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THEATER REVIEW : Larger Venue, Same 'Crazy Tunes'

January 14, 1994|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Steve Allen used to read rock lyrics aloud, for comic effect, you could get the impression that the popular songs of previous generations were so much more sophisticated.

*

It ain't necessarily so. Take a gander at "Crazy Words, Crazy Tunes," a lighthearted, lightheaded revue of novelty songs from the '20s, '30s and '40s.

You'll hear "Lookie, lookie, lookie/They call me Cookie" in this wacky songfest, now at the 500-seat Westwood Playhouse after a long run at sub-100-seat theaters in the San Fernando Valley.

At its best, "Crazy Words" revives preposterous little ditties that snap, crackle and pop. These moments make you long for the days of vaudeville.

Then there are other songs that couldn't be redeemed by all the comic exertions in the world--so this is why vaudeville died. Fortunately, the show flits through dozens of songs, so the real stinkers don't linger long.

The program for the show might have been a valuable reference tool (as was the program for a revue of more substantial songs, "Broadway Sings Out," from the same producer). Unfortunately, this one doesn't even include song titles, let alone other information.

At least the narration, written by the show's creators Milt Larsen and Gene Casey, provides slim glimpses of the context of some of these songs. It's spooned out in easygoing doses by crusty-voiced Mary Gillis, whose eyes suggest she's on the verge of a wisecrack even when she's not.

This isn't a show for anyone who's especially sensitive to ethnic stereotypes. But at least narrator Gillis points out that the songwriters didn't always know what they were writing about. With most of these ethnic songs, the breezy format encourages laughs at the expense of the songwriters, not at the groups being stereotyped.

On the other hand, the show veers away from any conspicuously blue material. This show is crazy, but it isn't Dr. Demento.

"Since Henry Ford Apologized to Me"--composed after the auto tycoon said he was sorry for some anti-Semitic slurs, and sung in a heavy Yiddish accent--makes a satirical point. Harold Rome's "Nobody Makes a Pass at Me" takes a dig at Madison Avenue overkill.

Otherwise, this is an evening for just being silly. A cast of four is actively accompanied by pianist Dale Phillips--appropriately enough, at an upright, not a grand.

Director Pamela Hall is also in the cast, but she lets the others have the show's best moments. Hall's small, sweet voice doesn't carry well in the more ramshackle numbers. Her all-black, short-skirted outfit, though garnished with color on several occasions, is too severe and restrained (the otherwise unidentified Diane Ross gets costume credit).

Gillis throws herself into her solos with no inhibitions intact. She sings "To Hear Veronica Play Her Harmonica on the Pier in Santa Monica" with red boa flying.

Lloyd Pedersen swaggers with flair in "I Never Knew Our Romance Had Ended Until You Poisoned My Food," and he also dishes the dirt with the proper relish in "Don't Bring Lulu." In another number, he gets to wear googly glasses--perhaps a first for the Westwood Playhouse?

Eric Leviton's first solo is an overdone caricature of a Gypsy violinist, but he recovers in time to provide many of the show's best goofy faces and sound effects--note his lip-syncing in the imperishable "One Meatball." His singing voice carries better than anyone else's, and his comic timing enriches his spoken gags.

Ron Woodward's set fits well into the spirit of the evening--glittery but cheap, tacky but bright.

* "Crazy Words, Crazy Tunes," Westwood Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave . Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Jan. 23. $20. (310) 208-5454. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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