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CABARET

at the Wilshire Theatre

Reviewed by Wenzel Jones

The show begins quite some time before the opening number, as the cast‹rather a firm-bodied lot for what is supposed to look like a gathering of louche wastrels‹lounges in various attitudes about Robert Brill's stylishly spare set. There is no mistaking the actual beginning, though, as by the time the Emcee (Norbert Leo Butz, in a refreshingly original turn) and his Kit Kat Klub reach the end of "Wilkommen," the show's energy is almost assaultive.

Sam Mendes has taken a play that has always seemed wan next to its 1972 cinematic realization and given it the nastiness it needs while never trying to ape the movie.

Cliff (the very appealing Rick Holmes) is now an actual human being playing way out of his league, while Sally (Teri Hatcher) has a worldliness so shallow you can see why the two might actually pair off. Hatcher's Sally is an interesting creation‹a beautifully maintained face hovering above a gaunt frame that has seen little sustenance other than gin and cigarettes. William Ivey Long's delightfully tatty besmirched baby doll costumes match her petulance and willfulness nicely.

It's in the parallel coupling of Fraulein Schneider (Barbara Andres) and Herr Schultz (Dick Latessa), though, where this production really shines. Andres and Latessa could not be better; they somehow manage to be sweet and touching without making you feel as if you're breathing treacle. Mendes has also opened up many of their songs to include the Kit Kat Klub personnel, lending texture to what used to just be boring. Jeanine Morick is especially impressive in the roles of Kit Kat Girl Fritzie and Fraulein Kost; she sings, she dances, she sings in German, she acts... and then she plays accordion. The lighting of Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari adds glitter and gloom to an unforgettable production.

"Cabaret," presented by Broadway L.A. at the Wilshire Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Mar. 3-Apr. 25. (213) 365-3500.

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OTHELLO

at the Angus Bowmer Theatre

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Opening its 1999 season with four plays during a three-day weekend, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has wisely made Tony Taccone's Othello its season centerpiece, running it during the entire 11-play season through the end of October. It's the kind of vigorous classical production that showcases the festival's strengths. While even at opening night it seemed exceptionally well-formed, a work of this quality always grows and deepens as the season progresses and the actors learn even more about their characters. At OSF, actors and audiences will get the chance to make that journey.

If Othello is the season's centerpiece, then Derrick Lee Weeden's powerful, haunting title performance is the play's heart. Taccone has said he wants the focus on Othello, not on any other character‹not even on Iago, who plays such a pivotal role. Thus Taccone and Weeden have forged an Othello of uncommon power and vulnerability, a man who knows the sting of racial prejudice and who rejoices in his new bride. Because he's a soldier, though, he knows little of politics and social niceties, so it doesn't take long for him to fall prey to Iago's manipulations.

While most productions endow Iago with a charm that beguiles both Othello and, to a degree, the audience, Anthony Heald's Iago is little more than a clever, jealousy-driven thug. He spits out lines like "I hate the Moor" and stresses his (unfounded) suspicions that Othello may have slept with his wife. He wears a buzz cut and a sleeveless leather outfit that accents his biceps. Nevertheless, Othello and other characters continually call him honest. As he plants the seeds of jealousy in Othello, suggesting that Desdemona is sleeping with Cassio, he and Othello are strenuously fencing (credit to fight choreographer John Sipes).

Amy Cronise is an adequate Desdemona, but the chemistry between her and Othello isn't strong enough. Robynn Rodriguez shines in Emilia's final scene with Othello and Iago. Andrew Borba is a mild-mannered Cassio, John Pribyl a strong Roderigo.

William Bloodgood's striking set design features a downstage pool of water that plays a prominent role in the staging. In back are a catwalk and a series of louvered panels. Peter Maradudin's lighting heightens the drama. Deborah M. Dryden has designed some striking costumes, especially the ceremonial robes worn by Othello and Desdemona in Scene One and later for the celebration of their marriage. The artistic team provides many striking images: As the audience arrives, Othello and Desdemona kneel at opposite ends of the pool facing the audience while Todd Barton's percussive music plays in the background. And the billowing cloth that first serves as a canopy for the celebrating Othello and Desdemona later becomes their death shroud. This is a production that resonates deeply‹one which, despite its flaws, deserves highest accolades.

"Othello," presented by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at the Angus Bowmer Theatre, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland, Ore., Feb. 26-Oct. 31. (541) 482-4331.

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THE GOOD PERSON OF SZECHUAN

at the Angus Bowmer Theatre

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Szechuan combines parable with sociopolitical commentary to create an absorbing comedy/drama. Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production, directed by associate artistic director Penny Metropulos, capitalizes on all of those elements thanks to a strong cast and artistic team. This production also marks the debut of a new American translation by Douglas Langworthy, the festival's director of literary development and dramaturgy. His translation sounds fresh and vital, while honoring Brecht's intrinsically poetic language.

The plot focuses on three gods' search for one good person. Arriving in Szechuan, they find all doors closed to them save one: that of Shen Te, a prostitute. Because she welcomed them despite her feelings of unworthiness, they reward her with money that she uses to buy a small tobacco shop. The people whom she then tries to help take advantage of her, rapidly depleting her resources, hence her ability to do good. She disguises herself as a male cousin, Shui Ta, a practical, hard-nosed person who quickly restores order, but at the price of the people Shen Te was trying to help. Complicating matters, Shen Te falls in love with an unemployed flier, who's also after her money so that he can fly again.

