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Theater Review : Sci-Fi, Musicals Carry On a Doomed 'Romance'

November 01, 1994|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — If you want to get an idea how desperate the musical form has become, hie thee to Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse where the Alan Menken-David Spencer-Alan Brennert science-fiction musical "Weird Romance" is rearing its extremely odd head.

Two extremely odd heads, actually, since "Weird Romance" consists of two distinct stories: the first about how the good soul of a homeless woman is zapped into a beautiful female body and turned into a star in the year 2061; the second about a hologram scientist who finds his lab visited by a woman come back from the dead.

Think of it as two variations on the notion of the ghost in the machine. It sounds interesting, and you can sense the makers' wheels spinning as they try to bring the musical into the future.

Unlike the similarly twinned two-act musical, "Romance/Romance," Menken (the late composer of "Little Mermaid"/"Beauty and the Beast"/"Aladdin" fame) and lyricists-book writers Brennert and Spencer fail to link the two tales meaningfully.

A similar high-tech surface isn't enough, and the theme that people in the future will fall in love just like we do isn't enough either. Indeed, the pairing only points out each act's individual thinness.

The second, "Her Pilgrim Soul" (based on a Brennert short story and set on "the day after tomorrow") is by far the most cohesive, even with the emotional goo we must wade through. Kevin (Bil Barratt) is so absorbed by his hologram research that he leaves his wife Carol (Rosemary DeYoe) floundering at home. (Why she's floundering without a real life of her own is another, unexplored matter.)

Kevin's loyal assistant, Daniel (Bradley Miller) first notices the uninvited appearance of Nola (Tisha BellantuoniQ) on the hologram screen, and Kevin eventually realizes that she has come from the dead to teach him about love's value.

*

This is a time-traveling romance in the lab, with some timeouts for an amusing tune by Daniel (Miller puts his heart and voice into "Need to Know") and some time-consuming subplots.

The tunes blend a gentle warmth with Sondheim-influenced adult concerns of life passing by (especially "Pressing Onward, Moving Forward"), and though Barratt tends to freeze up in the big emotional moments ("You Remember"), Bellantuoni carries the tale with terrific conviction.

It's especially terrific when you consider that Bellantuoni must stay within a booth and behind a scrim meant to simulate a hologram screen (uneasily designed by Shawn Fidler).

*

Sadly, it's a very different story in Act I, titled "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" (based on James Tiptree Jr.'s short fiction). Because director John Massey Jr.'s staging is so threadbare, Fidler's white set so ugly and Massey's cast so incapable of singing the rocking tunes, there's no fair way to judge Menken's work.

What is for sure is that Brennert's and Spencer's book is poorly warmed-over Orwell and Mary Shelley, depicting a homeless woman (DeYoe) charming the scientist (Miller, again as the lovable techie) at the lab of big, bad GTX Corp. What GTX does, exactly, is never clear, except that it seems to promote pop stars, with Mr. Isham (Barratt) at the helm.

DeYoe's kind soul, hot-wired into the body of Glory Dei Gray as pop star Delphi, sets the stage for a silly "Frankenstein" variation. Isham's bitter son, Paul (Ron McCoy), falls for Delphi, who inexplicably is electrically punished for returning his love.

As hackneyed as the plot becomes, Spencer's lyrics are worse, definitively proving that you can't rhyme demographics and not sound kitschy. The cast is instructed to ignore the kitsch, and play things seriously--which only adds to the kitsch.

The singing, when it's not flat, is drowned out by the backstage band and Todd Perry's pounding drums. The story's intended high-tech look is given Vegas gloss on a limited budget by costumer Laurie Holden.

The future (of musicals) is not looking bright.

* "Weird Romance," Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Nov. 20. $8.50-$15. (714) 650-5269. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. Isham/Kevin: Bil Barratt

Joe/Daniel: Bradley Miller

Nola Tisha: Bellantuoni

P. Burke/Carol: Rosemary DeYoe

Delphi/Susan: Glory Dei Gray

Zanth/Johnny: Lee Childers

Paul/George: Ron McCoy

Shannara/Rebecca: Moira Nash

Director/John: Christopher Spencer

A Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse production of the musical by Alan Menken, David Spencer and Alan Brennert. Directed by John Massey Jr. Set: Shawn Fidler. Lights: Brian Jackson. Costumes: Laurie Holden. Choreography: Kimber Jacobs. Sound: Jenson Crawford.

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