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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.

The Pillowman.Unraveling in some unspecified, vaguely mittel-European "totalitarian state," Anglo-Irish dramatist Martin McDonagh's 2003 play follows what happens when a couple of police officers interrogate a writer named Katurian Katurian about the relationship between his ghoulish fairy tales (in which, almost invariably, "some poor little kid gets fucked up") and the gruesome murders of three local children. As told through director Les Waters' pulse-pumping production for Berkeley Rep, McDonagh's vicious little yarn plays itself out like a bedtime story of the most frightening and funny kind. The faded splendor of Antje Ellermann's police interrogation room set, Russell H. Champa's sickly, lurching lights and Obadiah Eaves' eerie soundscape, help to make this Pillowman pungent. As Katurian and his older brother, Michal, respectively, Erik Lochtefeld and Matthew Maher achieve a pristine balance between savagery and tenderness. Meanwhile, Tony Amendola and Andy Murray's turns as cops Tupolski and Ariel combine a brutality akin to the Officer's in Kafka's horrifying torture story "In the Penal Colony" with a touch of the frazzled, sitcom dad. The upshot of the experience of seeing the production is a profound sense of awe at the potential of theater as a storytelling medium. Through March 11 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St (at Shattuck,) Berkeley. Tickets are $45-61; call (510) 647 2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Jan. 31.

Rose. This sweeping journey across the life of one woman — and, through her, the life of Old World Jews — treats us to a handful of clear-eyed ideas that are both beautiful and rarely tackled on stage. What do the survivors of World War II, now old men and women, do with the anger that once protected them and now haunts their lives? Who, if anyone, gets to decide who is "Jewish enough" to lead Israel into the future? That these issues are so pressing makes it all the more frustrating that this 2 1/2-hour solo show is at least a half-hour too long. Bay Area favorites Naomi Newman and director Joan Mankin bring out many of the lovely, arresting little moments created by playwright Martin Sherman (wisely cutting out many more), and the final twist in Rose's tale packs a punch. But how startling and affecting this play would have been if we spent considerably less time in the nooks and crannies of Rose's life and dove head first into the heart of her grief. Through Feb. 25 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave. (at Martin Luther King), Berkeley. Tickets are $15-44; call 522-0786 or visit www.atjt.com. (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Jan. 10.

365 Plays/365 Days
New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.
All the Great Books (Abridged)
Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic (at Locust), Walnut Creek, 925-943-7469.
Bakla Show
Bindlestiff Studio, 185 Sixth St. (at Howard), 974-1167.
BATS: Sunday Players
Fort Mason, Bldg. B, Marina & Buchanan, 474-6776.
Bay One-Acts Festival Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson (at Front), 788-7469.
Beach Blanket Babylon
Club Fugazi, 678 Green (at Powell), 421-4222.
Beyond Therapy
Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
Big Death & Little Death
Traveling Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida (at Mariposa), 285-8282.
The Birthday Party
Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 510-843-4822.
Dead Certain
Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
Family Jewels
Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), 861-5079.
Fears of Your Life
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, 701 Mission (at Third St.), 978-ARTS.
Fiction
Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Geary), Suite 601, 989-0023.
GayProv
Off-Market Studio, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
Guys and Dolls
Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic (at Locust), Walnut Creek, 925-943-7469.
Hedda Gabler
American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary (at Mason), 749-2228.
Improv Revolution
Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 896-6477.
Jersey Boys
Curran Theatre, 445 Geary (between Taylor and Mason), 551-2000.
Long Day's Journey Into Night
San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio (at South Third St.), San Jose, 408-367-7255.
The Love Edition
Bindlestiff Studio, 185 Sixth St. (at Howard), 974-1167.
Martha
Florence Gould Theater, 34th Ave. & Clement (at Palace of the Legion of Honor), 863-3330.
Menopause the Musical
Theatre 39 at Pier 39, 2 Beach (Beach & Embarcadero), 433-3939.
Monday Night Improv Jam
Off-Market Theater, 965 Mission (at Fifth St.), 368-9909.
Monday Night Make Em Ups
San Francisco Comedy College, 414 Mason, #705 (at Geary), 921-2051. Monday Night Marsh
The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.
Murder at the Next Stage
The Next Stage, 1620 Gough (at Bush), Trinity Episcopal Church, 333-6389.
Murder Mystery Dinner
The Archbishop's Mansion, 1000 Fulton (at Steiner), 563-7872.
Emperor Norton, The Musical
Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 433-1226.
Odd by Nature II: The Stranger Journey
Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy (at Taylor), 673-3847.
Pleasure and Pain
Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.
The Rose Tattoo
Actors Theatre San Francisco, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 296-9179.
Rust
Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D, Marina & Buchanan, 441-8822.
Serve by Expiration
Exit Stage Left, 156 Eddy (between Taylor & Mason), 673-3847.
Shopping for God
Marsh Berkeley, 2118 Allston (at Shattuck), Berkeley, 826-5750.

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