Metropulos orchestrates these developments with skill, sensitivity, and a keen sense of humor. In the title role, BW Gonzalez is effective as both Shen Te and Shui Ta, making a smooth transition from woman to man and back again. Also noteworthy in the large cast are Robert Vincent Frank, Suzanne Irving, and David Kelly as the gods, Demetra Pittman as a cynical widow, Michael Elich as the flier, Michael J. Hume as a water seller, Robynn Rodriguez as Shen Te's landlady, and Mark Murphey as a wealthy barber.

Riccardo Hernandez's two-level set is reminiscent of Chinese opera, while Smaranda Branescu's costumes are colorful and humorous. Both set and costumes are complemented by Ann G. Wrightson's lighting. Larry Delinger's sprightly, ironic score includes several songs reminiscent of Kurt Weill, Brecht's frequent collaborator, as well as German cabaret of the '20s and '30s. This is an outstanding production that meets a basic Brechtian standard: It pleases its audience while provoking thought.

"The Good Person of Szechuan," presented by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland, Ore., Feb. 27-July 11, Sept. 21-Oct. 30. (541) 482-4331.

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MADAME BUTTERFLY: THE ORIGINAL PLAY

at Secret Rose Theatre

Reviewed by Madeleine Shaner

Cio-Cio-San without Puccini sounds like summer without sunshine, but David Belasco's play Madame Butterfly, written in 1900, based on a story by John Luther Long, carries its own music with it. Kaz Mata-Mura, producer and part owner, with Mike Rademaekers, of the new Secret Rose Theatre, makes an exquisite Butterfly. Tiny and doll-like, she has an iron will wrapped in the innocence of a child. Although the latter was a trait condescendingly superimposed on Asian women of her generation by the more "advanced" Europeans and Americans, Cio-Cio-San, and Mata-Mura, neverthless use every seductive aspect of it to make their way in a world that seems not to have been made for them.

For a couple of years, the lovely geisha has waited for the return of her ardent lover, Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton (Evan Andes), always referred to by his full title, name, and initials. His uniform jacket is draped over the back of his chair, his wooden-soled house shoes and his cigars are still in place, awaiting his arrival. "When do robins nest?" she asks Mr. Sharpless, the American Consul, "He told me he'd return when the robins nest." Sharpless (Robert Sampson), who has come to Butterfly with the news of Pinkerton's imminent arrival in Japan with his American bride, sadly nods his head as if to say, "Oh, that old line."

Moving performances by Kiko Kiko as Butterfly's servant, Suzuki, and an adorable Russell Naiditch McElhaney as her young son, Trouble (who will be re-named Joy when his father returns), add bright jewels to an already exotic setting. Kenji Nakamura is the Nakoda, a go-between marriage broker who brings a rich suitor, Yamadori (Keisuke Hoashi), to woo the lovely Cio-Cio-San. Mariah Shirley is sympathetic, if slightly condescending, as Kate Pinkerton, the bride of the unfaithful Lieutenant.

Director Mercedes Shirley, who recently passed away, elegantly set the scene for the one-act play with several Japanese dances performed by Mata-Mura, Joy Nakagawa, Yasuko Takahara, and Miki Watanabe in gorgeous geisha costumes. Watanabe also performs an emotional solo on the Koto, a Japanese stringed instrument, while Butterfly watches for Pinkerton's arrival.

The original Belasco play was done in pidgin English by Occidental actors. Since the Secret Rose Players include Japanese actors who speak English as a second language, the actors were allowed to handle the language in the most comfortable way they could manage, so while the production adheres closely to the original, cultural and historical inaccuracies and all, the language has been tailored by the players.

"Madame Butterfly: the original play," presented by and at Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hollywood. Mar. 5-28. (310) 559-1448.

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OH, COWARD!

at the Leo K. Theatre

Reviewed by David-Edward Hughes

The champagne has been uncorked at Seattle Rep's cozy Leo K. Theatre with the arrival of Oh, Coward!, a delightful 1970s revue, devised by Roderick Cook, of the witty and wicked words and tantalizing tunes of the late British master, No"l Coward. Those chiefly responsible for keeping the bubbly from going flat in this production are director/choreographer Stephen Terrell, who makes the evening both elegant and light on its feet, and the versatile performing trio of Patti Cohenour, Joel Carlton, and David Pichette.

Coward's songs seem to have been dismissed by many in recent years as amusing piffle with threadbare melodies, but that seems altogether incorrect, based on the evidence presented in this gossamer entertainment. From his bawdy music hall numbers to the elegant anguish of his romantic ballads, Coward seems easily to approach the level of Cole Porter, and far fewer of his lyrics have dated or rely (as did Porter's later comic numbers) on terrible rhymes and endless name-dropping. Indeed, it is interesting to hear the Coward lyric that he set, as a compliment, to Porter's "Let's Do It," and see how hard it is to tell that it's not one of Porter's own. Latter-day Coward shows, such as The Girl Who Came to Supper and Sail Away, though unsuccessful in a post-My Fair Lady/West Side Story musical theatre climate, still yielded comic gems such as "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?," "The Passenger's Always Right," and the title song from "Sail Away," all tastily served up in this outing.

Pichette serves as the Coward surrogate, though with a better singing voice, and brings down the house with a rendition of "A Marvelous Party," in which he treats a hangover with further servings of alcohol. Carlton is comically and musically sublime, serving as the sexually ambiguous younger man who at times courts both Pichette and Cohenour's favor (a nod to Terrell's gently easing Sir No"l a bit more out of his closet). Cohenour is the perfect caviar to serve with this champagne. Unbridled of her recent nun's habit as the youngest Mother Abbess in Broadway's Sound of Music, Cohenour is by turns randy and refined, Cockney and upper-crust, with a distinctly Lucille Ballesque comedy knack and a limpid yet full-bodied soprano that begs happy comparison with the celebrated Barbara Cook.

