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Theater Review

'Pigs Fly' and Campy Wit Soars

Buoyant revue makes its L.A. debut at the Coronet Theatre with a dazzlingly dressed paean to show business.

June 28, 1999|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Some shows, you leave humming the scenery; others, the costumes. "Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly" sends you out humming the sequins on the costumes.

The wigs alone in this exuberant eyeful of a revue, now making its Los Angeles debut at the Coronet Theatre, are like tone poems of camp: pillowy, cartoon-land creations, threatening to lift the men beneath them somewhere, fully aloft.

These wigs are big. They're also witty enough to be spun off into their own series. They deserve their own cable network--FCC, the Fabulous Crabtree Channel.

Yet there's more to this show than what it wears.

"When Pigs Fly" was co-created and costume-designed by Crabtree, who died of AIDS-related complications five days after completing his work on the 1996 off-Broadway show. Director Mark Waldrop wrote the sketches and the lyrics, many of them spiky and clever, set to Dick Gallagher's nicely varied score.

Crabtree's visual creations are the reason for this drag-intensive show's being. (The previous Crabtree project "Whoop-Dee-Doo" worked on a similar Ziegfeld Follies-squared aesthetic.) But if the revue is essentially fabulous window dressing--make that faaaaaaaabulous window dressing--its overall musical buoyancy serves as artful dressing for the dressing.

The story is small and simple. Howard (Christopher Carothers) decides to put on a show. Throughout it, confronted by the latest hissy-fitting performer or misbehaving scenic effect, Howard hears in his brain the words of his high school teacher, Miss Roundhole (David Pevsner), uttered when Howard told her of his dreams of show biz. "When pigs fly!" she says--that's when he'll see those dreams realized! Besides, what's wrong with a responsible career path? Chicken farming, say? Or watch repair?

Howard breathlessly tries to keep the show's numbers moving and the offstage drama to a minimum. He's dealing with some royal egos, chiefly an artiste with pride born for a bruising, played by Loren Freeman. This actor plays, among others, a mermaid and a pig.

Jim J. Bullock, of TV's "Too Close for Comfort," sings odes to three separate, unlikely love objects: Newt Gingrich, Strom Thurmond and Rush Limbaugh. Three years' time has rendered these tunes, on the cheap-shot side to begin with, somewhat dated. Other songs ("Sam & Me," "Hawaiian Wedding Day") have one gag to impart, and one only.

Elsewhere, though, "When Pigs Fly" drops some exquisite little bundles of musical comedy. "You've Got to Stay in the Game" features Freeman, Carothers, Pevsner and Blake Hammond as life-sized queens from a deck of playing cards. (The harmonies on this '30s-style number recall the Boswell sisters, plus one.) "Light in the Loafers," delivered by Pevsner and Hammond, upends smartly its own pejorative title.

Even if you didn't grow up patronizing (in more ways than one) a classic stock "tent theater," the show's extended segment set in "The Melody Barn" scores. In his funniest bit, Freeman plays the Melody Barn artistic director. As costumed by Crabtree, she's Carol Channing, Dolores Gray and Lypsinka rolled into one well-meaning Midwestern ball.

If there's a flaw with this ingratiating cast, it's a tendency to hit everything with the same energy level, the same degree of over-the-topness. That's why Hammond, a highly skilled graduate of the Nathan Lane/Fred Applegate school, comes off best. He holds back a little. He can brass his way through a Mae West-style saloon number ("Bigger Is Better") as easily as he handles the Act 1 closer, "A Patriotic Finale," in which Hammond reveals himself to be pretty slick with a baton too.

Funny thing, that whole notion of the right amount of too-much. One of the key songs in "When Pigs Fly" is called "Over the Top." It's a rebuke, in effect, to everyone who ever told Crabtree to pull it back a little, take it down a notch. This show provides all the proof you need that Crabtree's too-muchness was just about right.

Only briefly does "When Pigs Fly" allude to Crabtree's death. The second-act "Laughing Matters," a defense of frivolity in grim times, contains the line: "People keep on getting sick." It's typical of this show's savvy ways that lyricist Waldrop glances on that notion--Crabtree's death, an entire plague--and then moves on.

So many costume changes; so little time.

* "Howard Crabtree's When Pigs Fly," Coronet Theatre, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m.; Fridays, 7 and 10 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Open-ended run. $27.50-$47.50. (310) 657-7377 or (213) 365-3500. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Jim J. Bullock, Christopher Carothers, Loren Freeman, Blake Hammond, David Pevsner, Brian Beacock: The Company

Conceived by Howard Crabtree and Mark Waldrop. Sketches and lyrics by Mark Waldrop. Music by Dick Gallagher. Costumes by Howard Crabtree. Directed by Mark Waldrop. Choreography by Keith Cromwell. Set by Bradley Kaye. Lighting by Paulie Jenkins. Sound by Timothy I. Metzger. Musical direction by Lone Arranger Music. Production stage manager Meredith J. Greenburg.

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