Two Out of Three Ain't Bad 

Rodgers & Hart and Sondheim get their due; Andrew Lloyd Webber gets doo-doo

On my way home from the opening-night performance of Starlight Express, traffic slowed to a crawl as drivers paused to gaze at the remains of a messy auto accident on Highway 40 east of Brentwood Boulevard. The accident provided an aptly grim epitaph to an altogether dreary evening, for the production onstage at the Fox Theatre is a train wreck of a musical -- yet some perverse curiosity keeps us looking. As the brief (yet seemingly endless) show dragged on, a viewer could be excused for asking the hypothetical: It can't possibly get any worse, can it?

It can, and does.

Here's the saddest part of the whole sorry mess: The original Starlight Express was a super-duper entertainment. When this imaginative, child's-eye paean to trains opened in London in 1984, an entire theater was refitted into a speedway for roller-skating performers who portrayed train cars. Though the show was marketed as a harmless family offering, Starlight Express broke new ground. Its brash sights and sounds were as innovative as the reverberating clang of a barbed-wire fence in West Side Story.

When the show moved from London to Broadway in 1987, it lost some of its initial charm; now, in this abrasive incarnation, any lingering residue of charm is memory. Instead we get an all-out assault on the senses.

In terms of laser technology, this updated version is thoroughly modern. Yet ironically, the only imaginative addition to the proceedings is 50 years old. Here the racing sequences are on film and must be viewed through 3-D glasses (now labeled safety goggles). Like Smell-O-Vision, 3-D enjoyed a brief vogue in the early 1950s, when Hollywood sought new gimmicks with which to combat the escalating popularity of television. Polaroid glasses made everything from lions to tomahawks seem to leap off the screen. The Starlight Express 3-D film sequences throw all sorts of items at the viewer -- though not, inexplicably, the sledgehammer with which the show has been bludgeoned.

The entire evening is performed at such an ear-piercing decibel level, it's hard to make much sense of the songs, though the final number is a barn burner called "Light at the End of the Tunnel." But after two hours of this deafening, cynical mayhem, don't be surprised if the only light you're looking for is the one over the auditorium door that reads EXIT.

By contrast, Rodgers & Hart: A Celebration is an unalloyed joy. The revue is a veritable parade of mercifully unamplified melodies that embrace some of the wittiest, most intelligent and unabashedly romantic lyrics ever penned. If young people today aren't familiar with Rodgers and Hart, this Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts production is a felicitous venue in which to learn.

Before composer Richard Rodgers teamed with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II to write Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The King and I, Carousel and The Sound of Music, he collaborated with Lorenz Hart. Their breakout hit song, "Manhattan," de-buted in 1925. Their final effort, the acid-droll "To Keep My Love Alive," was written in 1943. In between, the 18-year collaboration produced 550 songs in more than 30 musicals, including On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse and Pal Joey.

Those shows don't get revived much today, but the songs have never lost their popularity. Act One of A Celebration includes "Falling in Love with Love," "Thou Swell," "This Can't Be Love," "With a Song in My Heart," "It Never Entered My Mind," "Mountain Greenery" and "Where or When?" Just when you wonder if the revue was ill-advised to cram so many of the hit standards into the front half, Act Two resumes with "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World," "Ten Cents a Dance," "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," "There's a Small Hotel," "You Took Advantage of Me," "I Could Write a Book," "The Lady is a Tramp" and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered."

Throughout the evening Rodgers remains as elusive as the offstage pianist who plays his melodies. The focus here is on the complicated Hart. Though he always put on a jaunty, devil-may-care front, Hart was acutely aware of his shortness. As one friend observed, "His brain was so heavy it prevented him from growing in a vertical direction." Said another: "I was always too conscious of his stature to be really aware of his height."

But Hart was aware. He knew he was unattractive to women, so he poured his yearnings into his lyrics. Night after night, year after year, he made love to countless women in countless theaters -- they just never knew it. Eventually alcoholism took such a toll that Rodgers turned to a new partner. Hart collapsed and died eight months after the first Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration, Oklahoma!, opened on Broadway.

The revue's appealing student cast comprises three men (Michael Hammack, Adam Henry, Beau Speer) and three women (Leah Berry, Emily Firth, Christine Makouske). If the females show to greater advantage, perhaps that's because more of Hart's soul went into their songs. Combined, these latter three embody various elements of Hart's ultimate Everywoman. Makouske is earthy, Firth is poised and cool, Berry is innocently/ provocatively playful.

As briskly directed by Byron Grant, with musical direction by Neal Richardson and choreography by Ellen Isom (the latter two were responsible for last year's memorable Webster production of Violet), occasionally the show feels obligated to do such revue-y things as have the cast break into dance, as if such a minimalist format needs to be filled out. To the contrary, less is more. If, late in Act Two, that phantom piano could be rolled onstage, the cast could just sit there and sing. And if every so often they invited us to join in, that would be swell too. We already know the words, and always will.

When the lavish Follies opened on Broadway in 1971, New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes described composer Stephen Sondheim as "a Hart in search of a Rodgers." Such charges have been leveled at Sondheim for four decades. Sure, he can write deft lyrics, with rhymes within rhymes, but where are the melodies? But strip Follies down to its bare-bones essence, as the current Curtain Call Repertory Theatre production does, and you will hear the melodies. They're everywhere, and as haunting as ghosts. In fact, melody carries the evening.

Follies is that rare entity, a Chekhovian musical. In a form where the book usually has the depth of a comic strip, here subtext is sometimes more important than what's being said. The skeletal plot -- Sondheim once termed the show "incidentless" -- concerns a reunion of former showgirls who have returned to an old ruin of a theater that is about to be torn down. The title alludes to both the Follies that used to be performed here and to the follies of adults who live delusional lives, immersed in lost hopes and regrets. Even as spectral ghosts from the past hover about the theater, the four protagonists -- two former showgirls and their husbands -- are compelled to confront the present.

But because too many characters are either too foolish or too remote or too unredeemable -- or perhaps because the show cuts too close to adult sensibilities -- audiences have long been either ambivalent or polarized about Follies. Still, the one thing about which there should be universal accord is the glory of Sondheim's score. Song after song either chills to the bone or brings a smile to the lips. One in particular, the poignant "Losing My Mind" (nicely sung by Mary McCreight), is the essence of torch-song simplicity.

Follies rarely works to everyone's satisfaction; every revival elicits new rewrites. Here director Dennis Shelton has made a change or two of his own, some out of necessity. But the opportunity to see Follies, even in a community theater production, is a gift, and some of the work here is exceptional. Lynda Waters finds the underlying bitterness in "I'm Still Here," especially when she drops the final note and glares at the audience. Kay Love brings sympathetic cynicism (how's that for an oxymoron?) to the role of a glamorously empty showgirl. But the evening's most accomplished turn comes at the hands of musical director Jo Irwin at the piano. Sondheim's score is layered and dense, but Irwin manages to find the soul beneath the notes. Without ever calling attention to herself, she delivers a bravura performance.

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