What's Happening in East Bay Theater 

Our critics weigh in on local theater.

Bye Bye Birdie -- This 1960 nostalgia piece remains a popular staple on the community circuit despite being less a rock musical than an antirock musical, set in the mythical good old days when rock 'n' roll was something new and scary and bewildering. Pleasanton Playhouse's spirited production helps demonstrate why, capturing some of the humor around the prepackaged sensation (and Elvis clone) Conrad Birdie. The principals sing well for the most part, and dance even better, but the ensemble choruses could stand to be tightened considerably (aside from "We Love You Conrad," which is actually supposed to be grating). The big dance numbers are impressively solid (kudos to choreographer Christina Lazo), and Ron Gasparinetti's set of brightly colored geometric shapes is almost as lively. -- S.H. (Through January 29 at Amador Theater; PleasantonPlayhouse.com or 925-462-2121)

Cabaret -- Ah, the holidays. Time for familiar music, wholesome cheer, nudity, politics, simulated sex, and dripping blood. At least at the Ashby Playhouse, where the Shotgun Players once again resist the Dickensian compulsion by staging Masteroff, Kander, and Ebb's debauched Cabaret through the end of the year. Clifford Bradshaw has come to Weimar Berlin to write his great novel, a task at which he fails miserably once the boisterous, demanding Sally Bowles trips into his life and blithely turns everything upside down. -- L.D. (Through January 29 at the Ashby Stage; ShotgunPlayers.org or 510-841-6500.)

Cirque Do Somethin' -- How many ways can you put on a hat? Unique Derique, clown and body percussionist, can put on a hat repeatedly without doing it the same way twice. Derique McGee is a menace to the repose of headwear everywhere. Paired with the wild-haired, woebegone Mr. YooWho (Moshe Cohen), it's not just hats but noses, trash bags, yoga, and children from the audience who get the full clown treatment in the Marsh Berkeley's production of Cirque Do Somethin'. The combination yields an hour that enchants children while keeping their adult minders engaged. -- L.D. (Through January 21 at the Marsh Berkeley; TheMarsh.org or 800-838-3006.)

Walking the Dead -- Set at the memorial service for a female-to-male transsexual, Walking the Dead sure doesn't look as if it's going to be much fun. But Keith Curran's ensemble work is witty, surprising, and dense with meaning; the story is complex enough to stand up to repeated viewings, and the theatre Q interpretation is funny enough to make that thought palatable, even if there is some heartrending second-act violence. In the messily gorgeous interactions that unfold between family and loved ones, a larger picture emerges. Although Walking has many of the same elements of so many gay-themed shows, it moves past the dull sameness of so much queer theater. Too much queer theater is neophytic and wooden, and yet it's not judged by the same standard as regular theater because to do so would be politically incorrect, a situation the AIDS crisis did not help. In an effort to create noble characters, too many gay-themed plays do not yet let them be real. So audiences are forced to sit through earnest works with one-dimensional characters who are often sick, sarcastic, or some combination thereof and written solely to either move a plot or prove a point. Not so Walking the Dead, the funniest play about some deadly serious subjects imaginable. -- L.D. (Through Jan. 29 at the Berkeley City Club; TheatreQ.org or 510-326-8197.)

Walkin' Talkin' Bill Hawkins -- W. Allen Taylor's one-man show about searching for the father he never knew, the first black disc jockey in Cleveland, shows considerable polish, funny and poignant in all the right places. Directed by Gloria Weinstock from an earlier version helmed by Ellen Sebastian Chang, the production beautifully incorporates old R&B and jazz hits as well as slides and radio clips of father and son. Though Taylor's jive-talking, fictional DJ alter ego the Kid grates a bit, the way he embodies various people on his journey is particularly impressive, from himself as a young boy to various acquaintances of his father's to the mother who withheld his father's identity until it was too late to know him. -- S.H. (Through January 28 at the Marsh Berkeley; TheMarsh.org or 800-838-3006.)

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