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Brantfest! 

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Brantfest!, Zeppo Theater Company, at the Athenaeum Theatre. Since the 1993 debut of Lovely Letters, Chicago playwright George Brant has forged a tidy little reputation for comedy. He began with parodies of popular entertainments but in 1997 turned to biographies and adaptations of literary classics, most of them clocking in at a comfortable 90 minutes or less. "BrantFest!" includes four of his works.

Headlining is the world premiere of The Royal Historian of Oz, a biodrama; Brant plays L. Frank Baum. "If you came hoping for the story of a drunkard, drug addict, or adulterer, I am bound to disappoint you," Baum cautions, then recounts the career of a sickly boy whose fanciful tales made him an icon to children around the world. We learn that the flagship Oz volume was to be called The Emerald City until a superstition regarding jewels in book titles forced a change. That Dorothy was conceived as the daughter that Baum--who had four sons--always wanted. And that floods of mail from juvenile readers sustained the sensitive man through good times and bad. Nor does Brant sugarcoat the latter--illness and Baum's misguided ventures frequently plunged his family into poverty.

At first Brant's chipper delivery diminishes what's intended to be a serious portrayal, but he soon draws us into Baum's universe. And when the writer departs this world accompanied by Dorothy and her compatriots, any viewers with dry eyes might well wish for a wizard to give them the hearts they must lack.

The 1999 Borglum! The Mount Rushmore Musical is also based in historical fact--though the ending is fictional. Still, it's no more ludicrous than the actual saga of John Gutzon Borglum carving four presidential portraits into a South Dakota hillside. It is true that he initiated the project after a dispute with sponsors over a similar monument in Georgia, and that his tradesmen formed a baseball team. But whether he carried a tombstone figure of a child as a talisman is a matter of speculation. The score, with music by Paige Coffman and lyrics by Brant, mimics the conventions of patriotic epics with anthems like "America Is Calling," recruiting jingles like "We're Playing Ball for Borglum," and a production number, "We're Goin' to South Dakota," that transforms the cast--led by Robert Goulet soundalike James Sullivan--into a WPA mural. A lively pace and sparkling performances mitigate the work's fundamental silliness.

Flanking these two shows are revivals of the 1997 Three Men in a Boat, an armchair version of Jerome K. Jerome's 1889 best-seller detailing an excursion on the Thames, and the 1996 Night of the Mime, parodying the child-and-her-pet genre. Both feature some of the original players (notably Joseph Wycoff as a would-be sailor and George Fuller as the gentle mime), offering audiences who missed the earlier productions an opportunity to rectify their mistake.

--Mary Shen Barnidge

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