REVIEWS

THE ELEVATION OF THIEVES

at the Stage Theatre

Reviewed by Dianne Zuckerman

The Elevation of Thieves, in its world premiere by the Denver Center Theatre Company, is as timely as theatre gets. Nagle Jackson's powerful work, which explores the causes and aftermath of a violent act, was selected a year ago, but coming on the heels of the Columbine High School tragedy, the material is that much more poignant and provocative.

Elevation, beautifully directed by Jackson and performed by an excellent cast, contains no stage violence. The focus is on conflicts that lead to a senseless shooting. The locale (Pavel Dobrusky's cleverly designed grassy disk surrounded by small dwellings) is Western Europe. A community is preparing for its annual pageant, in which townsfolk portray the thieves crucified alongside Christ. But the centuries-old event must contend with social changes and an increasingly crowded village.

New people, mostly Muslims, are moving in. An outsider (Patricia Dalen) hired to pump up the pageantry to attract media interest is awash in official pressure and special effects. Mix in local boredom and bigotry, compounded by feelings of unrequited love, lack of recognition, and a sense of alienation, and the results are combustible.

Act One is laugh-out-loud funny, as longtime townspeople skirmish to protect their turf. Some of the best scenes are the planning confabs involving a pompous traditionalist (Jamie Horton), overwrought bishop (Tony Church), petty administrator (Kathleen M. Brady), and the easygoing mayor (Anthony De Fonte). He oozes liberal amicability until his lonely, despairing daughter (Corliss Preston), a bedroom-bound agoraphobic, falls for a smoldering Muslim newcomer, played with riveting presence by Steven Memran.

The mood darkens in Act Two, as Elevation illustrates the way violence can cause any one of us to "step over the line," a metaphor that holds different meanings for various characters, among them the town "good guy" (Douglas Harmsen) and a yearning teenage companion (Sarah Flanagan) in search of self-identity.

Jackson's compelling play is marred only by a false ending modeled somewhat on the graveyard scene in Our Town. The problem here is the uneven tone-some characters' flip comments are gratuitous. We don't need laughs at this point.

"The Elevation of Thieves," presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company at the Stage Theatre, Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex, 24th and Curtis Streets, Denver. May 13-June 5. (800) 641-1222.

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SHOW AND TELL

at Stages

Reviewed by Paul Birchall

Somewhere in America's so-called heartland, a bomb explodes at an elementary school, not only killing all the students in a classroom but shredding them into unrecognizable pieces. As the families grieve, a locust-like plague of government investigators descends on the area, assigned to figure out what happened. Meanwhile, the children's teacher, ironically the sole survivor of the explosion, attempts to grapple with her own sorrow, as well as her guilt over being alive.

Anthony Clarvoe's cracklingly intelligent, cinematic play almost cuts a little too close to recent headlines for comfort. Thematically, the drama slightly resembles the recent film The Sweet Hereafter in its depiction of a community's reaction to grief and the exploration of the pure randomness of mortality, but it's hard to watch the play and not think about recent disasters such as the Littleton school massacre. It's unusual and eerie to see the human reaction to disaster portrayed this authentically.

The play's story is fairly slim, but Clarvoe is unusually adept at portraying the psychological and sociological responses to grief and disaster. From the understandably near-irrational anguish of the dead children's families, to the elementally disturbing coolness and detatched professionalism of the disaster investigators, who regard all the scattered body parts as, literally, pieces of a macabre jigsaw puzzle-and who find themselves cracking tasteless jokes about death to keep the horror at bay-all the drama's emotions ring piercingly true. Director Luck Hari, in a tightly staged, feverishly paced production, is skillfully adroit at suggesting the horror of death, and the comparatively inane, bureaucratic banality of the way it is processed by those not directly affected by it.

The acting work is subtle and artful. Shannon O'Hurley, as the teacher who survives the disaster, offers a haunting, tortured performance as she forges a desperately needful romantic relationship with chief investigator Seth (Paul Sandberg). As the driven government apparatchik, Sandberg creates a fascinatingly layered, complex, and at times morally ambiguous character: Here is someone who demonstrates a sincere compassion for the grief of others-but who is also quick to mercilessly exploit others' sorrow to get the answers he needs.

If it is tough to face these themes onstage right about now, this Circle X production makes it worth the challenge.

"Show and Tell," presented by the Circle X Theatre Company at Stages, 1540 N. McCadden Pl., Hollywood. May 14-June 19. (323) 969-9239 x. 2.

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HAVING OUR SAY

at International City Theatre

Reviewed by Kristina Mannion

Imagine being a witness to more than 100 years of American history-a century of wars and civil strife, years of tremendous change and progress. Imagine the remarkable stories and experiences you'd have to share. In Emily Mann's Having Our Say, we encounter two such real-life eyewitnesses to history. And the tales these extraordinary individuals have to tell is every bit as fascinating as one could imagine.

Based on Amy Hill Hearth's biography of African-American sisters Sadie and Bessie Delany-who lived to the incredible ages of 109 and 104, respectively-Mann's moving work allows a glimpse of our nation's growing pains through the eyes of two women who lived together for most of their lives, yet held distinct views of the changing world around them. Through their recollections, we relive pivotal years of American history, both the good and the bad.

Even more affecting than its enlightening look at our nation's development, however, is the play's gentle and homespun depiction of these resilient women, who fashioned long lives of happiness and accomplishment through their unswerving pride in family, heritage, and country.

Playing up both the simple charm of Mann's script and its bittersweet stories of triumph and loss, International City Theatre has put together a polished and poignant production of Having Our Say. Directed with sensitivity by caryn morse desai and acted with genuine affection by Amentha Dymally and Audrey Morgan, this staging is a delightful living tribute to Sadie and Bessie and the ideals they cherished. In the hands of this creative ICT trio, the Delanys' admirable pride and dignity become a tangible presence.

