The Fantasticks. The longest-running play in American history is also musical theater's cheesiest self-parody, a sweet, dumb story about two fathers who pretend a Montague-and-Capulet-style feud as an excuse to keep their kids, Luisa and Matt, apart. The hope, of course, is to throw them together, since children never do as they're told. When Matt and Luisa fall in love, the fathers arrange a "rape" by the mysterious Spaniard El Gallo, with help from a pair of feckless old actors. Matt is then supposed to rescue Luisa from the Spaniard and become a hero to her as well as to her dad, thus ending the feud. Not everything goes as planned, and the rest of the musical deals in schmaltzy terms with love's dark underbelly. The Fantasticks premiered in Greenwich Village in 1960 and played there until early 2002. The S.F. Playhouse, for some reason, is reviving it. Bill English plays El Gallo in a mustache and black Spanish suit; Louis Parnell plays one of the fathers, Hucklebee; Katy Stephan plays the spoiled but charming Luisa; Mark Farrell plays the nebbishy Matt. Parnell and Farrell are both solid professionals, putting in an honest night's work, but English and Stephan tend to be self-conscious actors. The difference is that Stephan can sing. Her voice soars and melts with emotion, especially in the duets, while English makes up for his limited range with a sort of prancing silliness. Joe Bellan and Graham Cowley manage real comedy as the geriatric actors, but director Dianna Shuster has no clear comic vision for the rest of the scenes, and The Fantasticks, overall, gives off an unfresh odor, like something that's spent too much time under stage lights. Through Aug. 21 at the S.F. Playhouse, 536 Sutter (between Powell and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $30; call 677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.com. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed July 14.
The Good Body. Eve Ensler's new Broadway-bound monologue is a 90-odd-minute routine about self-consciousness, fat, and body image. A lot of it plays like stand-up comedy. Other bits play like The Vagina Monologues, using the same interview techniques: Ensler portrays women from around the world talking about their plump, aging, or embarrassingly sexual bodies. Parts of it are very funny. But Ensler also misses a thoughtful through-line for all her sharp-edged portraits: From a "radical-feminist" examination of body obsessions you expect some radical insight, an epiphany or a blaze of self-awareness that will allow women everywhere to quit being "slaves to vanity," as George Sand put it once in a different context. But no. The show ends in a sentimental prayer for "self-acceptance" that sounds like a magazine cliché. Through Aug. 1 at the Aurora Theatre, 415 Geary (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $15-68; call 749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed July 14.
The Lion King. How do you turn a decent cartoon about African wildlife into a lame Broadway musical? 1) Puzzle carefully about the problem of costumes and sets. Pour millions of dollars and hours of mental energy into making your actors look like lions, hyenas, elephants, wildebeests, giraffes, and birds. Solve the problem brilliantly. Hire Julie Taymor to design the magnificent costumes and masks (and to direct the show). Hire Garth Fagan to choreograph elegant, exciting, Afro-Caribbean dance routines. Make sure Donald Holder lights the stage with an eloquent feeling for African distances and sunshine. In general make the show a visual feast. Then, 2) squint in confusion at the script, and 3) carve it up to make room for appalling songs by Tim Rice and Elton John. You'll have a profitable bunch of nonsense with more than one God-soaked number that sounds indistinguishable from bad Whitney Houston. The only cast member who can transcend this mess and give a stirring performance is Thandazile Soni, as Rafiki the monkey shaman, who gets to sing songs like "Nants' Ingonyama," by Lebo M, and other African chants originated by Tsidii Le Loka on Broadway. Bob Bouchard is also funny as Pumbaa the warthog, and Derek Smith plays a perfectly arrogant, sinister Scar, the pretender lion king. Otherwise the show is forced and childish. Adults looking for good theater will be happier when the performers dance instead of trying to act. Through Nov. 21 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1182 Market (at Eighth Street), S.F. Tickets are $26-160; call 512-7770 or visit www.bestofbroadway-sf.com. (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Feb. 11.
Master Class. One reason people use the word "diva" too often nowadays is that the notion of great women being defined by great performances has made great fodder for modern dramatists. Not far beneath Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. , the pinnacle of diva dramaturgy, is Terrence McNally's Tony Awardwinning 1996 play Master Class. The subject here, in a command performance by Rita Moreno, is the aching soul of superstar Maria Callas. But the show is also a valentine to the opera, beautiful bitch that she is. McNally knows how to orchestrate for human instruments. His play is agreeably operatic, and director Moisés Kaufman planes the lines of its shapely form with affection. Based on classes Callas taught at Juilliard in the early '70s, the action is an imparting of her earned wisdom. She's that dazzling -- the brutal teacher we've all had or wanted. Among the three students, strong singers all, Sherry Boone's Sharon is the real crowd-pleaser; the arc of her creative process is the most impressive and the most human. Mark Wedland's design and David Lander's lighting make good use of a deep, high-ceilinged stage to reveal a few stirring glimpses of grandeur. And Moreno, firmly rooted and lifting her face to gather the light, makes a big room feel small. "The real world.' Brutal expression, brutal place," she declares as Callas, edifying performers everywhere. Through July 25 at the Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $20-55; call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (Jonathan Kiefer) Reviewed June 9.