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Rep Writes The Book

Group presents musical about musicals

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Charlotte Rep's sassy new musical, Let Me Sing, is a wonderful collection of old songs from 1899-1943. The ambitious new book, written by Rep artistic director Michael Bush and literary manager Michael Aman, comes loaded with good intentions.Make that overloaded with good intentions. After teaching the history of American musical theater at Brooklyn College for eight years, Bush was possessed by the notion that the evolutionary scenario could be successfully brought to life onstage -- given the right people and the right tunes.

But not without a message. Bush and Aman want us to know that the development of the American musical was a collective effort -- emerging from the contributions of a broad spectrum of talented performers and composers, the confluence of varied musical/entertainment genres, and a rich gumbo of ethnic flavorings. And what they want us ultimately to feel is that the American musical at its best is the embodiment of what America can be.

We loosely follow a couple of ethnic groups. Although the thread is inexplicably dropped when we reach the music of Kurt Weill and Richard Rodgers, the achievements of Jewish pioneers Irving Berlin, Fanny Brice and George Gershwin are explicitly given their yiddishe context. Even more thoroughly, we follow the cavalcade of African Americans who shaped our music. We come in when the musical motherlode was being rudely purloined from an emancipated race and reach a point when the leading figures -- including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson -- earned a portion of the empowerment they deserved.

Dramatization is often clumsy and confusing. That's because, instead of individuals plucked out of musical theater history, we get six composites who constantly morph. One minute, Andre De Shields is corking his face and memorializing minstrel performer Bert Williams in "Nobody." Next time we see him, he's bringing Act 1 to a triumphant close, flourishing Satchmo's signature hanky while adding a scat coda to "The Birth of the Blues."

And De Shields is the most sharply defined of the composites, Bill. Others, like Marla Schaffel's Irene and Stephanie J. Block's Molly, never appear as anyone with those names -- sometimes we can't be sure who they're portraying. You must delve into theatre databases to confirm that, when Gretha Boston's Ethel sings "Suppertime" from Berlin's As Thousands Cheer, she's Ethel Waters at last.

All evening, we're bombarded with insider allusions, ellipses and nebulosities that undercut all those fine edifying intentions. Ah, but look at our stellar bombardiers! Probably the strongest group of Broadway musical talent ever assembled at the PAC. After a preliminary run last month up in New Jersey at George Street Playhouse, the co-producing company, everything looks and sounds perfectly grooved.

Most impressive are dance specialists De Shields and Randy Skinner, who portrays the enigmatically named Buddy -- but spends most of his time evoking Fred Astaire. In an Astaire signature piece, "Fascinating Rhythm," Skinner bumps up the tempo to a frenetic level missing earlier on -- unleashing a tap barrage that leaves dance partner Danny Gurwin agape with admiration.

De Shields isn't as quick, but he gracefully commands every cubic inch he occupies, the most charismatic triple threat in the show. Each of his five turns in the spotlight is a high point. His final appearance, in white tails and rhinestone studs singing "Shine," perfectly encapsulates how high African Americans had risen with their music and talent -- and how much further they still had to go.

Boston's vocal bravura neatly complements De Shields' wiry physicality. Their plaid nightmare duet, resurrecting vaudevillians Butterbeans and Suzie for "Positively No," is the comedy smash of the night. And more jazz musicians will be reviving Ellington's "Black Butterfly" if Boston's soulful rendition reaches Broadway.

While I delighted in Schaffel's star turn in Jane Eyre last winter, her stint as "America's Sweetheart" laid two eggs -- an irritating Betty-Booped vocal followed by a lame Jolson imitation. Block's evocation of Fanny Brice, with Yiddish pronunciations that would puzzle the denizens of Delancey Street, was unexpectedly bland. Both Schaffel and Block had stronger moments after intermission.

The most winsome ensemble is the jitterbugging free-for-all on Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." Musical arranger Joel Silberman cleverly livens the jazzy accompaniment with licks from Duke's "Caravan" and the ubiquitous Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz."

Gurwin, solid all evening long in George's many guises (including Cohan), takes us to the dramatic peak with a wonderfully heartfelt appreciation of Oklahoma! If more of the monologues stayed "on message" with such arresting intimacy, Let Me Sing could become a hot Broadway property.

You don't have to pay PAC prices to see outstanding talents struggling with a flawed script. Head up to Off-Tryon Theatre in NoDa and you'll find a powerfully acted production of a dubious comedy, Wendy MacLeod's The House of Yes.Meghan Lowther stars as Jackie-O, prime nutball in a radically dysfunctional household. MacLeod's weird walpurgisnacht on the 25th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination is lashed by incest, infidelity and a hurricane. Glenn Griffin directs grimly, so the eccentrics onstage never struck me as witty or goofy. By evening's end, likability had gone with the electricity in the hurricane's wake.

Lowther has the measure of Jackie-O's predatory cattiness. Jimmy Chrismon has a plausible take on the hapless brother, the JFK of Jackie's sex fantasy, and Carolyn Dempsey offers glimmers of comedy in the protective matriarch's wickedness.

But if your comfort zone only encompasses comedies where you can admire or identify with somebody onstage, welcome to the House of No.

Over in Greensboro, Triad Stage is presenting one of the most deeply satisfying dramas I've seen in the past seven years, Jon Marans' Old Wicked Songs. The 1995 Pulitzer Prize contender chronicles the relationship between a young burnt-out concert pianist and the mentor forced upon him, a dissolute vocal coach.Set design by Randall McMullen is actually superior to the original Off-Broadway production at Playhouse 91. So is the singing of the costars, Gordon Stanley as the professor and Timothy McCracken as the neurotic virtuoso. This wonderful chamber piece plays through January 26.

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