‘Venus’ rises magically again onstage

The year of “Oklahoma!” on Broadway was also the year of “One Touch of Venus,” and of Agnes de Mille, who choreographed both, Greg MacKellan says. It was 1943, right in the middle of World War II, and yet there is no reference to that in either work. The Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, of course, took its place in the pantheon of the genre, but “Venus” — after a decent initial run — entered into the realm of forgotten musicals.

Enter MacKellan as well. His San Francisco-based troupe 42nd Street Moon (co-founded with Stephanie Rhoads) is one of the handful of theater companies in the world championing good musicals to which bad things happen — “celebrating and preserving the art and spirit of the American musical theater.”

After the creation of such an organization in London, 42nd Street Moon is the second-oldest company devoted to concert performances of “lost” musicals.

“Venus” was on 42nd Street Moon’s very first season, back in 1993, just a year after its revival at the Barbican by Ian Marshall Fisher’s Discovering Lost Musicals.

The current production of “Venus” in the Eureka Theatre through Nov. 11 is one of a very few repetitions in 42nd Street Moon history. MacKellan is a true fan of “Venus” and he is puzzled by its lack of popularity. It has music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ogden (“The cow is of the bovine ilk; One end is moo, the other, milk”) Nash and a book by S.J. Perelman. The Broadway premiere was directed by Elia Kazan, and it starred Mary Martin. That’s a mighty list of big names.

The first production had a respectable run of 567 performances, through 1945. The film version, in 1948, featured Ava Gardner and Robert Walker (but cut most of the Weill score).

What happened after that was a half-century of silence, until a BBC radio revival and a few staged concert presentations. The disappearance is somewhat of a mystery, as the musical with such songs as “Speak Low,” “I’m a Stranger Myself,” “The Trouble with Women” and “Westwind” just seemed to have fallen through the cracks.

The Perelman book (based on Thomas Anstey Guthrie’s novella “The Tinted Venus”), with Nash’s clever lyrics — in one of the poet’s few excursions to the stage — tells the story of an ancient statue of the goddess Venus brought to contemporary life in the mid-20th century.

The naive but powerful reborn goddess (Nina Josephs in this production) is awakened unintentionally by a barber (Anil Margsahayam), and pursued by a rich, unscrupulous art collector (Peter Budinger).

MacKellan is stage director, Tom Segal the choreographer, Dave Dobrusky is music director and pianist (with Nick DiScala on saxophone, clarinet, and flute, and violinist Chris Macomber, the latter doubling as a singing-dancing cast member).

One Touch of Venus

Presented by 42nd Street Moon

Where: Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 6 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 11

Tickets: $22 to $38

Contact: (415) 255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org

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