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Monday, January 30, 2023

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PerformanceStage ReviewA very queer Christmas: 'Sleeping Beauty' and 'Misfit Cabaret'...

A very queer Christmas: ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Misfit Cabaret’ deliver SF charm

Rooting for the wicked witch? Holiday sprites intent on removing the candy cane from one's rear end? Sounds like our beautiful Bay.

People often ask me what the Bay Area theatre scene has that other cities’ don’t. On the occasion of this double-review, let’s go with the fact that I spent the weekend watching two Xmas-themed shows, one for families, one adults-only, that both lean heavily on performers in drag and queer characters in love. Case closed.

It’s also the sort of place where panto is likely to be showcased. Short for “pantomime”, it’s one of those performance styles, panto is either so obscure that a company needs to provide with it a quickie guide, or well-known enough that it’s derided by the same snobs who look at musicals and think “Why do they have to sing all the time?”

Here’s all you really need to know about the pantomime-equipped Sleeping Beauty (through December 30th at the Presidio Theatre):

  1. It involves clowning (local performer Sara Moore walks about the theatre as Wanda the Wandering Fairy.)
  2. It involves call-and-response from the audience, who are frequently called upon to imitate something the performer has instructed (hence the name.)
  3. It all revolves around the familiar tale of Sleeping Beauty.
  4. Whilst Dear San Francisco may be performing and Club Fugazi, this show is a better scion of Beach Blanket Babylon
The cast of the world premiere of Presidio Theatre’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ panto. Photo by Terry Lorant

This version of the classic story is hosted by Julia the Chef (Curt Branom) and her canine assistant, EmBARKadero (Scott Reardon.) They serve in the palace of the dim-witted King Powell (Gary Stanford, Jr.) and the too-smart-for-him Queen Montgomery (Renée Lubin). When the two throw a party to celebrate the birth of their daughter, Princess Sonoma (Sharon Shao), it can’t help but ruffle the feathers of the evil witch Hernia (Rotimi Agbabiaka), who wasn’t invited. The witch places a sewing needle curse on the girl, who grows up sheltered, and one day meets a handsome young man named Logan (Matthew Kropschot) who can’t remember his past.

Have you noticed a theme with the characters’ names? If not, let me mention Princess Sonoma’s three fairies are named Orinda (Ruby Day), Pacifica (Eiko Yamamoto), and Fremont (Ryan Patrick Welsh). Also, there are three chickens named Cioppinio, Sourdough, and—I kid you not—Mission Burrito (Kaylee Miltersen, Jen Brooks, and Phaedra Tillery Boughton, respectively.) Yes, the show name-checks Bay Area landmarks as one of many purposefully groan-inducing dad jokes and endless stream of rewritten pop classics (exposition comes through covers of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy”, Kelis’ “Milkshake”, and even “Luck Be a Lady”). The creators know what audience is coming to the newly-reopened (as of last year) Presidio Theatre and they wink at the crowd at every opportunity – even when they aren’t tossing candy at us!

Incidentally, as someone possibly outside their target demo (neither a kid nor a parent), I found myself more drawn to the actual plot than the long tangents with Julia. Branom is a fine drag performer, but the sequences go on so long that they start to do just that. Besides, those scenes usually involve only two or three characters out of a talented ensemble cast. Look no further than Sharon Shao (the devout schoolgirl from Shotgun’s Man of God), who wisely plays Princess Sonoma with a straightforward, giving the character a genuine heart and urge to see the world she’s been denied for so long. Yet, this show indisputably belongs to the always-wonderful Rotimi Agbabiaka as Witch Hernia. As decked out in Alina Bokovikova’s fabulous threads – which fall somewhere between Disney’s Maleficent and Legend’s Lord Darkness – Rotimi once again illuminates the stage with his very presence, nourishing every bit of scenery caught between his teeth. The most outlandish part of the whole show is asking the audience to jeer at him as the villain when he’s so entertaining you may just want the witch to win.

Rotimi Agbabiaka as Hernia the Witch in ‘Sleeping Beauty’

This being my first trip to the newly-renovated Presidio Theatre (possibly ever), I was equally impressed by the way production designer Sean Riley and projection designer Peter Crompton integrated the more classical medieval set pieces into the stage pretty seamlessly. I also appreciated the fact that the Presidio required masks in the theatre at all times, even though there was no vax mandate. In a nearly-full auditorium, my Aranet4’s CO² readings peaked around 918ppm over the course of the two-act play.

