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THEATER REVIEW : Upbeat Music a Drag on 'The Goodbye Girl' : Lobero Theatre production has uplifting moments, helped mostly by Tori Ponder's stellar lead performance.

November 17, 1994|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Homegrown musical theater once again resounds through Santa Barbara's Lobero Theatre, which spawned the enormously popular Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera a decade ago.

This time around, the songs have a more up-to-date focus as the Contemporary Music Theatre of Santa Barbara initiates its first full season with the West Coast Premiere of "The Goodbye Girl."

Adapted from Neil Simon's comedy of the same name, it's about unlikely opposites trading insults as they're forced to share a New York apartment.

Something about the goofy schmaltz of the original play and movie led Simon and his co-conspirator, composer Marvin Hamlisch, to conclude that a musical adaptation was a good idea.

What they churned out was an innocuous and unmemorable bit of fluff that nevertheless has its share of uplifting moments.

Most of these are made possible by a notably sharp and effecting performance by Tori Ponder in the title role. Under the healing influence of blossoming romance, her Paula convincingly grows from brittle, sarcastic pessimist to an admirably mature, self-reliant person capable of giving and receiving love.

It's not a smooth transition, mind you--the road zigzags through the neurotic twists and turns that establish this as a "contemporary" musical. As Paula teeters between insulated loneliness and taking risks with her feelings, Neil Simon's masterful knack for mining trendy currents is clearly evident.

Yet many of the satirical barbs that helped establish Simon as "phrasemaker to the stars" are blunted in Hamlisch's score, relentlessly upbeat pop reminiscent of a "Love, American Style" soundtrack. Musical director David Potter faithfully reproduces every Bubblicious note.

David Zippel's lyrics (uncredited in the program) try to marry this musical mush with Simon's signature cleverness ("My built-in woman's radar only zeros in on zeros"), and Ponder somehow manages to make it appealing.

But while Ponder's Paula is a delight, Craig Woolson is woefully miscast as Elliot, the mantra-chanting, guitar-strumming actor who worms his way past her defenses.

Elliot's eccentricity goes no further than sporting a good-natured grunge look, yet we're expected to believe he's really a gifted actor forced to commit professional suicide in an off-off-Broadway production reinterpreting Richard III as an Elizabethan Tinker Bell.

His phenomenally bad play-within-a-play worked fine in its original context, but the satire is way too literary and specialized here. On the sprightly, precocious side, Alexandra Currie as Paula's clear-sighted daughter scores high marks for dialogue, though some of the role's singing range proves elusive.

Director/choreographer Michele Spears is committed to presenting the complete "Goodbye Girl" experience--all two hours and 40 minutes of it. But there just isn't enough in this flimsy vehicle to warrant more than a two-hour run.

Still, die-hard Neil Simon fans might feel differently. The only objective criteria for judging a show like this is to count the number of times you check your program to see how many songs are left. I hope you get better results than I did.

Details

* WHAT: "The Goodbye Girl."

* WHEN: Through Nov. 27, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays.

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

* HOW MUCH: $16.50-$18.50.

* FYI: For reservations or further information, call 963-0761.

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