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SERIOUS--MINDED AND LIGHTHEARTED CHOICES : 'Leave It to Jane': An Old College Try That Nearly Succeeds

July 21, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

Three cheers for "Leave It to Jane." Well, two. Your true "Jane"-ite demands perfection, and George Schaefer's revival for Musical Comedy/L.A. falls short of that.

But compared to "The Boys From Syracuse," the company's opening show at the James A. Doolittle Theatre, it's divine. Let's say that progress is being made.

Students of the American musical should certainly not miss "Jane." This is musical comedy as it was in 1917, with the ensemble sweeping in from the wings for the second chorus of every number, and with the plot ever-ready to be put on hold.

The story, by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, couldn't matter less. Will Atwater beat Bingham in the big game? Will Jane (Michelle Nicastro) be reconciled with her halfback (Chuck Wagner)? Of course. So relax and enjoy the next number.

Jerome Kern wrote the songs. The ballads are fragrant and a little sad. The patter songs tick to a ragtime metronome, without a hint that the Jazz Age is heating up. The choral numbers are particularly mellow in this revival, as if everybody at Atwater were minoring in vocal music. Again, music director Samuel Krachmalnick makes it a show we can listen to with pleasure.

Everybody also does a little bit of dancing--graceful, easy steps that we feel we could probably do. (Kathleen Knapp is the official choreographer, supervised by Onna White.) "Jane" is a peppy show, but it shares its pep, rather than trying to knock the audience out with it.

My major argument with this revival is Jane. Michelle Nicastro had a lovely, vulnerable quality in "Boys From Syracuse," but she plays Jane as a minx.

That's not our Jane, we who fell in love with Kathleen Murray in this role back in the early 1960s at the Sheridan Square Playhouse. (And do so again each time we play the album of that landmark revival, still available.)

Our Jane isn't merely the prettiest and most resourceful girl on campus. She's also a true heroine. It pains her to have to tell fibs so that Billy will stay on campus. But it's got to be done, because if Bingham won the big game--no, the greater good must prevail.

Our Jane is a believer. If Schaefer and Nicastro want to play her as a minx, that's their lookout. But she can't be played as a little minx. Nicastro gave a supporting performance Saturday night, where a star-size one was called for. Conductor Krachmalnick didn't help: The orchestra, which employs the original 1917 orchestrations, often drowned out her voice, at least for those of us in the balcony.

Two other leading roles are underdone as well: Mark Trent Goldberg as an undergraduate with a finger in every pie, and Dana Stevens as a girl who wants to compete with the guys on the playing field. Each performance is on the right track, but neither is there yet.

Wagner's football hero is just right, though: He has authority without throwing it around. Patty Tiffany shines, too, playing Flora, "a prominent waitress." We tend to think of Flora as a bag. Here she'd be a darned fine-looking girl, if only someone would teach her to fix herself up. With Prohibition only two years away, Flora could have a big future as a gun moll.

I also liked John Putch as Flora's current freshman, Bub Hicks, of the Squantumville Hickses. But oddly it's the gray-haired guys who seem to be having the most fun in this college show: Checco, a veteran of the Sheridan Square revival, as the senior Hicks; Michael Tucci as a prissy tutor; Bill Mullikin as Jane's father; Jack Ritschel as Billy's father. The last two roles don't offer much to an actor, but Mullikin and Ritschel play them with such good humor that they come to life anyway.

Roy Christopher's sets make a perfect little toy college out of Atwater, and lighting designer Marilyn Rennagel provides some peachy sunsets. Costumer Alan Armstrong puts the girls in lacy dresses and the men in manly college garb, with the colors ripening in the second act. "Leave It to Jane" isn't perfect, but it's close.

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