S.F. musical about aging emphasizes funny side
By Woody Weingarten
The Marin County Scope
Published: Wednesday, June 29, 2011 12:39 PM PDT

Marin, a civil grand jury report warned not long ago, faces "a silver tsunami."

But the county's in denial, it continued, and "not prepared" for the almost certain exponential increase in seniors.

Betsy Bennett and Rick Compton don't live in the Bay Area. And if they have no quick fix for the baby-boomer boom hereabouts, they do have a way to cope with the aging process: laughter.

They achieve it through songs in "Assisted Living: The Musical," playing at the Imperial Palace in San Francisco.

They've been so successful, Compton recalls, one really old guy in the audience "used up an entire bottle of oxygen laughing" and had to replenish his supply.

Another time, Bennett chimes in, "we had an elderly woman fall off her chair laughing." No problem: "Somebody from the staff picked her up."

Some Bennett-Compton numbers feature original compositions; others are parodies, borrowing melody lines from familiar oldies such as "Goin' to the Chapel."

All the lyrics are fresh.

The songwriters have collaborated on a dozen musicals over 15 years. In Naples, Fla., where they reside, they perform their own stuff.

"We have sets and props galore," Bennett says. "We do it all - have costumes, will travel."

But in San Francisco, where Bill Castellino directs their hourlong show (which is accompanied by a dim sum banquet), performances star local veterans Bob Greene and Zoe Connor.

Compton, also a keyboardist, points with pride to the diversity of their subject matter. "Sex, drugs, Internet dating, territorial battles - that's what our show's about," he explains.

It also touches on organ donors, falling, AARP, dentures, walkers, Viagra, colonoscopies and plastic surgery,

The musical is billed as "an affectionate tribute to everyone who is growing older, or plans to do so someday" - and playfully asks the question, "What was the question again?"

Speaking of questions, Bennett adroitly skirts one. Her writing partner readily admits how old he is but when she's asked, she replies:

"Rick tells you he's 60. I'm not."

Bennett does admit her theatrical work started quite a while ago - when she was just a toddler.

By age 7, she was performing in her basement. "One of my plays was called 'Devil and Princess,' with one of my sets a cemetery. On the headstones I put my neighbors' names. They didn't take kindly to that. I gave up writing for a while."

She's long admired turns of phrase and turning ideas on their head: Her first parodies were penned in summer camp.

Her favorite number in "Assisted Living" is "Hypochondriacal" - because, she says, it's "clever, funny, very theatrical." Compton's preference is "AARP," a "slightly irreverent history" superimposed on a gospel melody.

This musical, he says, started "purely by accident." A woman in Florida wanted them to do a show but needed its name immediately because "the brochure goes to print next week." While musing, he spied a woman with a walker climbing into a car.

He pulled "Assisted Living" out of the air.

Bennett agreed.

All they needed was to write a funny show to fit the title.

They eventually tested it on friends and family, and then did several rewrites after workshopping it in Naples and New York City.

Both are clear the show's "not about Depends and respirators but how we're viewing ourselves and this stage of life" - reaching a point of "freedom to explore what we want to."

Only once did they insert a solemn tune.

The experiment lasted a single performance. "There were members of the audience in tears," according to Compton, not the desired reaction.

The lack of nonhumorous songs doesn't mean the show is void of gravitas, though. Witness a lyric from the finale: "We're living every moment, loving all we do."

The team works four hours each day, experiencing "a lot of back-and-forthing" - much like a marriage.

He should know. He's been with the same woman 34 years. Bennett, also married a long time, was divorced a few years back.

Both see their target audience beginning at 50, with no top, but "a fair number of younger people" attend, Compton says. "They may start off thinking, 'Oh God, Grandma made me come,' but by the end of the show, they're laughing."

Tender moments also please the duo.

Bennett was particularly gratified by a nursing home resident's warmly clutching her hand after a performance. "Thank you," said the elderly woman. "It's exactly like that - you hit the nail on the head."

But the songwriter's top fan is her 86-year-old mother: "She's seen the show multitudinous times and still loves it."

"Assisted Living: The Musical" will play at the Imperial Palace, 818 Washington St. (at Grant), San Francisco, through July 31. Evening shows at 5 p.m. Sundays, matinees at noon Saturdays and Sundays. All shows include dim sum meals. Tickets: $79.50 to $99.50. Information: 888-885-2844 or assistedlivingthemusical.com <http://assistedlivingthemusical.com>.
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