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THEATER REVIEW : Tommy Tune on the Outside Looking In : He's Quite a Dashing Lead, but 'Stage Door' Doesn't Ignite

June 29, 1995|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

COSTA MESA — "Stage Door Charley," the misnamed new musical starring Tommy Tune, just opened at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on its way to Broadway. The happy-go-lucky Charley, played by Tune, actually cares nothing for the stage door at all. He's a street entertainer--a busker--who happily strums a ukulele for tuppence outside of the tony Garrick Theatre. It's Libby (Darcie Roberts), his street-urchin sidekick, who longs to be bathed in the footlights of the legitimate stage. But with Tommy Tune in the lead, they couldn't go and name the musical for her, now could they? (Note: The producers plan to change the title of this much retitled show to "Buskers," starting with its next stop, Houston.)

Charley falls in love with Libby, only to lose her to the fancy world of the Garrick, a world for which he has no ambition whatsoever. The plot is based on the 1938 Charles Laughton/Vivien Leigh movie "St. Martin's Lane" (in turn based on a novel by Clemence Dane). But where Laughton was a kindly, lumpen sad sack, Tune is a svelte, dashing beau. When he dances, gracefully wrapping his incredible legs around a lamppost, his movements are echoed by 10 other buskers in identical colorfully rakish outfits. Tune's image is everywhere. Laughton's theatrical self-effacement is nowhere to be found.

For the first 20 minutes, in fact, Tune performs only with echoes of himself, first with the buskers--alter egos all--then with a singing marionette (manned by the excellent puppeteer Phillip Huber) who also looks exactly like him. While Tune is otherwise very gracious in sharing the stage and the music with his charming leading lady, his mimeographing of his own image is a bit weird.

The 10 matching buskers sing and dance ably, but, dramatically, they are a disaster. They follow Tune around on stage, taking up much of it, sometimes to echo his feelings of joy or sadness, sometimes to offer him advice. A cumbersome device, their presence keeps us much farther from Charley than we should be. There is no female chorus. One number, which shows Libby performing inside of the Garrick Theatre, cleverly uses dressed-up dummies in lieu of actresses (the staging here bears Tune's directorial stamp, although the show is directed and choreographed by his longtime collaborator Jeff Calhoun).

Tune is winsome and likable, and if he doesn't generate any sexual heat with his leading lady, that makes dramatic sense. He does display some real emotion--after she tells him to get out of her life. Tune barely contains his heartbreak while strumming his little ukulele and singing. At that moment, the show actually threatens to display some depth, but the unfailingly pleasant score, by the brothers Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman ("Mary Poppins"), serves as a buffer to real emotion even as it keeps the evening humming along with busker ease.

For her part, relative newcomer Roberts is a find as a mercenary Eliza Doolittle with siren eyes. Bearing an alluring resemblance to Leslie Caron, Roberts' Libby travels from street urchin to leading lady of the theater without losing her spunk or honesty, even as she sleeps with a string of men to get there.

Calhoun provides her and Tune with a lovely dance in the second act, a dream reunion in which Charley plucks Libby from her new life to dance again with him round the street lamps of London. Aside from a terrific Act One tap number for Tune and the busker boys, the dancing is never overtly rousing but allows Tune to show off his effortless grace.

Also good are Brent Barrett as a self-enamored tenor and especially Robert Nichols and Marcia Lewis as a sweet, older busker couple. He's an amateur ham who constantly quotes Shakespeare. She rolls her long-lashed eyes and asks, exasperated, "Is there no place he didn't put his two cents in?"

Calhoun and set designer Tony Walton provide a busker's eye view of the stage--that is, from outside and behind it. Walton creates a poster-filled, commercial London street that glows with the benign warmth of Charley's world. But they also show us the world that Libby longs for, through that stage door. At one point Roberts presses her body to that door, looking through a crack, her back to the audience. Even in that position, she manages to radiate Libby's desire for what she sees inside. That may be the show's most powerful image.

Oddly, and unlike the film, the musical ends up taking a harsh view of Libby's success and ambition. This is a Draconian position for a musical, a form that traditionally celebrates those two things, above everything else but love. And "Stage Door Charley" is in fact an odd musical; despite sprinklings of charm and verve, it never really ignites. It remains as placid as its hero, content to be merely convivial, outside of the big tent.

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