Sept. 22, 2004





'Favorite Year' a little comedy of outsize roles


by Rob Kendt

Special to The Times


It's hard to write a funny song. Clever, cute, charming--those are musical theater's stock in trade, but to get actual laughs with lyrics set to music is about as easy as walking a cat.


There's charm to burn but precious few outright laughs in Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' score for "My Favorite Year," the musicalization of the 1982 film set behind the scenes of a live TV variety show circa 1954.


As in the film, most of the musical's smiles come less from jokes than from a gallery of outsized characters, whose centerpiece is the dissipated swashbuckler Alan Swann--a rotter who's never seen a bottle or a dame he didn't like but who retains a kind of rumpled chivalry that's both touching and faintly pathetic.


It's a peach of a role, and in Musical Theatre Guild's new semi-staged concert version--at the Alex Theater this week, and again in Thousand Oaks next weekend--the dashing David Engel claims it with panache and feeling, almost making us forget Peter O'Toole's definitive film performance, at least for the show's duration. Though too young for the part by a decade or more, Engel has stores of experience enough to give Swann the right jaundiced jollity and rueful self-pity.


Basking in the tarnished glow of Swann's larger-than-life presence is young Benjy Stone (Richard Israel), freshman writer on "King Kaiser's Comedy Cavalcade," a not-at-all-veiled facsimile of "Your Show of Shows." Swann is this week's guest star, who, after a drunken entrance at the TV studio, is put under Stone's strict if over-awed supervision.


Joseph Dougherty's book, adapted from Norman Steinberg and Dennis Palumbo's screenplay, is solidly constructed and utterly lightweight, touching on Benjy's absent-father issues, his blooming romance with a deadpan office clerk (Karen Culliver), his loveably eccentric Brooklyn family, and the petty gamesmanship at the "Cavalcade" studio.


There are some splendid showcases here--the tiny powerhouse Eydie Alyson sashays away with the spotlight-grabbing "Professional Showbizness Comedy"--but the show's heart is in a series of inspired Swann songs. There's a brassy, Gershwin-esque ode to "Manhattan," the almost unbearably wistful "If the World Were Like the Movies" and the world-weary "Exits." The lyrics' insights--into fun, fame and family, respectively--are far from fresh, but in Engel's hands they have a bittersweet sting.


Director Steve Glaudini's well-stocked cast includes Joe Hart as a blithering Kaiser and Eileen Barnett as Benjy's winningly oblivious mother. And the deft supporting cast mostly succeeds in putting the hustle in the show's bustle, even with scripts in hand.


Music director Ed Martel's nine-piece orchestra nails the score's sweep and tickle, while Roger Castellano's choreography provides the show's best gag: mincing musketeers in Fosse derbies doing a riff on "Steam Heat."


 We'll take the laughs where they come in this pleasant trifle, which understandably had a short Broadway run in 1992 but is clearly worthy of such a well-mounted rerun.


"My Favorite Year," Musical Theater Guild, reviewed at the Alex Theater, 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. Next performances at the Janet and Ray Scherr Forum at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza's Countrywide Performing Arts Center, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 3. $38. (805) 583-8700. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.