AISLE SAY San Francisco


Music by Eric Rockwell
Lyrics by Joanne Bogart
Book by Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart
Directed and Choreographed by Mindy Cooper
Presented by Center REPertory Company
Margaret Lesher Theatre, Lesher Center for the Arts
1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek, CA / (925) 943-7469

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Take a basic plot of melodrama: Sneering landlord, the villain, wants the rent. Fair maiden, the heroine, can't pay the rent and consults with an older, wiser woman. Handsome man says he'll pay the rent. Fair maiden calls him her hero. Sneering landlord slinks off. The end.

After showing it as a silent film (by Jeffrey Draper), tell the story five times, each in the style of a legendary composer or team. What do you have? You have "The Musical of Musicals (The Musical)," a hilarious, clever parody being presented by Center REPertory Company. Created by composer Eric Rockwell and lyricist Joanne Bogart, with a book by both, the show is a musical theater lover's feast, serving up music and lyrics in the style of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and John Kander and Fred Ebb. It's loaded with puns and allusions -- music, lyrics, sets and choreography -- to each of the five's best known works.

Even someone well versed in musical theater will be hard-pressed to catch everything on the first sitting, for some of the references are quick and subtle. On the other hand, some of the puns are real groaners. For example, in the first scene, featuring Rodgers & Hammerstein, after the hero says OK to the heroine, she responds, "Don't throw OKs at me."

Besides the material itself, Center REP's production owes much of its success to director-choreographer Mindy Cooper; musical director Brandon Adams, who does double duty as onstage pianist and occasional singer; and the talented cast of four: Quinn Van Antwerp, the hero; Dani Marcus, the heroine; Milissa Carey, the older woman; and Mark Farrell, the villain. All four display their versatility throughout the show, singing, dancing and acting with terrific comic timing.

Scenic designer Robert Broadfoot keeps things simple, yet the visual allusions abound. In the opening scene, "Corn," the Rodgers & Hammerstein segment, a windmill and cornstalks are silhouetted against a rosy sunrise (lighting by Kurt Landisman) -- reminiscent of the opening scene of "Oklahoma!". Cassandra Carpenter's costumes also take their cues from the original musicals. The sound is by Jeff Mockus.

In that opening scene, the hero, Big Willy, sings "Oh, What Beautiful Corn," and mentions his joy at living in Kansas in August (as in "I'm as corny as Kansas in August," the opening line of "I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy" in "South Pacific"). It goes on from there, with sprinklings of "Carousel," "The King and I," and "The Sound of Music." The older woman, Mother Abby, sings an inspirational song to the distraught heroine, June, that's a pastiche of R&H's inspirational songs: "Climb Every Mountain" and "You'll Never Walk Alone."

The Sondheim scene, "A Little Complex," draws its main inspiration from "Sweeney Todd," with dollops of "Into the Woods," plus sprinklings of "Merrily We Roll Along," "Company," "A Little Night Music," "Follies," "Sunday in the Park With George," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Pacific Overtures." Much of it is brilliant, just like much of Sondheim's work.

"Dear Abby," the third scene, draws from Herman, mostly "Mame," "Hello Dolly," and "La Cage Aux Folles." The villain, Mr. Jitters, shows up in drag, complete with a Carol Channing wig.

After intermission, in "Aspects of Junita," Webber comes in for some ribbing for borrowing or repeating tunes and for creating spectacles such as "Evita" and "Phantom of the Opera," the shows most heavily parodied. Also on the agenda are "Aspects of Love," "Starlight Express," "Sunset Boulevard," "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

Completing the show, there's "Speakeasy," the Kander & Ebb segment with the primary allusions to "Cabaret" and "Chicago" along with bits of "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and "Liza With a Z." Cooper's choreography effectively uses some signature moves from Bob Fosse.

As a finale, the four performers honor the groundbreaking "A Chorus Line" (music by Marvin Hamlisch, direction and choreography by Michael Bennett) with riffs from the opening scene, the performers' mug shots and the final scene, here called "Done."

Of the five scenes, the Herman one is the weakest, perhaps because there was less material to draw from. The others were stronger, undoubtedly because of the richness of the material, especially Sondheim and Webber.

No wonder that even on opening night, Center REP announced a one-week extension. This show is a hit, worth seeing more than once to enhance the pleasure and catch more of what might have been missed the first time.

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