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by Lucy Komisar

Photo from 2001: A Spoof Odyssey
Christine Pedi, Felicia Finley, Danny Gerwin, and Tony Nation are outrageous in "2001: A Spook Odyssey." Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Contents: December 23, 2000:
(1)"2001: A Spoof Odyssey"
(3)"A Class Act"
(4)"Jane Eyre"
(5)"The Rocky Horror Show"

"2001: A Spoof Odyssey"
by Gerard Alessandrini, directed by Phillip George & Gerard Alessandrini
Produced by John Freedson, Harriet Yellin, Joan B. Platt
Stardust Theatre, 1650 Bway & W. 51 Street
239-6200, 800-432-7250
Opened December 6, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 23, 2000 (opening was delayed after press previews)
"Forbidden Broadway" started 18 years ago and has become an institution in New York theater, an indispensable comic reality check for fans of Broadway musicals. The latest version, "2001: A Spoof Odyssey," is funny, clever, and on-the-mark. This tuneful parody of Broadway fare features four performers who have just as much talent as the actors they imitate. Some have played big-time musicals shows themselves.

Gerard Alessandrini's show takes off from the first moment, when a "patron" wandering in the aisle talks loudly into a cell phone and comments on the show. But the production is not just simple parody. It's an insider's review of the Broadway stage -- both the business and creative ends.

There are send-ups of corporatization, revivals, plays with scenery but no substance, and over-miked music without melody. Is the Roundabout's new 42nd Street theater named after American Airlines? A stewardess announces, "If the show stinks, an oxygen mask will be lowered."

The satire can be hard-hitting. Tony Nation does "Saturday Night Fever" ("They're staying away...") with an off-key Brooklyn accent. Felicia Finley in Aida's red robe and headdress warbles that, "The story is so stifling and thin, we could suffocate like that!"

What if The Girl in the Yellow Dress of "Contact" spoke via a tape recorder, which is how the music is presented in the play? What if music was added to "Faffling, Baffling Copenhagen"?

The blockbusters get new twists. Danny Gurwin is a perfect "Cabaret" emcee in red candy paper nipples. Christine Pedi uses her powerhouse voice to portray Ethel Merman in a roiling musical duel with Elton John. And there's Hamlet as a baffling character in "The Lion King."

Looking for an answer to American's theater troubles? Christine Pedi turns into Judy Dench dressed as Queen Elizabeth I, and wonders, "Why can't Americans do theater by the Brits? Our shows are better even though we're snobby twits." Costume designer Alvin Colt has attired her in a massive gold gown and tiara. Colt ought to get equal star billing. His costumes are outlandishly wonderful.

That also goes for choreographer Phillip George, who creates sprightly comic numbers like "Steam Heat," in which the players bemoan the physical ailments suffered by twisting, writhing Fosse dancers. And for set designer Bradley Kaye, who adorns "Phantom" with a descending mini-chandelier.

You don't have to have seen many Broadway's plays to appreciate the show. There are parodies of old standards: Edith Piaff with a outsized trill and Barbra Streisand crooning, "Who made a farewell tour twice before? Me! Who wished she could run with Al Gore? Me!"

Now, if only all Broadway musicals were as witty!

book by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, music by Flaherty, lyrics by Ahrens, directed by Frank Galati
produced by SFX Theatrical Group, Barry & Fran Weissler, Universal Studios
Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46 Street
Opened November 9, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar December 7, 2000
David Shiner sets the tone for this charming, whimsical fantasy with a quirky, wry mood that has a wink for adults as well as a tickle for kids. My mouth stayed pulled in a persistent grin, and the five-year-old sitting next to me could hardly contain her delight. Here are songs with a jazzy, traditional-musical feel and costumes that burst forth in pastel feathers, streamers, sequins and boas. Here is also Dr. Seuss pumping for freedom of thought, against militarism, and for a humanism that values every individual. It's a typical good-music, good-politics combination by the team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, who also created "Ragtime."

