|Cameron Eng, Michelle Talgarow, Jim Fourniadis, Nancy Bower, Sadie Lune, and as dogs in front, Stefanos X and Peter Doty, return to a different era in SF. Photo by Rink
Billed as a musical comedy that‚Äôs right as reign, Emperor Norton is a delightful play based on facts regarding one of San Francisco‚Äôs iconic crazy people who made a difference. Now playing at the Dark Room at 2263 Mission Street, it is mounted by Impossible Productions ‚ÄĒthe same people who brought you The Princess Bride, Clue, and Batman: the Play. This show truly is IP‚Äôs crowning achievement, because it gives the royal treatment to an actual character out of our colorful history. In real life, Norton was a powerful and wealthy magnate in the rice market who suddenly went broke and insane at the same time. Not the scary type of crazy‚ÄĒthe lovable, eccentric kind. He went from tycoon to buffoon. He did no harm other than earn the trust, if not respect, of others enough to sponge off them a bit (acquiring free room and board and paying for things by printing his own money) and bring needed humor into their lives. He was a sort of Christ figure, in that he hung out with lowly poor people and improved their well-being. He declared himself the Emperor of the United States, protector of Mexico, and defender of the defenseless. Norton gathered an army of misfits to make war on Congress and destroy the bickering Democrat and Republican parties (hmmm‚Ä¶ sounds like we could use Norton today).
He, by the way, is the one to first admonish and tax anyone who dared call his beloved City by its tacky nickname, ‚ÄúFrisco.‚ÄĚ His words ring true: ‚ÄúHow can we have pride in ourselves, if we don‚Äôt even have pride in our City?!‚ÄĚ And the ensemble‚Äôs sweet song, ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs Room for Everyone,‚ÄĚ is so appropriate to the City‚Äôs diversity.
To get everybody into a patriotic mood while finding their seats, peppy Sousa marches perform in the background. The play then begins with five minutes of complete silence and pantomime, as we watch the rich rice king become penniless and homeless. Soon Norton (played by EN‚Äôs director Jim Fourniadis) returns to recite a monologue explaining how he became destitute and then sings about his fate, trying (and failing) to convince us he is not going insane. Wearing his newly acquired beaver skin, feathered cap and epauletted uniform, he trots over to the Barbary Coast and the most dangerous part of town, where ‚Äúif the hookers don‚Äôt get ya, the hoodlums will.‚ÄĚ We meet a gang of muggers, ne‚Äôer-do-wells, and shanghai specialists, as well as two big bosomed, unscrupulous ladies of the evening, Galloping Cow and Dancing Heifer (played by Laura Malouf-Renning and Jukie Sunshine respectively) and their pickpocket pal, Little Lost Chicken (played by Nancy Bower), who all do a lively singing and dancing tribute to ‚ÄúBarbary Coast.‚ÄĚ
Norton approaches Fitch, the publisher of the City‚Äôs newspaper (Phil Darnowsky), to print his directives and proclamations, which Fitch eventually encourages, since his readership has gone up 30 percent once Norton‚Äôs humorous ravings become published regularly. ‚ÄúLike a Phoenix by the Bay,‚ÄĚ the City is rising from the ashes of the fires of 1851 and the Great Quake, with help of the Emp and his ragged retinue. He becomes the champion of the Chinese coolies (Cameron Eng and Michelle Talgarow) when rampant yellow fever against the laborer immigrants flares up. He is an honored guest at performances by the famous Lola Montez (Sadie Lune) with her hypnotic tarantula strip tease dance and by artiste Lotta Crabtree (Bower) attempting to act out a scene from MacBeth but getting leg-humped by one of the dogs.
One of the best and truest songs in the show, a country tune, has to be that which ponders: ‚ÄúIt helps to be just a little bit crazy; ‚Äėcause if they think you‚Äôre a little bit crazy, they just might think you can change the world.‚ÄĚ Right on!
Emperor Norton will be of special interest to those who are familiar with the international Imperial Court of drag empresses and queer emperors, based on a concept dreamed up by Jose Sarria, the self proclaimed widow of Norton and First Empress of San Francisco. It is also interesting to anyone who wants to know more of the lighter side of SF olden times. You needn‚Äôt be a little bit crazy to enjoy this rollicking tale, but it helps. Plus, you‚Äôll get a complimentary bogus five-dollar bill with Norton‚Äôs face on it. Emperor Norton runs weekends through Jan. 29 except for the Dec. 25 weekend. Shows are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm at the Dark Room Theater. For further info, browse darkroomsf.com/Norton.