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An Old-Fashioned Musical 

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New Tuners Theatre

The traditional American musical disappeared so quietly and gradually we didn't even notice it was gone. You remember--a play in which characters broke into song whenever they had something on their minds, and strangers danced together in perfect time. A play with just enough plot and dialogue to allow us to answer when somebody asked, "What's it about?" A play with one to three pairs of lovers, a few comic characters, one or two all-purpose villains, and a small battalion of people who did nothing but sing loudly and dance tirelessly.

In 1966 Hair, resembling an agitprop rock concert more than a traditional song-and-dance entertainment, signaled the demise of the musical as it was known. Evita and Sweeney Todd sealed its fate. For the last decade "musical" has usually meant either a series of songs strung together by composer, era, or subject matter, or a full-scale opera--a Verdian spectacle distinguishable only by its English vernacular.

Locally, the creative teams of Kingsley Day and Philip LaZebnick, with The Summer Stock Murders, and June Pyskacek and Tony Zito, with last fall's Bombay Pete, revived the old style. Now comes Charlie's Oasis Museum & Bar, a real old-fashioned musical.

The tavern of the title is a ramshackle old watering hole on the gulf coast of Florida that's owned and operated by Charlie's granddaughter Marsha. Various vacationers have convened here every Groundhog Day for the last ten years--including a journalist from Iowa named Michael, a secretary from New York City named Ginger, and a real-estater from Pennsylvania named Alice, whose husband, also a longtime member of the group, has recently died. This season they are joined by Bruce, an attorney from Baltimore, and his wife, Diane.

They are not the only newcomers this year, however. Terry, a young architect, wants to build a condo complex on the beach and has taken steps to have Charlie's condemned. When the loyal regulars attempt to save their reunion site by using a hoax to claim it should be given landmark status, they create another adversary in the person of an elitist member of the National Landmarks Committee. All ends happily, though, with the lovers--two pairs--united and the villains trounced or reformed. Charlie's is rescued for posterity, and the little people have triumphed over big business.

As drama Charlie's Oasis Museum & Bar is pretty lightweight stuff. The characters are assigned one individual quirk apiece--Michael is worried about his receding hairline, Ginger has bad luck with boyfriends, Bruce's luggage has been lost in transit, a running gag that is reprised up to the last moment. The plot is resolved through a facile twist. With music taking up a hefty chunk of running time in musicals, one cannot expect the complexity of Ibsen or O'Neill. But then the measure of a musical is the music, the composition and performance of which requires a skill and discipline impossible to bluff or improvise. On that score Charlie's Oasis Museum & Bar comes through with flying colors.

Lovers' duets are usually occasions for yawning--how many ways are there for a tenor and soprano to say, "We're in love"? But composer-lyricist Gregg Opelka has contrived to write no less than five romantic songs without ever using the word "love." When Michael discovers he's falling for his best friend's widow he declares, "A funny thing happened to me today / Something I think just might stay . . . Fancy meeting you this way." In another song Terry persuades Ginger to date him by appealing to her sense of adventure: "Curiosity is deadly only if you're a cat." To which she replies, "I'll bet you have a medley of lines like that." He counters, "I'd be a lousy architect if all my lines were flat." The most original work of the evening, which a few audience members left the theater whistling, is "Illegitimis non carborundum" (Don't Let the Bastards Wear You Down), a satirical analysis of legal warfare: "Within the legal hemisphere / The way to get at them is fear / The use of non juridicus / Is older than Leviticus."

The entire cast quicksteps with unflagging energy. Particularly outstanding are David Weynand as Bruce, the lawyer who loses his arrogance under the spell of Charlie's Oasis, Rhea Anne Cook as Marsha, the barkeeper with a heart of gold and a voice strong and clear enough to guide in airplanes at Tampa International, and Matthew McDonald, whose heroic tenor and transparently mobile countenance make Michael more than the standard-issue lovable nebbish. As the unexpected object of his attentions, Lizanne Wilson has a lanky kind of beauty just imperfect enough to make her a plausible partner. A little more individualizing imperfection could have been expended on the pixieish Ginger and her swain, the dreamy-eyed Terry. As played by Mary Hager and Tom A. Viveiros, they are personable enough, but never seem to convey the depth of feeling that would take their characters beyond the familiar cute-and-cuddly cliches of the genre. (This is especially important in the case of Terry, who must sacrifice his four-year design project for love. More could be made of the conflicting feelings that eventually lead him to his decision.) Mary Mulligan is funny and charming as the rich and ditzy Diane, and it is to her and Weynand's credit that their characters, though probably conceived as purely comic, display enough genuine affection for one another to qualify as a third pair of lovers.

With so much harmony, a formidable discord must be found, and Kelly Ellenwood, though small in stature, makes Harriet a virago. As her hesitant henchmen, Thomas Cooch and Allan Chambers provide able support, making the most of their onstage time.

Not to be overlooked are Jim Beardon, Steve Molitor, and Bruce Tedesko--on sax, clarinet, oboe, English horn, and percussion--who somehow manage to sound like an entire orchestra. Scenic designer Thomas B. Mitchell has constructed a comfortably cluttered Charlie's Oasis, and Shifra Werch's beachwear will have audience members asking if she has a shop. Director Ted Hoerl makes it all work together.

I don't know how closely Charlie's Oasis Museum & Bar approximates its real-life namesake in Saint Petersburg, Florida--opening-night rumor had it that Charlie himself would attend in the near future. But the New Tuners ensemble--whose A Change in the Heir opens on Broadway next month--have created a homey and engaging tribute to the pleasures of friendship and community, as well as a tavern where one might just want to shed coat and tie and have a beer or two.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.


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