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Review: It's British mods vs. rockers in the frothy 'ModRock'

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The conflict between mods and rockers, two warring factions of youth culture in Britain circa 1965, previously served as the backdrop for a terrifically gritty film, "Quadrophenia," based on the Who's concept album.

Now the same conflict is the milieu for a stage musical, "ModRock," that exudes more sunshine than a decade's worth of London summers combined.

If Pete Townshend ever deigned to see this show, you wouldn't blame him for succumbing to a fatal case of hives. The "ModRock" now on view at El Portal in North Hollywood almost plays like "Quadrophenia" reimagined by Walt Disney — and not even the modern iteration of the studio, but the Disney that was making frothy musicals such as "The Happiest Millionaire" in the mid-'60s.

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But we say that like it's a bad thing. For Anglophiliac Yanks of a certain age, hearing the songs of the Kinks, the Zombies, the Hollies, the Animals and (yes) the Who adapted rather effortlessly into musical-comedy numbers provides pleasures that needn't be denied. There's no reason to stop feeding quarters into this jukebox musical as long as the Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield covers keep coming, regardless of whether the text that connects the tunes is thinner than Twiggy.

Even if you're disinclined to credit yet another musical that's designed expressly to provide a frame for an array of pop oldies, there's a certain ingeniousness to focusing on vintage Brit-pop, which ensures that the catalog in question feels familiar but not overfamiliar — comfort food with a slight veneer of exoticism.

That's accentuated by a Hagan Thomas-Jones script that's pretty "chuffed" with its own use of elaborate London slang, played out by a cast that fortunately makes the lingo overload seem effortless, not daft.

If you've ever seen "Grease" or "West Side Story," you know that the battling factions will soon learn they have secretly traitorous lovers in their midst, with a leather jacketed teddy boy, Adam (Steven Good), and swinging fashionista girl Kate (Melinda Porto) disappointing their narrower-minded pals. From the tone of the show, it's immediately apparent that this conflict will be resolved more a la Danny and Sandy than Tony and Maria.

Dramatic scenes grow increasingly perfunctory as the show proceeds. A romantic squabble between two supporting characters will be introduced to form a rationale for a lass in a miniskirt to sing "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me." That's the bad news, and it's kind of the good news too. If you dislike tension, "ModRock" is the show for you, since it very nearly dispenses with confrontational climaxes on the way toward getting everyone to put aside differences and sing a slightly eroticized full-cast version of "Time of the Season."

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Despite the equanimity of the title, mods are heavily favored in this version of events, by sheer force of costume design. Ray Davies' "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" is the number that introduces the five mod characters, who favor flood-ready trousers printed in colors not found in nature. Pity the poor rockers, who, eschewing finery for a '50s greaser aesthetic, don't offer the same visual draw. You don't have to be a vegan to be rooting for the Day-Glo outfits over the cowhide.

The best number sung by one of the rockers is really a mod anthem at heart. Another Davies song about the upper class, "Sunny Afternoon," is performed by Harley Jay, one of the greased-back guys, as a parody of privilege. His character mentions in passing that he's just seen "Mary Poppins," and when Jay starts mimicking Dick Van Dyke's "Step in Time" hoofing to the tune of the Kinks, you may, as a '60s fetishist, briefly find yourself in heaven.

The creakiness of the book is constantly apparent, but that's more or less overridden by the way that director Brian Lohmann and choreographer Michael Spears find modest but appealing things for all these players to do while, say, "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" plays out for three or four not-very-plot-advancing minutes.

The Hollies' "Bus Stop" turns out to have been a theatrical meet-cute waiting to happen, and it'd be charming enough as a mere duet between leads, even before the supporting players join in with color-coded umbrellas. Just in case you thought the Who was going to get off scot-free, "I Can't Explain" pops up late in the show, marking the moment that another supporting couple reveal their mutual crush — and it's a better transmutation of power chords into a show tune than anything in "Rock of Ages."

Before "ModRock" has a hope of jumping to the BroadRock level, it could stand a real script, as opposed to a feature-length combination of jargon and star-crossed lover clichés. But there are solid reasons why the mods-vs.-rockers milieu works as an unusually natural setting for a jukebox musical, starting with how they've licensed a lot of the standards that really would have been going through Brit-kids' heads in '64-'66.

And rock aficionados will appreciate the commemoration of one of the few instances in history when warring social forces had identities strongly rooted in music appreciation, on top of competitive fashion and class warfare. If recalling a time when pop mattered that much makes you feel a little wistful, well — as a couple of "ModRock's" lovelorn girls get to sing — don't let the sun catch you crying.

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'Mod Rock'

Where: El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 14.

Tickets: $44-$59

Contact: (818) 508-4200 or http://www.modrockmusical.com

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

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