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A STOOP ON ORCHARD STREET

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Jay Kholos' Off-Broadway musical, now in a national tour, has the rancid flavor of a moldy slab of ham passed off as a kosher delicacy. There's little that is spontaneous or original in this assembly-line commodity. Kholos' tale of Jewish immigrants struggling to survive in New York tenements in 1910 is being marketed as a successor to Fiddler on the Roof. That's like calling The Beverly Hillbillies a descendant of The Grapes of Wrath. Kholos' book is crammed with clichéd and superficial subplots that never cohere. He was recently quoted as saying he has no musical training, and nothing in the music and lyrics here prompts a challenge to that assertion.

Matching the level of the material, everything about co-director/choreographers Tom Berger and Jason Summers' staging feels artificial and artless, from the cheesy backdrops to the canned soundtrack. Watching herds of actors clumped into horizontal lines, trying to coordinate the lyrics of Kholos' bland songs with the blaring music, brings to mind badly dubbed B-movie musicals. The claustrophobic dance sequences are filled with hackneyed and repetitious movements.

The actors deserve sympathy more than castigation. It's hard to imagine anyone making something palatable out of the contrived dialogue and graceless lyrics shoehorned into less-than-melodic songs. Young Andy Dubick, as a 12-year-old amateur hoofer setting his sights on vaudeville, is brash and charming. Sheldon Cohen, as the elder version of this character, narrating the story, struggles with humorless text. His portrayal suffers further from the monotonous alternation of two hand gestures: shaking a finger at us and raising his palms. In one baffling number, a chorus of kick-up-the-heels grannies warbles banal lyrics, suggesting they might have accidentally wandered in from a third-rate tour of The Producers. Ashley Betton sings beautifully and manages to achieve intermittent poignancy as an abused matriarch. As her child-shoving, wife-slapping spouse, Sean French is at a loss in reconciling the pitch-black aspects of his character with the show's predominantly saccharine tone. As he plods through a stultifying ballad singing, "There's got to be more to me," bemoaning the mediocrity all around him, the best advice we could give him would be to find a better musical.

"A Stoop on Orchard Street," presented by Greatlife Productions in association with and at the Madrid Theatre, 21622 Sherman Way, Canoga Park. Wed. 2 p.m., Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Mar. 4-Apr. 3. $39-49. (818) 347-9938.

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