"Faces," which opened Tuesday at the Mayfair, is a top-of-the-line men-in-drag show. It's a "La Cage aux Folles" restaurant revue without the food; female impersonator Charles Pierce without the wit.
You get 25 musical numbers, beginning with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell singing "Two Little Girls From Little Rock" in body-hugging red sequined gowns (there are plenty of retina-scorching sequins in this show) and ending with the chorus on stage in white tails (with sequin trim) and top hats doing "One," the finale and ultimate show-biz benediction from "A Chorus Line."
In between you hear and see-- among other things--Marlene Dietrich do "Lili Marlene" in a white fur as voluminous as a snowbank; some Julie Andrews numbers from "My Fair Lady" and "The Sound of Music"; Barbra Streisand in "Hello, Dolly!"; a number of hot and stylish Liza Minnelli numbers from "Cabaret" and "New York, New York" and, just before the finale, a number called "This Is My Life," wherein Frankie Kein and Manuel Arte--"Faces' " principal performers and creators--rip off their wigs and impressionist accouterments before on-stage dressing tables and step out in jeans and lumberjack shirts, like Real Men, to sing "This Is Me."
"But who are you?" you reply inwardly. Where's the crisis, or the courage, over making a career of imitating somebody else, as Kein and Arte have done? Does it make trouble in the neighborhood? Does it create friction in the family?
It's the same thing that has sabotaged female impersonator Jim Bailey's own superb act, as though there were some kind of shame or censure over replicating the imagery and style of high-powered glamorous show-biz women. He, and they, in effect, sing "I've Gotta Be Me" but there's no Me for us to deal with, one way or the other. It makes you miss Pierce, whose raucously unapologetic performance says "I am what I do; I'm not what I am. What I am is none of your business. You didn't pay to see that."
Nevertheless, Kein and Arte are formidable impressionists. They offer exactitude without being precious (Kein's Minnelli is dynamite).
"Faces" has been fairly lavishly produced by Larry Spellman and Gerald Roberts. Marta Monteagudo and Peter La Fox are responsible for the staging, Dee Derringer the principal choreography, and they make sure the comely cast keeps it moving although the dancing is in the conventional Broadway chorus mode. Kein and Arte designed the set and Kein did the costumes--brilliantly executed tasks, considering the amount of changes this show requires and the style with which they're made.
It's the production values that make "Faces" a superior show of its type. Kein and Arte are straight-on in their impressions, without the undercurrent of love-hate bitchinessn that gives other classy drag shows their cutting edge. But there isn't any humor here either.
In effect, "Faces" is like a staged highlight film of Great Numbers of the Glamour Queens that have earned canonization in the gay show-biz subculture. The one thing theater has over movies and TV is physical presence, which is erased by "Faces' " lip-syncing. You leave the theater dazzled but empty. The personal, idiosyncratic, unreproducible element of human beings on stage that gives theater its living current has been canned in stereo. Nobody's really singing up there, which gives the impression that nobody's breathing either.
One of the virtues of "Faces" is that it does give you a history of Broadway and movie musicals, however brief and fragmented, whose style has been lost. As your reviewer's companion said on leaving the theater, "Oh well, it made me want to go see 'A Chorus Line.' "
Performances at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and Sunday, Saturday 7:30 and 10 p.m. at New Mayfair Theatre, 214 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; (213) 451-0621. Runs indefinitely.