The words are mired in childish repetition, but the staging is lively and joyful. Presiding is Shiner as "the Cat in the Hat" with a crooked rubbery grin and a quick wit. He entertains the adults from a balcony box where he answers his cell phone with, "No thank you, I'm very happy with my long distance provider." Pulled by a propeller-driven umbrella and wearing earphones, he gives a drive-time traffic report. He also delivers a few throwaway lines in good German and mimics a Spanish waiter with a guttural throat-clearing "how lucky you jar!" Then there's the welcome to Seusseby's auction.

The real "plot," patched from various Seuss story poems, involves Horton the honorable elephant (Kevin Chamberlin), a humanist who devotes himself to preserving life in the face of the ridicule and abuse of the other inhabitants of the Jungle of Nool. Chamberlin makes him a kind, if slightly goofy hero.

Examining a clover flower, he spies, or rather hears, the voices of the microscopic people of Who, who exist on a speck of dust. The mayor's son Jojo (Anthony Blair Hall) is sent away to military school by his parents who don't like the fact he thinks his own "thinks." Hall is charming as the kid with too much imagination, with real presence and a sweet voice.

Comic high points are the bits with the mad General Genghis Khan Schmidt (William Ryall) who advises that kids with opinions be sent to the military. "When they suffer, the boys get tougher. Hell, have some fun and pack a gun." He orders the children hunkering around sandbags in their bright yellow uniforms to shoot traitors and out-of-towners who eat their toast with the butter on the wrong side. The rebellious Jojo proclaims: "This makes no sense," adding, "I don't think it's right teaching children to fight."

Life in the jungle is not much better. Horton refuses to climb out of the tree where he's sitting on an egg deserted by the irresponsible bird, Mayzie (a playfully comic and mellow-voiced Michele Pawk). A sitting elephant for hunters, he is kidnapped and sold to a circus.

There's also a lesson about physical beauty. Mayzie, who has plenty of cleavage as well as a lush tail-feather bustle, arouses the envy of Gertrude (Janine LaMann), who decides to get feather implants to make herself attractive to Horton. She learns a lesson when her long appendage makes it impossible for her to fly. (The love story between "plain" Gertrude and homely, fat Horton seems rather forced.)

The cartoonish set features red clouds in a green jungle, a magical bathtub atop a maze of pipes, piles of circus cages, an egg in a tubular tree, and shimmering lights that illuminate the backdrop and sweep the ceiling.

The music is sparkling, tuneful and varied. Sharon Wilkins, the Sour Kangaroo, does song numbers with an appealing jazzy voice and style. Kathleen Marshall has designed engaging dances to vaudeville, jazz, Latin music and gospel. Three tough blues-singing monkeys do a menacing, jivey number. The "Cat" and his helpers shuffle a pleasing soft-shoe. A ballet of fish swims up out of the bathtub, and bird dancers parade like showgirls.

Director Frank Galati, who is listed on the program, was replaced by Rob Marshall, Kathleen Marshall's brother. The two are a happy match.

TV talk show host Rosie O'Donnell will play the Cat in the Hat for evening performances Jan. 16 to Feb. 10 while Shiner is on vacation. Understudy Bryan Batt, a talented "Forbidden Broadway" veteran, will do matinees.

"A Class Act"
music and lyrics by Edward Kleban, book by Linda Kline and Lonny Price
produced by Manhattan Theatre Club
City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55 Street
Opened November 9, 2000
Closed December 3, 2000, moves to Broadway Feb. 14, 2001
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar November 7, 2000

A theater artist dazzles with a Broadway megahit, but what's his life like leading up to that and afterwards? That's the theme of "A Class Act," a musical biography drawn from the life and work of Edward Kleban, who wrote the lyrics for "A Chorus Line."

Kleban died in 1987 of lung cancer; he was only 48. Linda Kline, his real-life girlfriend for years, and Lonny Price took his songs and built around them the memorial he would have liked -- a musical stage show.

In some ways, this play is a bit like "A Chorus Line" in that it tells the story of the struggle for success in the theater through the prism of an artist's drive, dreams, failures and heartaches, including those that come from not being good enough. And there's the rub. Kleban's work is not always good enough, especially in his early days.