Set in 1991, the play's action is mostly focused on the sisters' preparation of their father's favorite meal in celebration of the anniversary of his birth. After first cordially inviting the audience into their home, Sadie and Bessie proceed to bustle about their kitchen and dining room while they take turns relating their past. Through their alternating words of sweet nostalgia and sorrowful remembrance, we learn about their father's slave roots, the nation's struggle with civil rights, and their own ambitions, which took them from their poor beginnings in Raleigh, NC, to the Harlem Renaissance in New York. It was there that the Delanys distinguished themselves among their race and gender, as Sadie became the first black woman to teach in a public high school and Bessie the first black woman to practice dentistry in New York.

Dymally and Morgan are superbly cast as these two indomitable sisters, whose personalities couldn't be more opposite. As sweet Sadie, Dymally is the perfect soft-spoken foil for Morgan's portrayal of feisty, headstrong Bessie-she coyly smiles at Bessie's cantankerous nature, while Morgan comically frowns and grumbles at Sadie's unflagging adorability. Under desai's smooth direction, the pair verbally spar with affection and often speak simultaneously, leading us to the conclusion that they share a chemistry that mirrors the one shared by the real Sadie and Bessie. Together, they present an irresistible duo, skillfully conjuring a loving pair of sisters who have lived and learned together and have plenty of wisdom to share with others.

In the end, we almost wish that Mann could have packed more stories into her script, so that we might discover more about the Delany's amazing history and enjoy more of Dymally and Morgan's appealing onstage charm.

"Having Our Say," produced by Shashin Desai at International City Theatre, Long Beach City College Campus, at Clark and Harvey Way, Long Beach. May 7-June 13. (562) 938-4128.

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THE KING AND I

at Plummer Auditorium

Reviewed by Les Spindle

The Fullerton Civic Light Opera is certainly on a roll. Following closely on the heels of the group's heavenly West Coast premiere of Stephen Schwartz' Biblical musical Children of Eden comes a sumptuously staged and consummately performed revival of The King and I, the most durable staple in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon. In its third staging of this cherished show, the Fullerton CLO has wisely avoided reinventing the wheel, offering a traditional yet invigorating interpretation of this splendidly melodic and uncommonly literate musical classic.

Under Jan Duncan's expert direction, lightning strikes anew for lead performers Clynell Jackson III (as the King of Siam) and Karen Forest (as the governess Anna), who triumphantly recreate roles they have played before. Jackson and Forest eloquently mine the rich material for its intellectual and emotional rewards, as well as its sublime musical pleasures. Forest deftly captures the paradoxical qualities of Anna's prim-and-proper yet spunky schoolteacher, while Jackson finds similar depth in the character of the tyrannical yet secretly compassionate monarch. Both performers do full justice to the soaring beauty of Richard Rodgers' music and the incisive wit of Hammerstein's lyrics. The goose-pimply moment when the couple drop their defenses and engage in the glorious "Shall We Dance?" waltz is musical theatre nirvana.

In other key roles, Karen Lew is dignified and graceful as the devoted Lady Thiang, who clues Anna in to the tenderness behind the King's bluster; the charming duo of Enrique Acevedo and Emy Baysic invest the doomed young lover roles (Lun Tha and Tuptim, respectively) with great poignancy; Luis Avila excels as the strong-willed young prince/king-to-be, and Christopher Winsor is appealing as Anna's young son Louis. The casting of many Asian-American actors adds to the production's effectiveness. Other supporting roles are skillfully played, and the ensemble sings and dances with elan.

There are also visual delights aplenty, thanks to the rich tonality of Mark Klopfenstein's storybook sets, the ravishing textures of Donna Ruzika's versatile lighting effects, and the dazzling but tasteful costumes by Sharell Martin. The accomplished choreographer Sha Newman has lovingly adapted Jerome Robbins' original concepts, which are especially impressive in the stirring "Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet sequence. Musical director Grant Rohr and conductor Todd Helm share in the kudos for the production's musical triumphs.

In an era of plotless musical revues like Fosse and extravaganzas like The Lion King which emphasize spectacle over substance, it's a joy to rediscover, again, the infinite pleasures of the well-crafted book musical.

"The King and I," presented by the Fullerton Civic Light Opera at Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. May 14-30. (714) 879-1732.

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PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE

at the Lyceum Theatre

Reviewed by Charlene Baldridge

Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile plops willing audiences down in 1904 Paris, where the playwright/funnyman arranges an imaginary meeting between the 23-year-old Pablo Picasso and the 25-year-old Albert Einstein, two men who will shape the 20th century. Einstein is one year away from publishing his special theory of relativity, and Picasso three years from creating his cubist painting Les Demoiselles D'Avignon (by coincidence the object of Cher's desire in the current film Tea With Mussolini).

Currently, Picasso at the Lapin Agile is made manifest at San Diego Repertory Theatre in a production fraught with physical comedy (subtle and not so), brilliantly staged by Dell'Arte Players artistic director Joan Schirle. The tone is set by Freddy, the barkeep, played by song-and-dance man Wayne Tibbetts. He performs a charming pre-curtain ballet with broom, sawdust, chairs, and tables. Then, just before the first customer's arrival, he breaks into a little tap and bowler hat routine.

Enter Gaston (classical actor Jonathan McMurtry), a bistro habitu and an aging sot with a weak bladder. The mere suggestion of "fullness" ripples through McMurtry's body like a tidal wave. The actor's bass-baritone utterance of the word "sex" is a comic masterpiece. Einstein (the elastic-faced, rubber-bodied Ron Campbell) is very nearly a page from Waiting for Godot: He arrives without socks in a sad-sack suit with too-short trousers, shoes slightly domed, in need of a shine, and miles too large.

