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THEATER REVIEW

Saying a Modest Hello Again to Simon's 'Goodbye Girl'

February 17, 1996|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Even theaters intent on spoon-feeding their audiences a steady diet of Broadway musicals must take a break now and then from "Godspell" and "Fiddler on the Roof." And there's something to be said for offering a show that isn't so familiar that its songs are emblazoned on every theatergoer's brains along with the national anthem and "Happy Birthday to You."

And so, in the name of novelty, the Theater League presents a "Broadway Musical Hit," as one program bio note untruthfully puts it, that is not and probably never will be overly familiar to anyone except devotees with enough time on their hands to memorize trivia. "The Goodbye Girl," which Neil Simon adapted from his 1977 movie into this slight musical, features modest and much-reprised songs by composer Marvin Hamlisch and the clever lyricist David Zippel (of whom one reviewer said, "They should be forced to write a new musical every year," and, indeed, it feels as though they were forced to write this one).

On Broadway, the show effectively ended the longtime relationship of Simon and director Gene Saks, who was fired, and not even the stars Bernadette Peters and Martin Short could save it from a nonprofitable 5 1/2-month run.

This production--at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza and coming to the Alex Theatre in Glendale on Tuesday--features one great reason to check out the show. That reason is Debbie Shapiro Gravitte in the woefully underwritten title role, an ex-dancer named Paula.

Paula's been dumped by so many men that by the second song ("No More," which she sings beautifully), she has shut down her emotional life, supposedly forever. Forced into hard times, Paula and her precocious 12-year-old daughter Lucy (the appealing Jamie Cronin) must share their New York apartment with an actor from Chicago named Elliot Garfield (Gary Sandy), who's come to New York seeking his fortune in a bizarre production of "Richard III." Two neurotics, one apartment--romance is soon in the air.

The raven-haired Gravitte has a voice both velvety and bright, as well as an earthy presence that makes Peters look uptight and precious. She makes you mourn the fact that there are few new roles for her to conquer. She somehow combines a Bette Midler bawdiness with delicacy. The trouble is, Gravitte's open-hearted confidence does not compute with the whiny Paula, a woman who lacks all self-esteem.

And, thanks to the show's creators, the character's struggle often sounds as if she's reading lines from a brochure. A lyric that asks, "How can I win if I'm not on my side?" is later echoed by a line of dialogue: "I'll be here for me and that's someone I've never been able to count on before."

Elliot, the part that won Richard Dreyfuss an Oscar and lured Short to his Broadway debut, is a nervous, adorable guy who's lovable even when gruff. "He was probably charming at birth," is how the smitten Paula sings it. Why Sandy was cast in this part remains one of the great mysteries of 1996. His flinty eyes and brusque manner were perfect for the sleazy heel he played in "Nite Club Confidential" not long ago in Long Beach. But effortless charm comes as naturally to him as modesty does to Madonna. When he makes moon eyes at Paula over the kitchen table, you half expect her to call 911, and his creepy, pawing gestures at her during a romantic rooftop scene make "The Goodbye Girl" look like a musical about a serial killer. This man should take a tip from Buster Keaton and never, ever smile.

Elliot's disastrous Richard III, which a pretentious Hungarian director (Larry Daggett) has impelled him to portray as a man playing a woman playing a man (don't try to follow this; it doesn't matter) has the funniest line in the show. In the middle of the play, Elliot implores an actor to kill him in the next scene. "But Richard doesn't die till the next act," protests the actor. "Not Richard--me, kill me!" pleads Elliot.

Director Jules Aaron gathers comic steam in this scene, which is fairly funny. Too often the scenes between the lovers go down like flat water that you know is supposed to be fizzy.

* "The Goodbye Girl," Probst Center, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, Today, 2 and 8 p.m. Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. (805) 583-8700, (213) 480-3232, (714) 740-2000. Alex: Tuesday-Feb. 24, 8 p.m.; Feb. 25, 7 p.m.; Feb. 24-25, 2 p.m. Ends Feb. 25. $32.50. Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Jamie Cronin: Lucy

Debbie Shapiro Gravitte: Paula

Timothy Smith: Billy, Hastings

Laura Soltis: Donna

Barbara Roberts: Mrs. Crosby

Gary Sandy: Elliot

Larry Daggett: Mark, Ricky Simpson

With: Amy Bodnar, Julie Connors, Joseph Dean Craig, Kathleen Dawson, Mary Sharon Dziedzic, Suzanne Easter, Tom Hildebrand, Peter Merriweather, Jimmy Peters, Larry Sousa, Marisabel Viramontes, J.R. White.

A Theatre League Production. Music by Marvin Hamlisch. Lyrics by David Zippel. Book by Neil Simon. Directed by Jules Aaron. Choreographer Mark Knowles. Musical director Lloyd Cooper. Sets Bradley Kaye. Lights Kim Killingsworth. Sound Mark Cowburn. Costumes Debbie Roberts. Production supervisor John M. Galo.

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