THEATER REVIEW : 'Empire's' Message Founders, But Director, Cast Make It Fun

What happens if you mix "Dynasty" with "General Hospital," adding a generous dollop of "Dallas"?

The answer, at least at the Bowery Theatre through Dec. 2, is "Empire," a poor man's version of "Into the Woods" for the soap opera crowd. Where James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim wrote an array of fairy-tale favorites into one story, Ginny-Lynn Safford and Jonathan Sacks have assembled a cast of characters who are amalgamations of soap opera stars playing the parts that made them famous.

Despite the considerable discrepancy in polish (after all, the score for "Into the Woods" was not only composed by one of the great musical talents today, but it was also a big-budget Old Globe show and now an even bigger-budget Broadway show), there are striking parallels in both shows' ambitions, successes and failures.

Both play on our fantasies to say something about the way we plot our lives against both dreams and reality. Both are smart, hip and fun. And both get lost on their way to delivering their messages, though the classically based "Into the Woods" is clearly on a much higher evolutionary plane than this world premiere of a workshop production.

Another thing the two share is crackerjack--if, in the case of "Empire," inherently small-scale--musicals within, struggling to get out. And it is largely to the credit of director and co-creator Safford and the talented cast of eight that the show, while still a bit of a muddle, is as much fun as it is.

In her second show as associate artistic director at the Bowery, Safford has again taken chances with fresh faces, all of whom are new to the Bowery. All are welcome.

There's no mistaking Barbara Campos' Joanna Collier playing Devlin Forthwright for anyone but Joan Collins stepping in and out of her Alexis Carrington role. Campos is a dark, curly-haired caution, whether scheming, wheeling and dealing offstage to get the terrorists dogging her character out of the script, or on stage to destroy the hospital belonging to Ewing Ward and his wife, Mona.

She is also the central character to change, both offstage and on, which she does in the song, "I Don't Know Me Anymore," one of the gems in a generally sparkling score composed by Sacks, with lyrics by Jill Stevens and Safford.

To ask why she changes, however, is to focus on the sticky question in which the plot founders. There is ostensibly a catalyst in the person of Robert Folus (Bob Hayes), introduced as an actor hired to play Fool, a new character in the show.

Hayes captures Fool's sweet, charismatic New Age sensibility, so in contrast with the tense and greedy values of the other characters. But instead of having Folus interact with any of the pivotal players, the script calls for him to win the heart of the director's assistant (sweetly played by Mary Mansfield), even as Fool romances Mr. Ward's secretary, the character the assistant temporarily steps in to portray.

It's like throwing away a wild card. One wonders why Folus/Fool could not have been involved in a love affair more integral to the story, perhaps by switching the genders of the hard-boiled director (T. Andy Boutelle) and his assistant and having Folus and the director fall in love instead.

With the potential of Folus/Fool lying untapped, the burden of moving the plot along falls on Ward's daughter and Forthwright's nephew, who meet across a crowded room in the tired "Romeo and Juliet"/"West Side Story" tradition.

The hoariness of this plot device is ameliorated by the number that the star-crossed lovers sing. Their song, "Yuppie Love," yields one of the funniest and most graceful numbers in the show, thanks to the charming efforts of Malcolm Lowe as actor Rob Capella playing Julius Forthwright and Heidi Wilson as Julie Monteigne playing Ramona Ward.

The other actors offer good support; in the second of his three roles, Boutelle shines as Phil Grey (an indisputable round-shouldered Phil Donahue with a triple dip of earnestness). He is less successful as the director, but mainly because that part is the least defined.

Sacks' score could benefit from judicious pruning, both of music and of plot. However, when the songs fit, the result is memorable. The lyrics by Jill Stevens and Safford range from clever to tender, as does Rebecca Lewis' choreography, which deftly mixes a bit of ballet with ballroom dancing and exaggerated mock-musical steps.

The costumes by John-Bryan Davis are inspired in their simplicity: gray athletic wear with their identities established above the waist with telling distinctions, like a shirt jacket and tie for Ewing Ward and a blazing star for Devlin Forthwright.

Tom Phelps' set design of mock concrete blocks seems to stand mostly as surfaces for dramatic lighting.

One of the biggest problems with this overall entertaining show is that the characters need to be more fully developed, both for the people familiar with the shows being parodied and, even more critically, for those who aren't.

With "Dallas" now in its 11th year and fluctuating between 16th and 26th place in the ratings, Safford, Sacks and Stevens should consider the possible datedness of this material and strive to make the characters work on their own. After all, while soaps, in general, are certain to be with us for a long time, these particular bars of it are fast melting in the bathwater.

"EMPIRE" By Ginny-Lynn Safford and Jonathan Sacks. Music by Sacks; lyrics by Jill Stevens and Safford. Director, Safford. Set and lighting, Tom Phelps. Sound, Lawrence Czoka. Costumes, John-Bryan Davis. Choreographer, Rebecca Lewis. Stage manager, Scott Resnick. With T. Andy Boutelle, Barbara Campos, Bob Hayes, Malcolm Lowe, Mary Mansfield, Ken Parratt, Heidi Wilson and Stephanie Cooper Wise. At 8 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays, through Dec. 2. At the Bowery Theatre, 480 Elm St., San Diego.

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