Costume designer Brandin Baron provides sumptuous period gowns for Julie Jacobs, who gleefully and balletically romps through three characters: The first, clad in black with a beaded blouse, is an insouciant young woman who knows Picasso (in the Biblical sense); the second hopes to bed him; the third is a countess friend of Picasso. Deborah Van Valkenburgh is excellent as Freddy's canny, round-heeled wife. Jeff Blak hits the mark as a garbed-in-gold, 11th-hour visitor from the future.

Mikael Salazar, who played Lucentio in South Coast Rep's indelible production of The Taming of the Shrew, makes an auspicious Rep debut as the young Picasso. He has just the right degree that devastating animal charm that characterized Picasso throughout his life. Salazar and Jacobs sizzle in each other's arms, though each knows it to be a comic postcard, a charade.

Tim Irving portrays a dithering art dealer, and Michael Douglas Hummel an overblown would-be genius. Giulio Cesare Perrone creates an outlandish scenic design, all pink and blue. Trevor Norton is the lighting designer. Randy Cohen created the sound design. Peter Herman's wigs and hair are fabulous.

"Picasso at the Lapin Agile," presented by San Diego Repertory at the Lyceum Theatre, Horton Plaza, San Diego. May 14-June 13. Phone (619) 544-1000.

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BELLS ARE RINGING

at the UCLA Freud Playhouse

Reviewed by Terri Roberts

What an absolute delight! Thanks to smooth direction, a top-notch cast, and the smart decision to lose those clumsy scripts, the current Reprise! concert production of the 1956 charmer Bells Are Ringing rings loud and clear and true.

Not so very long ago, telephone numbers were dialed instead of punched, incoming calls triggered a bell, and pay phones accepted only coins. And, if you were busy or not at home, an answering service-staffed by real live people-would cheerfully take your messages. Bells Are Ringing (book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, music by Jule Styne) takes us back to those pre-cellular times. Ella Peterson (Carolee Carmello) is a switchboard operator for her cousin's answering service, Susanswerphone. While other operators simply receive and pass on messages, Ella has fun with her job and gets chummy with the people on the other end of the line: She pretends to be Santa Claus to little Jimmy, and answers calls to a French restaurant in a sexy French accent.

For Jeffrey Moss, a despondent playwright recently parted from his writing partner, Ella takes on the persona of a kindly old woman whom Jeff calls "Mom" and helps him regain his confidence. And, natch, she falls for him, sight unseen.

Carmello is nothing short of fabulous as the meddlesome but goodhearted Ella. She sings, she dances, she makes you laugh, she breaks your heart. Hers is a graceful, effortless performance that completely captivates us. Stephen Bogardus is another winner as the blocked playwright Jeff. His "I Met a Girl" carries him (and us) to the clouds with the bursting joy of newfound love, and his duet with Ella-the now classic "Just in Time"-is as charming as it gets.

A secondary story concerns a slick conman named Sandor who uses the answering service as a front for his bookie ring. Gary Beach is a great crowd pleaser as the crafty gambler, and the ensemble production number he leads-"It's a Simple Little System"-is among the show's highlights. And the multi-talented David Engel is spotlighted in a nice featured role as Carl, a co-worker at Susanswerphone who teaches Ella all the right moves in the second act opener, "Mu-cha-cha."

Perhaps because they are "concert" productions, past Reprise! shows have kept scripts in hand. Thankfully, they are dispensed with here, which inherently gives the show a stronger sense of confidence. Don Amendolia directs with great affection for the fluffy script. David R. Zyla's costumes are character-perfect, Bradley Kaye's suggestive set design is simple and effective, and Kevin Carlisle's choreography is crisp and clean. Musical direction is by Peter Matz.

"Bells Are Ringing," presented by Reprise! Broadway's Best in Concert at the Freud Playhouse, UCLA Campus, Westwood. May 12-23. (310) 825-2101.

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THE WITLESS LADY

at the Bilingual Foundation of

the Arts

Reviewed by Anne Louise Bannon

Lope de Vega was to Spanish theatre what Shakespeare was to English theatre, and was roughly contemporary with the great Bard. De Vega, however, was considerably more prolific, writing up to 1,800 plays. Of those, the harmless little pastiche The Witless Lady (La Dama Boba) is probably among the better known. The production by the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts production plays into the silliness, creating a bit of fluff that is easily consumed and all the more delightful for its age.

Finea (Diana De Barros) is the lovely but stupid daughter of Octavio (German Leonne). Nise (Rosita Fernandez) is her equally beautiful but considerably wiser sister. Liseo (Jaime Arze) is contracted to marry Finea, but is turned off by her idiocy and instead falls for Nise. Meanwhile, Laurencio (John Paul) has been making up to Nise, but wants to marry Finea for her fortune, inherited from an uncle. And so forth and so on, with the "witless" Finea growing wiser through the power of love.

It is to adaptor and director Agust"n Coppola's credit that at no point in the play does anyone take anything seriously. De Barros is wonderful as the witless-turned-wise innocent. One usually wants to take actors to task for putting on silly faces, but De Barros not only makes it work, she uses it to great effect when she must play-act her former witlessness to get the husband she wants. Leonne's work as the put-upon father starts out at full throttle and does not let up, but again, it is in service to the script and works. And as the greedy Laurencio, Paul is so charming that you can believe that Nise still wants him even though she knows he's after her sister's fortune.

It's rare that you find a set as nice as Estela Scarlata's. True to its Spanish heritage, the garden setting here creates the perfect fairy tale atmosphere. The play is supposedly set in the early 17th century, but it must be very early in the century, because Carlos Brown's men's costumes look a lot more like late 16th century to me. The ladies' dresses are something else again, more suggestive of the era than accurate (am I the only one who finds zippers on period clothes really distracting?).

