Motown meets the Brothers Grimm meets Matthew Bourne in Debbie Allen's peculiar dance musical, loosely based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In the tradition of The Wiz and Michael Jackson's Sisterella, a classic children's story is updated with a hip-hopping, jive-talking, modern sensibility. But by and large Allen's thinly plotted piece serves as a vehicle to showcase prodigious young students from her dance classes, though she also seizes the opportunity to fashion a scenery-chewing star turn for herself. The show has its charms, but frankly we overdosed on the unrelenting cutesy-ness, which is scarcely balanced by sufficient wit or sophistication. Even at 80 uninterrupted minutes, this wisp of a show (written, directed, and choreographed by Allen) might have been more palatable as a 60-minute episode of The Wonderful World of Disney, minus commercials. The potential for satiric wit is mostly glossed over, as a spirited cast surpasses the material.
Allen's adaptation involves an aging rock diva, à la Diana Ross, named Queen (Allen); her stepdaughter Pearl (Allen's daughter, the svelte and charming Vivian Nixon), who's a threat to the Queen's stature as reigning superstar, and the circus-star hunk Charm (a limber and graceful Rasta Thomas), Pearl's own prince-to-be. Other characters include Q (amusingly played by Buddy Lewis), the Queen's squeaky-voiced hulk of a henchman, and her sassy Marla Gibbs-like advisor Virtual Shirley (the engaging Michele Morgan), here a wisecracking entity in her computer rather than a mirror. Golden-voiced Matthew Dickens does double duty as a circus ringmaster and Pearl's deceased father, who narrates the tale. Last but far from least are the seven Dwowns (dwarf/clowns), an adorable band of moppets who look like munchkin troll dolls. Timm Burrow has outfitted them with a colorful array of imaginative and brightly hued togs, which—together with their oversized ears, plus fright wigs in shades of orange, pink, and blue—immediately elicit chuckles of delight from audience members of all ages. And when the dwowns take the stage, mugging and prancing with glee, the effect is initially enchanting. But a little bit of these eager antics goes a long way. These scene-stealing tykes make the precocious band of orphans in Annie look like milquetoast wallflowers.
The skeletal story uses minimal dialogue, conveyed primarily via musical sequences, and because the so-so songs by Allen, James Ingram, and Diane Louie are more often snippets than complete numbers, the emphasis is on Allen's showstopping dance numbers, which encompass ballet, tap, hip-hop, traditional Broadway, circus acrobatics, and everything in between. The singing is generally superb, though the show suffers from an MTV artificiality thanks to annoying prerecorded music. The production is visually dazzling. Though the uncredited scenery is minimal (Ray Klausen is billed as consultant), William H. Grant III's magical lighting effects and Burrow's elaborate, eye-appealing costumes—including some giant-sized dancing trees—are resplendent. We'd stop short of calling Allen's Pearl a gem, but to the receptive capacity audience at the press performance, this was clearly no grim fairy tale.
"Pearl," presented by and at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tues.-Thurs. 7:30 p.m., Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 4 & 8:30 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. Nov. 12-Dec. 22. $28-46. (310) 208-5454.