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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Shopping! The Musical. Some theater types want to be Hamlet; others want to be Liza Minnelli. The smiling, hardworking performers in this 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 midshow sketch "Checking Out" gives us a limp comedic premise that we've seen before on subpar 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. Open-ended run at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. $25-$29; 800-838-3006 or www.shoppingthemusical.com. (Frank Wortham) Reviewed June 14, 2006.

Speech & Debate. Speech & Debate looks suspiciously like the first draft of an afterschool special about conservative sexual hypocrisy, written by a teenage Larry David after a double shot of espresso. Focused on three high school students — all of whom are struggling with sexual or social trauma, all of whom say traumatically clever things in a script that constantly winks at the audience to make sure we're on its side — Speech & Debate misses an essential point about adolescence: Teenagers don't care passionately about sexual issues because they've been traumatized; they care because they're teenagers. Instead of just letting them care, the play reduces its characters to a set of issues to be dealt with, then puts them through a forced therapeutic march enlivened with paint-by-numbers zaniness. There are plenty of laugh lines, great production values, and a hilarious dance routine, but in the end these characters would be much more interesting if they had learned from their trauma instead of just talking about it. No person of conscience can be bored when people, even in fiction, are explaining how they ended up raped and/or molested, but we can recognize lazy character development. To see what Speech & Debate is trying to do, watch Glee. Through July 18 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. $34-$45; 510-843-4822 or www.auroratheatre.org. (Benjamin Wachs) Reviewed June 23.

Abigail: Salem Witch Trials – The Rock Opera: Original songs. Thursdays, 9 p.m. Continues through Sept. 23. $10. Temple, 540 Howard (at First St.), 978-9942.

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Alison Arngrim: Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: July 9-10, 10:15 p.m. The Rrazz Room, at the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason (at Ellis), 394-1189.

Beijing, California: China takes over the U.S, presented by the Asian American Theater Company. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Continues through July 17. $15-$20. www.asianamericantheater.org. The Thick House, 1695 18th St. (at Arkansas), 401-8081.

Big City Improv: Actors take audience suggestions and create comedy from nothing. Fridays, 10 p.m. $15-$20. www.bigcityimprov.com. Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 882-9100.

Blackbird: Honoring a Century of Pansy Divas: Through July 10, 8 p.m. $20-$25. Mama Calizo's Voice Factory, 1519 Mission (at Van Ness), 690-9410.

Comedy Ballet: Dance/theater by Dark Porch Theatre. Starting July 10. Thursdays-Sundays. Continues through July 18. The Garage, 975 Howard (at Sixth St.), 885-4006.

Cowardly Things: Noël Coward gets the treatment. Starting July 8. Thursdays-Saturdays. Continues through July 31. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

The Fantasticks: Presented by SF Playhouse. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Continues through Sept. 4. SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 677-9596.

Farragut North: Presented by Jerica Productions/Royal Underground Theatre. Through July 17. Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Bldg. D (Marina & Buchanan), 441-8822.

Foresight: Presented by The Easily Distracted Theatre. July 9-18. Fort Mason Center (Marina & Buchanan), 345-7500.

How the Other Half Loves: Thursdays-Saturdays. Continues through July 31. The Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason (at Post), 989-0023.

In a World ... : Blockbuster-based improv theater with the Un-Scripted Theater Company. July 8-Aug. 28. $10-$20. SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter (at Powell), 677-9596.

La Traviata: Presented by Pocket Opera. Starting July 10. Saturdays, Sundays. Continues through July 17. Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave. (at Clement), 863-3330.

Love, Chaos and Couture: All Dressed Up with Someplace to Go: The latest by Teatro ZinZanni, starring Liliane Montevecchi and Frank Ferrante. Wednesdays-Sundays. Continues through Aug. 15. $117-$145. 438-2668. www.zinzanni.org. Pier 29, Embarcadero (at Battery), 438-2668.

Monday Night Marsh: On select Mondays a different lineup of musicians, actors, performance artists, and others takes the stage at this regular event that's hosted local celebs like Josh Kornbluth and Marga Gomez in the past; see www.themarsh.org for a lineup of future shows. Mondays. $7. The Marsh, 1062 Valencia (at 22nd St.), 826-5750.

Much Ado About Nothing: Presented by Woman's Will in parks throughout the Bay Area. July 10-Aug. 29. Multiple Bay Area locations.

The New Century: A comedy by Paul Rudnick. Wednesdays-Saturdays. Continues through July 11. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness (at Market), 861-8972.

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