Individually, in duets, and as a trio, these artists serve Coward well, with special attention to Cohenour's wistful "If Love Were All" and "Mad About the Boy," Carlton's "Nina," and the trio's slambang comic gusto on "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" and "Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington." All three look scrumptious in Michael Olich's costumes and cavorting on Olich's impeccable set, which goes from music hall stage in Act One to a swank cocktail party atmosphere in Act Two, with most complimentary lighting by Greg Sullivan.

Mark Rabe's skilled musical direction and piano artistry anchor a fine trio of musicians, and strikes a happy balance between singers and band, allowing for what's become a musical theatre rarity: audible lyrics. Sir No"l would think it a marvelous party indeed.

"Oh, Coward!," presented by the Seattle Repertory Theatre at the Leo K. Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle Center, Seattle. Mar. 1-Apr. 4. (206) 443-2210.

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KINDERTRANSPORT

at Stages Repertory Theatre

Reviewed by Holly Hildebrand

Between 1938 and 1940, about 10,000 Jewish children fled Nazi Germany and made their way to Britain in a rescue operation called kindertransport. Out of this little-known historical event, British playwright Diane Samuels has created a moving play, Kindertransport, now receiving its Southwest premiere at Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston.

Samuels' story focuses on one child, Eva Schlesinger, who is nine in 1939, when a kindertransport train takes her‹with her parents' approval‹from Germany to England. In Manchester, Eva is adopted by Lil, a common-sense but warm-hearted woman who is undaunted by the many barriers separating her from her new charge. The strongest of those obstacles is the one that will dog Eva for decades, despite many changes: the simple fact that she has survived.

The cost of that survival is one of Samuels' major concerns. Often mingling past and present onstage, the playwright shows us Eva as a girl and young woman, then as a middle-aged divorc e who has hidden her past from her grown daughter, Faith, who is trying to strike out on her own. By accident, Faith discovers mementos that reveal her mother's origins. Angry that the truth has been hidden from her, Faith lashes out at her mother, who must confront anew the burden of memory and reconsider just who she is.

A bit slow at first, Stages' production of Kindertransport soon becomes engrossing and, in the end, extremely powerful. Director Deborah Kinghorn, in her Stages debut, has brought intelligence, passion, and skill to her work, and is supported by an excellent cast. As Eva, Krista Forster is both convincing and touching in a range of ages, from little girl to grown woman. Peg Glazer gives us an appealing Lil, and Connie Cooper probes the depths of her character's psyche and despair as the middle-aged Eva, now called Evelyn. As Faith, Rebecca Tindel-Bivens captures the confusion of youth, and Christianne Mays is both nurturing and scary as Helga, Eva's tragic mother. Filling several roles as various officials, Kent Johnson shows depth and variety.

Contributing to the mood and symbolism of the piece is Kirk Markley's evocative set, which manages to suggest the spiritual element living in the old storage room where the characters' hearts and minds undergo a special dimension of transport. In all, it is a production that takes the audience on an unforgettable journey.

"Kindertransport," presented by and at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, Houston, Texas. (713) 527-8243.

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I'M NOT RAPPAPORT

at the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center

Reviewed by David-Edward Hughes

As timely today as when it premiered in the early 1980s, Herb Gardner's I'm Not Rappaport receives a high-quality production at the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center, where the spirit of Seattle's late, lamented Group Theatre's commitment to multicultural entertainment is alive and well.

Though Gardner's script is a bit overly talky in spots, it remains one of the few successful comedy/dramas of its time not written by Neil Simon. More a character study than a plot-driven vehicle, Rappaport depicts the odd coupling of two feisty seniors: the gregarious Jewish Nat, whose flights of fancy endanger his safety and thwart his independence in the inner city, and the street-wise African American Midge, who is facing the loss of both his building superintendent job and the home that went with it. Their encounters with street punks who haunt the park, and Nat's struggle to keep his well-meaning but overbearing and career-driven daughter from putting him in a senior's home, provide the conflict.

Directed with great attention to character detail and genuineness by Dr. Tawyna Pettiford-Waites, the play is solidly anchored by lead performers Anthony Curry and William Hall Jr. Effortlessly handling the Gardner one-liners, Curry still tinges his performance with a touching sadness, and makes us feel deeply for the man whose dignity, safety, and independence are at stake. Hall (who understudied the role on Broadway) is so at home as Midge that he scarcely seems to be acting, and together he and Curry play off each other with ease and grace. In the far lesser stage time allowed their characters, there is fine work by Anthony Piana as the officious condo representative who informs Midge of his impending unemployment, Isiah Anderson as an imposing, cowboy-clad pimp, and Bella Biagio as Nat's beleagured daughter Clara.

Another success of the production is Laura Hibbs' uncommonly fine city park street design, which is so realistic one can almost smell the litter. Mark Smith's lighting design and Deborah Sorensen's costumes are perfectly respectable. For chuckles and tears, plus a lesson in respect for our elders, it doesn't get much better than I'm Not Rappaport.

"I'm Not Rappaport," presented by and at the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center, 104 17th Ave So. at Yesler, Seattle. Mar. 5-21. (206) 684-6757.

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THE ROOT

at the Raven Playhouse

Reviewed by Miranda Vivian

In Gary Richards' The Root, nothing is as it seems. It's layered with the kind of hidden, deflected intensity more often attributed to the West Coast, though it's set in Brooklyn. The four actors in this new production shift deftly within the play's web of pretense, making us laugh while wondering what might come next. Directed by Tony Piano, the show's first act is like a black-and-white rat-a-tat-tat picture, and the second act plays like Quentin Tarantino filming Fargo with the Three Stooges.

