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Review - Pipe Dream & Now. Here. This.

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Despite the loveable antics of those hard-working ladies from Texas, Broadway musicals have always been a little awkward around prostitutes. The book of New Girl In Town (based on Anna Christie) gets tongue-tied when trying to be honest about its title character's former profession and the creators of Sweet Charity turned Nights of Cabiria's prostitute protagonist into New York's most chaste taxi dancer. To this day I'm certain there are little boys performing in Oliver! who believe Nancy is some kind of den mother and Bet is her helpful assistant.

Perhaps if Rodgers and Hammerstein's Pipe Dream were written today, the authors could have been a little freer with their musical version of John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday - the story of an introverted marine biologist and his hesitant romance with a homeless woman taking up residency in the brothel next door - although Billy Rose may have nailed it when he noted that Oscar Hammerstein was the wrong person to write a musical about a whorehouse because he'd never been to one.

Despite a huge advance sale, Pipe Dream was tepidly received and lasted only seven months on Broadway, the shortest run of any original Rodgers and Hammerstein production. But it is, nevertheless, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical with some gorgeous melodies and sincere, well-crafted lyrics to prove it. And the opportunity to hear this rarely performed score sung by an excellent company of musical theatre artists backed by Rob Berman's 30-piece orchestra playing Robert Russell Bennett's oh-so-flavorful orchestrations make this weekend's Encores! concert production a well worthwhile diversion. Pipe Dream ain't no Carousel - heck, it's barely a Me and Juliet - but director Marc Bruni and choreographer Kelli Barclay lather on the polish in a peppy and pleasurable mounting. And I dare any showtune lover not to leave the theatre humming along to the playout chorus of "Sweet Thursday."

Will Chase, normally pigeonholed as a rocker on Broadway, plays his second straight traditional leading man role for Encores!. After a terrific turn as the dashing playboy of Bells Are Ringing, Chase exudes geeky charm as Doc, the Cannery Row researcher who's never happier than when gathering information on the marine life that's revealed at low tide. Laura Osnes is the tough-talking vagrant, Suzy, who busts her hand trying to steal a donut from a shop window and is sent to Doc for some bandaging. Fauna (Leslie Uggams), owns the Bear Flag Café, an establishment where the entirely female staff (waitresses?) wears skimpy lingerie work uniforms. Thinking Suzy might be a good romantic match for Doc, she invites her to live at the café.

And this is where the story gets a little vague. Is Suzy staying at Fauna's as an employee or as charity? Has Suzy already been surviving by prostituting herself? Though Doc has only one thing on his mind - the tide pool - he does eventually invite Suzy out for a romantic dinner, but she comes home all upset because he didn't make a pass at her. She's convinced that he looks down on her but she never says exactly why.

Eventually "I love you"s are exchanged but first Suzy tries to earn Doc's respect by moving out of the Bear Flag and setting up a rent-free home in an abandoned boiler pipe.

But none of that seems important when Chase and Osnes are sinking their talented teeth into the score's tastiest morsels like "Everybody's Got A Home But Me," "All At Once You Love Her" and "The Man I Used To Be." Uggams sparkles with panache and humor in another variation of the traditional Rodgers and Hammerstein earth mother role.

The always enjoyable Tom Wopat adds to the merriment as one of Doc's buddies, a collection of flophouse residents who tend to speak in malaprops. Especially impressive among them is Stephen Wallem, who brings out the humor in his slow-thinking character without ever disrespecting him.

Photos by Ari Mintz: Top: Laura Osnes and Will Chase; Bottom: Leslie Uggams and Laura Osnes.

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Though I admired its rise from festival obscurity to Tony-nominated cult favorite, I wasn't a fan of Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell's [title of show]. Mostly because I found its obscure musical title-dropping style of humor to be - to borrow a phrase from their new show - fake funny.

"Fake funny," as Bell explains in Now. Here. This., "is when something sounds like a joke and smells like a joke, but it's not really a joke."

Now. Here. This., a sort of musical therapy revue quartet, is real funny. It's also real clever, real interesting, and real fun.

Composer/lyricist/performer Bowen and bookwriter/performer Bell are once again joined by the rest of [title of show]'s core creative team: performers Susan Blackwell (who co-authors the book this go-round) and Heidi Blickenstaff, director/choreographer Michael Berresse and music director Larry Pressgrove. (The show is billed as being based on collaboration from all six.)

After a bit of confusion as to whether the evening's entertainment deals with cosmology or cosmetology, we're told that the show's inspiration comes from the philosophy of writer, social activist and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who believed the human experience can be intensified by focusing on the "now," "here" and "this."

The set-up is that the gang is finally using their Groupon for the American Museum of Natural History/Hayden Planetarium (nicely realized by Richard DiBella's projections) and every display triggers off a memory of something that made them what they are today.

The wry, low-key Bowen tells of using the technique "dazzle camouflage" throughout his school years, deflecting suspicions of his being gay by having people notice him as a class clown, a Joe Cool or a ladies' man. ("The hours I spend holding hands with girls is equaled only by the hours I spend in my bedroom making my super hero action figures go at it.")

Broadway belter Blickenstaff sings of her childhood passion for getting attention though performing, faking injury or misbehaving and downtown funkster Blackwell recalls being horrified at the thought of the cool kids in school discovering she had a weird hoarder family. The cheery, horny, easily distracted Bell can't seem to settle on just one thing to sing about.

Interludes regarding begging parents to buy them the clothes the popular kids are wearing, fixating on the things you think are wrong about you and never hearing the words "I love you" from a loved one are all part of the grab-bag of subjects neatly handled with enough sincerity for dramatic weight and enough quips and nutty non sequiturs to keep the introspectiveness from weighing down the proceedings.

Bowen's jaunty score has attractive theatre-rock melodies, but where he really excels are in his clear, conversational story-telling lyrics. Normally I'd wince at a moment when the accent of a melody doesn't match the accent of a lyric, but Bowen does it with such frequency - and only in comic situations - that it becomes an amusing style.

Of course, the obvious question is whether or not this sextet will be indulging in a third theatrical venture. Ponder away if you like, but as for me, I'm pretty satisfied focusing on Now. Here. This.

Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Hunter Bell, Jeff Bowen, Susan Blackwell and Heidi Blickenstaff; Bottom: Hunter Bell, Heidi Blickenstaff, Susan Blackwell and Jeff Bowen.

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