High Notes

By virtually every account, the Broadway musical is booming. At last tally, a score of productions were playing to near-record crowds on the Great White Way. Of course, this spate of musical entertainment contains its share of theme-park shtick meant to attract starry-eyed out-of-towners and a fringe group of slumming Gothamites. Some shows have yet to earn back their investment, such as the much-ballyhooed but recently closed Paul Simon/Derek Walcott collaboration The Capeman. And others are mere revivals or knockoffs of old favorites, such as the critically acclaimed production of Cabaret starring Natasha Richardson (with three new songs by original composers John Kander and Fred Ebb). Still, more than a handful of Big Apple musicals are bona fide hits. And there's even talk that the city's oft-redeveloped Times Square neighborhood doesn't contain enough playhouses to accommodate the number of productions ready to tap- dance their way into America's heart (ironically, New York allowed several historic theaters to be demolished in the 1980s).

Local theatergoers may not have quite as many entertainment choices, but lately the quality of available musicals seems to be on the rise. In addition to the engaging assortment of touring shows that play the Buell or Auditorium theaters downtown, two local groups are presenting productions that, at times, rival the best that Broadway has to offer. Both shows are revivals of decades-old love stories; both feature first-rate portrayals by performers whose acting abilities sometimes outshine their singing and dancing talents; and both pay homage to richly melodic scores that are easy on the ears.

Perhaps best of all for local audiences, though, is that these sensational productions are playing in venues not often thought of as sources of highbrow entertainment. One of the local groups is a semiprofessional troupe dedicated to the production of neglected musicals; the other is a suburban dinner theater.

Always eager to shed new light on the dust-covered showtunes of yesteryear, Boulder's Trouble Clef Theatre Company has resurrected She Loves Me, which first graced the Broadway stage in a 1963 production directed by musical-theater legend Harold Prince. Written by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (the same creative team that produced Fiddler on the Roof), the musical is based on Miklos Laszlo's play Parfumerie. Under the skillful direction of Donald Berlin, it wins over hearts from the first moment the superb Jennifer Hayes bursts into song.

The action takes place primarily in a perfume shop in 1930s Budapest, Hungary, where a rather plain girl, Amalia Balash (Hayes), unexpectedly falls in love with her boss, Georg Nowack (David Ambroson), and he with her. Trouble is, the two lovebirds don't realize that they're sending their anonymous, tender notes to each other. Instead, the unwitting pen pals compose letters to supposed strangers with the salutation, "Dear Friend." Georg and Amalia complicate their love lives even further by sustaining a hostile working relationship. But before the two can tear each other to smithereens, the owner of the shop, Mr. Maraczek (Richard Baggott), puts the heat on his entire sales force to improve the store's bottom line by Christmas. Which means that Steven Kodaly (Steven Cogswell), Ladislav Sipos (David Fox) and Ilona Ritter (Laura Dakin) wind up working overtime in order to please the embittered old man.

Clerks and customers bustle through the shop's seemingly revolving door, always bowing to one another while singing the harmonic chorus, "Thank you, thank you, do call again, please," a recurring comic bit that never fails to delight. As one musical number segues into another amid the characters' badinage, you can't help but think of the Catherine Deneuve film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in which all the dialogue was sung. At the very least, you're reminded of a time when musicals weren't filled with grating commentary about maritime disasters, social diseases or acid trips. It's a welcome change just to be entertained by a marvelously written, pointedly frivolous collection of songs--especially when they're performed by the scintillating Hayes.

Whether she's working with a romantic ballad ("Will He Like Me?") or a whimsical syncopated tune ("Vanilla Ice Cream"), this born comedienne delivers a portrayal that, at its comic heights, is worthy of Mary Tyler Moore's "Oh, Rob!" episodes on the old Dick Van Dyke Show. Hayes captures perfectly the fragile spirit of a young woman who knows full well that she'll need more than average looks and down-home manners to snare Mr. Right.

Hayes's stellar efforts are complemented by the comic antics of Tim Blocker, who wordlessly lampoons the pretensions of French restaurateurs in the production's funniest scene. Not to be outdone, both Fox and Cogswell deliver excellent portrayals that show off their impressive singing voices, and Ambroson makes an appealing, if somewhat stiff, Georg. All of the actors sport 1930s costumes and impeccably groomed hairstyles that blend in nicely with the charcoal-on-canvas continental street scene that serves as a backdrop to the action. And apart from those few moments when an otherwise effective orchestra drowns out some of the performers' words, the decision to execute this show sans microphones does much to enhance its intimate nature.

