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Something Old . . . New . . . and 'Blue'

Stages: Behind the modest exterior lurks a superheroic effort by the company to create a fun and fast-paced 'Blue Beetle.'


ANAHEIM — Holy greasepaint! A humble industrial park by day becomes a place for theater at night. And, hold onto your hats now . . . it's terrific! (The theater, that is.)

Watching Stages' production of "The Blue Beetle," Roger Freeman's affectionately clever sendup of comic-book heroes and 1940s America, makes you think in terms of exclamation marks, the way some of Freeman's characters talk.

That's partly because of the sheer infectious style cooked up by Freeman and director Kreg Donahoe, and partly because everything here points to a group that really has its act together.

Yet even when they have a good thing, like they do now, the Stages people keep things going: "Blue Beetle" runs only through this weekend, because a one-act double bill has to be moved in. This, apparently, is how the company has been able to mount 100 productions in just a little more than three years.

So you'd assume that "The Blue Beetle" would look rushed, with the kind of barer-than-barebones production values and under-rehearsed casts that are the bane of so much theater in Orange County. But this show looks nurtured, doted over, thought through.

Take, for instance, the scene changes bridging this tale of soda jerk Dwight Monroe (Joseph Hamblen) and his fight to win the marathon dance contest sponsored by the radio station that produces his favorite superhero show, "The Blue Beetle." The radio chorus girl trio of Fizz, Sparkle and Bubble (the effervescent Melanie Baker, Amber Jackson and Tiina Wiles) dances in and out with scene cards ("It's Time for a Superhero!," "Bad Advice") and makes the show move like a musical.

Dwight is perpetually put-upon, always under the thumb of nasty Jack Grub (Matt Tully), who steals both his dance tickets and his gal, Lana (Kara Knappe). Dwight gradually realizes that even the Blue Beetle (Donahoe)--dressed in regulation superhero spandex and existing only in Dwight's mind--can't save the day. He has to do it himself.

Donahoe's staging jumps between the radio station (where the show is getting beaten up in the ratings about as badly as Dwight is by Jack) and the soda fountain owned by wacky Mr. Niemeyer (a splendid K.C. Mercer, alternating with Scott Haiduc). The pleasure of "Blue Beetle" is the way it revels in this imagined '40s innocence, while showing the undertow of nastiness and thuggery that knows no time.

It's just like a really good serial, only Freeman resolves things, so we won't get a sequel. That doesn't stop us from wanting this cast to return in the same roles. Donahoe is a funny, scrawny, deadpan superhero-who-can't, while Tully uses his screechy voice to great, irritating effect, and Hamblen is a solid, squeaky clean Everyman, wimpy but likable.

Donahoe (is there anything he didn't do on this show?) caps off all the fun with a perfect retro soda fountain set design, and light designer Kirk Huff throws in some nifty spotlights. One question: With something this good, what rates a three-week run at Stages?

* "The Blue Beetle," Stages, 1188 Fountain Way, Anaheim. Friday at 9 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 7 p.m. Ends Sunday. $7. (714) 630-3059. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

Joseph Hamblen: Dwight Monroe

Kreg Donahoe: Blue Beetle

K.C. Mercer/Scott Haiduc: Mr. Niemeyer

Kara Knappe: Lana Malani

Matt Tully: Jack Grub/Atomic Weevil

Roger Freeman: Randy Daniels

Patrick Gwaltney/William Mittler: Johnny Lark

Melanie Baker: Fizz

Amber Jackson: Sparkle

Tiina Wiles: Bubble

A Stages production of a comedy by Roger Freeman, directed by Kreg Donahoe. Set and sound by Kreg Donahoe. Lights: Kirk Huff. Choreography: Paige Giffin and Kara Knappe.

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