At a "memorial service," his friends look back over his life and art. He was a neurotic who burned with ambition. Portrayed by Lonny Price, bearded, balding, with glasses and not much personal presence, he's shown starting out at classes at the BMI Musical Theater Workshop, where composer Lehman Engel (Jonathan Freeman) teaches young hopefuls to write theater songs. You meet there Lucy (Carolee Carmello) the perky woman who would be his girlfriend and Felicia (Julia Murney) a future tough Columbia Records exec.

You see him battling angst in his career, getting a job at Columbia Records, landing an assignment working with British director John Gielgud on a musical play. His arrogance is so inappropriate to his place that Gielgud fires him. Price plays Kleban as such a nebbish that you also wonder what the women saw in him. But like Kleban, this show gets better as it progresses. It picks up with the stylish top hat and cane production of "Gaughin's Shoes." The personable Randy Graff, who plays his childhood sweetheart, Sophie, charms with her melodic "Follow Your Star." It takes off in the second half, especially with Graff's tender "Next Best Thing to Love." Scott Wise has contributed sparkling dance numbers. And Price directs with verve and energy.

Kleban's songs are expressive about life's emotional peaks and valleys, but the spoken dialogue is often silly or flat, including the few attempts at jokes: "Entertainment Tonight is for people too stupid to read People." And, "No one who writes a hit musical is straight."

Price doesn't have much of a voice, but Graff and Carmello have fine, mellow tones. Freeman is very good as Lehman, the fey teacher with a snappy red vest and theatrical style.

Kleban's frustration was that producers wanted his words not his music, but there's nothing in the production that shows they were wrong. Still, the show is like the vision we get of Kleban himself: not lastingly memorable, but with moments of great charm.

"Jane Eyre"
book and additional lyrics by John Caird, music and lyrics by Paul Gordon, directed by John Caird & Scott Schwartz
produced by Annette Niemtzow, Janet Robinson, Pamela Koslow and Margaret McFeeley Golden in assn with Jennifer Manocherian and Carolyn Kim McCarthy
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47 Street
Opened December 10, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar December 14, 2000

Musicals used to have lilting, melodic styles that had you humming their tunes. Now, you're as likely to leave the theater thinking of somebody playing scales. Paul Gordon's music for "Jane Eyre" is done in the monotonous, generic, pop-operetta recitative style aimed at an audience whose sense of melody was destroyed by rock.

The language of John Caird's book is equally uninspiring, with such cliches as Jane's yearning to fly "over mountains, over oceans" and her plea that "heaven take me away, for I long for my liberty, sweet liberty, I pray"

The characters have none of the depth or complexity that Charlotte Bronte gave her heroine and hero in 1847. There's no hint of the feminism or repressed sexuality that were central, for instance, to the brilliant "Jane Eyre" staged by the British company, Shared Experience, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in February. In fact, when Jane declares at the end, "I am an independent woman," it's taken to mean only that she has inherited money.

Bronte's story tells of poor orphaned Jane, brought up by a mean aunt and then in a rigid school for girls, who becomes a governess for a rich man at a manor in the Yorkshire moors. She falls in love with him, but he is engaged to the daughter of a prominent family. And he has a terrible secret.

This production appears trying to be a gothic "Les Miserables," which Caird also co-directed. In fact, the best part is the saucy, cackling Mrs. Fairfax (Mary Stout), who speaks in verse and comes across like "Les Miz's" Madame Thenardier. The only other appealing figure is Adele, Rochester's child ward, played by Andrea Bowen as a captivating coquette. Then there's the mysterious fortune teller in a very clever bit of business. But the other characters are cardboard, and the show ends up more "Jekyll and Hyde" than "Les Miz."

The first part of the play has Jane (Marla Schaffel) narrating her life, which leaves Lisa Musser to portray young Jane as a mostly mute, dreary, wax statue. A black-clad Greek chorus occasionally represents the heroine in a pretentious attempt at arty-ness that seems artificially stuck on.

Caird and co-director Scott Schwartz rush to get over that awful childhood and onto Jane's romantic life. But once you get there, love desired, almost lost and regained occurs at breakneck speed. In the midst of that, Bertha (Marguerite MacIntyre), the madwoman in the attic, darts in and out, a necessary intrusion infused with none of the tragedy Bronte gave her. (Shared Experience portrayed her as Jane's repressed alter-ego.)

