Northside SF  

'Absolutely San Francisco' is absolutely amazing
By Ed Attanasio

From left: Producer Anne Doherty (left)
and actor Karen Hirst bring
Absolutely San Francisco to the
Phoenix Theatre through Dec. 18
photo: John Doherty
Absolutely San Francisco is a humorous, although poignant, musical about lost love and the San Francisco experience. In the role of Sunshine the Homeless Lady, as well as five other fascinating characters – a hippie billionaire, a Chinese shopkeeper, an Indian engineer, a gay wine merchant, and a black female cable car conductor – former Second City actor Karen Hirst shines. With the help of a projection screen displaying photographs and videos to tell the story of the City historically, politically and emotionally, Anne Doherty’s captivating lyrics take us through a range of emotions from laughter to tears.

The story follows Sunshine on a cable car ride where she meets each of the five characters. Hirst’s rapid transformation into these characters is brilliant – and a treat to watch – as she draws a prop or hat from an elaborately decorated shopping cart. But she really doesn’t need the props, because quickly into the show we know which character Hirst is playing just from her body language, dead-on accents, and facial expressions. Through the many twists and turns of this unpredictable comic journey, each character is ultimately united and healed.

The joy of the show is in watching how Doherty’s writing turns San Francisco stereotypes on their heads. For example, the audience chuckles over Grace, the Chinese shopkeeper, and how she sells “junk to tourists.” But her profound reasons for doing so swiftly move the audience to tears. The woman sitting in front of me began by laughing at Grace, but was soon sobbing openly in compassion. Unexpected yet moving reversals also reveal the inner character of Jeffrey, the gay man who gives up his promiscuity only to become “a lovesick prude”; and the Indian engineer, who made a fortune in America but has never fully made it his home.

Doherty, who moved here with her family from Los Angeles during the dot-com boom, links the city’s boom/bust cycles to San Francisco’s love affair between the rich and poor. This theme is powerfully developed in the relationship between Sunshine and Davo, the hippie billionaire. Davo recycles out of guilt “for having been given a perfect life” while Sunshine recycles for sheer survival. Both casualties of the sixties, Davo yearns to relive the time while Sunshine has destroyed herself in order to forget it. Part of the suspense comes from wondering how these two will ever put the past to rest. When Hirst literally sings a love song to herself, the audience is moved by a stunning performance that heightens the artfully layered writing.

Once a student of Broadway legend and Funny Girl lyricist Bob Merrill, Doherty developed Absolutely San Francisco as a labor of love with the support of her husband, John. “We’ve lived in Chicago, London and Los Angeles, but there is no place like San Francisco. As Sunshine sings, ‘Nobody else in the USA does anything like they do it here.’ So I started asking myself why – why is San Francisco so different? And I decided that my next project would be my attempt to answer that question. So we explain a little of everything – how the city came to be, the kind of people who founded it, earthquakes, the Gold Rush, the Bay Bridge, you name it – but we do it naturally, as part of the plot.”

  Tourists and locals alike love the show. Says Doherty, “My son calls San Francisco a theme park for tourists, because they go through the same rides each time: to the wine country, to the wharf, to Alcatraz, and onto the cable cars. They never get to see the real city, and for that reason they’re not aware of what’s really going on. So I thought it would be a great show for tourists to understand this city, and for locals to celebrate what we’ve got here, because the show, in a way, is a tour of San Francisco. Absolutely San Francisco is my way of sharing what I’ve learned about what makes this city and its people so unique.” Nuanced, layered and just plain fun, Absolutely San Francisco is a show to see again and again.
Absolutely San Francisco
: Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason Street (at Geary),
Friday–Saturday 8 p.m. through Dec. 18, tickets $28 at 415-992-8168, www.

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