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LA Theater Review

Backstreet

This musical—with a book by Evelyn Rudie, Matthew Wrather, and director Chris DeCarlo—has an engaging premise but was much more effective when originally produced at the Santa Monica Playhouse in 1998. During the first act of the current revival, the music so overpowers the singers that their voices are virtually inaudible, while most of the lyrics are incomprehensible. The problem is particularly evident in the group numbers. It's too bad, because the words and music by Rudie and Wrather—at least those lyrics that could be understood—have great charm. Major overhauling by music director Serena Dolinsky is required.

Set in a brothel housing Jewish prostitutes in a New York ghetto at the turn of the last century, the play tells the story of Uncle (DeCarlo), the owner of the "house," who is determined that his daughter (Dolinsky) shall remain pure and so above reproach that he will be able to arrange a respectable marriage for her. He believes it falls to her to atone for his sins and those of her dead prostitute mother. His daughter, however, has other ideas and eventually falls for a young Russian immigrant (Brad Geyer), who is taken in and given work by the de facto madam of the establishment (Rudie).

The direction by DeCarlo lacks shading and selective emphasis, so there is no sense of the desperation that forced these "working girls" into the life they lead. We also feel no empathy for these women because we never get to know them as individuals, except for the character of Hindl, played by Carolyn Freeman Champ, who has a touching turn with "In the Summer of My 14th Year."

As Hindl's lover, James Hassett does some of the best work of the evening. Rudie projects a warm, motherly quality as the madam who has also taken the place of Uncle's late wife, but her speech pattern is a trifle too proper for this character, while DeCarlo has moments that strikingly reveal Uncle's inner turmoil. Most impressive, however, is the exquisite costume design by Ashley Hayes and Cheryl Jennings.


Presented by and at the Other Space at the Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. May 15–June 20. Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m. (310) 394-9779, ext. 1. www.santamonicaplayhouse.com.

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