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'Rags To Riches': A Poverty Of Wit

March 09, 1987|LEE MARGULIES | Times Staff Writer

"Annie" was bad enough--a saccharin stage musical that became a lead-footed film. Leave it to commercial television not only to imitate its story about a poor orphan girl taken in by a wealthy bachelor, but also to make it six times worse.

Yes, there are six poor orphan girls taken in by a wealthy bachelor in "Rags to Riches," a new series premiering from 8 to 10 tonight on NBC (Channels 4, 36 and 39). It will be seen hereafter on Sundays at 8 p.m.

Six singing orphan girls, we hasten to add. Like "Annie," this is a musical. Only instead of using original compositions, it employs pop songs from the late '50s and early '60s, with the lyrics rewritten to reflect the plot.

Thus Bobby Darin's classic "Dream Lover" becomes "Dream Maker," the girls' ode to their Daddy Warbucks: "You're a dream maker/You can make our dreams come true."

Like everything else about "Rags to Riches," it's brazenly calculated, but it's the one element that works, at least to a point. It's fun to hear the tunes of such rock standards as "Chantilly Lace," "Jailhouse Rock" and "Please Mr. Postman" employed in new ways--sort of like those old comedy records where an interviewer's questions would be answered by lyrics from different songs.

Would that anything else in this enterprise were even half as fresh. As written by Bernie Kukoff and directed by Bruce Seth Green, however, the show seems inspired by another song from that period: Brenda Lee's "Sweet Nothing"--consisting of stock characters, undistinguished performances and a plot as predictable as it is plodding.

Supposedly set in 1961, although you can't tell it by anything except the music, the series casts Joseph Bologna as a rough-edged, self-made millionaire who reads about the six orphan girls in a newspaper and decides to take them in temporarily to improve his image for a pending business deal. Darned if they don't spoil the deal and win their way into his heart anyway.

That a playboy would be able to obtain custody of six young women (they range in age from 7 to 16) by simply sending a car for them is about as likely as Bologna being asked to join in on one of the songs. Guess what?

Portraying the suddenly rich waifs are Kimiko Gelman, Tisha) Campbell, Heidi Ziegler, Blanca DeGarr, Heather McAdam and Bridget Michele. If the scripts for subsequent episodes aren't any better than this, they may soon be singing "Heartbreak Hotel"--over their show's cancellation.

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