Theater review: ‘Carry It On’ at Theatricum Botanicum

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What becomes legends most? Not necessarily treating them with respect. “Carry It On,” Theatricum Botanicum’s musical survey of American idealists and activists, has a faultless heart, but its showbiz instincts could use a goosing.

Director-writer Ellen Geer rounds up the usual suspects — among them Harriet Tubman, Walt Whitman, Lincoln, Lillian Hellman and Cesar Chavez — to rouse us with their eloquence, and the ensemble delivers moving versions of the Civil War ballad “Just Before the Battle Mother” and Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching torch song “Strange Fruit.” The famous faces are played straight, although Bill Durham’s Mark Twain injects much-needed irony, and Gerald C. Rivers offers an uncanny impression of Martin Luther King.

Theatricum Botanicum has genuine leftist cred: founder Will Geer protected dozens of blacklisted artists there during the 1950s. But the next generation of Geers might want to kick it new-school. The imperfect but energized “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” seen at the Kirk Douglas in 2008 and now heading for Broadway, rages at the crime of American history by way of teen angst and emo rock ballads. Topanga’s rebels should give themselves permission to turn up the volume too.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

“Carry It On” Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. 4 p.m. Saturdays, no performance Sept. 4; 3:30 p.m. Sept. 5 and 26. Ends Sept. 26. $10-$32. Contact: (310) 455-3723 or Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.