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SONDHEIM WITH A SILVER LINING.

Byline: Evan Henerson Theater Critic

TIME WILL BE the ultimate indicator whether ``Saturday Night'' (which has nothing to do with disco or the Bee Gees) is the ripe-for-discovery jewel that Stephen Sondheim wrote before he became famous or the trunk show that should be mined only for compilation CDs.

The musical's L.A. premiere from the Chromolume Theatre Company at the Stella Adler Theatre shows off this vaguely creaky work to some advantage. There are certainly a couple of bright lights among the cast, and it's always a welcome addition to find a company producing musical theater on a smaller scale - particularly lesser well-known efforts like ``Saturday Night'' and ``Merrily We Roll Along (which Chromolume will bring to the Stella Adler a year from now).

``Saturday Night'' has a thin plot, a ton of songs (some of them memorable) and an optimism of spirit that drains from Sondheim musicals as his career develops. There is a song called ``So Many People,'' which is fitting since there are indeed a ton of people in director/choreographer Jon Engstrom's cast.

Not that Sondheim or librettist Julius J. Epstein (on whose play ``Front Porch in Flatbush'' ``Saturday Night'' is based) have much real reason to give us such a cluttered scorecard. The quartet of cheapskate, girl-hungry amigos who open the show singing, ``What can you do on a Saturday night ... alone?'' are a mostly interchangeable bunch. Fifth wheel Bobby (Alex Back) gets to break out a bit with his lesson in Don Juan-age, ``Exhibit A.'' When we start to meet the girls, they're not much in the character development department either.

The exceptions (both genders) are Helen (played by Jennifer Bangs) and Gene (Nathan J. Moore). She's a neighborhood girl who tries to fake her way into the same exclusive club that he's trying to crash. But Gene's choice of entertainment is no mere one-night fling. This is 1929 and he's a would-be social climber, desperate to reach the upper crust and not too savvy about how to get there. Gene has brought his friends into an ill- fated stock investment. Then he takes their cash and makes a down payment on a ritzy apartment he can't afford to keep. Then he sells his cousin's car to pay off the investment. Why would sensible Helen fall for such a fuzz-brained loser? Well, the man's an awfully sweet dancer ...

To his credit, Engstrom is doing more actual direction than crowd control. There's a spunkiness to the group scenes both on Gene's front porch and outside the movie theater where the boys take a date (splitting the cost and grumbling nonetheless). The one-on-one scenes are smoothly rendered as well: Gene and Helen sharing a dance; fellow crony Hank (Adam LeBow) and wife Celeste (Gwen Copeland) sharing a memory in the song ``I Remember That.'' Musical Director Gary Gray pilots a small on-stage band.

Sondheim's score here deals with circumstance more than character. A Depression-set musical though this is, the music is largely upbeat, never too tricky. We hear the title track song more times than we know what to do with. Epstein, meanwhile, feels like he's vamping more than a little bit in the second act before guiding Gene and Helen to an obligatory happy ending. (Obligatory happy ending? A Sondheim show? The man must have been young!)

Moore and Bangs are an attractive, charismatic couple and Bangs sings as expertly as she dances. They're certainly the standouts of an adept ensemble.

CDs of both ``Saturday Night'' (Sondheim's first musical) and ``Bounce'' (his latest) are on sale in the lobby with proceeds benefiting the Chromolume. A company that devotes itself to performing smaller-scale musicals in a proportionally sized house figures to need all the help it can get.

Evan Henerson, (818) 713-3651

evan.henerson(at)dailynews.com

SATURDAY NIGHT - Two and one half stars

Where: Chromolume Theatre Company at the Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; through June 20.

Tickets: $15 to $35. Call (310) 315-3537.

In a nutshell: Not a bad first L.A. airing of Stephen Sondheim's first musical. Trouble is, the work itself isn't great.

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Photo:

Nathan J. Moore and Jennifer Bangs enliven ``Saturday Night,'' Stephen Sonheim's first musical, which Chromolume Theatre Company is staging at the Stella Adler Theatre.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Review
Date:Jun 4, 2004
Words:723
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