A hefty dollop of crowd-pleasing gusto garnishes the Southern California premiere of "Five Course Love" at International City Theatre in Long Beach. The verve on tap turns author Gregg Coffin's tuner, which traces the search for amour by 15 characters at five contrasting restaurants, into a giddy musical comedy buffet.
After a zany opening-announcements chorale, sound designer Paul Fabre's traffic noises introduce the three richly versatile performers. The wonderful Christopher Carothers, whose sensitive nerd Matt, racing to a blind date, bookends the proceedings, sings "A Very Single Man."
As the scrolling signs on designer Dan Wheeler's heart-adorned set announce "Dean's Old-Fashioned All-American Down-Home Bar-B-Que Texas Eats," its proprietor, proficiently embodied by Perry Lambert, lands his country patter with a zeal that recalls Stubby Kaye.
Enter beer-chugging Barbie, played by the sublime Jennifer Shelton as a hot-to-trot hellion in Daisy Dukes. From here, "Five Course Love" charts a series of thwarted encounters, reaching fulfillment at the agreeably foreseeable finale. Coffin's lyrics are often very clever and his melodies serviceable, if not quite memorable, and are as varied as operatic parody, for the adulterous mob doings at the Trattoria Pericolo, and '50s doo-wop, for the Star-Lite Diner. A near-zarzuela flavor permeates Ernesto's Cantina, and faux-Weill underscores the bisexual pretzel at Der Schlupfwinkel Speiseplatz.
That hofbrauhaus is the most hilarious venue, approaching Mel Brooks in its show-stopping lunacy. Here, as elsewhere, director caryn desai and choreographer Brian Paul Mendoza display considerable wit. The designers follow suit, costumer Kim DeShazo and hair designer Anthony Gagliardi up to mischief and Jeremy Pivnick's lighting another exemplary plot to add to his resume.
All three strong-voiced players change personas and tone as easily as musical director Janice Rodgers Wainwright's snappy band dons new hats for each sequence. Carothers' shifts from farcical to bravura and Lambert's ability to go from loco to touching are wholly impressive. Shelton, who seldom gets so wide a berth to ply her sharp comic wares, goes for broke, especially her German dominatrix, a hysterical blend of Marlene Dietrich and an acrobatic strudel.
True, this show is hardly deep-dish fare, laden with an excess of phallic jokes and sometimes stereotypical. Mexican American audiences may resist the dated attitudes of the cantina segment. Who knows what Tony Soprano would make of the trattoria caricatures.
Nor, for all its fluffy self-awareness, does Coffin's concept dish up the kind of larger point within pastiche that distinguishes, say, "The Drowsy Chaperone." Still, its practitioners earn their gratuities with shamelessly entertaining panache, which makes "Five Course Love" an enjoyable, albeit lightweight, repast.
`Five Course Love'
Where: International City Theatre at Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Ends: July 15
Price: $35 to $45
Contact: (562) 436-4610 or www.ictlongbeach.org
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes