at the New Conservatory Theatre Center

Reviewed by Kerry Reid

Self-confessed "show queen" Tom Orr has, in Dirty Little Showtunes!, devised a revue so wickedly witty and cleverly constructed that even the most vehemently anti-musical souls should be able to find something to appreciate. Orr has essentially taken the well-worn premise of revues like Forbidden Broadway! and turned it on its ear by re-imagining dozens of classic showtunes from a contemporary gay male perspective. The result is rollicking, raunchy, thought-provoking, and deliciously fun.

Under the direction of Allen Sawyer and John Carr, Showtunes! moves along at a brisk clip (with only occasional lags and less-than-crisp transitions in the second act), thanks to the energetic performances of Orr and the rest of the cast (David Bicha, Eric Brizee, Billy De Herrera, Arturo Galster, and Birdie-Bob Watt), and the nimble onstage piano accompaniment and musical direction of Scrumbly Koldewyn. Things get off (no pun intended) to a rousing start, in a nod to A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum ("Parody Tonight!") and builds up steam from there. Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, Jerry Herman almost all the usual suspects are here.

Thankfully, the inexplicably successful Andrew Lloyd Webber comes in for a great deal of merciless and wholly deserved ribbing, particularly in De Herrera's rendering of "No Lloyd Webber," sung to the tune of "There Won't Be Trumpets" from Anyone Can Whistle ("No giant stairways/No kitty choirs ").

The intricacies and frustrations of contemporary gay life are not given short shrift. Watt delivers a version of "Over the Rainbow" that pointedly takes to task the commodification of gay culture ("I think what pink triangles teach got lost/How do beach towels and key chains link to the Holocaust?"). In a lighter number, drag queens and leathermen mix it up in a gay identity hoedown inspired by "The Farmer and the Cowhand" from Oklahoma!

Even improvisation takes centerstage, as Orr crafts a new song at intermission based on audience suggestions of a place, sexual position or object, and a showtune. The night I was in attendance, it was "The Trolley Song," tricked up with references to French ticklers and Euro-Disney.

One of the show's greatest joys is that Orr and company seem to be proceeding from the premise that everyone in the audience is in on the joke, thus avoiding both deadly preachiness and irritating preening of the smarmy "look how outrageous we're being now!" school. Indeed, despite the blue lyrics, there's an underlying sweetness that brings out the best in these songs. After all, many of the greatest Broadway tunes were written by gay men for a straight audience. Orr's reclamation of the form is really an homage, cleverly in drag as parody. Best of all, it's a very well-done, well-sung, enjoyable evening in the company of great tunesmiths.

"Dirty Little Showtunes!," presented by Michael Bruno Productions in association with the New Conservatory Theatre Center at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Nov. 28-Feb. 1. (415) 861-8972.


at the Bitter Truth Theatre

Reviewed by Les Spindle

The aptly titled Random Acts of Evil is a collage of five short vignettes that provide disturbing glimpses of the issues surrounding unlucky children who suffer at the hands of abusive adults. The simple didacticism of writer/director Alice Champlin's straightforward sketches cannot be described as poetic or dramatically complex, but they cumulatively convey an urgent social message.

"Who Said, What Said, When Said, Where Said" provides an intriguing view of official apathy, as a social worker drops the ball on a child abuse case, with tragedy as a result. Both Linda Vogel as the angry supervisor and Annie Grindlay as the negligent case worker are compelling in their roles.

"Little Miss Beauty Queen" is as fresh as today's headlines, presenting a convincing Taylor Allbright as a nine-year-old beauty pageant princess. The heavily made-up youngster offers her chilling theory of what really happened in the infamous Jon-Benet Ramsey case.

"The Dink," another monologue, is movingly interpreted by Jodi Taffel, as a female sheriff relating a story about a kindly deputy who originally wanted to be a clergyman. His search for a kidnap victim ends with the discovery of the dead boy's battered body and his ministering of last rites. In a third monologue, "Random Acts of Evil," a woman (well played by Champlin) reveals her own childhood scars as she identifies her father as a serial killer.

