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THEATER REVIEWS : Near-O.D. in New Musical on ‘80s Drug Scene

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Charlie C,” a new musical being staged at (but not produced by) the Vanguard Theatre, is a very ‘80s show, about cocaine, the drug of choice of that decade.

In a sense, this isn’t even a new show. Fullerton dance instructor Steven Peck reveals in the program notes that his book musical (he also wrote the lyrics; Bill Parsley wrote the music) evolved out of his 1974 dance concert “Peace, Blood and Charlie Cocaine.” Then, it looked forward; now it looks back through a glass, murkily.

Impossibly ambitious for both the cast and behind-the-scenes creators, “Charlie C” mixes an acrid brew of equal parts “The Man With the Golden Arm,” “Cabaret,” backstage Broadway musicals and “Reefer Madness.”

The balancing act of melodrama, Brechtian fable, Fosse-esque dirty dancing and just-say-no sloganeering is quite a sight, if only for the chutzpah. But chutzpah, like the C-word in the title, will only get you so far.

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Don’t ask why or how musical composer Peter (Frank Racina) gets himself so heavily into the evil snow, but he does, despite a seemingly blissful relationship with Julie (Jill Niemela), his lover and lead in their new off-off-Broadway show.

Jimmy (Michael McNeil), the couple’s business partner and the show-within-the-show’s director, looks like trouble--high-wired, jealous of Julie (his ex-lover) and ready to rip his shirt off to reveal his bulging pecs at a moment’s notice.

Actually, Jimmy is just fine, so fine that he’s a character without a purpose after awhile--except to provide some cheesecake and dance interludes with Flame (the ultra-limber Koyuki Kolak, who shows off Dennon and Saybher Rawles’ choreography).

Peter is the one in need, and the evil, ever-chuckling show producer Charlie C (Ron Graham) gives Peter what he wants. We’re watching a weak man’s descent into druggie hell, and there’s nothing to be done.

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Peck, however, should do something about his book, which has more padding than a good sofa. After Julie sings her love to Peter (the pretty duet “Without You”) and wrings her hands in despair at his collapse, there’s little for Niemela to do with her character--which is also McNeil’s problem. Two sides of a love triangle are rudderless, and the third side is either in a stupor or rage. Not a good formula.

Instead, “Charlie C” is rife with subplots and sideshows, from the attempts of Charlie’s hooker with a heart of gold, Ruby Amour (Jill Fischer), to escape her pimp, to the Preacher (David Dillon) trying to save the riffraff of the Lower East Side while staying off the bottle, to Jimmy taking his cast (led by motor-mouth Kyle Myers) through the show’s numbers, which, “Cabaret"-like, interrupt the action, though they don’t, unlike in “Cabaret,” ironically comment upon it.

The show’s rather schizoid identity is reflected in Parsley’s taped score, which tosses in little bits of Brecht-Weill-inspired bitter songs of the street, treacly tunes worthy of a James Ingram and surprising show-biz nuggets such as the funky group tune, “Pop, Pop, Pop.”

The songs seldom flow out of the book, but they seem to matter the most, because casting was based on singing rather than acting.

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Julie and Peter’s dilemma only becomes an emotional issue when Niemela and Racina burst into song--which they do like birds. But the stuff between the songs is just beyond their range, as it is with McNeil, Graham (whom director Peck allows to chuckle interminably) and Dillon.

How much of “Charlie C” is to be taken seriously, as a bad cartoon or as a work deep in progress is perhaps the evening’s most interesting question.

Because new musicals are rare enough (especially in Orange County), one that tempts fate alone is admirable. But, as Peter discovers, tempting fate isn’t the best strategy for survival in a tough world.

* “Charlie C,” Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, 699A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 5 p.m. Ends Nov. 19. (714) 526-8007. $15. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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Jill Niemela: Julie

Frank Racina: Peter

Ron Graham: Charlie C

Michael McNeil: Jimmy

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David Dillon: Preacher

Jill Fischer: Ruby Amour

A CynPec/Jupiter Meadows Enterprises production of the Steven Peck/Bill Parsley musical. Directed by Peck. Choreography: Dennon and Saybher Rawles. Set: Peck. Lights: RSG/Sean Patrick Small.


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