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A Worthy 'Legacy'

[whitespace] Legacy
Tom Chargin

Fighting Dragons: Carleton Carpenter plays several feisty oldsters in 'Legacy.'

Activist seniors tell their tales in song, dance and monologue in SJ Rep's new production

By John Angell Grant

WHY ARE SOME elderly people so delightful, while others are not? The answer to this question can be found in Legacy, the world premiere musical that opened this week at the San José Repertory Theatre. Legacy is the story of outwardly directed people who have not descended into bitterness as they've grown old. It's an entertaining play--and an important one. At a time when much of our democratic heritage has been lost to cynicism and material fixation, Legacy offers a lifeline to the history and heart of America. It's also a reflection on the qualities of energy--or "fizz"--that keep people vibrant and "fighting dragons" into their 70s, 80s and 90s.

The production, masterminded by artistic director Timothy Near, is a loose adaptation by Ronnie Gilbert (of Weavers fame) and her writing partners of the Studs Terkel bestseller Coming of Age. Terkel's book consists of 69 oral histories of people between the ages of 70 and 99. The stage show has selected some of these oral histories, focusing on feisty people who are political and social activists of one sort or another. Played by five actors (including Gilbert) in multiple roles, the characters are articulate and intriguing people who do not go quietly into the night. In some ways, Legacy is a pep rally for 20th-century progressive and radical politics. But it's a damn compelling and moving one.

The mix includes a Bay Area demonstrator who's been arrested more than 100 times; the 1950 founder of the gay/lesbian Mattachine Society, the first organization to challenge the arrest of homosexuals; a Harlem painter; an inner-city children's advocate; a jazz musician; a dispossessed former bank president; an interned Nisei; and several McCarthy-era HUAC victims whose careers have been wrecked. In personal monologue and song and dance, the characters tell us their stories, imparting a spirit of life and love and activism. These riveting oral histories are also mixed with silly slapstick and vaudeville; there's even a boner joke.

The performers all sing and dance well. David Rogers does the best work of the evening, stealing the show with his funny, swishy performance as Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay. There are, however, some rough edges to the production and the script. The production feels underrehearsed: a few lines were muffed, and one performer was using cue cards for some of her characters. Though most of the songs are pleasant and hummable, the closing number is, oddly, the weakest of the evening, despite its sumptuous lyrics. Elsewhere, from time to time, two or more characters speak about their lives in alternating sentences. This structural technique dilutes the listener's focus and reduces the impact of each story. The use of monologues here would be stronger. But there's a lot of soul in Legacy. And it's good for the heart as well. Consider taking your grandparents to see it, if you're lucky enough to still have them. You and they will both enjoy it.

Legacy plays Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3 and 8pm and Sunday at 2 and 7pm through March 21 at San José Rep, 101 Paseo de Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $16-$32 (408/291-2255).

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From the March 4-10, 1999 issue of Metro.

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