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DANCING DOWN THE DECADES

Times Arts Editor

These days Los Angeles theater tackles anything it cares to, light or heavy, small or large. But in an earlier day, when neither resources nor audiences were quite so abundant, the intimate revue, youthful, peppy, irreverent and expert, seemed to me to be the characteristic L.A. stage form.

Shows like “Vintage 60" and “The Billy Barnes People” charmed many a transplanted Easterner in the late ‘50s. Those distant evenings came pleasurably to mind as I watched “The Wonder Years” a couple of nights ago in the Academy Room of the refurbished Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

This “Baby Boom Musical Revue,” chronicling the tide of Americans born between 1946 and 1961--72 million is the number quoted in the show’s recitative--has already been enthusiastically reviewed by Don Shirley in this section, but I hope nobody will mind a seconding opinion.

Each of the six talented cast members seems on the way to larger and more conspicuous things. They move, sing and dance with the assurance of old pros, and the credits suggest a lot of dues paid in college and regional theater from one end of the country to the other.

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The writing and production credits are equally confident. It is no small achievement to have mounted the show in a level-floored mezzanine meeting room, using an ingenious temporary lighting grid, a low riser and a lot of brisk imagination.

But content is crucial, and the satisfaction of “The Wonder Years” is that it makes all the jokes about the generation that was too late for Vaughn Monroe and too early for “Sesame Street” but reflects as well its unique shifting of moods and its penetrating sadness.

It is funny about “I Love Lucy” and Slinkies and Dr. Spock and Barbie dolls and bell-bottom jeans. But it gets to more serious matters with the number, which concludes Act I, called “Flowers From the ‘60s,” a lament for lost dreams and unfinished hopes, affectingly sung by Stephen Breithaupt.

Later on there’s a funny-angry song, “The Girl Most Likely,” sung by Patty Tiffany. It is the risingly bitter autobiography of a hard-driving woman who has at length succeeded in achieving both success and a self she despises and can accommodate only with the help of Valium.

“The Wonder Years” is that rarer item, a thematic revue rather than a series of blackouts. It sags a little in the late going, before it reaches a finale in which hopes and dreams for improving the world have come to seem possible again.

How accurately this optimism assesses the baby boomers (as against the needs of an audience eager to exit smiling) is not certain, although Sunday’s Hands Across America endeavor and the other collective assaults on world miseries are largely the work of the boomer generation.

“The Wonder Years” is, at that, hardly an exhaustive account of the years. I wish, for example, that there were a black performer in the cast, not out of any fairness or equal time doctrine, but simply because the boomer decades were crucial for blacks, too.

You’d think that what was achieved by blacks, and what wasn’t, is fair game for comment, satirical and otherwise. At the most obvious level, the pervasive black influence on popular music and even language is hard to ignore in the last three decades. There is a passing mention of Martin Luther King, but that’s a slim acknowledgment of a social stirring that the white baby boomers even in their suburban insularity couldn’t and didn’t ignore.

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But the boomers, the target audience for the show, find plenty to relate to, from Ding Dong School to beads. And, in that older Los Angeles tradition, it’s a bright and refreshing excursion, served cabaret style, with popcorn and liquid cheer at the tables.

If “The Wonder Years” focuses primarily on the ‘60s, another dazzling entertainment that also just arrived in town, “Tango Argentino” at the Pantages, somehow fetches back the 1920s.

It’s the spiritual link with silent movies and specifically with Rudolph Valentino as the epitome of the Latin lover, he of the Pennzoiled hair and the impassive face whose slitted eyes were the only clue to the smoldering passions within.

One of the tangos is a specific homage to Valentino. It ends with a freeze frame, the dancing lovers cheek to cheek, staring fixedly into the lens, and eternity. But the whole performance evokes a curiously ‘20s blend of enchanting innocence and a chaste but teasing sexiness.

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The notion of a storyless evening of tango dance, tango song and tango music seems extravagantly improbable, but proves to be triumphantly beguiling, varied and surprising. The skill is amazing, and you wince to imagine the barked shins there must have been in some distant learning process.

The dances are often witty, always unutterably graceful, sometimes rousingly but discreetly amorous, now and again touched with melancholy. And, as Lewis Segal remarked in his highly admiring review, the dancers, some of them quite senior, prove that the tango is ageless in every sense.

The dancers have indeed clearly only improved with age, and it is a kind of bonus of pleasure from “Tango Argentino” to see that the fond and desperate dream of marvelous maturity can come true.


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