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Sweet-natured comedy isn’t the first thing you’d expect from the woman whose imagination produced the disturbingly amusing cadaver caper Morticians in Love, but in the world premiere of The Gene Pool at Woolly Mammoth, gifted, twisted Washington playwright Christi Stewart-Brown gets traditionally sentimental about the thoroughly modern family she has put at the play’s center. Come to think of it, the whole business is curiously old-fashioned: Structurally, Stewart-Brown may be mining subverted sitcom setups for new comic angles, but look behind the considerable craft she deploys in this ingratiating laugh-riot and you’ll see that the lessons her tightknit threesome learns are no fresher than those in Ozzie and Harriet.
A show, in fact, the deliberately saccharine opening sequence echoes: As Doris Day warbles “Pollyanna” on the hi-fi, stay-at-home mom Mira Gray (reliably poised Jennifer Mendenhall) waltzes dreamily with her carpet sweeper, checks the coquilles St. Jacques, and tidies the already painfully perfect living room of Robin Stapley’s impressively solid suburban-ranch set so everything will be just right when the family breadwinner gets home. In a Woolly Mammoth production, of course, such a scene can exist only to be turned inside out, so it’s hardly a surprise when the inevitable “Hi, honey, I’m home!” rings through the house in a clear, strong alto.
At first blush, Mira and Claire (a vaguely blustery Kimberly Schraf) seem the very model of a modern lesbian couple, picture-perfect as the Nelsons and sensible as Ellen could only dream of being. Sure, veterinarian Claire seems a little frazzled, but then she’s had to euthanize more than her usual share of cats the day we meet her. Certainly, their son Peter (Jeff Lofton, putting his dimples to good use as a baggy-pantsed teen) seems well-adjusted: He’s level-headed, easygoing, not particularly rebellious, and both trustworthy and trusting enough to give his forward-thinking moms a heads-up when he decides he wants lose his virginity on his 18th birthday. So they can buy (and gift-wrap) the condoms, of course.
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But trouble, as they say, lurks. Claire’s workplace burnout hides what Mira, for all her worries about lesbian bed death, doesn’t even suspect: an affair. And her increasing coolness and impatience drive Mira to increasingly anxious attempts at rekindling their love life, though even Peter knows enough from his women’s studies classes to see that her methods, cribbed from the outdated pages of The Total Woman, are fairly desperate and just a little pitiful.
Meanwhile Peter, with a push from perky, oft-pierced new girlfriend Paige (certifiably adorable Woolly newcomer Tina Frantz), has begun to ask uncomfortable questions about things like motorcyclesPaige rides one, and he wants toand sperm donors. Uncomfortable answers, least among them the news that Peter was named for the appendage that marks him as unique in his household, are the inescapable result.
Furry handcuffs, a truckload of dead horses, a pair of overfed Dobermans, and Peter’s decidedly ambivalent donor dad (Michael Russotto) figure into the plot’s ever more complicated machinations, but Stewart-Brown makes her characters so winning (and this cast plays them with such charm) that it’s clear from the beginning she’ll set everything right by the final curtain.
When she does, a peace of a slightly sadder but wiser kind returns to the Grays’ area. And there’s the problem: Neat lessons and clean solutions mean no real pain and precious little resonance. For all its blithe humor and bighearted warmth, The Gene Pool never ventures beyond pop psychology’s shallow end. Stewart-Brown makes a plug for compromise in relationships and puts in a word about being careful what you ask for, but that’s about all she wrote this time around. Would that all domestic difficulties were as easily resolved as these; we’d be a happier nation.
Pat plot lines aren’t necessarily problematic in Dreamgirls, the glitzy 1980 musical about the Dreams, a Supremeslike ’60s girl group, and Effie White, the soul diva who gets the boot for being hardheaded and heavy-hipped just as the trio reaches the top. Granted, Tom Eyen’s pedestrian book isn’t concerned with developing character so much as elbowing the story ungracefully forwardbut who cares about dialogue when there are Henry Krieger’s sensational tunes to turn to? You get cheekiness in “Move,” defiant pride in “I Am Changing,” cool, sexy cynicism in “One Night Only,” and searing, literally show-stopping catharsis in the unforgettable Act 1 closer “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” The show’s music alone, you’d think, makes it a sure winner, even in a production as seemingly budget-minded as the Broadway-bound touring revival now parked at the Kennedy Center for a limited run.
But it turns out Dreamgirls is anything but a heat ‘n’ serve hit. You can’t just throw a sizzling voice into the lead role and assemble a supporting cast haphazardly around her. And though Tony-nominated star B.J. Crosby (Smokey Joe’s Cafe) indeed wields a voice that’ll part your hair and pin you to your seat, her colleagues are either sadly miscast or sleepwalking through their partsif not both.
I want very much to like elegant, long-limbed La Tanya Hall as Diana Ross clone Deena Jones, who takes the spotlight that should’ve been Effie’s. Hall is a decent enough actress with an appealing vulnerable airbut she’s also part of what’s wrong with this ragtag production. Her voice is creamy but underpowered, and “One Night Only” forces her to work back and forth across an all too noticeable break between registers. Of course, Miss Ross was no vocal powerhouse even in her heyday; she was, however, possessed of star quality, that indefinable something that she (and Sheryl Lee Ralph, the original Deena) had in megawatts. Even in the glitteriest of Theoni Aldredge’s beaded gowns, Hall’s star shines dimly by comparison; in the absence of Effie’s scorching talent, Deena’s glamour has to be a plausible peg for the Dreams’ runaway success, and Hall just isn’t convincing.
Still, she’s a miracle of style and poise next to the show’s men. Effie’s unscrupulous manager (Brian Evaret Chandler), her callow songwriter brother (Gary E. Vincent), her eventual rescuer (Darrin Lamont Bird)each is stiffer than the next. The exception is Kevin-Anthony, a refreshingly energetic presence as high-haired swivel-hipster Jimmy Early, though even he’s not entirely right for his part. If you’re going to be a fictionalized stand-in for James Brown, you’ve got to carry a bit of swaggering sexual threat to go with your soulful exuberance. Kevin-Anthony doesn’t, so it’s harder to care when cynical marketing strategies strip him of both his menace and his dignity.
Crosby, for her part, sings the bejesus out of her big numbers, delivering an admirably demented “And I Am Telling You” and a downright electrifying “I Am Changing.” But though she improved a bit in the four days between the two performances I saw, her acting still isn’t where it needs to be; too often, she seems to be walking through lines blank-faced and slack-armed, as though she’s still in rehearsal. To be scrupulously fair, I should note that she’s only been in the role for a couple of weeks and that she’s been coached not by director Tony Stevens, who’s apparently in Germany staging another Dreamgirls production, but by the show’s stage manager.
Maybe Stevens is the real problem here: There’s no snap, no razzle-dazzle anywhere in his staging, which is supposedly a “re-creation” of Michael Bennett’s legendarily kinetic original direction.
And maybe, if rumor holds true, the producers are close to solving him. Unless they do, this Dreamgirls is a real snooze. CP