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THEATER REVIEW : 2 Small Productions: Smooth Seas and Rough

June 28, 1989|NANCY CHURNIN

SAN DIEGO — Small theaters are one of the oft-overlooked treasures of the bustling San Diego drama scene. What the small companies lack in polish, they make up in exuberance--the one item they can rely on in lieu of living wages. What the small houses miss in sophistication, they make up in intimacy. And where the large organizations hire experienced actors, the smaller houses find and hone talent.

There is no shortage of high spirits in the current productions of the San Diego Gilbert & Sullivan Company's "The Pirates of Penzance" (through July 2), or the Progressive Stage Company's "It's Only A Play" (through July 23). But there is a world of difference in the quality of the two productions.

"The Pirates of Penzance," while hardly the definitive word on this masterpiece, is one of the more delightful productions in recent memory for the G & S Company, and that attests to what the organization has learned in 10 years of operation.

"It's Only A Play" proves an enjoyable evening for an indulgent audience that will make allowances for a spotty array of talent carried, more often than not, by the cleverness of Terrence McNally's script about the pitfalls of putting on a flop. Unfortunately, the play sags when the jokes are laced with weepy melodrama about how few ever understand the pain of artists waiting for the all-important reviews . . . sob, sob.

While the message is true, the shifts from jokes to tears are tricky and most of the cast trips, rather than glides, over the changes in emotion.

Certainly one of the things that is right about the G & S production at the Casa Del Prado Theatre is the material. "The Pirates of Penzance" ranks as one of the best of the G & S confections in both music and wit.

For comic possibilities, it's hard to improve on the tale of Frederic, the unfortunate lad mistakenly apprenticed to a pirate by his hard-of-hearing nurse who was told to apprentice him to pilot. As was his habit and talent, Gilbert seamlessly blended in a darker tale. The brave young lad who means to do his duty whether as a pirate or, when his apprenticeship is up, as an exterminator of his old comrades, is a slave to orders. Take him out of a G & S operetta and this "my-job-right-or-wrong mentality" is the stuff of which tragedy is made.

Director Ginny-Lynn Safford, a newcomer to the G & S Company, is best known around town for her direction of dramatic works like "Bent" at the Bowery Theatre and the recent "Tracers" at Sushi Performance Gallery. Here, she puts an emphasis on story and character without sacrificing the high-stepping levity.

The acting and confident musical direction by Hollace Koman go a long way toward glossing over a show in which all the voices are not equal in strength. Michael Gangitano is the ultimate Boy Scout as Frederic, Ed Hollingsworth brings comic befuddlement to the swashbuckling pirate king, William Murray prances to perfection as the major-general and Jeanne Reith is comic despair itself as Frederic's confused nurse who follows him into piracy and hopes to coax him into matrimony. The best of the voices--but the most tentative acting--belongs to Beverly Park as Frederic's true love, Mabel.

Despite its flaws, it's hard not to like this production of "The Pirates of Penzance." Similarly, it's hard to not like "It's Only A Play" at the Progressive--even though the flaws are far more numerous.

First, "It's Only A Play" has timing in its favor. It seems ironic that so soon after a big budget Terrence McNally flop--"Up in Saratoga" opened and died in San Diego--we are treated to a show written by McNally about a writer who is anxiously awaiting the reviews for a big budget show.

If the characters are stock, they play off their stereotypes in an amusing way. There is the anxious playwright, earnestly played by Michael Thompson, worrying himself sick about the upcoming reviews for his first Broadway venture.

Virginia Noyes, a fresh face on the San Diego scene (she moonlights as cultural arts program supervisor for La Mesa), is a scene stealer as the drugged-out actress who is trying to return to Broadway after a disastrous attempt at a Hollywood career. Tim Irving invests his caricature of a sniveling critic with character, without the sacrifice of a single joke. And J. Michael Ross seems appropriately bizarre--if a bit on the spacey side--as the kleptomaniac director who knows he is a sham but cannot get a bad review from Frank Rich of the all-important New York Times who is here "quoted" as saying about him: "Even his wrong is right."

Director Wayne Tibbetts seems to be struggling to create a steady sense of rhythm in this eight-person show; part of that stems from a lack of polish on the part of the performers who sometimes flail under McNally's verbal demands.

Douglas Gabrielle lacks the bravura that should come with his image of the self-important television star, too big to bother with Broadway; Connie Collier hits and misses as the dizzy Manhattan matron turned producer who suddenly wants to be earth mother to the arts; Ted Jones, often right on the mark as the hired help with the 8-by-10 glossy up his sleeve, could bring more desperation to his role; and Rhona Gold needs to bring her portrayal of a pushy, ethnic cab driver a few notches down to get it closer to reality.

Still there is no lack of laughs here, or of message. "It's Only A Play" is a paean to the theater, which is constantly under siege by critics, audiences and the financial temptations of the movies and television.

"The Pirates of Penzance" plays at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Casa Del Prado Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.

"It's Only A Play" plays at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday, through July 23, at 433 G St., San Diego.

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