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Ugly Princess, Beautiful Soul and Air Guitars

Published: September 27, 2005

Love at first sight is fine, but how about love at first "schmutzer"? That's what a diffident, bespectacled inventor, Clyde (Jamie McGonnigal), calls the lint-roller he presents triumphantly to a princess (Meredith McCasland) near the climax of "Isabelle and the Pretty-Ugly Spell."

This family-friendly fairy-tale musical, part of the New York Musical Theater Festival, contains many such knowing fillips: references to "West Side Story" and "Candide," diet jokes and an air-guitar solo. When the ditzy fairy godmother Izzy (Ruth Gottschall) arrives late for her cue through the back door, she blurts, "Sorry, I was on the C train."

These comic asides are not mere winking distractions from the storytelling at hand. Instead they are frosting on a nearly perfect pastry of a show.

The book by Steven Fisher and Joan Ross Sorkin, about a fair princess cursed with perceived ugliness so that she'll be loved for her soul rather than her looks, is consistently witty and well drawn. And the director and choreographer, David G. Armstrong, has whipped a crisp cast of seven into a pleasing froth.

This pristine handling of broad, silly material is most evident in Mr. Fisher's accomplished, endlessly inventive music and lyrics. He can turn up the cleverness for a delicious patter song with a vaguely Latin flavor, "Got to Give to Get"; crank it down for a lovely ballad, "Far From Beautiful"; or do full-cast frenzy - a pre-party anticipation number, "Could This Be the Night"- without insulting the audience's intelligence.

Given that much of the target audience is younger than 10, this is a tall order. But "Isabelle and the Pretty-Ugly Spell" is that rare achievement, matched only by the likes of "Shrek" or "Aladdin": family fare that's much better than it has to be without being too rarefied to make the grade-school groundlings giggle.

"Isabelle and the Pretty-Ugly Spell" runs through Sunday at the Lion Theater, 410 West 42nd Street, Manhattan; (212) 352-3101.



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