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Good 'News!' Gets Jump on Yesterday : The exuberant Starlight cast pulls off the old-fashioned song-and-dance extravaganza in the area premiere of the updated 1927 musical.

September 01, 1993|NANCY CHURNIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — Even as Broadway is rediscovering the pleasures--and financial rewards--of putting a fresh coat of greasepaint on such oldies but goodies as "Guys and Dolls," regional theaters are also taking a new look at old staples.

For 48 years, San Diego's Starlight Musical Theatre has made a career of doing old-fashioned musicals the old-fashioned way. Now with "Good News!," the West Coast premiere of a new version of the 1927 musical, the company is trying to make this rarely done piece work for contemporary audiences.

Wayne Bryan, who masterminded the new script with director Mark Madama for a premiere earlier this year in Wichita, Kan., put some flesh on a skimpy story and, best of all, threw in more than half a dozen classic songs from other shows of the time, including "Button Up Your Overcoat" from "Follow Thru" (1929) and "You're the Cream in My Coffee" from "Hold Everything" (1928).

But despite promises of clearer character motivation and streamlined action, "Good News!" is still essentially a nostalgia-fest, one of those shows that is mostly about finding excuses for the cast to sing and dance.

The good news about the Starlight production, which continues through Sunday at the Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park, is that it does sing and dance exuberantly--thanks to a fine cast. But it overstuffs the first act by about 40 minutes and when it does drag, the story, which never lifts itself above predictability, does nothing to save it.

"Good News!" is the story of college football star Tom Marlowe (Allan Rust), who may have to miss the big Tait College game because he failed his astronomy exam. Tom has a rich girlfriend, Pat (Christine Phelps), whose allegiance to him hangs on how well he does at the game.

Pat gets her poor-but-smart cousin-on-scholarship Connie (Kim Huber) to tutor Tom for a makeup exam that, if he passes, will allow him to play. Connie helps him pass, they fall in love, but Tom finds it hard to break up with Pat, whose father has promised a lot of money to Tait if Tom wins the game.

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Then there are the subplots. One tells of the renascence of an old love affair between Prof. Charlotte Kenyon (Patti Goodwin), the astronomy professor who fails Tom and Bill Johnson (George McDaniel), Tom's coach. The other is the tale of Babe O'Day (Rachelle Ottley) who keeps trying to leave football star Beef Sanders (Joshua Patrick) for the nerdy, always-on-the-bench quarterback Bobby Randall (Robert Loftin).

The actors, who play and freeze the action gallantly under a series of low-flying airplanes at the open-air theater, manage to be ingratiating without being cloying.

The actresses are particularly fine, with one of the show's highlights being a number by Goodwin, Ottley and Huber--"Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries." In particular, Ottley is a terrifically sexy dancer who augments the flapper style with swirls and glides of mesmerizing fluidity.

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While co-directors and choreographers Don and Bonnie Ward need to trim the first act and quicken or cut some of the banter, the dancing is smooth and sharp from such large numbers as "The Football Drill" to the small, clever pleasures of the Bobby/Babe duet "Never Swat a Fly."

Peggy J. Kellner's 1920s costumes add to the fun, but there's a washed-out look to Charles O'Connor's cartoonish sets under Gregory Allen Hirsch's lighting that saps the show of needed color. Still, most of the news in "Good News!" is--if not great--definitely good.

* "Good News!," Starlight Bowl, Balboa Park, San Diego. Thursday-Sunday, 8 p.m. Ends Sunday. $7-$30, with 25% discounts for students and children. (619) 544-7827 or (619) 278-TIXS. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

Patti Goodwin: Prof. Charlotte Kenyon

Kim Huber: Connie Lane

George McDaniel: Coach Bill Johnson

Allan Rust: Tom Marlowe

Joshua Patrick: Beef Sanders

Ole Kittleson: Pooch Kearney

Christine Phelps: Pat Bingham

Rachelle Ottley: Babe O'Day

Robert Loftin: Bobby Randall

A Starlight Musical Theatre production. Book by Laurence Schwab, B.G. De Sylva and Frank Mandel. Words and music by B.G. De Sylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson. Adapted by Garry Marshall. New musical arrangements by Craig Barna. Additional orchestrations by Patti Wyss, Ed Cionek and Laura Berquist. New lyrics by Wayne Bryan. Directed and choreographed by Don and Bonnie Ward. Music director-conductor: Lloyd Cooper. Lights: Gregory Allen Hirsch. Sets: Charles O'Connor. Costumes: Peggy J. Kellner. Sound: Mark Ockenfels. Production stage manager: Elizabeth Stephens.

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