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'Tracy's Tiger' roars onto OSF stage

I've always loved tigers, and there is much to love about "Tracy's Tiger," the new musical production by Oregon Shakespeare Festival that had its world premiere in the New Theatre last Saturday.

Based on William Saroyan's 1951 off-beat novella, with additional material from his short story entitled "The Barber Whose Uncle Had His Head Bitten Off A Circus Tiger," this musical was conceived by the collaborative talents of Linda Alper, Douglas Langworthy, Penny Metropulos and Sterling Tinsley. They moved the story, set in the 1950s, from New York to San Francisco.

Penny Metropulos, the director, has music in her soul. It has been an integral part of her productions in recent years, as exemplified by "Humble Boy," "The Philanderer," and "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." All these, musically, were the handiwork of composer Sterling Tinsley who, by the way, himself on keyboards, here leads the musicians in some 20 songs - Bruce McKern on bass, Ed Dunsavage on guitar, and Terry Longshore on percussion. They may be out of sight (barely visible behind a screen) but certainly not out of sound. The actors are miked, ensuring that we hear all the words in the songs. Sound designer Jeff Mockus ably overcomes the many challenges.

Scenic designer William Bloodgood creates an appropriately unprepossessing wharf side warehouse that an illuminated drop sign identifies as "Otto Seyfang's Coffee Importer" or, in contrast, a backdrop of the San Francisco skyline. It all permits scenes to be set with a minimum of props, as in the OK Caf&

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There is a prologue in which we meet Thomas Tracy (Jeremy Peter Johnson) as a boy, fascinated by the tiger and how he acquires an invisible one (Rene Millan). We hear, too, a couple of stanzas from William Blake's poem, "The Tyger" (vocalized in full at the opening of Act Two) &

"Tyger, Tyger, burning bright, in the forest of the night."

Then the musical moves forward, with Tracy hauling beans on his back at Otto Seyfang's but intent on becoming a coffee-taster or maybe a songwriter. Soon he meets Laura Luthy (Laura Morache), his ideal girl, and she happens to have an invisible tigress (Nell Geisslinger).

What makes this whimsical musical so entertaining is how Saroyan constantly introduces intriguing and eccentric characters &

be it the trio of coffee-tasters, newspaper reporters on a rampage, a suburban would-be movie star, a bemused and shrewd Viennese psychiatrist, a female tiger trainer who wrestled with the animal, and an explosive and excitable police chief and his capable and human captain who try to calm the public in face of an escaped tiger.

Eleven actors, six of whom have dual roles and one handling three, give memorable characterizations. I specially enjoyed Michael J. Hume's hiccoughing Nimmo, one of Seyfang's tasters, listening to the birdsong, and willing to share his thermos and give Tracy money to buy chocolates for his girl. Later he appears as Dr. Rudolph Pingitzer, the urbane psychiatrist, amusing us with his childish curiosity. Linda Alper scores as the socially ambitious Mrs. Seyfang who virtually rules the "roast," and then as "On the air" Betty Olivetti, snappily commenting on the news of the day. She wears a pretty perky green ensemble (the costumes by Deborah M. Dryden are right on, as usual). I found David Kelly's Officer Earl Huzinga an affecting portrayal as he narrates his experience at a circus. He always seems to touch the heart.

One of the big scenes involves Miriam A. Laube as Viola Luthy. She's a lady in red and the mother of Laura and once was queen of a chocolate pageant. She encounters Tracy by accident and plies him with the chocolates he had bought for her daughter. Delicious! The tiger of Rene Millan is powerfully projected, particularly at times in his animalistic postures, and in his "Luna, Luna" song or "Tiger's Jive." Nell Geisslinger, the tigress, is utterly alluring and sensuous. Jeremy Peter Johnson as Tracy, in his first performance with OSF, gives it his all and displays great assurance and physicality. Laura Morache as Laura Luthy, the light of his life, is his attractive partner.

William Saroyan (1908-1981), the Armenian flame from Fresno, gained a reputation for his short stories, such as "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze"(1934); his novel, "The Human Comedy"(1943); and his plays, such as the one-act "My Heart's in the Highlands"(1939) and "The Time of Your Life." The latter won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize but Saroyan declined to accept it. Critic Brooks Atkinson aptly defined it as "a prose poem in ragtime."

The buoyant Saroyan, five days before his death, told the San Francisco bureau of the Associated Press the words he wanted printed in his obituary: "Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?"

Now what, indeed? Is "Tracy's Tiger" Broadway-bound? It closes in Ashland on October 28.