THEATER REVIEW : ‘From the Top!’ a Good Idea Gone Up in Flames : Carol Burnett vehicle is an extended TV skit-- stampeding snippets of American song that shortchange the work of the lyricists and composers.
Let’s take this one from the top:
Put three parts Carol Burnett live on stage at the Long Beach Convention Center’s snazzy Center Theatre with one part Ken Berry, one part John McCook and one part Gary Beach. Got that?
Add the music and lyrics of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, with an extra generous portion of lyrics by Ira Gershwin and a potpourri of music by Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Harry Warren and Kurt Weill.
Stir the whole with strange musical arrangements and stranger plots by book-writers/conceptualizers Mitzie and Ken Welch. Light the whole by Paulie Jenkins. Pour into functional sets by Romain Johnston and half-bake for just under 2 1/2 hours.
Take out of chef/director Glenn Casale’s oven, fold into elegant Bob Mackie costumes and serve with appropriate garnish by music director John McDaniel and choreographer Don Crichton. And there you have it: “From the Top!” Flambe --or what may have seemed like a good idea gone up in flames.
To be fair to the creators of this Long Beach Civic Light Opera recipe--and it takes a certain amount of bending over backward to do that--this is an idea that must have looked better on paper. One can visualize the Welches relishing the prospect of concocting three comic mini-musicals with the help of such luminaries as Berlin, Porter and Gershwin (and the others) as “new” vehicles for the irrepressible Burnett.
But who would have thought that they would also find a way to flatten Burnett’s irrepressibility and to mistake the stage for just another television studio? TV skits by any other name are TV skits.
And that’s essentially what “From the Top!” turns out to be: an extended TV skit--stampeding snippets of American song from no fewer than 103 memorable tunes that unintentionally shortchange the work of the lyricists and composers involved. Whatever else the Welches meant to do, taste and cohesion were not priorities.
“The Walking Stick” (songs of Berlin), a simplistic tale of World War I cheesecake and jingoism, and “One Night in Marrakech” (songs of Cole Porter), a “Casablanca” spin-off flavored with ersatz Maurice Chevalier, are just curtain-raisers to the post-intermission main event.
That event, titled “That Simpson Woman,” is a retelling of early scandal among Britain’s Royals that anticipates the current state of their affairs--all puns and all affairs intended. But despite lyrics by Ira Gershwin set to the music of Arlen, Duke, Kern, Warren, Weill and brother George, “Simpson” has the biggest identity crisis of all.
Its comedy can be beguiling when it refrains from making fun of stammerers (always an unearned cheap shot) and when it focuses on Gary Beach’s truly irrepressible Prince of Wales, a joyfully giddy fellow ready to give up scepter and throne for his beloved Wallis (Burnett).
But the Welches once more make a muddle of the piece by casting Burnett as a Wallis who takes herself entirely too seriously, a deadpan Burnett who sings “Long Ago (and Far Away)” without cracking a smile. Not only do we suddenly lose her comedic sense, but the story itself can’t decide if it wants to be comedy or soap opera, vulgar, funny or sad.
This pretty much reflects what ails the concept for the entire show. It’s one thing to dress up the beg-borrow-steal idea in quaintly old-fashioned tongue-in-cheek finery, but another to chase down four styles at once without settling on any particular one.
Berry lends a certain toe-tapping grace to the flippant “The Walking Stick” as a hoofer named Snookey who has to go to war to discover that he’s really always been in love with his dresser, Sally (Burnett). And McCook is a reasonably dashing leading man in the Road to “Marrakech” spoof.
In both of those cases, the comedy may be too silly for its own good, but there is safety in knowing that the sketches do not pretend to be anything other than what they are. When it comes to la femme “Simpson,” however, the dichotomy deepens.
There seems to be an underlying yearning in Burnett to be taken seriously. If so, it flies in the face of the Peter Principle, not because the lady can’t be as serious as the next person (her performance in the film “Friendly Fire” bore witness to that), but because comedy is what she does better than just about anyone else.
The crux of the problem in “From the Top!” is that the material simply falls far short of her talent. Too much of the time, to borrow from the show’s own conceit, “It’s the wrong song in the wrong style . . . It’s the wrong game with the wrong chips . . . “ And no one, not even Burnett, can overcome those odds.
*”From the Top!,” Center Theatre, Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m.; also June 10, June 24, 2 p.m.; June 6, June 20, 7 p.m. Ends June 27. $16-$38; (310) 432-7926, (714) 826-9371, (213) 365-3500, (714) 740-2000. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
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