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THEATER REVIEW

Musical Delivers Set of Mixed 'Emotions'

May 20, 1997|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The latest musical at the Pasadena Playhouse rolls along a predictable but entertaining arc--when suddenly the narrative stops and a concert begins.

We should have seen it coming--after all, the show is titled "The Emotions Starring in Bigger Than Bubble Gum." This awkward moniker telegraphs the news that the actual Emotions, a "girl group" of real sisters who performed from the late '60s through the early '80s, are here, in person. That fact takes precedence over their past, which is what the show is about until the concert takes over.

Still, the shift from play to concert is awfully abrupt. We've watched the young Emotions--played by actresses--taste success, only to see their act crumble because of petty jealousies and bad men. It's a half-baked "Dreamgirls," but the onstage talent is winning. The narrative climaxes when the Emotions break up publicly during a concert rendition of "Boogie Wonderland."

In the next scene, voila--the actresses have been replaced by the real Emotions, who sing a golden-oldies medley for the rest of the evening. There's no explanation of their years apart or how they got back together.

What happened to the second act? Maybe it was too painful to remember some of the later events. Perhaps the roles had outgrown the young actresses--and the real Emotions, who list no acting credits, weren't ready to act yet.

Or maybe it was felt that a reunion concert would have more commercial potential than more of the play. This might make sense in a big, non-subscribed hall, but most people go to playhouses like Pasadena's in order to see plays.

About two-thirds of "Bubble Gum" is a play. We hear how the Hutchinson Sunbeams sang from an early age. Their father promised they could be "bigger than bubble gum" if they practiced.

The Emotions themselves--Wanda Vaughn, Sheila Hutchinson, Jeanette Hawes--briefly appear for early reminiscences, but then they let the actresses (Jennifer Leigh Warren as Wanda, Charlia R. Boyer as Sheila, LaDeana M. Devereaux as Jeanette) take over. The casting leads to minor confusion--the shortest Emotion is Sheila Hutchinson, but the shortest actress is Warren, who plays Wanda instead of Sheila. Don't rely on height to sort out who's who.

The book, by Larry W. Heimgartner, demonstrates how raw and inexperienced the girls were at first. Still, their career moves forward fast; there are no signs of failed auditions. Unfortunately, a group of faceless men, wearing evil white masks lighted as if for Halloween, come out and conspire to exploit our young heroines. Laughably crude, this device is repeated several times, but no evidence of any actual exploitation is onstage.

The women are more concerned about each other and men than they are about any business swindles. They tour Europe with a "guy group" that includes a charmer (Clinton Derricks-Carroll) who seduces Jeanette, even though he has a wife and kids back home, much to the chagrin of another of the guys (Victor Trent Cook).

This triangle gives Derricks-Carroll and Devereaux a steamy duet, and Cook sings a heartbreak number with the power and intensity he brought to a similar song in "Smokey Joe's Cafe."

In a show ostensibly about women singers, two of the three solos are for men. Jerry Woo, who plays the tour bus driver and wannabe singer, finally gets to shine in "The Music Is in Me." The only women's solo is when Warren turns the group's problems over to God in "I'm Giving It All to You"--but it has little effect, because five minutes later, the Emotions are back at each other's throats.

Otis Sallid directed and choreographed with polish. The Emotions' musical director Tony Coleman is onstage with four other skilled musicians; most of the lyrics are audible.

Zoe DuFour's costumes smartly reflect the Emotions' increasing sophistication. Kevin Mahan's lighting helps deepen the drama, before surrendering to rock-concert exhibitionism.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

* "The Emotions Starring in Bigger Than Bubble Gum," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends June 22. $13.50-$42.50. (800) 233-3123. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

Jeanette Hawes, Sheila Hutchinson, Wanda Vaughn

The Emotions

Charlia R. Boyer: Early Sheila

LaDeana M. Devereaux: Early Jeanette

Jennifer Leigh Warren: Early Wanda

Victor Trent Cook: Sarge

Clinton Derricks-Carroll: Tyrone

Jerry Woo: Jerry

Cleto V. Escobedo III, Adam Jackson,

Gregory Scott Sherman: Men

Produced by the playhouse, Dick Scott, Don Williams & Andrew Rollins. Music by the Emotions, Larry W. Heimgartner and Emotions musical director Tony Coleman and others. Book by Heimgartner. Directed and choreographed by Otis Sallid. Set by Gary Wissmann. Lights by Kevin Mahan. Costumes by Zoe DuFour. Sound by Robert Ludwig. Production stage manager Jill Johnson Gold.

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