In the "Jeopardy!" category of theater trivia, "Flora, the Red Menace" has quite a few possible responses. "What is Kander & Ebb's first Broadway musical?" "What is the show in which a teenage Liza Minnelli made her Tony-winning Broadway debut?" But if you were to venture "What is a rarely produced work by an acclaimed composer-lyricist duo overdue for revival?" I'm afraid your winnings would take a noticeable dip.
That's the obvious conclusion to draw from Reprise Theatre Company's flat remount of this 1965 Minnelli vehicle, which for many is known only by an original cast album and Rialto hearsay. Directed by Philip Himberg and starring the bright new talents Eden Espinosa and Manoel Felciano, the production failed to make a convincing case for the show's durability at its opening Wednesday at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.
Of course Broadway buffs will relish the chance to encounter "Flora," whose last major outing was off-Broadway in 1987. That revised production, which among other changes added the song "The Joke," with its pointed reflection on homelessness and public indifference, is the version Reprise is following. But the show still hasn't overcome a recurring challenge in Kander & Ebb's collaborations -- the musical numbers have a diamond sparkle that can make their less gleaming dramatic settings look cheap by comparison.
In their best offerings, "Cabaret" and "Chicago," this long-lasting songwriting team was able to get around this inherent limitation by dealing with stories that made sense as sequences of showstoppers. But here, with a soggy book by David Thompson (based on a Lester Atwell novel originally adapted by George Abbott), the musical's brilliance is confined to a few splashy tunes, interspersed with shenanigans that are neither madcap enough to be winning nor sharply political enough to be illuminating.
For those wondering why politics should come into play at all, the piece is set in 1935 during the Great Depression, and the show is framed as a product of the WPA Federal Theater Project. What's more, the "Red" of the title is a shorthand for communism, a movement that Flora Meszaros, a fashion illustrator desperately in need of a job, becomes entangled with when she falls in love with Harry, an unemployed artist with a self-effacing stammer who happens to be a passionate party worker.
Flora is meant to be a whirlwind of eccentric energy and spry amusement, a freewheeling bohemian with a tough mind and a touchable heart. Present her with a rack of clothes, and soon she's marching around in a boa, singing about what it's like to be her alter ego, an elegant and brainy dazzler with money to burn.
When we're first introduced to Flora as her class' valedictorian, she's standing on the threshold of a limitless future. Next we see her angling for a position at Garret and Mellick's department store, where she meets Harry and, instantly smitten, decides he must become part of her loft cooperative, where struggling creative types try to perfect their crafts. Later she finds herself embroiled in a romantic rivalry with Charlotte (Megan Lawrence), a Communist stalwart who's as wild about Harry as she is the workers' cause.
The role of Flora, unfortunately, isn't an ideal fit for Espinosa, who was so appealing as the green-pigmented Elphaba in "Wicked" last year at the Pantages. Espinosa is too solid a presence for this ethereal kook, and her dramatic skills outstrip her comic gifts. She needs something she can sink her teeth into, which is why she thrives in the contemplative "Quiet Thing," a lovely song about the strange absence of bells and fireworks when you finally get what you want. And with her powerhouse voice she naturally goes to town with "Sing Happy," an anthem that allows her to express a little Espinosa with an "s."
Felciano has the admirable ability to remain comfortable within the parameters of his character, no matter how cramped. Without trying to compete with his costar, he brings just the right amount of dithering charm for us to realize why Flora is so infatuated.
Lawrence hammily stands out as Charlotte, whose doctrinaire beliefs run neck and neck with her carnal appetites. Unlike Flora, who's a natural egalitarian, Charlotte is nothing more than an ideological floozy. Lawrence's attack is broad, but it wrings laughs, and she delivers her big numbers, "The Flame" and "Express Yourself," with aplomb.
The production is simply yet attractively designed (Driscoll Otto's atmospheric lighting lends a nice backstage glow), and Christopher Pilafian's choreography is serviceably entertaining. But the movement from song to shtick sputters, and it's not easy to get a handle on a work that seems merely a precursor of better Kander & Ebb to come.
'Flora, the Red Menace'
Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA, Westwood
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: May 18
Price: $70 and $75
Contact: (310) 825-2101
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes