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Hundreds of Hats

Through his collaborations with composer Alan Menken, Ashman (who died of AIDS in 1991) found success with the Off Broadway smash "Little Shop of Horrors" and then mega-success with the Disney blockbusters "The Little Mermaid,""Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin." His words to songs like "Suddenly Seymour" (from "Little Shop") or "Kiss the Girl" (from "Mermaid") showcase an endearingly sly, offbeat humor tempered with sweetly sentimental yearning.

With:
Cast: John Ellison Conlee, Bob Kirsh, Philip Lehl, Amanda Naughton, Nancy Opel. Despite stage director Michael Mayer's best intentions, the most fitting tributes to the late lyricist Howard Ashman remain on video. "Hundreds of Hats," Mayer's musical revue of songs with Ashman lyrics, only fitfully shows the writer at his best, and even then it's more as a reminder of how good a few of these songs were in their original settings.

Through his collaborations with composer Alan Menken, Ashman (who died of AIDS in 1991) found success with the Off Broadway smash “Little Shop of Horrors” and then mega-success with the Disney blockbusters “The Little Mermaid,””Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.” His words to songs like “Suddenly Seymour” (from “Little Shop”) or “Kiss the Girl” (from “Mermaid”) showcase an endearingly sly, offbeat humor tempered with sweetly sentimental yearning.

Both of those songs are included in Mayer’s revue, but so are a trunkful of efforts that were cut from the films or never made it to the stage. More often than not, the B-list quality of those songs explains their previous omissions. Numbers most likely to endure (and on which Ashman’s long-term reputation will depend) –“A Whole New World” and “Beauty and the Beast” come to mind — aren’t included here, while efforts from the musicals “Smile” and “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” seem minor at best.

The five young, appealing singer-actors try hard, but the vocals are uneven. Mayer gives the bookless revue a two-part structure, with the first act played against a black-and-white urban apartment backdrop and the second act against a colorful suburban set. Mark Beard’s ironic cardboard backdrops are more in keeping with the intentionally cheesy ambience of his usual venue, the Ridiculous Theatrical Co.

None of which is to say that the revue is without its new-found (or rediscovered) pleasures. Mayer does well to acquaint new audiences with two songs, both composed by Jonathan Sheffer: the nostalgic ragtime tune that gives the production its title (taken from the baseball musical “Diamonds”) and the bittersweet lament “A Day in the Life of a Fat Kid in Philly” (from an unfinished musical called “Fatty Goes to the Opera”).

Judging this small production against Ashman’s legacy on video and in memory might be unfair. But then, “Hundreds of Hats” is a production of the WPA Theater , the venue that Ashman and Menken co-founded andwhere they had their earliest successes, most notably “Little Shop.” The WPA would seem a natural home for a definitive tribute, and probably should have bided its time.

Hundreds of Hats

(WPA Theater, New York; 120 seats; $ 30)

Production: A WPA Theater presentation of a musical revue in two acts conceived and directed by Michael Mayer, with lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken , Jonathan Sheffer, Marvin Hamlisch.

Creative: Choreography, John Ruocco; orchestrations, Steven Bishop; musical direction and arrangements, Helen Gregory. Sets, Mark Beard; costumes, Michael Krass; lighting, Jack Mehler; sound, Aural Fixation; casting, Johnson-Liff Associates, production stage manager, Kay Foster. Opened June 13, 1995, reviewed June 14. Running time: 2 hours.

Cast: Cast: John Ellison Conlee, Bob Kirsh, Philip Lehl, Amanda Naughton, Nancy Opel. Despite stage director Michael Mayer's best intentions, the most fitting tributes to the late lyricist Howard Ashman remain on video. "Hundreds of Hats," Mayer's musical revue of songs with Ashman lyrics, only fitfully shows the writer at his best, and even then it's more as a reminder of how good a few of these songs were in their original settings.

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