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Stage Review : 'Sugar' Has Zip Despite A Sour Idea

October 16, 1987|CATHY DE MAYO

"Sugar" is the musical theater equivalent of colorization. Some people just can't leave well enough alone.

Someone decided it was a good idea to take the 1959 film comedy "Some Like It Hot" and fashion it into a stage musical. It wasn't. This 1972 offspring is ponderous where the film is deft and forced where the original is funny.

But despite the forgettable material, the production at Rancho Santiago College has some redeeming features, including plenty of energy and five sure performances in lead roles.

No one has tampered with the plot, which revolves around two guys who dress up in drag and join a female band in order to elude gangsters. Complications arise when both are attracted to the ukulele player, the adorable, hapless Sugar Kane. More complications arise when an eccentric millionaire finds himself attracted to one of the "women."

Logic was never the strong suit of the movie, but the musical doesn't even put up a pretense. Fade to the train station: Joe and Jerry (dressed as women) are desperately trying to catch a train to Florida to escape the hit men pursuing them. So what do they do? Vamp and camp it up on the platform, singing a flamboyant number called "The Beauty That Drives Men Mad." An inconspicuous getaway if there ever was one.

There are the expected jokes about sagging slip straps, padded brassieres and switched wigs, which is not to say that a lot of it isn't funny. Old and predictable perhaps, but still funny, in large part because of the inventiveness of Johnny O'Cullen and Steven Connor as Joe and Jerry alias Josephine and Daphne.

O'Cullen and Connor know how to wring the laughs out of the guys-in-drag gag, but their best work comes later when their characters engage in some soul-searching. It is fun to watch Connor giddily decide he likes being pursued by a millionaire, and he manages to make the unlikely almost plausible. Joe finds himself wrestling with a moral dilemma--or as close as this script comes to a moral dilemma--when he poses as a rich playboy in order to woo Sugar. Guilt and cynicism battle it out in his affecting version of "It's Always Love," and although the outcome is never in doubt, O'Cullen makes the tussle convincing.

Despite the title, the show really belongs to Joe and Jerry. But Sugar is crucial to the story, and Susan Rodgers holds her own amid the onslaught of visual humor. Rodgers is completely winning as Sugar--appealingly vulnerable, dim but not dumb and refreshingly aware of her own weaknesses, which include male saxophone players. Rodgers projects genuine emotion in a script that seems determined to avoid it.

Mary Murphy offers a raucous contrast to sweet Sugar as the misnamed Sweet Sue, the bellowing leader of the band. Murphy displays a comic agility as she makes the instant transformation from backstage bully to cooing on-stage coquette. One bully who doesn't have to bellow is Spats Palazzo, the coolly confident godfather of the gangsters. Richard G. Rodgers is all dapper slickness and fleet feet as Spats, literally tap dancing his way through the role in one of the show's cleverest touches.

The action sputters at first but gains momentum as it moves along. Director Sheryl Donchey places the six-piece orchestra deep upstage, keeping the funny business front and center. The choreography contributes period atmosphere with abbreviated Busby Berkeley effects in the big production numbers.

'SUGAR' A Rancho Santiago College Theatre Arts Department production. Book by Peter Stone, based on the screenplay of "Some Like It Hot" by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. Music by Jule Styne. Lyrics by Bob Merrill. Director Sheryl Donchey. With Mary Murphy, Susan Rodgers, Martin Levy, Johnny O'Cullen, Steven Connor, Bruce Cameron Kale, Richard G. Rodgers, John Bisom, John Merina. Musical director Jimmy Vann. Choreography Pat Carney. Set and lighting design Steven T. Howell. Costume design Karen J. Weller. Plays at 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday; with a 2:30 p.m. matinee Sunday. Closes Oct. 18. Tickets $7; $6 for students, seniors and staff. Phillips Hall, Rancho Santiago College, 17th and Bristol streets, Santa Ana; (714) 667-3163.

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