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STAGE REVIEW : Limits of ‘Love & Guilt’ at Pasadena Playhouse

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The title “Love & Guilt & The Meaning of Life” might give the impression that the new revue in Pasadena Playhouse’s Balcony Theatre lacks focus.

In fact, the show’s scope is far more narrow than the title indicates. The words, by humorist Judith Viorst, dwell almost exclusively on the gap between youthful expectations and adult adjustments--within the world of vaguely liberal, upper middle-class, white American women.

It’s fertile territory for wry, rueful commentary, and this show has plenty of it. It also has a blissfully moving song about a new mother’s “insurrection” of love toward her “First Baby,” performed with remarkable delicacy and power by Eileen Barnett.

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Musical theater fans should be warned, however, that “Love & Guilt” seldom ventures beyond attitudes and wisecracks into actual characterization or genuine drama. The show is billed in its press releases as “a theatrical concert” for good reason: It’s too flat to be considered a piece of bona-fide musical theater.

Which is not to demand a book musical. A recent revue on similar themes, “Bittersuite,” didn’t have a book or continuing characters either, but it didn’t seem nearly as superficial as “Love & Guilt.”

The staging of “Love & Guilt,” by Marilyn Shapiro, literally reflects its two-dimensionality. Barnett, Bonnie Franklin and Gretchen Wyler sit behind platforms that hold copies of the script, to which they sometimes refer. This is a reading--a work in progress, perhaps?--more than a finished revue.

Nevertheless, Shelly Markham’s music serves Viorst’s witticisms well, and so does this trio of performers, who add an element of variety in their look and manner that makes the material seem a bit more expansive than it really is.

Barnett has the most majestic features and voice on stage--so majestic, in fact, that it sounds faintly absurd for her to fret about her waistline or to nod appreciatively over a colleague’s desire for high cheekbones. Barnett already has high cheekbones.

But her regal appearance comes in handy in “Rapunzel,” the best and most complex of four fairy tale-derived songs in the show, and her rendition of “First Baby” should be recorded for posterity.

Franklin became famous as a middle-class audience surrogate, and she continues to fill that role here, with measured authority. Her best solo is a melancholic lament about the onset of middle-aged hypochondria and insomnia.

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She tackles the show’s most sustained attempt at characterization, “Henry,” as the finale of the first act. Unfortunately, it betrays Viorst’s limits as a dramatist; skimpy on telling details about its title character, it comes off as second-rate soap opera.

Wyler has the most distinctive voice in the show: a deliciously suggestive sound that penetrates through nonsense with keen precision. She makes comic hay out of an initially clever but ultimately predictable ditty called “A Sensuous Woman” and brings a welcome air of maturity to some of Viorst’s most lived-in lyrics.

Jim Grady’s musical direction is sensitive to the shifting styles of Markham’s melodies, though the synthesized keyboard occasionally sounds unfortunately canned. No one is credited with costume design, but the clothes fit in well with one small exception: the rose corsage that accents Franklin’s outfit. It sends a peculiar message during “Henry,” when Franklin takes note of her rival’s rose scent lingering on her husband.

At 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m., through June 24. $25; (818) 356-PLAY.

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