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HOTEL C'EST L'AMOUR

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at the 2nd Stage Theatre

ome artistic partnerships fit together as snugly as that proverbial love-and-marriage/horse-and-carriage comparison. Blank Theatre Artistic Director Daniel Henning has staged West Coast premieres of three edgy musicals from Obie-winning songwriter Michael John LaChiusa: Hello Again, The First Lady Suite, and last year's multiaward-winning The Wild Party. The Tony-nominated tunesmith visited L.A. each time to collaborate with Henning on tweaking these shows further, following their New York runs. Now these prodigious craftsmen have joined forces on a world premiere vehicle that falls somewhere between revue and chamber opera. They integrate songs from the rich LaChiusa canon into a bare-bones narrative, yielding a chic and exhilarating entertainment.

The endeavor bespeaks class at every turn—from the sparkling cast to the gorgeous production design to the sophisticated score. Sealing the deal is the electrifying staging of Henning, who finds more drama in one song than some directors elicit from an entire score. His conception brings a just-married couple (Rick Cornette and Jennifer Malenke) to the honeymoon suite of a posh hotel. The pair's first night together becomes a surrealistic journey into their innermost hopes and fears, illuminating the jumbled emotions of this life milestone. Other characters (Vicki Lewis, Daren A. Herbert, and Ameríca Olivo) flit in and out of the newlyweds' psyches, posing challenges such as infidelity, letting go of past loves, and trepidation about compatibility. Though some songs fit the framework more readily than others, the numbers are knockouts and lead to a satisfying conclusion.

LaChiusa's insightful lyrics and artful musical motifs—ranging from traditional Broadway to jazz to intricately patterned recitative—are brilliantly served by Christy Crowl's music direction. The performers parlay the bittersweet songs into a mélange of tour-de-force vignettes. The uproarious Lewis, as a Japanese maid, is part sardonic pixie and part one-woman Greek chorus, a bundle of irresistible comic energy. She wryly comments on the couple's challenges in "Orangatang Marriage-on-the-Rocks." Her showstopping "Wouldn't It Be Nice?," a ribald ditty about extramarital sex, works as smashingly in this context as it does in The Wild Party, for which it was written. Cornette and Malenke are in impeccable voice and adeptly convey their characters' wide-ranging emotional transitions. Gifted vocalist Olivo brings sizzle to the proceedings as a third spoke in the romantic wheel, and the versatile Herbert adds another measure of danger to the characters' lustful imaginations. Sexy, hilarious, melodic, and literate, this is another triumph for the dynamic Henning–LaChiusa duo.

Presented by The Blank Theatre Company at the 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Sep. 26-Nov. 5. (323) 661-9827. www.theblank.com.

Reviewed by Les Spindle

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