Some parts of the show hint at what might have happened if the authors had written more real musical numbers. Marla Schaffel, who has a rich voice and sweet, sensitive demeanor, does a charming "Painting Her Portrait." Mary Stout, who dominates the stage whenever she is on it, delights with a cackling "Slip of a Girl." And Elizabeth DeGrazia, Rochester's fiancee, wins the audience with an elegant, operatic "The Finer Things." However, James Barbour, who plays Rochester and previously starred in "Beauty and the Beast," has a pop voice with more power than melody and no warmth.

The moody, dark set by John Napier (who also did "Les Miz") features shifting scrims with projections that include attractive, impressionistic gates and trees and a remarkable rearing horse. Large paintings and windows float in space. The drawing room is furnished with elegant Louis XIV furniture. It's just the place to stage a dark and moody 19th century story with complex characters who don't talk in cliches.

"The Rocky Horror Show"
book, music & lyrics by Richard O'Brien, directed by Christopher Ashley
produced by Jordan Roth by arrangement with Christopher Malcom, Howare Panter, Richard O'Brien for the Rocky Horror Company Ltd.
Circle in the Square, 50th St. between Broadway & 8th Avenue
239-6200, 800-432-7250
Opened November 15, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar November 13, 2000

If you like rock 'n roll, MTV or drag shows, you'll love this revival of "The Rocky Horror Show." If you're looking for cleverness or wit, look elsewhere. As a friend of mine said, "The Rocky Horror show is not for those of us who were there the first time around." That's when the 1975 cult movie classic played midnight showings in towns and colleges around the country, and fans memorized the lines so they could shout and act them out in sync with the actors on the screen. (The original was a London stage show.)

In this theater version, it's all tamer and more orchestrated. Not that I want to see patrons marching up the aisles with giant phalluses. There were some yahoos in the audience shouting boorish remarks the night I was there, but most people just dutifully shout the responses and otherwise keep silent and seated.

The show seems to have a split personality. The campy opening, a black and white film with 1950's characters who step out of the celluloid onto the stage, is very funny, marked by a parody duet and a car ride into the woods. During the "walk in the rain," audience members copy the naive, nervous Janet (Alice Ripley) and Brad (Jarrod Emick) by holding newspapers over their heads. When a character says, "There's a light in the darkness," people wave flashlights conveniently supplied beforehand by ushers. The couple will end up at an ominous Transylvanian castle whose denizens' main occupation is having orgies.

Dick Cavett plays the emcee. He comments, "The Rocky idiot savants know every word of the script." The phrase reveals a slightly hidden contempt. He is in the play but outside and above it. He seems almost uncomfortable on stage, doing a few tentative dance turns with members, but relaxes when he sits on a platform high in the audience and reverts to a TV host doing topical jokes. He's at his best reading the narration, which he infuses with a "you don't really believe this nonsense" tone of voice.

For the rest, there's loud rock and roll, sexual gyrations, assaults, and no subtlety, and thus no humor, no camp, not from any of the sinister characters in their unisex bustiers, black-net stocks and platform heels, leather and chains. The not-terribly-imaginative set includes a lab with bubbling smoky plastic containers and a spider's net of electric cables.

The excellent Tom Hewitt dominates the show as the drag queen, Frank 'N' Furter. Alice Ripley, with one of the few quality singing voices in the cast, is a perfect vapid 1950s blonde in white Mary Janes and sundress. There seems no reason other than to titillate the audience for her to pull off her bra to reveal bare breasts for a few split seconds till the stage goes dark. The same holds true for some simulated sex scenes. Lea DeLaria is a leaden disappointment as a stereotypical creepy German in a wheel chair.

The tribal music pounds, and one can't always understand the words, which director Christopher Ashley apparently (and rightly) did not think was a great loss. Aside from the smell of popcorn, sold in the lobby, there's not much to evoke the old movie spirit. This decades old cult show has become a ritual of banality. [Komisar]

Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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