Local Arts Reviews

Personals: Open the Door to Your Mystery Date

The Hideout, through Feb. 8

Running Time: 2 hrs On the wall of the set are rows and rows of words common to the come-ons published in those little advertisements in the back of papers such as this one: athletic, sophisticated, sexy, warm -- you know, the terms that make one sound attractive, secure, like someone that someone would want to be with. Only for every adjective on the wall that's positive, there's one you'd never see in a personals ad: clingy, lazy, co-dependent, self-absorbed. In other words, it's what you really get from so many people who place those ads: the control freaks, the social geeks, the blowhards, bozos, and bums.

It's a clever visual joke and a sign that Naughty Austin is back at the singles scene, mining the miseries of the mating game for laughs. Blake Yelavich and company have made comic hay of this subject before -- Mr. 80 Percent and Beyond Therapy come to mind -- but this time they've added music. Personals is a revue inspired by just that: the ads placed by men and women desperately seeking soul mates -- or barring that, someone not too weird that they can put up with for a couple of hours.

The book and lyrics come from David Crane, Seth Friedman, and Marta Kauffman, who wrote them in college a few years before Crane and Kauffman created that staple of must-see TV, Friends. For the music, they employed a variety of composers, from the known -- Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pocohantas) and Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast) -- to the unknown -- William Dreskin, Michael Skloff, and Seth and Joel Phillip Friedman.

The writers spoof the singles life with a light and generally inventive touch -- a guy moving in with a new girlfriend finds his baggage includes a few old girlfriends; two friends who commiserate over failed relationships turn to each other for one, with disastrous results; a woman catalogs the features of her lover, represented by a gigantic Mr. Potato Head -- but fans of Friends shouldn't expect the tightly scripted comedy they know from TV. And considering that this revue dates back to the Jurassic age of personals -- the mid-Eighties -- the subject has been fodder for so many jokes since then that it can't help but suffer from familiarity.

The songs add some freshness -- while Skloff contributes nothing as irresistible to the ear as his Friends theme, "I'll Be There for You," his ode to second grade, in which three guys in fezzes fondly recall those days "when we knew where we stood," has charm -- but a few of the composers seem not to be able to figure out where they're headed; the melodies make what sound like random shifts in tempo and leaps up and down the scale, which give the singers little to work with dramatically or comically. It leaves the show not unlike the dating scene: It has its delights and it has its duds.

Where the show makes a fine match is in the cast. Yelavich has corralled a crew of performers who are exceedingly appealing and extremely adept at musical comedy. Kirk Addison, Cathie Sheridan, Paul Parkinson, Kristen Ensrude, and Tim and Jill Blackwood take the material and alternately smooth out the rough edges or pep it up with their comic verve. Leading the way in the former camp are the Blackwoods, tentatively and tenderly feeling their way toward romance as lonely next-door neighbors; Parkinson relating the story of a personals prank that led to a surprisingly satisfying ménage à trois; and Ensrude torching her way through a phone call to her ex, proposing that they remarry. The stars of the latter camp are Addison as the Nerd of All Nerds -- mismatched plaids, taped-up specs, and all -- nasally trying to learn pickup lines from a pushy instruction tape, and Sheridan, dazzling in a dizzying variety of roles: a succession of women, from tightly wound professional to butch biker babe, taping their presentations for a video dating service; a sultry ex popping out of the baggage in the "Moving in With Linda" number; the snorting, bespectacled Eve to Addison's nerdy Adam. And she provides some ingenious choreography in the limited space around the piano, where John Howrey provides nimble accompaniment. The performers capture all the desperation and frustration, insecurity and insanity, humanity and inanity of the personals scene and transform that scene's torture into pleasure.

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Personals, David Crane, Seth Friedman, Marta Kauffman, Blake Yelavich, Naughty Austin, Mr. 80 Percent, Beyond Therapy, Stephen Schwartz, Godspell, Pocohantas, Alan Menken, Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast, William Dreskin, Michael Skloff, Joel Phillip Friedman, Kirk Addison, Cathie Sheridan, Paul Parkinson

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