at the Leo Kreielsheimer Theatre

Reviewed by David-Edward Hughes

The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci is about the most compelling and creative chamber theatre piece I've ever seen. Stunningly adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman for the Seattle Repertory Theatre's smaller playhouse, it serves as an education for the Da Vinci-impaired (such as myself) and a joyous celebration for all.

Staged on a clever and quite lovely set by Scott Bradley, which has file drawers that hold the most amazing surprises, a multi-racial cast of eight gives voice to DaVinci's words and musings.

Through movement as thoroughly and brilliantly choreographed as you'll see anywhere, the astounding ensemble keeps the piece from possibly becoming static. M.L. Berry, Peter Crook, Christopher Donahue, Louise Lamson, Wade Madsen, Chiara Mangiameli, Sherryl Ray, and Tracy Walsh provide the essence of ensemble, and utter the words, sometimes with simultaneous Italian translation, of this most brilliant artist. T.J. Gerchins' lighting is sensitive and sensual, and original music by Miriam Sturm and Michael Bodeen provides the ideal underscoring.

Having come from a recent trip to New York, where half the shows I saw were a good half hour too long, the 90 minutes I spent watching The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci seemed barely long enough.

"The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci," presented by the Seattle Repertory Theatre at the Leo Kreielsheimer Theatre, Seattle Center, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, Oct. 15-Nov. 29. (206) 443-2222.




at the Moulton Theater

Reviewed by Kristina Mannion

The relationship game: an exhilarating roller coaster ride, a game of Russian roulette, or a romantic and idyllic pursuit? When set to Joe DiPietro's lyrics and Jimmy Roberts' music in the musical sketch comedy I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change, it's all of those things and more. But above all it's a hilariously familiar, touching, and thoroughly entertaining game with which we can all identify.

Featuring a sharp comic sense interwoven with memorable melodies, this Off-Broadway success is a smart revue that uses a tight series of musical numbers and vignettes to both satirize and glorify the rituals of dating, marriage, and parenthood. Now enjoying its completely sold out West Coast premiere at Laguna Playhouse, it's easy to understand the universal appeal of I Love You's careworn subject matter. Imbued with infectious energy and charm, the cast of this production--expertly led by the New York production's director, Joel Bishoff--takes the work's mix of humor and sentiment to the limit, showcasing DiPietro's keen grasp of relationship thrills and woes, as well as their own.

The set by Neil Peter Jampolis, another original from the New York show, is a spare yet versatile backdrop. Furniture and props move in and out of the wings underneath a centerstage balcony that houses musical director/pianist Diane King Vann and violinist Arthur Howanski. From their vantage point, these accompanists skillfully give life to Roberts' blend of tunes, which range from sweetly subtle to jazzy and upbeat.

Providing the vocal, comedic, and dramatic interpretation, the four-member cast proves to be the show's best asset. Effortlessly shifting gears through the revue's endless array of characters and situations, they each demonstrate strong vocal talent and a gift for making us laugh and sigh as we recognize a bit of ourselves in their foibles. There isn't one number that misses the mark as Andrea Chamberlain, Gary Imhoff, Susan Hoffman, and Larry Raben work together smoothly from the humorous opening number, "Cantata for a First Date," to the spirited title song finish.

Their lively teamwork is also balanced by confident solo performances: Powered by Hoffman, the lament of "Always a Bridesmaid" is a self-esteem-boosting tribute to single women; Imhoff's swaggering lead in "On the Highway of Love" is a rousing macho accomplishment, and Chamberlain and Raben show their capacity for sentiment in "I Will Be Loved Tonight" and "Shouldn't I Be Less in Love with You?", respectively.

No matter what avenue of relationships is explored--romantic bliss or dating agony--this delightful presentation is sure to strike a familiar chord, as well as the funny bone.

"I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change," presented by the Laguna Playhouse at the Moulton Theater, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach. Nov. 4-30. (714) 497-2787. (the run is sold out)


at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

Reviewed by Les Spindle

Former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby is flying high--both literally and figuratively--as she reprises her Tony-nominated title role in the latest Broadway-bound revival of the classic 1954 musical fantasy Peter Pan. Under Glenn Casale's superb direction, there is magic to spare in this exuberant production.

