Costume Drama

Theatre on Broadway's Whoop Dee Doo! is a lot like a good fat-free dessert: Flavorful while you're tasting it, but so light it doesn't stay with you. This cheeky musical revue from the late Broadway costume designer Howard Crabtree is well-done--the performers sing and dance their hearts out--but in the end, it's a ribbing that doesn't stick.

A lame backstage situation (it never actually becomes a storyline) about a difficult drag queen (Steve Tangedal) who simply won't cooperate with director/designer Crabtree (Don Bill) is really just an excuse for a string of jokes--danced, sung or told. It's those individual routines--and the 200 costumes from the original New York production--that really give this parfait its flavor.

In fact, it's the costumes--like the white chiffon number wired to look windblown a la Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch--that serve as the primary vehicle for parodying a variety of Hollywood and Broadway shows and stars. The revue also satirizes different aspects of American culture, poking fun especially at the gay lifestyle's intersection with the mainstream. The good-naturedness of the humor is one of the more interesting elements of the piece, which is rather gentle for satire and all done with an amiable spirit.

The show opens with an exuberant, full-company rendition of the title song followed by a confrontation between the ticked-off prima donna, Steve, who's upset by the working conditions backstage, and Crabtree, who's just trying to get the show going. When Steve complains about bugs, Crabtree says he'll hang up a pest strip--and a giant pest strip appears with three flies stuck on it: Brian Upton, George Pulver and David Miller, who buzz into "Stuck on You," a crazy love song told from an insect's perspective. The song "Less Is More" is reprised no less than four times, as Steve and Howard argue about costumes and other extremes. And the costumes get progressively more gaudy and outrageous until the big finish, which features a walking picnic table, glitzy Christmas garlands and trash bags transformed into showgirl outfits.

Indeed, most of the best gags are sight gags. Witness Crabtree's dancing-food-group approach to the controversy over gays in the military. The hard-liners are the meat-and-potatoes guys who think they can do without fruit--but Tangedal in a banana suit tries to convince them otherwise. Miller emerges with a large scrapbook to sing an homage to Elizabeth Taylor, with pictures spanning her entire career, up to and including her "Diamonds" perfume ads. Several fairies in padded suits and enormous headgear gather for drinks and lament that "It's Tough to Be a Fairy," groaning about all the trolls out there and sighing for the one sad Brownie at the bar.

In another tip of the hat to grandiose headwear, Chris Whyde emerges with an oversized brain to sing "I Was Born This Way," about scientific evidence linking homosexuality to certain brain functions. Whyde also performs a fabulous torch song, "Blue Flame," about a moth (he comes equipped with wings) seared by the flame of love.

Don Bill plays Howard Crabtree as a wide-eyed, kindly fusspot who just wants the show to work. Tangedal is best when bewigged and padded, but his disgruntled-queen routine always sounds a bit forced, as if he's holding back until he can go whole-hog.

Nicholas Sugar's direction keeps the song-and-dance numbers rolling, and his energetic cast is talented to a man. But maybe the best thing that can be said about professional fluff like this is that it is eminently theatrical--it could never happen in the movies or on TV because it's so absolutely dependent on the conventions of the theater, from curtain openings to spotlights to the audience's knowing guffaws.

Whoop Dee Doo!, through June 28 at the Theatre On Broadway, 13 South Broadway, 860-9360.

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