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Theater Review

The Skeleton in the Sitcoms' Closet: 'Personals'

September 21, 1998|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before "Veronica's Closet," before "Friends," even before "Dream On," Marta Kaufmann and David Crane created "Personals."

A musical revue about the perils of dating, "Personals" ran off-Broadway in 1985, long before Kaufmann and Crane were among TVs hottest producers. And one suspects that had they not struck TV ratings gold, "Personals"--also co-written by Seth Friedman--might have been filed away and forgotten.

Instead, "Personals" has been revived at the Forum Theatre of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza as a joint production of Theater League and Gold Coast Plays. But like the 15-word ads that inspired it, "Personals" isn't quite what it's cracked up to be in person.

Two things stick out immediately. First, "Personals" seems intended for an intimate theater. The Forum, though smaller than the Kavli Theatre next door, still holds about 400 seats. Second, it is a show whose success relies entirely upon a charismatic cast with powerful voices.

This six-person cast, with its generally good singers and dancers, isn't strong enough to maintain interest through the more mundane numbers. And, especially in the opening songs, their voices are hardly loud enough to be heard over the prerecorded easy-listening synthesizer score.

The 15 songs, written by six men, including Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, seem sapped of any differentiating style, possibly by Alan Ruch's bland orchestrations or the monotonous processed electronic music. "Mama's Boy," for one, cries out for a full-on Supremes-style treatment but stops short, sacrificing both humor and musical quality.

That said, the writers have provided some clever ideas for songs. "After School Special" outlines a high school senior's success with an ad looking for "extracurricular" activity. "Second Grade" has the three men hilariously reflecting on their carefree elementary days. And "Moving in With Linda" shows Sam (Todd Yard) unpacking his emotional baggage, including three ex-girlfriends.

Director Bob Sorenson does a fine job with the vignettes between songs; the show never slows down. Still, much of the humor falls flat, perhaps because the production is slightly embarrassed by its bawdy side. Robert L. Harper does gyrate and make references to leather--but on the whole, the show seems to have its suburban audience too much in mind. It feels toned down to about 75% of what one might expect off-Broadway, or, for that matter, in Hollywood.

John Barnett's set--three turning panels that have the texts of personal ads on one side and mini-sets on the other--is functional and attractive. It suggests the set of a TV game show, perfectly appropriate to the mad dating-game life of the characters.

This "Personals," in the end, is neither fish nor foul. It certainly isn't the musical family fare Theater League and Gold Coast Plays usually present in Thousand Oaks. But neither is it an outlandish show with in-your-face references to sexual behavior.

It could be the wear of time. But "Personals" seems to have lost its edge.

*

* "Personals" at the Forum Theatre of the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8:30 p.m.; Saturday, 2:30 and 8:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2:30 p.m. Ends Sept. 27. $22 to $28. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. Information (805) 449-2787; Ticketmaster (805) 583-8700 or (213) 480-3232.

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