Originally conceived, directed, and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, with no specific mention of a book writer, the musical is based on Sir James Barrie's 1904 London play. Robbins' period piece is from the old school of Broadway musicals, in which high spirits were favored over suffering and angst, and show scores emphasized hummable melodies over dissonant music set to cynical lyrics. The soaringly beautiful score is by Moose Charlap (music) and Carolyn Leigh (lyrics), with additional material by Jule Styne (music) and Betty Comden and Adolph Green (lyrics). The familiar story is about the magical boy who refuses to grow up and his wondrous adventures in Never Never Land, where he takes the three Darling children on the journey of their lives. The plot is simple, but the mythical fable retains a seductively bewitching quality.

Beginning with its non-musical origins, the play traditionally cast women such as Jean Arthur and Eva LeGallienne in the role of Peter and became strongly associated with Mary Martin in the popular Broadway and television musical productions of the '50s. Rigby eloquently stakes her claim on the part, charming us with her delightful singing voice and her charismatic characterization, as well as her graceful athletic prowess. She is matched by Paul Schoeffler's masterful comic portrayal of the dastardly Captain Hook.

The supporting cast is universally superb. And look for a surprising cameo appearance in two small roles: Aileen Quinn, who played the title role in one of the last big-budget Hollywood musicals, 1982's Annie.

The old-fashioned storybook sets by John Iacovelli and extravagant costumes by Shigeru Yaji are utterly captivating. Adding to the triumph are the miraculous flying effects by ZFX, Inc., Martin Aronstein's impeccable lighting, Patti Colombo's fun-filled choreography, and Craig Barna's zesty musical direction.

"Peter Pan," presented by McCoy Rigby Entertainment, the Nederlander Organization, and La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in association with Albert Nicciolino, Larry Payton, and Lynn Singleton at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Nov. 7 -23. (562) 944-9801.


at the Intiman Playhouse

Reviewed by David-Edward Hughes

Watching actress Mary Alice onstage in The Old Settler at the Intiman Theatre is about as sublime a pleasure as the arts have to offer us, for this is a superb actress at the top of her form. The Old Settler also happens to be a marvelously old-fashioned serving of character-driven drama by playwright John Henry Redwood, and the Intiman production is directed with assurance and care by Claude Purdy.

Set in 1940s Harlem during wartime, Mary Alice plays a maiden lady named Elizabeth Borny, whose one hope for romance was dashed when her younger sister Quilly stole her beau and married him. After years of estrangement, Elizabeth has taken Quilly, now separated, into her home, but not as her only roomer. A lanky, handsome, if somewhat dull-witted fellow named Husband Witherspoon, who has come North seeking his old flame, Lou Bessie, is also on the premises, and working his way into Elizabeth's affections.

Lou Bessie does turn up--as a tawdry and over-made up good-time girl--and mocks the obvious attraction Elizabeth, whom she dubs the Old Settler, has for Husband. The ensuing events are hardly surprising, but thanks to a stellar quartet of actors they culminate in a big emotional payoff.

Gwen Mulamba is full of sass and attitude as Lou Bessie, a Carmen Jones wannabe. Evan Dexter Parke is likeable, charming, and touching as Husband. But the show mostly belongs to the two sisters, and as fine as Mary Alice's work is, much of her effectiveness is due to having Barbara Montgomery's blustery but ultimately kind-hearted Quilly to play off of. A standout scene, poignantly revisited in the finale, has Alice trying to get Montgomery to reprise an old spiritual, "Didn't It Rain, Children?" that they sang time and again as girls. "You always had the solo," the doughty Montgomery reminds Alice, "and all I got to sing was, 'Woo-woo!' " And Alice is at her most potent when her pent-up anger over her sister's long-ago betrayal comes bubbbling out.

The Old Settler looks as good as it plays thanks to Peggy McDonald's realistic set, which goes the distance by showing us the facade of the building across the street; hauntingly beautiful lighting by Phil Monat, and costumes by Michael Alan Stein, including an outrageous zoot suit for Husband. These elements firmly anchor the play in its period, as do the musical selections of sound designer Stephen M. Klein.