The production plays in both English and Spanish on alternating weekends with mostly the same cast.

"The Witless Lady (La Dama Boba)," presented by and at the Bilingual Foundation of the Arts, 421 N. Avenue 19, Los Angeles. Apr. 23-June 6. (323) 225-4044.

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THE MOON IS BLUE

at Stages Repertory Theatre

Reviewed by Holly Hildebrand

I'm shocked, shocked! Why, to think a playwright would write dialogue with such words as "seduce," "mistress," "pregnant," "promiscuity," and "virgin"! Cover your ears, everybody!

Or better, don't. Otherwise you'll miss the enjoyable revival of The Moon Is Blue at Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston. Stages has taken a 1950s retro-chic approach to F. Hugh Herbert's play, which caused a scandal when it premiered in 1951. In the days of "family values," nice people weren't supposed to acknowledge certain words that were in the script; when Otto Preminger made a film version in 1953, the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency condemned the movie, and it was banned from all Navy bases and ships after the Chief of Chaplains expressed his outrage.

Audiences in the '90s probably won't understand any of the objections that put people in a tizzy 48 years ago; if they care, they will simply find them quaint. What makes The Moon Is Blue a success today is its ability to entertain, and Stages is wise to emphasize this quality.

The focus of the considerable fun is not so much Patty O'Neill, the young, innocent chatterbox picked up by a handsome architect, Don Gresham. Although both these characters have their moments, the one who steals the show is the cynically charming David Slater, played with sly urbanity by James Huston. Slater's witticisms keep the show alive, and, tellingly, Huston gets the biggest curtain-call hand. He's fun to watch every moment he's onstage. As Patty, Lisa Marie Singerman is cute and perky, and Dominique Gerard makes a smooth, handsome Don. Bill Hargrove is just right in his small part as Patty's ill-tempered, combative father.

William Hardy directs The Moon Is Blue-for the second time in 40 years. His experience is valuable, for he knows how to get at the froth in the script and make the show more than a na™ve period piece. John Gow has designed a roughly evocative set which could use a bit more polish, but Matthew Bartkowiak's costumes capture the mood and look of the '50s perfectly, and Douglas Robertson's sound design, with many popular favorites of the era, had some of the older members of the audience humming along in happy remembrance. For audiences younger than the play, its charm, wit, and sweetness will-dare I use the word?-seduce them.

"The Moon Is Blue," presented by and at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, Houston, Tex. May 13-June 6. (713) 527-8243.

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REEFER MADNESS

at the Hudson Backstage Theatre

Reviewed by Claudia Grazioso

Just as hemp and its po-faced advocates were getting insufferable, with their urgings to rub it into skin, hair, tires, and furniture, writing/composing team Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney bring us Reefer Madness, making pot fun again, and sharply placing the shameful so-called war on drugs in the vast (oh, so vast) pantheon of American hysteria. Reefer Madness is a zippy, high-on-style musical, based on the hilarious "cautionary" film of 1936, that is helped through the rougher spots (most of its second half) by its high-on-talent cast.

A lecturer (Harry S. Murphy, whose range is exhibited in a host of other roles, including a sodomizing hellhound) tells the woeful tale of Jimmy Harper (Christian Campbell) and Mary Lane (Jolie Jenkins) and their journey from sappy, airheaded white-bread bliss to a tragic end as deranged "hopheads." The show opens with the punchy "Reefer Madness" number, in which the still-wholesome couple are pursued by a horde of toked-up zombies. Other high points are the jaunty swing number "Down at the Old Five and Dime" and the deadpan requiem Jimmy sings to the body of a man he's run over while hopped up, "Dead Old Man."

But by far the best number of the play is "Listen to Jesus, Jimmy," featuring a gold-and-silver-lam d Christ, hilariously played by Robert Torti, urging Jimmy to remember "how cool God can be." With Torti's well-honed '70s swagger, that's pretty cool, indeed.

In an all-around good cast, standouts are Erin Matthews as the hard and vampy reefer whore, Sally, who seduces sweet Jimmy into that first fatal hit ("Come on, Jimmy/Come on, Jimmy/Suck it down for Sally"); Murphy, and Torti, who, aside from his brilliant turn as Christ, also plays Jack, the insidious drug pusher, blithely delivering lines like, "I'm going down to the five and dime, bring back some kids."

After the high of the first act comes, unfortunately, the crash of the second. The latter half the evening labors under the weight of endless repetition of the "Reefer Madness" theme song, overkill bloodletting (I'm beginning to think actors spray themselves with fake blood for kicks in their spare time), and a narrative that seems to have broken away from the control of both the writers and director Andy Fickman. Still, there are a few giggles here, namely "Little Mary Sunshine," performed by John Kassir and Jolie Jenkins, detailing Mary's transformation from 4-H girl to Raunchy Reefer Dominatrix.

Really wacky comedy thrives in the late night (and in L.A., a show that starts at 10 qualifies as "late"). You have to be edging towards exhaustion to truly appreciate Letterman's velcro suit or the Coneheads. Reefer Madness harnesses the same kind of over-the-top comic energy and by and large succeeds. By midnight, around the time Jesus visits Jimmy in the execution chamber, you'll probably be just punchy enough to giggle (especially if you've already inhaled).

"Reefer Madness," presented by Stephanie Steele for Dead Old Man Productions at the Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6532 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Apr. 30-June 5. (310) 289-2999.

