Composer Harold Arlen's songs range across a multitude of styles and subjects , representing a formidable challenge to anyone seeking to filter them into a coherent retrospective. Julianne Boyd has made a valiant attempt, but the result doesn't quite make it over the rainbow.

Composer Harold Arlen’s songs range across a multitude of styles and subjects , representing a formidable challenge to anyone seeking to filter them into a coherent retrospective. Julianne Boyd has made a valiant attempt, but the result doesn’t quite make it over the rainbow.

That Arlen-E.Y. Harburg classic from “The Wizard of Oz” climaxes the show. It’s delivered by the six-person cast in a fluid, harmonious choral arrangement that tingles anyone not soul-dead. With more moments like this, “Sweet & Hot” would be sweeter and hotter.

Too many of the 35 preceding numbers sag, however, and Boyd could improve matters by cutting or shortening some of them. The show need not be a quick “greatest hits” rundown, but Arlen’s varied talents can be appreciated with less representation.

Boyd’s on the right track with her concept of grouping the songs in an appropriate setting. It works best in the first act, called “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” and placed in a nightspot patterned after Harlem’s Cotton Club, where Arlen attained early fame.

By turn, the singers display Arlen’s blues and jazz melodies, including greats “Stormy Weather”– rendered powerfully by Monica Pege — and “Blues in the Night,” along with lesser-knowns like the heartachy “Last Night When We Were Young.” Boyd’s cleverest touch comes in combining Lance Roberts’ version of the lament “One for My Baby” with bartender Brian Quinn’s lively answer, “Accentuate the Positive.” It’s an effective juxtaposition, especially since the lyrics for both songs were penned by Johnny Mercer.

Another first-act highlight is Terry Burrell’s scatting as she and Roberts do an ironic upbeat duet on “Down With Love.” Symmetrically, Burrell returns later to do “Hooray for Love.”

Act 2 proves more troublesome. Seeking to give the songs a context, Boyd hopscotches the locale several times, even going back to World War II for the lighthearted “I Love a Parade” and “I’m Doin’ It for Defense.” The former features some of Hope Clarke’s best choreography, as Allen Hidalgo blends a rifle drill and some limber-legged dancing.

Boyd saves some biggies for the end –“Let’s Fall in Love,””That Old Black Magic,””Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Rainbow”– but they come as too little, too late.

A stronger cast would help. All have good voices, but they don’t always convey the emotional depth needed. Quinn, for instance, has a warm tenor but gave little poignancy to “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home.” And Clarke’s choreography stays pretty much in the standard range, which also could be due to cast limitations.

Mainly, however, the problem is pace. Boyd needs to reshuffle her lineup, and Danny Holgate should do some new arrangements, to vary tempo more often. The musical flow is generally too placid.

The production looks great. Kenneth Foy’s sets, aided by Howell Binkley’s lighting, instantly evoke place, era and mood, particularly the first-act club. Stephen Erb’s sound is crisp, consistent and at a good level. David C. Woolard’s costumes provide a wealth of period styles and elicited the supreme compliment: As one song began, one woman in the audience whispered to another, “I had a dress just like that.”

Sweet & Hot: The Songs of Harold Arlen

(Mandell Weiss Theater, La Jolla; 492 seats; $ 30 top)

Production

West Coast premiere of a two-act musical conceived and directed by Julianne Boyd, produced by La Jolla Playhouse. Music by Harold Arlen; lyrics by Harold Arlen, Truman Capote, Ira Gershwin, E.Y. Harburg, Ted Koehler, Johnny Mercer, Leo Robin, Billy Rose and Jack Yellen.

Creative

Choreography, Hope Clarke; musical direction and arrangements, Danny Holgate; set design, Kenneth Foy; costume design, David C. Woolard; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Stephen Erb. Opened Sept. 26, 1993; reviewed Sept. 28; runs through Oct. 31.

Cast

Cast: Terry Burrell, Allen Hidalgo, Jacquey Maltby, Monica Pege, Brian Quinn, Lance Roberts.

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