"The Old Settler," presented by the Intiman Theatre at the Intiman Playhouse, Seattle Center, 201 Mercer St., Seattle. Oct. 29-Nov. 22. (206) 269-1900.



at Intersection for the Arts

Reviewed by Kerry Reid

Gertrude Stein remains one of those 20th-century literary figures that almost everyone knows and hardly anyone reads. Beyond reciting "A rose is a rose is a rose" and recognizing the early support she gave to artists such as Ernest Hemingway and Picasso, most of us remain foggy about Stein, particularly when it comes to her theatrical output.

The Fifth Floor's current production of Stein's Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights should go at least part of the way toward remedying that situation. Judith Malina, whose Living Theatre produced Stein's re-imagining of the Faust story in 1951, said, "Her words are symbols, a quality that is becoming to the theme."

Indeed, one of the joys of Fifth Floor's imaginative and audacious vision of Stein's play is the way that the actors, under the direction of Kenn Watt, savor the dizzying wordplay and epistemological puzzles woven through the fabric of Stein's work. Fifth Floor also adds elements of traditional Japanese performance and snippets of 1960s Japanese action movies to its kaleidoscopic collage.

The story, as such, is simple: Mephisto (Liam Vincent, in drag) buys the soul of Dr. Faustus (Richard Ciccarone), who believes there is no way of proving he has a soul in the first place. Mephisto spends the rest of the show trying to shepherd Dr. Faustus into hell, with the help of several co-conspirators (or are they?). Ciccarone's performance is a delight, and the stab-and-parry between him and Vincent offers some of the comic highlights of the evening. (Mephisto: "You deceived me and I am never deceived." Faustus: "You deceived me and I am always deceived.")

Faustus' obsession with light could be viewed either as overweening hubris--the arrogance of 20th-century man's faith in technology--or as his desire to help humanity, even as he pushes aside all the people with whom he comes in contact; at one point, Faustus plaintively says, "I cannot bear to have no care. I like it bright."

Simple plot summary doesn't really apply to Stein's (or Fifth Floor's) world. What matter are the details of the performance, which are joyously realized by Watt's terrific ensemble. In particular, I was struck by the terrific control these actors have of their voices and bodies. Watt's cast has the uncanny ability to convey the rhythms of Stein's language without letting it sink into somnolent word salad, and they deftly bridge the many styles used in the production, from slapstick to kabuki to musical comedy dance numbers.

Nina Gold, as the dual-named (and dual-natured) Marguerite Ida and Helena Annabel, assays the transformation of her character from na•ve maiden to schemer with skill and verve. John Flanigan, as the Dog who says "thank you" repeatedly, and Patrick Costigan as the Boy provide hilarious choral counterpoint, while Sommer Ulrickson as Mephista and Rick Paxson as the Man From Across the Sea bring finely honed physical grace to their roles. Michael Woody's sound and music effects and Kate Boyd's lighting design add richness and texture to the small Intersection stage.

I can't pretend to know what it all was supposed to mean, but that's either very much to the point or very much beside the point. I do know that the Fifth Floor folks have come up with a production that disproves the popular conception that experimental theatre has to be tedious and inaccessible. For that alone, they deserve plaudits.

"Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights," presented by the Fifth Floor and Intersection for the Arts at Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia St., San Francisco. Nov. 9-30. (415) 626-3311.


at the Stella Adler Theatre

Reviewed by Madeleine Shaner

Spirit Awakening movingly charts a young woman's journey of self-discovery, from tribal princess in Ghana to schoolgirl in England to a streetwise African-American culture in Spanish Harlem, and finally to a mountaintop in the Caribbean where she finds her selfhood.

Akuyoe Graham has not only written her life--she lives it onstage in her self-directed play, playing all the parts. We see the young girl Charlotte, spirited from her uncaring father by a disillusioned mother, dropped into a "colorless" society in cold, gray London, where a racist and condescending teacher, Miss Coat, convinces her to hide her rather embarrassing self under a cloak of ordinariness, and to eat her sprouts. In the streets of Spanish Harlem, Akuyoe finds herself face to face with, "Yo, boo-wana, where's your spear?" and a different kind of racism that distinguishes between black, light black, and too black.

