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Theater review: 'Too Big to Fail'
Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theater Critic
Tuesday, July 7, 2009

POLITE APPLAUSE Too Big to Fail: Musical comedy. By Michael Gene Sullivan. Music and lyrics by Pat Moran. Directed by Wilma Bonet. With Velina Brown, Adrian C. Mejia, Sullivan, Ed Holmes et al. (Through Sept. 27. 90 minutes. Free. Call (415) 285-1717 or go to

Beware financial advisers bearing gifts. Life looks pretty good for the newlyweds in a tiny African village until credit rears its ugly head.

It takes a perilous trek across an ocean of greed and into corporate lairs - and a few high-octane songs - before our gullible but determined hero can rescue his wife and their village in the San Francisco Mime Troupe's buoyantly rabble-rousing "Too Big to Fail."

Saturday was not only Independence Day, but Mime Troupe Day in San Francisco, by order of the Board of Supervisors. The company and about a thousand friends celebrated the opening of its 50th season in a sun-drenched Dolores Park with a few proclamations, the traditional blessing from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence ("Go and sin some more") and an upbeat and timely edition of its annual free show in the parks.

It's a fable with a moral told frankly in just that form, with aspects of "The Wizard of Oz," musical comedy and "The Odyssey" mixed into Aesop-meets-Uncle Remus African griot animal tales. Playwright Michael Gene Sullivan, typecast as a magnetic Storyteller, slips from one slyly instructive tale to another until he plunges into the main narrative, which he interrupts at times with more beguiling fables.

Nina Ball's storybook African village set bursts into life with a wedding dance. No sooner are Filije (Adrian C. Mejia) and Jeneeba (Velina Brown) married, though, than trouble breaks out. Impatient to provide for his family and bewitched (literally) by an evil witch (BW Gonzalez) with an offer of credit, Filije signs away his wife's dowry - a particularly sweet goat as portrayed by Lisa Hori-Garcia - and their whole future.

The bulk of "Too Big" is the odyssey of Filije's hapless heroic quest to cancel their rapidly accumulating debt, a trek in which he has to vanquish various free-market demons.

An Oz-like city is ruled by a snarling, zoot suit-clad Demon of Privatization (Hori-Garcia). An ocean full of merger carnivores leads to an encounter with Brown's hilariously voracious shark (excellent batik and storybook costumes by Emilica S. Beahm).

Meanwhile, Jeneeba is fighting a losing battle against the consumer-debt mania taking over the village.

It's all as entertaining as it is didactic. Sullivan is disarmingly open about his intentions, but he also doesn't pretend to have all the answers. He's more intent on getting us to question the fundamentals of a system dependent on citizens "living and dying in debt."

"Too Big" flounders a bit toward the end, though, after the music dies. Strangely, Pat Moran's five songs are all front-loaded, rising to a peak with Brown and troupe stalwart Ed Holmes' buoyant credit-dream duet "Happy Man" and soaring on her shark's torch-knockout title song.

Sullivan's cagey humor and the ensemble's engaging performances keep it entertaining, under Wilma Bonet's tight direction and choreography. But it sure could use another song.

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