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It has good intentions and a big cast, but Arena Players' 'Gini' is no tonic


"Gini," a musical receiving its Baltimore premiere at Arena Players, is one of those uplifting shows that overflows with homespun wisdom and good intentions. The production also features some strong voices and a few cute novelty numbers that showcase Arena newcomers as well as veterans.

But as a serious piece of musical theater, "Gini" meanders thither and yon, much like the sermons delivered by Reverend Lake, a minor character whose well-meaning but rambling preaching is the butt of some of the other characters' jokes.

The plot -- by Virginia Braxton, who also wrote the score -- has lots of extraneous threads, but the major thrust concerns the uncertain fate of the financially strapped Long Life Nursing Home. The home is run by the show's title character, and her family is the source -- often indirectly -- of most of the extraneous subplots.

For instance, there's a subplot -- introduced at the beginning, then all but dropped -- about Gini's oldest daughter, Etta, moving into her first apartment. Then there's a sub-subplot about Rose, a friend of Gini's mother. Rose is a fine, upstanding church woman whose no-account grown children keep trying to freeload. This gives actress Mary E. Riley a chance to sing a tough-love number called, "Stand on Your Own," but other than that it has nothing to do with the show.

For that matter, the loveliest song -- "Old Lady (with no one)," tenderly sung by Katrina Y. Jones -- also springs from a subplot, but in thiscase it's at least peripherally connected to the main story since Jones plays a nurse at the Long Life home and the song shows her concern for a dying patient.

The novelty numbers surface when some of the home's sprier residents stage a talent show to save the struggling facility. Though hardly the most original idea, it allows Arena regular James Nathan Jones to do a little fancy footwork and veteran Verna Day to perform a guaranteed crowd-pleasing number about being "phenomenal woman."

The huge cast numbers more than two dozen, and since about half of the roles are double cast, it means more than 30 Arena Players tread the boards in director Donald Russell Owens' large attempt to mount a mediocre musical.

On the night I attended, Stacey M. Saunders delivered an able portrayal of Gini, emphasizing the character's skillful juggling of her roles as a career woman, wife and mother. And Naomi E. Jones, a student at the Baltimore School for the Arts, demonstrated stirring vocal ability in her Arena Players' debut as Gini's daughter, Etta.

"Gini" touches on such important themes as family values and care of and respect for the elderly. But its touch is trite and superficial. Like its lyrics -- "Gini is a quality that we each have inside . . . It's a way of living with love and joy and pride" -- the show is as thin as a greeting card.


6* Where: Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St.

When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays, 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, with matinees at 3 p.m. Sundays. Through June 11

Tickets: $18

$ Call: (410) 728-6500

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