Hiding in the smart cafƒ society cultivated by her fellow acting-class members, Charlotte/Akuyoe is once again in a league of her own, not fully accepted, not fully accepting of herself. Her smooth, brown boyfriend, Dylan, for whom "Africa's nothing but droughts and animals," is afraid of being too ethnic, while her gangbanger buddy, Kola Blue, asks, "Why you wanna be an ice queen when you're a born warrior woman?" Tossed between a proud mother who is adrift herself and friends who want her to be exotic but not too much so, between opportunities lost to racism and her own constant self-doubts, Akuyoe retreats from a cheating lover and climbs her mountain.

Her epiphany is deeply moving, spiritual, and poetic. Accompanied by the tribal music and drums of Stanley Benders and Joshua Natural Sound, Akuyoe paints a remarkable self-portrait, graceful and resonant, in authentic kente colors.

"Spirit Awakening," presented by Robert Chartoff at the Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., 2nd fl., Hollywood. Oct. 24-Nov. 23. (213) 660-8587.



at West Coast Ensemble

Reviewed by Terri Roberts

Poor Artie Shaughnessy. All he really wants to do is write and perform his marginally mediocre music under a soothing blue spotlight. Instead, he gets a hot red spot and a red tinsel curtain. He's got Bananas, his certifiably crazy wife, who's built a cozy nest for herself inside a storage space in the living room. He's got Bunny, his lovably crazy mistress who lives one floor beneath him, and can whip herself and Artie into a sexual frenzy by frantically whisking a bowlful of eggs. And he's got his job at Central Park Zoo as a caretaker to the animals, most of whom are pregnant and ready to drop at any moment.

He might have been able to manage it all if only his son hadn't gone AWOL, a trio of nuns hadn't invaded his apartment, and the Pope hadn't come to town.

Playwright John Guare's award-winning farce, The House of Blue Leaves, gets a splendid treatment at West Coast Ensemble. Jessica Kubzansky directs with a light, quick touch that serves her well through most of the show, though it tends to dart right through some of the play's more poignant moments, particularly those with Bananas.

Steven Einspahr is a treasure as the good-hearted Artie, whose desperation to do the right thing for everybody drives him much too close to the edge. Lori Harmon's Bunny is a wonderfully wacky woman with a bold and brassy New York accent and attitude. Dalene Young has her own crazy charm as the buggy Bananas, even if some of her character's tenderness is lost in the lunacy.

David Kaufman is dynamite as Artie's deranged, bomb-weilding son, Ronnie, and Jon Stafford has all the right moves as Hollywood hotshot Billy Einhorn. Anne Etue, Valerie Doran, and Yuria Kim are heavenly as the nuns, and Kate Connor has some very funny moments as the hard-of-hearing actress Corrinna Stroller.

James Ward Byrkit's gorgeous set and Eliana Ben-Zeev's period- and personality-perfect costumes are strong complements to this delightfully zany production.

"The House of Blue Leaves," presented by and at the West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea, Los Angeles. Nov. 7-Dec. 14. (213) 525-0022.


at the Actors' Gang El Centro Space

Reviewed by Les Spindle

The brainstorm of Keythe Farley and Brian Flemming (book) and Laurence O'Keefe (music and lyrics) was to parlay the infamous 1992 tabloid story about a half-boy/half-bat into an offbeat musical. The story clearly has the makings of a camp horror classic along the lines of Little Shop of Horrors, as well as a heartwarming fable with mythic resonance, a la Beauty and the Beast. In its brief premiere engagement, Bat Boy: The Musical appears to be aiming for both. While the show has no trouble whatsoever in achieving giddily hilarious camp, its attempts to stir the emotions and the intellect are more problematic.

