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'Planet Claire' in orbit


Planet Claire is a musical that takes place partly in outer space, but a more accurate name for its cosmic setting would be Planet Kitsch.

The aliens on this planet sport Day-Glo-colored bouffant wigs, Pucci prints, miniskirts, bellbottoms and platform boots. Their speech is peppered with high-pitched ululating sounds, and every now and then they break into a B-52's song such as "Cosmic Thing," "Rock Lobster" or "Hero Worship."

Imagine an episode of the British science-fiction TV series Dr. Who, with the new-wave music and retro fashion stylings of pop's B-52's and a dose of Rocky Horror Picture Show zaniness, and you'll have a pretty good sense of this show. Created by writer/director Tad Janes in the manner of the ABBA musical Mamma Mia!, Planet Claire marries an original story to a selection of existing songs.

How you feel about the result - produced by the Maryland Ensemble Theatre of Frederick at the Theatre Project - may depend on your fondness for the B-52's and corny sci-fi. Audiences lacking a predilection for either may simply feel lost in space.

Of course, describing anything related to the post-punk B-52's as kitsch could only be a compliment. But instead of reveling in its kitsch-ness, Planet Claire often feels slow and clunky (as opposed to intentionally hokey). And the plot is so message-laden, it turns a show that should defy gravity into a weighty homily instead.

The story concerns a waitress named Claire (spunky Amy Easton) who is ostracized and then fired for her "individualism," or, in the words of the B-52's, because she's living in her "own private Idaho." Two co-workers (goofy Gene Fouche and flamboyant Zane Oberholzer) quit in solidarity. All three are then in an auto accident, set to the strains of "Devil in My Car."

The car wreck is an example of awkward staging. Not only do we not hear a crash, but even with the lights dimmed between scenes, it's easy to see one of the actors lift up the front end of the prop car and place it on top of Claire. Incorporate such clumsy scene changes into the show - exaggerate them by performing them with the lights up - and they might add to the stylistic silliness. Attempt to disguise them, and they look amateurish.

But getting back to the plot, Claire wakes up to discover she's on another planet. There, the crown prince (Lloyd Baughman as a genial Elvis clone) promptly falls in love with her because he appreciates a woman who's an individual. Such lessons in self-esteem and other related morals are stated not only by the prince, but also by a Greek chorus - of the good, old-fashioned mask-wearing, choral-speaking variety.

This chorus is one of several indications that Janes is striving for as much eclecticism as possible. And eclecticism is certainly appropriate for a show extolling differences. But the Greek chorus, like the production as a whole, needs to be a lot slicker and hipper to make Janes' concept truly out of this world.

Show times at the Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and July 7, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. July 10, its last day. Tickets are $20. Call 410-752-8558.

'Phantom' addition

Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera will haunt the Hippodrome Theatre for two extra weeks. The theater's 2004-2005 season-opening engagement will now run from Aug. 11-Oct. 3. The weeks were added in response to strong ticket sales, according to the theater. Tickets for performances through Sept. 19 are on sale now; the additional block goes on sale July 11.

Casting for the Harold Prince-directed production has also been announced. Gary Mauer, who recently portrayed Raoul in the Broadway production, will play the title role. The role of Christine Daae will be played by Rebecca Pitcher, a lyric coloratura who studied with Phyllis Bryn-Julson at the Peabody Institute; and Raoul will be played by Tim Martin Gleason, whose credits include starring in The Rhythm Club at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va.

Tickets to The Phantom of the Opera range from $19-$76.50. Call 410-547-SEAT.

In other Hippodrome news, the one-man show, Say Goodnight Gracie - The Life, Laughter & Love of George Burns and Gracie Allen, scheduled for Feb. 22-March 6, 2005, has a new star. Jamie Farr (Klinger on the TV series M*A*S*H) will portray the comedian. He replaces the previously announced star, Frank Gorshin, who created the Broadway role.

Md. pride in 'Lion King'

Maryland can claim the lion's share of youngsters in one of the touring productions of the musical The Lion King. Later this month, the company that is currently playing a 43-week run in San Francisco will boast a regular pride of Maryland children.

Eleven-year-old Tahira Wyche, a Baltimore County resident who just completed sixth grade at Garrison Forest School, will play Young Nala. She will be replacing another Marylander, 10-year-old India Harris, of New Carrollton, who has been portraying Simba's childhood friend for more than a year.

Joining the cast with Wyche are 10-year-old identical twins Robert and Ryan Harris (no relation to India) of Pomfret. Robert and Ryan will share the role of Simba. Although Simba is always double-cast, Robert and Ryan - who graduated from Eva Turner Elementary School in Waldorf this month - are the first twins to portray the lion prince in any production.

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