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Street Dreams

MTC resurrects Duke Ellington's long lost musical

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John Gay's Beggar's Opera, first staged in 1728, has inspired numerous adaptations over the centuries, most notably Brecht and Weil's Threepenny Opera, which gave birth to the notably eerie pop standard "Mack the Knife." In the mid 1940s, the great Duke Ellington joined forces with writer and lyricist John Latouche to work up a jazz-musical version of The Beggar's Opera, creating what would be Ellington's only Broadway musical, Beggar's Holiday. The show premiered in 1946, was praised by critics and picketed by moralists objecting to the show's casual interracial romances, and then closed after a mere 108 performances.

One of the musical's producers was a young Dale Wasserman, who would go on to write Man of la Mancha and the stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Wasserman never forgot Beggar's Holiday, and now, almost 60 years after its original debut and demise, the award-winning writer has teamed up with the Marin Theatre Company to create a revamped, updated, radically rewritten version of Duke Ellington's long-forgotten musical.

With additional tinkering, it is highly possible that Beggar's Holiday will end up back on Broadway in the near future, though it's unlikely that Ellington, were he still alive, would recognize the show. This is not necessarily a bad thing; after all, the original show was not a financial success. Jazz purists, however, will probably object to the liberties taken with Ellington's score. Musical director Don York, who's served as musical director of the touring productions of Beauty and the Beast, Fosse and The Producers, has substantially rearranged the score, injecting tinges of funk, blues and rock here and there, while Broadway-ing up many of the arrangements so completely that, aside from a few identifiable Ellington songs-- "Brown Penny," "The Wrong Side of the Railroad Tracks" and "Tomorrow Mountain," the latter having been lusciously recorded by Lena Horne--the musical score could have been written by almost anyone.

That said, the music works quite well, regardless of its not being strictly faithful to its roots. Alternately frisky and romantic, Beggar's Holiday arrives with a first-class score and more than its share of tuneful, memorable songs, well performed by a tight, talented cast. Directed by MTC artistic director Lee Sankowich and featuring Christopher Neal Jackson (The Lion King's original Broadway Simba) in the lead role of the beggar, this is a fun, entertaining show that will do the trick for anyone who craves light, frothy, feel-good musicals with just a touch of social criticism and political humor.

The show begins before the lights go down in the theater, as numerous street people, hookers and panhandlers begin taking the stage, teasing the crowd, soliciting donations and, in the case of one whimsical bag lady, launching into a raspy rant that quickly becomes what is easily the most entertaining turn-off-your-cell-phone speech I've ever witnessed.

From the pack emerges a blind beggar (Jackson) who, with the song "In Between," reveals the secret to maintaining his sanity in the midst of misery: he pretends he's someone else. From then on, with a few brief interludes with the Beggar as narrator, the show becomes his dream-reality, in which he is the handsome, promiscuous criminal Happy Mac (there's always a Mac), the leader of a colorful band of petty thieves, Fingersmith, Highbinder, Wireboy and Gunsel, well-defined by a hard-working quartet of character actors Michael LeRoy Brown, Robert Brewer, John Patrick Moore and James Monroe Iglehart, respectively.

There is a romance, three of them, actually, as the oversexed Happy Mac charms and beds the innocent Polly (a wonderful Dani Marcus), before moving on to impetuous Lucy (Virginia Wilcox), all while stringing along the dangerously practical Miss Jenny (Cathleen Riddley). The plot is mostly fluff, involving Happy Mac's capture and escape from the law, all while he holds to an optimistic insistence, in spite of everything, that tomorrow will be better than today.

That message, like Beggar's Holiday itself, may not be all that meaty, but it's pleasant and pretty, and sometimes, pleasant and pretty is exactly what we need.


'Beggar's Holiday' runs Tuesday-Sunday through Oct. 10. Thursday-Saturday at 8pm; Wednesday at 7:30pm; Sunday at 2pm and 7pm; special matinees, Sept. 22 and 30 at 1pm. Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. $28-$46. 415.388.5208.

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From the September 22-28, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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