The story tells of three West Virginia youths who are attacked by the freakish bat-boy while exploring a cave. The local sheriff (Don Luce) brings the creature to the home of veterinarian Thomas Parker (Chris Wells). Parker's wife (Kaitlin Hopkins) and teenage daughter (Ann Closs) take a liking to the pathethic being and attempt to nourish and civilize him, turning him, Pygmalion-style, from antisocial urchin to sensitive sophisticate. (The number "Show You a Thing or Two" humorously recalls "The Rain in Spain" from My Fair Lady.) But Parker holds a mysterious grudge against Bat Boy, and the gossipy local citizens unequivocally want to see him destroyed.

The first act is chock full of broad humor that successfully segues into suspense and poignancy, whetting one's appetite for a smashing second act. But the show seems to lose its sense of direction, never quite recovering from the ludicrous scene in which the truth about Bat Boy's origin is revealed. On the night I attended, the actors also apparently had trouble dealing with this jarring segment, as they broke character and had prolonged difficulty regaining their composure. Subsequent attempts to feel any empathy flew right out the window quicker than a you-know-what out of hell.

The production's strongest assets are an exemplary ensemble cast, highlighted by Deven May's bravura characterization of the title character, and Farley's flamboyant direction. From its nervously amusing opening scene, Farley's vibrant staging grabs our attention, and it is well served by David F. Hahn's harshly ambient lighting and Adam Philius' appropriately spooky sound recording. Blending traditional Broadway book musical songs with a Webber-influenced pop-opera style, O'Keefe's score is serviceable if unmemorable, with the exception of a couple of stirring ballads ("Brief Shining Moment" and "Let It Be Me"). Derick Lasalla's choreography is witty and energetic.

A four-star salute is due to the team who created the spectacular makeup, special effects, and unique props and animal masks (David Rockello, Xander Berkeley, Greg Gibbs, and Chris Bell).

Quibbles aside, this work-in-progress holds great promise. The score certainly could be improved, but the crucial challenge is finding the right balance between silliness and genuine heart. Meanwhile, audiences out for a Saturday night hoot may consider the nitpicky carpings of a jaded critic to be only so much bat guano.

"Bat Boy: The Musical," presented by the Actors' Gang at the Actors' Gang El Centro Space, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Nov. 7-Dec. 7. (213) 660-8587.


at the Tamarind Theatre

Reviewed by Wenzel Jones

It's an odd hybrid, this 1980s musical about three standups. Jerry Colker's book concerns Ted (Joshua Campbell) and Kenny (Jeff Trachta), friends and comics who work individually, though Kenny's acts consist largely of portraying persecuted religious figures in the middle of other people's sets. "Angry guy" comic Phil (Kevin Spirtas) joins the fold when it looks as if there's a shot at a guest spot on Carson for a Marx/Ritz Brothers-style act. They get on, of course, and do what must be the longest Tonight Show set ever, which immediately leads--but naturally--to a series that runs forever. It then becomes a drag act. Honest.

Once you get past the general weirdness of the material, though, the work is admirable. Ron Palillo proves an adept director with a keen eye for comedy. Spirtas and Campell each embody that blend of charm and abrasiveness that makes real comics so irritating to know, while Trachta well, if I've ever said an unkind thing about genetically blessed soap opera actors--and I truly doubt that I have--it's possible I may have been generalizing a tad too broadly. As the sick puppy of the group, he's both hilarious and disturbing, displaying a gift for mimicry and sly comic timing.

Michael Rupert's tunes, like some unstable local wines, shouldn't be exported, in this instance much past the lobby, and some of them don't do all that well on their home turf. "What a Ride" is the sort of hopes-and-dreams number traditionally performed by 50 unculled females each September, not by emotionally guarded comics. And the show's story of travail and compromise in the service of success plays out in a rather unsurprising fashion--a bit like a remake of Valley of the Dolls without the estrogen.

"3 Guys Naked From the Waist Down," presented by Pearl Productions, the Highland Company, in association with Tom Kendall at the Tamarind Theatre, 5919 Franklin Ave., Hollywood. Oct. 30-Dec. 21. (213) 660-8587.


at the New Conservatory Theatre Center

Reviewed by Kerry Reid

Tim Miller gained national attention in 1990 as one of the "NEA Four," solo performance artists who lost their NEA grants (and regained them after suing) as part of the Republican backlash against art deemed by the philistine powers-that-be as too controversial and "pornographic" to be worthy of taxpayers' dollars.