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THE HOUSE OF BERNARDA ALBA

at the Ventura Court Theatre

Reviewed by Anne Louise Bannon

Some years ago, while visiting friends in Belgium, I saw a U.S.-made film dubbed into French and was amazed at how much of the original performance was lost. Watching Deaf West Theatre's production of Federico Garica Lorca's tragic play gives me the same sensation-that I am missing a significant chunk of Phyllis Frelich's formidable performance in the title role simply because her signs are "dubbed" by speaking actor Lynn Milgrim.

Don't get me wrong, Milgrim's voice work is superlative. So is Frelich and the rest of the cast. It's ensemble work of the highest order and well worth seeing. Set in Spain, the play by Lorca (as translated by Carmen Zapata and Michael Dewell, with Freda Norman and Jackie Roth as the ASL Masters) explores what happens when the just-widowed Bernarda (Frelich) holds her five grown daughters all but captive in their home. Since none of the local boys are high-class enough, she refuses to let her daughters marry, until the oldest, Angustias (Freda Norman), attracts the attentions of a never-seen but very handsome young man, Pepe. It turns out that Pepe's attraction is to the fortune Angustias inherited from her father, Bernarda's first husband, and the other sisters not only know it, but react in jealous rage.

It is tempting to suggest that because spoken language expresses its emotions through tonal values, sign language is without emotion, but nothing could be further from the truth. Watching Frelich's sharp, commanding signs play off Norman's anxious ones, you know a certain depth has been achieved. It's just that some subtleties are missing. Or is it that we must consider both the signing and the voice actors' work as combining to make one performance, more or less? Heaven knows the voice actors work seamlessly with the signing ones. The words are clear, taut, perfectly expressing what's onstage. In some instances, it almost seems as though the signing actors are actually speaking. (When April Shawhan comes onstage as the demented grandmother, it's a little shocking when she does actually speak.)

Bob Steinberg's set is simple yet realistic, as are Maro Parian's costumes. It would seem director Larry Arrick's aim was to go for the laughs in the script to play up the eventual tragedy. Certainly, the audience with me was giggling all the way up to the most dramatic moments of the denouement, but that actually seemed to undermine the ending a bit.

As hearing-oriented as I am-and I tend to focus on what I hear before I do on what I see-I am consistently blown away by Frelich's work. She's just that good an actress. She carries the show with her strength, the counterpoint to the raging passion of her daughters, particularly Antoinette Abbamonte as the crippled Martirio and Deanne Bray as the rebellious Adela. But I really somehow want to see her work without someone else's voice superimposed on it. Maybe Deaf West could try subtitles instead of dubbing?

"The House of Bernarda Alba," presented by Deaf West Theatre at the Ventura Court Theatre, 12417 Ventura Court, Studio City. May 9-June 13. Voice (818) 762-2773, TTY (818) 762-2782.

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BEIJING SPRING

at the David Henry Hwang Theatre

Reviewed by Rob Kendt

The notion of doing a musical on China's fateful Tiananmen Square massacre, whose 10-year anniversary approaches, doesn't necessarily seem like a bad one. Stranger events and characters have been musicalized in recent years-presidential assassins, a bat boy, a man trapped in a well-than the students of China's scrappy pro-democracy movement, who defiantly held Beijing's central square, and the world's attention, before the so-called People's Liberation Army rolled in the tanks and killed hundreds, probably thousands of protesting civilians. And of course there is the model of Nixon in China, the Peter Sellars opera that traded on iconic TV images to approximate the mythic scale of grand opera.

Indeed, co-director/lyricist Tim Dang and composer Joel Iwataki's ambitious new score for Beijing Spring, in its world premiere by East West Players, evokes some of the flavor of John Adams and Alice Goodman's Nixon score, with its loping, koan-like repetitions ("China's making history again") and leaping, jagged intervals. These are handed mainly to the capable Paul Wong, as a middle-aged would-be dissident who dreams backward and forward in hopes for his country in the show's haunting opening and closing monologues, and exchanges news about the uprising with his father (Alvin Ing), who remembers the beginnings of China's communist revolution. Wong's character also corresponds with his son (Michael K. Lee), a leader in the pro-democracy movement and its civil occupation of the square, most effectively in the soaring major/minor duet, reprised as a trio, "Spring Again in Beijing."

But even if you go into Beijing Spring open to the notion of a musicalized massacre, it takes some getting used to-to see the students bop around the stage like Jets or Sharks ("There's a meeting tonight!"), or to hear a young couple harmonize about their future with a little thing they call "democracy"-a word that's about as lyrical as a spelling bee.

Less disconcerting, or at least more familiar, is the oompah-martial caricaturing of Deng Xiao Peng and his Party hardliners, seated at a hilarious forced-perspective table (scenic design by Lisa Hashimoto) and sipping tea in time. And in the evening's wittiest conceit, Deng (Ing) reads the Goddess of Democracy (in a stunning replica) the riot act from an absurdly towering podium ("It could have been me/That statue could have been me").

By evening's end, the show gets under your skin; something about Wong's yearning, doe-like countenance, mutely hoping for a different outcome, is unspeakably moving, and Lee is an intense, eminently watchable performer with a searing tenor; he does iconic well, framed by Guido Girardi's dramatic lighting.

And speaking of iconic, it's hard not to be stirred by the image of students facing down the barrel of a tank, or the climactic strobe-light mel e that signifies the crackdown's final solution (the excellent sound design is by Miles Ono). How much you actually enjoy the entire score depends on your tolerance for mid-tempo pop/rock anthemizing a la Les Miz-mine is zero-but Iwataki and Dang do mix it up effectively, and Scott Nagatani again proves himself a peerless bandleader.

Dang and co-director Deborah Nishimura's staging is crisp for what is in many ways a sort of historical pageant, and the performances are mostly sharp and uncloying, if a bit scrubbed and clean-cut. But then, Beijing Spring is not the kind of show in which actors "become" the characters; it is a tribute, and in its own way a fitting one, to those brave individuals who 10 years ago looked in the face of arguably the world's most repressive regime and didn't blink.

