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VALLEY WEEKEND : THEATER / REVIEW : ‘Flood Tide’ Awash in the Art of Having Fun : Center Stage’s cast juggles wide range of melodramatic moods while showing off its keen sense of camp.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sometimes, when theater stops being so damn serious for a couple of hours, some pretty serious theater can happen. “Flood Tide at Rio Magdalena” (say that fast five times) is about as nutrition-free, fiber-free and carbo-free a stage confection as anybody has come up with in awhile. But not all candy is the same, and this piece of charming, turn-of-the-century musical melodrama by Suzanne Buhrer, Gene Casey and Jan Casey is Tobler in a town full of M&Ms.;

This trio knows that if you’re going to do entertainingly nutty nonsense, you’ve got to do it with craft and put on your best straight face. It’s the only way to sell a show about a damsel in distress, a Snidely Whiplash of a doctor, a singing cowboy, a dashing Mexican Robin Hood, two stranded Shakespearean thespians and the wiliest housemaid in Texas.

At Center Stage, leave your reality check at the door. Be ready to hiss nasty Dr. Cleetus G. Weed (Dale Phillips), determined to snatch up every acre in the town of Magdalena. Be sure to offer handsome cowboy Sam (Ron Christopher Patric) advice on how best to deal with his budding love for the pretty Lucy Marie Hart (Andrea Lee Davis). And please, please warn Lucy, who’s enduring more calamities in one day than Los Angeles has had in the ‘90s, on the right things to do (which we dare not reveal here).

The book by Buhrer and the Caseys (who also wrote the jaunty music and cleverly rhyming lyrics) basically pits pluck against greed. In the wake of her German caretaker’s death, Lucy and her housemaid buddy Dolores Flores (Kerima Reed) plan to turn the old man’s house into a boarding hostel called “La Casa de Haben Sie Einen Schnitzel.”

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But the evil Weed knows there’s something valuable in the house, and he comes up with more and more preposterous means of searching for it. His plot is complicated by the entrances of actors Lila (Rosanna Huffman) and Julius (Frank Echols), and Sam, who falls for Lucy at first sight.

And this is just the beginning. Even after some delectably goofy and corny numbers in Act I (Lila’s and Julius’ “Devil Without Mercy” is a small masterpiece of tale-telling inside a song, and the lovers’ “When I’m With You” is simply beautiful), the show saves its goofiest, corniest and wildest for Act II--just as the flooding Rio Magdalena is about to flush everyone down to the Gulf of Mexico.

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Once again, the melodramatic moods shift like the current, from Lila’s Kurt Weill-ish song of her life to the stunning group number, “Adios Tormenta,” led by a seething Dolores. By the time “Flood Tide” has subsided to its (natch) happy ending, you know you’ve seen a genuine clinic on musical comedy--and the art of having fun.

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Director Richard Alan Woody has assembled it all with little more than a painted flat (representing the house’s parlor room), an upright piano (the perfect melodrama accompaniment by Gene Casey), a few lights (by Andrew Wise) and a cast with the keenest sense of campiness west of the Pecos.

They’re comedians first and singers second, which is the way it should be. And what faces: Davis’ fluttery, terrified looks, Reed’s salt-of-the-earth smiles, Phillips’ wormy sneers, Patric’s glowing, son o’ the prairie glances.

Now, if Buhrer and the Caseys can do something with earthquakes in Los Angeles. . . .

DETAILS

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* WHAT: “Flood Tide at Rio Magdalena.”

* WHERE: Center Stage, 20929 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 19.

* HOW MUCH: $15.

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* FYI: (818) 761-5520.


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