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A 'hit nun,' nerdy librarian and televangelists collide in Mime Troupe's smart 'GodFellas'
Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic
July 06, 2006

Sitting Clapping ManGodFellas: Musical comedy. By Michael Gene Sullivan, Jon Brooks, Christian Cagigal and Eugenie Chan. Songs by Bruce Barthol. Directed by Ed Holmes. (Through Sept. 4. San Francisco Mime Troupe. At Bay Area parks. 90 minutes. Free. Call (415) 285-1717 or visit www.sfmt.org.) "These are the times that try men's souls," and Thomas Paine is no longer here to rally the troops in defense of secular democracy. Fortunately, the San Francisco Mime Troupe is more than equal to the task, with a considerable assist from Paine's writings.

The Mime Troupe and a few thousand of its friends gathered in Dolores Park on Tuesday to celebrate a glorious Fourth with one of the company's sharpest, funniest and most fundamentally patriotic, original musical comedies in years. "GodFellas," the 47-year-old troupe's annual free summer show in the parks, is penetratingly pertinent political satire, expertly performed by six remarkably versatile and tuneful actors and staged with comic snap by "director/wrangler" Ed Holmes.

A dynamic punk-rock-for-Christ gospel, belted with in-your-face attitude by Lisa Hori-Garcia, opens the show with a jolt. She's the opening act for the Rev. C.B. De Love's (Michael Gene Sullivan) Rock the Lord Crusade "to reclaim California for God and remember 9/11." It's a holy crusade, De Love proclaims, to pass the National Mandatory Day of Prayer Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But Sullivan's pitch-perfect televangelist preaching reveals the campaign's more far-reaching goals: to wipe out every vestige of the separation between church and state, and "cleanse" the nation of "the unfaithful."

The mafioso Ecumenical Syndicate that backs him supplies him with hit nun Sister Jesus Mary and Joseph (a delectably thuggish Victor Toman) in case he runs into any problems. The biggest obstacle turns out to be a shy, nerdy, Paine-loving librarian, Angela Franklin (the superb Velina Brown, making "intellectual intercourse" delightfully sexy) whose nonprofit after-school civics study program is taken over by the syndicate for its Academy of Christian Citizenship and Abstinence Studies.

In a wonderfully issue-packed scene on the Golden Gate Bridge (nice cartoon sets by Michael Carreiro et al.), a suicidal Angela has a life- and country-saving revelation. With a fervent "These Are the Times" Paine-based solo, she converts passers-by and a ranger into disciples in her Citizens for a God-Free America campaign, going head-to-head with De Love's Jesus Christ Loves You ministries (with the clever acronym, JCLU).

There are a few holes and loose ends in the script by Sullivan (with Jon Brooks, Eugenie Chan and Christian Cagigal, who's terrific as Angela's chief disciple and possible Judas). But "GodFellas" is both bracingly and provocatively dense with quick takes on a host of hot topics, evoking everything from Halliburton corruption and Iraq war casualties to, on the lighter side, Oprah mania and "Sister Wendy's Guide to Great Nude Renaissance Paintings." The plot is fairly tight, particularly intriguing in adhering to its own separation of faith and reason as Angela begins to succumb to the temptations of messianic leadership.

It's also packed with terrific, eclectic songs -- rock, country and hip-hop gospel and inspirational calls to reason -- by veteran troupe songwriter and musical director Bruce Barthol (additional music and lyrics by Pat Moran and Amos Glick). The three-piece band (Moran, Doug Port and Jara Queeto) is hot, and the songs are delivered with irresistible panache by Brown, Hori-Garcia (as every kind of gospel singer, in Toman's deft choreography, as well as Angela's most healthily skeptical acolyte) and Sullivan, both in preaching and reflecting on the lucrative aspects of his ministry ("got Jesus working for me").

Hori-Garcia, Toman, Cagigal and a protean Keiko Shimosato fill the stage with so many deft cameos (in Shimosato's vivid quick-change costumes) that it's a wonder when only six performers appear for the curtain call. Though Holmes and Sullivan could still tighten the show, it fully earned the rousing standing ovation it received from the large crowd that packed the Dolores Park hillside.

The words and spirit (literally) of Paine, and of other founding fathers (particularly Jefferson), invigorate "GodFellas," making it a timely, entertaining reaffirmation of the secular principles on which our democracy depends.

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