"Beijing Spring," presented by East West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theatre, Union Center for the Arts, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo. May 12-June 6. (800) 233-3123.

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THE HOOK AND LADDER

at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre

Reviewed by Kevin Salveson

Most of the characters in John Lavachielli's world premiere play are at the end of their ropes. They'd probably like to be hanging from them but don't quite have enough twine to do it, nor can they let go or climb back up. The audience, then, watches them twist in the wind for the length of the The Hook and Ladder, not quite knowing if they can be saved or not. It's funny, but also a little bit unnerving.

Peter Gregory portrays the play's driving force, Harry, like a man who's been on the edge of madness so long he can see more clearly than the rest of us. It's a nice performance full of humorous angst and a touch of dementia. Thrown into an existential quandary by the grammar school poster which reads "Today is the first day of the rest of your life," he's hoping a reunion with old grade-school nemesis Brian (Stephen Shellen) will finally shut the door on sanity. Shellen plays the successful businessman returning to his hometown in glory with savior faire, but the irony is that Brian has already gone mad himself. The two go off on a wild goose chase to find a classmate who was a hero for riding a tricycle in the school's hallway in third grade. What they wind up finding is the play's metaphor: lost cat posters which resemble nothing so much as themselves.

Meanwhile, around the other side of Tom Giamario's well-crafted rotating set, players Carmine Caridi and Thor Edgell are also on a dreamquest-to find Elvis still alive. A dying relative has let the cat out of the bag, and the King is living upstate. The rubber-faced Caridi, wearing a neckbrace (nice touch), displays a seasoned comic timing which works well with Edgell's believably matter-of-fact off-duty clown. When the two arrive at Ray and Margaret Haddock's (a.k.a. the King's), it makes for the show's funniest scene. Bryan Clark, forced to play Elvis, does so with just enough panache to make this absurd situation work.

Director Erich Anderson deserves praise for keeping it real and eking out every available laugh from Lavachielli's script (despite its near-clich Elvis trope), but he can't overcome the author's stranding of two minor role-players, Michael McCraine and Michael Ashe, who appear and then disappear from the proceedings with very little justification.

"The Hook and Ladder," presented by Leigh McLeod Fortier at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. May 15-June 20. (323) 856-4200.

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THE CHEMISTRY OF CHANGE

at Actors Theatre of

San Francisco

Reviewed by Kerry Reid

Marlane Meyer's Off-Broadway hit, receiving its West Coast premiere in an uneven production at Actors Theatre, is one of those studiedly quirky American plays about an endearingly dysfunctional family, rendered with somewhat heavy-handed metaphors, that have been a staple of ensemble theatres for the last 20 years.

That isn't to say that The Chemistry of Change isn't without charms and laughs. But Meyer's determination to prove herself a "distinctive" voice ironically tends to make her lose her way in a series of symbols that don't always flesh out or pay off. And, perhaps because two directors-Christian Phillips and Jennifer Welch-are at the helm, this production's rather fuzzy, unintegrated approach to the material doesn't help Meyer's story become as vibrant as it could be.

Set in the late 1950s, the play follows the marital misadventures of Lee (Linda Ayres-Frederick), a "midwife" (read: back-alley abortionist) who marries men for their money and dumps them soon afterward. Lee shares her ramshackle California bungalow with layabout sister Dixon (Peggy Lopipero) and a passel of adult children, including her putative successor in the family business, repressed-virgin daughter Corlis (played too histrionically by Catherine Castellanos).

When Lee, en route to meeting husband #10, meets Smokey (John Robb) at the carnival "hell hole" ride, her life turns upside down. You see, Smokey is a cunning devil-and I do mean devil. Casting Robb as Satan (or one of his relatives, at least) is pure genius-no other actor in the Bay Area has Robb's distinctively cadaverous visage crossed with a truly sweet, yet pained, demeanor. Accordingly, all the scenes with Robb soar. In a motif seen more than a decade earlier in Lyle Kessler's charming play Orphans (perhaps leavened here with dashes of Katherine Dunn's carny novel Geek Love), unlikely stepdad Smokey begins inspiring Lee's troubled flock to take charge of their whacked-out lives-in particular Corlis, who wants to become a legitimate nurse.

But Meyer's script requires a deft touch to keep its rather lightweight appeal and obvious message from foundering, and that touch is missing in the direction for this production. All of the actors have good moments, but they never cohere into a believable unit. Ayres-Frederick mostly succeeds in portraying Lee as a ball-buster with ladylike manners and her own twisted take on 1950s ideals, and her scenes with Robb smolder. Lopipero manages to make the sultry Dixon languid and sharp-edged at the same time. But Lee's four kids all seem disjointed from each other, and from the story. Though prodigal drunkard Baron (Finn Curtin) has a long soliloquy in which he accuses his mother of treating them all as archetypes, that is exactly what Meyer's script does, as well.

Combined with aimless direction, that leaves the four to flounder-or, in Castellanos' case, to play almost everything at ear-splitting levels. (At one point, Lee tells her distraught daughter, "You should really stop yelling. It calls attention to your mouth." The line receives a laugh at the expense of the actress, not the character.)

Steve Coleman's nicely detailed set and the company-supplied costumes add lovely visual texture to this piece. But like cotton candy, this is a show that goes down sweet but leaves only a slightly sticky residue to remember it by.

"The Chemistry of Change," presented by and at Actors Theatre of San Francisco, 533 Sutter St, San Francisco. April 30-June 5. (415) 296-9179.

