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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Bricktop. Calvin A. Ramsey and Thomas W. Jones II's musical follows the extraordinary career of Ada "Bricktop" Smith (1894-1984), one of American cabaret's most luminous divas. So named for her flaming red tresses, Smith is remembered today for the string of hot boîtes she opened in cities as far-flung as Paris, Rome, and Mexico City, the artists whose careers she kick-started, and the celebrities she entertained. The entire musical plays itself out like a sassy cabaret act. The bombastically energetic cast of seven headed by Peggy Ann Blow as the hot-haired, Bacardi-on-iceÐcool Smith performs a few original songs alongside covers of great old standards, many of which were composed by members of Smith's own star-studded entourage. Melodies include Fats Waller's "This Joint Is Jumping," "J'ai Deux Amours" by Josephine Baker (who was one of Smith's protégées), and Cole Porter's "Let's Face the Music and Dance." The driving, feral energy of the performances is infectious. But something important gets lost in the gyrating frenzy, and that's the story. Featuring few changes in tone and pace, the musical ends up entertaining us but reveals little of the highs and lows of Smith's intriguing life and times. Through April 15 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter St. (at Mason) S.F. Tickets are $20-32; call 474-8800 or visit (C.V.) Reviewed Apr. 4.

Jesus Hopped the "A" Train.On a gray concrete set, deftly standing in for Riker's Island Prison in New York, two adjacent cells hold two murderers. One is Angel Cruz (Daveed Diggs), an atheist on trial for shooting a reprehensible cult leader in the ass, and the other is Lucius Jenkins (Carl Lumbly), a brutal serial killer and born-again Christian. Thus the setup: an "angel" in one cage, a "devil" in another. What ensues is a masterful debate about anger, innocence, lying, and ultimately being "right" in God's eyes. Diggs' intellectually articulate delivery is finely nuanced with a voice edged with vulnerable tears, and Lumbly effortlessly makes Lucius soulful and inspirational — a difficult task. This wouldn't be possible without Stephen Adly Guirgis' spitfire dialogue that builds, twists, and relentlessly questions characters' motivations. Guirgis adeptly spins the debate: Will you lie for what you believe in, or will you step up and pay a bigger price for that belief? This is one of those singular theatrical occasions when a top-notch script is helmed by a solid director (Bill English) and performed by a splendidly skilled and committed cast. Gabriel Marin is deceptively charismatic as the corrections officer bent on breaking inmates. Susi Damilano, as Angel's compassionately torn attorney, and Joe Madero, as the kindhearted guard, round out the cast and bring a softness to this searing drama. It's rare that a night of theater can deliver on so many complex levels of intellect and emotion. This production should not be missed. Through April 21 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $18-60; call 677-9596 or visit (N.E.) Reviewed April 4.

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 April 28 at the Marsh Theater, 1602 Valencia (between 21st & 22nd), S.F. Tickets are $15-22; call 800-838-3006 or visit (N.E.) Reviewed Feb. 14.

The Rose Tattoo.While this production has many fine individual moments, overall it fails to harness its full theatrical potential of this rarely produced Tennessee Williams play. The stage is so full with the real-world details of the Gulf Coast home of Serafina — a sewing machine, sofa, chair, partial walls, and so on — that there is literally no room for the moments of ethereal magic that Williams' otherwise heavy-handed script constantly calls for. As Serafina, actress Maggie DeVera brings a vibrant, soulful presence to her role, and Serafina's constant heartache becomes touching in her hands. Jessica Coghill and Duncan Phillips are also sweetly affecting as Serafina's daughter Rosa and Rosa's sincere suitor. But all the heart-wrenching anguish would go a lot further with a lighter touch — a touch that would get Williams' densely poetic words off the ground and flying around the stage. Through April 14 at Actors Theatre of San Francisco, 855 Bush St. (between Mason and Taylor), S.F. Tickets are $10-30; call 345-1287 or visit (M.R.) Reviewed April 4.

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