A cast of six adults and more than 30 children plunge enthusiastically into “Pearl,” Debbie Allen’s campy musical update of the Snow White story. This Geffen Playhouse production, first unveiled in April at Washington’s Kennedy Center, is geared to a pre-teen mentality — especially when she pokes fun at Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, Pink and Britney Spears. Adults may be entertained by Allen’s wildly exaggerated portrayal of the wicked Queen, but most will be bothered by the jumbled storytelling, chaotic continuity and caricaturing tone.
Allen, who wrote, directed and choreographed, plays the egomaniacal Queen, so intent on being best, as beauty and singer, that she tells her beefy bodyguard Q (Buddy Lewis) to kill the lovely stepdaughter (Vivian Nixon) who vocally outshines her. This presents an immediate problem, since Nixon (Allen’s real-life daughter), a gloriously graceful dancer, has a pleasing but unspectacular voice unlikely to inspire such jealousy, no less murderous hatred.
Q can’t bring himself to carry out the Queen’s command, and Pearl escapes and forges friendships with the Dwowns, seven juvenile clowns, and falls in love with Charm (Rasta Thomas), circus performer and dancer. As conceived, Charm remains an inscrutable, undefined blank, but his sensuous, flawlessly executed balletic numbers physically explain why Pearl is attracted to him.
The seven Dwowns, circus equivalents of Disney’s dwarfs, are also underwritten, and despite their ingratiating eagerness to please, they rarely add suspense or conflict. Only one youngster, the fearful Spooky (Noah Robbins) is permitted to make an impression. Children’s costumes, by Timm Burrow, are colorful but so busy that they don’t individualize each character; Burrow does draw laughter, however, with his bizarrely comedic creations for Allen.
Stylistically, Allen’s blend of classical ballet, hip-hop, jazz, trampoline jumping and gymnastics maintains an explosive energy level, but contributes to a lack of cohesion. This is aggravated by an excess of people onstage in nearly every scene, doing so many differing routines that they cancel each other out.
The final key dance, when Charm whirls Pearl around the stage after she has died from a poison apple fed to her by the Queen, makes little sense. He lies her down, and at that illogical point, the lethal fruit is dislodged. Show also errs in discarding the Queen too soon, leaving the plot to limp toward a lackluster conclusion.
Music by James Ingram, Diane Louie and Allen enriches an atmospheric forest dance number. This sequence, imaginatively lit by William H. Grant III, incorporates actors on stilts emulating menacing trees, and is the show’s visual highlight. But “Be a Dwown,” is too reminiscent of Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown” from “The Pirate,” and the tuneful “Love Is the Answer” is hampered by cliched lyrics. Rock standards, such as “What’s Your Name?” and a Motown medley (“Stop in the Name of Love,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Stubborn Kind of Fella”) prove welcome but jarring, since the show has represented itself until that time as an original musical.
Matthew Dickens makes an agreeable narrator, and Michele Morgan, as Virtual Shirley, the computer muse that flatters Allen, stands out in her “PC Power Plaything” number. Louie’s musical direction, orchestrations and sound design enhance the non-stop action.