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A shining 'Pearl'

Who's the fairest of them all? The young 30-member cast of Debbie Allen's energetic musical based on 'Snow White.'

November 22, 2002|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

In time-honored fairy-tale tradition, Debbie Allen's musical retelling of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" is packed with lessons, from proper dental care to being cautious around strangers. But most of all, "Pearl," as she calls her story, is about tapping inner truth and beauty, and letting it flow out into the world.

To drive the point home, Allen surrounds herself at the Geffen Playhouse with living examples of that maxim: 30 dancer-singer-actors, ages 6 to 18, who are absolutely incandescent.

Allen may be the headliner, but these kids are the stars. When seven pint-sized circus clowns make their entrance, looking like a cross between Munchkins and the Little Rascals, the audience oohs and awws so much that it nearly drowns out the children's first song.

Most of the young performers are students at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Culver City, where Allen -- a real-life counterpart to the instructor she played in the movie and TV versions of "Fame" -- is artistic director. She wrote "Pearl" for the education department of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., where the show received its premiere in the spring.

Though the Geffen presentation is well-timed to be a holiday parent-child activity, adults without children won't feel out of place. In its energetic staging, entertainment-world jokes and music (pop, doo-wop, hip-hop, drum-and-bass and other styles, written by James Ingram, Diane Louie and Allen), the show contains a little something for everyone.

In this present-day retelling of the fairy tale, Snow White is named Pearl (played through Dec. 1 by Allen's daughter, Vivian Nixon, then by Natalia Johnson). The daughter of a dentist (Matthew Dickens), Pearl is left, after his death, in the care of her stepmother, a rock star known as the Queen (Allen, in Diana Ross mode).

Like all entertainers, the Queen lives under the curse of becoming a has-been the moment her youth has passed. So trouble is in store when her computer tells her that young Pearl is fairer and more talented. The Queen orders her bodyguard, Q (Buddy Lewis, doing a high-pitched, sibilant impersonation of Mike Tyson), to take Pearl to the circus, then kill her on the way home.

One of the show's chief delights, the circus is a Cirque du Soleil-style explosion of gymnasts, contortionists, ribbon dancers and de rigueur bare-chested guy who sails through the air with his limbs entwined in streams of fabric. This last heartthrob, Charm (Rasta Thomas), becomes Pearl's Prince Charming, and the seven pint-sized clowns, called "dwowns," are her rescuers.

A few plot points are under-explained in Allen's script, and the show, which she directed and choreographed, contains several awkward moments that cause the energy to abruptly drain from the stage. The Queen's transformation into a hook-nosed, claw-handed crone also might cause momentary concerns for parents with young children; a comforting arm might prove suddenly necessary.

Allen proves to be a gifted comic, however. As the Queen huffs and puffs through a teen-pop number for which she is clearly too old, or has herself laced into a scary-looking girdle, the audience almost feels sorry for her.

And as choreographer, Allen comes up with a particularly touching number when Charm partners the slumbering, slack-limbed Pearl through a ballet-like pas de deux -- his love for her triumphing over dark magic.

*

'Pearl'

Where: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 LeConte Ave., Westwood

When: Tuesdays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8:30 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. No performances Thanksgiving Day or Dec. 8. Extra matinees Wednesday and Dec. 4, 2 p.m.

Ends: Dec. 29

Price: $30 to $46; ages 18 and younger, $10

Contact: (310) 208-5454

Running Time: 80 minutes

Debbie Allen...The Queen

Vivian Nixon...Pearl (through Dec. 1)

Natalia Johnson...Pearl (beginning Dec. 3)

Rasta Thomas...Charm

Buddy Lewis...Q

Matthew Dickens...Ringmaster/Dr. Drewdy

Produced by Geffen Playhouse, in association with John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Written, directed and choreographed by Debbie Allen. Music by James Ingram, Diane Louie and Debbie Allen. Musical direction Diane Louie. Scenic consultant Ray Klausen. Costumes Timm Burrow. Lighting William H. Grant III. Production stage manager David Blackwell.

Also

To watch scenes from, "Pearl," visit www.calendarlive.com/pearl.

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