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STAGE REVIEW : 'Blame It on the Movies' Is Music to the Film Buff's Ear

January 20, 1988|ROBERT KOEHLER

"It's not the movies / It's the music that survives all our lives." That's the sentiment and statement that concludes "Blame It on the Movies: The Reel Music of Hollywood," a zesty, David Galligan-directed revue of movie music from the '40s to the present at the Coast Playhouse.

Film buffs may have some real problems with this particular lyric by Billy Barnes (who wrote the original music and lyrics which act as a bridge between segments), but at this point the audience is convinced that much movie music is the equal of Broadway's best.

This is due in part to the music selections by Barnes, Galligan and musical director/arranger Ron Abel, and in part to Galligan and his high-octane ensemble--Bill Hutton, Christine Kellogg, Michelle Nicastro, Anne Marie Runolfsson, David Ruprecht, Barbara Sharma, Timothy Smith and Patty Tiffany.

They craftily nudge (but never push) songs and words originally written for a sound track over into the zone of theater. While we might have first heard Henry Mancini's "Two for the Road" as effective buttressing for images, it becomes a mini-drama for two lovers at the Coast--especially with the libidinous passion Hutton and Nicastro put into it.

What "Blame It on the Movies" delivers, above and beyond singing that is almost always exceptional, is an ever-moving diorama of characters and moods. This is what many object to in revues: the compulsion to pack as much material into two hours as is humanly possible, to mix the happy with the sad like the manic turning on and off of a light switch.

The first act, which covers the '40s and '50s, skirts dangerously close to this trap. Sharma does a funny bit about a woman taking Arthur Murray dance lessons, and we know it will be followed by something serious (it is: "In Love in Vain," by Runolfsson), which will then be followed by something even sillier (it is: a medley of "Jungle Love," "A Full Moon and an Empty Heart," "Moon Over Burma" and "Road to Morocco" by Sharma, Ruprecht and Smith). But, like all good revues, nobody sticks around too long, every bit tops the preceding one, and the silliness is, well, quality silliness. You have to admire a tune with such lines as, "Like Webster's Dictionary / We're Morocco bound."

They don't write 'em like that anymore, as Galligan and company would agree (they do tend to favor older tunes). But they would add that the more recent tunes are just different, not worse. That comes through in the second act, a large chunk of which is devoted to Oscar-nominated songs that lost. Listen to such recent losers as Burt Bacharach-Hal David's "Alfie," which lost to "Born Free" in 1966, or Mancini's "Whistling Away the Dark," which lost to "For All We Know" in 1970. Runolfsson belts out the former as if her life hung in the balance, while Sharma caresses the latter like Blossom Dearie. Whatever the approach, they are majestic songs.

In fact, including more Bacharach-David numbers might have better balanced old and new material. Harry Warren's work, for example, receives a generous exhibition here, but it's not going to make us forget "The Look of Love," which was nominated and lost, or "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," which won.

On the other hand, we may miss a version of "Stormy Weather" or Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," but this isn't the right group to do jazz or rock 'n' roll. The selections, big on ballads and showstoppers, are generally tailor-made for this ensemble, giving each singer some real star-turns. Tiffany nearly stops everything with her atom-smashing rendition of "Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet," and Hutton romantically accents "Laura." They carve out real characters with almost no time to do it, and they switch masks with ease.

The smoothest switching of all belongs to Hutton, Runolfsson, Kellogg and Smith, who dance to choreographer Larry Hyman's witty satire on a screening of "A Man and a Woman." It encapsulates what the show is really about, which is how the movies have changed us. Even Hyman's other, ultra-Expressionist dance interlude based on Franz Waxman's score for "A Place in the Sun" is about this. Galligan's fleecy production, greatly augmented by Michael Gilliam's lights, Bonnie Stauch's costumes and Jon Gottlieb's sound, and less so by John McDaniel's somewhat clunky band, is about how theater can change and revivify a movie memory. A good point to make at Oscar time.

Performances are at 8325 Santa Monica Blvd . on Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., indefinitely. Tickets: $20; (213) 650-8507.

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