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Theater Reivew : 'No Miracle' Sings With Humor, Emotion

November 05, 1994|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like the AIDS quilt, "No Miracle: A Consolation" is constantly evolving. In 1988, the project consisted of only 12 songs. In the current production at Highways, the number of songs has swelled to 37 and is still growing.

Although this is a work in progress, it is in no way unformed. A song cycle about AIDS, "No Miracle" is a polished and important work by lyricist Philip Littell, who collaborated with Eliot Douglass and a number of other composers on the piece. As Littell's heartfelt response to the AIDS crisis, this is as much diary as drama. Teeming with references about personal friends and fellow artists who have passed on, the cycle is continuously expanding to fit present realities.

And in defiance of grim reality, the show is often triumphantly funny. In "He Never Told Me," a man grouses about his feelings of onerous obligation toward an obnoxious former lover, who once jilted him unceremoniously. "We don't even like him," laments the man, who nonetheless does his duty by his dying acquaintance, concluding that because he is "not dear, but here," he deserves nurturing and care.

Other numbers leave you emotionally floored. In the beautiful "Early Christmas," a mother celebrates the holiday early, poignantly aware that the next Christmas will never come for her child.

Littell, who also performs in the show, co-directed with fellow performer Rob Campbell. Littell and Campbell have amassed a wonderful cast, which besides themselves includes Ellen Geer, Melora Marshall, Michael Bonnabel and Douglass, whose elegant piano accompaniment is the show's backbone. Geer's voice is hardly virtuosic, but despite her vocal limitations, she sells her numbers with the dash of a seasoned chanteuse. Marshall has a pleasantly throaty voice that combines well with her air of complete conviction. The best singer in the show, Bonnabel hits the warbling high notes of an accomplished Irish tenor in the beautiful "The Birds," a thanatopsis about the passing of time that has all the earmarks of a folk classic.

As for Littell, he is a writer of exceptional promise whose songs are alternately urbane and elemental, dripping with sophisticated sarcasm or as stark and simple as a child's nursery rhyme. Part John Donne, part Jacques Brel, Littell is a metaphysical balladeer for our time. Every man's death diminishes him, but his talent grows in proportion to his--and our--grief.

* "No Miracle: A Consolation," Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. Thursdays-Sundays, 8:30. Ends Nov. 13. $12. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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