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California Music Theatre : 'The Desert Song' Opens At The Pasadena Civic

October 12, 1987|DON SHIRLEY

Gary Davis has directed six Southern California productions of "The Desert Song," according to the program for number six, the California Music Theatre staging at Pasadena Civic Auditorium.

By now, he has the venerable Sigmund Romberg operetta down pat. Everything is in its place. Nothing stands out.

Perhaps Davis deserves a medal for persistence. But questions arise: Why would anyone want to see this thing six times, let alone direct it? And why is California Music Theatre, which takes pride in reviving seldom-seen shows, doing one that has apparently been done to death?

This is the one that's set in Morocco in 1927. Little does the world know that the Red Shadow, the dashing leader of the rebel Riffs, is actually the same man as Pierre, weak-kneed son of the French commander.

The standard line on "Desert Song" goes like this: Sure, the book (by Oscar Hammerstein II, Otto Harbach and Frank Mandel) is feeble nonsense. Just concentrate on the melodies. Line up your singers across the stage and let them sing. And give your two vaudeville characters enough room to do their comic shtick.

Davis hasn't departed from this strategy. The comics cavort. But, for most of the evening, the singers file out, sometimes at the most unlikely moments, make their music, then go back into the wings.

One would never guess that a critic of the first London production in 1927 thought "the massed dancing the chief pleasure of the evening." Here, the chorus twirls its parasols and rifles, but there is no massed dancing to speak of, not even in the otherwise pointless harem girl number. No choreographer is credited in the program.

So, does the music save the day? Well, Laurence Guittard does everything right as the Red Shadow/Pierre. Not only does his voice carry well, but he effortlessly differentiates between his characters. When he becomes Pierre, his stalwart baritone vanishes, to be replaced by a reedy, crooner-style sound. He takes his body through a similar transformation. His performance offers a hint of a wink to the audience--probably the best way to handle such tomfoolery.

There isn't as much for the ingenue, Dale Kristien, to do, yet she should project a lot of the sex appeal that's celebrated in the score's primary comedy number, "It." In fact, she should be at the head of the "it" parade. Kristien is not there. More important, her soprano is too small for the space. Stephen Gothold's orchestra competes with her more than it supports her.

Perhaps the highlight of the score is the "Eastern and Western Love" number in the second act. Dan Tullis Jr. and Richard Riffel make lovely sounds in it. But hardly any of their lyrics could be understood from the balcony.

David Ruprecht and Marsha Kramer deliver most of the evening's comedy. These are breezy, loose-limbed performances that might seem old-hat in another context. But here they provide a spark that the production sorely needs.

Nasty Riff to Ruprecht: "Should I slit thy tongue?"

Ruprecht: "If you do, I'll never speak to you again."

Peter Wolfe's sets are literal and elaborate. Pamela Johnson-Gill's costumes are not quite as elaborate as one might expect. Ward Carlisle's lighting ventures further into fantasy, particularly in an evocative purple background for one of the ingenue's pensive solos.

Finally, a question for the program writers: They attribute the (undistinguished) lyrics to Romberg. All other sources credit Hammerstein and Harbach with the words. Which is it?

Performances are at 300 E. Green St., Pasadena, Tuesday through Sunday at 8 p.m., ending Sunday. Tickets: $15-$35; (213) 410-1062 or (714) 634-1300.

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