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CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD

Creature From the Black Lagoon rises (and sings!) at Universal Studios Hollywood

July 08, 2009

"Creature From the Black Lagoon" has risen from the depths of the Amazon -- and B-movie lore -- and metamorphosed into a new rock 'n' roll show at Universal Studios Hollywood.

The original "Creature From the Black Lagoon" was released by Universal in 1954 at the height of the 3-D and horror movie craze. Directed by Jack Arnold and starring Richard Carlson, Julia Adams and Richard Denning, the cult classic revolved around a geology expedition to the Amazon that discovers a mysterious amphibious "Gill-man" (Ben Chapman on land, Ricou Browning in the water) who falls in love with Kay (Adams), the beautiful girlfriend of one of the scientists.

The film proved so popular that it spawned two sequels: "Revenge of the Creature" and "The Creature Walks Among Us."

The 25-minute musical attraction, which opened July 1 at Universal, has been updated for the 21st century with some mildly racy jokes and sexual innuendoes.

"We are interested in our teen and young adult and adult audiences," explains Chip Largman, vice president, executive producer, Universal Studios Hollywood/Universal Creative.

"It's a different time," says the 82-year-old Adams, who saw the show last week. Still, she notes, "It's amazing the life this film has had."

Universal has announced that a new film version, penned and produced by Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit"), son of Arthur A. Ross, one of the original film's writers, is in development.

"Our interest was to take advantage of the library of characters that were available in the horror genre and find an opportunity to come up with something that was different and fun and ambitious for us," explains Largman.

Though it's a theme park attraction, "Creature" has a Broadway pedigree.

Tony-nominated director and choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett ("Swing!") staged the show; Michael Curry, whose credits include Broadway's "The Lion King," was the creature and puppet designer; New York-based composer Fred Barton supplied most of the tunes, and Tony Award-winning Marc Routh ("Hairspray," "The Producers") produced the musical.

"One of the things I have increasingly enjoyed is going from a sequestered, artistic very limited audience show to an increasingly general public show," says Taylor-Corbett.

Directing a musical for a mass audience with little background in live theater is "like to poetry what haiku is," says Taylor-Corbett. "You try to find an essence. In this case it is a very tongue-in-cheek work. You want to share the element of theater. It may not be Proust or 'Hamlet' . . . but we are always trying to give the public our best shot."

Barton heeded the words of composers John Kander and Fred Ebb ("Cabaret," "Mame") -- "If you get the opening number right the rest is easy," Barton says.

But the opening tune, "Black Lagoon," was a huge challenge. "People are not coming to the lobby of the theater knowing what they are going to see, which means the opening number has to tell them. Because it takes place in the Amazon, I wanted a kind of world music show. I wanted a world feeling reflecting both the audience and the nature of the show."

The biggest conundrum for Barton was figuring out when the creature would sing. "We were going to have him start to sing when he arrives in the cave with Kay, but we realized we wanted him to sing before that."

So Barton and his co-writers, Gerard Alessandrini ("Forbidden Broadway") and Ross Osterman, gave him a power ballad, "Strange New Hunger," soon after he sees Kay in her bathing suit.

Curry's most impressive creation is the massive puppet of the Gill-man that appears at the show's conclusion.

"It's 23 1/2 feet tall," says Curry. "He is about 32 feet wide from fingertip to fingertip. It really fills the space."

Largman says he hopes the show has a long run -- "Waterworld," which opened in the fall of 1995, is still packing them in at the theme park.

Adams believes the secret to the enduring popularity of "Creature" is the fact that "we have empathy for the creature. As Ben Chapman used to say, 'the mortals invaded his territory. He didn't come after us.' "

For more information, go to www.universalstudios

Elsewhere

The Alex Film Society celebrates the centenary of Mary Pickford's first year in film Sunday with two screenings at the Alex Theatre in Glendale of her 1926 gothic thriller "Sparrows," which was restored by the Library of Congress. Preceding the film will be outtakes from "Sparrows," as well as the trailer and two shorts she made during her first year in films, "They Would Elope" and "The Trick That Failed." Daniel Redfield will supply organ music accompaniment. Pickford memorabilia on loan from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County -- including her famous curls -- will be on display in the theater's lobby. www.alextheatre.org or www.alexfilmsociety.org.

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susan.king@latimes.com

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