Yet despite his reputation as enfant terrible, Miller's latest show, Shirts & Skin, is actually more sweetly nostalgic than political. Drawing upon a handful of stories from his just-released book of the same title, Shirts & Skin has many elements that are seemingly commonplace in any gay coming-of-age story--a first adolescent realization of same-sex longings, a political awakening, escape from a stifling suburban atmosphere to the heady freedom (and concomitant pitfalls) of big-city life.

Miller the writer has a real gift for the witty and unexpected turn of phrase, and he knows where the metaphors for his stories lie. What's lacking is the same thing missing from a majority of solo shows I've seen lately: a structure for moving the stories along, and for letting the audience know where the performer is at emotionally in the material. The challenge of solo performance is finding the balance between narration and "in-the-moment" acting, and Miller hasn't completely found it in his new outing. This may be due in part to the loose nature of the stories themselves, since what Miller is performing is actually a sort of theatrical pick-a-mix from what he describes as the first quarter of his book.

Miller the performer also has a tendency to burst out onto the stage at top energy levels, which, while engaging, also takes some getting used to. His breathless and somewhat mannered style also makes it difficult at times to find the quietly beating heart of his narrative.

These problems aside, several of Miller's story have a bittersweet and wistful joy to them. The strongest among them are his recollections of his lesbian Latina high school German teacher, Fraulein Rodriguez, who taught him "the irregular forms of the verb 'to be,'"--a simple and aptly moving metaphor for the self-knowledge Miller is seeking throughout the pieces. He also brings a giddy nostalgia to his reminiscences of living in a cheap-but-spooky Lower East Side apartment building which he and his neighbor/friend/eventual lover Martin dubbed "the maw of death." This piece beautifully captures the exhilaration of first tasting la vie Boheme in all its strange glory and difficulty, and ends on the mournful note of Martin's death from "you know what," Miller says, as he angrily spells out the word "AIDS" in the air.

The central metaphor Miller explores --the "shirts" he has worn at various stages of his life--are personified by a clothesline at the back of the stage on which he hangs his T-shirts. The image feels a bit belabored by evening's end, perhaps because we haven't always had a chance to really sense how Miller felt about himself at each of these stops along the way. Still, the show made me want to pick up his book and explore his journey a bit more fully, which I certainly don't feel about every solo performer I've seen.

"Shirts & Skin," presented by and at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, Nov. 7-23. (415) 861-8972.


at the Intermediate Theatre

Reviewed by Jeremy Kemp

From the hot water heater's flickering pilot light to snow dusting the window panes to the smell of frying onions cooked on a real stove top, director Stephen Hollis surrounds his players in a breathtakingly realistic swatch of dingy London. Scenic designer David Crank fills the flat with gritty bits of urban living, while Karl Mansfield creates the perfect soundscape, complete with a neighbor's annoying industrial rock and children playing in the street below.

This pungent realism sets the stage for brilliant debate as Kyra and Tom are reunited after three years of romantic exile. Both have been busy licking their psychic wounds in isolation. Wealthy restaurateur Tom, played with appropriate bluster by veteran actor Roger Forbes, has holed up in the "Green Fortress" of Wimbledon following the early death of his wife. Idealistic teacher Kyra, portrayed with acrobatic emotional range by Kate Levy, has thrown herself into social work since her six-year affair with Tom was discovered.

Tom and Kyra hold strong political positions--par for the course in David Hare's plays--and spend windy monologues positing the benefits of social commitment against the acquisition of wealth. Both admit to hiding behind walls of self-sacrifice and riches, though each also succeeds in lobbing a few missiles directly on target. But below the dry political material, Hare weaves an exquisitely messy undercurrent of lust and personal longing between the two lovers. Ironically, tycoon Tom is drawn to Kyra's strength, and she in turn needs his warmth.

