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It's Back to the 40's, Deadheads

Published: August 15, 2005

More ambitious than your average jukebox musical, "Shakedown Street" turns a clutch of Grateful Dead tunes, including the title song, into a jazzy jump-blues score for a noir narrative set in the San Francisco Mission District in 1941, decades before patchouli and tie-dye. Sorry, Deadheads: there are no 20-minute guitar solos. There is not even a guitar in the brass-dominated band.

The gambit works remarkably well, on a musical level. Though not quite show tunes, rootsy Dead classics like "Truckin' " and "Scarlet Begonias" settle relatively comfortably into this time warp, and so do ballads - "Stella Blue," "Mission in the Rain." As musical theater, though, "Shakedown Street," part of the New York International Fringe Festival, is all dressed up with no place to go. Some liabilities are technical: the six-piece band often overwhelms even the biggest belters among the large cast, and Joel E. Silver's lighting is rarely sufficient.

Still, most of the problem is with Michael Norman Mann's convoluted libretto, about a raggedy gumshoe (Michael Hunsaker) on a hunt for rare art with connections to California's Spanish missions, which mixes him up with a moll (Alyssa Rae), a corrupt judge (Michael Sheraton) and a laconic cop (Marshall York).

Lyrics by Robert Hunter (who wrote for the Dead) - mostly to Jerry Garcia's music, with additional material by other Dead members and new tunes by Greg Anton - strain to fit the storyline, let alone to be heard. Jeff Griffin's direction moves the action along, but while one is grateful for the music of "Shakedown Street," the show is D.O.A.

"Shakedown Street" runs Wednesday at 2 p.m.; Saturday at 4 p.m.; Sunday at 10 p.m.; and Aug. 25 at 9:30 p.m. at the Village Theater, 158 Bleecker Street, Greenwich Village;(212) 279-4488.

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Photo: Great white way: Lights over Broadway, 1928
Photo: Great white way: Lights over Broadway, 1928