In "Skyler Tate," Miss Winslow (Kaye Kittrell), an inexperienced social service representative, sets aside her Southern gentility to confront an irresponsible mother (Carla Von) who is beating her daughter (Zoe Warner) and allowing her boyfriend to sexually molest the child. A combination of fate and Miss Winslow's kindness eventually rescue the child from her ordeal. All three actresses excel in this superb segment, which thankfully ends this depressing but important production on a note of hope.

"Random Acts of Evil," presented by Theatre of Hope for Abused Women, at the Bitter Truth Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hollywood. Jan.4-Feb. 15. (818) 766-9702.



at Highways Performance Space

Reviewed by Wenzel Jones

Any show with a male cast performing a musical number with its pants around its ankles gets points in the bread-and-circuses category. Mikey (the winning Mark Smith) is a youth who goes off to college where he makes the discovery that, gosh, he's gay. Fortunately for him, when he goes knocking on gaydom's gates, he finds himself richly blessed with the coin of the realm: a physique that elicited gasps from the opening-night audience the first of many times he shucked his shirt.

Mikey's journey's through campus activism (protesting the opening of Cruising is the focus of much of his energy) and down love's rocky paths (both wholesome and un-) constitute the spine of this theatre piece, a musical that is not actually as old as it feels. Mark Savage (book/music/lyrics/director) has written a show of such innocence (well, as innocent as any show can be that treats the men's room as a campus mixer) that it feels as if it were actually written in 1980. The protest of Cruising, for one, is depressing when you realize it made something like To Wong Foo possible.

The cast is exemplary, and handles the pattery I-coulda-been-Sondheim lyrics with aplomb. Tobe Sexton, Chris Coyne, Jay Foreman, and Troy Saviola are easy on the eye and ear as the men in Mikey's life, and John Price is especially touching as an Oscar Wilde manquĆ’. Most affecting is Michael Greer, in his role as old-guard activist, singing "Pioneer." As a song it's a dirge, but Greer is no small part of gay entertainment history, and the moment is poignant.

Jon Philip Alman does fine work in an underwritten role, that of Mikey's Big Love--a Love who actually walks into Mikey's life and hands him his card. Would that it were always so. If you can abandon your sense of perspective--or if you've yet to develop one--this show certainly belongs on your dance card.

"The Ballad of Little Mikey," presented by and at Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. Jan. 2-25. (310) 453-1755.


at Theatre East

Reviewed by Anne Louise Bannon

It's cute. I don't mean that to sound dismissive, but Theatre East's first play of the season is a sweet little bit of fluff with some lovely performances that really shouldn't be taken seriously. In fact, being taken seriously, in this play, causes more problems than it solves.

Written in 1927 by Italian playwright Eduardo de Filippo in his native Neapolitan dialect, Just Play Along meanders happily through the havoc caused by Michele (Bruce Kirby), a businessman freshly returned from a mental hospital, supposedly cured. Because Michele's grasp on reality is so very tenuous, he misunderstands everybody, thus matching his sister up with a lecherous landlord when he is supposed to be proposing to the landlord's daughter, and other mix-ups.

Michael Alaimo translated, produced, and directed this production, and he plays two minor roles. He has kept the feel very light and very Italian, to the point of wallowing in stereotypes. The actors use Italian accents, and while it seemed to work during the performance reviewed, on later consideration, it wasn't necessary.

It's not easy making what are essentially (and purposefully) caricatures come to life. Kirby's Michele is a sweet, simple soul, played with a delightful restraint--a needed counterpoint to the angst and chaos of the other characters. Also worth mentioning is the strong singing of Krisi Dennis, who plays the maid Checchina. Steven Robert Wallenberg, playing a family friend feuding with his brother, is a tad distracting because his performance seems like a direct lift from Nehemiah Persoff's work as the bald-headed gang chief in Some Like It Hot. Sharon Rubin's straightforward sets work well. The show, as a whole, comes off as blissfully simple--which means it was a Herculean task, indeed.

