness to the story of a man who learns to stand on his own two legs and be. Through March 4 at Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter Street (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $16-32; call 474-8800 or visit www.LHTSF.org. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Feb.14.

Legally Blonde the Musical. Thanks to Reese Witherspoon's effervescent turn in the 2001 movie adaptation of Amanda Brown's novel about a blonde sorority queen who follows her WASP-ish ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School in the hopes of winning him back, heroine Elle Woods has become a symbol of girl-power. The world-premiere musical adaptation certainly demonstrates that there's more to this all-singing, all-dancing Barbie doll than her Juicy Couture wardrobe implies. While some of the scenes are lifted right out of the movie, and Laura Bell Bundy is as frothy as Witherspoon in the role of protagonist Elle Woods, it's the flagrant liberties that the musical takes with its source material that provide the greatest color. The transformation of Elle's sorority girl sidekicks into a Greek chorus, and director Jerry Mitchell's staging of Elle's application "essay" (done in video format in the film) as a full-on production number with the central character parading around in a dazzling, hand-beaded majorette costume, make bold, dramatic sense. With its flamboyance and intelligent humor, the musical might actually do more for the reputation of blondes than the movie: In Mitchell's larger-than-life world, dressing a pet Chihuahua in a pink onesie and acing the LSATs seems almost plausible. Through Feb. 24 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor (at Market and 6th), S.F. Tickets are $35-90; call 551-2000 or visit www.legallyblondethemusical.com (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 14.

The Magnificence of the Disaster.The material doesn't get any more raw or emotionally wrought than the content of Rebecca Fisher's new solo show. In 1995, Fisher lost her mother in a brutal and highly publicized murder that rocked Memphis. Four years later she lost her brother in another devastating and tragic episode. The title is drawn from the premise that Southerners have "an inherently different approach to tragedy because [they] lost the Civil War. There's a magnificence in how bad it got." This is dark and heavy material, but Fisher employs plenty of Southern-styled comedy and physical humor to relate the tender details of her late mother (social drinking at "Margarita Mondays" and jazzercise workouts at the Baptist Healthplex). The show veers sharply back and forth between despair and an almost forced joviality —much like the reality of mourning— that can be an emotionally confusing narrative arc for an audience to connect with. This, most likely, is due to the shocking fact that the murder trial has been ongoing and just concluded three weeks ago. Magnificence offers up an unresolved, yet unnerving and unflinching look into one family's tragedy. Fisher has absolutely no distance from these heartbreaking events and she points out that the plot doesn't wrap up neatly like a Law & Orderepisode. Though this monologue feels understandably unfinished, both in structure and tone, it is a moving and unique experience to witness a performer act out scenarios onstage that she is still working through in present-day life. Extended run through March 25 at the Marsh Theater, 1602 Valencia (between 21st & 22nd), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call 800-838-3006 or visit www.themarsh.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Feb. 14.

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