Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ham For The Holidays

December's entertainment news is often filled with articles devoted to the latest films hoping to get Oscar recognition and the more traditional shows that dominate the season. There is, however, a second tier of productions aimed at carefully targeted niche audiences. Whether one considers the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's special Winter Event, the African American Shakespeare Company's production of Cinderella, or the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus annual Home for the Holidays concert, there are customized Christmas strokes for all kinds of Christmas folks.

Three productions seen in the past week concentrated on the "Big Hair and Big Hopes" approach to Christmas. Over at the Aurora Theatre Company in downtown Berkeley, it was time to find Jesus nesting in a beehive hairdo while Katie Guthorn, Carol Bozzio Littleton, and Darby Gould performed in The Coverlettes Cover Christmas.

Katie Guthorn, Carol Bozzio Littleton , and Darby Gould
(Photo by David Allen)

All three of these women have years of performing experience under their belts.
Although part of the charm of the fictional Coverlettes is that they lack the star power of major girl groups like The Chantels, The Shirelles, The Supremes, or The Marvelettes -- and have never really had the magnetism or talent to climb higher up the ladder of success -- their performance often seemed frightfully tepid. Describing themselves as a trio of beehived sisters (Stella, Bella, and Ella) from the overwhelming whiteness of Vermont, the Coverlettes bring to mind the scene in Dreamgirls in which an all-white cover group of male pop singers (Dave & The Sweethearts) effectively drains the life from Cadillac Car by crooning it to death.

Despite a wardrobe of heavily sequined costumes in red, gold, green, and silver, this production provides a sterling example of why "all that glitters is not gold." The lame dialogue between musical numbers (which appears to have been written by director Tom Ross, who originally conceived the show), lands with a thud. Even solid hits like Santa Baby, and Beyoncé 's recent Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It) seem surprisingly anemic.

Darby Gould, Carol Bozzio Littleton, and Katie Guthorn
(Photo by David Allen)

While this year's edition of The Coverlettes Cover Christmas featured favorites like He's A Rebel, Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree, and White Christmas, a new segment of the show was devoted to the memory of the late Ellie Greenwich (who wrote such hits as Hanky Panky, Leader of the Pack, River Deep, Mountain High, and Da Doo Ron Ron).

Although Darby Gould's rendition of Joni Mitchell's hauntingly beautiful River is a major high point in the show, with a running time of approximately 75 minutes The Coverlettes Cover Christmas is, at best, a pleasant and intimate holiday diversion. Randy Craig accompanied the singers on piano with Vince Littleton on drums and Maurice Tani on bass guitar.

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Over at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, a delicious new production of Dames at Sea is delighting audiences in much the same way that Busby Berkeley's movie musicals helped to lift spirits during the Great Depression. Created in 1966, with music by Jim Wise, and lyrics by George Haimsohn and Robin Miller, Dames at Sea (which originally starred Bernadette Peters) can be a tricky show to mount.

A loving tribute to the cherished Warner Brothers movie musicals of the 1930s, Dames at Sea incorporates every cliché and bit of corniness from the genre (especially the girl from Centerville who arrives in New York City with only a pair of tap shoes in her luggage). A simple show to produce (one set, six actors), Dames at Sea has become a staple of community theatre.

When directed well, Dames at Sea has the airy perfection of a sweet soufflé. When overdirected or overacted by a cast that tries to hammer every joke to the back walls of the theatre, the show can implode with remarkable speed. I first saw Dames at Sea in 1969 at the Theatre De Lys on Christopher Street. A local production at the Marines Memorial Theatre in 1998 got rave reviews but, at the performance I attended, went over like a lead balloon.

Thankfully, director F. Allen Sawyer has taken just the right approach with New Conservatory Theatre Center's production. Under G. Scott Lacy's musical direction, favorite numbers like "That Mister Man of Mine," "It's Raining In My Heart," and "The Beguine" shine with a tender tackiness that embraces the show as a comic sendup without ever losing affection for the songs being spoofed. Kuo-Hao Lo's economical unit set may be one of the rare instances in which a show curtain for Dames at Sea featured drawings of not just a battleship, but the Loch Ness monster as well.

John Cavellini and Rena Wilson (Photo by: Lois Tema)

As Ruby (the character created to spoof the real Ruby Keeler's role in 1933's hit musical 42nd Street), Rena Wilson proved to be a strong tapper with plenty of gumption and a nice soprano voice. John L. Cavellini's wide-eyed naiveté as Dick is just goofy enough to win over any cynics.

