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Our critics weigh in on local theatre

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 (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed July 14.

Immortal Heart. In The Bonesetter's Daughter, Amy Tan's fourth novel, "Immortal Heart" is the name of a village in China, near the so-called Peking Man excavations of the 1930s. It's also a semimythical place of mute relatives, ancient bones, a belief in ancestor curses, and a cave in the shape of a monkey's jaw. Tan spun Bonesetter around a story set there, which appeared in The New Yorker under the title "Immortal Heart," and which Word for Word has mounted as an eloquent, self-standing piece of theater. Tan's tale is two-layered, narrated by a Chinese immigrant to America named LuLing who grew up in Immortal Heart under a loveless mother and a strange, mute nursemaid called Precious Auntie, whose experiences form the heart of both short story and novel (Precious Auntie is the bonesetter's daughter). The account is as crowded with colorful twists as a Victorian melodrama: In less than two dense hours Word for Word tells a story that might fill an epic novel. Immortal Heart would be tedious if it weren't so well-acted; Julia Cho, as a young LuLing, has a natural sense of pitch and rhythm, and her performance drives the show. Through Aug. 15 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D, Marina & Buchanan, S.F. Tickets are $25-27; call 437-6775 or visit (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Aug. 4.

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 (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed Feb. 11.

Movin' Out. Billy Joel is perfect for Broadway: big, dumb songs about love and pain. Choreographer and director Twyla Tharp has assembled a series of weirdly literal interpretive dances set to Joel songs that almost tell a story, starting with Brenda and Eddie in high school ("Brenda and Eddie were still goin' steady/ In the summer of '75"). Other characters need to be extrapolated, like Judy, who gets engaged to James (from "James") in a pas de deux set to "Just the Way You Are." Tony seems to be "Anthony" from the title song, "Movin' Out," but the play suffers if you think about it too much. Eddie, James, and Tony join the Army and ship out for Vietnam; one of them dies during a faux-Hendrix remix of "We Didn't Start the Fire"; and later Eddie relives his Vietnam nightmare in "Goodnight Saigon." Love is lost and regained, and the show ends on a completely unearned triumphant note, like an orange juice commercial. Darren Holden, who played piano and sang on the night I attended, does a fair imitation of Billy Joel, but is Joel good enough to deserve the imitation? Tharp also insists on using some of his most bombastic songs, like "Big Shot" and "The Stranger." Best seen drunk, probably. Through Aug. 29 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor (at Market), S.F. Tickets are $34-81; call 512-7770 or visit (Michael Scott Moore) Reviewed July 21.


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