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THEATER REVIEW

'Norman's Ark' never sets sail

Despite an impressive creative team and a solid cast, amateurism holds back the play.

May 30, 2008|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

A contemporary retelling of the Noah story, "Norman's Ark," the world premiere musical at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, is very much a dog-and-pony -- and cat-and-bat and giraffe-and-panda -- show. Part of the Festival of New American Musicals, the production positively groans with cuteness.

Norman (Philip Casnoff), a Midwestern schoolteacher, is stranded on a rooftop with his family after a Katrina-like disaster. To wile away the time while awaiting rescue, he, his wife, Alice (Karole Forman), sons Sam and Harry (BJ Wallace and Noah Galvin) and daughter Jenny (Tiffany Espensen) act out the story of the Flood, as God (Dawnn Lewis) oversees their struggles.

Will Norman and his loved ones live? You betcha. That's just the problem. One of the obvious challenges in recapitulating such a familiar tale, however heavily tweaked and modernized, is that there are few surprises.

But brace yourself for a torrent of extravagant components, including dozens of cute kids in animal costumes, a bevy of lithe teen dancers and a huge choir, all culled from various schools, churches and theaters in and around L.A. According to the program, there are about 200 performers in all cavorting on the Ford stage.

You have to admit it's impressive -- and wily too. Sell tickets to the relatives alone and you've got SRO houses.

The bios for the creative team are impressive. Director Peter Schneider won a Tony as a producer of "The Lion King," composer-lyricist Glen Roven is a multiple Emmy winner and a conductor, and book writer Jerome Kass was Emmy-nominated for his 1975 television movie "Queen of the Stardust Ballroom," which was later adapted into a Broadway musical.

Despite that aggregate of talent, however, "Ark" plays a bit like a glorified church pageant. Apart from a few pithy one-liners, Kass' book is cloyingly sentimental, and only in full-on gospel mode, such as in the stirring "Dark, Dark, Dark (Is the Night Upon the Sea)," is Roven's score truly memorable.

More a triumph of logistics than craft, Schneider's direction consists primarily of moving his massive company around expeditiously. Choreographer Christine Kellogg, for her part, is overwhelmed by the sheer force of numbers, not to mention the tired conceit of having somberly clad kids, holding long silver streamers, whirl around the stage impersonating a storm. And to keep the myriad participants visible to the audience, scenic designer Jerome Sirlin has had to rake the stage so extremely that we fear a tumble.

Still, the core cast, under Michael Kevin Farrell's sizzling musical direction, is solidly professional, and the huge choir, spearheaded by Lewis' able deity, delivers rousing, toe-tapping gospel numbers that, in lieu of raising rafters, reach for the sky in this beautiful outdoor setting.

There are other undeniably charming elements. You'd have to be a dedicated curmudgeon not to be wowed by the flocks of adorable moppets parading across the stage in costume designer Ann Closs-Farley's Halloween-esque animal outfits. Yet for all its showy amplitude, and for all the crack pros behind and before the scenes, this "Ark" remains moored in amateurism.

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'Norman's Ark'

Where: John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. E., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays

Ends: June 8

Price: $34 to $75

Contact: (323) 461-3673 or www.fordamphitheater.org

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

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