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THEATER REVIEW

'Palm Beach' has the glitz

But the La Jolla Playhouse staging fails to capture the soul of the 1930s-era comedies it seeks to emulate.

June 14, 2005|Daryl H. Miller | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA, Calif. — When the bottom falls out of your world, perhaps the best thing to do is laugh.

The motion picture industry seemed to sense this in the 1930s, after the Depression put such heavy burdens on everyday life. People needed to be taken out of themselves -- to shake off their troubles -- if only for a while. So Hollywood turned out comedies, many satirizing the rich but clueless and often featuring at their core a crackling, complicated, seemingly impossible romance.

Some earnest and talented theater people have set out to imitate this style in "Palm Beach," the screwball-comedy musical that is being given its premiere as the season-opening production at La Jolla Playhouse. Dripping with glitz and performed with panache, the show often looks and sounds great. But imitation is a tricky thing. Getting it right involves more than mimicking externals; it also requires digging deep to understand the original's heart, mind and soul. Obvious as that might seem, it proves largely beyond this project's grasp.

In development for several years, the musical is written by Robert Cary, Benjamin Feldman and David Gursky. Cary, the lyricist and coauthor, is a dancer, actor and assistant theater director who co-wrote and directed the 2003 film "Anything but Love." Coauthor Feldman is an entertainment lawyer. Gursky, the composer, has been an orchestrator and theater conductor.

The musical has found a valuable champion in playhouse artistic director and whiz-bang musical director Des McAnuff, whose staging ensures that the material looks sleek and moves fleetly.

The show begins like the late-1930s movies it imitates: Its title is written onto a screen, and its opening scenes unfold in black and white.

In 1939 New York, a showgirl, Liz (Erica Piccininni), discovers her journalist-boyfriend, Max (Clarke Thorell), lip-locked with another woman and vows "next time I'll find me a millionaire." She lights out for that playground of the rich: Palm Beach, Fla. Heading there as well is just the sort of family she's looking to marry into: the Fitches, whose name adorns a mind-boggling range of products.

Arrival in Palm Beach is heralded by a dramatic change to full color (the eye-popping work of scenic designer Klara Zieglerova and costumer Paul Tazewell), as well as a pileup of plot complications. On her way to Florida, Liz has managed to catch the eye of the Fitches' playboy son, Lance (Matt Cavenaugh). But still dressed in the feathered and spangled gown she commandeered from her showgirl gig, Liz is not who she pretends to be -- which can only mean that someone from her past is bound to show up and spoil everything.

Then again, the Fitches -- pompous father Wilton (Ryan Hilliard), fluttery mother Eustacia (Heather Lee), smart but frustrated daughter Jessica (Anastasia Barzee) and hypochondriac daughter Victoria (Amanda Watkins) -- aren't what they seem, either. They present themselves as the perfect American family, but the skeletons in their closets threaten to outnumber the minks.

Events soon revolve around an ultimatum to marry or be disinherited, the unsolved mystery of a baby long ago delivered to Fitches' doorstep, and a stolen sapphire ring.

The music -- a bouncy, jaunty melange of 1930s musical styles -- provides the show's high points. A propulsive melody fuels a dance number that sweeps through ballroom moves and explodes into tap as Jimmy (Noah Racey), one of the household servants, declares his love for Victoria. At the number's climax, choreographer Debbie Roshe sets Racey atop a vaulting horse in the Fitch mansion's gym, which he rocks just enough to add thunderclaps of punctuation to rhythms he's tapping on the padded bar.

The music sounds, at times, like the scores for other stage musicals set in roughly the same period -- "City of Angels," "Victor/Victoria" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie." And the minimal orchestration -- performed by two keyboardists, an acoustic bassist and a percussionist -- is rarely able to swell to the lush size that the style demands.

The big problem, though, is that in trying so hard to be clever, the show forgets to be smart. Too many of the laughs are crass or mean-spirited, and tone is a problem as the script tries to speak knowingly about the present day, even as the action remains rooted in the past.

The creators seem to be offering this show as a restorative for our own troubled times. But the shifts and inconsistencies prevent this from being the brilliantly witty, refreshingly escapist fare they're trying to imitate.

*

`Palm Beach'

Where: La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre, Revelle College Drive at La Jolla Village Drive

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: July 10

Price: $47 to $60

Contact: (858) 550-1010 or www.lajollaplayhouse.com

Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Anastasia Barzee...Jessica

Matt Cavenaugh...Lance

Clarke Thorell...Max

Erica Piccininni...Liz

Book by Robert Cary and Benjamin Feldman. Lyrics by Cary. Music by David Gursky. Director Des McAnuff. Music director Eric Stern. Choreographer Debbie Roshe. Sets Klara Zieglerova. Costumes Paul Tazewell. Lights Howell Binkley. Production stage manager Frank Hartenstein.

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