Curtain Up: “Pearls Over Shanghail”

 One of the very first ‘mainstream’ reviews I ever wrote was for a documentary about a quirky band of free-spirits who, in the early 70’s, called themselves “The Cockettes” (–in a ribald homage to Radio City’s “Rockettes”.) Back in their hey-day, this groovy little acting ensemble could best be described as pan-sexual, androgynous, and always energetic. In fact, the flamboyant, glittery, costumes and glam-rock make-up utilized by both male and female members allowed them to successfully combine drag, hippie counter-culture, wild theatrics, and sexual politics, thus creating a new kind of high art.
With monikers like “Goldie Glitters”, “Krema Ritz” and “Rumi Missabue“, the Cockettes influenced celebrities from David Bowie and Alice Cooper to the rock group KISS. They appeared with Adult Superstar Peter Berlin and Drag Queen Extraordinaire “Divine“–and even classic kid-vid producers, Sid and Marty Kroft were said to have borrowed from them (–just take a look at some of those old episodes of “Lidsville” and “H.R. Puffinstuff”!) In addition, their sassy, psychedelic, performances at San Francisco‘s Palace Theater before late night screenings of underground films on weekends (known as ‘The Nocturnal Dream Show‘) ultimately laid the groundwork for the whole “Rocky Horror Picture Show” phenomenon (–not to mention the entire midnight movie craze of 1970’s and 80’s in general.)
Another among the gender-bending flocks’ many accomplishments involved the marriage of President Nixon’s daughter Tricia. Not to be out-done by real-life, they filmed their own take on the event, resulting a raucous, cross-dressed, parody called “Tricia’s Wedding” which premiered on the very night the actual nuptials took place. Perhaps most notably though, as word of their brand of “far-out follies” spread, they made their way to Broadway in an original offering titled “Pearls Over Shanghai”.
Loosely based on “The Shanghai Gesture”, a ‘scandalous’ 1926 melodrama by John Colton, “Pearls” is a comic operetta involving singing sailors, ruthless opium peddlers and over-painted, ‘scarlet’ women (–well, pretty much everybody here sports enough make-up to keep Clinique in the money for years!) The most notorious of them all though, is a ‘Medusa-esque’ Dragon Woman named Madame Gin Sling.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the formation of this truly groundbreaking bunch, local San Francisco theater company “Thrillpeddlers” has remounted “Pearls Over Shanghai”. Originally debuting on New Year’s Eve 1970, this revival opened in June of 2009 and has played continually to packed houses since. Hailed as “a mind-blowing extravaganza inspired by the mythos of sin-soaked Old Shanghai and classic Busby Berkley production numbers”, book and lyrics are by Link Martin, with music by ‘founding Cockette member’ Richard “Scrumbley” Koldewyn. Together the duo has created 24 original songs that keep their cast of 20, singing, dancing, emoting, to the enthusiastic applause of crowds week after week!
During its Broadway run the part of Petruscha–a “Jaded Lady” from Russia, was played by the late recording artist “Sylvester” (known for his 1978 disco hit “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real”.) Now the role is shared by local divas Connie Champagne, Katya Smirnoff-Skyy, Veronica Klaus, and Leanne Borghesi. Also joining the harmony-filled hijinx this time around is Michael Soldier, star of the film festival fave, “The Gay Bed And Breakfast Of Terror”.
Given the overwhelmingly positive response at the box office, the show’s run was recently extended by popular demand until April 24 (–and word has it that still another extension is in the works which should see it presented through June.) This easily makes “Pearls Over Shanghai” The Cockette’s longest running musical hit!
Under the direction of Russell Blackwood, “Thrillpeddlers” specializes in staging first-class horror-fetish theater in the classic ‘Grand Guignol’ style (–think “Sweeney Todd” meets “Beyond The Valley of The Dolls”.) Little wonder that they were awarded both San Francisco Weekly’s “Readers’ Choice Award” for “Best Theatre Company” and a 2009 GOLDIE AWARD (Guardian Outstanding Local Discovery Award) from the Bay Guardian. Even their venue, the intimate Hypnodrome theater, recalls memories of the vast, lurid history the city by the bay can proudly lay claim to. Located at 575 10th Street (between Bryant & Division,) you can bet that the ethereal atmosphere it sustains is perfect for the kind of ‘tongue-in-ass-cheek” intrigue and campy fun that makes “Pearl Over Shanghai” such an all-out winner!
For more information, check out . Better yet, if you’re going to be visiting ‘Golden-gate Gotham‘, treat your ears to a tuneful spoonful with this naughty, bawdy ‘pearl’ of an evening! Showtime and ticket information is available by calling (800) 838-3006, or order on-line by logging onto:


“One of the 3 best Productions in SF in 2009.” – Bay Area Reporter
“Wonderfully arch and exquisitely fashioned… a triumph.” – S.F. Guardian
“a deliriously camped-out tribute to San Francisco’s very own ‘Cockettes‘, delivers more madcap invention in two hours than most theater companies manage in an entire season!” – S.F. Weekly


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