Vinny (Steve Bessen) is a car mechanic and Jerry (Tony Piano) the cop squeezing him to run a car ring. Willie (Nigel Gibbs), Vinny's assistant, is preoccupied with protecting his shoes from motor oil, and Chick (Shelly Weiss) is Vinny's auto shop landlord. Vinny seems to be locked in a depressing cycle of rotating cylinders and fielding bad news, but there is more to his acquiescence than is visible. Though not entirely believable as a mechanic, Bessen lends authenticity to Vinny's plight, and the group works well together.

Piano's performance as the crooked detective has a completeness that may in part be credited to his double duty as director and actor. Piano has a grasp of the energy of the language as well as the action of the play, and he sets the dramatic pace. Gibbs flavors Willie, who has dreams of getting out of the game to get over, with humanity and bodacious charm.

The final player in this changeable quad is Chick, the landowner, who stores both a mantra and an automatic for times of stress. Chick's got manic chutzpah and Weiss, who's apparently new to the stage, is remarkably sensitive and specific in the role.

The production values are high considering the group effort involved‹the cast does everything but take tickets at the door. Richards' play is tight and tough, absurd and provocative, and this production does it justice.

"The Root," presented by Urban Jungle Productions at the Raven Playhouse, 5233 N. Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood. Feb. 12-Mar. 21. (310) 820-4201.

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TO GILLIAN ON HER 37th BIRTHDAY

at the Avo Playhouse

Reviewed by George Weinberg-Harter

"Methought I saw my late espoused saint," wrote Milton, in a line of poetry that epitomizes Michael Brady's 1983 play about a widower who, after two years of mourning, has nightly conversations with an hallucination of his dead wife (a reaction to bereavement that is actually neither uncommon nor particularly nutty). But brainy, headstrong, daredevil Gillian was no saint‹howsoever much her harmlessly delusional husband, David, may idealize her memory. And the simple object of this mildly sweet and sentimental drama is to lead the whimsically melancholy David to the realization, during a summer weekend by the sea, of a couple of Gillian's flaws so that he can hook up with another woman and get on with his life, which includes the raising of his teenage daughter Rachel.

Directed by Kathy Brombacher, this production of Gillian takes itself less seriously than others one has seen; it avoids emotional bombast, and does not make heavy weather out of such things as David's gentle refusal to be tempted by the infatuated adolescent Cindy, a friend of his daughter. Howard Bickle, in an appealing and understatedly natural performance, makes David distractedly kind and exasperatingly dotty, as he sends off Cindy (prettily played by pouting, ponytailed Charna Felthous) with a peck on the brow and no hint that he ever considered her anything more than a good little girl.

Sara Tobin, cool yet energetic, makes the dynamic most of her fleeting, will-o'-the-wisp appearances as the spectral Gillian. She initially bursts onto the scene almost like an airborne Peter Pan, and thereafter keeps in nearly perpetual motion. Paradoxically, she, the one dead character in the play, displays more animation in her hoydenish athleticism than most of the generally lethargic live ones.

K.B. Mercer, in the role of Esther, Gillian's sister, finds some fine opportunities for those flashing moments of fiery honesty that are this excellently intense actress's stage trademark. And Eric Anderson as her sardonic husband, Paul, delivers the character's wry humor with sleepy ease. Erin K. Granahan is appropriately charming as Kevin, Gillian's potential replacement. And Lisa Maria Guzman is patient, precocious, and filially affectionate as daughter Rachel. Each seems to be granted at least one touching moment of delicate grief or longing, which they all handle with empathy.

One of the best things about the show is Marty Burnett's flawless, realistic scenic design of a shingled New England beach house exterior‹so appealing that you'll immediately want to spend a summer weekend in it yourself. If the cottage seems quite new and unweathered, that detail is in perfect keeping with the play, in which the characters all seem rather unweathered themselves, living in a world where, on a picturesque seashore, one can almost luxuriate in an idle melancholia while surrounded by a loving, concerned family and yearning prospective comforters. It may be something of an emotional fantasy‹or even a great deal of one‹but, in this production and with these actors, it works well and is a sufficiently satisfying one.

Paul Canaletti designed the show's lighting, which included several charming effects; Peter Hashagen was the sound designer; Brian Hurley composed the music, and Carlotta Malone coordinated the summer beachwear costumes.

"To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday," presented by Moonlight Amphitheater at the Avo Playhouse, 303 East Vista Way, Vista. Mar. 4-21. (760) 742-2110.

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THE WOMAN IN BLACK

at the Laguna Playhouse

Reviewed by Polly Warfield

This import from London, adapted by Stephen Mallatratt from a book by Susan Hill and directed by Andrew Barnicle in its Southern California premiere, aims only to entertain, amuse, and if possible scare you half to death. In this effort, it has the whole-hearted cooperation of a first-rate design team, which sets the keynote with a stunning mise en scene that makes it clear we are about to witness a ghost story, and an English one at that. The play holds the record for the second longest run in a London West End theatre, surpassed only by The Mousetrap. Somehow it calls to mind that well-worn spoof of horror stories: "It was a dark and stormy night. Three men sat around a fire. "Tell us a story, Jack,' said one. And this is the story he told: "It was a dark and stormy night. Three men sat around a fire'." And so it loops on and on forever.

