Caution: Works in Progress

"Work in progress" -- it's a theatrical tradition, a sacred one that conjures up visions of feverish writers and composers relentlessly chiseling masterworks into perfection, guided by enthusiastic audiences and patient critics. Unlike the novel, rarely revised after its formal public introduction, musicals and plays may be recrafted several times, until they earn a permanent place in dramatic history, or disappear into the circular file of discarded plots.

But tradition also spawns a spurious side, excusing an idea that didn't deserve one rewrite, let alone three or four, and cowing an audience into leniency. After all, who can pronounce judgment on work that isn't finished? Surely not the ticket buyers, although they paid full price for an almost-correct play, or the critics, who may spot the same shaky foundation beneath each successive version of the work. And no cosmic law dictates that a new revision will be better than the last; sometimes the writer simply digs a deeper hole, or starts to skid wildly off the track.

Granted, repeated toil may metamorphose ducks into swans. Many years ago a dud called Away We Go! became the landmark musical Oklahoma! But sometimes a piece stalls in place, offering little hope for improvement. Currently on display in Miami are two works in progress, one with a possible future and one best left in someone's file cabinet.

Hollywood is the first exhibit, spoofed during its Golden Age, circa 1930, when movie musicals were glitzy and dumb, and gossip rags uncovered new moral lows. Two young hopefuls -- star-struck Ellie from Walnut, Iowa, who has changed her name from Dinkleberry to Ash; and wimpy Elmo Green from New York, who dreams of writing great works for his uncle Norman G. Neinstein, the sleazeball head of NGN Studios -- meet in the middle of a cornfield and bicycle cross-country together to the promised land. It doesn't take long to get ahead; Ellie is hot to occupy the casting couch, and Elmo possesses the convenient ability to write "hit" movies in less than 48 hours. But their dreams are fated to die hard, thanks to the treachery of a Hedda Hopper clone, Adele De Rale, queen of the gossip columns, and a Joan Crawford clone, Lulu Beauveen, the celluloid prima donna intent on crushing all competition.

These cliche lead characters from Tales of Tinseltown, playing at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, are joined in their absurd moviemaking jaunts by Bertha Powell, an Ethel Merman type who gives up Broadway legitimacy for a shot at shallow fame; Tony Toscanini, the singing plumber with bad teeth, slumped shoulders, and zero charisma; and Danny Burke, a quick-footed fool who "captured the Catskills," and now hogs the dance floor at every opportunity. Of course the roles are meant to be Hollywood stereotypes, and the turkeys they produce -- from The Jungle Song, complete with sparkling purple mechanical monkeys, to The Bird Girl of Alcatraz -- are intended as clever parodies. But Tinseltown quickly deteriorates into a play within a play, a B-musical send-up of B movies. It's hard to tell which is worse -- the tacky films or the clumsy spoof.

With a hackneyed plot of good girl turned bad by stardom, and a listless romance between goofy Elmo and promiscuous Ellie, these tales go nowhere, either thematically or dramatically. Still, music can romp to the rescue of weak storytelling, as in Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganzas. But there's no cavalry in Tinseltown. Composer Paul Katz's melodies, with the exception of the rousing "I Can Sing," and the pleasant ballads "I'll Stand By You," and "Stars In My Eyes," are generic Broadway-based drones, and the lyrics are equally incompetent. Apparently Michael Colby (who also wrote the story and dialogue) spent some fruitless time with a rhyming dictionary. A typical example: "I who washed dishes like a mule, to work my way through beauty school."

The cast and crew try to make the best of this mire. Choreographer and director Tony Stevens has mounted a stylish, often polished production, which zips along competently from one pointless scene to the next. Melinda Gilb's brassy Bertha vibrates scenery with her robust voice, and Peter Ermides as Danny polishes every floorboard with his flashy dancing feet. Broadway veteran Marcia Lewis wrings wee bits of humor from the De Rale character, and Karyn Quackenbush doesn't embarrass herself as Ellie -- an accomplishment, considering she's on-stage throughout two tedious acts. But John Scherer's Elmo and Keith Devaney's Tony sleepwalk through already colorless roles, and Ellen Harvey's Lulu evokes not Crawford but a coke-crazed bride of Dracula. Only the flashy turntable set and amusing slide show from James Tilton emit a comforting glint of creativity.

Tales of Tinseltown was first produced at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse in 1988, then in San Diego by the Gaslight Quarter Theatre Company last year. Now it comes to Coconut Grove. There's an erroneous rumor circulating that the production is Broadway bound, but Grove spokesmen say it's not true; Chicago might be the next stop. Then again, any hope for progress vanishes with no plot, no dramatic action, and no music, so the Windy City may in the end be spared a fourth attempt to turn swine into pearls.

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