You've got to walk before you can fly. That saying applies in a couple of different ways to "3hree," the compilation of one-act musicals selected by venerable producer-director Harold Prince and developed under the auspices of his Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia.

You’ve got to walk before you can fly. That saying applies in a couple of different ways to “3hree,” the compilation of one-act musicals selected by venerable producer-director Harold Prince and developed under the auspices of his Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia. Spotlighting emerging musical theater artists, “3hree” demonstrates that even the most talented among us need a place to begin, to wrestle with a complex, collaborative art form in manageable pieces before accomplishing a large-canvas masterpiece. The show as a whole also walks for a while — although it’s a pleasant stroll — before it lifts off and soars with the final contribution to the trio, a small work that nonetheless manages to charm, uplift and inspire great hope for the future of the American musical.

And make no mistake about it: The future of the American musical form itself is what this evening is really all about. “3hree” is opening at the Ahmanson in L.A. just as “The Producers” is making Mel Brooks the current, new-found King of the Broadway Musical. Nothing against the brilliant Brooks — I can happily quote lines from his films with the best of ‘em — but at 75, he’s not exactly fresh blood.

Enter another man of Brooks’ generation, Prince, to bring us the work of an emerging generation. While it’s a bit of a mixed bag, there’s certainly plenty of fine work in “3hree” — not just from composers and lyricists but also from directors and choreographers — and we’ll be seeing the names from this program for some time to come.

None of the works is wildly original in derivation. The first, “The Mice,” is inspired by a Sinclair Lewis story; the second, “Lavender Girl,” plays like Edgar Allan Poe meets “Brigadoon”; and the third, “The Flight of the Lawnchair Man,” takes its idea from a true story. Furthermore, none of the music stands out as breaking new ground, mostly bringing to mind the sounds of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers. But when the elements of the best works are assembled, they provide some unique, offbeat pleasures.

“The Mice,” from composer Laurence Crawford O’Keefe (“Bat Boy”), lyricist Nell Benjamin and book writer Julia Jordan, takes us into the American Heartland and invests a blackly comic love story with a sunniness that’s highly entertaining. Best of all, it provides some sharp twists and turns, some of which occur in the middle of songs. Directed by Brad Rouse and choreographed by Rob Ashford, the piece has an exceedingly fine flow to it up until its climactic moment, which right now doesn’t quite work.

The middle piece, “Lavender Girl,” from composer-lyricist John Bucchino and book writer James D. Waedekin, will please the old-fashioned in the crowd, comprised as it is primarily of one love song after another. A ghost story that’s pretty transparent, and quite leaden, from the get-go, it benefits from Scott Schwartz’s elegant direction and Walt Spangler’s set design, which creates a forest out of hanging fabric.

Finally, there’s “The Flight of the Lawnchair Man,” which announces the real stars of the evening, composer-lyricist Robert Lindsey Nassif (“Elliot Ness in Cleveland,” “Opal”) and author Peter Ullian. What separates their work from the others is a free-flowing imagination and an ability to find tonal variety and character development in a piece that lasts just over half an hour. Filled with wit, the simple story follows a New Jersey man (Eddie Korbich) who accomplishes his dream of flying by taking off in his lawnchair, lifted by 400 helium balloons decorated with Looney Toons characters.

Staged magnificently by Prince, with cheerily bright, boldly colored costumes by Miguel Angel Huidor, and with performances that really give this fine ensemble an opportunity to shine, the piece delivers one show-stopping bit after another. It shouldn’t be spoiled with too many examples, but just to whet your appetite: Charles Lindbergh (Herndon Lackey giving an excellent Jimmy Stewart-as-Lindbergh turn) has a dance number out of Busby Berkeley, thanks to creative choreographer Michael Arnold. Once again, Spangler’s set contributes mightily. “Lawnchair Man” has all its cylinders, or propellers, or balloons, working in unison, and it’s a joyful, wacky accomplishment.

While Prince directed only one of the pieces, he clearly had a hand in determining the very smart ordering of the trio, with the weakest link sandwiched between two stronger entries and the best quite clearly saved for last. One can sense his craftiness also in the brief interstices between the three one-acts (performed without an intermission), where the rear of the stage area is exposed and serves as a dressing room, with the actors changing costumes in full view of the audience.

3hree

Ahmanson Theater, Los Angeles; 2,003 seats; $70 top

Production

A Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theater presentation of the Prince Music Theater production of three one-act musicals.

Creative

Sets, Walt Spangler, costumes, Miguel Angel Huidor; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Duncan Robert Edwards; musical direction, Lawrence Yurman; orchestrations, Michael Gibson; casting, Mark Simon. "The Mice": Music, Laurence Crawford O'Keefe; lyrics, Nell Benjamin; book, Julia Jordan, inspired by the story "Virga Vay & Allan Cedar" by Sinclair Lewis; director, Brad Rouse; choreography, Rob Ashford. "Lavender Girl": Music and lyrics, John Bucchino; book, James D. Waedekin; director, Scott Schwartz, choreography, Daniel Stewart. "The Flight of the Lawnchair Man": Music and lyrics by Robert Lindsey Nassif; book by Peter Ullian, based on a concept by Nassif; director, Harold Prince; choreography, Michael Arnold. Opened, reviewed April 25, 2001. Closes June 10. Running Time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.

Cast

With: Anne Bobby, Donna Lynne Champlin, Roger E. DeWitt, Will Gartshore, Eddie Korbich, Herndon Lackey, John Scherer, Rachel Ulanet, Valerie Wright.
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