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STAGE REVIEW : It May ‘Wanna-Be’ a Musical, but It Only Whines

Most of us “wanna-be” something we’re not, whether it’s thin, rich, famous, sexy or loved.

That’s the idea behind “I Wanna-Be!?” a Jacob Henry production of a new two-woman show that runs through Sept. 9 at the Hahn Cosmopolitan Theatre.

Unfortunately, “I Wanna-Be!?"--like its subjects--wants to be something it isn’t. A musical. What it is, instead, is a hodgepodge of vignettes. Some work, others don’t.

It begins promisingly with two fairy godmothers commiserating over all the wishes they must fulfill, and deteriorates rapidly into unrelated slapstick about a professor lecturing on the symbolism of “Gilligan’s Island” and an editor trying to coerce the author of “Leviticus” to come up with a punchier title and a more exciting text.

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No matter how hard actresses Mimi Wyche and Judy Milstein work to breathe life into their idea (co-written with Oliver Goldstick and David Manis), the show never becomes more than an excuse for two actresses to strut their stuff.

Wyche, a Broadway veteran of “Cats,” is such a good singer and clever performer that she comes off to advantage despite the glaring amateurishness of most of the material and Sarah H. Golden’s shapeless direction. (Golden, along with Mark Waldrop, is also listed as a contributing writer.)

In the tradition of an actress who can get away with reading a phone book, Wyche actually sings the nursery rhyme “Old Mother Hubbard” and makes it work.

Milstein, meanwhile, is completely outmatched by Wyche. Milstein is a funny performer and has her strengths, but she falls short in attempting to match Wyche scene for scene, song for song.

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Part of the problem is that the “wanna-be” condition they present as such a revelation is hardly new. It dates back to Eve buying into the serpent’s promise that eating the apple would make her wise, and Cain killing his brother because he wanted to be the best-loved.

This show keeps its focus doggedly narrow, as if yuppies invented the “wanna-be” condition. How many times do you want to hear about a woman whining about how she wants to lose weight and get a man?

How about hearing from some of the people in America who are genuinely deprived, for whom the “wanna-be” condition is a poignant one?

A two-woman show about life in vignette form can be successful--witness Kathy Najimy and Maureen Gaffney in “The Kathy & Mo Show,” which left San Diego to enjoy a wildly successful run off-Broadway.

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But the difference is that if Najimy and Gaffney had started with this idea, you can be sure that some of those “wanna-bes” might be pregnant teen-agers or tired waitresses or gay men or elderly matrons suspiciously testing out a women’s study course for the first time. They would, in short, be a spectrum of America.

In the entire two-hour presentation of “I Wanna-Be!?” the show provides only one comparably affecting moment. Delivered by Wyche, it is a lonely, country ballad about a woman in curlers and housedress who wants a man to turn off the television and just take a look at her.

The rest of the show, however, is a numbing reminder of how easily unfocused ideas and talent can be squandered.

The music by Mark Houghtaling and Fred Barton is undistinguished, the musical direction by Bill Doyle adequate, the set design by Ocie Robinson puzzling, the lighting by Douglas Gabrielle serviceable and the choreography by Johnny Warrine uninspired.

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If this show wants to be successful wanna-be, it needs a long trek back to the drawing board.

Performances at 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 6 and 9 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 9. At 444 4th Ave., San Diego. (619) 232-9608.


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