Part TV-based kiddie show and part Chita Rivera vehicle -- and never the twain do meet -- David H. Bell's weird polyglot tuner has enough decent ditties and treacly entertainment value to pass reasonable muster at its subsequent summer engagements in Kansas City, Dallas and Atlanta. But a proposed future national tour looks more iffy.

Part TV-based kiddie show and part Chita Rivera vehicle — and never the twain do meet — David H. Bell’s weird polyglot tuner has enough decent ditties and treacly entertainment value to pass reasonable muster at its subsequent summer engagements in Kansas City, Dallas and Atlanta. But a proposed future national tour looks more iffy. In its current hybrid form, at least, there’s insufficient substance here to fill out a subscription slot.

Based in part on a puppet-starring West End theatrical incarnation of the friendly animated ghost, “Casper: The Musical” has been developed by Pitt producer Van Kaplan as a family musical using live actors. The title ghost is played by an Oliver-like adolescent (Paul Tiesler) who warbles tunefully enough, but is seriously challenged in the charisma department. Admittedly, it’s tough to compete with a cartoon.

The basic plot here features an evil media tycoon (Rivera) who wants the deed to the house occupied by Casper and his three equally ghostly uncles. The mogul sets up a reality-based TV show in which kiddos are sent into the house to find the deed and snag a million bucks. Bizarrely, some of these kids are played by kids and some by adults. Casper, of course, ultimately brings everyone together.

Bell apparently decided the best way to appeal to the whole family was to alternate comic scenes (featuring a smelly uncle, for instance) with Rivera dancing and vamping with a coterie of handsome hoofing boys. After a scene of kiddy antics, Rivera dishes up innuendo about how “software turns to hardware.”

Thanks to Rivera’s dancing chops, smile and self-deprecating sense of humor, the “adult” sequences do have some snazzy moments. There’s a witty number called “Dot Com” at the start of act two featuring a swirling, semi-nude Rivera. But you catch the odd sneer on the faces of her boys, as if all were wondering what they’re doing here.

Rivera deserves better than lines like “Is that your final answer?” and having to compete with fart jokes. But the incomparable trouper nonetheless was giving her considerable all to rows of empty seats at a weekend matinee.

Aside from Rivera, the musical numbers are the show’s strength. There’s a sweet ballad called “Pretend” and a nice Rivera vehicle, “In the Spirit.”

Most of the contempo dialogue seems uncomfortable in a show that also wants to plug into the Peter Pan-style world of fairy tales. Above all, the show needs more in the way of genuine heart, style and charm — which would come, perhaps, if the two halves of this tuner were put together in a more unified fashion.

Production values are adequate or slightly better, but by today’s standards this is no feast of special effects. Staging looks cramped in places, and one especially weird costume choice makes actors look like members of the Ku Klux Klan.

Casper: The Musical

Benedum Center, Pittsburgh; 2,889 seats; $42 top

Production

A Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera presentation of a musical in two acts with book and lyrics by Stephen Cole and David H. Bell and music by Matthew Ward. Additional music by Henry Marsh. Developed by Van Kaplan, based on the character created by Harvey Comics. Directed and choreographed by Bell.

Creative

Sets, Terry Parsons; costumes, Barbara Anderson; lighting, John McLain; sound, Christopher M. Evans; musical direction and dance arrangements, Michael Moricz; orchestrations, Ned Ginsburg. Opened June 9, 2001. Reviewed June 23. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Magdalena Monteverde - Chita Rivera Casper - Paul Tiesler
With: Eric Daniel Santagata, Matthew Thibedeau, Jesse Nager, Jason Patrick Sands, Laurie Gamache, LaParee Young, Jamie Torcellini, Tim Hartman, Anika Bobb, Courtney Neville, Kristen Graeber, Bernard J. Eyth, Gerard Canonico, Gaelen Gilliland, Cynthia Thomas, Mitchell Jarvis, Leo Ash Evens, Tina Johnson. Nicholas Belton, Tim Brady, David Larsen, Anne Lauterbach, Zakiya Young.

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