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STONEWALL JACKSON'S HOUSE

at the Eureka Theatre

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Playwright Jonathan Reynolds doesn't just satirize political correctness in the theatre. His Stonewall Jackson's House roasts it, stomping on issues of racism, sexism, nontraditional casting, artistic integrity, welfare, and liberalism. He sets his opening scene during the present day in the restored home of Confederate hero Stonewall Jackson. A young black woman (Starla Benford) wearing a Civil War-era dress serves as a tour guide for two white couples: one from Ohio, older, prosperous, liberal (Wanda McCaddon and Ron Faber); the other from Alabama, younger, hardscrabble, redneck (Rebecca Dines and Michael Keys Hall).

In the first and perhaps mildest twist on audience expectations, it turns out that the Alabama folks are avid history buffs and have done some scholarly reading, making them more knowledgeable about Stonewall Jackson than their hapless guide. From there, though, the twists become even more surprising, especially when the guide puts herself in the kindly Ohio couple's hands and asks to be their slave. They've made life on their farm sound so good that the Alabama pair also ask to become their slaves.

Next surprise: It turns out that this scene is from a play written by a young man (Hall) who is trying to have it produced by a theatre company run by an older husband-and-wife team (Faber and McCaddon), assisted by a dramaturg (Benford). Still more twists follow as the theatre administrators, playwright, and dramaturg, along with the visiting artistic director of a British theater (Dines), argue about the merits of the play. Their concerns are not so much artistic as political: Will they lose grants and donations? What will their patrons think? Will they offend anyone? How can they make it more palatable-e.g., politically correct? Is the playwright willing to make concessions just to get the play produced because it would be a good career step?

While all of these issues are worthy of discussion and satire, Reynolds is too heavy-handed. His characters are prone to speechifying rather than engaging in give-and-take dialogue. Worse, his characters don't engage the audience. They're just mouthpieces for various points of view.

Despite the play's shortcomings, director Amy Glazer and her solid cast are well-focused and maintain a brisk pace. The one misstep is that Hall is too volatile in his two main roles as the redneck husband and the aspiring playwright. His character needs to be toned down a notch. He seems too quick to anger, too in-your-face, as if he were about to punch someone out.

Henry Dunn's scenic designs-swiveling, cartoonish panels for the Jackson house and a rehearsal stage for the theatre-serve the production well, as do Jim Cave's lighting and Mikel Zwissler's sound. Kristina Lenss' costumes work well, except that Faber's pants are too long.

"Stonewall Jackson's House," presented by Eureka Theatre at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco, May 15-June 13. (415) 788-7469.

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HOME SWEET HELL

at the Lex Theatre

Reviewed by Madeleine Shaner

These three one-acts themed around young women finding their way, while uneven in texture and expertise, show promise for tyro playwright Alyson Croft. Cellophane City is the most unobliging, as it refuses to give up the secret of what it's about. One third of a twitchy punk band, Jen (Linda Loftin), is apparently in a blue funk as to where her future lies. She can make a commitment to the band and remain (literally) wrapped in cellophane while she gyrates to grunge rhythms; she can make the effort to rehabilitate her alcoholic mother (Pamela Morris), or she can go help the children of Chiapas. None of this is really clear in the telling, thanks especially to a lot of unintelligible yelling.

Melique Berger as Saraha, dynamic leader of the band, also with her breasts wrapped in cellophane, makes her own sexy and telling statement. J.R. Craig as Poe, the third member of the team, throws himself about the stage acrobatically, but to not much avail.

Fat Chicks finds Angel (Croft) enrolling in a weight loss facility she'd seen on an informercial, with hopes of learning to accept her appearance. The deranged fat farm turns out to be the equivalent of one of Dante's circles of hell, where the punishment for dietary infringement has far more voltage than the crime. Croft and a sadly pudgy Plum (Missy Doty) bravely bare almost all as they battle the indomitable Mrs. Gimmielocks (Morris). Although this tries to be a sort of morality tale, the moral never comes clear, despite three authentic and engaging performances.

The Guy From Korea features Erin Cullen as Tulee, a comic book artist who can't come up with a hero and is falling behind on her deadlines because she's just discovered she was adopted. Her savior turns out to be a Korean sushi chef sicced on her by her sister, Suzie (Piper Henry), and named-surprise-Hiro (Will Yun Lee). While all the performances are charming, and this is the most complete of the plays, its structure is shapeless, attenuated by too many scenes and the intrusion of sloppy stagecraft. The latter, unfortunately, is more in evidence than it need be in all the plays.

Anthony Barnao's direction is straightforward, if a bit haphazard; he allows too many of the details to get away from him. Burris Jackes' set design is equally unimaginative; building part of the set during a long intermission shouldn't be necessary.

"Home Sweet Hell," presented by Blue Sphere Alliance in association with Piggy Productions at the Lex, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood. May 14-June 20. (323) 957-5782.

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THE FIRST PICTURE SHOW

at the Geary Theater

Reviewed by Matthew Surrence

"You're trying to make a connection between women and censorship and silent pictures and your family," says teacher Ben Tyler (Harry Waters Jr.) to his wife, filmmaker Jane Furstmann (Dinah Lenney), in The First Picture Show, a dead-on-arrival musical drama that tries to make that same connection but fails to bring it to life. The dramatically inert show by David Gordon (director/choreographer/co-author, book and lyrics), his son, Ain Gordon (co-author, book and lyrics), and Jeanine Tesori (music) follows Furstmann on a journey through the past, after she visits her grumpy, 99-year-old great aunt, pioneering silent-film director Anne First (Anne Gee Byrd), in the motion picture retirement home and persuades her to let her be the subject of a documentary about the early days of movies. The show is a co-production by A.C.T. and the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum, where it's set to open in August.

