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THEATER REVIEW

The bright, feathery side of life

'Showtune' at Pasadena Playhouse showcases Broadway numbers written by the irrepressibly optimistic Jerry Herman.

June 30, 2003|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

Uh-oh. Two divas are being asked to share the spotlight, and from the way they're upstaging one another, it seems only a matter of time until feathers and spangles start to fly.

But wait; rather than breaking each other's necks, they're breaking into song. And it's the perfect number for dueling musical-theater legends Dolly Gallagher Levi and Mame Dennis. It's "Bosom Buddies," a "Mame" tune that allows two extravagantly vivacious women to skewer one another with glee.

This showdown between the larger-than-life title characters of "Hello, Dolly!" and "Mame" (portrayed, respectively, by Mary Jo Mecca and Merle Dandridge) is one of many clever moments in "Showtune," a collection of songs from Jerry Herman's Broadway musicals. Previously performed in the Southland as "Tune the Grand Up," the show has re-emerged (with grander trappings) as the Pasadena Playhouse's replacement for a canceled revival of the 1954 musical "House of Flowers."

Conceived by Paul Gilger, "Showtune" pulls together more than 40 Herman songs. These have been organized into thematic blocks, and the resulting juxtaposition tells little stories.

For those who know the lyricist-composer primarily for his hits -- "Dolly," "Mame" and "La Cage aux Folles" -- the show serves as a tantalizing introduction to music from two glorious flops -- "Mack & Mabel" and "Dear World" -- as well as "Milk and Honey," "The Grand Tour" and "A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine."

What's more, "Showtune" builds upon other Herman revues (such as "Jerry's Girls") and various local tribute concerts to foster a deeper appreciation of his music. Herman is often dismissed as a writer of limited range, too in love with sunny lyrics and hummable melodies. Yet his best songs mourn lost love or missed opportunity, even as they quietly celebrate the results: dignity, strength or sheer resilience.

Perhaps this isn't enough, however. For all its intelligence and imagination, "Showtune" is just a sprightly little revue, and when a major regional theater delivers such a thing for as much as $60 a ticket, some patrons are bound to feel cheated.

The cast consists of three women and three men who are often paired into couples (Dandridge and Robert Yacko, Mecca and Martin Vidnovic, and Stephanie Lynge and Christopher Corts), along with a piano player (Bobby Peaco) who sometimes sings as well. A percussionist (Ed Smith) and bassist (Randy Landas) are stationed on a higher platform.

The panels that frame John Iacovelli's set are patterned with what looks, unfortunately, like a Formica countertop motif, but the back of the stage is left open so that the plain backdrop can be painted with Steven Young's beautifully atmospheric lighting.

The show begins, a bit too predictably, with "It's Today," an upbeat anthem that all but confirms Herman's reputation for over-optimism. But before long, the show moves into its strongest segment: a block of songs that trace the arc of romantic relationships. A young woman (Lynge) catches a young man's (Corts') attention with "Ribbons Down My Back." More experienced couples (the rest of the cast) then enter to offer their perspectives. The mature men teach the young one to let his eyes rove in "It Takes a Woman" and "Hundreds of Girls," while the women reply with "Wherever He Ain't" and "So Long Dearie" -- all of which temporarily pulls the couples apart.

Most everyone reconciles after "And I Was Beautiful" and "Kiss Her Now," but Dandridge is left alone to sing "Time Heals Everything," the "Mack & Mabel" tune that is, perhaps, Herman's best song.

The visuals perk up whenever director-choreographer Bill Starr's movement vocabulary borrows from the likes of Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse, while James Followell's piano arrangements, as played by Peaco, sing out at times, then pull back under the vocalists -- weaving through the harmonies like another voice.

Perhaps the show's most debatable aspect is the decision to heterosexualize a couple of key songs from "La Cage aux Folles," the 1983 musical that celebrated a long-term gay relationship. In particular, "I Am What I Am" -- a celebration of individuality that has become a gay anthem -- is divided up among the entire cast here, which robs it of its original context even as it expands the meaning into an all-embracing declaration of pride, no matter what race, creed or orientation.

*

'Showtune'

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena

When: Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. No performance this Friday.

Ends: July 27

Price: $45-$60

Contact: (626) 356-PLAY

Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

Christopher Corts, Merle Dandridge, Stephanie Lynge, Mary Jo Mecca, Martin Vidnovic, Robert Yacko...Company

Bobby Peaco...Piano

A Pasadena Playhouse presentation. Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Conceived by Paul Gilger. Director-choreographer Bill Starr. Musical director-musical arranger James Followell. Set John Iacovelli. Costumes Maggie Morgan. Lights Steven Young. Sound Frederick W. Boot. Production stage manager David S. Franklin.

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