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Theater of the Inevitable 

Beach Blanket Babylon, Shear Madness, Tony n' Tina's Wedding

Wednesday, Jan 5 2000
Beach Blanket Babylon
Sooner or later, you're obliged to go: Your maiden aunt, your widowed grandmother, your Uncle Erwin and Aunt Wilhelmina from the Midwest, or some other such person is coming to town. He, she, or they want to see some theater -- by which they mean something entertaining and not too challenging. (Touched by an Angel is sometimes too much for Aunt Wil.) You, of course, have standards, which is why you thank God that Phantom's no longer playing. That's when you're forced to turn to San Francisco's long-running shows, all of them reeling in the tourists, promising hilarity beyond measure, delight beyond compare, and the best value for your entertainment dollar.

The jokey razzmatazz of the late Steve Silver's Beach Blanket Babylon is now in its 26th year, a campy jamboree that's like a Disneyland revue upended and subverted. What's surprising is that even after 25 years, the thing still works. Its illogical groupings (Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Jackson, Fergie, and Richard Simmons all sing "Into Food" to the tune of "In the Mood"), dadaist product placements (Mr. Peanut, Ritz crackers, and Oil of Olay are only some of the brands), pillaging of hit tunes (Bacharach, Motown, West Side Story, and many others contribute to the score), and celebrity ripping (Willie Brown, the Artist, and Bill and Hillary are pilloried) create a pop theater of the absurd. Director Kenny Mazlow drives the show at Mach speed -- panels snap open to reveal the next celeb impersonation or oversized prop and close before the laughter dies down. And the hats -- huge and wondrously foolish -- hint that brilliance can lie behind an all-out commitment to nonsense.

None of this would work without talented performers. BBB's 10 cast members all look as though there's nowhere else they could be, let alone want to be, especially Erica Wyman as a Carmen Miranda-esque tootsie who overaspirates her h's; Tom Halligan, who apparently believes dancing in a French poodle suit while singing "Big Girls Don't Cry" is perfectly reasonable; and Stirland Martin, whose James Brown can only speak in unintelligible ecstatic exhalations. The show's three stars are Linda Bulgo as Snow White searching for true love, the big-voiced Renée Lubin as her fairy godmother (and various other roles), and Val Diamond, an institution herself of the same stature as the show.

This is the third time I've been to BBB (the first two times? Out-of-town guests, of course), but I've seen Diamond only once. Her current understudy, Tammy Nelson, is tremendously gifted, but when Diamond, dressed as a French hooker with a lamppost coming out of her head, stopped to sing Bacharach's "Anyone Who Had a Heart," the camp, the gimmicks, the jokes were transcended, and a glimpse of heartbreak appeared. As fun as BBB is on its own, Diamond elevates the tomfoolery to something essential, making the trivial important.

Shear Madness

For unimportant triviality, there's Shear Madness, running in San Francisco since 1997. Originating in Boston in 1980, this franchise's attempts at local color have a pasted-on quality. (No self-respecting S.F. hairdresser, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, would have pink and lime green wallpaper in his or her shop.) The show, from a German play by Paul Pörtner and shaped by producers Marilyn Abrams and Bruce Jordan, has four acts. Act 1: The activities among six people in a beauty shop culminate in the murder of the unseen elderly woman who lives upstairs. Act 2: The police mount a re-creation of the first act, and the audience points out where suspects mislead or dissemble. Act 3: Audience members question the actors directly and vote on who they think is guilty. Act 4: The cast plays out an explanation of how the audience's pick is indeed the murderer.

The players bellow unnecessarily and often all scream at once. In Act 1, the fourth wall is presumably intact, yet the cast breaks character to laugh when an actor gets off a good line or ad-lib. The fourth act is harsh and overly dramatic, as if the production were no longer a spoof but a real whodunit, and whatever goodwill has been generated is undercut.

