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THEATER REVIEW 'SGT. FENSHAW' : Same Old Saw : The atmosphere is turn of the century, with period songs by a rambunctious pianist before the melodrama, and minstrels after.


The trouble with being an institution is that sometimes you get taken for granted. Do blase Parisians make regular pilgrimages to la tour Eiffel? Do jaded Manhattanites detour past the Empire State Building on their way to work?

Such might be the case with the grass-roots Ventura County organization known, rather grandly, as The Magnificent Moorpark Melodrama & Vaudeville Co. Established in 1982, the outfit has been producing somewhat original musical dramas in a locale that's "local" only to those relative (but fortunate) few who live in Fillmore or the west end of Simi Valley.

If you haven't been there in a while, or at all, this weekend might be just the time to stop by.

The Melodrama's current production, which concludes with two performances this Saturday, is titled "Sgt. Fenshaw of the Mounties (or: Perils of the Northwest)." As one might suspect from the title, the show's theme and characters are strongly reminiscent of the Dudley Do-Right segments of the animated "Rocky and His Friends" television series; originality may not be the Melodrama's strong suit.

But that's not giving the company credit for what it does well, which is giving an audience of all ages a couple hours' worth of action-packed, often amusing and frequently musical entertainment, delivered with a lot of energy and a fair amount of talent for a reasonable price.

And the theater, a converted movie house, is worth the trip in its own right.

The closest Southern California parallels are the Golden Horseshoe at Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm's Birdcage Theater, although at Moorpark there's less pressure to turn audiences over several times a day. The atmosphere is decidedly turn of the century, with old-time songs played by a rambunctious pianist before the show and an olio after the two-act melodrama.

Food ranging from burgers and popcorn to candy, and drinks ranging from soft drinks to beer are available and can be taken into the theater. And there's a terrific barbecue place across the street for those looking for heartier fare before or after the show.

"Fenshaw" is directed by Scott Martin, who may be the world's greatest authority on the property, having written its book, music and lyrics. Not surprisingly, he's also affiliated with the Birdcage Theater, among other show-biz enterprises.

The melodrama, which includes several songs, has to do with an innocent heroine, an oily villain and a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer who's somewhat less clumsy than the cartoon Do-Right, but who isn't being actively courted by MENSA either. There are scattered showgirls, Indians, a sheriff who occasionally talks like John Wayne, the town drunk and a deputy--as well as a surprise cameo appearance by a well-known ursine conservationist.

There's probably a kitchen sink in there somewhere as well. There definitely is a saw, which may at any time cut the heroine in half, vertically.

A cast of 16 is involved in this enterprise, plus a two-man band (pianist Tim King and bass guitarist Dennis Cothran) and various artisans and producers. In other words, it's a full-blown show. The acting is suitably broad--this isn't Strindberg they're performing--and the singing is more than adequate.

David Barry Jr. is forthright, handsome and starchy as Fenshaw; any red-blooded Mountie would climb the highest mountain to rescue Tina Nolen's Sarah, and Daniel Inloes and Al Shain get many of the funniest lines as Chief Hihawaya and baddie Roger St. Clair.

Special mention to Neal Boushell, who plays a deputy sheriff but who also acts as the show's energetic host.

A recent Saturday afternoon performance was filled to near-capacity; this seems to be the kind of place that grandparents like to bring the sprouts to. Reservations are recommended.


"Sgt. Fenshaw of the Mounties" will be performed tonight at 7, tomorrow night at 8, and Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $10, or $7.50 for seniors and children tonight and Saturday afternoon only. The Magnificent Moorpark Melodrama & Vaudeville Co. is at 45 E. High St. in Moorpark. For reservations or further information, call (805) 529-1212.

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