"Just Play Along," presented by and at Theatre East, 12655 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. Dec. 11-Feb. 1. (818) 760-4160.


at the Bagley Wright Theatre

Reviewed by David-Edward Hughes

Though there is always a lot to admire from the author of such standout contemporary plays as The Piano Lesson and Two Trains Running, August Wilson scores only intermittently with the talky and tedious Seven Guitars, despite laudable direction by Jonathan Wilson and several knockout performances.

The play is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Penn. in 1948, and its action is played out in the makeshift patio of an urban slum on a realistic and almost overpoweringly detailed set by Scott Bradley. Floyd Barton, a musician with one hit record but no financial success to go with it, is struggling to get his guitar out of hock and head back to Chicago to cut another record. When a hoped-for source of income doesn't come through, Barton resorts to illicit dealings to obtain his needed cash, setting the scene for a modern-day tragedy involving his friends and neighbors.

In Act One, the characters tell us a whole lot about themselves, but the story doesn't really get cooking until Act Two. What finally sets it on a high burner is the character of Hedley, a tuberculosis-stricken old fella given to violent threats and out-of-control behavior. Lou Ferguson is utterly compelling and heartbreaking as this poor, sad loser, delivering the kind of performance that wins Tony awards on Broadway.

Cynthia Jones, as the spirited and opinionated Louise, adds another rich characterization to her gallery of fine performances in Seattle theatres. Alex Allen Morris, as the doomed guitarist Floyd, brings empathy to his character's plight, Ken LaRon is dignified and sympathetic as Canewell, and Jernard Burks elicits some welcome laughter as Red Carter. Gwendolyn Mulamba's Ruby is a bit too reminiscent of the character she played recently in the Intiman's The Old Settler, and Leslie DoQui is adequate in the underwritten role of Vera.

"Seven Guitars," presented by the Seattle Repertory Theatre at the Bagley Wright Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle. Dec. 31-Jan. 24. (206) 443-2222.


at the Knightsbridge Theatre

Reviewed by Terri Roberts

Give the Knightsbridge Theatre high marks for enthusiasm and good intentions. They really try. But though the theatre's sparse production of Romeo and Juliet has a few bright spots, ultimately it's as star-crossed as the doomed lovers themselves.

Director Karesa McElheny bets heavily on our familiarity with and affection for the story to compensate for confusing costuming, erratic lighting, and a minimalist set. What she desperately needs is a sense of unity. Her director's notes say she's set the show in a timeless era. So she dispenses with the famous opening oration that sets up Shakespeare's tragic tale (but prints it in the program), and opens with the rowdy antics on Verona's streets. It just doesn't work. With that graceful entry gone, the production lurches forward and stumbles again almost immediately as the actors come onstage.

While the women wear period-suggestive clothing, the men forgo tights and tunics for jeans and vests (OK, there is the occasional poet's shirt). With a stage full of men dressed in the same manner, and with raucous laughter and swordplay overshadowing some of the dialogue, the audience has to work hard to tell the Capulets from the Montagues.

There's also a dismal lack of focus and subtlety here. When Romeo (the excitable Lenny Edelstein) sees Juliet (a beautiful Julieanna Laffer) at the Capulets' party, the moment is swallowed up in the surrounding festivities. But when they do meet, from that point on these two are so busy kissing and grabbing at each other they should be steaming up a parked car on a Saturday night.

Producer Joseph P. Stachura as Mercutio and Tom Chick as Benvolio give the clearest, strongest performances, the latter especially so when explaining the fatal fight between Romeo and Tybalt (Michael Yavnieli) to the Prince (Don Schlossman). Christian Noble as Capulet also does some good work. But JoAnna Jocelyn's Nurse is irritating, relying on a fake laugh and screechy, sing-songy voice instead of true characterization.

P.S. Would someone please proofread the program before it's printed? Who are Montagur and Balhasar? Does anyone study at the Charles Courad Studio? Inexcusable sloppiness. The audience deserves better, and the Knightsbridge is capable of providing it.

"Romeo and Juliet," presented by and at the Knightsbridge Theatre, 35 S. Raymond Ave., Pasadena. Jan. 3-Feb. 22. (626) 440-0821