Had the muse that whispered The Music Man into the ear of Meredith Willson chosen to share the vision with, say, Tennessee Williams, the result might look a great deal like this adaptation of Edward Swift's novel (Peter Webb, book; Stephen Hoffman, music; Mark Campbell, lyrics). This time around it's the mysterious out-of-town stranger who is in charge of the library—bookmobile, actually—but many elements, including the town's singing gossips (Janet Clark, Laurie Morgan, Kathryn Skatula, and Cory Watson, in excellent voice) and their comically horrid nod to the arts, remain intact, the whole suffused with a languorous Southern air of mannered decadence nicely captured in Ken Salzman's direction. The musical elements are particularly captivating, often pattery but also able to deliver a torch song that limns the history of the Dewey Decimal system.
It's a memory play that centers on the return of Timothy John Coldridge (Ben Hensley) to the wee East Texas municipality of Splendora. As a child, Timmy was dressed up as a little girl by his grandmother, so his return with the towering Victorian lady Jessica Gatewood (Adriana Róze in early Miss Havisham mode) is likely to raise a few brows, or would, if anybody could see him. Hensley and Róze, it turns out, occupy the same character (giving nothing away here), and it's the eventual resolution of this bit of psychological messiness that is the meat of the piece. Decked out in a white suit (Marjorie Baer on togs), Hensley comes off as a diffident Tom Wolfe, a believable genesis for a personality shard as painstakingly constructed as Miss Gatewood. Róze turns in an intriguing performance, but it's her soaring soprano that sells the character. Michael Gregory has a comfortable, easy quality—rare in a piece such as this—playing Brother Leggett, a conflicted man of God with an eye for our mysterious heroine. Elizabeth Greene does a creditable Aunt Eller turn as the local sheriff–narrator.
Kurt Boetcher's cramped set functions more as an ill-designed crossroads, cramming actors together and inadequately hinting at the location. Too late I realized that the exits through the bookcase occurred during scenes in the bookmobile, not the house. Lesson: Read your program first.
Presented by and at the Celebration Theatre, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Nov. 3-Dec. 3. (323) 957-1884. www.celebrationtheatre.com.