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THEATER REVIEW : Novelty Songs Buoyed by Performers' Lunacy : Lobero retrospective has good-natured appeal, but overall concept doesn't leave much room for emotional range.

August 11, 1994|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The "Crazy Words, Crazy Tunes" referred to in the title of this amiable revue at the Lobero Theatre were compiled from the upbeat novelty songs that helped keep American minds off their troubles during the Great Depression and World War II.

The accent is definitely on diversion rather than turbulence in Milt Larsen and Gene Casey's musical anthology, a goofy, frenetically paced evening of songs and shtick affectionately performed by four singers and a pianist.

The whirlwind retrospective hits on more than 75 songs from the 1920s, '30s and '40s, although not all are performed in their entirety--often just a few lines in a medley, which keeps the momentum brisk.

At its best, this self-described "song smorgasbord of would-be garbage that turned into gold" is buoyed aloft by the inspired lunacy of its performers.

William Ackey, in particular, is a nonstop dynamo of high-energy abandon--no surprise to Lobero Theatre regulars who recall his rubber-limbed dance with a dummy in the 1991 Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera revival of "Singin' in the Rain." Not only does Ackey make his first-rate singing and dancing seem effortless, but he even supplies the hilarious Spike Jones-style sound effects in a spectacular rendition of "Cocktails for Two."

Although nowhere near as sprightly, Lloyd Pedersen uses more refined comic irony as an effective counterpoint to Ackey's ebullience.

In the lioness's share of the female singing parts, Mary Gillis proves an agreeable presence, but often brings near-operatic precision and finesse to material that would be better served with a good belt. She comes into her own, however, with her brassy delivery in one of the show's high points, the bluesy "One Meat Ball."

Director Pamela Hall's staging embodies the frivolous mind-set of the songs--like having the cast pound out percussion on their stools for "Jungle Drums." Hall herself also appears to deliver some loopy solos, like the tongue-twisting "Where Did Robinson Go With Friday on a Saturday Night?"

Dale Phillips provides the piano accompaniment.

Despite its good-natured appeal, however, the show's overall concept doesn't leave much room for emotional range. At times, the creators get carried away by their own cleverness, especially when trying to shoehorn diverse selections into medleys linked by a common theme--the "What's in a Name" pastiche of songs with women's names, then men's, in their titles seems interminable.

"Crazy Words, Crazy Tunes" is the kind of no-frills production best suited to small, intimate venues and loses some of its charm to the expanse in the larger Lobero Theatre. Ventura County patrons accustomed to the lavish production values of the Lobero's previous tenants, the Pasadena Playhouse and the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera, are likely to be disappointed unless they calibrate their expectations accordingly.

It's a ways to travel for a pretty specialized evening, but anyone crazy about the songs of that bygone era will find these "Crazy Words, Crazy Tunes" worth the commute.

Details

* WHAT: "Crazy Words, Crazy Tunes."

* WHERE: Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St., Santa Barbara.

* WHEN: Through Aug. 19. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.; Aug. 19 at 8 p.m.

* COST: $17.50.

* ETC.: For reservations or information, call (800) 963-0761.

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