In search of ‘the dingus’

Locally crafted musical-comedy update of The Maltese Falcon hits the right notes

From Left: Derek Dozier as Louis Cairo, Conan Duch as Willy Wilmer and Shaunna Jones as She Fat Li, one of her many roles in <i>The Black Bird Sings</i>.

From Left: Derek Dozier as Louis Cairo, Conan Duch as Willy Wilmer and Shaunna Jones as She Fat Li, one of her many roles in The Black Bird Sings.

Photo By chang jay

The Black Bird Sings shows Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, 2 p.m., through June 23.
Tickets $16-$22

Theatre on the Ridge
3735 Neal Rd., Paradise

The clever Jerry Miller-ized version of Dashiell Hammett’s classic caper, The Maltese Falcon, now running at Theatre on the Ridge, makes for a satisfying night of theater. Now settled in comfortably as the venerable playhouse’s artistic director, Miller and company have shaped a delightful production out of the director’s original musical, The Black Bird Sings. It was laughs all around on opening night as a tale of suspense and intrigue, set in downtown San Francisco in the late 1940s, has been turned into a melodramatic, song-filled screwball comedy.

The two-act play is anchored by William Petree, who assumes the role of detective Sam Spade, made famous by Humphrey Bogart on the big screen in 1941. Petree is a prototypical straight man—albeit one with tendencies toward greed and dalliance in this production—who somehow stays fairly unruffled as craziness abounds around him. When a detective warns Spade-the-suspect, “If [the victim] dies, you’ll get the chair,” Spade retorts, “If you die, do I get the sofa and loveseat?”

Much of the production’s awesome craziness comes from the extroverted Shaunna Jones, who brings some wide-eyed Carol Burnett-style wackiness to her several outlandish roles. Jones’ stage presence, timing and brashness, and her characters’ persistence in scouring the globe to take ownership of the solid-gold Maltese falcon, particularly helped the production flourish.

Local theater veteran Jeff Dickenson showed off his superior dramatic chops as Jasper Birdsinger, who for 18 years has pursued the Maltese statue (affectionately referred to as “the dingus”). And Conan Duch brought his A-game as well as Willy Wilmer, a tough customer who doesn’t quite get the respect he craves.

The folly-filled production includes many moments in which characters suddenly break into song. Hearing the delightful renditions of familiar old pop songs—mostly from the 1960s and ’70s, and backed by prerecorded instrumentals and four live Falconette singers—was a big part of the fun.

Some tunes had fresh new lyrics, courtesy of Miller. The 1964 James Bond theme song, “Goldfinger,” was turned into “Birdsinger,” in reference to Dickenson’s character; and Johnny Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love” was cleverly tweaked to include, “Who’s making love to Miles’ old lady while you were out making dough?” Other tunes included send-ups of Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff,” Lulu’s “To Sir, with Love,” the Frank and Nancy Sinatra hit “Something Stupid” and Honey Cone’s “Stick-Up,” with Jones finding an unusual way to keep the beat during the “Boom shaka laka, boom-boom-boom” passages.

There were many more songs, and other than a few subdued moments due to actors not singing loudly enough, the music provided a wonderful boost to the production. And having the whole cast take turns at lines from a particular classic-rock song made for a very satisfying finale.

Other standouts included Christopher Jones, who was a strong-man’s man as detective Miles Archer; Stephanie Adams, solid as the flirtatious Mary Archer; Rhonda Petree with a fine portrayal of Betty Truehart, Spade’s adoring assistant; and Derek Dozier, who brought some exceptional Moroccan machismo to the stage. And last, JaQuan Sayres deserves a Tony for Best Dance By a Man with a Knife in his Back.

The liberal usage of the space in front of the stage, and the realistic set design of Spade and Archer Investigators—which included a nice window view of the San Francisco skyline—made the playhouse feel especially intimate. That closeness and inclusiveness is one of the joys of Theatre on the Ridge, the area’s oldest community theater, which continues to be active in its 38th year under the matriarchal eye of longtime Executive Director Judy Clemens.