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THEATER REVIEW : Spunky Show at Duarte Theater Shows History Really Is Bunk


A few months ago, the Duarte Center Theatre faced financial peril and possible closure. But it has bounced back with a flourish--a musical flourish.

Teaming up with Broadway on Sunset, a Hollywood musical workshop organization that develops original musical theater, the Duarte Center Theatre has unfurled a jaunty, tuneful parody of icons and epochs in American history called "American Twistory."

It's a spunky, audience-friendly show in which six actors (three men and three women) sing, dance and cavort through a zany chronology that spans American culture from the Puritans to the video revolution. In fact, the six performers, with remarkably fast, smooth costume changes, play some 100 characters with 25 musical forays into everything from George Washington to the Depression to Watergate (the latter enlivened by Neil Kaplan dancing a Nixon shuffle to the lyrics of "Disco Dick").

Reverential the show is not. But, under Terry Barto's clickety-clack direction, it's not mean-spirited either. Actually, the production is a retooled revival of the same show that debuted during a two-night run in 1992 at the former Monrovia Center Theater. The run was aborted after the rent came due; theater entrepreneurs and husband-and-wife Mary and Norman Bowman then moved the theater to Duarte last summer.

The Bowmans also have fashioned an adjacent musical space at the Duarte venue where no less than Verdi's opera "La Traviata," with 22 cast members, warbles concurrently with Jazz Age ditties from "American Twistory." Soundproofed walls keep the noises sealed off from one another.

The Bowmans, more than once almost compelled to fold their tent, have marshaled an ambitious community endeavor.

The first "American Twistory" was totally dominated by one startling dancer (Reena Phillips) which this revival doesn't begin to match. The suggestion of a Vegas chorus line is not on this show's mind. The women here, notwithstanding vocal and comedic gifts, look more like housewives who are kicking up their heels on a night out on the town. And there's something very accessible about that.

On the other hand, the show's creators, composer-arranger Kevin Kaufman and lyricist John Everest, have streamlined the show and seamlessly cast it with an unusually balanced ensemble in which each performer is on a solid par with the next.

There may not be a towering performer but the musical revue is smoother. In any event, each player (such as Jennifer Rule in an uncanny look-alike parody of Helen Gurley Brown) enjoys special moments in the brash, sunny proceedings.

One of the freshest numbers satirizes Francis Scott Key as a fledging songwriter (Alan Palmer) auditioning the "Star Spangled Banner" before a hyper, post-colonial song plugger (Steven J. Hornibrook). The promoter trots out an array of studio audition singers to test out the song in their own inimitable style--Frank Sinatra (a right-on Neil Kaplan), Tina Turner (the raucous Catherine Best), Liza Minelli (the "New York, New York"-flavored Penelope Alex) and Dolly Parton (an outrageously bewigged Jennifer Rule).

Sandwiched among much of the knockabout material are outstanding talents in singing and mimicry.

Even when the impressions are cliche targets, such as Hornibrook's Lawrence Welk and Ed Sullivan takeoffs, the execution is sharply accented and earns a smile if not outright laughter.

Costume design by Andrew Otero is rich and whimsical and, on occasion, even stylish, such as the lipstick red, ankle-length coats in the "Women's Revolution" sketch featuring Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem and Helen Gurley Brown in another of the show's better parodies.

The musical never goes beyond the fragmented style of revue to create a musical libretto that gathers shape and momentum as it moves along. And the four-piece band that accompanies the singers often sounded tinny. But the show would have Betsy Ross in stitches.

* "American Twistory," Duarte Center Theatre, 2160 Huntington Drive, Duarte, Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday matinee, 2:30 p.m. Ends April 10. $12-$10. (818) 303-9521. Running time: 2 hours.

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