`Copacabana' always in fashion

Musical: Songs, story, acting and choreography make a flashy show.

July 18, 2002|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Chesapeake Music Hall's current offering -- Barry Manilow's 1991 musical comedy Copacabana -- is a pleasant diversion.

Spawned from the lyrics of Manilow's 1978 hit single, the show has much to recommend it with a well-sung score, a fast-paced story and flashy, well-executed choreography.

Producer-director-choreographer and Chesapeake Music Hall owner Sherry Kay Anderson lavished much loving care on this production. Manilow's songs are treated well by music director Jason Brown, who has brought a remarkable live presence to the reproduction. And Garrett Hyde's lighting design adds excitement and distinction to many scenes.

My only real criticism concerns the too-loud volume of the musical tape accompaniment, which should support and never overwhelm the singers.

The dual character of present-day songwriter Stephen and hero Tony moves us in his imagination from today into a plot that is standard 1940s movie musical fare with largely one-dimensional characters leading predictable lives.

At first, it's a bit disconcerting to have a Yamaha keyboard drop from the ceiling, but then we get the message that this device puts us with Stephen in the here and now. All the rest is as simple as the song -- we meet showgirl Lola, bartender-songwriter Tony, cigarette girl Gladys, Copa club owner Sam Silver and eventually rival nightclub owner Rico Castelli and his soon-to-be-ex-leading lady Conchita Alvarez.

Immediately, we're dazzled by four great tunes in quick succession -- "Copacabana," "Just Arrived," "Dancin' Fool" and "Sweet Heaven" -- delivered by various soloists and ensembles. When it seems that things can't get much better, we are treated to Lola's audition tune. This song has enough raw material to allow Lola, through little more than a change in tempo, to progress from Oklahoma farm girl to sexy New York chorine.

Even with clever music, it takes the right singer-actress to make this transition, and in Heather Scheeler, we have a Lola LaMar who sings up a storm. In her Music Hall debut performance, Scheeler proves to have a lovely voice that can deliver a ballad or an up-tempo tune with equal verve, and she can do it while dancing with the best of the chorus. Attractive and appealing, she seems only to lack a little of the seductive quality mentioned in the song.

As contemporary songwriter Stephen and '40s hero Tony, Jason Vellon is outstanding, pulling off an amazing feat considering he was an understudy who learned the leading role in a week after Bradford Hodgson, who was originally cast, injured his leg.

Vellon's Tony is a good match for Scheeler's Lola, and he nicely sang and danced his way through one of the best songs in the show -- "Dancin' Fool." He did equally well with the ballads "Who Needs to Dream" and "Sweet Heaven."

Another great match was the pairing of actress-singer-dancer-comedienne Mary Armour-Kaiser as Gladys with actor-singer-dancer-comedian Jerry Vess as Sam Silver.

Vess is able to do comic wonders with an unsightly rug that keeps falling off his head, and without uttering a word, Vess can do a double-take that makes the audience roar with laughter. Only an actress of Armour-Kaiser's gifts could find a laugh in a line like "I stunk so bad I thought my middle initial was PU." She managed to turn this disastrous line into a comic highlight.

Lynn Garretson is brilliant in the role of the aging showgirl and Rico's mistress, Conchita. Not only does she make this abused woman a totally sympathetic character, she also gives her a believable accent and such seductive power that we understand why she's the brightest star in Havana. Garretson looks great in her costumes and dances with an easy grace.

Only fair-skinned, round-faced wholesome Alan Hoffman seems miscast as Rico, a character who should be swarthier and more menacing. Hoffman's accent also seems a bit more studied than Garretson's. A very good singer, it seemed that in his song "Bolero De Amor" Hoffman had to strain to be heard over the accompaniment.

The ensemble delivers some dazzling dancing in Anderson's choreography. Ronnie Schronce stands out for the intense energy and good nature he invests, as does adorable Katy Smith, who makes every difficult step look easy.

"Copacabana" continues on weekends with Wednesday matinees through Aug. 31. Call 410-626-7515 or 800-406-0306.

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