Theater Reviews

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Geffen Playhouse, Westwood, Calif.
Through Jan. 6


The story of "Atlanta: The Musical" is as improbable as it is inspired. It revolves around the fortunes of a Shakespearean troupe made up of slaves (Leonard Roberts as Hamlet, Merle Dandridge as Cleopatra and Moe Daniels as Puck) under the command of a schizophrenic Confederate officer (John Fleck).

Retreating before Sherman's march on Atlanta, the motley crew recruits a stray Blue passing for Gray (Ken Barnett) whose subsequent correspondence with a beautiful antebellum girl (JoNell Kennedy) provides the musical's title and a healthy measure of the serious muddle that drives the play, like Sherman, to its gloriously sentimental ending.

There is something intrinsic to musicals that makes them unique containers for dreams half-remembered and ambitions imperfectly articulated. The genre's reality-bursting willingness to sing at will can overcome, as it does here, even the severest limitations that might cripple more conventional theatrical presentations.

With "Heroes" star Adrian Pasdar and the Geffen's Randall Arney at the helm, the production strides through the evening with impressive conviction, though the dual directorship might be responsible for the uneven, sometimes tentative nature of the performances. This is most apparent in the case of Barnett, who -- with his attractively thin, grim Timothy Bottoms lips and light tenor voice -- only comes into his very impressive own in the last half-hour.

Unfortunately, Roberts, who always seems about to take over the stage with his fragile warmth and vulnerable humanity, winds up stranded on the play's theatrical shore. Additionally, Fleck, though he elicits laughter at the most unexpected places, never finds a comfortable gait to his psychotic eccentricities.

There's eclecticism afoot in the music, whether it is providing the fodder for magnificently operatic singing from Dandridge (no relation of the legendary Dorothy, but with the same kind of heavyweight charisma) or for the no less determined but far less accomplished and often intonation-plagued efforts of the others. Composer Marcus Hummon has a high-level, professional command of his craft, but his music is at heart the kind of commercial mix -- ranging from bluegrass and standards ("Dixie") to gospel -- that documentarian Ken Burns has genre-ized as if it actually were real music.

Hummon's original songs fare little better and often misjudge cause and effect. The lyrics of his patter song, "If you want dinner, catch the dog," requires overlooking the fact that two of the breeds he lists, the pug and the chow chow, were not introduced into the U.S. until well after the Civil War. (The fact that the otherwise amusing song also is in unnecessarily questionable taste because of the Michael Vick scandal is no fault of his.)

Hummon's lyrics, despite the fact that they often are derived from Shakespeare, too often strain to be clever by earnestly making links across the intervening 150 years. For example, Henry V's speech to the troops at Agincourt is absurdly truncated (and spoken by the unlucky Roberts from a poor projecting point on the stage).

The Geffen stage is handsomely dressed with flanking blue and gray flags, silhouetted trees and a backdrop on which a slow-moving daguerreotype slideshow provides the "scenery." As befits the odd story, the costumes are an odd lot, but Daniels' incongruously modernistic fatigues distracts way too much from the fierce, Caliban-like grace she brings to her interesting performance as a sexually obscure Puck.

Like all dreams, "Atlanta" might be easy to dismiss. But because of its ideals, style, preposterously consistent internal logic and, above all, the intensity of the performers, it is likely to remain, for better or worse, indelibly in the memory of those who see it.

ATLANTA: THE MUSICAL
Presented by Geffen Playhouse
Credits:
Book: Marcus Hummon, Adrian Pasdar
Music-lyrics: Marcus Hummon
Directors: Randall Arney, Adrian Pasdar
Set designer: John Arnone
Costume designer: Debra McGuire
Lighting designer: Daniel Ionazzi
Sound designer: Brian Hsieh
Music director: Kevin Toney
Musical staging: Kay Cole
Dramaturge: Amy Levinson Millan
Casting: Bruce H. Newberg
Cast:
Col. Medraut: John Fleck
Paul: Ken Barnett
Puck: Moe Daniels
Hamlet: Leonard Roberts
Lt. Virgil: Travis Johns
Cleopatra: Merle Dandridge
Atlanta: JoNell Kennedy
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