One bare-bulbed rehearsal light (appropriately, the "ghost light") barely penetrates the gloom of a stage strewn with odds and ends of props and furnishings as the lone figure of a man emerges from the audience and mounts the stairs to enter the arena under an ornate gilt proscenium centered with the medallion face of a golden-haired small boy‹and this, as you might imagine, is significant. But there is a scene beyond the stage, of storm clouds lowering in a threatening dark sky as billows of mist roll in from the North of England salt marshes. And off to the side is a "tall, gaunt house of stone with a slate roof" where, we eventually learn, an old woman has just died.

But for the moment, as the play begins, we are concerned with something quite different‹with what seems to be a sort of audition. We say "sort of," because it's not clear whether Morgan Rusler as Kipps, author of this play within a play (if that's what it is) has written a drama, a novel, or an autobiography. Whatever it is, he painstakingly coaches Tom Shelton, as the auditioning Actor (if that's what he is), in the exact way to deliver the first line: "It was 9:30 on Christmas Eve." The Actor seems to have difficulty with it. They go over it again and again.

So it goes as the murky tale unfolds. Rusler is a boyish, enthusiastic, energetic, and likable Kipps. It is difficult to believe this story of haunting, hex, terror, and tragedy could be about him. And Shelton, so faltering and wooden in his initial audition attempts, turns out to be a remarkably adept and versatile actor who easily transitions from one character to another with a mere change of posture, voice, and demeanor‹and costume, of course.

As the third member of the cast, the spooky woman in black, Gail Godown, ironically enough, has no lines to say, except (presumably) for some ominous recorded warnings and a blood-curdling scream. (We know from past experience she's capable of much more.) But she provides the play's most genuinely chilling moments when she materializes, wraithlike, out of the mist, elegantly garbed in antique mode, white face gleaming palely from the shadows.

The designers score heavily here with Lisa Hashimoto's scenic ambience, Paulie Jenkins' darkly eloquent lighting, Dwight Richard Odle's wonderfully Dickensian costumes, and David Edwards' pervasive sound effects.

"The Woman in Black," presented by and at the Laguna Playhouse at the Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, Feb. 23-Mar. 21. (949) 497-2787.

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OF MICE AND MEN

at South Coast Repertory

Reveiwed by Kristina Mannion

Freedom, self-determinism, a measure of prosperity‹these are some of the mainstays of the American Dream. For George and Lennie, the pair of down-on-their-luck itinerant workers in John Steinbeck's adaptation of his Dust Bowl-era classic novel, Of Mice and Men, those elements take the imagined form of lazy days spent on a modest piece of land they can call their own‹a far cry from their longtime experience with anonymous bunkhouses, unforgiving bosses, and hours of backbreaking labor.

Enduring as the elusive dream that these tragic men chase, Steinbeck's well-worn work is a drama created with simple language and peopled with simple characters. This is a clear and uncomplicated picture of fierce determination and unrealized hopes. Alongside these larger concepts is the theme of devoted friendship. For tough but loyal George and slow-witted Lennie, the importance of sticking together in the face of adversity takes precedence over the pursuit of their lofty dreams. Here is where Steinbeck's simplicity belies a more complex well of emotion and poignancy.

In its precise yet somewhat mechanical production of Of Mice and Men, South Coast Repertory unfortunately misses some of the more stirring sentiment at work in Steinbeck's play, which takes place on a Northern California farm where George and Lennie have come to work following an unfortunate incident at their previous employer's farm. In this new setting, the two find themselves even further from their dream when they run into trouble stemming from Lennie's weaknesses and the misunderstanding of others.

Ably presenting a polished staging, and aided by SCR's always-exceptional visual approach (Neil Peter Jampolis' mobile design gives us an apt taste of a rural setting), director David Emmes and his cast offer an accurate retelling of George and Lennie's hapless search for prosperity. Within that accuracy, however, there is an air of superficiality, a lack of emotional depth that crops up more prominently in some individual performances, but nevertheless characterizes the entire production. While Emmes has elicited exact portrayals from his players, he has not quite wrung the full potential of passion and intensity that resides in Steinbeck's lot of doleful characters.

This is especially noticeable in Jonathan Fuller's satisfactory but less than stimulating turn as George. While Fuller is good at relaying the more volatile aspects of his character‹a hardened man whose aspirations are both fueled and hampered by a fierce loyalty to his friend Lennie‹he is less able to convey the tenderness that lives in George and drives his steadfast attachment to Lennie. This imbalance consequently detracts from the supposedly strong bond that exists between Lennie and George.

Also unable to successfully realize the emotions of their characters are Doug Tompos and April Crowell. As Slim, the world-weary laborer that George and Lennie meet on the new farm, Tompos gives an appropriately dry delivery, but fails to fully inhabit the character's melancholy. Similarly, as the boss' boldly flirtatious daughter-in-law, Crowell does not reach the sadness of her character, leaving us with only a tough exterior that creates less sympathy than this role deserves.

In contrast, Abdul Salaam el Razzac and Richard Doyle successfully show us the feeling that dwells in their rueful characters: El Razzac, in an effortless portrayal of the crippled but proud African-American stablehand named Crooks, and Doyle, exceedingly touching as Candy, the aging worker who has seen opportunity and happiness come and go. In their scenes, we witness the best communication of the simple yet multi-layered language and people that make up Steinbeck's tragic story.

"Of Mice and Men," produced by and at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Feb. 26-Apr. 4. (714) 708-5555.

