Wodehouse and Bolton's book is highly enjoyable nonsense about a wealthy patriarch, William Pennington (Don Cima), who decides his relatives aren't worth a damn and adopts a son to bring new blood into the family. His plans are complicated by the orphans next door, twin sisters Dixie (Dyan McBride) and May (Caroline Altman), and the adoptee Horace (Steve Rhyne), a good-hearted would-be scam artist. The story has been dismissed as lightweight, but it's ideally calibrated to Bolton and Wodehouse's verbal inventiveness ("Poverty is the banana skin on the doorstep of romance"), to Wodehouse's witty lyrics ("But when you'd been there a week, well/ You were treated as an equal"), and to Kern's lovely, lively tunes. ("Days Gone By" has the regretful simplicity of a Stephen Foster melody; "Tulip Time in Sing Sing" is a comic romp.)
MacKellan is aided by a terrific cast, especially McBride as the clear-headed, wised-up Dixie ("Oh, applesauce," she slangs convincingly) and Rhyne, who screws his mug into a sweet, music-hall caricature of delinquency. They're the equals of any Broadway star. MacKellan also took care matching actors to roles. Rhyne's and McBride's singing is direct and earthy, while Altman and Martin Lewis (as a disinherited Pennington) have more "trained" voices, signifying their upper-crust status. (Lewis' vibrato can get away from him, though.) John-Elliott Kirk as the Jeeves-type butler has flawless timing, and Stephen Pawley's fondness for the role of Uncle Jo (a sort of malice-free Fagin) is contagious.
The show's rhythm is exquisite: Giggling debutantes begin whinnying at the perfect moment after a ballad; entrances, exits, and interruptions are timed exactly; and musical director Brandon Adams' piano ebbs and flows with feeling. Berle Davis' choreography is no less an achievement, befitting the period, the music, and the performers.
MacKellan and his company have created a little jewel-encrusted bauble of a musical whose simple, affectionate craft blows away the bombast of Lloyd Webber, Rent, and their ilk. Thank god.
Through Aug. 22 at the New Conservatory Theater Center, 25 Van Ness, S.F. Call 861-8972.
-- Joe Mader