The spirit of rugged individualism is the very lifeblood of San Francisco. It's the kind of place where Starchild can run for County Supervisor, where we not only put a measure to impeach President Bush on the ballot, but dozens of people will go out to Ocean Beach in mid-winter and lie upon the sand to spell the words "IMPEACH" with their bodies. I like to think of it as a city of the grand flourish.
And ever has the City by the Bay been this way, it appears. The city's slogan, "Find Yourself Here," was never more applicable than to the epic figure of San Franciscan Joshua Norton, Emperor of the United States, who ruled the nation from his seat of power, a little place on Commercial Street between Kearny and Montgomery. And for those not familiar with the man who was once one of San Francisco's most beloved figures, Kim Ohanneson and Marty Axelrod have devised a rough-hewn tribute to Emperor Norton I, Emperor Norton, The Musical, which runs through April 1 at the tiny Shelton Theater off Union Square.
The production, which had its origins as a cabaret act is undeniably cheesy -- and long -- with a handmade look about it. Painted flats of scenes from the Hyde Street pier or Tadich Grill simply lean against the back wall and the 12-member cast barely fits on the postage stamp sized stage. With little room backstage at the Shelton, the divan that you see in the lobby at intermission makes its way onto stage in the second act. There's a whiff of the sense that this show had roots in a group of pals goofing off and yet there's also something good humored and heartwarming about what is obviously a labor-of-love project. The folksy numbers are cute and despite -- no, perhaps because of -- its amateur moments, it somehow fits the quirky DIY story of the Emp, as he was more familiarly known.
A true San Francisco character, the Emperor handed down his decrees, well-publicized in the newspapers, on topics that touched the lives of his subjects. He decreed that the streets of Sacramento should be cleaned of mud, that a bridge should be constructed between Oakland and San Francisco. He abolished the Democratic and Republican parties and dissolved Congress. And no one was EVER to refer to San Francisco as "Frisco."
Accompanied by his faithful canine companions, Bummer and Lazarus, the Emp, played by Stephen Pawley, was an honored guest at local functions and theatrical openings. In fact his devoted ragamuffins, played with relish by Peter Doty and Steffanos X in the musical offer some of the show's most vivid moments, appearances by famous local characters Lola Montez, Lotta Crabtree, and Mark Twain not withstanding. There's some strong singing from John Harrison as a newsboy who befriends the Emp, and an appearance by director David Stein as the Tadich Grill founder John Tadich, as well as the forlorn police officer Barbier who once arrested Norton and tried to have him committed for mental instability. (Needless to say, after public outrage ensued, his Highness was released.)
The musical ranges over a lot of historical ground -- an Emperor's life is a quite busy one -- and it's hard to pick up the details of any particular thread to the story. Still, enough of the "strange, but true" essentials are in there to make for a colorful portrait of a post-Barbary Coast city where anything and everything goes, and apparently went.
Emperor Norton, The Musical runs through April 1, 2007 at The Shelton Theater in San Francisco. For Tickets and Information visit emperornortonthemusical.com.