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STARR STRUCK: A MUSICAL INVESTIGATION

at the 2nd Stage Theatre

Reviewed by Les Spindle

The Blank Theatre Company's challenge in creating a satirical musical revue based on the Clinton White House sex scandals was to elicit fresh comic mileage from a series of political events that are by now so familiar‹and so intrinsically ridiculous‹that they already verge on self-parody. Consequently, Starr Struck: A Musical Investigation, with original conception and lyrics by Alan Jay Glueckman and music by Stephen Bates, proves to be an entertaining but uneven song cycle that includes raucously hilarious segments interspersed with repetitious vignettes that are neither as funny nor as incisive as one would hope.

Under the slick direction of Daniel Henning, the strongest asset in this Monicagate sendup is a superb cast who thankfully avoid camp in their amusing impersonations of the key figures in a Machiavellian web of amorality and betrayal. As the self-satisfied chief executive with overactive hormones, Michael Halpin evokes the calculated public persona of Bill Clinton, though he makes little attempt to affect a Southern dialect. Tricia Leigh Fisher nails Monica Lewinsky with a dead-on portrayal of this paradoxical woman/child‹half Lolita and half Mata Hari.

Other choice characterizations abound: Jennifer Leigh Warren's fabulous double turn as the ever-loyal servant Betty Currie and the shamefully exploited Paula Jones; Steve Lipinsky's uproarious take on sharkish journalist Matt Drudge; Kristina Sanborn's admirably ballsy Hillary Clinton ("I'm the better man, but in a woman's body"); Harry S. Murphy's weaselly portrayal of hypocritical independent counsel Kenneth Starr; Mary-Pat Green's slovenly but mirthful Linda Tripp, and Jordan Lund's sardonic roasts of Rev. Jerry Falwell and a cynical middle-American fry cook.

The eclectic 28-song score by Glueckman and Bates mixes traditional showtune styles with jazzy ballads, blues, torch songs, and even gospel (the witty group number "DNA"). The most successful comic number is Lipinsky's delightful soft-shoe "Drudge Report" routine. Sanborn's delivery of the lovely "How Can I Love Him?" is genuinely touching, while Halpin enjoys his funniest moments in the sanctimonious and kinky "I've Been a Bad Boy" ("Beat me/Teach me/Just don't impeach me"). Henning choreographs most of the material in a traditional Broadway vein, and in a few instances satirizes famous musical moments (such as "Tonight" from "West Side Story" or "Steam Heat" from "Pajama Game"). Glueckman is wise to avoid overindulging in smarmy lyrics, but when he aims below the belt, he scores some real zingers ("He showed his cojones/To Paula Jone-ez").

Henning's cartoonish red-white-and-blue set is effectively ironic and his lighting satisfactory. David Mitchell's costumes are appropriate, and Butch Belo's wigs and hair designs add to the humor. This extremely topical show will undoubtedly have a short shelf life. Those who appreciate satirical revues will want to catch it before it molds.

"Starr Struck: A Musical Investigation," presented by the Blank Theatre Company and Glueckman Intertainment at the 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Mar. 6-28. (310) 289-2999.

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THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE

at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre

Reviewed by Lesley Solmonson

The Morgan-Wixson Theatre has been around for decades, drawing on enthusiastic members of the community as well as full-time actors for its productions. The Pirates of Penzance is the theatre's 422nd show, and it shows no signs of stopping. This perennial audience favorite crackles with energy, as it tells the story of dear Frederick, mistakenly apprenticed to pirates as a child. With this fluffy premise, Gilbert and Sullivan lead us on a rollicking journey filled with tittering girls, swashbuckling pirates, and, of course, a very modern major general.

In the hands of director Anne Gesling, this new production is a bit uneven, but the music and lyrics of G & S combined with the undeniable energy of the cast win out. While Gesling has managed to create a strong ensemble feel here‹the cast is at its best when they are all onstage‹she fails to concentrate enough on her individual characters.

Both David Meinke's Frederick and Edith Mazur's Mabel are bland lovers, more concerned with hitting the high notes than capturing the inherent absurdity and giddy infatuation their characters require. Perviz Shetty as Frederick's nurse Ruth tends to act rather than react, never quite capitalizing on the comic potential of her character.

The standout in the cast is Tom Mesmer, whose dynamic portrayal of the Pirate King makes the entire show worthwhile. Mesmer's confident swagger, rich voice, and intense immersion in his character keep us enthralled, so perfectly does he capture the humor and tongue-in-cheek sexuality of the role.

Musically, the show hits some troubled seas, as the cast sometimes has trouble following the pre-recorded accompaniment, and many of the soloists need to be miked. The numbers that should bring down the house‹"I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General," the policemen's "When the Foeman Bares His Steel"‹lack the power required. Still, Gesling, who also serves as music director, manages to hit all the right harmonies in the score, even if we can't always understand the words. Credit is also due to choreographer Krissy Loeber, who comes up with some adorable steps that highlight the lighthearted nature of the music. Costumes and set design are also solid.

Despite the very real problems here, the Morgan-Wixson's production of The Pirates of Penzance is still worth a look. Gilbert & Sullivan's music is always a delight, and it is given a decent treatment here. The cast is a solid company, a delight to watch when they frolic together onstage. And of course, there's Mesmer, whose presence alone is worth the price of admission.

"The Pirates of Penzance," presented by and at the Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Mar. 5-Apr. 18. (310) 828-7519.

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LEGACY

at the Sobrato Auditorium

Reviewed by Judy Richter

"I Don't Want No Rocking Chair," a song by Jeff Langley with lyrics by Ronnie Gilbert, sets the tone for Legacy, the world premiere musical presented by San Jos Repertory Theatre. Inspired by journalist Studs Terkel's book Coming of Age, this work features a book by Gilbert and Jon Marans, music by Langley and musical director Henry Mollicone, and lyrics by Gilbert. Artistic director Timothy Near directs with a sure hand. Although billed as a play with music, it doesn't have much plot. Its characters, however, are people, all 70 or older, whom Terkel interviewed. They not only lived through 20th-century American history but also helped to define it.

