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Spotlighters' musical not up to task vocally

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Arthur Schnitzler's play La Ronde would appear to be an ideal source for a musical. For starters, it's about love. Well, OK, sex - but still a subject frequently celebrated in song.

It also has a format that translates readily into musical terms. Schnitzler built his once-scandalous 1900 drama out of 10 scenes, each featuring a different couple. One partner in each moves on to the next scene, creating a perfect vehicle for a song cycle, or, in the hands of Michael John LaChiusa, a chamber musical flavored with repeated musical motifs and lyrics.

LaChiusa's 1994 musical, titled Hello Again and receiving an ambitious but uneven production at the Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre, is a loose adaptation of La Ronde. The composer/librettist's biggest departure is setting each scene in a different decade and eschewing chronological order.

The musical opens with a soldier (Lee Ordeman) in the early 1900s; in the next scene, he's in World War II. A subsequent scene features a young college student (Michael Rostek) in the 1960s; one scene later, he's in college in the 1930s. Schnitzler demonstrated the ways in which sexual passion defies social and moral boundaries. LaChiusa goes one step further and demonstrates that this basic urge is unaltered by time.

Hello Again is director Bob Russell's second dalliance with Schnitzler at the Spotlighters. He staged another version of La Ronde, David Hare's The Blue Room, at this theater four years ago. In that production, nudity presented one of the chief challenges; in Hello Again, the biggest challenge is musical.

The show is almost entirely sung, and the music tends to be more dissonant than tuneful - a choice that suits most of the script's uneasy liaisons. It's a score that would be demanding for an accomplished cast, and several of the Spotlighters' performers aren't up to the task.

Two notable exceptions are Jason Hentrich and Bart Wirth, who deliver a fine rendition of the score's only major duet. This duet's sudden appearance isn't arbitrary; these two portray the only characters whose feelings come close to being evenly matched.

Laura Butler's choreography emphasizes the lyrical as well as the jarring elements of the various couplings; the production could use even more of this stylized movement. It would also benefit from live keyboard accompaniment instead of the heavily synthesized recorded score, which has the added disadvantage of making all the music sound alike, no matter what decade is being depicted.

The Spotlighters is billing Hello Again for adults only, but though the action is provocative, it is presented tastefully (and humorously in at least one scene, set in a movie theater). Still, this small-scale musical feels dissatisfyingly disjointed - a shortcoming accentuated by a vocally spotty cast.

Show times at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 7. Tickets are $15. Call 410-752-1225.

Having a 'Picnic'

Center Stage has replaced its final offering of the season, Danny Hoch's Till the Break of Dawn, with William Inge's 1953 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Picnic.

Hoch's account of young American activists in Cuba "just isn't ready" for a full production, says artistic director Irene Lewis. The first full-cast play by Hoch, who is best known as a solo performance artist, Break of Dawn received two staged readings in Center Stage's First Look series as well as a two-week workshop in New York over the past two seasons. However, Lewis said that the script is "still four hours long."

In replacing it with Inge's play about a handsome drifter's impact on the women in a small Kansas town, the artistic director chose a script she's been hoping to produce for at least five years.

"Being set in the early Fifties, it's visually a deliciously retro play, and the idea of marrying for love that's sexual and passionate and dangerous is something that's enduringly intriguing to me," said Lewis, who will direct the production.

Picnic will run May 14-June 20 in Center Stage's Head Theater. For more information, call 410-332-0033.

Lion's next prey

How do you follow up the heady success of the hit Broadway musical Hairspray? Baltimore-born lead producer Margo Lion hopes the answer lies in musicalizing another movie - the 1998 Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore romantic comedy The Wedding Singer, about the relationship between a musician and a waitress.

Like Hairspray, The Wedding Singer was released by New Line Cinema, which will again team up with Lion in producing the musical. Also like Hairspray, Lion said from New York earlier this week, The Wedding Singer "has a specific time [in this case, the 1980s], which enables the music to have a very particular sound, and it is in a specific place [New Jersey], which I think we can have fun with, and the characters have a lot of opportunity to have specificity and imagination applied to them. I hope to do for New Jersey what I did for Baltimore."

Lion added that she's looking forward to shepherding the Broadway debuts of the creative team - Tim Herlihy, the movie's screenwriter, and songwriters Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin. The songwriters' credits include The Rhythm Club, a musical about swing musicians in 1938 Germany, which premiered at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., in 2000.

The Wedding Singer, which is expected to reach Broadway two seasons from now, isn't the only thing Lion is up to. She's also one of a group of producers hoping to transfer the off-Broadway musical Caroline, or Change, to Broadway in April. "We all feel that it's a show that deserves a broader platform," Lion said. The small-scale musical, which has a book and lyrics by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and music by Jeanine Tesori (Thoroughly Modern Millie), focuses on race relations in 1963 Louisiana.

Ragged 'Mad Girl'

For the second time in a row, the Theatre Project has turned its stage over to young talent struggling to earn a place alongside this theater's usual cadre of established avant garde performers (if that's not a contradiction in terms).

It's an admirable open-door policy, but Mad Girl Sings the Blues - like Pferdzwackur's Vampire Nutcracker before it - is not quite ready for prime time. The Theatre Project would serve its audience and these young artists better if their efforts were offered as workshops instead of as finished works.

Written and directed by Lucia A. Treasure (a former Theatre Project intern who also performs in the piece), Mad Girl is a combination of spoken word and movement theater, with a hefty dose of improvisation and audience interaction thrown in.

Although there's a degree of self-indulgence in the writing and performances (which feature Laurel Burggraf as the red-clad title character amid an ensemble of eight black-clad actresses), there does seem to be a method - and meaning - to the madness.

Surviving, or just getting through the day, can involve a bit of insanity, Treasure suggests. So embrace who you are, embrace your madness and don't let anyone else define you. It's a valid thesis, even though the presentation tends to be ragged and repetitive.

By the way, pigeons figure prominently in the piece, whether stuffed or portrayed by performers. What these birds signify is enigmatic at best. A quote from the playwright in the press kit claims (erroneously) that "pigeons won't fly, they only know how to run." That may be one reason Mad Girl never becomes airborne - too many pigeons running amok.

Show times at the Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., are 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday. Tickets are $16. Call 410-752-8558.

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