Play It Cool

Co-creators Larry Dean Harris (book) and Mark Winkler (lyrics) mine the talents of 10 competent tunesmiths to impressively underscore the tribulations of 1950s lesbian nightclub owner Mary as she battles the antigay ordinances of the times.

With:
Will - Andrew Pandaleon Mary - Jessica Sheridan Lena - Katie Campbell Eddie - Steven Janji Henry - Michael Craig Shapiro

Celebration Theater closes its 2005-06 season with a jazz-tinged tuner rich in noir-esque ambiance if lacking in basic storyline. Co-creators Larry Dean Harris (book) and Mark Winkler (lyrics) mine the talents of 10 competent tunesmiths to impressively underscore the tribulations of 1950s lesbian nightclub owner Mary (Jessica Sheridan) as she battles the antigay ordinances of the times. Not faring as well are the well-rutted subplots focusing on Mary’s star-crossed relationship with hyperambitious thrush Lena (Katie Campbell) and the callow efforts of hayseed Will (Andrew Pandaleon) to make it in Hollywood.

At the fictional 1953 underground Hollywood jazz joint Mary’s Hideaway, owner Mary offers a safe haven for gays and lesbians while attempting to stay under the radar of repressive laws of the day: Female bartenders are outlawed, and men can be prosecuted for dancing with other men or even holding hands in public view. The action is played out on Kurt Boetcher’s low-rent, pub-perfect set.

In an impressively staged opening musical collage (“When All the Lights in the Sign Worked,” “Club Life,” “Welcome to Hollywood”), helmer Sharon Rosen and choreographer Marvin Tunney successfully imbue the work with a shadowy film noir atmosphere, highlighting the protagonists’ furtive efforts to connect with one another while avoiding a bullying cop’s nightstick. Offering perfect accompaniment are the onstage trio of music director-pianist Louis Durra, bassist Big Al Gruskoff and drummer Adam Alesi. Further complementing the proceedings are the mood-enhancing lights of Carol Doehring and the era-accurate costumes of Marjorie Baer.

Sheridan’s Mary successfully executes a psychological balancing act: She evokes the tough-as-nails persona of a no-nonsense bulldyke while projecting the heartbreaking fragility of a wounded psyche that knows it is being used and an endearing mother bird instinct to take the clueless Will under her protective wing. Sheridan also exhibits impressive vocal chops (“In My Drag,” “Jazz Is a Special Taste”).

For all this production’s allusions to a jazz reality, the only performance that remotely executes the premise is Campbell’s Lena, whose clear-toned, vibrato-less, pitch-perfect outings on “Whatever It Takes,” “Scattin’ in the Moonlight” (with Sheridan) and “Another Night” is evocative of such jazz vocal legends as Anita O’Day and June Christy. At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum is Pandaleon’s woeful, harmony-challenged scatting on “Like Jazz” (music by Larry Steelman).

While a number of talented composers contributed to the score, particularly rewarding are Marilyn Harris’s melody-rich “Future Street” (sung by Pandaleon) and “In a Lonely Place” (Sheridan and Campbell).

Adding atmosphere to this flawed but still impressive tuner are Steven Janji’s militantly gay Eddie and Michael Craig Shapiro’s tragically closeted Henry.

Play It Cool

Celebration Theater; 65 seats; $30 top

Production: A Celebration Theater presentation of a musical in two acts, music by Jim Andron, David Benoit, Michael Cruz, Marilyn Harris, Robert Kraft, Emilio Palame, Joe Pasquale, Don Siegel, Larry Steelman and Phil Swann, lyrics by Mark Winkler, book by Larry Dean Harris. Directed by Sharon Rosen. Choreography, Marvin Tunney.

Crew: Sets, Kurt Boetcher; lighting, Carol Doehring; costumes, Marjorie Baer; music director-pianist, Louis Durra. Opened June 9, 2006. Reviewed June 23. Runs through July 16. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast: Will - Andrew Pandaleon Mary - Jessica Sheridan Lena - Katie Campbell Eddie - Steven Janji Henry - Michael Craig Shapiro

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