Each actor portrays a variety of people, sometimes of a different sex or race. They're a remarkable assemblage, all of them determined to try to improve the world before they die, and these veteran actors bring their own show business history to the stage as they sing, dance, and tell their characters' stories. They don't move as easily as their younger counterparts, and they sometimes read from scripts, yet they radiate energy, vitality, and dedication.

Gilbert, who was instrumental in the show's creation, portrays such people as modern art curator Katherine Kuh, who championed the works of Jackson Pollock, and union leader Genora Johnson, who led a successful strike against General Motors. She also portrays herself, a founding member of the Weavers, who helped make folk music popular in the 1950s. Joan Roberts, the original Laurey in Oklahoma! in 1943, shines as Bessie Doenges, a 93-year-old determined to raise hell, and as a woman who finds friendship and perhaps love with a man played by Carleton Carpenter.

Marking the 55th anniversary of his Broadway debut in Bright Boy, Carpenter is noteworthy as an 80-year-old hippie, a black jazz musician, and a Japanese-American woman interred during World War II. Playwright-performer David Rogers is memorable as gay activist Harry Hay, a founder of the Mattachine Society, and 95-year-old M. Jacoby as a prejudiced woman. Completing the cast is singer-actress Yolande Bavan, whose characters include a black janitor, a Hispanic community leader, and noted actress Uta Hagen.

Still, despite the likable cast, the show lacks unity. It feels episodic until the end, which focuses on the witchhunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the harm they did. More significantly, though, HUAC's victims, at least in Legacy, triumphed over their troubles and went on to new phases in their lives.

The songs are pleasant but not particularly memorable, except for Langley's bluesy "The Portrait of a Soul," sung by Bavan, Rogers, and Gilbert, and Mollicone's Sondheim-like "Time Flies," sung by Rogers. Dance director Bick Goss makes a welcome contribution. The set is by Ralph Funicello, costumes by B. Modern, lighting by Derek Duarte, and sound by Jeff Mockus. Even though this work has been in development for more than two years, it feels unfinished. The book needs to be tighter and more unified. Nevertheless, the show is still worth seeing because of the important stories it tells‹and the stories behind it.

"Legacy," presented by San Jos Repertory Theatre at the Sobrato Auditorium, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jos . Feb. 20-March 21. (408) 291-2255.

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HELLO, DOLLY!

at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

Reviewed by Wenzel Jones

There is so much innocent charm built into Jerry Herman's perennial musical favorite that you'd really have to work to sink it. If it's good and clean and everything works, it's clear why it's one of America's favorite shows. And if not... well, the songs are always eminently hummable. This is, I'm afraid, one of the latter.

There are some lovely performances here, especially that of Jill Van Velzer as the widowed milliner Irene Molloy. She has more fire than most, and is possessed of the clearest and most polished singing voice in the production. (Some of the chorus, however, should have been asked to mouth along.) Her rendition of "Ribbons Down My Back" is magic. Her reserve contrasts nicely with the unstoppable eagerness of Samantha Wynn as Irene's assistant, Minnie Fay. One could hardly ask for a more rakishly appealing Horace Vandergelder than Jack Ritschel, with his twinkling eyes and booming voice. Daniel May is adorable as the na™ve young Barnaby Tucker, Lauren Nave makes for an unforgettable Ernestina Money, and I'm not sure if Tom Hildebrand as a waiter should be applauded or smacked for squeezing five minutes of reaction into the nanosecond following Dolly's question, "Lose some weight, Stanley?"

But alas, the show is not called Hello, Irene Molloy, et al! Carol Swarbrick is obviously a skilled physical comedienne‹give her flatware and a chicken bone and she's set‹but her characterization of Dolly Gallagher Levi is irritating. She has that quality of sitcom neighbors‹fun, but only in small doses. Dennis Courtney has done a serviceable job with the direction and choreography, but should probably have rethought having Dolly take all those strolls around the orchestra pit begging for unwarranted applause. The rented sets (the Set Company) and costumes (Theatre Company) have the same sense of adequacy without heart.

"Helly, Dolly!," presented by Musical Theatre West at La Mirada and Long Beach, La Mirada Center for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada and Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach. Mar. 5-28. (714) 521-4849 or (562) 985-7000.

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MOONCHILDREN

at the Candlefish Theatre

Reviewed by Terri Roberts

It's 1965, and seven university students are sharing a cheap off-campus apartment and constantly interfering in each other's lives. Norman is a math nerd who needs a sense of humor and wants to be "relevant." Music major Bob has a major identity crisis when he gets a pre-draft notice for his physical addressed to "Jobert" instead of "Robert." His girlfriend, Kathy, is so frustrated by his resulting inattention that she has sex with arrogant, anal-retentive Dick, whom nobody likes. Mike and Cootie are just way too goofy to take anything seriously, and philosophy major Ruth worries about everybody and everything. At the end of Act One, Mike dryly observes to Cootie that "things are getting a little out of control around here."

If only they were! The problem with the Candlefish Theatre's production of Michael Weller's Moonchildren is the careful, deliberate direction by Howard Fine. Nothing is ever in danger of being out of control in Act One, or in Act Two, for that matter. And that kind of staying-within-the-lines direction misses the mark in bringing to life an era when virtually the only thing that was controlled were the substances everyone was using to get out of control.