The panto in the Presidio’s show is a bit long-winded, but always entertaining. It has fun with its SF name-drops and doesn’t cop out on the more overtly queer elements and characters in a show designed for kids and families. Our city is vilified with each passing news day, so it’s a relief to watch a Christmas show reminding everyone just how ridiculous and fun this place can be.

Of course, “ridiculous”, “fun”, and “queer” are three such wholly integral parts of Misfit Cabaret that they might as well be the troupe’s tagline. It was two years ago (the first year of this ongoing pandemic—ugh!) when co-creator Kat Robichaud collected Christmas songs from Cabaret shows of previous years, and recorded them for her own album A Darling Misfit Christmas. One is hard-pressed to think of another holiday album that successfully combines Robichaud’s powerhouse vocals with out-of-nowhere lyrics about killer Gremlins, regifted DVDs, and the coke-fueled madness of The Star Wars Holiday Special.

A couple years on and the pandemic may still be raging, but Robichaud, co-creator Jordan Nathan, and musical director Brendan Getzell are all back to over-inundate us with Christmas, Ludovico-style, via A Very Merry Misfit Cabaret (through December 22 at the Alcazar Theatre.)

The throughline story sees Getzell as a good ol’ boy with a case of Christmas crankies, which he shares with the audience during a denim-vested bar performance. As we’ve come to expect from countless holiday specials and themed TV episodes, Brendan will eventually be visited by some spectral being encouraging him to take the stick out of his ass and just enjoy the oppressive yuletide. Our spectre du jour is CandySprinkles (Robichaud), a magical holiday fairy intent on helping Brendan find his Christmas cheer. She kinda has to: if she doesn’t meet her seasonal quota, she’ll be demoted from fairy to elf (the latter term spoken with a disdain that doesn’t sit well with the two elves constantly shadowing her.)

Misfit Cabaret

Thus begins a show that opens with the traditional MC medley of themed pop hits, including “This Christmas,” “Last Christmas,” and “Winter Wonderland,” but with pure derision thrown towards the very mention of “Christmas Shoes—and a few Cabaret throwbacks in the form of the favorites from Robichaud’s album (as well as hew newly-released song “Revenge of the Elves.”)

Joining her the night that I attended were burlesque dancer Alotta Boutté (using Christmas tree balls in a way you wouldn’t expect), pole dancer Aurora Rose (channeling their best Han Solo, as one expects from a dancer in high stilettos), the dragtastic stylings of Rahni NothingMore, and Shadow Circus founder Dave Haaz-Baroque as one of the many Gremlins appearing in Robichaud’s tribute to the greatest Christmas film ever.

A Very Merry Misfit Cabaret is a marked improvement over their last show I saw for Hallowe’en. That one also had great performers, but there were a few too many moments that seemed like they were trying to fill “dead air” time. Very Merry, by contrast, flies through its two acts with nary a dull moment. The not-quite-full audience loved every minute of it, and seemed intent on making Robichaud “corpse” by insisting that CandySprinkles make Brendan beg for her forgiveness. Closing the show with a torch song take of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” – incorporating lyrics from both the Judy Garland original and the Frank Sinatra cover – is both another fine showcase for Robichaud’s vocals, an acknowledgement of very-real seasonal melancholy, and just a nice holiday song. All in all, a really good show.

Misfit Cabaret. Photo by Gooch

Misfit Cabaret still requires proof-of-vax for entry, but they seem to have mixed messages about masking. Their official materials say masks are “recommended”, but Robichaud’s own pre-show voiceover insists that they’re required when not actively eating or drinking; a policy not at all enforced. CO² readings on my Aranet4 rose to 1364ppm during the course of the show.

Not being the biggest fan of Christmas myself, I’d love to see piece that went all in on the theme of seasonal depression, even as it managed to entertain. This time of year, there are few first-world problems as oppressive as being told it’s your duty to smile like an idiot at all times.

Obviously, neither of the above shows takes that track, but both are sincere in illustrating what their creators love about the season. I find myself coming to Robichaud’s “Merry Christmas, My Love” each year because it’s one of the few songs I’ve heard to express genuine gratitude for the holiday, even when you’re broke. And in a year when drag queen book readers are attacked just for sharing the joy of reading with kids, it’s a relief to Sleeping Beauty to cling to the fact that there are greater dangers than someone in a fabulous wig and heels.

Both productions are fine distractions for December. Should you catch either show before they’re gone, the residual cheer may just rub off on you.

SLEEPING BEAUTY runs through December 30. Presidio Theatre, SF. Tickets and more info here.

A VERY MERRY MISFIT CABARET runs through December 24. Alcazar Theatre, SF. Tickets and more info here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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