'Revenge' feels scattered despite some campy fun

October 04, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

The woman who wrote "Little Women" wasn't merely an author of children's books. Louisa May Alcott also wrote adult novels, potboilers and thrillers. "The Sweet Revenge of Louisa May," a new musical based on some of these thrillers, is pleasing enough, but it's generally less than thrilling.

The show, making its world premiere at Olney Theatre, features a similarly pleasing score, by Stephen Hoffman and Mark Campbell. But most of the enjoyment stems from the high-camp approach taken by director John Going and his comically eye-rolling, sneering -- and vocally adept -- cast.

With this in mind, it's interesting to note that in the latest issue of American Theatre magazine, lyricist Campbell is quoted saying the show's creators tried not to make it camp. But if it works, why fight it? The campy staging certainly seems intentional here.

One of the most prominent elements in production designer William Schroder's set is a bust of the author, in an upper corner above the stage and spotlit throughout the show. At various times the bust swivels, as if to observe the action; it also smiles, and in the end, it winks. (I'm not sure what Alcott looked like, but this piece of statuary is so homely that if she weren't long dead, seeing this likeness would surely kill her.)

Getting back to her prose, playwright Burton Cohen has combined the plots of a half-dozen Alcott stories with what he has described as 50 percent of his own material. The result has the feel, however, of two stories jerry-rigged together.

Story number one is about a governess named Pauline, who vows revenge on the fiance who jilted her and married an heiress. Story number two is about a wealthy Cuban orphan named Carlotta, who has been betrothed since birth to a cousin whose greedy father can't wait to get his hands on Carlotta's estate.

Cohen's script links these stories without getting them confusingly intertwined. But even so, this is too much plot -- and not enough substance -- for a single musical. Interest in Carlotta's fate wanes early -- though not because of any shortcoming on the part of actress Karen Culliver, who fares just fine. When Carlotta gets caught in a subplot about a mad scientist, however, the action becomes too ludicrous to be compelling.

In addition, it is easily overshadowed by the tale of vengeful Pauline, hilariously performed by the musically adroit Barbara McCulloh. Unlike Carlotta's thwarted romance, which stems primarily from a misunderstanding, Pauline's predicament -- which includes a cliff-hanger scene featuring an honest- to-goodness cliff -- keeps us on the edge of our seats.

Other notable performances include those of Pedro Porro as Carlotta's brother, James Weatherstone as Pauline's former fiance, Nancy Johnston as the heiress he marries, and the instrumental trio conducted by David Loud.

In its best moments, "The Sweet Revenge" proves it's possible to sing with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Those moments might be sufficient to grant this show a future in summer stock, but Big Time revenge will have to wait.

THEATER REVIEW

What 'The Sweet Revenge of Louisa May'

Where: Olney Theatre, 2001 Route 108, Olney

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 7:30 p.m. Sundays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Sundays and Oct. 8; and 2 p.m. Oct. 13. Through Oct. 23

Tickets: $22-$27

Call: (301) 924-3400

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