Everything's pretty tidy here. Empty glass milk bottles neatly line the living room shelves (and the numbers never change; there are as many bottles at Christmas as there are at graduation). A few posters of Humphrey Bogart films dot the walls, which is fine‹but they'd be greatly complemented by peace sign posters and flyers for the demonstrations this group marches in, etc.

Cootie and Mike carry most of Moonchildren's comedy, and in those roles, Dan Maloney and Blake Steury do the best they can. Both are adept, funny actors who occasionally manage to rise above the staid atmosphere and deliver some real laughs, as does Clement E. Blake as their landlord, Mr. Willis. Brad Kane (Norman) and Dawn Worrall (Norman's girlfriend, Shelly) also bring in a few chuckles.

Carl T. Evans (Bob) makes a valiant attempt at Bob's rough edges, but has only one moment in which he truly cuts to the quick. His resulting breakdown is more frustrating than heartbreaking because of it. This is an obviously capable cast getting some good design support by Short Story and Tall Tale's set design, and K. D. Costumes' 1960s clothes (but where are the accessories?). Too bad they're hampered by direction that won't let them play closer to the edge.

"Moonchildren," presented by the Candlefish Theatre and Michael Butler at the Candlefish Theatre, 1540 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Mar. 5-Apr. 11. (323) 660-8587.

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FRANK RICH IS DEAD

at Venue 9

Reviewed by Kerry Reid

There's the germ of a good idea in Mark Insko's solo satirical performance (and debut as a playwright), Frank Rich Is Dead. Unfortunately, that idea never really gets fleshed out‹or rather, it's bludgeoned into a premature death by the irritatingly smug and over-the-top performance of its creator, a performance director J. David Blazevich seems either unable or unwilling to rein in.

Insko plays Arthur Klemschtepp, a talentless actor wannabe who, misinterpreting the dictum of a Learning Annex-like instructor to "kill the critic," murders Frank Rich, the former theatre critic for The New York Times. (Right there, Insko's premise is problematic; surely he realizes that theatre folks, the presumable audience for this self-indulgent showcase, would get off much more at the prospect of seeing the notoriously vitriolic John Simon sliced and diced instead. And since Rich hasn't written a review in the last several years, Insko's satirical target is even more dated‹something he never satisfactorily addresses during the performance.)

Insko's show then follows Klemschtepp's adventures behind bars (complete with obvious prison sex jokes and a cellmate named oh-so-ironicallly "Tiny") as he prepares a prison musical. (Doug Wood provides the adequate if uninspired original music.) By play's end, Insko attempts to inject some postmodern deconstruction by having the (surprise!) very-much-alive Frank Rich review his convict revue, calling it "a Tommy Tune production of Marat/Sade." The gormless Klemschtepp wins raves, but Insko should be derided for using every theatre clich in the book‹from the faux-audition scene opening the piece to the "let's put on a show" ethos behind the prison musical.

Unfortunately, Insko ultimately lacks the cojones to mercilessly dissect the biggest problem with shows of this ilk: his own presumption that those wacky show folks are endlessly fascinating, and never more so than when they can take the stage by themselves to show off their big, colorful, outrageous personalities. "Look at me now," Insko seems to be saying at one point. "I'm wearing a big red boa! Isn't that FUNNY? And how about this rubber chicken? That's always good for laughs, isn't it?"

In a word, no. Though my comments run the risk of being read as those of a thin-skinned critic, I can only say to Insko: Next time out, hit hard, hit fast, and come up with something really eye-poppingly original. And find a director who can help you understand the indispensable comic premise that less is almost always more.

"Frank Rich Is Dead," presented by Inquiline Theatre Company at Venue 9, 252 Ninth St., San Francisco. March 4-27. (415) 289-2260.

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NUNSENSE JAMBOREE

at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Although the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with its 11-play season of rotating repertory is the big draw in Ashland, the area has several smaller theatre companies worth a look. One of them is the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, a 12-year-old dinner theatre company that has taken up residence in a handsome former church just a block from the OSF complex. The company presents a five-show season year-round.

The current offering is Nunsense Jamboree, another sequel (after Nunsense II) to Dan Goggin's Nunsense, a community theatre staple. In this installment, subtitled Sister Amnesia's Country Western Jamboree, Sister Mary Paul (Kristin Woodbury), formerly known as Amnesia, is on her way to Nashville. She's accompanied by three other nuns and a Franciscan priest, Father Virgil Manly Trott (Wade McCollum). Beyond that, there's no plot to speak of. Instead the show is a revue interspersed with some bingo, sing-alongs, and a tiresome auction.

Unlike the original Nunsense, which had much zany charm thanks to Goggin's clever book, music, and lyrics, this installment shows the franchise wearing a bit thin. Instead, Goggin resorts here to lame, corny jokes and outhouse humor that generally fall flat despite a likable, talented, energetic cast, directed and choreographed by Richard Jessup with musical direction by Darcy Danielson.

The show does have a few bright spots, such as "A Good Book," performed by McCollum and Shana Pennington as Sister Mary Leo; "A Technicolor Woman," sung and danced by Pennington, and "Growing Up in Brooklyn," sung by Jessica Blaszak as Sister Robert Anne. Woodbury and Linda Otto as Sister Mary Wilhelm also are good singers. It's too bad that the material doesn't match their talents.

Upcoming shows this season include The Shakespeare Revue, Pump Boys and Dinettes, A ... My Name Will Always Be Alice, and Full Circle‹all of which sound more promising than the present fare.

"Nunsense Jamboree," presented by the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, First and Hargadine streets, P.O. Box 1149, Ashland, Ore. Feb. 12-Apr. 5. (541) 488-2902.

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