Emma. On the surface, composer/lyricist Paul Gordon's vivacious new musical adaptation of Jane Austen's 1816 novel about a spoiled heiress' comically disastrous attempts to meddle in the romantic lives of others is a lovely, sugar-dusted confection. The frosted pastel hues and clean lines of Joe Ragey's Regency country manor-inspired set and Fumiko Bielefeldt's truffle-contoured costumes are just the icing on the cake. Numerous qualities contribute to the musical's broad, feel-good appeal, from Gordon's judicious mixture of language lifted directly from Austen's text with his own witty lines to Lianne Marie Dobbs' graceful and coquettish portrayal of the protagonist in Theatreworks' world premiere production. Yet despite the work's lighthearted sense of fun and subtle social commentary (ensemble numbers like "Relations" about the pros -- and superficial cons -- of being well-connected by birth serve to highlight 19th century class issues) the lack of any true, show-stopping musical numbers threatens to undermine the show's mass-marketability. Through Sept. 16 at Theatreworks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St. (at Mercy), Mountain View. Tickets are $25-61; call (650) 903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Sept. 5.
Glengarry Glen Ross. Who'd ever think the inside world of a small real estate office would contain such colorful dialogue as: "Ever take a dump that makes you feel you slept for 12 hours?" Leave it to David Mamet to transform the seemingly mundane world of selling property into a seething stew of deceit, desperation, and verbal violence. This production of Mamet's Tony Award-winning play, depicting ruthless salesmen doing absolutely anything to seal the deal, is sharply realized by the Actors Theatre of San Francisco. Director Jennifer Welch does not let the pace or tension lag in this 90-minute racehorse that starts out like a great caper film and ends as a tense whodunit. Despite an unremarkable set and a few cast members who can't naturalize Mamet's choppy dialogue, this Pulitzer Prize-winning script is practically foolproof. As real estate agents, Andre Esterlis is deliciously sinister and Aaron Murphy provides the great comic relief of an innocent in a cutthroat world. Even after two decades of stage productions and a Hollywood film adaptation, it still feels razor-sharp and brutally honest. Through Sept. 29 at Actors Theatre, 855 Bush (between Taylor and Mason), S.F. Tickets are $10-30; call 345-1287 or visit www.actorstheatresf.org. (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Aug. 8.
Insignificant Others. Despite a goofy plot revolving around five friends from Cleveland in their early 20s who move to San Francisco and endure various romantic mishaps including two love triangles (one straight, one gay) and an ill-advised encounter with a pre-op transsexual, this new homegrown musical by local composer and lyricist L. Jay Kuo shows significant promise. It's not simply that Kuo knows how to write a catchy tune. He's also a witty lyricist. In "Gay or Straight" for instance, Kuo hilariously compares the domestic habits of homosexual men with their straight counterparts. As ex-Ohioan Jordan (Jason Hoover) prowls around the apartment of his desirable co-worker Erik (Justin McKee) after his date has passed out on the couch, we find out about Erik's peculiar, "on the fence" lifestyle. "What about his DVDs? They won't be accidental," Jordan's friend Margaret (Sarah Kathleen Farrell) advises over the phone. The results prove inconclusive: "There's a pile of action movies," Jordan reports. "Wait! There's Beaches and there's Yentl!" However, the musical feels about an hour too long. For every memorable song, there are two bland ones that could be cut, such as Erik's sentimental ballad about his childhood "There's a House" and the syrupy-insipid "Christmas in the City." Also, while Kuo's gay characters are full-bodied, the straight ones – with the notable exception of fag-hag Margaret – are utterly flimsy. Insignificant Others feels like a work in progress. Yet there's enough wit and verve in the material and strength in the performances (led by Sarah Kathleen Farrell's endearingly buxom Margaret) to portend a bold future. Extended through Sept. 23 at Zeum Theater, Yerba Buena Gardens, 221 Fourth St. (at Howard), S.F. Tickets are $35-39; call 1-866-811-4111 or visit www.isomusical.com. (C.V.) Reviewed Aug. 8.
Making a Killing. The San Francisco Mime Troupe's latest political comedy has plenty of wit and insight that would have been better served by trimming its excess plot. The story at the heart of this play is one of individual responsibility – will our Army field reporter continue to tell only the Iraq feel-good stories his bosses want him to, or get the guts to tell the truth about the corruption and devastation brought by the American invasion? It's a fine message at a time when ordinary citizens feel at a loss to make any difference, served up with the usual Mime Troupe song-and-dance flair. But it also comes cased in a courtroom drama that drags, and a lot of time spent with Dick Cheney. Don't get me wrong, Ed Holmes well deserves his kudos for nailing the absurdity of our vice president. There are many easy shots at Cheney, including a subplot about his quest to boost his popularity. Such distractions are fun for a time — and make the call for all of us to step up and do our part — but ultimately lose their punch. Through Sept. 29 at parks and other public sites across the Bay Area. Admission is free; call 285-1717 or visit www.sfmt.org. (M.R.) Reviewed July 18.
The Rogue El Gato. Last year playwright Shawn Ferreyra and his company El Gato Del Diablo produced a marvelous play called The Legendary and Fabulous Passion Play. It was a night filled with wine, sex, and half-naked nymphs. It had an immensely creative set and a loud soundtrack pounding out Nine Inch Nails. This is not that play. The Rogue El Gato is a rustic children's play about a demon cat trying to protect its natural habitat from a wasteful and polluting village of humans. On many levels it works. The costumes are soft and colorful. The actors are obviously skilled and expressive. There are even brief moments of juggling and acrobatics. Ferreyra is an excellent writer of dialogue, but Rogue could use some more creative staging to avoid its long sections of characters standing around talking. Though this play seems targeted to children age 5 and older, it lacks a certain level of production that young audiences have come to expect. Ferreyra uses no special lighting, no music, and very little creative movement to tell this modernist tale of environmental neglect. Without those things, the forbidding forest and devil cat don't seem all that menacing and Rogue, while still fun at moments, feels fairly one-dimensional. Through Sept. 29 (Saturdays only) at the Eureka Theater, 215 Jackson St. (between Battery and Front), S.F. Tickets are $5-10; call 800-838-3006 or visit www.elgatotheatre.org. (N.E.) Reviewed Sept. 5.