Stage Reviews : Labored Look at American Original at Odyssey

John Cleves Symmes thought the world was hollow. The musical about him, "Symmes' Hole," at the Odyssey, is hollow.

Symmes (1780-1829) was an Army captain (War of 1812), farmer and half-baked amateur scientist. He concluded there were holes at the North and South poles, leading into the warmer recesses of the earth.

According to the program notes, Symmes' "declaration of a hollow earth in 1818 . . . ultimately led to a public campaign for the first government-sponsored scientific expedition"--an 1838 endeavor that supposedly discovered Antarctica, among other feats.

Actually, most sources credit the discovery of Antarctica to three explorers who saw it in 1820. If the accuracy standards are this lax in the program notes, imagine what they're like in the musical itself.

Not that accuracy of this kind should matter very much. But except for the fruits of the expedition that Symmes purportedly inspired, author Randy Dreyfuss hasn't come up with a reason for us to care about Symmes. In fact, it's not clear that Dreyfuss himself really cares about Symmes.

The tone of the show is steadfastly trivial and/or cartoonlike. It's supposed to be a whimsical examination of a cockeyed American dreamer; instead it's a labored look at a remote character who seems not much more than a buffoon. His story might be interesting as a footnote in a history book, but it's hardly worthy of treatment in a full-length musical.

At first the low comedy is mildly amusing. Some of the jokes are so bad they're good. But gradually, as it becomes apparent that there isn't much of anything else inside this show, they become merely bad.

The first act attempts to stir up some lyricism over the notion of one man's unrelenting quest for knowledge, and the second act attempts to make a statement about the little guy being used by the greedy big guys.

But the strained rhymes and the self-congratulatory lines that dot the lyrics undercut these efforts. The music is equally fussy and forgettable, and Mark Reina's choreography adds little more than clutter to Carol Corwen's staging.

Nor does the performance of Albert Macklin as Symmes deepen our sympathy for this guy. He looks perpetually wild-eyed, as if he's half-mad. He doesn't age, so we don't appreciate that his was a long-term crusade. And some of his lyrics are lost, even though it's a small house.

Orson Bean gamely goes through a kind of vaudeville-act-with-big-words as Symmes' loyal disciple. Craig Zehms plays two smoothie roles smoothly, Lori Michael vamps around the stage as Symmes' fertile Myrtle of a wife, and Tom Dugan, Thom McCleister and Kevin Pariseau contribute a gallery of subsidiary roles.

For a show that's supposed to be about our ability to imagine new worlds, Don Llewelyn's set and Doc Ballard's lighting are awfully drab and earthbound. Neal San Teguns did most of the costumes, but not the one that provides the best sight gag of the show: a "planet suit" worn by Bean at a scientific demonstration and credited in the program to Carlos Leon.

At 12111 Ohio Ave., Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. Tickets: $15.50-$19.50; (213) 826-1626.

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