The direction seems completely absent; the actors do whatever they want. But the show isn't about style or plot -- I defy any viewer to explain the motives or particulars behind the killing -- currently, it's about John McGivern. As the gay hairdresser Tony Whitcomb, he swishes, minces, prances, flirts, sashays, grovels, and begs -- anything for a laugh, whether it makes sense in the context of the show or not. He upstages the other actors without shame, and the audience loves him for it. ("Wasn't that gay guy a scream?") I grew to hate him for it. If you need to show your relatives that Homosexuals Are Very Funny, McGivern's your man. Otherwise, stay away.

Tony n' Tina's Wedding
With Tony n' Tina's Wedding the theater collective Artificial Intelligence (the show's original New York creators) and director/choreographer Brian Rardin have ingeniously contrived a show in which audience participation is essential, yet the risk of public mortification is almost nil. Transforming Italian-American nuptials into performance art, Tony n' Tina's Wedding realizes that American wedding rituals are as much about humiliation as they are a celebration of love. We tell the couple their relationship is exceptional and unique -- holy -- while at the same time we do our best to show the bridal pair they're nothing special: They've succumbed to the same base mixture of lust, fear, and weakness we all have. And of course, both things are true.

In this show, the audience serves as guests at the wedding of Anthony Nunzio Jr. (John Renzulli) and Valentina Lynn Vitale (Lenoir Kieve).The production begins in a church, where intrusive photographer Sal (Ray Galindo) is never in the right spot, prompting Tina's mom Josie (Diane Conway) and fey bachelor brother Joey (Arthur Calendrelli) to issue constant instructions. Proud papa Tony Sr. (Chris Gomez) hands out cards for his strip club, where his much-younger girlfriend Madeline Monroe (Suraya Keating) plies her art. Groomsman Dominic (Steven Panelli) pushes CDs and VCRs he can get you for "almost nothin'" as he ushers you to your seat. (Tony's best man Barry [Glenn Micheletti] pushes something else entirely, bringing selected people into a back room at the reception.) Pregnant maid of honor Connie (Denita Rosmarin) knows the fuchsia, miniskirted bridesmaid dress she wears looks like shit, but she's too pissed off to be embarrassed. Hapless Father Mark (Rex Anderson) presides, accompanying himself on guitar when singing "The Wedding Song." And Tony and Tina read each other heartfelt, god-awful poems they've written themselves.

The whole gang then moves to the reception hall. The Nunzios and the Vitales have two great qualities: They don't feel any compunction to behave differently just because it's a special occasion, and they're not related to you. They start off loud and crude, and get more so as the liquor flows. They're also very friendly, circulating among the guests and gossiping freely. All three groomsmen hit on my guest. ("Not a bad night for me," she quipped.) Madeline talked to us about her stripping career ("You really have to use your creativity"), her love for Tony Sr. ("We're soulmates"), and tried to get my friend to audition for the strip club. Tina's ex-boyfriend (Joey Rich) poured his heart out to us, and convinced us to slip a note to Tina, which of course Tony saw. All of this is ancillary to the public rituals -- toasts ("It's a friggin' honor to be your best man, Tony"), "Y.M.C.A." and the Chicken Dance (performed by a cover band whose lead singers have the requisite mullet hairdos), a buffet with lots of pasta, and the ever-classy money dance. There are also fights and illicit, drunken kisses.

The show is too long -- but damn, it's fun. The actors have done their homework (especially Keating, Rosmarin, Panelli, and Calendrelli) and remain in character no matter what curves the audience throws them. "Is this really the wedding you wanted?" Tony yells when the chaos gets too much for him. "Yes," Tina replies tearfully. It's the wedding we all want -- as long as it's not our own.

A final note about all three shows -- it's their natures to be subject to cast changes and the frequent use of understudies. Not one of the performances I saw featured the cast as published in the program; thus the actors I refer to may not be the publicized ones or the ones you see. Whatever their varying qualities, these shows are designed for long runs and to survive individual performers' departures. Enjoy them. I was surprised how much I did.

About The Author

Joe Mader


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