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Wednesday, Apr 9 1997
Old Berlin
Face the Music. Book by Moss Hart; music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Directed by Greg MacKellan. Starring Jon DiSavino, Susan Himes Powers, Jesse Caldwell, Carla Befera, and Noah Haydon. Produced by 42nd Street Moon at the New Conservatory Theater, 25 Van Ness (at Market), through April 13. Call 861-8972.

The only reason our local curators of the American musical, 42nd Street Moon, are reviving Moss Hart and Irving Berlin's Face the Music is that it's gone unproduced for so long. The show is a satire on corruption in New York City politics, a timely production for 1932 that was revived early in '33 and then retired, as far as anybody knows, until now. Relevance doesn't seem to be the issue: 1932 was a different world from 1997, with Prohibition still in force and the Great Depression only 3 years old.

The show opens with a number about the Rockefellers and other rich families being forced to eat in a Manhattan automat, an unstaffed sort of cafeteria with coin-operated doors that would dispense, for example, rice pudding and soup. That's historical touch No. 1. Historical touch No. 2 is the song "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee," which survived the show's Broadway run to become a cabaret standard. It's a perfect example of the blinding optimism people like me hate in musicals. "Trouble's just a bubble/ And the clouds will soon roll by," sung in the context of the Depression -- to a tune reminiscent of "Frosty the Snowman" -- is insipid, even 65 years later.

But Face the Music also has the rare advantage of a sense of irony. The story, a precursor to Mel Brooks' The Producers, follows a Broadway producer, too broke to put on a show, who gets funded by a rich cabal of society men looking to get rid of their money. They launch an atrocious musical that becomes, after a series of problems, a city-government production. Here we have an early example of a musical making fun of itself, with deliberately bad and campy numbers like "My Rhinestone Girl." Face the Music is given a "concert production" by 42nd Street Moon, meaning the performers have their songs rehearsed but not their lines, and during the unmusical scenes everyone carries a script. The stage is also naked, except for a piano and some chairs. The story turns to mulch by the end, but excellent songs and hammy performances -- Susan Himes Powers as the bad musical's lead, Carla Befera as the ditzy Myrtle Meshbesher, Patricia Meade and Jenny Lord in various roles -- are entertaining enough to convert a skeptical critic.

And thanks to the eerie cycles of American history, the show has its own shades of relevance. Historical touch No. 3 is "Drinking Song," a satire on Prohibition. It's set in a speak-easy, with a male chorus chanting, "Things are going very well/ For the gentlemen who sell/ To the gentlemen who buy." Move the number to a crack house and you'd almost be modern.

-- Michael Scott Moore

Nothing's Shocking
Co-Ed Prison Sluts. Created by Mick Napier. Directed by Jim Fitzgerald. Starring Fitzgerald, Christie Ward, Michael Pulliam, and Dominik Overstreet. Presented by Pipedream Productions at the Exit Theater, 156 Eddy (at Mason), through June 14. Call 255-6772.

Rocky Horror Superstar. By Ruby Toosday. Directed by Ruby Toosday and Paul Sardi. Starring Simone 3rd Arm, Andy Bydalek, Ted Curtis, and Federico Edwards. Presented by the Klubstitute Kollective at the Victoria Theater, 2961 16th St. (at Valencia), through May 3. Call 339-8113.

Penetration isn't what makes porn intellectual dry rot, it's the lack of personality. As hard as Mr. Winkie works, he just isn't a leading man. Character is what distinguishes two deviant musical comedies running in San Francisco. Co-Ed Prison Sluts, an import from the Annoyance Theater of Chicago, spins a penitentiary vocabulary into A Charlie Brown Christmas and gets away with it because the characters (Hamster Man, Alice, and the Dame among them) are remarkable and the group is funny. In the deconstruction nightmare Rocky Horror Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber's "rock" opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, and the unkillable Rocky Horror wither, as if stricken with Dutch elm disease. Whatever the merits of the source plays, they're lost in poke-the-hole jokes by the Klubstitute Kollective.

Co-Ed Prison Sluts, created out of improv exercises, has the force of stray winds that gather into a tornado. The excuse for a story revolves around hypnotic therapy sessions with a cross-dressing prison shrink (he masturbates with pantyhose during therapy sessions with inmates) and the arrival of a demonic clown. A Casio keyboard orchestra backs the musical numbers, which are a hoot. "Hey! We're in Prison," the opening number, has the cast bouncing around like orphans in Annie. After a knife fight, juvenile sex-target Skeeter (Michael Pulliam) salutes the prison library system in "The Book Song": "A book can take you anywhere," he sings. And Dr. Carl Bellow (Dominik Overstreet) woos a beagle with a love song, "Oh, Fluffy." (The pup licks himself onstage.) There's spunk-swilling vulgarity galore, and Sluts has enough masochistic spanking to satisfy the most repressed banker, but the team knows comedy and doesn't depend on blow-job jokes for laughs. Director and actor Jim Fitzgerald knows his classics well enough to tweak them. The Dame, a crazed Christie Ward with an oral fixation, calls all women Cecily and all men Jaques (the character from As You Like It who delivers the "All the world's a stage" speech). Her lines fuse Shakespearean quotables with cheerful libidinousness: "Alas, poor Horatio, I blew him well!"

Klubstitute Kollective's massive Rocky Horror Superstar cast relies on exhibitionism, not talent, to carry the show. Like the Miss America pageant, the event showcases stunts without skill. No one actually sings or acts; but there're plenty of nipple shots and peekaboo costumes if you care to bring your raincoat. Sound clips from one show are spliced into songs of the other and the cast lip-syncs along. Scene changes are indicated by three jumbo screens flashing grainy Jerusalem postcards and movie stills. If you're familiar with the two grafted-together productions, you'll see where things are going, but for the uninitiated, the story is an illogical mess. It would like to be offensive, with a spliff-smoking John C. Baptist and a fellatio-starved Judas Riffscariot, but the cast is too lethargic to be perverted. The aim of melding Dr. Frank N. Furter with Jesus Christ is apparently to celebrate the titillation of guilt and forbidden fruit, but author Ruby Toosday forgot to include the clothed Christians who make sexual indulgences forbidden. Immersed in its own transgendered culture, Rocky Horror Superstar has no conservative context against which to make itself shocking. Superstar is fine as a costume party, but it shouldn't call itself theater. The play isn't even appropriately cast. If there's going to be full-frontal nudity onstage, the men should be well-hung.


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