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Despite growing up in New York City, I didn't get interested in theatre until Data General sent me to London for several months. That's where I saw the Rocky Horror Show, Annie and several other musicals, as well as a number of comedies and thrillers. And thus began a love for theatre that seems to grow with each passing year. (I never found a CD of the London cast of Annie, so I had to settle for the Broadway version.)

During my London time a colleague introduced me to the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. He had some of the original radio broadcasts on tape and later ordered a copy of the record album from Harrods. Since then I've seen it performed as a play, read all the books, seen the TV series and played the Infocom game. (Anybody remember them?) The original radio series, released as a boxed set of six CDs, is still the best way to experience it. And comparing the radio and TV series makes me realize that we lost something magic when we lost radio drama.

When I was growing up, the local TV stations would run a lot of old, cheesy science fiction movies. There were certain films that would show up repeatedly. And I'd be there, glued to the tube, every time they came around. Forbidden Planet definitely qualifies, although it was far less cheesy than most. Based on The Tempest, it's a well told story with amazing effects and a better than competent cast. A few years ago, I encountered Return To The Forbidden Planet at the Cambridge Theatre in London. Take Forbidden Planet, use really cheesy props and effects (like hairdryers as ray guns), mock Shakespearean dialogue and a score of 50s and 60s rock songs and this is what you get. I later got to see it performed while vacationing in Melbourne. Inspired silliness! My big regret is that I didn't make it to the off-Broadway run.

I've loved detective stories since my Hardy Boys & Nancy Drew days, graduating in short order to Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout, Ross MacDonald, John D. MacDonald and so many others. City of Angels was made for me: a paean to the 50s detective movie. It's a story within a story: the hard boiled detective fighting his deceitful client, vicious criminals and police out for his blood; and his creator, fighting Hollywood phonies and his own frailties as he puts his character on the screen. I caught it in London, where the acting, the staging and the music were all brilliant. (The American accents of the British cast were even mostly believable!) Aside from an ending that comes out of nowhere and offers some interesting opportunities for interpretation, I'd put this at the top of my list of theatrical experiences.

I usually don't go to the big name shows. Most of my theatre-going takes place during business trips. Since I'm never there very long I have a choice of bad seats for the big tourist trap plays or good seats for the other stuff. But when Phantom came to San Francisco I sent for tickets. I had to wait four months to get anything reasonable for a weekend night. But I did see it. And you know, I was kind of disappointed. The music is nice (I bought the CD the next day). And there are some neat effects. But the play didn't really work for me. Kind of the opposite of my reaction to Miss Saigon: loved the play (we all cried at the end) but don't care to listen to the music again.

And will someone explain why there's only one cast CD available for Phantom? There are other singers with voices as good as Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman. And much better actors. Having seen her in other performances, I'm not sure Sarah Brightman could act wet in a rainstorm.

Cats has been running forever. I finally saw it last year on Broadway. It's a weird experience: there isn't exactly a story, there are only sort of characters and a sort of structure. As much as I admire the participants' efforts (acting so catlike for a couple of hours a night would make me bonkers), I can't say I understand what the fuss is about. They say that Olivier could captivate an audience just reading from a phone book. Maybe this is Lloyd Webber's proof that he can do the same with a bunch of poems about cats.

I saw Tommy on Broadway during the same trip that I saw Cats. I kind of wondered how I'd feel about music I'd heard so much a long time ago. (When I saw Jesus Christ, Superstar at the end of its London run, it struck me as old and tired.) The surprise was just how fresh and new and at the same time familiar the whole thing seemed. The staging was exciting, the acting on a par. It was almost good enough to help me forget that Ken Russell travesty and that scene of Ann-Margret diving into baked beans.

I do love a love story. One of my favorite old movies is a little thing called The Shop Around The Corner. It stars James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as employees in a little leather goods shop who can't stand each other but are carrying on an anonymous correspondence. (You can see the ending a mile off, can't you?) In the early 60s the same story was made into a musical by the team who later did Fiddler On The Roof. I caught it in London recently and liked it. Didn't love it, but I liked it. There's some awfully good music and nice performances. But you know, James Stewart is just too tough an act to follow. Kinda like those nobodies who followed Sean Connery in that James Bond role.

As you may already have noticed, I like silly. And I like musicals. So a silly musical is my idea of a good time. Alan Ayckbourne and Andrew Lloyd Webber first attempted a musical about Bertie Wooster & his all-knowing butler Jeeves in the 70's; it was a flop. (Yes, even Andrew Lloyd Webber can bite the big one now and again.) They tried again twenty years later, removing any hint of seriousness and using a peculiar and very low budget play-within-a-play technique to tell a typically contrived tale of mistaken identity and ludicrous schemes by characters from the shallow end of the gene pool. I loved it. Maybe if Sunset Boulevard had used less spectacle and more goofiness it wouldn't have left its backers quite so high and dry...

It's a cliche to complain that most books have their guts ripped out in their translation to the screen or the stage. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a rare exception: an earlier age Harlequin Romance that gained depth and stature in the move. So when I heard that a musical treatment of the story would arrive on Broadway I was thrilled. This is a story that has it all: courage and passion, loyalty and betrayal, heroics and villainy, all surrounded with horror and big laughs. I couldn't wait to see it for myself. And when I did I wasn't disappointed. This is a story that was meant for the stage, fleshed out with a magnificently over-the-top romantic score. I still wonder what the New York critics saw that I didn't; they hated it. Or maybe they're the ones with myopia. Does every play have to end in tragedy and anguish to be worthy of our attention? Among the tears of Les Miz and Miss Saigon and Phantom can't we find a little room for derring-do and an old fashion happy ending?

Much as I love theatre, I refuse to take it all that seriously. And for those who also love but don't exactly revere it, what could be better than spending some time with a talented team of parodists who have a little fun at the expense of Broadway's pretensions? Whether it's making Les Miserables a little less miserable or skewering Blood Brothers David and Shawn Cassidy and stage mom Petula Clark with songs like I Think I'm Acting and Down Show (which it was), the tiny cast of Forbidden Broadway presents a spectacle as rich as any other in town. Just with bigger laughs. (At least theirs are intentional.)

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Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California