Paper ranks among humanity’s most ubiquitous, yet humble inventions. But in the minds of solo performer Ennio Marchetto and his design partner Sosthen Hennekam, it becomes the stuff of dreams – two-dimensional costumes that clothe over 50 celebrities in his clever nostalgic production. Mind you, this isn’t like routine printer paper, but uniquely-painted, industrial-strength stock that becomes the basis for paper art on steroids, contributing to a result of great hilarity.
“Ennio: The Living Paper Cartoon” plays at Club Fugazi, a generous gift by the family of the same name to the Italian community of North Beach early in the 20th century. Formerly the home of the world’s longest running music (and comedy) revue, “Beach Blanket Babylon,” it is the perfect setting for this production. Like its predecessor in the venue, it doesn’t aim for anything serious, and having a drink or two along with the nightclub-type entertainment totally fits the bill.
In a fast-moving 60 minutes, mime comic Ennio provides cleverly curated cartoon characterizations of celebrities and lip syncs to songs, mostly recorded by the people portrayed. The music is the songbook of our lives (if you’re middle aged or older!), including rock-and-roll, pop of various sorts, and rap.
Actually, this evolving concept has run for over 30 years in more than 70 countries, accumulating a number of local awards and a Drama Desk nomination for its Off Broadway run. The show catalogs over 150 musical skits and associated costumes, and a mix-and-match selection takes place in organizing for each performance location, which creates continuing logistical challenges for soundtracking, costume sequencing, and, of course, remembering the skit order and all of the associated lyrics.
Each vignette requires a different outfit, resulting in frantic changes. An occasional “wardrobe malfunction” occurs, but nothing of consequence, certainly not as titillating as Janet Jackson’s at the Super Bowl – although this performer does get a little naughty from time-to-time. Some costume changes are done in the dark. Many are on the fly, with Ennio wearing multilayered, tearaway constructions. At times, the revelations seem like pulling rabbits from a hat. Perhaps the most clever onstage transformation is when Queen Elizabeth II morphs into a different Queen – a toothy Freddy Mercury.
All of the routines are laughter producing, and you’ll know the words to most of the songs. Everyone will have their own favorites. I particularly liked “I Got You Babe,” in which Ennio portrays both Sonny and Cher in a double decked costume. In another, the performer’s face fits into the painting of “Mona Lisa” to the music of “I’m your Venus.” Also, he does a funny Adele medley that keeps getting disrupted by a phone call from Lionel Richey, as well as a windblown bowsprit scene of Kate Winslet in the movie “Titanic” with Celine Dion singing “My Heart Will Go On.” But there are funny depictions and wonderful songs from Elvis, Barbra Streisand, Beyonce, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Tony Bennett, Marilyn Monroe, and many more icons. In many of those representations, Ennio nicely captures the gestures and other trademarks of the artists especially well, from Tina Turner’s shimmy to Charlie Chaplin’s wobbling Tramp.
Honoring his Italian heritage, Ennio does go highbrow with music from four operas, but while the music may appeal more to the intellect, the performances certainly do not, and will be enjoyed by those who are not opera buffs. Numbers are from Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Bizet’s “Carmen,” Brecht/Weill’s “Happy End,” and a very expressive and emotive aria, “Un bel di,” from Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”
In all, this production provides a fast-paced and unique reminiscence that still leaves time for a late dinner or snack in North Beach. Have a good evening.
“Ennio: The Living Paper Cartoon,” created by Ennio Marchetto, plays at Club Fugazi, 678 Beach Blanket Babylon (or Green) Street, San Francisco, CA through February 5, 2023.