December 5, 2003




Not bad for under a buck


By Rob Kendt

Special to The Times


How to describe Ken Roht's new dance/design extravaganza, "Splendor: a 99-Cent Only Stores Wonderama"? Well, if Busby Berkeley had dropped acid and watched "The Powerpuff Girls". . . or if Howard Crabtree and Pina Bausch staged a discount retail trade show. . . or if Cirque du Soleil and the Smurfs did an avant-garde "Nutcracker" at a strip mall. . .


You get the idea. There's a lot packed into "Splendor's" 55 minutes: several aisles worth of plastic and paper products on the set (by Keith Mitchell) and costumes (by Ann Closs-Farley, Anthony Garcia and Barbara Lempel); a nonstop soundtrack of bouncy, tinkly tunes by composer-arranger John Ballinger, riffing on everything from Tchaikovsky to kiddie rap; and a pleasingly motley cast of 28 zipping, mugging and pirouetting around it all with otherworldly vim.


A lobby sign informs us that "all music was created on a Radio Shack Concertmate 9000 keyboard." This is no mere aside: Apart from some skivvies and wigs, everything in sight, and apparently in earshot, has been culled from the shelves of 99-Cent Only Stores (a production co-sponsor).


At heart the show is a celebration of disposable consumer ephemera; what takes us by surprise is the unironic joy, and often stunning beauty, of the tribute. It's probably safe to say that patio lanterns, scented candles, table cloths, silk flowers, beach balls, Squeegee mops, trash bags, and fluorescent tubes have never been employed with such love and inspiration.


As with his work on "Pinafore!" and "The Shaggs," Roht's choreography is sinuous and funny, and his ensemble rises energetically to the occasion. Don't look for a throughline here--a silly sci-fi plotlet about two factions battling over an angelic "golden boy" (Chris Ibenhard) coexists unclearly with the infomercial shtick of a slick spokesman (Don Oscar Smith) and nonsensical odes to shopping by a warbling quintet of "99-cent divas" and four 1950s housewives.


Indeed, the show's jarring juxtapositions and overall twittering, manic giddiness may give some audiences the theatrical equivalent of an ice-cream headache. But as a family-friendly holiday confection, this ravishing, ridiculous vision of sugar plums dances lightly, and glitteringly, in our heads.


"Splendor: A 99-Cent Only Stores Wonderama," Evidence Room, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 5 p.m. Ends Dec. 21. $12. (213) 381-7118. 55 minutes.