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The Arts
May 17-23, 2006

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Photograph by Chris Bennion
Bouffant Gardens: American Musical Theatre of San Jose celebrates the early '60s with 'Hairspray.'

Music's in The Air

Summer is the time for musicals for local stage companies

By Marianne Messina

Metro Summer Guide 2006:
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IT IS definitely going to be a musical summer in South Bay theater this year. And while most theater companies are keeping it lilting and light, they will be stretching their wings in other ways, starting with City Lights' 28-cast member production (their largest to date) of Jesus Christ Superstar (July 13-Aug. 20).

According to director Lisa Mallette, the company's Superstar intends to get right up in your face. "Usually the show is done in such large venues ... audience over here, show over there kind of thing," she says.

But Mallette is currently working with designers to bring the seating out into the playing area and add surrounding ramps "to put the audience 'in' the action. Also we won't be hiding the musicians away in a pit or in the wings—the five-piece rock band will be a visible, living aspect of the show, even at times interacting with the performers."

Around the corner from City Lights, San Jose Stage will push its small space as well with Urinetown (May 31-June 25). Artistic director Randall King says that the first time he looked at the musical, "the size of it scared me." But King discovered what he calls the Brechtian elements of the musical. "When I looked at Urinetown the second time I said that this musical spoofs all the musicals that really bug me."

The story of a town in which the elite own the keys to the bathrooms, and the underclass must cue up to empty out, Urinetown suits the Stage Company's flair for the irreverent. "It's got its tongue in its cheek so good it almost has the mumps," King quips. Possibly driven to a new appreciation for the musical by the success of last year's Idols of the King, the Stage Company will follow Urinetown this summer with a reprisal of that show for a musical double-header.

For mounting the big-production musical, Foothill College has an edge, as artistic director Jay Manley points out, because of its ability to build entire, all-new sets for every show, and it is capitalizing on that this summer with Annie Get Your Gun (Jul 28-Aug. 20). Musical veteran that he is, Manley found he had to stretch to accommodate this story as it flashes back to Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and the woman sharpshooter Annie Oakley. "I've never directed a show that's kind of a circus in a way. The secondary leads in the show are a knife-throwing act. ... Sitting Bull is a character in the play; there will be some Indian dances."

Also in the business of big-budget musicals is American Musical Theatre of San Jose, which brings the Broadway hit Hairspray (June 6-18) to the valley for its San Jose premiere. Set in 1960s Baltimore, the musical (based on the John Waters movie) boasts outrageous hairdos and lots of dance-happy songs.

Not a group to slouch in the summertime, TheatreWorks will offer a world premiere for its summer musical: Vanities (June 21-July 16). Workshopped through the company's aggressive New Works Initiative, this musical version (book by Jack Heifner, music and lyrics by David Kirshenbaum) of an older play establishes the feel of the '60s and '70s, in which three girlfriends come of age, by way of the vital and volatile music tapestry of the times.

"The transformations between eras are done live," says artistic director Robert Kelley. Eras change before the audience's eyes and ears; as the set is reconfigured, say, on the way to 1968 from 1962, "each of those interludes becomes a song." Unlike the original play, the Heifner/Kirshenbaum story moves forward from the '70s. And Kelley, who originally worried that the play might not translate well for modern audiences, found that in moving forward, "the musical had enriched the play in a lot of intriguing ways."

Sunnyvale's California Theater Center has also included a musical in its summer fare, You're a Good Man Charlie Brown (in repertory with The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and Emma—close attention to the schedule, which runs June 1-July 23, is a must.

In this musical summer, even shows that aren't musicals seem to be making creative and extensive use of music. San Jose Repertory Theatre goes into its 25th anniversary summer with the semiautobiographical play by Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt, 2 Pianos, 4 Hands (June 10-July 9). As the characters of Ted and Richard undergo the rigors of aspiring concert pianists from boyhood to the moment of truth (can I make the cut?), the audience is treated to all levels and styles of piano playing culminating in a seven-minute four-handed Bach concerto.

With two grand pianos filling the stage and both actors, Carl Danielsen (Richard) and Mark Anders (Ted) playing piano live, the music gets thick and heavy, including a nasty and literal "dueling pianos" sequence when the two boys engage in a grueling piano competition. According to Danielsen, the competitiveness is so intense that the actors, who've played the roles together before, find it useful not to associate much during the run of this bittersweet tale. "If you leave Mark and me alone ... we're good buddies. [But in] the play—these people treat each other so nastily."

A virtual stranger to musical productions, the Pear Avenue Theatre's summer world premiere Deuce (like the tennis score, a situational limbo) will feature a prominent musical score composed specifically for the play by Don Tieck. "It is fascinating to work with a musician who hears what is going on in the script," says director Ann Kuchins (who is working with both Tieck and playwright Sharmon Hilfinger).

Deuce (June 23-July 15) is a relationship story as much as a mystery, and according to Hilfinger it's her "first psychological drama." With a dash of creativity, she kept the cast small and the inter-relationships tight. "There is a dead character in the play, Cameron Cowl, whose influence on the characters in the play is as strong in death as it was in life."

Renegade Theatre Experiment, on the other hand, presents a new play with no shortage of dead characters, a campy, horrific slam at ethics and media, The PornoZombies (July 13-29). "Basically, what it says is that violence is OK but sex isn't," artistic director Sean Murphy explains. "It's also very perverse." (Porn of the living dead—heck, yeah.) Like CTC, Renegade Theatre grows up in the summertime—only in the extreme. "It's definitely our edgiest season so far."

In other nonmusical fare, City Lights' The Pearl Necklace (May 18-June 18) follows a necklace passing between 23 women, and Northside Theatre Company presents the similarly disconnected tales of California Suite, four episodes in the same hotel room. In addition to Vanities, TheatreWorks mounts two nonmusicals, the sober comedy Brooklyn Boy (July 19-Aug. 13) and M. Butterfly (Aug. 23-Sept. 17), with Francis Jue updating his 1992 role. Drawing from Puccini's Madam Butterfly, this story of a spy and Beijing opera star has, like so many other offerings this summer, strong music at its core.

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