NCTC celebrates with 'Encore' : singing Happy Birthday with 40 years of music

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday May 17, 2022
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(L to R): 'Encore' cast members McKay Elwood, Anthony Rollins-Mullens, William Giammona, Jacqueline De Muro, and Catalina Kumiski. <br>
(L to R): 'Encore' cast members McKay Elwood, Anthony Rollins-Mullens, William Giammona, Jacqueline De Muro, and Catalina Kumiski.

In recent years, New Conservatory Theatre Center has produced works that wrestle with some of the most challenging and provocative issues facing the queer community. The current season's "PrEP Play" took a hard look at the generation gap between men who suffered through the AZT era and those just coming of age in the time of Truvada.

In 2018, "Cardboard Piano" confronted audiences with the tangle of homophobia, missionary fundamentalism and Third World politics. And in 2019, "The Cake" showed us longtime friendships torn apart over gay marriage.

But with the opening of "Encore" this weekend, the cake on offer at NCTC will be sweeter, as San Francisco's stalwart gay stage —founded and still overseen by indefatigable artistic director Ed Decker— celebrates its 40th birthday. And befitting a birthday party, there will be singing.

NCTC has thankfully not shied away from mounting provocative works about major social issues and the complexity of our community. It has also over the years been a place that has provided a welcome escape from life's challenges with campy comedy, naughty nudity and most dependably, the balm of song.

"Our audiences really do love a musical," said Decker in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter last week. And over the years, NCTC has produced a whopping 60 musical comedies, reviews, and plays with significant musical elements. "Encore" is a dance down memory lane, weaving more than three dozen songs from those productions into an original review that stages them afresh, with direction by Dennis Lickteig and brand new orchestrations by music director Joe Wicht.

'Encore' Director Dennis Lickteig  

A genre-jumping jukebox
The tunes run the gamut from Broadway heart-tuggers like "Loving You" from Stephen Sondheim's "Passion," and "I Know Him So Well" from "Chess," to kitsch delights like ELO's "Evil Woman," featured in the roller disco epic "Xanadu," and "It's Tough To Be A Fairy" from Howard Crabtree's "Whoop Dee Doo!"

Under-the-radar gems are given a new chance to shine, including "Way Too Far" from Stephen Dolginoff's "Thrill Me," the rarely produced musical about real-life gay killers Leopold and Loeb, and "Music Still Plays On" from "A New Brain" by composer William Finn, better known for "Falsettos."

There are even nostalgic throwbacks to NCTC's early years as a children's theater in a medley that includes "Free to Be You and Me" and "Really Rosie." And, of course, a selection from the conservatory's six-time smash, "Avenue Q."

Lickteig and Wicht, both longtime participants in NCTC productions, have opted not to recreate the company's original stagings of the songs, but to weave them into thematic groupings, with sections of "Encores" focusing on romance, queer activism, humor, and other motifs.

But projection screens incorporated in the set will showcase programs and posters from the NCTC productions that each song was initially performed in, inviting audience members to wax nostalgic even as they appreciate the tunes anew. A cast of five singers will be accompanied by a three-piece band led by Wicht on piano.

Music Director Joe Wicht  

Firsts and favorites
Asked to name their personal favorites among NCTC's past musicals, Lickteig points to the seldom-produced two-hander "The Story of My Life" by Neil Bartram and Brian Hill, about the lifelong friendship between two friends, one gay and one straight. Wicht also points to an obscure delight, "The Ballad of Little Mikey," songwriter Mark Savage's coming out/activism story from the 1990s. Songs from each are included in "Encore."

While almost all of NCTC's musicals were first staged elsewhere, Decker, Wicht and Lickteig made a special point of including two songs that made their debuts at NCTC: Richard 'Scrumbly' Koldewyn's faux-melancholy "Where Is My Little Willie Gone?" from his "Wilde Boys" Victorian burlesque, and The Kinsey Sicks' "Have Yourself A Harried Little Christmas."

The Sicks themselves will have an NCTC encore in "Oy Vey in A Manger," one of two musicals in the company's promising 2022-2023 season (The second is Jonathan Larson's "Tick Tick ... Boom").

Meanwhile, Ed Decker is keeping his eyes out for work to present in the future and feeling upbeat about the future of queer-themed musical theater.

"I just saw 'A Strange Loop'" in New York a couple weeks ago. It's absolutely thrilling," he said of the Tony-nominated show about a gay Black theater geek struggling with identity, sexuality and art-making. "I'd love to produce it here someday."

'Encore' through June 12 at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave. $30-$65. (415) 861-8972.

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