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WEEKEND REVIEW / Stage

'Reel' a Movie-Music Mishmash

March 23, 1998|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

There's no surer proof that the Pasadena Playhouse is feeling schizophrenic than its new show, a harmless revue called "Blame It On the Movies!: The Reel Music of Hollywood." Just previously, with his production of Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing," recently arrived artistic director Sheldon Epps alerted subscribers that he would interrupt the playhouse's usual menu of bromide-filled theater with more challenging fare. But, as if to make sure no one gets too alarmed, "Blame It on the Movies!" arrives, a show whose most remarkable quality is that it manages to avoid having any point of view about anything whatsoever.

In "Blame It on the Movies!," seven performers field 60-odd songs that come from movies. Some are good songs, some are not. Some songs are well sung, some are not. It offers "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" and "Laura" and "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing," in no particular order. The one focal point is a madcap movie usher played by Cindy Benson whose whirling-dervish energy gets tired quickly. Her running "comical" narration of the evening, in songs written by Billy Barnes, are slight and similar and will not wake anyone up. "I think it's time to sing a love song/All dreamy and steamy/ You know what I mean." The unsaid remainder of the lyric is "You know what I mean, so I don't have to really write anything here."

Not all revues are mindless. Revues can show us the breadth and depth of a body of work, as "And the World Goes 'Round" did for John Kander and Fred Ebb. Good revues offer some kind of thesis or sustaining idea. In her cabaret show, "I'll Be Seeing You," for instance, Andrea Marcovicci employs the popular songs of World War II to explore the ways people got themselves through heart-rending separations.

"Blame It On the Movies!" is not nearly so ambitious. It has no thesis, no reason for being. Compiled and conceived by Ron Abel, Billy Barnes and David Galligan (from an original idea by Franklin R. Levy), it has a mercenary sheen. Songs are cherry-picked for the nostalgia buttons they push, but in many cases they are thrown breathlessly into the mix with little feeling for either musicality or the times they represent, despite some attempt at specificity in Yehuda Hyman's choreography. When the company comes together to sing a snippet of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" from "Meet Me in St. Louis," they sing the bland lyric "Hang a shining star upon the highest bough" instead of the darker one Judy Garland sings in the movie, "Until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." Let's remember the movies, but not too well.

Two performers are consistently strong, David Engel and most especially Tami Tappan, who knows how to stand still and sell a song. She gives a lovely, dramatic reading to Jerome Kern's "In Love in Vain" (from "Centennial Summer"). (The program does not denote who sings what, so you'll have to figure that out yourself. Nor are the songs listed in strict order.) Engel is a reliable, sexy presence, who moves well and has range, both vocally and dramatically. Charlia R. Boyer is an arresting singer, but her acting is unfocused; she'll put her hand on her heart to indicate feeling. Bill Hutton and Daniel Guzman are both fine in comic parts but uninvolving otherwise. Christine Kellogg, a lyrical, long-legged dancer, uses her modest voice to very good effect in "Hi Lili Hi Lo."

The musical staging by Hyman and Galligan, who also directs, relies sensibly and at times imaginatively on the constant reconfiguration of movies seats and a screen. But ideas for individual numbers are wan. Two men try to sing a number and keep getting interrupted by a woman singing another number. Why? Attempts at shaping the material are half-hearted. A projected title reads "The 40s." A few songs are sung. The next section is "World War II" (wasn't that in the '40s?). A few more songs. The next section, "Foreign Films," features but one skit, in which a nerdy woman and nerdy guy make out to the music of "A Man and a Woman," and fall behind a theater seat to be replaced by a great looking couple (i.e. their own views of themselves).

Act Two features a medley of "Oscar Losers." Hutton sings "How Do You Keep the Music Playing" from "Best Friends," which, we're told, was beat out by "Up Where We Belong" from "An Officer and a Gentleman." But that doesn't register as injustice. This is followed by a long series of songs and no more commentary. Are we still listening to Oscar Losers? And if we are, what songs did these songs lose to?

Blame it on the movies, if you want. But Abel, Barnes and Galligan could share some as well.

*

* "Blame It on the Movies!" Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. Tue.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 5 and 9 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m. Ends April 26. $13.50-$42.50. (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours.

A Pasadena Playhouse production. Musical sequences compiled and conceived by Ron Abel, Billy Barnes and David Galligan. From an original idea by Franklin R. Levy. Original music and lyrics Billy Barnes. Original musical direction and arrangements Ron Abel. Directed by David Galligan. Choreography Yehuda Hyman. Musical direction Brad Ellis. Sets Dorian Vernacchio and Deborah Raymond. Lights Michael Gilliam. Costumes Zoe DuFour. Sound Philip G. Allen. Production stage manager Elsbeth M. Collins. Musical staging David Galligan and Yehuda Hyman. Stage manager Andrea Iovino .

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