In his staging, Gordon has done much to distract the audience from the dullness of the book, lyrics, and ragtime score, the latter played on a tinny onstage piano by Peter Maleitzke. Dissolves on a down-center screen open the show, bringing a face into a close-up in a nice underscoring of one of the play's themes, while Byrd sits scowling in a wheelchair on the soundstage-like stage, mostly bare but for a scaffold of lights and a pair of small bleachers that get wheeled around a la Side Show.

Director Gordon, who struck gold with the musicalization of Isaac Bashevis Singer's Schlemiel the First, has actors run across the stage with title cards bearing their names. But the show's first 20 minutes are a too-fast flurry of silent-movie trivia which bogs the play down before the story ever gets going. And when it does, the predictable plot uses the stock characters merely as a way to tick off a didactic array of politically correct concerns-feminism, racism, censorship, third-generation ethnic atavism-without making them coherent, personal, or theatrically compelling.

For the most part, the cast is better than the drab material. Byrd is a little pallid in a role crying out for Elaine Stritch, but she times her crotchety-old-lady wisecracks perfectly. Lenney is earnest and dignified. Waters is appealing and energetic; likewise Evan Pappas as Anne's brother, Louie. As May, Louie's wife, Norma Fire attacks her lines with a zippy, laugh-earning deadpan. But as the young Anne, Ellen Greene squeaks and lisps in an implausibly chirpy performance.

"The First Picture Show," presented by the American Conservatory Theater at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. May 12-June 6. (415) 749-2228.

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A QUESTION OF MERCY

at Intiman Theatre

Reviewed by David-Edward Hughes

Well-intentioned but depressing and didactic at times, David Rabe's drama A Question of Mercy (based on an essay by Dr. Richard Selzer), examining the rights of a terminal AIDS patient to seek physician-assisted suicide, seems an odd choice to launch Intiman's new season, despite intelligent direction by Victor Pappas and well-wrought performances by a sharp cast.

Dr. Robert Chapman (the fictionalized version of Selzer), a retired physician, is asked to help facilitate the planned suicide of a suffering AIDS patient named Anthony. Despite his own lingering doubts and the moral issues involved, Chapman is ultimately convinced by Anthony and his lover Thomas to aid in planning Anthony's death by overdose. But things don't go quite as planned, and when the couple's close friend Susanah is added to the mix, Chapman begins to doubt the wisdom of his involvement.

Rabe's playwriting is at once turgid and unconvincing. Rarely do any of his characters speak like real people. So we care little about characters who ought to inspire a great deal more compassion and sympathy. Jeffrey Hayenga as Dr. Chapman is the play's narrative voice, and the actor makes several monotonous speeches more interesting than written, but cannot tell us more about his own character than the playwright has sketchily provided. Jos Viramontes offers a detailed and complex portrait of a terminally ill patient who ultimately isn't as willing to shed this mortal coil as he'd like to believe, and Mark Sturgeon is touching and all too human as the frightened, heart-on-his-sleeve lover Thomas. As the friend Susanah, Amy Thone is solid in a role that only seems to exist to add a woman's voice to the mix, as scarcely anything is revealed about Susanah herself.

Robert A. Dahlstrom's bare-bones set, with a park bench rising here and a hospital room rolling on there, is as perfunctory and unimaginative as Mary Louise Geiger's lighting design. Perhaps most frustrating is that A Question of Mercy takes an important, always topical moral issue and diminishes it by not taking a strong pro or con stance on it.

"A Question of Mercy," presented by and at the Intiman Theatre, Seattle Center, Seattle. May 12-June 5. (206) 269-1900.

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THE DESERT SONG

at the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium

Reviewed by Lesley Solmonson

When Sigmund Romberg's The Desert Song opened on Broadway, it was hailed as a huge success, embraced by critics and audiences alike. Subsequently, it was made into no less than four films starting in 1929. People loved this show. Unfortunately, with its vaudevillian humor and overly simplistic book, it just doesn't hold up today.

Drawing on real events, Romberg's operetta tells the story of a French general's son who poses as a weak-willed fellow by day only to assume the role of the devilish "Red Shadow" by night, secretly leading the Moroccan resistance against the French Colonial army. With a story like this, one would expect the stage to be awash in swashbuckling action, sweeping romance, and Moroccan mystery. Sadly, it isn't. If anything, the entire show feels dated, wooden, and devoid of emotion, lacking the whimsy, elegance and cohesiveness of other similar shows of the era, like 42nd Street.

The real fault here lies with the production team behind the show. Director Bill Shaw saddles his cast with a perfunctory staging that often leaves actors standing in undynamic lines. Meanwhile, choreographer Rikki Lugo's dance steps feel uninspired and, as executed by the cast, look quite clumsy. In fact, the entire production has an air of awkwardness to it-a sloppy sensibility that pervades everything from the enunciation to the characters' relationships with one another.

Perhaps the show's overall lack of success lies in the uneven casting. Several cast members, such as Richard Kinsey as the Red Shadow and George Strattan as the slapstick Bennie, do manage to capture the lyrical tone of the show. But Gitana Van Buskirk as Azuri seems more Valley girl than Arab seductress, and Ann Winkowski as Margot lacks the winsome charm needed for the ingenue role she plays.

In the end, The Desert Song is undone by a combination of factors. While Romberg's music holds up, the unsophisticated book (credited, along with the lyrics, to Otto Harbach, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Frank Mandel) needs a serious update. But even if this show's sweeping romance and melodramatic danger could find a place in an audience's heart, it would need director Shaw to do some freshening of his own.

"The Desert Song," presented by the Music Theatre of Southern California at the San Gabriel Civic Auditorium, 320 S. Mission Dr., San Gabriel. May 7-23. (626) 308-2868. Also at the Alex Theatre, 216 Brand Blvd., Glendale. May 28-30. (800) 233-3123.