'Wondrous' is the reach, its execution less so

THEATER

September 17, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

"Wondrous"

Where: Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St.

When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., matinees Sundays at 2 p.m.; through Sept. 26

Tickets: $8 and $9

Call: (410) 752-1225

... * 1/2

You've got to admire Rita Pearlman's ambition. In her first attempt at playwrighting, this local homemaker and music teacher hasn't been content to merely write a play, she's written a musical -- and not just the libretto, but most of the music as well.

Pearlman's debut effort is optimistically titled "Wondrous," and it is receiving its premiere at the Spotlighters -- the community theater with a reputation for giving newcomers a chance.

"Wondrous" is about a lawyer named Donna who has trouble with relationships. If Geraldo or Sally Jessy did a show on her particular problem, they would probably call it something like, "Women Who Smother Their Lovers with Affection -- And the Men Who Leave Them."

It's not difficult to imagine Donna on this type of show since the musical is peppered with references to pop psychology. One character is a psychiatrist with a phoney Viennese accent, and there's even a song called, "Who's Your Shrink!" (the exclamation point is Pearlman's).

The situation is relatively simple. Donna becomes obsessed when she falls in love; romantic relationships are almost an addiction for her. Over the course of the musical, however, she gains a sense of self-worth and discovers she doesn't need a man to be happy. (I would describe this as a fairly feminist message, except that at one point Donna announces that she sometimes thinks "what the women's movement needs is an enema.")

Pearlman appears to be attempting to write what used to be called a "musical comedy," albeit on a small scale. But simple though the show's premise may be, it nonetheless contains several confusing elements, a few of which seem to be due to staging and a few of which are textual.

For instance, although some of the early dialogue suggests that Donna's ex-boyfriend is dead, he turns out to be very much alive. In addition, a number of sequences representing Donna's dreams and fantasies seem largely gratuitous, even though their staging, by director B. Thomas Rinaldi, is the liveliest in the show.

Three of the musical's 13 songs are by a two-time Grammy winner named Al Delory, who has worked with Jan & Dean, the Mamas & the Papas, and the Beach Boys, according to the program. Of these, "At Least I Know Love" is the catchiest song in the show -- possibly because the melody is strongly reminiscent of "Somewhere That's Green," from "Little Shop of Horrors." However, another Delory contribution, "So Glad," sounds so generically '60s, I'd be surprised if the composer didn't pull it out of a 30-year-old trunk.

Of Pearlman's original songs, the music is stronger than the lyrics, an example of which is: "Why do I feel pain?/What do I do wrong?/What makes me sing this song?"

The cast is headed by Bonnie Negler, who bears a resemblance to Bette Midler and does her best to achieve a similarly broad style. Two of the loveliest voices belong to Michael Brevard and Jennifer Stephens, and there's also a smooth-harmonizing chorus.

Like Pearlman herself, everyone appears to be trying hard. But in the end, it is mainly the ambition that is wondrous; the achievement is less so.

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