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Little Egypt

I was playing the game of life without a helmet.--- Hugh

This new musical has an interesting concept based on a play by respected playwright Lynn Siefert, with engaging music and lyrics by Gregg Lee Henry. It has a first-rate cast but a book that needs work.

The title refers to the name of an area in Southern Illinois where three rivers meet. The time is 1982. The characters, who are caught in the mores of the period, include Vietnam veteran Victor (French Stewart), now a security guard; Celeste (Sara Rue), a suicidal college graduate; her sister Bernadette (Misty Cotton) and mother Faye (Jenny O'Hara), both waitresses; Victor's unemployed buddy Watson (Gregg Henry) and the philandering Mayor, Hugh (John Apicello).

James Carhart's set is divided between Faye's and Victor's living spaces with a back panel representing the mall. The center aisle is used to evoke the deathly presence of the river which permeates the show like a subterranean stream.

As the show begins, a deeply depressed Celeste has come home to face her mother's scorn. "She went off to college and came back an intellectual, " sneers Faye before trading cheerful insults and rolling around on the floor in a fight that ends in laughter with younger daughter Bernadette. Celeste joins the other women waitressing and, in a delicious scene involving upside-down hair-flipping, Bernadette dresses her up to troll the mall where they meet Victor and Watson.

Celeste and Victor begin a gentle, tentative relationship that's based on her need to create a white knight and his need to be one. Bernadette reminds Watson that they were classmates -- "The Prom Queen? She's Me! I'm Her! I can't go out with you, me being who I was". But she does. There's also a fun and passionate affair between Faye and Hugh, the Mayor.

Act I doesn't seem to have a goal in sight or the suspense to make one important. Act II explores another country. It focuses on the dark side of Victor's war nightmares, Watson's callousness, Bernadette's sorrow and Faye's betrayal.

A musical doesn't usually focus on character development but this one does very well by Victor and, peripherally, Celeste. Although the other characters are stereotypes, the actors are so good they flesh them out as much as possible. Jenny O'Hara is such a delicious comedienne that she distracts us from her cruelty to Celeste. Misty Cotton, whose voice ranges from belter to delicate soprano, is a feisty and vulnerable Bernadette. Henry ripples with testosterone as the macho despicable Watson and Apicella, a solidly humorous presence, does what he can with the thinly drawn character of Hugh. Stewart has the biggest challenge with Victor who initially appears retarded. The actor uses speech pauses to underline Victor's difficulty and a focused devotion to Celeste to win her. Rue's strong singing voice carries Celeste, whose difficulties seem to originate in the disappearance or death of her father.

The lilting music ranges between country and folk, with such touching ballads as "These Shoes "and Faye and Bernadette's wonderful duet, "Whatever Ever After". The book's main problem is tone. It initially plays like what's been called a cracker comedy, with Celeste's obsessions seeming ludicrous. The second act drops us into another play. Transferring a story from page to musical stage, doesn't have to be funny -- witness such wonderful musicals as Carousel. However, even though the material is rich enough something doesn't ring true in this pretense that such sad transactions as needy women's tolerance of callous men is comic fodder.

Writer: Lynn Siefert; Music & Lyrics: Gregg Lee Henry Director: Lisa James
Cast: French Stewart (Victor), Sara Rue (Celeste), Jenny O'Hara (Faye), Misty Cotton (Bernadette), Gregg Henry (Watson), John Apicella (Hugh). Musical Director: Robert Martin
Set Design: James Carhart
Lighting Design: J. Kent Inasy
Costume Design: Vicki Sanchez
Sound Design: Brian Mohr
Prop Design: Chuck Olsen
Running Time: Two and a half hours with one intermission
Running Dates: May 6 to June 11, 2006
Where: The Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue, West Hollywood. Reservations: (323) 852-1445.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on May 13.


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