Tom leaves early the next morning, with neither side winning the political debate outright. And since their love affair is never fully rekindled, one is left with an empty feeling. Maybe things could have been different if the two were able to set the polemics aside.

"Skylight," presented by Portland Center Stage at the Intermediate Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, Portland. Nov. 7-29. (503) 274-6588.


at Actors Alley at the El Portal

Reviewed by Zach Udko

Two gangsters with more money than they can handle and a strong sense of "Old World values" are big suckers for the American musical. So what else is new? Unfortunately, not much in this clichƒ-ridden production of Tom Dulack's mildly diverting Off-Broadway hit, Breaking Legs. One might call it Kiss Me, Kate without Kate.

Dulack's send-up imagines a middle-aged, divorced college professor (Henry LeBlanc) taking his play about a murder to a couple of gangsters who are willing to dump a million bucks into the financing of the show. Matters get complicated when Papa Lou Graziano's (Tony C. Burton) daughter Angie (Kristine Berard) falls in love with the professor, and an actual death just so happens to hit the family.

It's a somewhat cute show, but it's hard for an audience to care about anything if the central lovers simply aren't believable. LeBlanc is too fidgety and awkward, while Berard falls in and out of what should be a very funny character; there is certainly a lack of focus during her down time, to say the least.

Indeed, this production could have veered into community theatre territory were it not for its authentic taste of New York's Little Italy. There's no doubt that the tastelessly dressed Mike Francisco (Sam Ingraffia) and his associate Tino De Felice (John Edwin Shaw) are the driving forces behind all the shtick here, and the two actors prove to be true comic talents playing well off one another.

You can imagine how much mileage Dulack gets out of the theatrical expression "break a leg," and the always sincere "may he rest in peace." A few choice one-liners ("I didn't know the Medicis were into banking," or "Tommy Lasorda would make a great president"), along with some clever and competent direction by Jeremiah Morris (check out how he juxtaposes orgasms and murder), add much-needed touches of originality to the piece's overall banality.

Terry Evans' well-designed set works perfectly for the little Italian restaurant, complete with the smell of fresh garlic in the air. With all the talk of homemade Italian risotto, meatballs, and parmigiana, you better arrive on a full stomach.

"Breaking Legs," presented by Actors Alley at the El Portal, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood. Oct. 17-Dec. 14. (818) 508-4200.



at South Coast Repertory's Second Stage

Reviewed by Wenzel Jones

Rachel Hauck's chillingly simple set, a gelid creation of steel mesh and flat gray surfaces, is your first indication that good times are not just around the corner for any of the characters in Stuart Flack's play. Dr. Philip Litwin (Tony Roberts) settles into his first-class seat on a flight bound for Australia and begins intoning, in but the first time we're witness to a character in a down spot in an especially portentous frame of mind.

Litwin is a fabulously successful cardiologist--a mega-millionaire, in fact. He re-reads Moby Dick every year. He plays jazz with his attorney and financial adviser, Marcel (the understated Hal Landon Jr.). Stop me when I find a characteristic you can identify with. Investments take an unbelievably--stress on the unbelievably--bad turn. Passions surface. Eyes glaze over in the house.

It's a credit to Juliette Carrillo's direction that the audience doesn't start making paper airplanes 30 minutes into the evening, as Flack's script is mired in obscure symbols, the most esoteric of which is the eponymous Sidney Bechet. It would seem that for a jazz musician to work as a symbol of anything we'd have to have--well, heard of him before reading the program notes. Scrimshaw also makes a rather surprising appearance.

Roberts, primarily known for his work in light comedy, is an arresting presence. His supporting cast is exceptional, particularly Barbara Tarbuck as the distraught wife and the captivating Mirron E. Willis in a variety of smaller roles. Gail Shapiro turns in finely crafted performances in three roles, while Gabe Wolpa is probably the cutest, if not most articulate (it's OK, he's too young to read this) child currently tromping about a stage. As theatre, it's quite dense, and by the end of it, you'll feel as if you are, too.

"Sidney Bechet Killed a Man," presented by South Coast Repertory at SCR's Second Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Oct. 31-Nov. 30. (714) 708-5555