San Francisco Playhouse, the excellent downtown theater company perhaps best known for producing local premieres of new off-Broadway dramas and comedies, also stages popular musicals yearly, most often in the summer. It’s carrying on that tradition now in the pandemic era, with some tweaking. The show is opening in the fall, not the summer, and rather than a standard musical, it’s a musical revue of 25 “story-songs” that cover a wide emotional range.
“Starting Here, Starting Now,” with music by David Shire and lyrics by Richard Maltby, Jr., actually started there — the Manhattan Theatre Club — and then: 1976 (women are called “girls”). There’s a New York vibe about it, as young people — in the original rendition, the “characters,” as such, were seen as heterosexual — sing, with both humor and melancholy, about the vagaries of love and loss, hopes and dreams for the future.
In this rendition, with four players (Rinabeth Apostol, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Keith Pinto and Melissa WolfKlain) instead of the original cast of three, the story-songs wisely encompass both hetero- and homosexual relationships, to good effect and without changing any lines.
For being plotless, it’s a fairly long show (almost two hours including intermission). It’s a series of acted- and danced-out songs accompanied onstage by a pianist, a bass player and a drummer (musical direction by Dave Dobrusky) with simple costumes (the players all in pristine white) and no set to speak of.
But the performers are charming, and the songs, both the wistful confessions of loneliness and unrequited love and the upbeat, often quite comical ones work equally well. And, as directed by Susi Damilano and Nicole Helfer (who also choreographed), the energy never flags, and the dance numbers, which include some welcome tap at the end, feel just right for the size of the cast and the dimensions of the stage.
Pinto’s a standout. He’s an accomplished physical clown, he’s got an assured grasp of all the comic nuances, and his pained, defiant “I Don’t Remember Christmas” in Act 1 might give you goosebumps.
And if there’s a bit too much pro forma smiley-face that feel-good “we’re in a musical so we’re happy” cliché — it serves to make the more wistful songs feel particularly potent by contrast. On the whole, the SF Playhouse team captures many of the nuances of our individual emotional journeys these days, whether we’re pining after the past or anticipating better times ahead.
Starting Here, Starting Now
Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: 450 Post St., S.F; also streaming
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 2
Tickets: $15 to $100
Contact: (415) 677-9596, sfplayhouse.org
Note: COVID safety protocols are in place.