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STAGE REVIEW : PLEASANT PIFFLE IN ‘BOY FRIEND’

The Santa Barbara Theatre Festival’s “The Boy Friend” arrives in the wake of expectations generated by the decision to move the festival’s last show, “She Loves Me,” from the Lobero Theatre to the Ahmanson next month. But it would be very premature for “The Boy Friend” to pack its bags for a similar voyage.

“The Boy Friend” is one of the lightest of shows. It spoofed a genre--'20s musical comedy--that was already so insubstantial that it hardly merited such treatment.

A few years ago, the creators of “My One and Only” took similar material and turned it into a big event--thanks to a generous selection of Gershwin standards, show-stopping tap routines and dazzlingly bright, abstract sets.

While Sandy Wilson’s score for “The Boy Friend” is pleasant piffle, it would never make the Gershwins tremble. It was so carefully calculated to fit its feathery libretto that it hardly had a chance to transcend it, as the Gershwins did repeatedly.

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So it’s up to the production team to make something special of “The Boy Friend.” The Santa Barbara Theatre Festival has turned out a frisky summer stock production, but nothing here would merit the word special.

The most striking feature of this “Boy Friend” is its stripped-down scenic design. The minimalist look works well in the second act. A palm tree and two umbrellas are enough to suggest the open spaces of a beach. Long swaths of blue fabric, manipulated from offstage, serve as the surf, earning an appreciative laugh for designer Robert Fletcher.

But Fletcher’s sets in the first and third acts--at a private girls’ school and a costume ball, respectively--suggest penury of budget more than anything else. Better a bare stage than the wobbly flower vase of the first act or the two sorry placards of the third.

Fletcher does better with his costumes, and Lawrence Metzler’s lights spruce up the stage. Still, there is nothing that’s so eye-catching that it makes us forget how thin the narrative is. In this case, less is less.

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The cast goes through director Paul Blake’s paces without a glitch, but the only actor who brings a personal stamp to her cardboard character is Gretchen Wyler as Madame Dubonnet, the headmistress of the school. Wyler’s serpentine smile carries a shadow of comic exasperation and romantic desperation, though her lines are no less formulaic than anyone else’s.

Andrea Walters warbles well as the ingenue, and her eyes are beautifully limpid, which helps her find her way through her sad scenes. As the foremost of the title characters, Tony Cummings seems very accessible and American, though he’s supposed to be a titled Englishman. But then ethnic authenticity hardly matters in this show, and Cummings’ delivery of the line “How ripping!” is all the funnier because of his straightforward manner.

Jack Fletcher, Yvonne Wilder, Nancy Bickel and Murphy Cross have fun with their comic turns, and the dancers whip up the proper enthusiasm for their one big number, “The Riviera.” Choreographer Keith Ellinger also staged a nice little tango for Lori Russo and Robert Winn Austin.

Reliable Harper MacKay not only leads the four-piece band, but also joins the “boys” of the chorus in one of the numbers. It’s a cute moment, one of many. But the charms of this show dissolve as soon as you leave the theater.

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Performances continue Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Ends Sun. Tickets: $12-$20, (805) 963-0761.


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