Comedy, Lightweight Division

If exuberant performances were the only criteria for judging good theater, two musicals playing in Miami this summer would earn unequivocally high marks. At Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables, a quartet of veteran musical theater artists have an infectiously good time singing, dancing and mugging their way through Tom Lehrer's Tomfoolery. At 3rd Street Black Box in downtown Miami, graduates and current students from New World School of the Arts perform their hearts out in Tom Jones's and Harvey Schmidt's Celebration. These solid entertainments also garner points for smooth direction, crisp staging, and live music played by spirited on-stage bands. Such strong production values go a long way; ultimately, however, they do not mask less-than-urbane material. If sophisticated content is what you're after, both of these shows will leave you wanting.

As a political satirist in the 1950s and 1960s, Tom Lehrer took on the topics of the day, including pollution, civil rights, the arms race, and the policies of the Catholic church. With snappy music and jaunty lyrics, he poked fun at the sanctimonious morality of the era without attempting to up-end that morality. Gentler than other social critics of the time -- such as comedians Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, poet Allen Ginsburg, or even the writers at MAD Magazine -- he was a middle-class liberal's answer to radical politics, giving voice to disaffection without calling for revolution. He recorded his songs on LPs, and kids like me, the children of those liberals, listened to his records in the early Sixties before turning to Phil Ochs or Bob Dylan.

In 1980 producer Cameron Mackintosh (of Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Cats fame) collected numerous Lehrer songs into a revue called Tomfoolery, which played London for a year before touring the world. (Lehrer stopped writing music and lyrics in the Seventies because, as a character in the revue notes, the composer felt "political satire had become obsolete when Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize.") In 1989 and then again in 1992, when Actors' Playhouse still called a space in a Kendall strip mall home, the theater scored big with this crowd pleaser, twice hosting the show for as long as twelve weeks. Now, the Playhouse has brought Tom's tunes back for a third time, to its new domicile at the Miracle Theatre in the Gables. If the opening night crowd's rousing response is any gauge, this run should pack the house again.

Introducing the evening, director David Arisco cautioned the audience that they might be offended. One of the actors repeated the warning as the show kicked off. I settled back in anticipation, although I'd never been shocked by Lehrer before. Alas, my feathers were only slightly ruffled by a few ethnic and homosexual stereotypes. More often than not, the humor is juvenile as opposed to stinging. (An actor eyes a rubber chicken and exclaims, "That's fowl"; a reference to barium in a song about the periodic table inspires an actor to allude to enemas.) Mostly, this revival confirms that Lehrer's lyrics, while clever, limber, honest, and wry, were -- and continue to be -- as cutting as a butter knife.

A few of the numbers translate from the Sixties to the Nineties with ease. After all, we have hardly licked bad air and water ("Pollution"), racism ("National Brotherhood Week"), or nuclear war ("Who's Next?" and "We Will All Go Together When We Go"). On the other hand the total number of songs (29) could have been whittled down with an eye toward contemporary sensibilities: "New Math" has grown a long beard while "I Got It from Agnes," about pre-AIDS sexually transmitted diseases, sounds naive. In the long run, Lehrer's sometimes topical, sometimes dated compositions do not drive the evening; the cast's giddily paced, Monty Python-esque approach does.

Under Arisco's avid direction, Oscar Cheda and Margot Moreland join Paul Louis and Stephen Jordan (both actors from the Playhouse's initial 1989 show) in having flat-out fun on-stage. Louis performs with dry wit and droll timing while Jordan contributes a playful sincerity to the ensemble. Moreland, winner of the 1995 Carbonell Award for best actress in a local musical, confirms her prowess as a comedienne with a powerful voice. Cheda proves hilarious, whether impersonating a spaced-out matador in one scene or reeling off the details of a masochistic relationship in another. And the foursome strut their stuff across scenic designer James Faerron's authentic-looking, brick-walled, Harvard University rathskeller set (Lehrer was a Harvard professor back in the old days), complete with an antelope head mounted over the door, a bar in one corner, and a band led by the show's musical director David Nagy performing on the opposite side of the stage.

