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Looking for Some Flair in 'Fashion' at the Alex

July 25, 1994|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Is fashion an "agreement between certain persons to live without their souls?" Or is it "what puts ginger into the meatloaf of life?"

The revised 1974 musical now at the Alex Theatre raises this question. If you're looking for an answer, best go to Barney's.

The Beverly Hills Women's Dramatic Society has gathered--in sequins, no less--in a posh drawing room to rehearse a new musical based on an 1845 social satire by Anna Cora Mowatt. The women play all the parts, but in this production they make an exception for their ascotted director, who plays the piece's villain, Count Jolimaitre (Frank Ferrante). Why, I'm not sure.

Their show opens with a social victory we assume this group can relate to: a lady has landed a rich husband. In the first, catchy tune, the chorus at first whispers what will become a joyous refrain: "Charge it . . . to Mrs. Anthony Tiffany!"

Perhaps the parallels between Beverly Hills and the world of Mrs. Anthony Tiffany are too obvious to belabor, and that is why "Fashion's" book writer/director Anthony Stimac provides no link between them.

Cut to 20 years later, and the very grand Mrs. Anthony Tiffany (Mary Jo Catlett) still cannot pronounce conservatoire , despite a French maid (she nails "err," though). To her infinite delight, her sultry daughter, Seraphina, (Jenifer Chatfield) is being wooed by the Count (hiss!), an obvious cad and impostor. Of course, Mrs. Tiffany's thirst for fashion has ruined the financial affairs of Mr. Tiffany (Christina Saffran), who pins his hopes for Seraphina on an extortionist who could save his ruined estate. Add to this an innocent orphan (sung by the powerhouse of virtuous sopranos, Dale Kristien), a mysterious benefactor, several servants and a colonel, and you've got a houseful of cliches on which to build a musical.

A show within a show is usually a good idea, particularly if it's a musical put on by amateurs--this mitigates any amateurishness in the acting or dancing. It can't help, however, a paper-thin book, which never even attempts to provide a runway from which the songs can take flight.

Charming, featherweight musicals, such as "Crazy for You," or "Me and My Girl," require an embrace of their frivolity and a semblance of real, human emotion on which to hang a pretty ballad. "Fashion's" frivolity is a clumsy, winking one, and the show has no emotion to spare for its stock characters. When a mysterious, elderly gentleman named Trueman (Henriette Valor) sings "A Life Without Her" for his lost grandchild, one can only think, "Who are you and why are you telling me this?"

Under Stimac's direction, the acting ranges from terrible to solid, with good performances by Saffran, who has a bright voice, Chatfield, funny as a spoiled girl who keeps her motivation to herself, and Kristien, who has that orphan thing down right. She's Lillian Gish with a set of pipes. Frank Ferrante is still playing Groucho (as he did in the shows "Groucho: A Life in Revue" and "Animal Crackers"), and that makes as much sense as anything else onstage here.

The pleasant score has lyrics by Steve Brown (we'll forgive him the line about the meatloaf, which may be a parody of a Jerry Herman lyric in "Mame") and music by Herman's longtime musical director, Don Pippin. (Perhaps unconsciously, Pippin fudges his bio a bit by leaving out the words as musical director and making it sound as if he wrote "A Chorus Line," "Oliver!," and several other shows.)

Lauren Bacall, Alexis Smith and Nancy Wilson have each worn Neil Bieff's clothes, but if the costumer had put them all onstage together, they would have clashed. He adorns this cast of nine variously sized ladies in an array of lengths, styles and colored sequins (why are they wearing sequins to a rehearsal, even in Beverly Hills?) that jangles the nerves.

Some might say it's better not to ask niggling questions about a show designed only to give a little pleasure. (Why is the French maid dancing with the guests during the grand-ball scene, anyway?) But the best-made pieces of fluff, those worth adoring and seeing again, stand up to their own logic, however slim. "Fashion" is a copy of the real thing.

* "Fashion," Alex Theatre, 216 North Brand Blvd . , Glendale, Wednesday-Saturday, 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Ends Aug . 7. $10-$42. (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours.

Elkin Antoniou Edwina/Frankson

Mary Jo Catlett Evelyn/Mrs. Pearl Tiffany

Jenifer Chatfield Rita/Seraphina

Frank Ferrante Richard/Count Jolimaitre

Marjory Graue Kim/Col. Howard

Dale Kristien Marion/Gertrude

Lorna Patterson Jean/Millinette

Christina Saffran Pat/Mr. Anthony

Henriette Valor Nan/Adam Trueman

Marcia Wallace Suzanne/Joseph Snobson

Produced by Theatre Corporation of America in association with Pasadena Playhouse Presentations, Inc. Music by Don Pippin. Lyrics by Steve Brown. Book and direction by Anthony Stimac. Choreographed by Louis Englund. Lighting by Kevin Mahan. Sets by Gary Wissmann. Costumes by Neil Bieff. Sound by Frederick Boot. Production stage manager Jill Johnson.

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