While Kate Paul's Joan showed some moments of vocal weakness, Christopher M. Nelson's performance as Lucky captured just the right spirit for this show. Drew Todd doubled as Hennessey and the Captain.

The big surprise, however, was Leanne Borghesi's performance as Mona Kent. A hefty woman who can easily belt any song to the back of the theater, Borghesi proved to have solid comic chops as well as a voice that demands attention. Keep an eye out for her in future Bay area productions.

At the performance I attended, it often seemed as if the cast kept getting extra laughter from a series of double entendres that may have hit their marks more strongly simply because New Conservatory Theatre Center is a gay theatre company. I saw the same phenomenon occur on the night Ann Miller stepped into the original Broadway production of Mame in 1969.

A line that had never gotten a big laugh suddenly stopped the show as Miller spat out the words "PECKER WOOD? What's PECKER WOOD?" Rest assured the Winter Garden Theatre was packled to the rafters with gay men for her opening night performance in the role.

Dames at Sea continues through January 17th at the New Conservatory Theatre Center (you can order tickets here). In the meantime, here's a brief trailer as an appetizer:

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In his weekly porn column in the Bay Area Reporter, John Karr recently wrote "Sure, the remaining nine men of Inside Israel are heartstoppers in their individual ways, but there's one curious commonality among them. Coming as they do from Hungary, Slovakia, France, Spain, and Argentina, they sure aren't circumcised. Isn't importing foreskin to Israel like bringing ham to the temple potluck?"

Not when you've got four truly tasteless hams eager to feed a hardcore audience hungry for humiliation. Legendary for their succulence, sarcasm, and simpleminded attempts at style, the Kinsey Sicks returned to the Herbst Theatre with their newest show, Wake The Fuck Up, America! in which they demonstrate their ample skill at putting the "ew" back in the "news." Rest assured, the girls get in plenty of digs at talk show personalities like Ann Coulter and Elisabeth Hasselbeck.

Modeled on morning talk shows like Fox & Friends -- that will abandon any serious news topic as soon as a blonde is reported missing -- Winnie (Irwin Keller), Rachel (Ben Schatz), Trixie (Jeff Manabat), and Trampolina (Spencer Brown) have devised a winning new format with which to entertain and offend the masses. As a holiday show, Wake The Fuck Up, America! (in which the girls appear as talk show hostesses and the audiences are, in effect, their television studio audience) offers its cast much greater flexibility than their previous vehicle (Oy Vey in a Manger), requires less scenery, and is much easier to follow.

The evening opened with a special appearance by The Lollipop Guild promoting the SFGMC's Home for the Holidays concerts on Christmas Eve at the Castro Theatre. "Guests" picked from the studio audience included Santa Claus, Bill Gates, and Mike (the Sheep-Fucking Pervert). Among the old hits from previous Kinsey Sicks shows sprinkled throughout the evening were:
  • Papirossen.
  • Jews Better Watch Out.
  • I'll Be Cloned For Christmas.
  • It's Crystal Time in the City.
  • God Bless Ye, Femmy Lesbians.
  • O Hoey Night (The Night That I Did Porn).
  • Have Yourself A Harried Little Christmas.
  • I'm Dreaming of a Vanna White Christmas.
  • O Cum All Ye Unfaithful (But Not On My Face).
The group brought down the house with their new Michael Jackson tribute ("Still Dead") as well as Winnie's hilarious adaptation of Frederick Weatherly's hit ballad from 1913, Danny Boy:

The ever-demure Rachel ("Can we hurry this thing up? I have to take a dump the size of Michael Moore!") had people doubled over in laughter with her spoof of Liza Minelli's "Mein Herr" number from the film version of Cabaret entitled "Bye, Bye, My Beaver Hair." In the following video clip, Trixie (who has perfected an even slower comic burn than Jack Benny) discusses one of her latest challenges:

San Francisco's beloved dragapella quartet will be appearing for two weeks next summer at the Rrazz Room (July 6-18, 2010), performing a new show entitled Kinsey Sicks: Each Hit & I. (Say it out loud several times to get the proper effect).

Brace yourselves and prepare accordingly.

The Kinsey Sicks: Trixie (Jeff Manabat), Rachel (Ben Schatz),
Trampolina (Spencer Brown), and Winnie (Irwin Keller)

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