Pushing the nostalgic envelope a few decades further into the past is the Country Dinner Playhouse, which presents a resplendent production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's seldom-seen State Fair. The CDP effort is being billed as the local premiere of this confection of a tale set in 1946 during five days of Iowa's all-state exhibition. A recent Broadway revival and subsequent national tour starring John Davidson was not a rousing success; in fact, a chagrined Davidson reportedly begged the owner of a Minnesota dinner theater to explain how that company had managed to draw crowds where Davidson and company had failed. (Here's a hint, John-boy: The answer you seek lies not under the flip-top lid of a portable tanning machine.)

As you might expect, this corn-fed musical features characters with names such as Lem, Clay and Hank, as well as the always-popular Midwestern monikers of Vivian and Violet. And as the play begins, those decent, hardworking folk of Ioway (as it's affectionately pronounced) are fixing to have a grand time at the sour-pickle contest and livestock show. Margy Franke (Debra Devere Bradley), though, simply hopes to escape the boredom of being the putative girlfriend of a hometown boy named Gus (Geoffrey Leventhal). Her older brother, Wayne (Paul Dwyer), is a more marriage-minded sort, going so far as to promise his college-bound girlfriend, Eleanor (Teresa Klug), that he'll be faithful until they tie the knot. Little does he realize that a voluptuous singer, Emily Arden (Laura Ryan), will turn his life upside down within a few days of the prim Eleanor's departure.

But though this musical brims with numerous minor plot twists, it's Ryan's stunning portrayal of the sultry singer that turns our heads. As director Bill McHale's winning production unfolds, Ryan is every inch a pro. She doesn't call undue attention to herself by belting out songs Ethel Merman-style or by squeaking and giggling her way through a role that could all too easily be reduced to stereotype. Instead, Ryan relies on good old-fashioned character acting to deliver a definitive portrayal of the conflicted showgirl. And when she steps up to a platform to sing a couple of songs with her male backing quartet (appropriately called The Fairtones), she's head and shoulders above her colleagues in that department, as well.

Not that there's any shortage of talent in this sumptuous production. As the homespun Melissa and Abel Franke, local favorites Jan and Marcus Waterman confidently guide us (as well as the other characters in the play) through Rodgers and Hammerstein's jubilant jamboree. Bradley is precocious enough in her early moments of teen angst; later in the play, the petticoat-wearing vixen impressively blossoms into an attractive bride-to-be when she meets her match in newspaper reporter Pat Gilbert, admirably portrayed by Randy St. Pierre. The warmth and mostly pure motives of the lovestruck Wayne aren't lost on Dwyer, who shows signs of one day developing into a credible leading man, and as the drunken Judge Heppenstahl, Eugene Texas milks his moments in the limelight for all they're worth.

Furthermore, McHale's staging is a feast for our senses, culminating in a promenade through the fair's midway that features brightly colored carnival booths, electric signs and even an Uncle Sam on stilts. McHale also engineers a bevy of small-town touches--couples strolling, children playing--that help mask the many scene changes, as well as lend some verisimilitude to the play's cotton-candy atmosphere.

In fact, except for a couple of sour musical notes that pop up here and there, the only uncomfortable moments in this smiler of a show are the brief crowd scenes that spill over the edge of the CDP's in-the-round stage. Then again, who can blame these performers for wanting to be as close to the action as possible? Certainly not the audience members, who gradually find themselves drawn even closer to the wholesome goings-on. For beyond the whooping, hollering and hog-calling lies a sober message born of postwar America's euphoric outlook on life: "It's about taking pride in what we do with our lives," says one character. To their credit, McHale and his cast effectively convey that optimistic spirit without once resorting to mawkish behavior. Which is just as well, since no one on this or any other side of Ioway would take them seriously if they did.

She Loves Me, through May 2 at the Guild at the Dairy, 2590 Walnut Street, Boulder, 494-4904.

State Fair, through June 28 at the Country Dinner Playhouse, 6875 South Clinton Street, Englewood, 799-1410.


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