Hardly the scathing cultural commentary it aspires to be, this production of Tomfoolery does provide a showcase for talented actors whose enthusiasm is contagious. Similarly, 3rd Street Black Box's production of Celebration strives for more than it achieves. Yet, like Tomfoolery, it offers pleasures despite the limitations of its script.

Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt are the team who gave the world the long-running romantic musical The Fantasticks -- which opened in 1960 and clocked in at performance number 15,000 in New York last week. In Celebration, which premiered in New York in 1969, Jones and Schmidt depart from The Fantasticks' sentimental realism by fashioning a modern day fable. The narrative pits an idealistic youth called Orphan (Jason "Sky" Allen) against an aging capitalist named Rich (Jean-Paul Mulero) in a series of ritualized duels over a beautiful young woman Angel (Kelly Briscoe), who is busy battling her own contrasting desires for love and fame. Meanwhile, an opportunistic con man named Potemkin (Faisal Hasan) orchestrates the showdowns between the men. Obscuring this fairy tale are strained metaphors about love and death, youth and old age, greed and generosity, the changing of the seasons, the significance of rituals, et cetera.

Not easily cowed by such inanities, director Ron Headrick brings shrewd theatrical instincts to his concept of the play. In the first act, he triumphantly subverts the often ludicrously mythological story line through tongue-in-cheek direction and an eye for vibrant spectacle. He coaxes splendid performances from his marvelous cast of students and recent theater department grads, all of whom, from the principals to the chorus members, sing, dance, and act with aplomb. And, in concert with musical director Gene Palumbo, he stages two songs ("My Garden" and "Love Song") as musical journeys: Each starts with one actor singing quietly, then builds until the entire ensemble belts out the number with bawdy abandon.

In the second act, however, the script's fablelike pretensions get the better of Headrick and his players; the actors do not deliver on the excitement stirred up during act one because they take the next-to-last scene of the musical -- a preposterous face-off between good and evil in the Garden of Eden -- too seriously; unable to sustain the cynical intelligence that preceded it, the ending falls flat.

Despite an unsatisfying close, Celebration has much to recommend it, beginning with a killer young cast. Dressed in tattered garb, Hasan imbues his wily character with the sly wisdom of an ancient jester. A fetching female lead with a bottomless voice, Briscoe negotiates her role and the stage with cool confidence. As Orphan, Allen evolves from an endearingly sweet waif into a lover-in-heat, and the chemistry between Allen and Briscoe is combustible. Jean-Paul Mulero delivers a stand-out performance as the rich yet miserable businessman. His buffoonery and his large size (he pads his body to make himself look fat) suggest a comic version of Orson Welles as the morally bankrupt newspaper tycoon in Citizen Kane. I've seen Mulero on stage in numerous performances during the last few seasons; in this role he finally comes into his own.

Anyone who has been to 3rd Street's intimate performance space, tucked behind the karaoke stage at San Villa restaurant in downtown Miami, will be delighted to see how set designer Dorset Noble magically transforms the area with multileveled platforms, cut-outs in the shape of trees, and strings of lights. Sylvia Minchew-Marchman's colorful and mischievous costumes, along with Marilyn Carrera and Pete Beers's whimsical props and Venetian carnival masks, complement the set. And a sizzling on-stage musical trio led by Palumbo accompanies the actors. The musicians move effortlessly between jazz, gospel, pop, torch song, and calypso tempos, although at times the band overpowers the singers in such a small space.

Neither Tomfoolery nor Celebration will feed your head. The former, however, may satisfy a craving for goofy wit and rambunctious musical performances, while the latter just might dazzle you with the talents of young stars in the making.

Tomfoolery. Music and lyrics by Tom Lehrer; directed by David Arisco; with Margot Moreland, Paul Louis, Stephen Jordan, and Oscar Cheda. Through August 17. For information, call 444-9293 or see "Calendar Listings."

Celebration. Book, music, and lyrics by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt; directed by Ron Headrick; with Faisal Hasan, Jason "Sky" Allen, Kelly Briscoe, and Jean- Paul Mulero. Through August 11. For information call 754-8948 or see "Calendar Listings.

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