Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Pearls Over Shanghai

In June of this year, the Thrillpeddlers theatre company mounted a revival of the Cockettes musical from 1970, "Pearls Over Shanghai." Through some alchemy of timing and the right group of people, the production has turned out to be a magical success. It's also been something of an underground hit and has been selling out the small Hypnodrome theatre on 10th Street ever since.

Director Russell Blackwood (above) has just announced that the show will be extended until the end of this year and I'd advise you to get tickets now, because the chances of your seeing anything like this anywhere else in the world are next to nil.

The Missouri-raised Blackwood (above as the evil Mother Fu) has worked in theatrical jobs all over the Bay Area for the last 20 years but seems to have found his perfect niche as the artistic director of the Thrillpeddlers which has specialized in performing French Grand Guignol plays, with their outrageous melodrama and gore. Last year, he decided to branch out with his repertory company into the Theatre of the Ridiculous, presenting a pair of one-acts by the two New York drag queens/playwrights/divas, Charles Ludlam and Charles Busch. It was an interesting attempt, but the pieces felt tame and dated in a stale way.

However, with "Pearls Over Shanghai," his second Theatre of the Ridiculous Revival, it's quite the opposite. The musical feels oddly of the moment, with its glitter hippie genderfuck examination of every cliche imaginable about Orientalia and The Seduction of the West/East.

The production's authenticity is guaranteed by a few survivors of the original production at North Beach's Palace Theatre, none more important than Scrumbly Koldewyn above who wrote the extraordinary musical score. He'll be 64 on October 10th and if we had such a thing as designated Living Cultural Treasures in our society such as exists in Japan, he would be the first on my list for San Francisco. I missed seeing Scrumbly and the Cockettes during the early 1970s but did catch up with him when he was writing the scores for Brecht productions put on by a group called Theater Workers at the Goodman Building on Geary in the mid-70s. The productions were directed by a large, gay, Southern genius named Ken Wilkinson who died in the late 1980s. His "Mother Courage" and "Edward II," which were both staged in what was essentially a narrow garage, are still among the greatest theatrical experiences of my life.

Since then, Scrumbly has worked with about thirty theatre troupes around the Bay Area, been the arranger, composer, and accompanist to more revues than he can probably count, and helped form two singing troupes called The Jesters and The Distractions. When I asked him how many songs he had written over the years, he replied, "About 300."

The score has been considerably tweaked from the original, according to Scrumbly, and it's a real wonder, a pastiche of everything from music that could fit into Busby Berkeley musicals, blues numbers, vaudeville turns, cabaret soloist arias, and even moments that sound like sophisticated parodies of operas like "Madama Butterfly," "Turandot" and "The Pearl Fishers."

The very funny book and lyrics were written by Link Martin, who flamed out young in Laos at the end of the 1970s. The musical's taking off point was "The Shanghai Gesture," from a 1926 potboiling play, and the baroque Sternberg/Dietrich film of the same name, made in 1940. If you've ever seen "The Mask of Fu Manchu" with Myrna Loy and Boris Karloff, you'll know how outrageous the "Occidental" stereotypes of the "Orient" were in that time, and this musical runs with every one of them.

It could be dreadfully offensive except that the casting is mostly genius. The three virgins from the Midwest being sold into white slavery at Madame Gin Sling's opium den, for instance, are played by a small black woman, a large white woman, and a tall white man. Their voices blend seamlessly in their trios, by the way, and were a total pleasure to hear.

The Russian femme fatale "Petrushka" was originally sung by Sylvester, the eventual disco superstar, and it must have been something to experience. At the Sunday evening performance I attended, Petrushka was performed by an actual woman, although I'm not exactly sure of that, which is another reason why "Pearls Over Shanghai" feels so modern and transgressive.

This production completely understands genderfuck, which was a distinctly San Francisco phenomenon that tended to visually involve sexy beards on handsome young men covered with glitter, not to mention lots of makeup and costume. The message was you didn't have to act like a man or a woman, you could be fabulous and do it all.

The company stalwart Eric Tyson Wertz (above) is Lili Frustrata, originally played by Hibiscus who can reasonably be called the 1960s hippie version of Nijinsky. The part is like a parody of Liu in "Turandot," a humble, beautiful, young ragpicker who is good and simple.

When Lili finally loses half her costume near the end of the musical, it's revealed that the delicately played character is an actor who has a chest that looks like Magnum P.I. and with a penis that was subversively peeking behind a see-through skirt.

There's been lots of nudity on stages over the last 30 years but I usually find it annoying and more narcissistic than sexy, which is why it's such a treat to see naughtiness triumphantly return to the stage. Act Two opens with a funny nudie parody of "Oriental" girlie choruses called "Temple Bells." This is followed a short while later by a choral number called "Endless Masturbation Blues" that is genuinely shocking and titillating, partly because one is not quite sure what kind of private parts are going to be exposed next.

Forget "South Pacific." This is the truly interesting historical musical revival, and it's about as San Francisco as it gets.


Kimo C said...

Looks great! I'm getting tickets.


Unknown said...

Check out a number of preview video clips at:

Christine Okon said...

dear Michael, thanks for telling the world

Unknown said...

Fabulous article! Thanks, Michael!